Monday, May 31, 2021

You're not wrong.

 This week the subject is whatever strikes our fancy, so I'll just put this out there. You're (probably) n0t wrong. When it comes to your method of writing, I mean. There is no right or wrong unless you're not doing it. 

Want to outline the liv8ng hell out of it: By all means. Want to take a chance and pants it? certainly, as long as you're actually doing the writing. I'm sure I've brought her u before, but once upon a time fellow barista working at Starbucks alongside me proudly announced that she was a writer. She would come into the store where we both worked and she 2wouod pull out her laptop, set it up, order a drink, sit down to write, and promptly pick up her phone, where she would spend the next 90minutes to two hours, chatting away. Then she would close up her laptop and head home to her husband and kids. 

To my knowledge, she never finished a single project. We worked together for over 2 years. In that same time, I wrote no less than three novels and a dozen short stories. All of them got published. You want to know what the difference is? I actually WROTE when I was writing. She might have incredible tales to tell, but I never saw her actually write one. Ever.

She rolled her eyes every time I pointed that out to her. She couldn't understand how I was so productive. I told her not to answer the phone when it rang unless it was her kids. I also suggested telling her kids (the youngest was, I believe, fourteen) not to call unless it was urgent.

She's not a writer. She's a dreamer. There's a difference.

If you want to be a writer, WRITE.

End of rant. Go get some writing done.. 

Oh, and this year? One novel finished. One novel started. One novel in the process of being plotted. Three short stories sold. One novella sold. One collaborative novel half-finished. It's my chosen profession. It's what I do.

Keep smiling,


Sunday, May 30, 2021

Author Coaches - How to Spot the Phonies

This week's topic at the SFF Seven is whatever is on our minds. Now that The Promised Queen has been out for nearly a week, I'm once again reminded of the many, many scavengers that begin circling the sparkling and hopeful fresh meat that is a new release. 

So, as a general warning, remember that there are a LOT of people out there looking to make money off of authors. From paid reviews to advertising to various "services," they are targeting authors by searching for new releases in particular, and attempting to capitalize on the mounds of money they hope you're making - or your desperation if you are not.

More specifically, my current MOST LOATHED scavenger critter out there right now is the Author Coach.

And yeah... I'm fully aware of that irony, as I do offer author coaching myself. I justify this in my own mind in that I'm simply asking to be paid for the kind of thing I was already doing for free. I love mentoring! But I also have to watch how I distribute my time. Writing books is my number one commitment. By charging for the advice I used to give for free, that puts a value on my time and reminds me where my priorities should remain.

Which segues nicely into what I see happening in some of these other "business" offerings.

These people offer to teach you how to write a novel - in whatever time frame sounds sexiest at the moment - and they tell you they can teach you how to make it into a bestseller, via amazing story tricks or marketing know-how, etc.

They have snazzy, clickable titles that promise ways to get your book in front of everyone, to write a breakout novel, to write a bestseller, to write your first novel, to make a viral book video, to get reader email addresses, and so forth. Yes, these are all things many of us would like to be able to do. That's the hook.

The question is: can they actually teach that?

BECAUSE - and this is the bit I always come around to - if they know so much about how to do the thing, why aren't they actually DOING it?

In the case of one famous agent who's built a considerable career selling books and workshops on writing a bestselling novel, I have always wanted to ask why, if he can teach this, aren't all of his clients bestsellers? I mean, wouldn't he want that? 

If an author is a bestselling rolling in royalties, why on earth would they be spending their time teaching anyone how to make viral Tik Tok videos? If a writer is making easy money writing books, why are they spending money on Instagram ads extolling their author coach services? Writers like Nora Roberts aren't spamming your IG feed with ads to teach you her secrets. Because she's making her money from actually writing.

In this era where anyone can add "Bestselling Author" to their credits either by a) lying, b) fudging the exact list, or c) buying their way onto a list, then it's become meaningless. And if being a Bestselling Author is their sole credential for teaching you anything, I'd take a hard second look at what they've actually done.

Frankly, the slicker the business site looks? The faster I'd run away. 

 I'm not saying there aren't good and helpful people out there - I like to think I'm one of them - but look very carefully at what these folks are promising vs. what they're actually doing. 

Friday, May 28, 2021

War of the Character Clones

Characters on stage need motivation - as much as I hate that old 'what's my motivation' chestnut. It's more nuanced than that, and also, if you're the actor, it's literally your job to work out motivation based on the script. I'd say 'that's a rant for another time' but it isn't. It plays directly into our topic this week: Carbon Copy Characters. 

How many Hamlet movies do we have? I can think of three off the top of my head. There are scads more. While the words for Hamlet never change, and the action of the story never changes, the character changes between movie versions because of the person playing the character. Each individual brings their own experience, their own emotional weight, their own interpretation to the lines that haven't changed in hundreds of years. I think my favorite illustration is the Unsolicited Advice skit. 8 actors and 1 crown prince read a single line of Hamlet's soliloquy - for comedy, of course, but you still get a sense in that bit of how different each of their Hamlets would be. 

Authors working with characters need to take a cue from the great variety of Hamlets across the history of the play. Go to YouTube and search 'To Be or Not to Be'. Look at how many videos come up. What makes us willing to watch so many Hamlets? 

Because when we watch Hamlet, caught between life and death in one short soliloquy, we aren't watching a single character grapple with suicidal ideation and the fear of mortality. We're watching individual human beings each bringing their own fears, their own disappointments, their own unique sorrows to bear. We're watching THEM as Hamlet, not Hamlet played by them. Fine distinction, but it matters.

For authors, that translates to bringing unique wounds to each character we write. I suspect this is much easier for character driven writers than for plot driven writers. Because a character driven process begins with characters and finding character voices, it's never a conscious thought for me to make characters across books different from one another. It follows naturally from my need to understand how each character starts a story broken. It's from that place of brokenness that plot flows. Even if two characters share a basic wound - it isn't safe to trust others, for example - that wound will have come from different experiences. The responses to that common wound will be utterly different based on who these people are. 

Creating unique characters isn't about what they do. Sally in this book is a hairdresser, and Sarah in that book is a truck driver. That's window dressing. What makes these characters distinct from each other is emotion. Their responses to conflict and obstacles. They likely have different goals and different tactics they use to achieve their goals.  Those are the tools in the writer's toolbox that build characters that will stand apart no matter how many books - or Hamlets - you subject yourself to.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Distinctive characters or distinctive authors?

Here follows a treatise on how one ought to make one's characters appreciably different in every book, thus--

Okay, hold up. I just can't.

Sometimes authors want their characters to be similar from book to book. It creates a familiarity and sense of comfort for autobuy-type readers. Kind of like Jimmy Stewart and Harrison Ford often play the same character from movie to movie, there is a value to knowing what you're going to get when you open, oh say, a Dan Brown novel.

This is not me casting aspersions on Dan Brown, or Stewart or Ford either, for that matter. We like what we like.

Truth is, I wish the characters in my three books were more consistent. Can't tell you how many people have said they dug the protagonist in book one but either disliked book two or never even read it because the heroine wasn't anything like the book one heroine. 

I suspect that the magic here is to find the character that resonates and then riff off that character as often as possible. Note that the first step is to find the right relatable character. Don't iterate on a crap character that nobody likes . Find your groove and then groove the hell out of it.

Or do what I do: stop reading reviews and just write what you love because you love it, and others may or may not follow suit. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

New #Fantasy #Romance Release: The Promised Queen (Forgotten Empires, Book3) by Jeffe Kennedy

 Our amazing Sunday blogger Jeffe Kennedy is at it again, releasing another new heart-pounding romantic fantasy! The third book in the Forgotten Empires trilogy. Yes, for you dear readers who like to wait until a series is complete, this is it! So, wait no longer and dive into the world of the Forgotten Empires today!

Forgotten Empires, Book 3

Claim the hand that wears the ring, and the empire falls.

Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, claimed the hand that wears the Abiding Ring, but the prophecy remains unfulfilled. Queen Euthalia of Calanthe returned to her island kingdom, but broken in mind and body. With the blood of war unleashing ancient terrors, Calanthe isn’t the haven it once was.

Lia must use her magical bond with Calanthe to save their people while Con fights to hold off the vengeful Emperor Anure and his wizards. Con and Lia will have to trust in each other―and in love―to fend off ultimate disaster.

Miss the first two books in the trilogy? Get them here: 

Monday, May 24, 2021

Cookie Cutter Magic

 So the topic of the week is how to avoid making the same protagon9st in each book or series. 

Well, that's j=harder than you might think. Why do I say that? I've been accused of it, by a reviewer who really liked my stuff.

Apparently two characters from two different series were too similar for her.

Well, Hell, I could tell them apart. Lessee. One of the characters was an apprentice herbologist and the other was a blacksmith. One got his hands shattered. One was violently murdered. In the other circumstance, one was a soldier who became a general and one was a mercenary. They have absolutely nothing to do with each other except, apparently, they had similar personalities. 

I have nothing. There are entire stories with these characters that are RADICALLY different, so either the characters are reacting to situations in similar ways, or the reader is reading into this, or, maybe, I'm not so great at creating different characters. I mean, one is a career soldier who has never married. One is a husband with three kids. Did they have similarities/ Probably. the apprentice herbologist was shy. The blacksmith couldn't quite build u the nerve to talk to the girl he adored. The mercenary knew his way around a sword and so did the soldier. Did they look alike? Nope. Not even a little. Mercenary had red hair and worked a kilt. Soldier had dark hair going gray, and wore a uniform. 

The thing is, I write characters with backgrounds and histories and motivations. If they come across the same way I'm obviously doing something wrong, or the reader is listening to my voice and filling in gaps that I've not noticed. 

But you know what? I wnt back and read several passages from the books that pertained to those characters. Yeah, no, I can still see less similarities and more differences, so I didn't think it's me. 

Always try to approach these things with a critical eye, and always try to make certain you aren;t using cookie cutters to make your characters. y9our mileage may vary.

 I mean, they look different to me...

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Protagonists and The Promised Queen

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is "Avoiding Same Protagonist, Different Name, Different Story: How do ensure your lead characters are unique per series/standalone?"

This isn't a great topic for me because I ... don't. In that, I don't ensure or strategize this kind of thing. Maybe because I'm an intuitive writer? Characters come to me and tell me about themselves. I don't have to avoid finding the same one any more than I have to worry about running into the same people over and over in the larger world.

But that's cool because it's release week for me! 

THE PROMISED QUEEN - book three in the Forgotten Empires - comes out on Tuesday, May 25!

As far as protagonists go, an early reviewer said this to me:

Really appreciate how at no point did Con become some magically articulate prince. He still said "...stuff" instead of somehow finding a way to wax eloquent in the third act. Thank the gods.

I love that! In honor of Con's uneducated and rough ways that have him saying "stuff," here's a scene where he does exactly that.


We walked in quiet for a few steps, Lia turning us at a four way intersection where all the paths looked the same to me. “Do you know where you’re going?” I asked.

“Metaphorically in my life, or literally in this maze?” she replied lightly.

“Now you sound like Ambrose.”

“He has his moments. The answer is yes to both.”

“You know where you’re going in life?” 

“That has never been a question for me. My life belongs to Calanthe.” Before I could say anything to that, she continued. “And there’s a pattern to the turns in the maze, which everyone knows, even if they never come this way. The maze is here primarily to prevent anyone from stumbling into the heart of the night court by accident.”

“Am I going to be shocked by what I see?” I blurted out, figuring I’d better ask.

She gave me an assessing look, eyes glowing with color, like the decorative lanterns did. “You might be. Do you mind? We can turn back.”

“No way. Not after I just confessed to regretting not learning what I could when I had the opportunity.” Besides, maybe I’d get some ideas about pleasing Lia. If I could figure out how to be a better lover for her, she might want to marry me again.

“You could still learn, you know,” she offered. “It’s never too late.”

For a pained moment, I thought she’d read that thought—then I realized she meant reading and stuff. “I’d feel like an idiot.” I could just picture it, sitting there like a hulk in some schoolroom, painstakingly reading aloud from a kid’s book. 

“You said you feel like an idiot most of the time anyway,” she countered.

“Good point.” We turned twice more, and I began to get the pattern now. “Two lefts, then a right, and repeat?”

“Exactly. Now you know.”

“Not that I’d come this way without you.”

“You could. The night court would—”

“I know, I know. You offered this before and I said I didn’t want it. Quit bringing it up.”

“No need to growl, grumpy bear.”

I laughed, a hoarse grating sound. “I thought I was a wolf.”

“It changes, moment to moment,” she replied. “And you’re not, you know.”

“A wolf or a bear?”

“An idiot. You’re a very intelligent man. One of the smartest men I’ve been privileged to meet.”

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Death Matters


This week's topic is: The Necessity of Death: Do you have to kill characters for there to be enough risk? What other threats work better/just as effectively?

First, let me say that I don't preach many rules in fiction. I think writers should hone their craft (meaning you should know how to wield your writerly tools such as grammar, structure, concept, etc., and everything should be done on purpose, down to word choice). But everything else? The cans/cannots? I don't go there because a deft writer can make something that's been labeled a no-no a work of art. It doesn't necessarily mean everyone will like it, but it also doesn't mean you can't do it. I have three beautiful doggies, and I can invariably say that I don't want to read or watch anything about dog death. And yet I watched a movie where a puppy's death in the first ten minutes motivated the main character to hunt down his enemy, and I cheered for him all the while. 

Why? Because that death mattered. This is really the only rule I'll preach on this topic. I think I've said before on this blog that it's good to make things personal, and death as a motivator is as personal as it gets. The threat of death makes characters act, as can a death itself. It can send a whole series of events into motion because, ultimately, most of us want to live, and we want those we love to live. We want innocents to live. Having that desire/need tested shows us what our characters are made of. It shows their mettle and morals, how much they'll bend those morals to get revenge or set things to rights. It shows us their determination, mental state, grit, and their inner landscape of turmoil, regrets, and hopes. Death is so deeply felt, and as long as it resonates within your character/s, I like to think that, chances are, it isn't a wasted moment on the page.

But are there other options for risk/stakes? Of course. A gazillion. Threaten someone's freedom and see what they do. Threaten to take their memory. The sight or hands or... the creativity of an artist. The voice of someone whose voice is everything. Destroy the only possible route out of a dystopic city where a character, alone, is trapped. Give them plenty of food. They can live. But there's no one else left. They're faced with a very desolate future.

All sorts of things can be used to drive and test our characters. Death is only one choice. But if it matters to the writer, chances are it will filter into their writing and hopefully matter to the reader. 


Have you added The Witch Collector to your Goodreads lists? The Witch Collector is book one in Charissa's The Witch Walker Trilogy, coming 11.02.2021. Check it out!

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Death of a Character

Every living thing in this universe shares at least one thing in common. We will all die. Most of us likely heard 'death is part of life' or 'death is a fact of life' as we were growing up. Most of us have been touched by the deaths of loved ones. 

So when someone asks if it's absolutely necessary for characters to die in my novels, the answer is 'of course'. But.


Anyone I kill off in a story must die for cause. The death(s) need to mean something to the characters left behind, or they need to augment reality. Any time you're writing military SFR, if people aren't dying when you shoot at them, you're writing parody. You need to apply a cost to everything characters do. Or don't do. You need consequences. 

Sure, I can make the consequences impact the character directly, but consider the psychological impact of your poor decision destroying an innocent's life. That's some heavy guilt and it's hard to get rid of. Am I fond of fridging girlfriends, boyfriends, or anyone else? I'd like to say no, but I have a lot of dead people who are driving a hero in the current WIP. I think that's the textbook definition of 'fridging'. That sucks. I didn't want to be that author. Forth book in a series, tho. So it's not like I can change it now or make it somehow okay. I don't want it to be okay. I want it to be raw. And hard. And haunting. 

Anyway. We're off track. Death must mean something. If it doesn't, then killing off a character becomes a toss off. These are the character deaths in books, TV, and movies where a writer just kills the character. It's almost an accident. Oops. I dodged when I should have parried and now I'm dead. I understand that this is, in fact, reality. All too well I know this. But you know who handles what could have been a toss off death so adeptly that it carried a boat load of weight and emotion? Peter Jackson. Lord of the Rings. Battle of Helm's Deep. The elf Haldir leads a troop to bolster the defenders. Heroic! Hopeful, even.

Then Haldir takes an enemy arrow between the eyes while defending the battlements. It's almost accidental (and never happened in the books). It's a brilliant piece of theater - a full few seconds to watch realization cross his face, then that face go slack, and the slow motion fall. It's also amazing emotional manipulation - just as the audience is cheering the heroic elves riding to the rescue, they're toppled from their emotional perch by the arrow of Haldir's death. I totally see why Peter Jackson put it in the film when it isn't in the books.

The hero. Fallen. Lovely imagery. Sledgehammer of 'aw, man, I liked him'. 

A toss off would have been 'Hey! Hero riding in with reinforcements! Oops. He's dead. Oh well.' It would have been a quick pan. Or someone who deserved a better, weightier death accidentally falling through a magic mirror. Not that I'm mentioning names of authors or books here.


  • If I kill named characters on the page, I want them to have earned their deaths as much as other characters have to earn their HEAs. I don't often kill named characters.
  • If I kill people off stage, it's to drive named characters into the character arc they've been avoiding.
  • If I kill people off stage, it's also set that stage for stakes and/or ticking clocks and because there are no wars without atrocities. I just don't have to enumerate them or dwell on them. Often.
  • If I kill NPCs in large number, I always mean to include the stories of heroism that never actually make it into the darned novels. There may someday be a short story anthology of those depressing heroic-unto-death stories collected and published.

And now, a bit of new life. The monarch caterpillar I brought in to save from the red wasps cocooned in a nursery on my front porch. It emerged and flew off into the world on Tuesday. 


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Two Types of Character Deaths

Inside the Johnson Space Center, the tail end of a rocket with a yellow ring at the base, propped up by thick, black steel, sunlight streaming in through the thin slits of windows, and on the ground is a pair of red Beats headphones and an iPhone playing the audiobook The Mars Strain with the image of the Red Planet in the background.

 This week we’re talking about killing off characters and asking is it necessary. It’s not a new debate among authors or even readers, as Jeffe mentioned, and so far this week my fellow SFF Seveners have given opinions from both sides. 

KAK made a good argument that we, as consumers of entertainment that’s filled with death and dying, are numb to it. Vivien made the point that to make a character death, MC or secondary, worth it you’ve got to make the character earn it by showing growth. 

And that’s my answer to the question: Both! How can I choose both? Because for me, there’s two types of character death

The first type of character death: mass casualties. The kind that pile up as you’re slicing your way through a game like Heavenly Sword or reading a Gridmark. I believe we, people in general, are inured to this type of death. It isn’t personal. We’re capable of separating ourselves from it—be it in the media or in real-time death toll numbers that flash across our screens—because it isn’t personal. 

Depending on the type of book this kind of death is part of the story. When I wrote The Mars Strain back in 2015 the Ebola outbreak was maintaining a death toll. It wasn’t even close to our current pandemic’s tracking, but it was reality. So I knew I needed that piece of reality in my fiction and I wrote in a high casualty rate. Devin Madson wrote a great post about trad and indie publishing and near the bottom is an excellent, little section about The Pitfalls of Gridmark (it’s a great read, check it out!). Devin talks about the difference between character development and suffering, and that there is a difference, even in a genre stuffed with death. I translate Devin’s point about Gridmark to: don’t kill a bunch of people just for the sake of killing. Have a reason, be intentional.

Which brings me to the second type of character death: the immediate death. Not as in fast, but close proximity—usually a beloved secondary character. This is the one that hits you in the heart, the one that makes you cry, and the one that changes the main character’s trajectory. I have a couple close proximity deaths in The Mars Strain and I spent a lot of time debating if those secondary characters really needed to die. In the end I came to the conclusion that yes, they did because only with their deaths could my main characters make the decisions that they do that result bring about the climax of the story. Intentional, very intentional.

Nope, I’m not going to give away any spoilers here and name names.

And there you have it, my take on killing off characters and how I believe the two kinds of character deaths—mass casualties and close proximity—are needed for some tales. But I will stand firm with Vivien on the furry friends. Don’t touch a single fluff on the four legged characters (I’m looking at you I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson who made me bawl). 

How about you? How do you handle writing character deaths or reading character deaths? And please, don’t ever tell me Kevin Hearne killed off Oberon.

Black and white Siberian husky, paws draped over the edge of a large blanket as he peeks over the top with his blue eyes.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Writing a Death that Kills Me

Many of the heart-wrenching and gorgeous character arcs I can think of involve either sacrifice of life or willingness to sacrifice with no hope of being saved. I will list a few at the end of this post, below a significant spoiler space, so folks who haven't read those books or watched those shows won't come for my head. 

Or ... you know, maybe it would be more effective for this week's topic if they did.

Because we are talking about death, after all. Specifically, we're discussing whether the threat of death is enough to drive character and story arcs, and if character death, in and of itself, raises the stakes enough when our reality has a daily death count that has made us numb.

And my answer to that is...not really? Death does not immediately equal stakes. Let me explain.

Writing a death that hits readers where it hurts is hard. I've said that the difference between romance and other genres, and the thing that really elevates romance structurally, is that all writers, metaphorically, send a protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. Romance is the only one that requires a writer to bring that character back down from the tree, changed by his experience, and heal him. I would call this a complete character arc, not just a logarithmic curve, and I believe that the best character deaths, the only ones that really work and feel earned, are the ones that occur on the far end of a complete arc. 

If an author just sends the protagonist into a dire situation, makes him suffer, and then kills him, the stakes are meh. Saw it coming. Whatev. He doesn't earn it.

But if the author puts that character through hell, has them dig deep and overcome a challenge, and then claw their way right back out only to willingly sacrifice themselves for the greater good? People will weep! It's a lot more work, true, but it's also a lot more effective.

So that's my advice on this topic: if you really want to kill a character and have it matter, make sure that character earns it. Just torturing a character with the threat of sudden death isn't enough for modern readers. Note, this advice also goes for secondary character death. If Mom has to die in order to progress Protag's journey, you need to set that up. Much as I dislike the trope, Disney does it right.

Oh! One more thing: never kill the dog. I don't care how much you think it adds to your story or character stakes, there are a lot of readers who will immediately DNF if the dog dies. I might be one. Too many of us are permanently scarred by required-reading books with canine death, and we are not here for it. I can't even stand sad ASPCA commercials.

Below be spoilers....














Sacrifices that killed me in fiction:

- Hodor holding the door in the Game of Thrones tv show (I'm told George R. R. Martin was consulted on this plot point, so it's extremely likely he had planned to write it in the book series, too.)

- Kanan Jarrus in Star Wars Rebels. Didn't see that coming, but it was so right for that character, so very much what he had been growing toward all series. I bawled.

- Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, making emo and angst really work for him.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Do Characters HAVE To Die?

This week we're asking ourselves if we have to kill characters for there to be sufficient risk to maintain reader interest. What other threats work better or just as effectively?

Here's my unpopular opinion: 

Death does not present sufficient stakes. 

Not anymore. Culturally, at least in the US, we're increasingly inured to it. It's everywhere in our entertainment. It's every night on the news. It's every morning in our feeds. It's exploited by industries and charities to reach deeper into our pockets. It's a revenue stream in the business of healthcare. Six degrees of separation connects most of us to it at any given time. It's shoved in our faces so often that unless it befalls someone in our immediate presence or our core/chosen family, our reactions are muted or performative. Nowhere is our DNGAF about death more apparent than in our national and individual response to the current pandemic. Over 33 million Americans infected with a virus proven to lead to a gruesome death, and our mental disconnect from mortality allowed prevention to become a culture war. American exceptionalism at its worst. We believe dying will happen to "everybody except me," even though, logically, we know our time on this world is finite. Logically, we know we don't get to choose how we go out. Still, we hide behind our illusion of safety and delusion of "it won't happen to me."

Thus, I think as authors we ought to strive for different stakes if we're going to really connect to the reader. If we want to reach beyond the sameness of "welp, that character was fun while they lasted," then we have to elevate our world-building so that death isn't the most feared consequence of our characters' actions or inactions. Loss of liberty, loss of home, loss of status, loss of mental capacity, loss of physical ability, there are so many things a character can fear more than dying. A loss of love not through death but due to being driven away by one's own actions is far more heartbreaking. As long as there is a clear line of ownership of the consequences, a direct cause/effect of the choices the character made, then I think--I hope--the stakes are more vital to the character and more captivating to the reader.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Is Death Truly Inevitable?

This week at the SFF Seven we're discussing The Necessity of Death.

In fiction, of course! 

We're asking "Do You *Have* To Kill Characters for there to be enough risk? What other threats work better or just as effectively?"

This is one of those topics readers and writers alike seem to debate often. The readers, of course, never want any character they love to die. This includes all animals and children, named or not. (As a reader, I agree!) 

Writers, however, often feel the pinch of this expectation. Death is, after all, a part of life. And without the peril of death, the stakes of any conflict can feel flat. Though we do enjoy making our readers cry, we also want them to be happy with the story. A cathartic ugly cry is a wonderful reading experience. Coming away from a book bitter and grieving? I don't like it, myself.

I recall an author asking this question on some writer forum a while back. He had a long-running series with a central protagonist. All along, he'd planned to kill this guy at the end. But, the series had gone longer than he anticipated, gaining many passionate readers. Seeing this character's fate coming, they'd begun writing to the author to beg him not to kill the character at the end. The author was seriously torn. He felt that this certain death was so integral to the story - as indeed it must have been, for readers to anticipate and write to him about it - that he worried doing anything else would be a cheat.

Would it have been? 

One well-known author killed her protagonist at the of a series, to great dismay from her readers. This was something she'd planned from the beginning, as she wrote the books in reaction to what she felt was a cheat ending to the Harry Potter series. She thought Harry should've died at the end, so created her own series to execute that exact arc. That author has defended the ending by saying that the series is about this character learning to be selfless and that only by making the "ultimate sacrifice" - by dying - could she truly learn that lesson.

But... is that the case?

This is the crux of what we're asking here. Is death of a character necessary to demonstrate something? You'll notice I put "ultimate sacrifice" in quotation marks, but is giving up one's own life really the greatest sacrifice? I'd argue that dying can be easier than living through difficulty. Making restitution to people you've wronged can take tremendous effort and suffering - something that arguably takes much more strength of character than escaping into death. 

With THE PROMISED QUEEN coming out next week, quite a few readers are revisiting the first two books in The Forgotten Empires - THE ORCHID THRONE and THE FIERY CROWN - and making guesses about how the trilogy will end. There are a few questions they want answered and one has to do with the quote above. I think I'm spoiling nothing when I say that I believe that repaying debts and suffering to truly change is far more meaningful for a character than merely dying. 


Saturday, May 15, 2021

Tired Writer Seeking Normal Life


This week's topic is one I feel oh so familiar with. When Life Gets In The Way: dealing with a schedule for writing when the world wants to go off the rails. 

Over the decade (plus a year or two) since I decided to start writing again, I've nursed both my parents (for years) through Alzheimer's and Dementia, not to mention a whole host of other issues they faced, some of which, for my dad, happened during a pandemic. I've gone through their deaths now and the after-affects of their passing, all while raising a big family with active daughters (who have mostly finished college this year...ONE left!). I've also dealt with raising kids alone while my husband worked out of state or out of the country, along with enduring the struggles people face that we just don't show the world.

Through everything, I've stolen writing time when I could. Early in the mornings before work, in car rider lines, at gymnastics, dance, and cheerleading practices, while cooking dinner, sitting on hotel room balconies when we traveled, during flights, while waiting at the gate in airports, sitting in hospital rooms... I could go on. For so long, there was no such thing as a writing schedule. Writing had to happen in between the cracks of my life.

As KA said, routine is a luxury, one many writers do not have. It took forever for me to realize that routine was what I was striving for in those years. I was also striving for normal, longing for it, because I thought normal existed for some reason, and that if I planned well enough, I'd find it. I just wanted a day with no surprises. Small life hiccups I could deal with--being a mom teaches you how to do this with serious skill. It was the events that spun me in an entirely different direction that, of course, rattled me most.

I can't tell you how many times I've sat down and put my head in my hands, wanting to give up on writing because it felt like every time I hit any kind of writing stride or habit, something big happened to shake my world and flip the sense of 'normal' I might have wrangled for a time on its head. I'd have to drop everything to be a nurse, a psychologist, a medical sleuth, all to keep a parent alive and safe. Or maybe I was having to change out my writer hat to be Super Mom. I'll never pretend that I don't have a bit of trauma from living like that, the constant ups and downs and sideswipes. I'd get some momentum on a novel, then rise up only to have my legs kicked out from under me, some horrible happening sucking all the life out of me, and I'd have to be okay because other people depended on me. 

There were times when I had to stop writing. There just wasn't enough energy for me to think creatively. Some breaks would span weeks, others months. At the time, I felt so guilty, and the writing world can even encourage that guilt, because, Hey! You're supposed to write daily! No matter what! Which just isn't feasible for everyone.

I try really hard to keep that kind of energy out of the universe, that writers should be able to push through difficult times and write anyway. I used to believe that, used to let it make me feel awful, but now I know better. Not everyone can write daily. It's totally okay to have to think about other things, to drop one ball because you simply cannot juggle them all. Sometimes, when life gets in the way, it gets in the way BIG, so big you can't see around it. Don't let someone else's idea of what you're supposed to do or not do become the definition by which you end up judging yourself. Give yourself grace in tough times. Take deep breaths and hot baths and long walks, or stay in bed all day and watch tv if that's what works to get you through. Drink warm tea and cold water or eat whatever the hell you want. Go outside and scream, curl up with someone you love, and cry. Whatever works. Writing will be there when you are able to return to it.

Now, my realist tendencies are going to come out. The problem with all of this is that once writing becomes a job, it's like any job. There are deadlines, expectations, and responsibilities. I have a trilogy coming out soon that was supposed to come out last fall. But, thankfully, I have a wonderful publisher who extended grace and gave me the time I needed to deal with my dad's passing and everything I've had to do to close his estate. Once we writers go under contract, it feels far less easy to just take a day off. Now, when a cataclysm shakes our foundation, it's harder to stay in hiding for the time we might truly need. Pages must be written and edited, newsletters sent, covers approved, and many other duties. My best advice for writers in that situation is to do whatever must be done to give yourself some time. It's okay to reach out to an agent or editor and let them know that your world has been turned upside down. Maybe they can help give you the breathing room you need.

Ultimately, we have to take care of ourselves or there will be no writing to worry about. Life still isn't "normal" for me, and I realize it never will be. No matter how well I might plan, life still happens. These days, I'm learning to trim away unnecessary tasks that eat up my time, to do better about staying ahead of publishing deadlines (which is hard!), to keep using lists and my KanBan board so that I have some sense of control over things, and to do a better job of nurturing myself. I love routine. I love structure. It's how I get things done. But, I also know that it can be interrupted at any moment. More importantly, I know that I've endured so much, and I'll survive regardless.

And I will always--always--come back to writing.

I hope you do, too.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Holding strong in the storm

 I hope the fact that I no longer live on a boat doesn't preclude nautical metaphors. Because here we are again. 

We all know the wind is going to blow in our lives. Most of us have learned to handle that wind and, in fact, use it to propel us. 

But those aren't the winds we're talking about this week. This week is about the storms, squalls, and cyclones. The chill and stinging rain and howling winds yanking and tugging and churning up the water of our routines and lives.

With Covid, we all know what that looks like now. Stress. Uncertainty. A little fear. In some cases, panic and desolation. 

When a storm sweeps in, the ideal place to be is moored to a solid mass. A dock. In a writer's case, that solid mass is a habit set deep in the bedrock of your days. A habit like Jeffe's. Tying up to that is safe. Reliable. Immovable. Sometimes you get a few hard bounces against the dock, but so long as your lines hold, your craft is safe.

The problem is that sometimes you're underway when storms spin up. No docks in sight. You're caught out in dangerous conditions. On a boat (and in matters of health and well-being), your single job is to keep your nose into the wind. Why? To keep from being capsized. If you can find shelter, you run for it. And then you set an anchor and give yourself a really, really long leash. That's what keeps your anchor hooked into the bottom of the seabed and your craft in a position to ride out the worst. 

Translated out of nautical metaphor: Tie up to the safety of established habit when you can, but when the horse feathers hit the fan and you can't fall back on habit, throw out an anchor. Let that anchor take the form of a craft class or anything that requires you to get your head in your writing for a few hours each week. 

Then give yourself grace. A lot of it. 

Remember. Your first job is protecting your health and well-being when storms roar in to knock you off course. When you're healthy, you have a million wishes. When you aren't healthy, you have only one wish. 

Don't let the storms steal your wishes.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

When the world's on fire, be kind to you

I've held off posting my blog today because, honestly, my co-SFFSeveners have already nailed this topic: how to keep to a writing schedule when life goes off the rails. May I take a moment to point you to K.A. Krantz's post about being flexible enough to make new routines when your beloved routines become untenable? And also Jeffe Kennedy's post about using your writing habit as a sort of bedrock upon which to build a stable structure of routines?

I point you elsewhere because I have to confess that when my world is on fire, I haven't found a good solution for plugging my brain into writing. And the world has been on fire a lot of late. These last two years have been brutal for a lot of us. Losing my writing way was the easiest loss to bear. Well, maybe not the easiest: not having to put make-up on or dress snappily has been so lovely I wouldn't even call it a loss. Similar reaction to the lack of human contact: this introvert does intermittent quarantine like a champ.

When I have managed to make words, my magic has been 

- Deadlines. Seriously, these things are like instant stories for me. I miss real ones so much, but self-created ones are still somewhat helpful.

- Turning off all news and social media. 

- I'm serious about that one. No news. No social. 

Part of me is still aware that the world is having major problems. I wouldn't be human if I could just shut off concern for my fellow humans (India! Gaza! so much suffering, too much), but when there's nothing I can do to directly change the horrors, I need to stop getting constant updates on them, donate where I can, and focus on this tiny bubble of reality around me.

You know what really helps with that? Writing spec fic. When my own world sucks beyond all hope, I can make up a new one, a better one, and the hope of that act can get emotional-sponge me to the next day.

Consider this post blanket permission to not know about every little bad thing in our world. Be kind to you. Protect your made-up happy space. If self-protection means leaning on your writing routine for stability, like Jeffe recommends, do that. Lots of that. If it means coming up with a new, more workable routine a la KAK? Do it.

If it means standing in your back yard, talking to your plants about a story idea that really makes you happy and that you may or may not ever get around to writing? Don't shame yourself for that either. It's still nurturing your creative brain, despite the world.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Life Off the Rails: Standing Firm vs Being Flexible

 This week's topic of "When Life Gets In The Way: Dealing with a schedule for writing when the world goes off the rails" boils down to the benefits of rigidity versus flexibility...and not in the toe-touching sense. 

 I am a creature of habit. I love my daily ritual. I am so set in my ways that an atypical morning freaks out the dog. Thus, you might justifiably believe I'd lose my mind if my routine was broken. Surprise! I don't. It's life. Shit happens. Routines, no matter how hectic, are a luxury. 

Change the things you can control. Get through the rest. Sometimes, "the rest" comes with pleasant surprises and benefits you didn't imagine. Other times, "the rest" is an exhausting crapstorm with no end in sight. During those endurance marathons, your mindset is yours to control. If it's not, then don't be ashamed to acquire professional help. Your wellbeing comes before everything else. Suffering is not a requirement to be an artist, no matter what pop culture wants us to think. 

Yeah, but what if there's no hope of ever returning to normal? What if your beloved routine is shot to hell and never coming back? My dear, dear readers. Make new routines. Remember the habits of once upon a time fondly, and establish to new ones. Even if new ones start with a can of Lysol in the morning and end with hosing off your Wellies in the evening. 

In whatever new normal you find yourself, take stock of where you are, what you can control, and what you actually want. Figure out your priorities. Rank them. Schedule time to attend to those priorities. Allow for flexibility. Permit yourself to say "No" when others try to make their problems your emergencies. Cut ties with emotional vampires. Remember "fun" is a good thing. So is rest. Et voila, new routine. 

If writing is a priority, then treat it as such. Be prepared to let other things go to make room for your creative pursuit. Delegate, if that's an option, or do without. It's okay if there is something or someone more important than writing, just be honest with yourself about how those higher priorities will impact your writing. When it comes to accommodating others, recall their expectations are relevant only if you want them to be (though criminal neglect will land your butt in jail, and that's a new normal you probably want to avoid). 

Sometimes you have to be a hardass when establishing or adjusting your boundaries. A moment of discomfort reinforcing those boundaries is a price worth the peace of existing within them. Remember, you are in charge of taking care of yourself. There are times to be rigid and times to be flexible. Teach yourself to know when to bend and when to stand firm. You gain nothing by beating up yourself whenever life goes off the rails.

Be good to yourself.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

A Writing Habit That Works for YOU

Amazingly enough, it's already May - which means THE PROMISED QUEEN, the third and final book in the Forgotten Empires trilogy, is out in just two weeks. That comes as a shock to me, I can tell you! 

It also makes this particular graphic quite apt and goes well with our topic this week: "When Life Gets In The Way: dealing with a schedule for writing when the world wants to go off the rails."

Nothing like a global pandemic and the attendant chaos to shake up the world a bit, huh?

I've been fortunate compared to many of the creatives I know - so many people have struggled to create art during this extraordinary time of upheaval - in that I've maintained a consistent output of words. In fact, I wrote nearly 120K more words in 2020 than in 2019 (recall that I am dubbed The Spreadsheet Queen for a reason), which I largely attribute to the fact that I didn't travel in 2020.

So, why was I able to stay on schedule when others couldn't?

There are a lot of reasons for that - including that I am blessed with happy brain chemistry and I'm not prone to anxiety - but I think the number one reason is that I've built a consistent writing habit. That's the foundation that keeps me stable and productive.

Martial artists like to poke at practitioners of yoga and meditation by saying, "But what happens when someone knocks you off your pillow?" The jibe is meant to shame those not into the fighting arts by implying that meditation is fine and all, but if you're attacked, it's fundamentally useless.

Believe me - I know this is exactly what they mean, as I used to train with martial artists fond of saying that very thing.

Whenever someone asks me about this topic, about work/life balance or maintaining creativity through upheaval, I think of that quip. 

What happens when someone knocks you off your pillow?

The answer is pretty obvious: You get back on.

See, the whole point of meditation (or prayer or self-care or whatever works for you) is to discover a solid, peaceful foundation within yourself. That's why it's called a "practice." It's something that you develop over time by doing it repeatedly. Nobody ever said it was in order to spend your entire life on a pillow in a meditative state. Once you discover that foundation, that silent core of peacefulness, then you know how to find it again. 

No one ever promised us lives where everything is perfect all the time. Things are going to happen to derail us - and the best we can do is find our way back to that foundation again, rather than being tossed about endlessly from one crisis to another.

A writing habit provides that foundation. The great thing about habits is we default to them. Bad and good, habits drive our unconscious decisions. Why not build a writing habit that works for you instead of against you?

Then, when the world knocks you off schedule, it's easy to get right back on again.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

For the Love of Dogs

I’m going to be short and sweet today 😊 Many moons ago, when I was so busy raising young human children, the idea of taking on more work with pets just wasn’t in my Things That Are Possible sphere. Once my kids were older, we did welcome a beautiful blonde German Shepherd named Harley into the home, and she’s still a queen to this day. However, I didn’t expect any more babies, y’all. My youngest child was 16 when my partner brought home two English Bulldog baby boy puppies. 1) I almost killed him. 2) I now love these little monsters with all of my heart. They do lots of ridiculous things. They also drool. They shed. They cause us to have to clean a lot, every single day. But they all love us so unconditionally and make our days brighter. Right now I’m yelling at them for destroying the cushions on the couch that I said they would never be on (the Bullies) and hoping they don’t start bounding from one couch to the other. It’s not going so well 🤦🏻‍♀️. But, here’s some pics of when they’re calm and cute. Harley, Roscoe, and Nash.


Friday, May 7, 2021

Cat Photo Tax


More pet photo spam! Let's begin with our beloved elder enjoying her life. I present: Cuillean blep.
Then there's Arya, she of the endless whiskers. She's having a momentary, but meaningful relationship with her fleece toy.

Then there's the youngest. Peseshet. This is the one who, about a year ago, darted across the street in front of me. She was tiny. She's still tiny, only about six pounds, but she's growing up fast. Two weeks ago at o'dark thirty in the morning, we had an animal come to the lanai screen. All of my big, strong cats scrambled ass over tea kettle to get in the house. This itty-bitty stripey kitten stayed out there, all floofed up, reading the feline riot act at the trespasser. At volume. Very unlady-like language. Whatever critter had come to the screen beat a hasty retreat. (Spoiler: When I set the live trap, I caught a possum. We parted with no damage done on either part.) 

Then, today, this little girl decided to exercise her hunting prowess and catch her own animated cat toy. Naturally, she brought it inside and let it go. I had to get involved at that point and rescue the critter.

 The animated cat toy was ungrateful.

Pets have price tags, y'all. Price tags.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Mental Health and Furry Friends

Alexia and Ullr, a black and white Siberian husky, stand before a mural of the word LOVE painted in with flowers as Alexia listens to The Mars Strain through her red Beats headphones.

I love stats, numbers, scientific proof. And I can happily report that in a study done through the University of York and the University of Lincoln showed that pets helped us emotionally deal with the past year’s lockdown by 90%. Their findings also showed a link between how attached people were to their pets and mental health. Also, the UK Mental Health Foundation reported 87% of people believed their pet improved their wellbeing. 

Those are some good stats on pets and mental health. And speaking of…it’s mental health awareness month in America! 

I face my own struggles with mental health and even though I know scientifically what’s going on in my body it doesn’t change the fact that I feel it. And I’ve found that for myself, I can only talk about it when I’m coming out of the deep. I only want to see others and talk to people when I’m past the worst. Which is why I'm able to talk about it a bit today.

If you’re struggling and can’t bring yourself to talk to anyone—it’s okay. As long as you are able to tell yourself you are not alone. Because you’re not. There are so many of us at different stages of dealing with mental health struggles. Please remember that and that when you’re ready there are so many of us you can reach out to for help. Having dealt with my own and some struggles that my children have I am able to look back at my time as a manager and see flags and opportunities I missed. I wish I could go back in time with the knowledge and experience I have now. Which is why I like the premise behind the Mental Health America Peer Program. They have people who have gone through challenges reaching a hand back to help those coming along behind, not just a doctor or motivational speaker who has no first hand experience. 

baby Ullr, black and white Siberian husky, laying on his back twisted to the side into a backwards C, beside his water bowl.
Back to my stats! And back to my favorite way of coping with depression and anxiety: my furry sidekick, Ullr. 

Ullr the husky pup, black and white, on his back twisted into a backwards C, paws in the air, as his piercing blue eyes stare at the camera.

He’s a goofus. He’s uncoordinated at times (like when he’s sprinting and faceplates because he’s going too fast). He loves to steal my garden veggies (I didn’t get the chance to pickle any cucumbers last season and he ate all the peas). He’s definitely not my Loki boy who always knew when I needed him to sit quietly beside me—I still miss him dearly and will always have his paw print on my heart. 

But Ullr is mine—and he loves me. That’s why we have pets, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter how terrible of a day we’ve had. It doesn’t matter how stressed out we are or how many tears we shed. It doesn’t even matter if we have enough time for them. They’re there, like Ullr is there at my side day after day. 

Ullr may not be quiet and stoic, but he makes me laugh—which is probably what I need more of in my life right now. I guess someone upstairs knew I needed a knucklehead like Ullr right now, and I’m thankful. He’s also incredibly soft, which, if you’re the owner of a dog or cat you know, is incredibly soothing, and he’s a husky so snow is a magnet for him and he makes me have adventures outside every day. He even came with me to celebrate the release of The Mars Strain! He loved it—he got to walk and sniff new territory. Win win!

How about you? Would you count yourself in the roughly 90% that say they’re better off with a pet?

Ullr, the black and white Siberian husky, trotting down the trail surrounded by pine trees.