Special Guest Stars: J F Lewis

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Today we welcome special guest J F Lewis, author of the popular urban fantasy Void City series, to Magical Words.  He decided that he wanted to be a writer when a supposed creative writing teacher questioned his sanity and suggested therapy.  An avid reader, J also enjoys sushi, popcorn, lukewarm sodas, and old black and white movies. His two favorite activities are singing lullabies to his kids at bedtime and typing into the wee hours of the morning. Fortunately, like the protagonist of his Void City novels, the author takes very little sleep.  We’re delighted to have him with us today!

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Murder and Judgment: Writing Advice from J.F. Lewis

Write what you feel driven to write.  Write it well and with passion.  Be willing to commit murder when the time is right.  And know that you will probably be judged, as a person, based on what you write.

It can happen anytime and anyplace, in the twinkling of an eye or with the relentless force and inevitable slowness of tectonic shift, but there comes a time in a writer’s life when he or she absolutely has to do it: Commit murder.  When I kill off a character, it’s usually with a bemused smile and a slight sense of “that had to hurt”.  But it’s not always like that.

Take, for example Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation: Sherlock Holmes.  When Sir Arthur killed Holmes, it seems to have been for all the wrong reasons.  He was tired of the character.  Tired of the character’s success over that of his other more meaningful (to his eyes) creative efforts.  But he knew his audience would never accept a casual end to Holmes, so Sir Arthur sent him off in grand fashion at the hands of Moriarty, one of the greatest master villains of all literature, created (unless I’m woefully mistaken) for the sole purpose of being a perfect foil (and murder weapon) for Sherlock Holmes.

Death can lend a necessary element to the story that makes stakes higher and reader/viewer/fan investment greater.  If characters can die, really die, then it ups the ante considerably.   Let us consider:  Tiny Tim.  If Ebenezer Scrooge didn’t fear for the death of Tiny Tim (well, okay, and himself) then Scrooge wouldn’t have that last little oomph he needs to have his sea change moment and “A Christmas Carol” would become a dirge.

Or heck, there’s no need to stick to literary classics.  When it comes to killing off a character, I’d be remiss not to mention the greatest heroic sacrifice ever to show up on the sci-fi silver screen (no, I’m not talking about Tron: Legacy… obviously I mean Spock).  Wrath of Khan all the way, kids.  Spock’s death exists to give viewers a feeling of connection (okay, and maybe Leonard Nimoy was a little tired of the role.  I don’t know).

Of course, the great thing about killing characters in fiction is that, if the writer makes it believable within the realm of the literary universe, the character can always come back if needed.  Maybe it’s massive public outcry.  That certainly seems to be what earned The World’s Greatest Detective his retroactive survival at Reichenbach Falls.  Or maybe it was planned all along, a la Tiny Tim, as a carrot for the main character.  When Scrooge changes, he gains a second chance for himself and Tiny Tim.  And in my own Void City series… Well, let’s just say that CROSSED (Void City, Book 3) comes out January 25th, 2011 and I’m killing off several characters… and maybe even bringing one back.

Of course, the real life side of things isn’t as easily rewritten.  When it comes to killing off a character, writing a sex scene, or including some spicy vocabulary (colorful metaphors as Spock might call them), it’s important to remember that one day someone (maybe someone you know and respect) will read what you’ve written and judge you for it in a way you might not expect.  Forewarned is forearmed, and I aim to have writers armed with laser guided cyber appalachiosauruses with neutron bombs wired to their adamantium-laced skeletons, so that they can play “Say hello to my little friend” with the best of them.

Recently, over at the Deadline Dames blog, Lilith Saintcrow posted about the points of difference and commonality that exist between writers and the characters they create.  It’s a great piece, yet I guarantee you, there are people who will make erroneous assumptions.  A writer’s opinions and actions are not necessarily the same as a character’s opinions and actions.  A writer doesn’t have to agree with a joke to make one.

Or at least, I hope not, since I write from the POV of bloodsucking mass murders, who wisecrack left, right and sideways about inappropriate things at inappropriate times.  If I had all of the opinions my main character does, I’d spend too much time searching for the right words to describe the taste of daikon… and I’d think it was perfectly all right to kill and eat other people as long as they were over eighteen.  Furthermore, I’d think it was perfectly fair to steal a sibling’s paramour if I was willing to share.  On the other hand, I’d know a lot more about classic pony cars…

But back to topic at hand…  What does one do upon encountering an individual who might read something like “Pop Squads” by Paolo Bacigalupi and assume that Paolo thinks of infanticide as a fun way to spend an afternoon?   That sounds crazy, but something very much like that happened to me. When my first book came out, I was accused of actually committing the sins of my characters and ultimately excommunicated (I’m not going into that here, if you really want all the sordid little details, Google is your friend).

Be aware that people, maybe even those in authority, may judge you as a person based on what you write.  And that’s when you’ll need those aforementioned cyberdinos. Being prepared for the freak out reactions or deliberate misreadings of others will be essential to helping you deal with the slings and arrows.  I wasn’t prepared at all and in the aftermath, I came very close to executing Void City in the worst way that any writer ever can, by refusing to put word to paper and pruning that portion of my idea tree completely.  In the end, I chose to push on with the story in bigger and better ways with more freedom than before.  I went forward (thanks to my agent and my wonderful editor over at Pocket Books, not to mention my incredibly supportive family and friends) with books two and three of my Void City series and I’m currently working on book four.

So… should you kill off that character?  Should you include that particular four letter word?  And how much detail does that sex scene really need?  Whatever you decide, give it some thought ahead of time.  You’ll be glad you did.

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9 comments to Special Guest Stars: J F Lewis

  • Hi JF. SO very glad to have you here.

    You are dead right about the assumptions of friends and the reading public. I often hear, “How can such a sweet-looking little lady use such language and write about sex-magic-incest-vengence-whatever?” I even had a distant family member ask me, “When did all those things happen?” The concept of fiction is alien to some people. And hard to deal with. I’m glad you came through it with id and muse intact and look forward to reading Crossed!

  • I got a little worried over the steamy scenes in the romance novel I’m working on, but after my wife handed me some of her favorite romance novels to read and a couple avid romance readers told me not to change a word I felt a bit better. I think I may have to tell a couple of my family members which pages NOT to read though. 😉 They may get the wrong idea about me…or the right idea? Not sure. 😉

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Well, it might be sort of cold comfort, but at least if someone asks you, “How can you even THINK of something like that?” you can respond, “Because I have an imagination.” It’s alarming, and a little sad the number of people who seem not to. That being said, I think you make a good point that it’s important to think about WHY you’re including something dark. Some foul language is necessary. Some really isn’t. Some death scenes seem to be designed for the single purpose of driving a stake through the reader/viewer’s heart, without the backup of being necessary or thought provoking. But, I don’t think it’s entirely possible to experience the full range and greatness of life without being able to contemplate it’s darker aspects, so in a way, a dark imagination can be a strange sort of gift.

  • J. F. Lewis

    Thanks, Faith!

    Yes, Daniel, you absolutely have to keep your target audience in mind when making decisions about what is and is not appropriate to include. I think a lot of the more problematic responses come from readers who aren’t one’s target audience or who are expecting a book to be something other than it is. If a reader picks up a Clive Barker novel mistakenly expecting a romance, they may be in for a bad experience.

    Agreed, Hepseba. Some stories start out dark with the potential for lightness later. If we don’t make room for novels (or even whole series) that start out dark, then all novels about a character struggling for redemption (even if they fail) get thrown out the window.

  • Thanks for the words Mr Lewis. I figure if I don’t struggle with killing off my characters, then I haven’t really looked deeply enough at the reasons why I’m doing it. And thanks for the tip about Deadline Dames. I’m heading over there after this to check ’em out, but I do like their blog sub-title “Nine Authors – One Website – No Excuses” Kinda says it all!

  • Jeremy, terrific to see you here. Thanks for a great post. I have done terrible things to my characters and had them do terrible things in turn. I know that I have been judged for some of what I’ve written, and once upon a time, I cared what people thought of me. Not so much anymore. I write fiction, and if people have a hard time understanding what that means, that’s their problem, not mine. That said, I don’t go out of my way to shock just for effect. It’s important to write the story as it needs to be written, without pulling punches, but also without resorting to the gratuitous.

  • Razziecat

    I remember reading somewhere (and I can’t recall who said it) that a great story was one in which something is gained, but something also is lost; and both “somethings” had to be meaningful, not minor things. It could be a major character but also could be something more abstract. I try to keep this is mind when I write, knowing that in real life, even when you win, sometimes the price is very, very high.

  • Unicorn

    I have a confession to make. When it comes to character death, I’m an awful wimp. Especially with protagonists. I’ve never killed off a major protagonist. Major antagonists get killed or kill themselves quite frequently at the end of a story, usually leaving some other antagonists to prevent everybody getting bored when the story’s over, but I always shy away from killing a major protagonist. They get wounded, or locked in life-threatening situations. They nearly die. They never quite do it, though.
    So, I have a question. Okay, two questions. When is it necessary to kill a protagonist? And how do you pull it off? Some books have gone flying across the room when one of my favourite characters get killed, and other times it seemed to spur the narrative and test the remaining protagonists.
    Thanks for the post. This subject has been bugging me for a long, long time and this post helped to clear it up.
    Unicorn

  • Sorry to be late to the party. Great to see you over here, Jeremy. I hope you’ll stop back in from time to time. Hope to see you at ConCarolinas again this (technically next) year.