Category Archives: Doing Good in the World

Authors Lie to Tell the Big Truths

When we pick up a work of fiction, we are seeking to lose ourselves in a beautiful lie. While some readers are driven by the need to escape their reality, most use fiction as an emotional exercise, a way to live vicariously through the adventures of another and stretch the limits of what is possible in our own lives. This latter sort of reader won’t be satisfied by fantastic worlds and flashy plots. While they may be entertained by these elements, they want to sink their teeth into some deeper meaning, a truth that resonates not only with the story, but with their own experiences.

The first step in delivering this deeper human truth is establishing a sense of empathy between the readers and the characters. No matter the culture, or even the species, of the protagonists and points of view, their motivations and choices must ring true. Would we be willing to accept a teratogenic dwarf that cons his way into the admiralcy of a space mercenary fleet? Sure, no problem. However, if Miles VorKosigan were to suddenly give up his military dreams and decide to become a farmer? We’d call shenanigans. Readers invest in characters, not stories. We must see them struggle against impossible odds and make choices that lead them to victory. No matter how fantastic the persona, it is only when our characters are true to their natures and goals that we as readers can invest in their struggles.
Once our readers invest in character, they will begin to look for a link between the protagonists’ fictional journey and the questions and struggles they face in their own lives. Sometimes these truths are topical and current. As an example, I can write countless blog posts about racism, discrimination, prejudice, and fear, but for the most part will have a hard time convincing those who disagree with me. Rather than arguing with my audience, I could make my characters argue for us. Furthermore, by couching my argument in the terms of a fantastic lie, I remove ego and defensiveness from the equation. After all, I am talking about my characters, not about them, right? I could make my protagonist an anthropomorphic bunny who is trying to break a species barrier and fulfill her childhood dream of being a police officer. I pair her with a fox conman and force her to question her own views of predators and foxes in particular, with whom she has had bad experiences in the past. As she questions her prejudice and preconceptions, so will the audience. In so doing, I use my fantastic lie to proxy larger, current social struggles and make an argument for diversity and inclusiveness that is more likely to achieve meaningful success than a thousand angry blog posts.

However, as writers we aren’t limited to current social questions. There are some truths so profound to the human experience that variations on their stories are repeated across generations and cultural barriers. We want to believe in a world where a hobbit from the Shire can face and destroy the greatest evil of his world because sometimes we feel small and powerless. We want to see Aragon and Arwen marry because if they can find a way for their love to survive war, distance, and hardship, then our own romantic futures aren’t hopeless. We want to return to the Shire with Sam because we need to believe that all the chaos and pain of living is for a greater purpose – home and family. Though we might not have the perspective to see the arc of our own lives, we can spend hours, days, or weeks with a story to gain the catharsis we need to push through our own struggles.

As writers, we rely on our readers to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to work our storytelling magic. However, no matter how fantastic and entertaining we may be, our stories must ring true on a deeper level for our readers to commit to the tale. It is only when our characters are believable, empathetic, and when their decisions and struggles resonate with our own experiences that we can truly connect with a story. Readers want to believe the lie, not only because they seek to escape reality for a time, but also because in so doing we seek to understand the truth of our own world.

Most Times, Catharsis Isn’t Worth the Price

I get it. You’re angry, furious even. Your masterpiece has been unjustly defamed by a cruddy review. You’ve received your millionth “dear author” rejection letter. Or some idiot at your publishing house has messed up your precious manuscript as they were shuffling it through the process of becoming a best seller. Whatever the cause, all you want to do is lash out and tell the world what a moron the offending individual has been. It’ll feel soooo good to write that scathing blog post, email, or response in the comments section. You’ll be witty and cutting. It’ll go viral. You know that the Internet cannot help but see that you are in the right, that your cause is just.

STOP.

Stop and take a deep breath. Take a walk, beat up a punching bag, or scream at the moon. But whatever you do, do not click send. Not in your current state at least. As good as it would make you feel, trust me, the catharsis isn’t worth it. The Internet never forgets, so why give it something that could come back to haunt you later? Furthermore, the publishing business is a small world where everyone knows everyone else. And, everyone talks. You DO NOT want to be the unflattering email that gets passed around the office. You do not want to end your career in a moment of pique.

So, what do you do? The first step is to acknowledge your emotion. You’re mad. You’re sad. You may be right to feel that way. You may be wrong. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you feel the emotions, that you admit to them, accept them, and then own them. Acknowledge that your feelings aren’t within your control, but how you act absolutely is. You won’t be judged for being angry, but you will be judged by how you behave.

The next step is to be thoughtful and deliberate in how you will react. The situation is already bad, so what’s the best case scenario for an ending? Chances are that a bad print run, a hostile review, or an impartial rejection cannot be changed. So then, what is in your control? Perception, specifically how others perceive you. Are you going to be the drama king/queen that flies off the handle or are you going to be the suave professional that takes the situation in stride? Will you let your baser instincts drive your reactions, or will you rise above them?

Let’s be frank. You cannot use anger to win over someone who is determined to be hostile. More often than not, both parties simply make fools of themselves. If you don’t feed the haters, they’ll get bored and find the next person they can rile up. Like the wise samurai, leave them with their anger, jealousy, and vitriol. If you write the best book you can, keep improving your craft, and be a likable author, your fans will speak up for you. Their praise and fan-love will drown out the haters.

Impersonal rejection is part of the business. We all deal with it, and past rejection has no bearing on your future success. J.K. Rowling was rejected by, what? 12 different publishers? Now she’s one of the most loved and powerful voices in the world. Furthermore, there is no point in souring your relationship with an editor or agent just because your manuscript doesn’t fit their needs at this time. Throwing a fit just convinces them that you are too much trouble to be worth working with in the future. And they will share that opinion with all their friends and colleagues. By ranting at one closed door, you may destroy another opportunity.

Sometimes even major goofs can be turned to your advantage. I recently read a really suave blog post from an author I admire. He had written a short story for an anthology. Somehow, the end of his story was left out of the first run of printed books. What a big “ooops!” However, instead of expressing perfectly justifiable frustration, he publicly acknowledged that such mistakes sometimes happen. He went on to tell his fans that the publisher had fixed the problem and reordered the copies of the book, so future orders would be whole. However, there existed 50 books with the miss-print. Act fast, he urged us, and the publisher will sell you a signed copy of the miss-printed book paired with a special, one-run-only chapbook that contained the end of the story. That’s right! Only 50 of these items would ever exist. In so doing, he turned an embarrassing mistake into a collectible. Now, that’s smart business.

There are many things in this world that are beyond our direct control. Mistakes will be made. People will be hateful. Business deals won’t always go through. We will feel angry, frustrated, and disappointed when these things happen. However, how we choose to respond to these circumstances will define who we are. More importantly, it will shape how others think of us. In our media driven world, perception is power. It’s the power to sell books, close deals, and win over lifelong fans.

So you’ve acknowledged and mastered your emotions. Now you have a choice to make. Will you be the author who flies off the handle when things go wrong or will you be the suave professional? Will you be the voice that adds to the cacophony and catastrophe, or will you be the one to turn a bad situation into an opportunity? An emotionally driven outburst may make you feel better in the short run, but it often makes matters worse. So when you feel the need to unleash a heaping portion of righteous wrath, instead think… is the catharsis really worth it?

June Wrap-Up!

Hey Folks,

I’d first like to thank every one who contributed a post to this month, Fictorian and guests alike!

The idea of a month devoted to not just research collection (because we’d like to spend more time writing instead, right?), but also some new concepts and ideas we might not have thought of to apply to our stories, thus making them more believable, realistic, or even helping us think of what might be true in the future.

Overall, I hope that our information was useful.


Some of my favorites (and there were many), in no particular order:

I started us off with a discussion on why realism and accurate information was so important in media.
Mostly because I was chased by a black bear once, and man, was I ever glad I read Little House on the Prairie.

Buuut also you know not everyone in your story is going to know the most accurate information, or maybe the readers are so used to an inaccurate trope that realism would cause them to cry foul. So sometimes perfectly accurate information isn’t the most important thing to the story.

Kristin Luna explored how gender can influence perceptions of risk-taking characters, particularly young women. We take risks! But perhaps not in the same way as young male characters might.

Guy Anthony De Marco gave us a 101 on proper terminology and use of firearms. Particularly, please don’t have your character take the safety off the revolver unless they’re removing their finger from the trigger. Just…why.

Marta Sprout wrote an excellent guest post on how crime scenes should, and shouldn’t, be investigated.

Kim May implored us to do our research on the particular culture of an Asian character instead of writing them into a stereotype. 

If we don’t care enough to get it right then we offend readers of that ethnicity — thus losing them as readers — AND we mislead and misinform the readers who aren’t familiar with that ethnicity. Also, by misrepresenting that group we’re ultimately contributing to the cultural oppression of that group — even though we don’t mean to.

I shared how to look for, and write about, a character drowning. Also please watch out for everyone at the pool. Even if they’re a strong swimmer. But especially watch the little ones because I had to pull a kid out who was panicking and that was so scary for them. Pools are supposed to be fun and safe summer memories.

I also wrote about the moving definition of ‘death’ and that lead to a whole exploration of what exactly cryonics are, how it all works, and what one might do with that sort of technology in their story. 

M. J. Carlson gave us a Top 10 list of the most used (and misused) injuries in fiction in his very informative guest post.

Mary Pletsch talked about how misconceptions about the military and soldiers can not only lead to inaccurate plotlines and failed missions, but contribute to ugly misconceptions around real service members.

Nathan Barra had so much on how one can accurately portray scientists outside of the stereotypical tropes that he had to split it into Science Fact and Fiction Part 1 and Part 2.

In Healing in Science Fiction, Jace Killian emphasized how quickly technology can change, and the importance of doing your research on current issues when anticipating future technology.


That’s what we have for June! Stay tuned for an interview with an amazing person tomorrow and check back in July as we discuss genre!

– Emily Godhand

Writing About Drowning, or, Watch Little Kids in the Pool

Quick, how do you normally see a character portrayed in a visual media as ‘drowning’?
Very visible, loud behavior, right? Arms up, head potentially bobbing, screaming for help?

“Help me! Help me I’m in aquatic distress!”

Alright, maybe. Getting there. That’s called “aquatic distress” and may precede drowning. If your character has gotten to the ‘face down float’ you’ve missed a bit.

But there are several things that happen when you lift your arms to wave in water:
Firstly, you will sink. Going vertical is actually a technique to put yourself under the water because it reduces the surface tension.
Sinking of course means your head goes underwater.
Head going underwater means you’re not breathing.

So your character may do this. Sure. But I hope you weren’t attached to them, and what did you teach the readers drowning looks like? Drowning is the third most common unintentional death in the world and has been a major cause of deaths throughout history. We like to live near water. 

Very likely the signs of drowning are more subtle:
*You may not see them at all, not unless the water is very clear
*Their head may be tilted up, but if they can’t keep themselves afloat or coordinate enough to roll on their back, their lips and nose may still fill with water. This is a response not under conscious control.
*Arms be out to the side, possibly paddling down, to increase buoyancy, but coordination is very hard and not likely to happen. They may also appeal to be “climbing an invisible ladder” similar to a non-productive “doggy-paddle”. 
*They may look fearful and unable to focus.
*They may not be able to call out because of the whole ‘not breathing’ thing, and may instead gasp.

This can be misinterpreted as ‘playing’ in the water. But then it gets weird as your body tries to ‘help’.

See, when I say that a drowning person is panicked, I don’t just mean they’re overcome with fear.

I mean the compulsion to breathe has become an all-consuming obsession. It is the one and only thought they may have. I mean you could take the kindest, gentlest person on the planet and they still will very likely hold you under the water to give themselves a chance to breathe. I mean a drowning person will pull the person down trying to save them. This is why it’s recommended you throw objects they can grab onto, or extend poles.

It is also entirely possible to be at risk for drowning in very shallow water, or even water that you can stand in.

How?

I was at the waterpark the other day with a friend, enjoying some time in the wave pool. Now I’ve experienced the sensation of drowning about…four times now, because God doesn’t seem to love me and no matter how strong of a swimmer I get, things can still come up. You get knocked out falling off a jet ski. The air you were holding so carefully gets knocked out of you when you come up and hit an object that moved over you, and now you have to move without just the oxygen remaining. The waves keep coming, and coming, and you can’t catch your breath before the next one.

In the wave pool there was a child around early elementary school age who had fallen off the inner tube he shared with his sibling. At first he seemed like a kid playing in the waves, but he wasn’t keeping his head above water. Was he getting air? Who knows. But he wasn’t coordinated. The waves pushed him towards the shallower end where he could stand during the trough, but the waves were coming right after the other. The little one turned his back to the waves and walked as best he could, but he was crying without saying anything. His lungs weren’t expanding.

I was already working my way towards him at this point, but all these signs indicated that possibly his lungs were spasming to keep more fluid from coming in.

You cannot breathe like this. You cannot pull air in, exchange the gases, and exhale it as needed. Your body has decreed that in order to save you, nothing is coming in for now. This can be considered a form of ‘dry drowning’ and is the sensation of suffocation. This is called “laryngospasm”, and as fearful as it can be to experience, someone who is rescued with a sealed airway that protected the lungs has a higher chance of recovery.

Which means, panic. Your character will generally have about 20-60 seconds of tolerating this autonomic response before they risk passing out. Another response they may have is the hyperventilation of gasping, of trying to constantly pull air in but being unable to expel the CO2 in their system. Too much carbon dioxide within the system can also shut the body down.

Once they pass out, they then risk pulling water into the lungs, which, even if they are revived, can have lasting effects on the body and still risk killing them 24-48 hours afterwards from pulmonary edema, difficulty breathing, and ‘drowning in your own body fluids’.

The actual sensation of drowning past this response is often quick and quiet as the brain is deprived of oxygen. With hypoxia, everything shuts down, and a great feeling of peace can overcome them as the systems that scream to react shut down. But this often means that even a strong swimmer character who is doing their best to make it through the maze of tunnels may suddenly pass out without warning.

Oftentimes one way to determine if someone died before or after being submerged in water is if there is water in the lungs. Water in the lungs indicates the person was alive at the time of submersion.A sample of the water can then be matched to local water sources to determine if they were drowned in the water they were submerged in.

Thankfully the child wasn’t ever to any of those points yet. I lifted him out of the water and pulled him closer to shore, where his frantic sibling helped him back on to the inner tube. With some encouragement he was able to coordinate his breathing enough and, being the resilient thing little kids are, was back out in the water laughing and smiling and waving at me.