Friday, September 27, 2013

Why NaNoWriMo is a Crock of Shit

I am not angry. What I am is sad, and disappointed.

There are likely some people here who really like NaNoWriMo. The sort of people who think an entire month dedicated to writing a novel is peachy keen, and the sort of shin dig that anyone could get down with. There might even be a few readers here that came with pickets and vitriol, just looking for a place to point their fury. If you find yourself in one of these two camps, chances are I'm not going to say anything that will affect you in the slightest. That's fine. You are not who this warning goes out to.

This warning is for all those who have been stirring over their stories for months, maybe years, looking for an outlet. People who have always wanted to be a "real" writer, and who want to make themselves and their stories a part of something bigger. For those people who are the prime targets of NaNoWriMo, I ask you to please step back from the ledge. Take a deep breath, and look at what you're jumping into.

Sure it's pretty... but what, exactly, is down there?
What NaNoWriMo Is

For those of you who don't know what NaNoWriMo is the acronym stands for National Novel Writing Month, and it has taken place every November since it began in 1999. At first it was just a handful of students getting together to drink a lot of caffeine and write novels, but since then it's grown into a huge deal with thousands of participants.

Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? On November 1 participants register on the site, and then begin writing their manuscripts. In order to qualify an individual must work on a new fiction story that reaches at least 50,000 words by November 31 at one minute to midnight. If a participant finishes his or her story then that person is deemed a winner, and the manuscript is put up for everyone to read. Sounds just dandy, doesn't it?

What's Wrong With It?

The answer to this question is simultaneously nothing and everything. For those writers who are comfortable treating it as a fun challenge, as a literary exercise, NaNo can be an exciting thing to do. It's sort of like running a marathon and trying to beat your best time. For a lot of other participants NaNo is like trying to run a marathon without any sort of training or conditioning, and with more than just personal achievement on the line. From my perspective it's the latter part that's the problem, and needs to be eliminated. Let's put Nano's faults in an easy-to-read list, shall we?

#1: Chasing the Word Count Rainbow

1,666 words, and you can take the leg cuffs off.
I know a lot of folks who have tried to complete NaNo. None have, and each and every one of them cites the same reason; the ridiculous word count. I think the author Maggie Stiefvater put it best in her series of blog posts about NaNoWriMo here. To sum up the half dozen posts there, she found that no matter how many words she put on the page, she didn't like what was there. She started chasing a certain number of words rather than using those words to build a narrative. It's a bit like trying to build another floor onto a building without considering the purpose of that floor. Just build, and keep building till you hit 50 stories and call it quits.

The issue here is that 50k is kind of an arbitrary word count. Some stories are going to just barely make that. Other stories though are going to blow past the limit long before they're done. If the writer is focused on the word count, and he or she plans only for that 1,666 words per day, then what's going to happen when the date comes and there's more story to tell? Those writers are going to fail the challenge, and through no fault of their own. What if they get sick? Have to work overtime? A parent goes into the hospital? Too bad, so sad, you still can't claim a purely fictional prize which becomes more important the more work that goes into it.

#2: The Deadline

Most people I know have no idea what goes into writing a novel. It's some mystical process they're in awe of, but are completely assured they're talented enough to achieve. Like people convinced they'll win in a fight, even if they have no training or experience beyond being a Bruce Lee fan. Anyone can tell a story, after all. What's the big deal?

That pretty much sums it all up in a nut shell, I think. A single month to write a novel sounds great, and even assuming the 1,666 words a day is all you need to get from "in the beginning" to "the end", it's a ridiculous amount of time. Some authors, some very few, very select authors can write a rough draft in a month. Because that's what NaNo is; a rough draft. The deadline doesn't give people the time to go back through and edit chapters, fix inconsistencies, dust up the grammar, and all those other, little details. Also, woe be to the author who needs to delete even a single day's work with such a stringent time limit imposed. There's no time to smooth the story out, delete unnecessary chapters, or add more exposition in the places you really sort of need it. Lastly, while you might start off strong, you're probably going to be out of breath in no time unless you don't have a day job and you're really, truly dedicated to your novel.

#3: The Spirit of the Whole Mess

This third entry is not the fault of the contest itself; it is rather an unfortunate outgrowth of the nearly cult-like loyalty the idea has drawn. When NaNoWriMo was first created it was a way for friends to get together and write novels. It worked, at least in a way, because some of the original pool finished the project. Written directly in the rules, the event is supposed to give those who think it would be fun to write a novel and excuse to do it.

After all, if you wanted to make money you'd rob a bank.
That's fine. It's a little touchy-feely, and more than a little hobbyist, but that's fine. If all someone wants to do is write a book with some friends, enjoy the experience, and maybe show the manuscript to a publisher or toss it up on the Internet, then who am I to judge them for that? I can safely say I wouldn't judge them... if not for the money. The very real, and the very theoretical money.

For many people NaNoWriMo isn't about having fun. It isn't about the creative experience, or honing their craft. It isn't even about the story. It's about money. Because, to paraphrase Chuck Palahniuk, a lot of people don't see books as works of art or worlds to be enjoyed; they see them as means to an end. For every one person who promotes NaNo because they think it's fun, or because it's a great creative outlet, there are five entitled pricks who are absolutely convinced all they need to do is slap some words on the page and they'll have movie deals, royalty checks, and all the pussy or cock they can handle. Then, just to add insult to injury, writers are encouraged to buy merchandise to support the whole, staggering endeavor as it balloons into ever-grander proportions.

What's Wrong With it, You Ask?

NaNoWriMo, at the end of the day, doesn't help you become a better writer. It doesn't teach you how to improve your plot, get out of the passive tense, or to understand that there is no "right" length for a chapter or a book. It doesn't judge you on whether you write pointless, incestual sex scenes, or if you're blatantly yanking published characters and putting Groucho Marx glasses on them. It doesn't, by and large, make you any money, or earn you the sort of discipline and contacts you need to really become a professional novelist (sure, there are published NaNoWriMo authors, but if you compare the number of "real authors" to the number of participants, you'll see some depressing data). Mostly, NaNo is just giving you the excuse.

I say this here and now, with all of the sincerity I can manage. If you need an excuse to write your story, then you my friend are not a writer.

If it takes an annual ritual to get you to sit down at your computer and put words on the page, if you require the sympathy of temporary Internet friends or a four week writing group, and if you're too embarrassed to take the plunge without a herd of lemmings hoping for a real shot at hacking it all around you, then you should find another calling. Writing is about telling stories, and the craft of drawing in the reader. It's about the frustrations of late night ideas, little notebooks crammed with diagrams and character names, and the thrill of seeing a world come to life in your mind. It's about the unique magic of making something that people you have never met will read, and which will play a symphony on their heart strings. You don't need a special month of the year to write. You don't need more time off from work, or a cushy loft with high ceilings. If all you have is excuses why you haven't, then this year maybe it's time to put up or shut up.

As always, thank you for making The Literary Mercenary your go-to place for rambling on writing. Keep in mind that unlike NaNoWriMo, I am not a non-profit and thus need to earn a living and pay taxes. This blog runs on Google AdSense, and on royalties from book sales. For more about your author follow me on Facebook or on Tumblr. If you have any questions, concerns, or would like to see me cover a specific topic then please leave a comment, or contact me on one of my social media outlets. If you're curious about the stories I've told, a complete list can be found on Goodreads.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Making Immortals Interesting

A long time ago, when I was still fresh to the author mantle and light-headed from being added to Goodreads (my page is here if you're curious), I began my first ever blog. It was called "Notes From the Editor's Desk", and it was meant to provide a humorous look at all the things editors have to look at that writers might not even know they'd doing wrong. It was short-lived, but while it was around it was liked by several people. Not only that it gave me a chance to be snarky, and to say the things I wasn't allowed to say to writers I was editing. Well, now that this blog's been up and running for a while I'd like to bring back the spirit, but hopefully garner a little more interest than I did the first time around.

All that said, we're going to tackle an immortal question today. Namely, what the fuck do you do with them?

Immortal as Lover

We've seen this trope from Tolkien to Twilight, and yet it never seems to creep other people out the same way it does me. A character whose age is measured in centuries somehow falls in love with a person who lacks experience, along with the ability to shrug off time, and it is very rarely questioned. Vampires, elves, demi-gods, djinn, demons, angels, and the list goes on and on.

Because this just screams long-term commitment.
This is, at least for me, where the suspension bridge of disbelief snaps and my imagination takes an Indiana Jones style tumble into croc-infested waters. On the one hand, sure, it's a nice sentiment that love might stretch across gulfs and unite two souls. But when Hugh Hefner does this we call him a dirty old man. In purely human experience anything more than a few decades one way or another tends to make people look askance, and wonder how long that older partner is going to dote on his latest play toy before moving on.

That's kind of the problem with immortal couples when one partner is very obviously outside the bicentennial club. Unless both characters have similar longevity, or the immortal in question is very young, chances are good that what we are seeing is simply a passing fancy. Because when one lives for several hundred years, humans are kind of like kittens. They're adorable, they're cuddly, and you can have some good times, but one day you turn around and they're just giving up the ghost. That's how time moves when you're ancient, and the more times you've gone through the process, the less and less attached you're capable of becoming.

Possible Fixes

While I don't advocate people do this, there are ways to make this more believable. Two were already mentioned; make both partners immortal, or make your immortal a younger member of the breed. This can make the inevitable loss truly heart-wrenching, rather than just more run-of-the-mill grief. However, if a writer insists on going the Lolita route with this, the best possible fix is to make the connection believable.

Why do people fall in love? Well, once their brains have calmed down and gotten all that pesky dopamine cleaned out, it's because of respect, similar feelings and opinions, shared activities, and what they add to each other's lives. Have the younger character win the immortal's interest and admiration by standing out in some way. If you have an elven general who wrote the book on tactics, have her out-flanked by a younger, but talented human. The competition and respect for skill creates a starting place for a meeting of the minds, which might lead to a meeting of the hearts. Remember it should be because of what a person does, not because of what they are. For Twilight fans, smelling good doesn't count.

Immortal as Time Capsule

Of all the ways to depict immortals, this has to be one of the most ham-handed in existence. Writers essentially treat characters like a snap shot of their last heyday, and the immortal has refused to progress further for some unknown and unknowable reason. Sort of like your grandparents.

In my day everyone wore brown robes, and we were happy.
Think about your grandparents for a minute though. Sure you probably had to explain Google to them a few dozen times before they could do a search without finding a hundred porn sites and a thousand viruses, but I'll bet you they figured out how a DVD player worked just fine. They probably dressed in fashions that made sense for this day and age, and they probably spoke in modern vernacular. I'd lay you odds they even did weird things like read the newspaper and watch the latest in television programming.

This is where the time capsule immortal sort of falls apart. In order for a sentient individual to remain so firmly planted in the past there cannot be any change in its surroundings. One of the main reason Dracula wants to go to London is that it's the future, and he's sick of being the lord of a dying past. He adopts English speech, English dress, and while he's exotic and foreign, no one remarks on how 3rd century he is. He successfully blended in with the Victorian era despite having been alive and slaying since a time when the newest cultural development was the crusade.

How to Fix This

The easy way is to take that desire you have to make a quirky character who will act as a mouthpiece for charmingly out-of-date statements, and crush its windpipe with a cinderblock. That is a bad reason to make a character, and doubly so if he or she doesn't actually contribute to the story at large.

Next, decide whether or not the character is capable of changing. It's been suggested for vampires in certain role playing games that they are frozen in the moment they were destroyed, which makes it hard for them to adjust. But even if that's the case, camouflage is important to someone who lives forever. So, if the character can't change, then he or she needs to go somewhere that fact won't be noticed or remarked upon. Wild mountains, crumbling castles, isolated frontiers like Alaska or Siberia make sense. If you're in downtown New York wearing ruffled sleeves and carrying a sword cane though, people are going to notice. People like the authorities, which could blow apart any sort of cover.

Not all immortals live in modern fantasy worlds. In fact, some of them live in worlds of their own. This is quite possibly the easiest way to make time capsules believable. A wandering sidhe prince, a plane-hopping demigod, or an ancient wizard with a pocket dimension all his own don't have to abide by your customs. In this case the strange differences the audience sees are more culture shock than anything else. Immortals are free to display unusual knowledge like proper spoken Latin, or out-of-date skill sets like broadsword fighting. They might even feel more comfortable surrounded by the art and architecture of their times. Just remember, everyone is shaped by their environments and cultures. Even if they're the ones setting the standard.

Immortal as Deus Ex Machina

We've seen this one a lot too. The Great and Powerful Whosey-Whatsits will know what to do, if only he/she/it/they were here. Hell, the entirety of the character of Dr. Who practically is this trope. That doesn't mean you're allowed to slap it into your story and claim it's groundbreaking.

Everyone forgets that the Tin Man has to watch everything die. After they gave him the capacity to love.
How to Fix This

Immortal characters can, and should, have knowledge or skill far beyond the mortal ken. Elves aren't born with the ability to shoot three arrows simultaneously and bulls-eye with all of them. They got there the same way anyone else did; practice. 150 years of practice just happens to go a pretty long goddamn way. However, it's important to remember that assholes, rejects, the socially outcast, and the downright curmudgeonly make it to old age as well.

How do you think the immortal got to be immortal? Careful planning and sheer determination is good, but cowards can live forever as well. Just remember that any character who is reduced to a set of stock abilities, or a singular purpose is probably not going to be terribly interesting. Sure Lancelot was the guy who had sex with the queen. He was also the strongest of all Arthur's knights, a brutal Gaul, and he enjoyed playing the flute as well. Everyone, even immortals, should be real. Just like real people, not everything about them is positive.

Final Thoughts

Immortality is a very, very messy thing. It is quite possibly the oldest MacGuffin in human history, stretching back to the Epic of Gilgamesh. That said, immortality is kind of like alternative history that's able to walk and talk; you have to figure out every little detail in your head to make it work. Is the immortal also indestructible? What powers does it possess? Is it a ghost in the shell that reincarnates, or is it a single being that was genetically modified through either chance or science to defeat age forever? And lastly, perhaps most importantly, is immortality a requirement to make the story work or is it just a thing you wanted to slap on for a coolness factor?

For those interested in past "Notes From the Editor's Desk" entries, either go to the page on the right, or click this link here. If you're interested in keeping updated with yours truly, follow me on Facebook, or jack yourself in at my Tumblr, where I welcome any and all questions or queries for other elements to add to this newest section of The Literary Mercenary. As always, thanks for stopping by.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Literary Mercenary's Guide to Shameless Self Promotion

There's a popular myth in some writing circles that all you have to do is write a solid, entertaining book, and everything else will take care of itself. With very few exceptions, this is a sure-fire way to commit career suicide. Writing the book is important, it's necessary, but it's only the first leg of the journey. The next step is letting people know you actually have a book for sale.

Or two, or three... hundred.
But wait, isn't that the publisher's job? Isn't that the whole reason that you give the publisher such a big cut of the sales, so that they do all the promotional work for your book and you can just sit back and collect royalties? In some ideal, golden-aged world that would be true. For those of us who haven't been made the gilded child of a massive corporation looking for a new book sale messiah, and who don't have a famous name that's pulling people in like flies to honey, it's your collective job to reach out to your potential fan base. It isn't going to be easy, it probably isn't going to be fun, but if you want to grow your following and actually sell books, then you're going to have to learn how to promote.

Setting Up Events

Events are typically what people think of when they think of book promotion. An author reads a short story to an eager audience on open-mic night, or holds a book signing at the local store with crowds of curious fans. These are good ideas, and they've become industry standards because they actually work. However, there's no reason to limit yourself when thinking about different venues to get yourself and your work out there.

Always sign the book... even if it's not yours.
Ask yourself who your audience is, and then look for opportunities to reach out directly to that demographic. If you write science fiction or fantasy, then you should look into becoming a panelist at a convention where you can weigh in on industry issues connected to your work. If you're a young adult author, then make sure local high schools and middle schools in your area know you live nearby, and offer to speak to students if the school would like to have you in. If you're any kind of successful then organizations like colleges, local writing groups, and other sorts of people collections will typically be more than happy to have you come on over and speak. In fact, if you know how to make up fliers, you can even get a space at your local library free of cost (in most places) and see who's willing to come in and listen to you talk.

Traditional Media

Though we live in a world of instant gratification and 100 character updates, don't count traditional media out when it comes to your writing career. Most writers who don't have a big name, a blockbuster novel, or real clout (see for example most writers who are self-published, or who work mostly with small presses) will probably find a lot of doors shut in their faces when it comes to this step. Newspapers don't want to waste word count on an author no one's heard of, and magazines won't grant an interview to a nobody. However, sometimes being a local is enough to get their attention. Once you have the attention of an editor, if you can make a good case you can expect at least a little ink to flow your way in fairly short order.

Where the hell is the refresh button?
Persistence is the key when it comes to traditional media. Check with all newspapers and magazines no matter how big or small they are. Talk to your local radio stations both private and public to see what they have to say about your work and if they'll have you on as a guest. Professional tip: If you have a local event going on, traditional media is much more likely to cover you. An author they've never heard of has released the first book in an epic trilogy? Yawn. There's going to be an event at the local Barnes and Noble you say? If we can get some pictures, maybe that would interest some people over in the Arts and Entertainment pages...

Social Media

This is where a lot of authors unfortunately lose their minds, as well as any sight of their goals. Social media is like a bloody battle where making any progress at all is likely just as much an accident of your backswing as it is due to the countless hours that you practiced and refined your pitch so it would thrust home with your audience. While it's possible to save a lot of frustration by avoiding social media, this is a prime example of no guts, no glory. You need to be on as many stages as possible if people are going to notice you.

Your career moves at the speed of Google. Watch for trees.
Where should you go? Well, Facebook is a good start (you can find my author page there, for instance), along with Tumblr (my personal favorite), and the professional social media page LinkedIn (yes, I'm there as well). There's also Twitter, the recently re-invigorated MySpace for those who enjoy a dash of undeath with their social media, and as a place just for authors, Goodreads (you knew this link was coming).

Just having a social media presence isn't enough though; any 12-year-old can manage that. What you need to do, as the author, is to wrangle your audience and to keep them entertained. Let them know who you are, and what you're about. Update with news about your projects, your upcoming events, and post links to your stories, your reviews, and any write-ups about your events (see how cyclical this madman's mess is becoming?). Answer their questions, build a rapport, and try to recruit folks by always, always, always including links to your social media in articles published about you, or which you write yourself. Lead by example when possible.

Forums, Blogs, and Video Channels

The natural extension of social media is, well, the rest of the goddamn Internet. Climbing electronic Everest isn't going to be easy though, and it's very likely you'll have to fight hordes of trolls, deal with storms of withering abuse, and comment sections a mile long about how incompetent you are, and how unoriginal your stories and opinions are. I suggest you wear goggles and cover your mouth, this part gets nasty.

This guy's got the right idea.
If you have a forum presence as it is, then you're ahead of the game. Whether you talk about gaming, cosplaying, cross-stitch, ritual mutilation, or some other activity, you have a voice in a community. Use that voice! This is key for any forum you go to, or any comment board you stake your flag on; don't just shout advertising in their faces. If you do that you're going to alienate your audience at best, get banned from the forums as a spammer at worst. Instead, talk to the community like you're a real person. When they acknowledge your right to be there, mention that you're an author. Field some questions, and only when you're sure they won't go for your jugular should you post a link to your book(s). It's slow, but it's a decent way to find new fans who at least share an interest with you.

The same is true for blogs. Starting your own blog is a great first step to building an audience (either that or I'm just sitting here and typing at myself), but it's not the only step. You need to provide something more than a constant barrage of "buy my book"; you need to offer them real information, real entertainment, and the ability to feel connected to you. If you know other bloggers then you should talk with them to try and get yourself, your blog, or your work featured over on their site. Guest blogging for someone that has a bigger audience than you do is a great way to build connections, and maybe to leech off a few of their fans for your own.

Lastly, videos. Not everyone should make videos. If you choose to, even if it's just rolling shots of you reading snippets from your book, make sure that you're smooth, that your lighting is good, and that you take a bit of time to tell the audience who you are, what they're about to hear, and let them know what they're in for. At the end of it all, make sure you thank them for watching, and list any and all pertinent information about yourself, the story, where they can find it, etc. Strike while the iron is hot, and that includes the opinion of people who might have stumbled on you by total accident, and now really, really want to have your book in their hot little hands.

Promotional Material

Seriously, you'll never guess what it's about.
It's an unfortunate truth that most people have the attention span of a goldfish coupled with the memory of an aging poodle. If you had the force, verve, and sheer luck to get someone really interested during a talk, don't just expect them to remember who the hell you are and what the hell you wrote. They won't. That's like feeling a fish bite, then waiting for it to throw itself into your boat. You need to help them along, and the best way to do that is with promo materials.

These things come in all shapes and sizes. Most authors turn their business cards into promotional materials, featuring a design from a cover, and links to their blogs and their published works. That's good, but it's just a start. Several authors I've spoken to swear by promotional bookmarks, where they can list out their credentials as well as hook people with a catchy design on a practical item. Others print up post cards, and others might make up stickers or give away other, small items. What you choose depends on your budget, but once you have them, take them to every meeting and keep a few in your pocket just for good measure. Most of them will probably be thrown in the garbage, but people will have to look at it before they chuck it.

Offline Networking

This strategy is known by many names; communication science, interpersonal studies, and my personal favorite, fucking talking to people. Everyone reading this, even Taliban insurgents living in caves, knows people. You have parents, siblings, co-workers, LARP buddies, sword fighting peers, and a number of other folks primed for conversation. What's more, if you can convert even one of those people into a fan, then they act as a carrier for your message. They tell their friends, their friends tell still more friends, and you've gone old-fashioned viral. Word-of-mouth is a powerful force when it comes to books, and it can often lead to otherwise impossible connections. After all, your mother's best friend's landlord's nephew's fiancé just might have a senior editor at Random House as a father.

There are opportunities every day for making offline networking connections. You might be sitting at lunch chatting with your best friend about your newest plot when someone at the next table leans over and asks if you're a writer. You can smile, say yes, and offer them a bookmark. Hell, sign it for them if they want. It makes people feel special, it wins you admiration, and it could lead to a whole slew of positive results. You just need to make sure you keep your professional face as ready to hand as a business card and a pen.

You'll meet all kinds. Shut up, and take their money.
Other Marketing Tips

Firstly, for those who have an ebook and are looking to get some free marketing for it, I recommend checking out this list from Galley Cat here. There's some good stuff on that list, even if not all of it is right for your particular book.

There are so many things you can do that it can be hard to figure out precisely where you're going to strike gold. However, there are a couple of things you should definitely keep in mind in order to get the best results.

First and foremost, get your face as well as your name out there. Authors aren't typically thought of as on-camera personas, but a lot of the time a reader is buying you just as often as they're buying your book. If you're using a pen name, then create a persona. Make your audience pay attention to that persona, and make it a package deal with your other characters.

You're welcome.
Cut down on your negative statements, particularly about other professionals. No one likes to be trash-talked, and even if you can make a living burning down potential bridges, it isn't always a good idea to do so.

Keep your readers updated, particularly on your social media pages. No matter how great your books, you're bound to lose readers if you don't keep them in the loop about what's going on with you, your career, and your life.

Lastly, and this is a rule not just for you but also for your work. You can do nearly anything as an author. You can be profane, you can be disgusting, you can be controversial; you cannot be boring. As soon as you stop being interesting, that is when your numbers fall to zero, and people move on to find someone else to fulfill their entertainment needs.

As always, thanks for dropping in and staying for the whole of the mission briefing. If you've got any questions or concerns, drop them down in the comments below or put a message in the line at one of my social media pages mentioned above. The Literary Mercenary operates free of charge, but always appreciates support. Prod at the links on the page if you want to keep up going, or check out some of my stories available as ebooks. A good place to start looking is right here on Amazon, for those who are interested.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In Thunder Forged: A Bad Books Review

Up until this point I've been holding very steadily to the "one update per week" rule I set out with. However, sometimes a thing happens and I have the option to either write a post about it (and warn all you fine, writerly and readerly sorts out there), or sit at my desk chewing pig iron into nails. I'm opting for the former, as I don't have dental insurance. So, with that said, this is the first example of what might be a recurring theme; a series called Good Books, Bad Books

What's it All About?

Anyone can tell you if a book is good or bad, but that isn't my job. My job is to tell you why the book is good or bad, and to point out why writers reading this should go forth and either do or not do, depending on what's being thrown onto the chopping block. And while I was originally planning to start this off on a sunnier note by examining something that blew me away, sadly I picked up a book that sent me into a barking fit by page 180 or so. So, without further ado, I present the first of our Bad Books...

In Thunder Forged: Book One of the Fall of Llael

For those of you reading this who don't know me personally, I am a huge fan of tabletop role playing games. I find them a great exercise in creativity, and a fun way to strop my own character-creation and storytelling skills. When I came across a book at my local library that was set in the Iron Kingdoms (the strange, half-breed child of vicious high-fantasy and brutal steam-driven sci-fi), I was intrigued.

Yes that's a steampunk mech. Why do you think I read it?
At first everything looked fine. In the middle of a war between Cygnar and Khador, an alchemical formula is discovered that could end the war overnight for one side or the other. When someone gets greedy and puts the formula up to the highest bidder though, it becomes a race to see which of the two countries can snatch the prize first, and possibly win the war in one, fell swoop. The story follows a small irregular unit, a trio of storm knights, and an undercover operative as they all try to play their part in the drama on the international stage of the steampunk fantasy world made famous by the Warmachine game produced by Privateer Press.

And Then it Started Going Wrong

"In Thunder Forged" is set in a pre-created world. That's great for the author, because it means there's a lot less heavy lifting when it comes to world building. In fact, if the author is a fan of the game world, it's entirely possible to crack open the rule books and create characters that not only fit thematically, but which could be played in the world. Everything from the types of weapons available, to the rules of magic, to which county is ruled by whom have all be set up. That's great; it's still your job to engage us with it. Ari Marmell doesn't do this; not for characters, not for countries, and not for the cities in which the story is supposed to be happening.

What Does That Mean?

I mean that there's no soul in these characters. Benwynne Bracewall, the tough-as-nails sergeant, comes across as a blank wall of stereotype. Ditto goes for Corporal Gaust, the gunmage. He's just another life-on-the-edge gunslinger with a bit of sorcery thrown in; nothing ever edges him out of this archetype, or defines him within it in any meaningful way. The cities don't fare any better; readers are treated to visual descriptions, but no smells, feels, etc. The people of one city are described as colorful, and a little overblown, but that's so vague as to be useless. The emotions felt by the characters vary between muted melodrama and barely even mentioned, as if they really are pawns whose players forgot to role play them for a scene or two and just described their actions. It's even frighteningly easy to completely forget this story takes place during the winter.


This can be forgiven in small doses, but by the triple digits it was making me wince. Self-interruption was popularized in the "Twilight" series, and it's pretty obvious when it happens in this book. Bracewall is particularly prone to it, with trains of thought like, "they weren't doing that- not yet at least, thank Morrow- but it was only a matter of time."

What's the Big Deal?

Once or twice, this can be forgiven. However, when it happens on a near constant basis it makes characters seem scatter-brained and stupid. It interrupts the story to throw in completely unnecessary comments that we don't need to know, and which are distracting. It's kind of like the plot train is running over cows, and after a while the spectacle of dead cows becomes more interesting than whatever destination the train is rushing toward. Also, exclamation points belong in dialog. Nowhere else. Ever.

Adequate Action Isn't Enough

This book is, when you get down to the core of it, military fantasy. That's a fun genre, and it's a sandbox I've personally played in (check out my Paizo story The Irregulars, still available for free if you're curious). With fantasies of steam-driven war machines and ensorcelled bullets flying, I pushed nearly to page 200. What I found was plenty of action, and plenty of intrigue, but it was adequate at best, and boring at worst.


The action scenes fell victim to the same oversight as the descriptions. While it's possible to follow what's happening, and you can very easily tell who did what, there's no soul to the combat. I pushed right past entire squads being reduced to red stains while fighting yawns, and didn't even feel a stir in my hair when the lightning lances were deployed. The scenes were adequate, but they failed to rouse my blood even a ripple. That failure, combined with the use of colloquial modern words, the constant dashes of self-interruption, and the flat out telling of a story rather than showing us the events that transpired, made me quit at the bicentennial mark.

I wanted to like this book. I wanted it to be worth the high star ratings I've seen, and I wanted to be able to compare it to some of the books put out by Paizo's "Pathfinder Tales". As it stands though, "In Thunder Forged" is a bland, tasteless bowl of oatmeal. It will distract you on a plane, and fill your imagination with enough calories, but there are some seriously crunchy bits in the bottom, and the whole thing tastes pretty badly burned overall. All in all, as much as I love the Iron Kingdoms, I cannot in good conscience recommend anyone read this book.

As always, thanks for stopping in and staying a spell. Do you want to see more Good Books, Bad Books? If so, leave me a comment or two below and I'll be happy to dig back through my lists and find those who either did it right, or who did it quite wrong. For those who want to keep up with myself as an author, feel free to poke me over on Facebook, or to get a mainline feed follow me on Tumblr. If you're really curious about my own contributions to fiction (and you're wondering what gives me the right to criticize other authors) head over to my Goodreads author page. To support The Literary Mercenary, just spread the word, buy a book, or remember that this blog runs on Google AdSense. We do love our ads 'round these parts.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Professional Rule Number One: Never Work For Free

It was Sir Walter Scott who first coined the term freelance, taking the two obvious words and cementing them together to form a new term. When it was put together, ostensibly for Ivanhoe in the 1820s, the term was meant to refer to a Middle Ages mercenary. It wasn't until the 1860s that the term was used to refer to writers, and specifically to journalists who wrote on a piece-by-piece basis rather than being on staff for a given paper.

Freelancers, much like their military counterparts, haven't always had the best reputations among the populace. They work cheap, they're often used in place of regular professionals, and they tend to have at least a few different paymasters at a time. They don't always belong to professional organizations, they don't always do the best work, and many times they're downright unscrupulous. But here's something you can all learn from the brothers and sisters of the gilded lance... we get paid.

I want one that says "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son."
There's this strange delusion among the professional world that artists are some second-class group of pseudo-professionals that act a lot like indentured servants who will work for the privilege of working. What's worse is that this delusion is catching, and that many creative persons are willing to accept the lie that they should be flattered just to have their blood, sweat, and tears featured in an ad campaign at all.
The Golden Rule
The first and foremost rule of being a creative professional of any stripe is that you have to be professional. Professionals get paid, period. This isn't just good advice either; it's a mantra, a code, and a creed. If you don't believe your work is worth something, then what does that say about you? Chances are that it doesn't say anything good.
Barter, Trade, and Goodwill
Before at least a few folks reading this start getting up-in-arms about the quality of art being measured with the yardstick of commerce, let me be the first to say that there's more forms of payment than just money. There's the credit that comes with having a story or novel published by a major company, for instance. There's the connections to be made by working with certain editors, and the goodwill that comes from offering a piece of work as a last-minute help to someone that needs a pitch-hitter. There's even the satisfaction of knowing something you wrote went to help out a good cause for those who write, paint, or illustrate for a charity. There's nothing wrong with any of that. It's only when someone hands over days, weeks, and months of effort in the form of a completed work, and then feels grateful when someone else makes money off of it that something is wrong.
But What About Exposure?
I will be the first to say that few things bring me closer to doing serious bodily harm to another human being than someone saying I will be paid in exposure. "Exposure" often translates to "you're getting nothing slacker, just be glad we're giving you page space or throwing your print on the cover". That attitude has become so common that many people just breaking into the creative field accept it as paying their dues, and will go for years allowing themselves to be exploited before turning a profit.
With that said, exposure is an acceptable payment if the publication in question is likely to get exposed. In my experience most places that offer exposure as payment are small presses which can't actually afford to pay their authors an up-front cost for stories, or they're events that are looking for a way to cut costs while still getting all the creative bells and whistles on signs, banners, etc. It all comes down to what you, as the creative professional, are all right with.
Look at the project from a marketing perspective. If you were asked to design a mascot for a local gaming convention which wasn't likely to get more than a few hundred attendees, that's a few hundred people who will see your art. Maybe they'll want to buy some, or maybe they won't. Maybe you get a free badge to go to the convention, or you make allies of the organizers who need you to create something to suck in the public. For some artists, particularly those who are new to the game and who don't have much of a list of achievements, that might be a worthwhile endeavor. For someone who has been a professional artist for several years, or decades, who has a long list of clients that are willing to offer more benefit for time well-spent, a free project like that isn't an effective use of time or resources.
Is This What I'm Worth?
Not all that glitters is gold, which is something creative types know better than most. However, for those who aren't creative professionals the work that we do is often seen as one part magic and two parts frivolity. The common perceptions that art is a luxury rather than a necessity, and worse that art is easy, leads many people to expect gratitude and thanks just for handing out praise. We can all agree that performing surgery on a heart is no small feat, but why is creating something that makes that heart skip a beat considered so much easier?
As always, thanks for stopping in and reading. If you're interested in my professional doings stop in at my Facebook author page, or if you're an instant gratification sort of person my Tumblr is always looking for a few good fans. For those looking for my professional credits, Amazon is a good place to look. Lastly, for people who want to line the pockets of The Literary Mercenary please tell your friends, tell your family, put me up on your Facebook feed, and keep checking back every week for new updates. Oh, and lastly, remember that this page runs on Google AdSense. It keeps the gears greased, and the snark flowing.