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What I Learned From Marlon James

Marlon James is a Jamaican author. You may have heard of his award winning novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. Well, last year, I had a chance to meet the novelist himself at a convention held by Sigma Tau Delta (The International English Honor’s Society). I was presenting a creative nonfiction piece and going to all the other magnificent presentations and he was a speaker.

After the conversation, I got to have him to myself for a few minutes and even asked him some questions. Anyone who has ever read James knows that the voices of his characters are extremely clear. He doesn’t even need dialogue tags for you to know exactly who is talking and what frame of mind they are in. As a writer, that is a feat. More importantly, it is something that I have been trying to do for quite some time in my own work. Although, I doubt I will ever eliminate dialogue tags, I do want each character to have a clear and distinctive voice.

So, while I had him to myself I asked him what he does to make sure every character is unique. And strangely enough, we have the same process, although his is much more in depth than mine. He sits down and comes up with the entire life story of his characters. A Brief History of Seven Killings is based on actual people so it was less of creation on his part and more like research but he still does something similar. He creates their experiences and molds their voices off of what they went through and how they grew up in his fictional world. In that way, all the characters even if they have similar pasts can be variant enough to have different voices.

Another thing I learned about him and his writing process that comforted me in the midst of a large writing project I was undertaking was the fact that he does research and sometimes that research takes an extremely long time. Who hear has heard of R.L. Stine? Well, I love him and have read so many of his books that it is insane. But anyway, Stine has written well over 300 books, in fact it may be more like 400 by now. That’s practically a book a month since he began his career. He just turns them out. And Stephen King once said something along the lines of “If you can’t finish a book in six months you weren’t meant to write it.” How is that inspirational in any way? Well, with these trivia facts in my head I began wondering if my project was taking too long. I was doing my own research because one of my characters was from the Middle East and I have no idea what plant life is there and how everyday life would have been in the time period I was setting my story in. Research takes a whole lot of time, especially when you are researching and writing and working and going to class.

But then, here comes Mr. James!!!! He told me that he spent two full years doing the necessary research for Seven Killings. Two years of searching archives, personal narratives and more. Who has that kind of time? “Not I,” said the duck. However, it gave me the encouragement to keep pressing forward and not get disheartened in the process. Everyone works at their own pace and I know I am no R.L. Stine so now I worry less about time and more about content and quality. I want to put my best work down for posterity and that short little five minute conversation I had with Marlon James helped me.

Having conversations with those ahead of you in whatever game you’re in is so wonderful. Even if they aren’t your mentor, you can still learn a great deal from them. So in whatever field you are in, I highly suggest you go to some conventions or conferences or even talks held by people in your career field.

And if you are a writer or an avid reader, here are some conventions for you:

And if you’ve ever been to a conference, how was it? Any wisdom you want to share? Let me know.

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