Author Archives: jjbrownwordslinger

“The Case of the Primary Genre”

When you sit down to write your story, one of the most important things to know at the start is it’s genre. What kind of story do you want to tell? Does it involve a heist, or ghosts, or a tall ship commanded by pirates? Once you answer that question, it’s fairly easy to do the proper research needed to ground your story properly.

Genres are how we can easily identify what kind of story is being presented. Mystery, romance, horror, historical, fantasy, science fiction – those are just a few types of genres that are available. The fun thing is that genres can be a mix of each other – a mystery can be historical (The Name of the Rose); a fantasy can involve romance, as well as magic and adventure (The Princess Bride); science fiction and fantasy can be blended together (Star Wars); and horror can be a metaphor for teen angst (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or an exploration of sibling/familial relationships (Supernatural; Charmed).

Establish and ground the story in one genre, using it as the primary background. Then add elements from other genres (such as romance, drama, and mystery) to help add tension and new plot threads for readers to follow. The clearer you are on the kind of story you want to tell, and in the primary genre it falls under, the easier it will be to revise and polish in the editing process.

“Celebrate Writing Milestones.”

So, 2021 will be the tenth anniversary of my novel, Secrets & Howls, being published. In anticipation of this, I’m revising it for re-issue and remembering how I really loved working on it. The story opened pretty much as it does now, with a character moving into the sleepy village of Wolf’s Head Bay. As it happened, two very different plot lines featured characters moving into town (Elizabeth Phillips and her son and Marita Brye, the main character), but originally, it wasn’t the Marita we followed in the opening pages, but Elizabeth. I realized early on that the opening could stay, but only if it was Marita.

This meant merging the similar plots to reflect Marita as the primary focus; Elizabeth became a local resident and secretary in the local police department. I also had to integrate a series of letters from 1852 to end each calendar day in the book (which takes place over the course of a week). Then,

to keep things interesting, I pretty much threw everything into the story. Except the kitchen sink – that would have been too much.

In the last few years, however, I’ve grown as a writer, thanks in large part to my editors. There are still four more books to write in this series and I’ve got the second one mapped out, with room for making detours along the way. Now, with my most recent novel complete and ready for submission, I’ve decided to go back to Wolf’s Head Bay and see what needs to be done.

It’s still a solid story, but I’m enjoying the revision.

“Start With What You Know.”

There’s a quote (attributed to Mark Twain) that encourages writers to “write what you know”. Depending on where you’re at as a writer, this can be intimidating and questions will chase themselves ’round and ’round your mind as you stare at a blank page.

What do I know? How can I make others believe that I know about zero-gravity, if I’m not an astronaut? What if I fail at writing a good story? What if I suck at writing about even the most simplest things I know?

True story – been there, done that. Even now, I still go through this period of self-doubt, but I’ve also developed skills and tools to ignore that Negative Nancy and do the necessary work. Eventually, you will, too.

So, about Mr. Twain’s quote.

My interpretation of ‘write what you know’ is this – start with what you know and build on that.

Take the idea that is circling around and approach it with curiosity.

Let’s say you’ve got this amazing idea about a girl who loves horses. Are you familiar with horses? If so, you’ve got a good start on how to approach your story. Write everything down as it comes to you, keep a running list of thoughts, ideas and questions to come back to for revision. [1] Some of it will make its way into your story, some will not.

If you’re not familiar with horses, keeping a list is also a good idea. Start by writing down what you think you might know. Then keep a separate list for any questions that come up.

A visit to local riding stable would be in order – there are barn hands, trainers and riding instructors to talk with. Make sure you have an appointment ahead of time, show up prepared with questions and dress in proper attire (this would include jeans and heavy duty, closed-toed shoes), they will be more than happy to assist you. [2] There may be more than one visit to the barn – especially if you fall in love with a particular equine with soft brown eyes.

Perhaps your character is just as unfamiliar with horses as you are. This would make the story a shared journey between you and your character as both of you learn about horses. [3] And, by extension, the reader would be going along on this journey of loving and learning what it is to be around horses.


[1] Keeping an ongoing list is helpful – keeping a story journal is even better.

[2] This suggestion still applies even if you are familiar with horses – it will give an added depth and texture to your story.

[3] There are some schools of thought that this is not the wisest route, but as far as I’m concerned, there is no wrong way to write a story.

“What’s In A Name?”

Even by a different name, a rose would smell just as sweet, according to William Shakespeare.

Part of the magic of character development lives in the name you choose.  This crosses all genres and can make a character go from ordinary to eclipsing his or her creator. [1]   Scarlett O’Hara would probably not have been so memorable if her name had been Sally.

There are a great many resources for finding names – from Google to baby naming books, you can always find something that will suit your characters.  What makes name research even more fun is discovering the meaning behind them, particularly when the name lends itself to both the character’s journey and the story itself.  This is most important for your hero or heroine, but the secondary characters can also benefit from this type of care.

I will offer a word of caution, however – there will be times when one character refuses to like any of the names chosen for him (or her).  He (or she) will be accepting of it for one draft, but when you go in to revise, the name no longer suits.  This has only happened once, in my own experience, and that particular character was so dissatisfied with his name, that I changed it twelve times. [2]  In the process, he changed his nationality, as well, which was interesting and unexpected, to say the least.

Regardless of what genre you choose to write in, the name you give your characters will not only enhance the story, but add a certain depth, as well.  


[1]  The most famous of these characters is Sherlock Holmes, whom creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle came to despise – so much so, he killed the character off in The Final Problem.  Public opinion, of course, encouraged the return of the memorable sleuth.

[2]  His current name is satisfactory – it’s not only delicious to roll off one’s tongue, it’s quite playful and suggests a fun, sexy and sensitive nature.

“What Year Is It, Anyway?”

A few years ago, I read a mystery that had a very modern and contemporary feel to it, both in the language and the narrative.  Nowhere in the book’s description or within the context of the story did it clarify the time period.  I’d read perhaps six chapters before it became clear that it was set in the Old West, and not in the year 2012.  Not long after that, I lost interest, put the book down and have since forgotten both title and author.

Why did I put the book down, after investing enough time to have read six chapters?  I wanted to give the book a fair chance, even though I was continually trying to pinpoint the When of the world within that story.  And when a simple thing (like establishing the time period) takes more than one paragraph, let alone fifty pages, I’m removed from that world completely.  The effort to try and go back in is no longer worth it.

When writing fiction, be it a long or short narrative, it is important to immediately establish the context of the when, the where and the why.  This is especially important when the setting of your story is historical.  Whether it’s the Old West, Ancient Athens or turn of the century London, as soon as your reader opens to the first page, that world must come to life and engage all five senses – smell, sound, sight, touch, taste.  The goal, by doing this, is to engage the reader so deeply that they can’t turn the pages fast enough.    

Your job as a writer is to create a world so rich, so detailed, so inviting, that it takes your reader out of this world. 

And leave them wanting more.

“Trust Your Instincts.”

So said the mystic sage Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).

This applies to your writing just as much as any real-life situation.  In real life, your instincts can either save you from a bad situation or encourage you to take a leap of faith.  

When it comes to your writing, only you as the writer can know if a particular scene needs to stay, even if you aren’t able to articulate why.  Trusting that scene’s place in your story is very important.  Your job as a writer, then, is to find and tease out the threads that will ultimately reward that instinct and faith.

Sometimes, those reasons will come up easily.  Many times, it will require walking away from the project for awhile, allowing it to percolate in the back of your mind.  And other times, it may require a creative project in a different medium to distract that focus long enough to allow the ideas to flow through you. 

Once you find those little connections between that scene and the rest of your story, it’s just a matter of threading them into the body of your work.  It will be time-consuming and more often than not a little frustrating, but the end result will be worth it.

Trust your instincts and keep the faith.

The story, through you, will work itself out.

“Brevity is the Soul of Wit…..”

The above statement (and title of this post) is the most succinct and to the point sentence that Polonius utters during a long-winded speech to King Claudius in the play, Hamlet.  Whether it’s a novel, a short story, a blog post, or even an author biography for your website, a good editor will help to keep your work tight and effective.  

So, keeping that in mind, I’ll be brief.

The first draft is to just write – to tell yourself the story, have fun and get everything you want to say out. This is where you get be extravagant with words, to be as playful and as wordy as you want as you explore what you want to tell.

The second draft is to shape the piece so that it aligns with your vision.  Sometimes this means adding new pieces or moving existing ones around until they fit.

The third draft (and every draft thereafter) is to hone it down to its bare essence, so that what you want to say comes through succinctly.  This is where you simplify your language to invite your readers in.  

In short, murder your darlings, dear writer.  Cut the excessive wordage out and simplify.  

There’s Always Time to Write

Like any other art form (or non-art skill), writing takes discipline.  This requires not just studying the craft by reading various styles, genres and authors, but actually sitting your butt down in a chair and putting pen to paper. [1]  This also means carving out a segment of time (such as an hour) at a particular time of day, where you can write, uninterrupted.  

Do you enjoy rising before the sun, taking in the cool air and early morning sounds as the world begins to wake itself up?  

Take a moment and look at that habit – can you fit an hour to write during that time, while enjoying your coffee or tea?  If so, you’ve found your time to write!

Or do you find that it is evening when you’re most creative, after the noise of the day and you’re in the little sanctuary of home?

Again, find that hour, bring tea to fortify yourself (or other favorite beverage) and let the words flow from your pen! [2]

You may feel that you’re being non-productive at first, especially if no words come, but that’s where having discipline comes in.  The more you show up for yourself by creating the habit, the easier it will become to find the words.

You’ve got this – I have faith in you.


[1]  Or fingers to keyboard, if using a computer is your preference.

[2]  Don’t worry if there times when you find writing even one word is problematic – staring into space is part of the process.

The Story Idea Box

On a shelf in my bookcase, there is an old shoe box, where I deposit all kinds of items that I find as I go about my day.  They are, to the casual eye, mundane in nature and unremarkable to anyone but myself, and range from a broken pair of glasses to a phone number that had yet to be assigned by the phone company. [1]  Each item is a mysterious talisman, a little bit of manna from heaven that can lead me down the rabbit-hole of a story.

But what is most intriguing to me is the brief note and postcard left inside a book.

While browsing the local library bookshop, I came across a hardcover edition of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote.  Having never read it, I pulled it off the shelf and opened it.  A folded note and a postcard featuring the Cartwrights of Bonanza! fell out.

The note was written to a woman named Leslie, in which the author expressed gratitude for the cost of a plane ticket (which she caught with twenty minutes to spare) and a wig.  The rest of the note mentioned a visit and some work via the computer, as well as reimbursement for the ticket.  There was no date, no reference to which side of the coast the author had visited, but the magic was done.

What prompted the author of the note to get a wig and why was she in a rush to catch a flight?

And thus, the beginning of a mystery – or a thriller – or even a tale of horror – has been set.

Where does it lead?

Only you, my dear writer, can answer that.

And now, it’s time to begin your own Story Idea Box.


[1] There’s a story behind that mysterious, unassigned phone number, but that’s for a later post.

How to Help a Writer Get Her Muse Back

I love working with writers who are passionate about their creative lives and want to dig deeper to unearth their voice through the richness of their work.

What I’m creating here is for you and you, alone, dear Writer.  The goal is for you to be bold and fierce with the story that wants – NEEDS – to be told, to stand in your power against any and all advice that goes against your instincts and to ignore trends that change on a whim.  What we are about to do is go on an adventure to listen to your muse and unearth your voice.

How will this occur?  By shaking up your writing – to that, I will be offering you a sanctuary, where you can feel safe to express yourself.  Remember, in the arts, there are no wrong answers, no wrong choices. There is only a wealth of very interesting detours and where they might lead is anyone’s guess.

There will be posts here on this blog, one-on-one editing sessions for when you’re ready to take that leap of faith, and, eventually, on my Patreon site and through podcasts.

I love engaging with you, Dear Client, about your work and I will especially love being able to assist you in finding the tools you need to find your own way, in the manner that suits your own needs.

Now, let’s set forth!  Are you with me?