Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Best Advice For Writers, "Say The Lines, Cash The Check, And Buy Yourself Something Nice"

As writers, we sometimes get caught up in the bullshit of our own reputations. We buy into the idea of the noble storyteller, or the tortured typist, sweating under the strain of our own ideas. We cast ourselves as the suffering artist who is trying to take the universe in our heads, and show it to the rest of the world the way we see it. And when we have to lower ourselves to write ad copy, or to write blog entries for clients paying us money to do our jobs? Ugh, the insult of it all! That we should use such great talents for such low, base ends.

Gonna lay some wisdom on you, here. This comes from Jon Pertwee, a fellow who once starred in an odd little sci-fi show called Doctor Who. When he was on the show, some folks he knew told him to do something very smart. "Say the lines, cash the check, and buy yourself something nice."

It's in this interview, in case you're curious.

The next time you find yourself rubbing your temples, and ready to send your client a strongly-worded email about how stupid their whole project is, remember these words. And remember that you are not some great genius intellect to whom the tides of creativity bow. You are, very likely, just a person with a pen who was willing to do the job.

Not Everything You Write Will Fulfill You

One of the major reasons that I'm a writer, instead of a security guard, a cashier, a stocker, or a landscaper, is that writing is the job I like the most, and which I have the best track record with. And sure, there are some times where I've been working on a story, or writing a script, when I got that rock star feeling of being the gifted man doing great work.

Most of the time, though, that's not how it feels. Because the bulk of my day is not spent working on novels, short stories, YouTube scripts, or RPG guides. Most of my day is spent writing for clients. Because they need content, and I need to eat, so we can help each other out.

A couple of 600-word posts? Sure, I guess I can get 'em to you by Friday.
Now, I like eating. I like having happy landlords. So, when a client presents me with a job my primary concern is what I'm being paid to do it, and whether I feel my talents are up to snuff. If the job's fun, well, that's a bonus. But I'm not being paid to have fun. I'm being paid to create a product that will get my clients money. Whether that means a world guide that will sell copies, a blog post that gets traffic, or a novel that flies off the shelves, I am only as valuable to my clients as the end results my work creates.

I'm a mercenary, through and through.

Still, it pays to remind myself that my clients aren't here to feed my ego. They aren't giving me work to do so they can watch the glory of my process, or marvel in my creative genius. They're paying me to do a job. And if I do it well, then they're going to pay me the next time a job comes up. And the next, and the next.

Because brilliance is a lot more common than you think, but reliability is what builds your rep. So the next time you find yourself staring at the screen, muttering about how this job is beneath you, or about how you should just tell your client to stick it, take all that spare energy, and put it into the project. Hit the word count, turn it in, and when the check clears, treat yourself. Go get a milkshake, have a cheeseburger, or check out that latest flick at the movies. Whatever will make you happy, use your check to remind yourself that you earned this with nothing more than words.

It helps keep things in perspective. Both the good, and the bad.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it helped folks who, like myself, need to let the air out of their egos every other Thursday. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, then make sure you follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support me and my work, then stop on over at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tear Down The Monoliths (No Race, Religion, Etc. Is Universal)

How many times have you been reading a fantasy story, and you didn't bat an eye when someone started speaking elvish? How many times have you been elbow-deep in a sci-fi novel, and you were told that every member of an alien race without fail holds a particular cultural viewpoint? Now ask how many times you ground to a halt, and asked exactly how many separate, thinking, feeling individuals were painted with the same brush?

You racist son of a bitch, there is no such thing as an "orc" language!
This very same logic, applied to humans (even in fantasy settings), tends to trip our bullshit detectors. When we hear a character decry that all followers of the White Prophet are evil, there's a part of us that asks, "Really? Out of the millions of members of that religion, every man, woman, and child is a baby-killing monster? Come on." But we just accept that when we're talking about made-up races. Whether they're elves or Vulcans, Klingons, or orcs, we just accept that they are all universally the same, no matter where they're from. They share the same language, the same culture, the same religious beliefs, and more often than not the same political views.

If you really want your work to stand out in the genre, scrap this broad-brush paint job, and do the heavy lifting.

Make Your Cultures Feel Organic

When you create a culture, whether it's for humans in a fantasy setting, or for a non-human race, you need to ask what needs informed that culture. How did it develop? What reinforces its values, what are its rules, and what does it frown upon?

Now, once you've done that, you need to go to the next culture, and do it all again, from the ground up.

Now repeat until the map is full.
Once you have your cultures and races established, that's just the foundation of your world. Now you need to ask if they evolved based on other factors, with familiar and recognizable elements of one culture shifting and changing to suit a new place.

As an example, say you had a group of traditional Tolkien elves. They left their forest to establish a new colony, and traveled south. What they found was a tropical forest, denser, and larger than their northern counterparts. These new forests were also filled with older magics, and stranger beasts than the temperate woods of their homelands. They are, however, still elves, with all of the inherent benefits and abilities that makes them what they are.

So how do they change to fit their new home? Do they darken in hair and features, blending into the teak and mahogany woods? Are their clothes still as elegant and flowing as before, but now they're woven from spider silk? Do they ride leopards instead of caribou, and are they fiercer in combat as a result of the predatory mount choice? Is the bow still their weapon of choice, or have they mastered the spear, the dart, and other weapons more suited to the shorter range that's more common in the dense rain forest? Do they still stay apart from humans, or have they made alliances with local populations, intertwining their lives with the lives of such short-lived mortals?

Now look at the other aspects of their cultures. Did they bring their gods with them, or have they taken up new pacts with the spirits of this forest? Has their language changed to fit their new surroundings, creating new words to suit new ideas that weren't present in the forests of the north? What traits is their environment, and culture, rewarding and reinforcing?

It's also important to remember that nothing happens in a vacuum. As cultures interact, they'll take ideas or concepts, and change them to make them their own. There will be transfer... so ask what that interaction teaches each culture taking part. Is it that one culture adopts the fashion and greetings of another? Do certain turns of phrase just become part of everyday use? Or does one nation develop extremely precise aerial weapons, since they've been at war with a foe that rides on flying mounts?

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

There are certain shortcuts you can use to bring across ideas quickly. However, if you want to add instant depth to your world, put in different factions of a faith. Make the mountain elves different from the forest ones. Give your orcs different ethnicities and cultures to show that, while they might be universal as a presence, they are just as unique and varied as humans. And if you really want to make people flip their lids, make an island nation of surfing dwarves.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it got the gears turning for some folks. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help me keep creating content, and get some free books out of the deal, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is a minimum of $1 a month, and I'll send some books flying your way as a thank you.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What Is Your Book's Unique Selling Point?

"So, what's your book about?"

"Well, it's a riff on the old pulp private detective stories. The main character gets dragged into a complicated web of mysteries, and he has to try to parse the truth from what his client, her enemies, and his old acquaintances are telling him is going on. It's kind of my homage to The Maltese Falcon."

"Why would I want to read that when I already have a Dashiell Hammett collection?"

"My book's take on Sam Spade is a demon pulled straight out of the lower hells by a witch who wants him to track down her lost soul."

"Shut up and take my money."

"He looked, rather pleasantly, like a blonde Satan."
There are millions of books on the market right now, and there will be thousands of new ones released by the end of the year. People only have so much time to read, and if you manage to grab that fleeting moment of someone's attention you need to pin them down with something that will hook their interest. To that end, you need to know what the most appealing thing about your book is, and you need to be able to explain it quickly, and efficiently.

In short, you need to know what your unique selling point is.

Where's The Hook?

A USP is, essentially, an elevator pitch that you give to potential readers. If someone is walking by you at a convention, or they've paused for a moment at a signing, how are you going to summarize the multiple years and hundreds of pages it took you to tell this story so they want to pick it up, and take it home with them?

While every book is unique, and special, there are ways you can shorten the pitch so it fits in a sentence or two. For example, "It's the Trojan War, but with space marines," is a description that would make me flip the book over to get the more detailed version. A description like, "It's your classic, macho shoot-em-up, but the protagonist is gay," might also turn a few heads from readers who like Mack Bolan, and who wonder what it would be like if he was into dudes. Maybe your book could be described as, "Lord of The Rings, minus the walking, and with ten times the body count."

Tell me more.
Your USP is about more than just pitching your book to readers, though. It's about knowing what niche you fill in your genre, and in the market. If you were writing fantasy books in the 80s, for instance, then you would know everyone and their mother was trying to be Tolkien. Just like how today you can walk down the fantasy aisle and see the thousands of bastard children George R. R. Martin has spawned. What makes you stand out from all those other books jockeying for space in stores, on shelves, and in customer reading lists?

Is it that your complicated political drama taking place in a fantasy kingdom is seen through the lens of a matriarchal society? Does it have a lot more onscreen sex, bondage, and gratuitous cod piece shots? Or is the cast of protagonists all the old-school, old guard of the world? Like if Tywin, the Queen of Thorns, Maester Aemon, and all the other old farts had been the people we were following around the whole time?

In short, your USP tells people what you're offering that they can't get anywhere else. Because it's not enough to just have a story, and write it down. You need to tell people why they should be reading your book, instead of going back to the authors they already know they like for their next hit of that dream stuff.

And before you go, a steampunk noir collection that takes you on a walking tour of The City of Steam!
That's all for this week's Business of Writing. If you like the work I'm doing, and you don't want to miss the next installment, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter? Lastly, if you want to chip in some support, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month, and you'll get free books on top of my everlasting gratitude.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Curse of The Competent Fighter (Why Characters Need To Struggle)

I have a preference, both as a writer and as a reader, for competent heroes. I love characters like John Wick, who set themselves on a course of destruction and won't stop until they've killed their target. Characters like Rambo, who refuse to stay down no matter what you do to them, or Luke Cage who can walk right through a hail of gunfire without so much as slowing.

However, if a character is really good at fighting, it can ironically get really boring to watch them fight. Because unless they're going up against a truly skilled opponent, or someone equal in power to themselves, then the audience knows who's going to win before the first punch is thrown. Unless you've crippled your lead in some way, like poisoning them, wearing them down with several previous fights, or out-and-out doing serious damage to them, then there's just nothing exciting about watching yet another round of goons get their teeth busted in, or catching bullets with their brain pans.

Case in point: The Original Glass Cannon
That doesn't mean you should stop writing stories about ex-special forces badasses, mutant brawlers, and unstoppable assassins. But you need to remember that the action scenes for such characters are the icing, not the cake.

Struggle Matters (And Makes Stories Interesting)

When you write a story, your protagonist has to be up against some kind of challenge. If the difficulty they're facing is something they can deal with rather easily, then where is the tension going to come from?

Let's go back to Luke Cage for a moment. A wronged man out for justice, he gets embroiled in the doings of organized crime in Harlem. However, while Luke's initial brushes with criminals show they're comically outmatched (given that Luke is bulletproof, blade proof, and has super strength), the real question is not, "How is Luke going to beat up these goons?" The real question is how can one man, even one man who's indestructible, fight such a shadowy, entrenched foe? How does he get to the heart of the criminal empire, and rip it out, without breaking the law himself, or getting a bunch of people hurt? How can one rock stop the tide, even if that tide can't hurt him?

The heavy stuff that makes a narrative interesting, you know?
Sure, the bad guys eventually use super weapons that can actually hurt Luke, because this is a comic book, but the point of the story isn't the arms race between criminals and a meta-human enforcer. That's just a framing device for those other issues that make Luke's story more compelling.

Condensed into a single sentence, the lesson here is, "Make your heroes struggle."

You see this in all the great (or even just good) stories with combat-capable protagonists. John Rambo might be a one-man-army, but he cannot put his personal demons into a stranglehold. Shane knows he could cut down the gang of toughs if he chooses, but that as soon as he picks up his guns that his life as a peaceful man will be over. Sam Spade packs a mean right hook, and can shoot with the best of them, but he has to figure out where all the players are before he knows who to hit, and who to threaten.

Now, you need to let your lead take the gloves off a few times throughout the story, both to establish how badass they are, and because it can be satisfying to watch a battlefield hardass do their thing. However, the actions scenes need to establish something that's going on in the story, and move the plot along. Because if a combat does nothing but show off your choreography, then your audience is going to get pretty bored, pretty quick. Worse, it can begin to feel like textual masturbation after a while, and no one wants to see that.

So, to wrap up, you need to make your protagonist work against their strengths in order to make your story feel like there's a challenge. That doesn't mean you need to completely negate those strengths, but you do need to ensure your protagonist's skills or abilities don't let them cake walk to the end goal. They don't need to be bloody and limping, but sometimes that might be just what you need to add a bit of strawberry sauce to your cake to finish it off.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing thoughts. If you liked them, and want to see more, why not support me by heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? $1 a month is all it takes, and you get free books as a thank you from me. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, now would be a good time to start.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Use Text Posts and Comments To Avoid Getting Your Self-Promotion Labeled as Spam

Creative professionals of all stripes are told that if they want to be successful then they have to get out there, and get themselves noticed. Post up fliers, attend events, shake hands, pass out cards, get reviews... whatever it takes to get your name, and your work, in front of people's eyeballs. And, since we live in the Age of the Internet, this means there are a lot of authors out there who are trying to leverage a following on social media as a way to get their work noticed.

However, there's a Catch-22 when it comes to posting on social media sites. Because on forums, Facebook groups, and other online gathering places where people talk about books, blogs, and other creative projects, no one wants to hear you talk about your work; the second you do, you tend to get labeled as a spammer, and either have your posts removed, or limited. If someone else shared a post about your latest release, that would be fine and good... of course, if you had other people boosting your signal, then you wouldn't need to promote yourself in the first place!

So people are pissed at the messenger, not the message?
This attitude of, "if you're talking about yourself, then you are a spammer," is one of the most common things online. Even if the piece you're sharing is relevant to the group's interests, even if it's free (like a blog, a story sample, etc.), you'll still get tagged for bigging-up your own signal.

However, there are still ways you can draw attention to yourself, while avoiding much of this criticism. It requires being a bit crafty, though.

Links, Texts, and Comments

Let's take Reddit as an example, though you can translate this advice to practically any social media platform. You login, and decide you want to make some posts to let interested communities know about your latest book release. So you go to the subreddit for fantasy, sci-fi, noir, or whatever genre you're writing in, and post a link to a free sample.

Now, it's possible you'll get a hundred up votes, and a slew of people telling you how awesome your book sounds. What's more likely is that your post will be up for all of 10 minutes before a moderator takes it down, and chastises you for using their group for self-promotion. Even though what you're promoting is clearly in their wheelhouse, and free to anyone who wants to take a look at it.

So what do you do? You want to get eyes on your work, and these groups have thousands (sometimes millions) of members... one lucky break there could be the start of a career landslide. But you can't do anything if every time you put up a link it gets hammered down where no one will see it.

That's where text posts and comments come in.

You see, instead of just dropping a link and moving on (something that requires no effort, and gives very little context), you can instead make a text post. This post opens discussion, and gives a fuller explanation of what it is you want to say. All you have to do is find a place in the text to add your link so that people who are interested in what you have to say will follow it.

Sometimes, though, you don't have time for that. You just want to hop on someone else's coattails, and get a free ride (or as free as such things can be on the Internet). When that happens you need to scroll through the subreddits, and look for popular topics. Places where people are discussing something, asking questions, or giving advice. What you need to do is swoop in, give an answer that is eye-catching and noticeable, and include a link to a blog post you've written, a book you published, etc. that fits into the context of the discussion in question.

Both of these options have their pros and cons. Text posts take more time, and you're starting a conversation, but if someone clicks in to see what all the fuss is about then you are always on center stage. However, text posts might be shut down, too, if you are too blatantly pushing your own content as the sole thing you're offering. Comments, on the other hand, tend to be much more open about links. As long as you contributed something in the comment other than your link, you'll typically be okay. However, comments are more difficult to get noticed, so the topic you're leaving the comment on needs to be something that's getting a lot of attention, and a lot of engagement.

Becoming Part of The Community

The whole thing about how no one wants you promoting your stuff in their community has one caveat to it... if you're recognized as a member of the community, you can get away with it.

So... huh?
The basic idea is that you don't want strangers just coming in, posting their promo, and leaving. However, if you know someone, they're familiar to the community, and they make posts/leave comments on the regular, then they aren't strangers. They're part of the community, so of course you're going to be more lax about them posting about their new book, or blog post, or YouTube video, or whatever. Because that's Geoff, and we all know him round these parts.

The key is that you have to get your foot in the door by proving you're valuable to the community. That you have good insights, that you talk about things other than yourself, and that you're trying to answer questions, contribute to conversations, etc. The longer you do that (even if you're slipping in self-promo along with your posts, like a spoonful of sugar to get the medicine to go down), the easier it is to avoid someone simply tarring you with the spammer label.

Mileage will vary, of course, but if you can't batter down the gates then it might be time to pack your message into a wooden horse, and see if they'll pull you inside of their own volition.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it helps some folks out there who are tired of making futile charges, and want some way to get over those gates. If you'd like to support me and my work, head on over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss a little change in my jar. $1 a month is all I ask, and everyone who contributes at least that much gets a free book! Lastly, if you want to keep up with all my latest updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

"Trope Talk" is Required Listening For Authors

If you're a writer of any stripe, then you recognize tropes. These literary building blocks come in all shapes and sizes, and they range from the recognizable (like Paragon Heroes) to the infamous (like the dreaded Mary Sue), but all of them act as a kind of storytelling shorthand. It's a package readers are familiar with, so even if the world and characters are new to them, they can easily get a sense of what's going on right away.

Some old tools endure perfectly well.
Some writers like to use tropes in their work. Others don't. Some few of us are lucky enough that our work becomes influential, and we are crediting with creating new tropes. However, if you're going to write, then you should study tropes. You should think about them, and try to understand them in ways average readers simply won't.

That's a big task. Fortunately, it's one that Overly Sarcastic Productions is here to help with.

Check Out Trope Talks!

What is Overly Sarcastic Productions? Well, it's a YouTube channel that was started by the host Red back when she was in high school as an offshoot of a creative class assignment. Earlier episodes of the show discussed classic literature, since she was already elbow-deep in thoughts and discussions about it anyway, and it was a fun little project to do on the side. As the show grew and evolved, taking on a second contributor in the form of Blue, the channel quickly expanded to cover mythology, history, and other aspects of literature.

That's where Trope Talks comes in. This show, which is still relatively new to the channel, is where Red sits down and holds forth on some of the more common tropes we come across in literature, but also in pop culture, and mythology (it's really all one big mess, so an interpreter is quite helpful). Rather than explain the show, though, check out the debut episode Beginnings.

There are 12 episodes (at time of writing), and each one is definitely worth listening to. Even the ones that are controversial, or likely to provoke strong reactions from the audience, are worth talking about (which is, incidentally, why Red didn't shy away from making them in the first place). And if you don't see a trope you think is important in the list yet, don't worry. Red is already working on Damsels in Distress, and one about the ever-constant stakes-raising gimmick of Saving the World. So stay tuned!

Don't forget to stop by Overly Sarcastic Productions to follow the channel, and bookmark the page! Also, if you really like what they're doing, and you want to help them do it, head over to the Overly Sarcastic Productions Patreon page to leave a few coins in their cup. Every little bit helps!

Well, that's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully the resource provides a lot of folks out there with some insight, and it gets the creative juices flowing. If you want to keep up to date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you've still got some patronage to throw around, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. $1 a month buys you my everlasting gratitude, and gets you a free book or two as a thank you.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Luck Makes Your Writing Career (But Persistence Makes Your Luck)

When you ask authors how they got where they are, a lot of them will credit the usual suspects; hard work, several editorial passes, and the gumption to keep submitting while wading through a snowstorm of rejections. Thanks to the advent of social media, you'll also hear authors talk about how they built their brand, created pages that drew and kept readers, and made sure they had a receptive audience for the stories they wanted to tell.

All of that is great. I'm the last person who wants to knock hard work, solid foundation, and clocking the thousands of hours it takes to build a following. However, no successful author is a self-made success. Because the unfortunate fact behind every successful author is that they rolled the dice, and those dice came up a win.

Ha! I did it! I rolled a seven!
This is, unfortunately, a flaw of our myth of the self-made success. We all want to believe we did it ourselves, because that means we're in control of our success. Conversely, it means that if you're not successful, then you have the ability to control that, too. However, it's entirely possible for you to do everything right, and still fail. You can write a great book and get it rejected, or if you succeed in getting it published, fail to make sales.

There's a funny thing about dice, though. If you roll them often enough, sooner or later the pips you want are going to turn up.

Every Roll Is A New Chance

Let's say you wrote a book. It's a good book, too. You have a firm grasp of artistic language, a solid plot, and it is the perfect length. You edit it till it's tight and smooth, and then you send it out into the world. Maybe you publish it yourself, or maybe you get it published traditionally, but the point is it's out there now. You took your shot... and you missed. Your book goes nowhere, and no matter how hard you try to get people to check it out, no one is interested.

So what do you do now? Well, you write another book. And another, and another, and another.

You'll hit the target... eventually.
Have you ever heard about famous movie stars who were total unknowns for years, despite appearing in movie after movie, and TV show after TV show? Until that one role, that one chance, got them out in front of millions of eyes, and people liked what they saw? Well, being an author is kind of like that... but if you give up after your first network slot doesn't get you discovered, then you probably won't make the big time.

If you fire enough bullets, then eventually you'll get lucky. You'll write a book that intrigues (or outrages) enough people to focus a spotlight on you. You'll get nominated for (or win) an award. A celebrity will come across your book, and tell their legion of fans that you are the next big thing. Or you'll finally have collected enough small pockets of fans over the years that when you release your tenth, or fifteenth, or twentieth book, there is a huge scramble by people who want to read it.

Luck works in strange ways. Sometimes it completely ignores you, and your year and change of effort falls flat on its face in a mud puddle. Other times luck wraps its arms around you, and tells everyone how phenomenal you are. But if you never get out of the puddle, and wipe off your face to try again, then you may as well stay where you are.

Sooner or later, those pips are gonna fall your way. Don't stop rolling until they do.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it helps keep you humble if luck already gave you a deep, loving kiss. And if it hasn't, don't worry, just rattle those bones and try to make your next throw count. If you'd like to help support this blog, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron today. For as little as $1 you can make a big difference in my work, and you'll get a free book, too. Lastly, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.