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On Having a Change of Heart in the Digital Age

On Having a Change of Heart in the Digital Age

On the anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s death, I happened to have the chance to watch the new HBO remake of Fahrenheit 451. I’ve been a Bradbury fan since I was a teen—I even have a 451 tattoo that I’ve been designing for some time now and hope to get inked soon.

And while I was not overly impressed with the new HBO remake—it fell flat for me and seemed like there were a lot of missed opportunities and felt too rushed—and didn’t use one of the best lines which just happens to be on my tattoo design it did get me to thinking about some things. My youth, my love of all things Bradbury. But mostly, my life since becoming a digital author and rethinking my stance on physical books—actual printed records of our words and why we NEED them.

When I was a teen, Bradbury’s books opened me up to a world that was so much bigger than the bubble I was forced to live in, something I’m eternally grateful for. I recall vividly on the day of his death, that only thirty minutes before it was broadcast that he’d passed, I’d named him as a personal hero and influence on my own writing path during an author event I was taking part in. And although during a meh HBO remake, Ray’s voice still rang through loudly and has opened up my mind again.

Of the books I sell, 99% are digital. My main focus these last few years has been almost entirely on my digital creations. Over the last year, as KDP print emerged and rumors abound that createspace would close, I even debated pretty hardcore about doing away with print altogether. Because one, I sell so few paper copies is it even worth it, and two, going digital saves trees and is eco-friendlier, and three, publishing only digital content is so much easier and it’s what the people want, right?

I’ve heard the argument so many times about how physical books will never really die because there is something visceral about holding a real book in your hands. And while I agree that there is something special about a real book, and I do still own, buy, and read physical books (three guesses which author has a permanent stack of books on my nightstand—his name rhymes with Bay Radbury), I have kept my professional focus on digital and moved a huge part of my personal life toward digital, and had come to see paper as an art form dying a slow, inevitable death. Something to be accepted and even embraced as an author in this digital age.

Until in the middle of watching 451 when a sickening feeling welled up inside me that suddenly had me shaking in my slippers as I pictured a world gone totally digital and all our precious words wiped out, without any permanent record. What an absolutely terrifying thought that was to imagine.

Digital = Impermanence.
Easy to erase.
Easy to become non-existent.
The quickest way to ban content, ever.

Our digital words can be taken away without notice. Whether by a group of people in charge, or an overnight fictional horror story come to life and our digital devices no longer work… or… think up your own nightmare—you’re an author 😉

In some ways, this is already happening with all the banhammers slamming down lately for content and whatnot, a bad enough scenario already. But I think it has become too easy to forget how fragile the digital world really is. It is this seemingly giant TOO BIG TO FAIL (we’ve heard that before) ecosystem.

We fear our words being stolen and freely and unfairly spread across the digital universe. But do our words even truly exist if they’re only living in this digital universe? And now we have a generation of young people growing up, unaware of this potential fragility. And if not completely so now, we’re not too many years away from this.

And while I still fully embrace the digital world, because I love it, and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon, I fully intend to reinstate my efforts to keep paper alive. Not just for my own books, but for the good of human-freaking-kind. Perhaps, someday, I’ll even open my own bookstore.

I absolutely do not want to face a future where are voices are no longer recorded in some permanent way, or have our younger generations growing up without the knowledge of what it means to have this, or how easily their voices could be stripped away without it.

If we ever end up in a society where our words are silenced, I, at the least, want to have a physical book to fight back with as it’s harder to destroy something you can hold, versus something that only exists in the digital universe.

So, Paper—I’ve been absent from caring about you for too long, but I’m back now baby and full on in love again.

Thanks, Ray. Your lessons are timeless 😊 and have changed my life so many times now. The power of words and imagination is a beautiful fucking thing.

Choosing to Physically Hurt your Characters

Choosing to Physically Hurt your Characters

(expanded from a blog post written in 2016)

Maybe it’s because I am a physical therapist and my husband is a physician, but we really hate medical shows. We recently rewatched DOCTOR STRANGE and both of us started yelling at the TV during a scene where Strange and another doctor are looming over a patient in the OR as they are about to do brain surgery and neither of them are wearing masks.

If you ask me to suspend disbelief over magical portals into multiverse realms, I’m there, but get something so basic wrong and you’ve lost me.

So back to the movie. . . After a brief cut-away, the scene continues and we next see both doctors wearing masks. AARGH. Continuity, anyone? (There are other continuity issues in the movie, but that’s a different blog post.)

But even worse than the medical care being depicted wrong, I get really bent out of shape when injury, illness, and disability is done poorly.

Injuries need to serve a purpose in your narrative

Choosing to injure your character is like every other choice in a story. It has to exist for a reason. Preferably more than one reason. Does the injury deepen characterization? Drive the plot? Limit your character’s abilities? Force your character to problem solve more fully? Change the way others relate to them?

If the only reason the character is injured is to engender sympathy, then the injury is a thin device and adds little to the overall narrative. One of the dangers of incorporating injury and disability in a story is falling into the cliché of the ‘noble victim.’ Equally problematic is when the character is injured or disabled simply to motivate the actions of the non-injured protagonist. Both choices remove agency from the character and render that person into a plot-device.

But injury and disability can be written well. One of my favorite depictions of physical disability in speculative fiction is the Vorkosigan novels by Lois McMaster Bujold. The protagonist, Miles Vorkosigan, was exposed to a poison in utero that prevented normal growth of his bones. He is considered a mutant by many in the rigid conservative society in which he was born for his deformities and has fragile bones. His frailty forces him to compete in a vicious political landscape using his wits and his will. He is both brilliant and insufferable and a wonderful, fully realized character.

Injuries need to have consequences

A second pitfall in writing injuries is when the injuries serve the needs of an immediate plot point but have no follow through or consequence in the story as a whole. This is something common to thrillers where the hero gets shot only to be patched up by a sympathetic side character and then saves the day when any mere mortal would be writhing on the floor waiting for emergency services. Getting injured hurts. Even if no vital organs are damaged, the shock post gunshot or stabbing or burn can easily take down the strongest, most fit individual.

Shock is a protective reaction by the body and is part of a complex series of reflexes that take place without conscious thought. Typical shock reactions include: decreased blood pressure, rapid, weak pulse, lowered core temperature, rapid, shallow breathing, nausea or vomiting, dilated pupils, and loss of consciousness.

It’s far more likely that your injured character will go into shock than run into the lair of the bad guys, rescue the damsel, and ride into the sunset. And shock, if untreated, can actually be fatal.

One of the protagonists in my Halcyone Space series is dealing with the aftermath of a head injury he sustains in DERELICT, book 1. His impairments are disabling. He experiences nausea and vomiting, crippling headaches, vertigo, and is unable to focus on his computer screen or read. His experience of his injury and the choices he makes as a result of not improving drives his plot arc in ITHAKA RISING, book 2. He believes only a neural implant device will help him, but his young age is a contraindication. So he finds a black market source for one. There are consequences to his actions, ripples that effect him, his family, and the political landscape.

The cover character in PARALLAX (book 4) is an upper extremity amputee. In the world of Halcyone Space, technology allows for prosthetics that are nearly indistinguishable from physiologic limbs, but she chooses a more primitive looking device. She has specific reasons for that choice that are critical to her character, backstory, and plot.

Injuries need to be written realistically

Another problem in writing injuries is when the author gets the physiologic details wrong. Absent magical healing or hugely advanced tech (and even those need to have limits and consequences), injuries take time to heal. Even the mildest of tendon strains can take several weeks to fully heal. Broken bones can take six to twelve weeks or more depending on the severity of the fracture and the overall health and age of the person. Deep cuts and penetrating wounds are a huge infection risk, as are burns. Infections can be fatal, even in a technologically enhanced world.

I had a 25 year career as a physical therapist before I became a writer. My specialty area was orthopedics and chronic pain management. When my characters get hurt, they are well and truly hurt. Their impairments continue to have consequences throughout the series.

My advice to writers wanting to show the realistic consequences of injuries, illness, or disability is this: Work backwards. That will keep you focused on continuity.

Decide the impairments and limitations you need your character to demonstrate first. Then build the mechanism of injury to get there. There are a multitude of websites that discuss symptoms of various injuries, illnesses, and disabilities. Some include:

These sites are a great starting point. To go deeper, speak to a medical professional (if you ping me on Twitter @lisajanicecohen I’ll do my best to help out), and someone who has dealt with the condition you are considering. And, like anything else, know that one person’s experience will not be generalized to all. This is especially critical in writing a character with a disability.

Want to harm your character? Remember three key issues: It must serve a purpose, it must have consequences, and must be portrayed realistically. Otherwise, you risk weakening your story and losing your reader.


LJ Cohen is a Boston-area speculative fiction writer. After a 25 year career as a physical therapist, she now uses her anatomical and medical knowledge to harm the characters in her science fiction and fantasy novels. You can find her work at http://www.ljcohen.net