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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

"I Sling Words As I Go Along."

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setting

So, I’m thinking about pirates…….

…….of the argh! and avast, me mateys! type that roamed the high seas on tall ships. I’m not exactly sure why, because historically speaking, they were not people to trifle with and often left a great swathe of blood behind. Perhaps it’s that sense of adventure that seems to accompany them, the call of the open sea, the wind ruffling through one’s hair as the sun beats down. Human survival against Nature’s unforgiving trials.

Whatever the case, I’m thinking about pirates. Both men and women chose to pursue that life going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Rather than focus on Hollywood’s sensationalized ideal of pirates, I’m thinking of several factors never fully explored. What drove them to piracy, to eschew convention and respectable society to embark on voyages that did not guarantee safety or security?

Whether it was Anne Bonny or Blackbeard or Ching Shih, they were not born pirates. Was it circumstance and personality that led them to their profession? Money, or lack thereof, that tore them away from their families? Was it survival or a choice freely made? Resentment of not being able to find their true calling due to rigid caste and/or societal rules?

I don’t suppose there’s any one solid answer for the pirates of the past, or those of contemporary times. I suspect that it may be a combination of many things that drive them to it.

Still, I’m thinking about pirates, the ones of yore, the type modeled from and idealized by the Hollywood Dream Factory. Their tall ships fascinate me. I wonder what they thought or dreamed about in the quiet moments on the ocean. Whether they had any regrets about or spared not a thought at all for those whose lives they altered forever.

I’m thinking about pirates. I’m thinking about two very different stories that have not seen the light of day in many years. I’m thinking about how pirates are actually incredibly symbolic metaphors for change, natural, man-made and maybe even supernatural.

I’m thinking about pirates.

*Special Guest*: Author Harry Connolly

Writing Advice You Won’t Hear From Sensible Authors: Always Blame Yourself

I have one piece of writing advice that always seems to startle people. It’s simple: Whatever happens with my career, I always blame myself, when I deserve it or not.

Let me tell you a story that’s probably apocryphal: A first-time director is shooting a film, and the production has a terrible day. They don’t get the shots they need, they’re disorganized, the actors are unhappy, and a few more days like it will break the budget. The producer storms into the office, angry, and begins berating the cinematographer.

And the cinematographer smiles.

Why? Because the person who takes the blame is the person who has the power. By yelling at the cinematographer, the producer has put him above that noob director.

When I first heard it several years ago, this anecdote became a weird obsession for me. Suddenly, everywhere I looked, whenever I saw credit or blame being laid out, it was always about power. A boss who blamed an underling was admitting that they didn’t have control over the project. A boss who never shared credit was taking away any sense of authority their staff might have. And so on.

Writers did it all the time. Editors didn’t recognize their greatness. Marketing people didn’t understand the book. Readers only cared about the latest fads. Writers took credit for every sale and positive review, but when something bad happened, it was for reasons beyond their control.

Which meant they were giving away their power.

My response was that I began to horde blame. Every rejection was my fault. When something wouldn’t sell, I told myself it was the writing, not the market. When books didn’t sell, it’s because the writing wasn’t exciting enough. When readers left reviews that seemed to describe a story written by some other Harry Connolly in some alternate universe, I decided that they must have skimmed because I bored them.

What can I do to fix this for next time became my mantra.

I have certainly had opportunities for spreading blame. The Twenty Palaces novels were sold before the huge economic crash but were published after, when things were really tough for a lot of people. Sales were never going to match the profit/loss sheets written up when Del Rey was figuring out my advance. And Circle of Enemies didn’t appear in brick and mortar store for two weeks after publication date because Hurricane Irene damaged a pallet in the warehouse.

But you know what? It’s my job to write a book that overcomes problems like that. Other authors, like Seanan McGuire and Kevin Hearne, released urban fantasies during the recession, and they found a thriving readership. If they could do it, I should have been able to do it, too.

It’s my job to write a book that is undeniable.

And I know that, on some level, all this self-blame is ridiculous. Sometimes a story is rejected because an editor is having a bad day, or they just bought s very similar story, or something else that has nothing to do with the author. Sometimes books get terrible covers. Sometimes readers assume your book is going to be crap based on the cover or the genre, then skim it to convince themselves they’re right.

Sometimes it really isn’t the writers fault.

But who cares? Taking the blame anyway means focusing on the work to make it stronger and better. It means putting your time, energy, and attention into things I can control. Was a particular story rejected because that particular editor, for example, hates zombies? I don’t even entertain the question; the best thing to do is to assume that the story simply wasn’t good enough and try to make the next one better.

Because the alternative is to believe that I am already good enough, and that way lies stagnation.

The Way Into Chaos Cover

The final book in my new epic fantasy trilogy (about a sentient curse that causes the collapse of a mighty empire) is out right now. Have I mentioned that it got a starred review in Publishers Weekly? Quote: “This twisty, subversive novel will win Connolly a whole new set of fans.”

You can find out more about that first book here, or you can read the sample chapters I’ve posted on my blog.

And hey, if none of that sounds interesting and you don’t want to click, no worries. I know who’s to blame.

 

BIO: Harry Connolly’s debut novel, Child Of Fire, was named to Publishers Weekly’s Best 100 Novels of 2009. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it’s the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015. Harry lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system.

So, by observing my surroundings…….

……my intent is to process the mood, emotions and other chaotic elements of what I see into the story, the characters and their surroundings. This is helpful in two ways – one, I have details that I can attribute to one or more characters and enrich the story and two, I can see an inevitable end to the course that’s been set by chance (or a few choice words on paper).

Of course, as the writer, you might think I have ultimate control over how things pan out with the characters, but I don’t. They’re just as taciturn and ornery as the people I meet in a bookstore or a bar or, well, anywhere. That I arrive at the ending I planned on is always a bonus, but getting there has always been a road trip on the back roads of America (or Europe or Africa, for that matter) without the use of a map. Adventurous? Yes. Recommended? That depends – some writers/authors use outlines, others don’t. Personal preference.

But I digress.

I write about the things I’ve experienced or observed to better process and understand them.  I’ve seen some head-scratching incidents and behaviors that had me in a state of perplexity. I’m only half-successful in that I can recreate those situations to a certain degree and have the outcome turn out in a way that makes sense to me, but wouldn’t necessarily occur in real life. At least, that’s been my experience.

And I suppose that’s the way of Life and the way of Fiction or Art of any kind – one that Is and the other is How I Perceive It.

So, there’s this thing called language……

………and it has far more to do with story than how any one particular character speaks. Language, more than anything else in the written form, sets the tone and brings to life the world within each book.

I found myself pondering language and its importance while reading a book that, with the exception of a handful of words describing articles of clothing, could have been set in the 21st century. The time period is in the Regency era. I had no clue about the When of this story and it took an entire chapter to figure it out.

And there’s the point. I shouldn’t have had spend any time trying to figure it out. I should have known from the first page that what I was reading was set in a time far removed from my own, where modern conveniences hadn’t been thought of, let alone invented. Given that the role of women was severely limited up until the last century (though in some parts of the world, that is still the case) and, therefore, her value equated solely with her virginity, the emotional stakes should have been higher.

Did it matter that the novel in question was erotica? Nope. I’ve read historical romances with equally (and also better written) steamy scenes. I’ve encountered similar problems in other genres, though not as severe. What separates good from excellent is how one handles the language, particularly if writing a period piece.

From the very first word, language should inform the reader about the world they are about to enter, whether it’s Regency England, Ancient Greece or Egypt, or featuring scientists in another part of the galaxy.  Language is that important in determining time and place.  It can make the difference between a successful story and an unsuccessful one – either drawing you in to know more or throwing you out entirely.

Which experience would you prefer while reading?

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