J.B. Reynolds


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Author Interview: Jocelynn Babcock

This month’s author interview is with paranormal mystery and supernatural magical realism writer, Jocelynn Babcock. Jocelynn will tell you she created books with her grandma’s yarn as a child and grew up to marry an engineer. She lives in the Channeled Scablands,  where the fine line between sanity and not is an outlet for idle hands.

Jocelynn is the author of the paranormal mystery series, Mantic, and the paranormal novella series, Semantic, which feature an assortment of psychics, ghosts, and witches among the characters.

Books by Jocelynn Babcock

Hi, Jocelynn. Thanks for joining me and my readers today. First up, can you tell us a little bit about the writing project you are currently working on?

I’m currently writing the second installment of my paranormal mystery series. Mantic Vol II: To Dance with Serpents has our main character, now with partial memory restoration (about two years back). She resolves to regain her entire memory after a shocking twist.

What has drawn you to write in the paranormal and supernatural genres?

I never considered what I wrote to be paranormal. I beta tested my debut novel as a murder mystery and found that mystery readers considered a psychic to be paranormal. I knew full well that psychic was not enough to publish to a paranormal audience, so I went back and threaded through magical realism in order to hit the target market of paranormal readers. This gave me more freedom in content and I think added a new element to my writing. I enjoy the finished product better than if it had remained just a psychic mystery.

That’s really interesting, and great that it’s worked out well for both you and your readers. So, when did you decide to become a writer?

I’ve always written, but lacked the confidence to be a writer. I went to college to be a grant writer, because that is writing that pays the bills. It was during that time I decided to give fiction a try. As I neared completing the novel, then I decided to become a writer. I finally realized I could finish a project, and the process would get easier.

Where do your ideas come from?

Conversations with people. My current trilogy was the idea of my husband. I have another idea from a conversation I had with my mom when I was a teen. Yet another was a thread I pulled out of my book because there was a lot going on already and the beta readers were confused by the connection. My niece, my forensic expert, has inspired a few stories also.

Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony, as engraved by G.E. Perine & Co., NY, c.1855

I would like to bring Susan B. Anthony to the future and show her: women voting, women on juries, women raising their children alone, women owning property, women going to college, women in the workplace, women wearing whatever they choose, etc. I’d like to point and say: “You did that.”

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?

A little voice from the next room that says “I’m all done ny-night Mommy!”

Thanks for your time today, Jocelynn, and all the best with your writing.

You can find out more about Jocelynn and her writing at jocelynnbabcock.wordpress.com or follow her Facebook or Twitter accounts.


Audiobooks Have Changed My Life

Audiobook on Iphone

Audiobook on iPhone – courtesy of athriftymrs.com

It is approximately, depending on traffic, road works, and the route I take, a fifty-minute commute from my home to the high school in the small, rural town where I teach. I normally carpool with a colleague three days a week, which is great—it saves me money on petrol and I enjoy the stimulating conversation. On the other two days, I drive by myself. Up until a few months ago, I listened to National Radio on the days I drove myself. This was okay. We don’t have television at home (we have a TV, but no TV reception—our TV is used to watch YouTube, Netflix and DVD’s), and listening to National Radio allowed me to keep abreast of what was happening in New Zealand and around the world. It was also better than the commercial radio stations I get reception for on my drive to work through the countryside, mainly because it doesn’t have ads and the presenters don’t babble a constant stream of inanities. However, there were a number of issues that detracted from my listening pleasure.

Firstly, it was often depressing. The way events are framed in the news media often focuses on the negative. Bad news sells more, apparently. According to the New Zealand Crime Statistics 2014 (the most recent year for which data was been collated and published), there were forty-one murders in New Zealand in 2014. This is a tragedy. One murder is too many, and New Zealand is, without question, a country afflicted with a disturbing underbelly of violence. But let me zoom out for a moment, and re-frame the numbers. These forty-one murders came from a total population of roughly 4.5 million people. What this means is that in 2014, roughly 4,499,958, or 0.99999067 percent of the population, were not murdered.  The non-murder rate was approximately 107,142 times greater than the murder rate! I’m not suggesting we should celebrate this, but we could at least acknowledge it. Listening to the news on National Radio (or anywhere, for that matter), you would never know that in New Zealand, you are 107,000 times more likely not to be murdered than you are to be murdered.

Secondly, there was a lot of repetition. Driving to work in the morning, I would frequently hear the same piece of news repeated three times. Granted, the depth of coverage might be different each time, but this would still get pretty boring pretty quickly.

Thirdly, the perspectives expressed were overwhelmingly those of white, middle-aged, middle-class men. Sometimes, these would be complemented by the perspectives of white, middle-aged, middle-class women. Whether or not I agreed with what they had to say, these people were almost always intelligent, well-educated, and articulate, and their views considered. It’s just that by using them as a filter—well, there’s an awful lot that gets filtered out.

In April of this year, I uploaded a selection of audiobooks onto my iPhone. I don’t know why I had never done this before. I’d just always equated reading with type on a page. I listened to music, I listened to the radio, but I read books. I was visiting my niece and her boyfriend in Wellington at the time and they were discussing how much they enjoyed listening to audiobooks. They suggested some titles they thought I might like, and we went from there. When I got back home, the first one I chose to listen to was On Writing by Stephen KingI listened to it in the car on the days I was driving myself to work. It’s a great book—part memoir,  part instruction manual—and I have written more about it here. Since then, I have listened to a number of other audiobooks. The first of these was Consider Phlebas, an early science-fiction novel by one of my favourite authors, Iain M. Banks, and the first to feature the advanced race of humans known collectively as the Culture. I had read this (the traditional way) many years before and had forgotten how action-packed it is. The next was  World War Zan abridged version of the novel by Max Brooks, containing the oral histories of an eclectic group of survivors of a global zombie apocalypse.  After that was  Children of the Sky, a curious science-fiction novel by Vernor Vingeabout the exploits of a group of humans who have crash-landed on an alien planet populated by creatures that most closely resemble intelligent dogs; and Hostage, a live recording of a drunken Charles Bukowski giving a poetry reading at a bar in Redondo Beach, California, in 1980. I am currently listening to A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. Again, this is a book I have read before, many years ago. I have subsequently forgotten almost everything I learned from it the first time. It’s a fascinating book, and I love the way Bryson makes an array of scientific arcana so accessible, easy to understand, and entertaining.

Every single one of these audiobooks has been more interesting and entertaining to listen to than National Radio. They have taken my mind to some captivating places. I keep finding myself sitting in the carpark at work in the morning, or my driveway at home in the evening, wishing I didn’t have to get out of the car and enter the real world again. Perhaps the most entertaining of the audiobooks I have listened to so far has been World War Z, due in no small part to the sumptuous quality of the audio recording. It is the only one to feature a full cast of voice actors. No doubt this is an expensive thing to do, but it does minimise the likelihood of experiencing voice fatigue. I felt a little of that with Children of the Sky, where the narrator, Oliver Wyman, does, for the most part, a stellar job. There were perhaps only three or four main characters whose voices I didn’t like. This isn’t much, especially considering the extensive cast of characters featured in the novel. However, the recording is almost twenty-eight hours long, and these characters featured enough for it to prove a minor source of irritation within the overall experience.

The best thing about these audiobooks is that it has got me “reading” again. Lately, I have done very little reading, in the traditional sense. Since the beginning of the school year in February, I have read only two books. The first of these, Girl in a BandI read quite quickly. It’s the autobiography of Kim Gordon, the bass player from one of my favourite bands, Sonic Youth, and a woman I have a lot of admiration for. The second of these, The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmarestook me months and months to finish. It’s a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. The time it took me to read is no indication of the quality of the writing. Oates is an incredible writer, and it’s a great book, and truly frightening in parts. However, the only time I have available to read is the hour or so I have between putting the kids to bed and going to sleep myself. More often than not, I have chosen to spend this time watching episodes of television dramas. This is not a guilty pleasure. I am one of those people who believes we are currently experiencing a golden era of television drama (long may it continue), and the shows I have been watching—Game of Thrones, Fargo, Better Call Saul—are wonderfully written. But one thing books are great for, and much better at than television, is engaging the imagination. With television, you don’t have to visualise anything—it’s all pre-visualised for you by somebody else. With books, especially fiction, you have to visualise everything. This is the true joy of reading. I can’t read and drive at the same time, but listening to audiobooks has allowed me to take the chunks of downtime I have when commuting and put it to good use, engaging my imagination. And they have given me true joy. Audiobooks have made a genuine improvement to my quality of life.

2016 Auckland Writers Festival

2016 Auckland Writers FestivalLast month, I was lucky enough to join a group of students and teachers from my school for the schools programme of the 2016 Auckland Writers Festival, at the Aotea Centre in central Auckland. It’s always entertaining to spend a day out of class with a bunch of high-schoolers. There were thirty or so on this expedition, a mix of ages and personalities, all ostensibly interested in writing—though I suspect a number of them just wanted a day off school, and who could blame ’em. It’s a three hour bus ride, more or less, from our school, in the rural backwaters of Northland, to the big smoke.  Three hours of singing, dancing and gossiping.

We arrived at the Aotea Centre in good time, having taken the Northern Busway into the city, which allowed us to avoid much of the citybound traffic. We were booked for four sessions at the festival, firstly with Kate de Goldi, then Jane Higgins, Omar Musa and Tami Nielson.

Kate de Goldi’s session was, unfortunately, boring. I’ve read The 10pm Question and I think it’s a great book—smart, funny, and touching. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it was more than what I got. She read excerpts from her latest novel, From the Cutting Room of Barney Kettle, which is set in Christchurch, and talked about how the earthquakes in Christchurch had influenced her writing of it. Nothing she read, nor anything she said, made me want to go out and buy a copy. I’m not saying it sounds like a bad book (she’s an accomplished writer, and it’s probably a pretty good book), but her delivery—a little dry, a little stiff—made it difficult to get enthusiastic about anything she was saying. Maybe she’s a better writer than public speaker, and there’s nothing wrong with that—public speaking is daunting—but it felt like a missed opportunity, both for de Goldi, and her audience.

Our next session was with Jane Higgins. She was talking about hope in young adult fiction. She discussed how a lot of the fiction written for young adult audiences is bleak. But there’s hope too—and the sense of hope is essential to the success of the stories told. She said that young adult fiction may be bleak, but that is only a reflection of real life, where young men and woman live in a world that is often bleak, and have to face difficult challenges and make difficult decisions. She said that hope is also necessary, and that a story without hope would struggle to sustain an audience.

I have to agree with her there. Last year, I read Song of Stone by Iain Banks. It is almost unrelentingly bleak. Sure, it’s an interesting idea, well written, with prose that is often beautiful, in a cold, hard way, but once finished, I had no desire to read anything similar, and haven’t again since. This is hardly a recipe for building a sustainable audience.

Higgins said that there are five ways in which the characters in young adult fiction experience hope:

  • Discovering the people that are supporting them;
  • Discovering their gifts;
  • Being recognised for who they are;
  • Seeing clearly at last;
  • Happy endings (sometimes).

She said that young people are often asked what they are going to do. This is true—it’s a question I often hear myself asking of students at school, usually the ones where it is difficult to imagine anyone ever making the decision to employ them. According to Higgins, two better questions to ask, and two better question for young men and women to ask of themselves, are:

  • Who are you going to be?
  • How are you going to live your life?

I guess the caveat attached to these questions is that if hope is not part of the answer to them, then something needs to change.

After breaking for lunch, we returned to the ASB Theatre for our third session, with Omar Musa. Musa is a Malaysian-Australian poet/rapper/writer. He spoke about his life and his work, and punctuated these with spoken word performances of some of his poems. This is perhaps not so different from what de Goldi did, but the crucial difference here is in the word performance.  De Goldi spoke to the audience; Musa performed for the audience. He was charismatic, funny, and entertaining. His performance covered a range of topics, including the difficulties of growing up poor, angry, and Muslim in small-town Australia. The poem that sticks most in my mind was an ode to the spicy Malaysian noodle soup, laksa. Here, Musa called on the audience to participate, joining in with a shouted “Wooh!” on the poem’s introductory refrain of “Wooh! This shit is hot.”

Musa’s overall message was that storytelling is important, and that no matter where you come from—your stories are worth telling. He spoke of the importance of storytelling in Malay culture, where the word for storyteller, penglipur lara, translates as a “reliever of sorrows” or “dispeller of worries”. He sees poetry as a way of “giving a voice to the voiceless” and as being “a safe place to tell dangerous stories.”

For me, he was the standout presenter of the day, and most of the students I spoke to felt the same way. I think this is because of the entertainment value his presentation provided. When you’ve traveled three hours on a bus to see someone, and you’ve got a three hour return journey after you’ve seen them, it’s really not enough just to be talked at; it’s important to be entertained as well.

The last session of the day was with Tami Nielson. Nielson is a country/blues singer/songwriter. She was born in Canada to a musical family, and moved to New Zealand in 2007. She talked about her songwriting process, focusing on the evolution of her song Walk (Back to Your Arms), which won her the APRA silver scroll in 2014, and how it developed from a simple, almost wordless tune that popped into her head while driving one day, through to a fully-fledged, award winning song, with an accompanying music video.

Nielson was warm, funny and engaging. She talked about her life back in Canada, where her road to musical success was established as a child. She talked about her move to New Zealand, and the frightening prospect of having to start her career over again, in a new country, where no-one knew who she was or what she had done in the past. She told jokes and stories, sung songs, and played the guitar. She even showed some mean skills on the harmonica.

Like Musa, she didn’t just present to her audience, she performed for them as well. This is unsurprising—both artists are musicians as well as storytellers, after all. It’s perhaps unfair to compare their presentations with those of de Goldi and Higgins, but they made all the difference in terms of my enjoyment of the day. I think most of our students felt the same way. It’s always good to spend time with students outside the normal, everyday bounds of the classroom. You get to see a side of them that you don’t normally get to see, and visa versa. But it’s a long trip to Auckland and back, and I’d like to thank Omar Musa and Tami Nielson for making that trip especially enjoyable.

Stephen King “On Writing”

Stephen King writing in officeI’ve been “reading” the audiobook of Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s great—full of amusing anecdotes and some wonderful writing tips. I mean, if you’re going to get writing tips from famous authors, Stephen King is as good a place as any to start. I must confess though, it’s the first time I’ve ever read anything by King. This hasn’t really been a conscious decision, in the same way that never reading anything by Danielle Steel has been—I’ve just read other stuff is all, plus I’ve always been a little suspicious of writers that sell books in huge volumes (although that hasn’t stopped me from reading most of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels).

There are three things King says in particular that have stuck with me. Firstly, he compares writing to building a house. He says that paragraphs are bricks and that if you put your paragraphs together in the right way, you can build any kind of house you like. All you need is a toolbox filled with the tools of writing—vocabulary, grammar, description, narrative, dialogue etc. I like this idea, perhaps because my father was a builder, and he passed on to me a love of tools. I have a garage full of ’em. But I also like it because it simplifies the craft. Instead of being some arcane art, full of bubbling cauldrons, blood sacrifices and the casting of spells, writing is just a trade, like building or plumbing or drain laying. Just bring your toolbox and your knowledge of how to use the tools within it.

Secondly, he compares writing to excavating fossils. He says that stories are found objects, buried like fossils in the ground and that once the story has been found, it is the writer’s job to carefully excavate that story and reveal it to the world. He advises against actively plotting stories and says that the plot will reveal itself—organically and quite probably in ways the writer never expected—through careful excavation. I like this idea too. I think there’s a lot of truth in it.

Thirdly, he says that writers are arranged in a pyramid of four layers. At the bottom, in large numbers, we have the bad writers. Above that, still in large numbers, we have the competent writers. Above that, in much smaller numbers, we have the really good writers. At the top of the pyramid we have the great writers—King names Shakespeare, Faulkner and Eudora Welty among these—a select few writers who are intellectual freaks of nature, geniuses of the profession.

King goes on to say that it is impossible to turn a bad writer into a competent one. As a teacher of high school English, I’m not sure I agree with this entirely, but there is considerable truth in it. If a student turns up in my class at Year 9, without having a grasp of the fundamentals of written English—sentence structures, grammar, punctuation, paragraphing and the like—three or four years in my classroom isn’t going to make them a competent writer. Perhaps that just means I’m a bad English teacher (it’s certainly not the first time this thought has crossed my mind), but let me break the numbers down. Four years at forty weeks per year (max) at four lessons per week at fifty-five minutes per lesson equals a grand total of five hundred and eighty-six point six hours in class. Only a fraction of this will be spent doing any schoolwork, and only a fraction of that schoolwork will be writing. Much of these five hundred and eighty-six point six hours will be spent coming to class late, leaving class early, gossiping, arguing, conversing, searching for a pen, searching for a book, going to the toilet, asking stupid questions (although there are no stupid questions), flirting, swearing, worrying, daydreaming, sleeping, cracking jokes, laughing, chewing gum, making paper projectiles, throwing paper projectiles, texting, listening to music, watching videos on YouTube, playing computer games, and half a hundred other things that kids get up to in the classroom that bear little resemblance to what they’re actually supposed to be doing. Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at something. It’s little wonder that the bad writers who enter high school tend to exit high school as bad writers still.

And do those bad writers then spend the next ten years of their lives working to improve their writing? Of course not. They just go on to become builders and plumbers and truck drivers and doctors and nurses and parents who can think of a thousand and one things they’d rather be doing than writing.

King also says that it is impossible for a good writer to become great. I see no reason to disbelieve this. I too, think great writers are freaks of nature. You are either born with that talent, or you are not. So that leaves only room for the competent writers to become really good writers. I agree with him here too. If you are a competent writer, becoming a really good writer is entirely possible, likely even, if you have the desire. It will take time, effort, and lots of practise, but that’s okay. Good things take time.

I hold no illusions of greatness. I don’t think I’ve spent enough time working on the craft of writing to be really good. But I’m fairly certain I’m competent, and I’ve got the desire to move up the pyramid.

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