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Missing Jay Lake

JA Pitts copyright Janna Silverstein
By J. A. Pitts

I lost one of my very best friends recently and the hole it has left in my life has yet to close. It will take a while, I’m sure, due to the nature of the friendship and the powerful connection we had.

I’m a writer. I’ve been one nearly all my life. I remember falling in love with story from my very first memories. Jay Lake was a consummate story teller, whether on his blog, his short stories, his novels, or just over the phone. That was the first thing that clicked between us: craft and story. We shared a language, a secret mission, a vocation, and an obsession. We wanted to change the world with our words. And Jay was further along that highway than I, but there were plenty of times that we stopped and shared directions—where he would ensure I knew of the speed traps and the rough roads ahead. That was his gift, a willingness to share his life in all its raging glory, with anyone who needed a boost or a guide.

I’ve always had an image in my head of an open field with snow covered mountains in the distance. With this as a backdrop, I imagine my two best friends—Ken Scholes and Jay Lake—and me, with giant feathered Icarus wings straining upward in an achingly blue sky, wings beating toward the sun. Jay is in the far lead, his arms outstretched and his long hair flowing behind him as he dares to breach the heavens. Next is Ken, leaded boots falling away from him as his wings dip in a strong pull to thrust him skyward… and me, on the ground, struggling with the bootstraps, my wings poised and ready once I understand how to lose the artificial weights that kept me pinned to the earth.

This was a metaphor for our writing careers. Jay had already learned to stretch his wings and soar above the clouds by the time I’d met him. He knew what he wanted and despite the demons we all battle, had found his voice and was pushing as hard as his wings could go to get above the rim of the world and into the stars.

I always admired that about him. Now, don’t get me wrong, he struggled like the rest of us, but it was his clear vision, his dedication, and his driving passion that allowed me to love him.

Jay had given up much in his life to further his writing—everything from television to board games—expending every available moment on his blog, his relationships, and most of all, his stories. He was a man who did what he had to to provide for his family and yet found ample time to pursue his dreams.

And what dreams they were—clowns and spaceships, lost children and clockwork men. He had an imagination unfettered by social fear or societal expectations. If you’ve never heard him read one of his own works, you have missed a visceral experience. Whether it was barbecue in the old west with Satan himself, or the creepy and terrifying Goat Cutter, Jay had a way of pulling the strings of our fears and our loves and showing them back to us, like a still beating heart in the tight fist of his storytelling.

Everything he did shone with the light of his passion. He was a prolific writer, blogging and writing millions upon millions of words in his lifetime. I never understood how he had the time or even the brain space to put that many words down on the written page in a given time. His example pushed me to hone my skills, dedicate precious time to learning craft, practicing the hard things and generally reaching into the heart of the void to bring forth characters and stories that have altered lives.

And isn’t that the most glorious aspect of it all? Hell, I miss him and can’t say that I’ll never stop being surprised to find him gone from my life, but I also know he touched a lot of people. His words and his love have changed lives across the world, and that is exactly the dream he sought to fulfill.

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From the Tor/Forge September newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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Collection #2 includes: A Memory of Light backpack filled with Honeyed Words by J.A. Pitts, Among Others by Jo Walton, The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe, In a Fix by Linda Grimes, The Court of the Air by Stephen Hunt, A Memory of Light iPhone case, 1 Wheel of Time hookmark, and a Makers tile card game.

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It’s a Character Thing

Forged in Fire by J. A. Pitts

Written by J. A. Pitts

When I sit down to write a novel, the first thing I do is try to understand who my characters are and what they want. It’s not easy, making people up out of whole cloth, but when you get them set firmly in your imagination you find they are quite ready to tell you what’s on their minds.

I know authors who say they let the characters tell them what’s going to happen next, and others who swear loudly and say the characters will damn well do as they are told. I find I blend both concepts into a hybrid solution where I try to imagine how a character would behave in a given situation and torque it to the needs of the story, within reason. I have to find the internal consistency with each character so I know when I’m having them react to the world around them, and to make sure I don’t have them act purely in the author’s need. This way lies failure. Having a character react in a way that is illogical to the way they have been shown on the page will throw the reader out in a fit of rage, or at least, bad-tempered grumbling. Either way, you lose the flow of the story along with the trust you’ve built with the reader.
I know there are days my characters would rather sit on the couch and play video games or ride winged horses and explore abandoned castles. If these things progress the story, I will indulge the whim, but usually I force them into uncomfortable situations and try to get them out or to move onward in a logical, emotional and realistic fashion.

Staying true to the rules I’ve established for the characters and having them react within reason and within the confines of the world I’ve created involves learning to lie with panache. It is my intent to make you believe something you wouldn’t normally believe, to see fictional events as truth and to follow my characters on adventures that cause the real world to fade away.

When that happens, I know I’ve got characters who are vivid.

Twice now I’ve overhead conversations where total strangers discuss my characters as if they were real people. This is one of the highest forms of praise I can imagine.

When I sit down to write, I have to suppress the real world as I know it and begin to think as my character. There’s a bit of madness in this act. It’s a duality that I find hard to describe. I really try to immerse myself in the emotional, logical and intellectual mind of my character. It’s like watching two movies super-imposed on one another, with warring soundtracks.

Sarah Jane Beauhall in many ways has nothing in common with me—beyond the fact she’s a figment of my imagination. She’s a hip young lesbian struggling to find her way in the world where she fears she will never be the best nor the brightest. She lives on the outskirts of a world of privilege with strong gender, racial, mythological, and even species biases.

I’ve had readers contact me and tell me how much they associated with either Sarah or Katie. They discuss how the experiences I’ve shown on the page are so visceral, so true to their own, that for the first time they feel that their emotions are valid.

Twice I’ve been contacted by readers who shared with me that before reading about Sarah’s trials and tribulations that they had seriously considered suicide. One student carried Black Blade Blues around like a life-line, reading and rereading the book to prove over and over that their own experiences were valid and real. That within the pages of these books lives another who feels the same way, sees the world with a similar vision and who sallies forth to find her voice, her life, her very self.

And isn’t that just the most powerful verification that perhaps I’m doing something right?

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From the Tor/Forge June newsletter. Sign up to receive our newsletter via email.

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About our newsletter: every issue of Tor’s monthly email newsletter features original writing by, and interviews with, Tor authors and editors about upcoming new titles from all Tor and Forge imprints. In addition, we occasionally send out “special edition” newsletters to highlight particularly exciting new projects, programs, or events.

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