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Thursday, February 25, 2016

On Being Responsible Killers - a guest post by Jane Lebak

Writers are no strangers to death. Neither are our characters. It hurts, but sometimes we have to kill one of them.


Back during my college days, while drifting to sleep, I thought about how the Bible says humans are made in the image of God, and then I thought about how each us us to some extent reverse engineers what God might be like based on what we’re like.

(This is what happens when you double-major in English and Religious Studies. I mean, in addition to having all those high-paying jobs laid out at your feet.)

So with a total arrogance typical for me back when I was a college student, I modified Jesus’s question: “Who would my characters say that I am?”

Ooh, that was fun. I imagined a court room and put my favorite characters on the witness stand. Each one testified under oath as to my personality and values. I kept them in character, but I had them make their judgments based on how their own stories had unfolded. And not just my recent characters: I went back to characters I’d written when I was twelve and thirteen.

The character from my high fantasy testified that I was ruthless and valued success. Another
character said I was a loner who valued community, but didn’t fit into it. A third character said I set tests and expected you to learn from your trials.

Then a minor character from a fanfic took the stand. I hadn’t thought of him for ages, not since I’d written the story where he’d appeared.

He trembled with anger. “Jane doesn’t care. She created me only to use me, have my life benefit someone else, and then leave me destroyed.”

So much for drifting off to sleep.

I wanted to hug him and hold him and tell him it wasn’t true; I wanted to reassure him that I cared about my characters — except he was right. That was exactly what I had done to him. He suffered, and that had been his only purpose. He was expendable.

I wanted to defend myself, and honestly, I couldn’t.

I lay awake when I should have been sleeping, analyzing the way I used characters in stories. I’d invented the “Red-shirt” without yet knowing what one was. My little guy was right.

The more I thought about it, the more my character’s accusation changed the way I write. I lowered my overall body count. I’ve made sure that even if a character has to die, he gets a fair shake all along; he gets a personality; he gets a purpose; at the very least, he has a chance.

Stories being what they are, sometimes characters have to die, but as writers and as readers, we need to handle it the right way. The death of a character isn’t a ploy for easy emotion. When a character dies, it needs to be a fulfillment so while we as readers may feel sad, there’s also a certain rightness to it. It’s an end, but it’s an end the character himself or herself might have endorsed. “I died doing what I wanted to do.” Or better yet, “I died being who I truly am.” Not that their life was taken, but that they gave it. And in doing so, gave life to someone else in the book and in some ways gave life to the reader.

It’s a testimony to good writing that these characters mean so much. But to mean so much to the reader, they need to mean much to the writer, and that means treating their lives – and their potential deaths – with respect.

Jane Lebak talks to angels, cats, and her kids. Only the angels listen to her, but the kids talk back. She lives in the Swamp, writing books and knitting socks, with the occasional foray into violin-playing. You’ll also find her blogging at QueryTracker.net, a resource for writers seeking agents and small publishers

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Maslow vs The Deadline

In 1954 Abraham Maslow introduced his theory of the Hierarchy of Needs. More than anything, people needed their basic physical needs met (food, water, shelter, and sleep). After that came security needs (financial stability, safe shelter, health). Then came Love and belonging (emotional needs and relationships), then esteem (confidence, self-esteem, praise), and only after all those other needs were met could a person move to a place of creative, morale, non-prejudiced living.
An illustration of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs provided by Simply Psychology.

The Hierarchy of Needs is often drawn as a pyramid, suggesting that without the solid base of food, water, shelter, and the next level of health and security an individual can't progress. Without food and water there can be no concern for emotional health and well-being. Leave someone to get hungry and see how fast they get cranky and impolite. That's Maslow's Theory in action.

On a deadline for any creative project Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs becomes something of a sticking point, because creativity only exists in a place or mind where all other needs are met.

There are lots of authors who talk about how much writing they can get done, or how to write 5000 or 10000 words in a day. There are always people who will tell you about how to get the maximum output from your writing time. And they all assume the basic needs described by Maslow are met.

This is a bad assumption.

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for any author is actually the Hierarchy of Needs. It's the main cause of writer's block.

Sit down with an author who hasn't written in two months and they'll tell you how hard the words are, that they just can't get things right, that they have no ideas... Then ask them about the rest of your life and nine times out of ten you'll hear about a job loss or financial setback, health problems, family problems, work problems, or some other hiccup that has unbalanced their pyramid.

More than one author has quit writing in despair because they thought they had failed at being a writer simply because there was some underlying need that isn't being fulfilled. So, instead of giving up in despair, when you hit a day where the words aren't working ask yourself: Are my needs being met?

Are you hungry or thirsty? Have you had enough sleep? Are you healthy? Is your situation stable? Are you in emotional turmoil or in need of some emotional support? Are your basic needs being met?

They may not be. And, I'll be perfectly honest, financial stability and perfect health aren't always going to be options. There will be days when your self-esteem is bruised, health problems are acting up, and the roof springs a leak. The secret to hitting your deadlines in the chaos is to recognize your needs, and meet as many of them as you can.

If you can't guarantee financial stability, that's fine. Acknowledge that the matter is out of your hands until the situation changes/company finishes lay-offs/hiring process is over/parents send you allowance. Then, get back to writing.

If your health isn't 100%, do what you can, accept the limitations where you need to, and write as you are able.

If you're emotionally distressed, do what it takes to make you happy again. Cry if you need to. Call a friend for a good laugh. Vent in an email. Spend six hours on Tumblr looking at kitten pictures. And then wipe away the tears, turn off the kitten Vine, and get back to writing.

Remember: it is okay to have bad days. It is human to fall short of your goals. It is natural to adapt your goals and deadlines to the challenges of reality.

None of us has a perfect life. Everyone will face challenges, bad days, and frustrations. What matters is getting back up again after life smacks you down. Don't sit there in the mud being miserable. Get up, change course, adapt to the challenge, and get moving again. It's the only way to survive.

And keep writing. The world needs your book.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Impulse Buy of the Week: UNCLEAR SKIES by Jason LaPier

Rogue cop Stanford Runstom blew open a botched murder case and was given a promotion – of sorts. But doing PR work for ModPol, the security-firm-for-hire, is not the detective position Runstom had in mind, particularly when his orders become questionable.

Despite being cleared of false murder charges, Jax is still a fugitive from justice. When ModPol catches up with him, keeping his freedom now means staying alive at any cost, even if that means joining Space Waste, the notorious criminal gang.

When ModPol and Space Waste go head to head, old friends Runstom and Jax find themselves caught between two bloodthirsty armies, and this time they might not escape with their lives.

Unclear Skies is the second book in The Dome Trilogy, following Unexpected Rain. The digital release is February 25th, 2016, to be followed by a paperback release in August.

Ebook for $2.99/£1.99

Born and raised in upstate New York, Jason now lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife and their long-haired dachshund. In past lives he has been a guitar player for a metal band, a drum-n-bass DJ, a record store owner, a game developer, and an IT consultant. These days he divides his time between writing fiction and developing software, and doing Oregonian things like gardening, hiking, and drinking microbrew. He can be found on Twitter @JasonWLaPier and his blog at http://jasonwlapier.com