Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What is Representation in Fiction, and Why Is It Important?

I want you to do something very simple; think of your favorite book. Just lean back, close your eyes, and re-live for a few moments the story or stories that hold a place of honor on your bookshelf. Got a clear image of the book? Good. Now take a look at your favorite character. Is he a dashing secret agent, by some chance? Perhaps she's an intrepid police detective who doesn't take anyone's shit?

Whoever your favorite character is, and whatever s/he does, ask yourself how many traits that character shares with you. Do you have the same ethnicity? Religion? Do you come from the same part of the world, or the same kind of family or culture? Do you have the same hair color, sexual orientation (or lack thereof), or ability/disability?

American... that's a start...
Now that we've conducted that little thought experiment, let's do a follow-up. How many times have you read a book (or seen a movie, or watched a TV show) where no one in the cast except a minor character in the background seemed like someone you could identify with? How often have you seen characters whom you feel do you and those like you a disservice because of how they're written? If you answered all the damn time then chances are good you are experiencing a lack of representation in fiction.

What Is Representation?

The easiest way to explain representation is to give examples. For starters you could check out this story about a young boy who falls on the Autism spectrum, and how he fell in love with Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy because they shared a similar way of experiencing language. There's also the story of Anthony Smith, a young deaf boy who often rejected his hearing aid because superheroes didn't wear them until he discovered that Hawkeye was both deaf and wore a hearing aid. There's even this case about how, if you believe Hollywood, the entire continent of Africa is nothing but savage tribes and corrupt warlords in a hostile waste.

That's two examples of positive representation, and one of negative representation.

Why does everyone think we all have terrible grammar and cram cheeseburgers down our throats?

Why It's Important

Representation is important to authors because it's important to readers. I'll give you one more example, and it's about my experience with representation.

For those who don't know me I am in fact a white male. I was born into a middle class and upwardly mobile family, my parents are still together, and I have one brother. From the outside my life up to the point that I wrote this blog entry looks like something you'd see on a 90's sitcom where the dad's a little too stern, the mom is demanding yet fair, the younger brother is constantly trying to tag along on adventures, and the older brother gets involved in all kinds of shenanigans while he comes of age.

And then grows up into this handsome motherfucker.
With that kind of setup you'd think it would be easy to find characters I could identify with, but that wasn't the case. The reason for that was because my dad was in the military, which meant every few years I went to a new school, had to learn a new set of standards, and had to go through the arduous process of trying to make new friends all over again.

Also, I had bright red hair as a kid.

That might not sound like a big deal (particularly to those who often find themselves maligned or made fun of by crass stereotypes in fiction), but to me it was. I loved comic books, monster movies, video games, and every character who had red hair was either a bespectacled caricature or the goofy best friend who bungled his way through the plot (if, that was, a ginger showed up at all). This fact didn't stop me from watching He-Man or reading the Hulk, but I noted the differences and wondered what they said about me.

Then Thundercats came on TV, and that was a game changer for me.

I had always had characters I liked or identified with in minor ways, but they were always heroes I might be some day. Liono, by comparison, was a kid in an adult's body (something I sometimes felt for since I got my growth spurt before everyone else), and he had to deal with being an outsider on a planet he had come to from a home he barely remembered. Beset on all sides by foes, he and the other cat-themed heroes on the show had to dig deep to triumph.

All of that, and he was a leader with a thick, ruby mane. It was the first message that I felt spoke directly to me and said hey kid, you can do this too! Now go out there and be awesome!

That's Really Why Representation is Important

When someone sees him or herself represented in fiction it transforms the experience. Tyrion Lannister is a great character in his own right, but he is also a little person who has to deal with all the challenges, slights, and difficulties that comes with his condition even while he struggles not to let it define who he is. John Constantine (at least in his source material) was a character who happened to be bi-sexual, and while that trait didn't define him it could act as a touchstone for viewers to identify with him (particularly men who are having trouble finding heroes that aren't purely heterosexual).

This book has even been praised for its female lead, if you can believe it.
You're probably noticing that in the examples I keep giving there's a plethora of characters for white males. That observation just goes to prove the point that while there are examples of diversity and representation in fiction, it could be argued that many more are needed to reflect the makeup of the audiences who are actually reading all of this content.

That is the point of the current discussion about representation in fiction.

No one is telling authors that they have to write books about leads from non-Western cultures, who have non-Christian religions, who have non-mainstream sexuality (including asexuality), or characters who have disabilities. No one is going to force authors to change their characters' genders, ethnicities, ways of speech, or even the way they dress. It's been made very clear that the reading public will be happy to consume good stories if the characters are well-constructed, the plot is engaging, and the book leaves them wanting more.

That said, it does bear thinking that in the changing demographics of the world it might be a good idea to have someone save the day who isn't a heterosexual white man. Especially if you really want your book to stand out.

As always, if you want more from the Literary Mercenary then go to my Patreon page and become a patron today! To keep up on my updates either fill in your email address in the box on the right hand side of the screen, or follow me on Facebook or Tumblr.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Best Alternative to Google Adsense

Before we get started with this week's post, I wanted to let my readers know the Literary Mercenary has its first official shirt paying homage to one of the great rock stars of the written word.

Willy Shakes, telling it like it is.
This design, along with several others, is available in the Literary Mercenary's storefront right here. Tell your family, tell your friends, and let everyone know you don't work for free.

Speaking of not working for free, this week we're discussing Google AdSense and how unreliable it can be for those who want to make a serious living.

What Are You Talking About?

Anyone who's followed this blog for a while knows I have used Google AdSense for many years. I've outlined how the process works, and I've explained to many readers just how they too can enjoy the benefits of Google AdSense to monetize their blogs. Even when Yahoo! Voices shuttered its doors and the journalism market dried up, I knew that Google always had my back.

Or at least I thought it did.

That would be me. Way off in the background. Looking the other way. Minding my own business.
For those of you who want the nitty gritty details, I wrote a blog post about how Google kicked me out of their clubhouse and cut up my Google AdSense access card right here. I'd like to say it was an article about why it happened, but it seems when Google drums you out of the service you are not given a reason why you're being thrown out on your ear.

I told you that so you know, dear readers, that when I tell you there are alternatives to Google AdSense out there you can trust I know what I'm talking about.

The Best Google AdSense Alternative

Whether you couldn't get a Google AdSense account of your own, you had one and were thrown out, or you just don't trust Google and would prefer to use another company to monetize your blog, you've probably noticed there aren't many options out there. Google is one of the biggest companies in the world, and the amount of resources it controls online is intimidating to say the least. So when you go on a pilgrimage as an outcast from Google's lands, you are walking across the wasteland that was once Google's competition.

Here lies Squidoo, last of the line of trueborn content creators.
However, that doesn't mean there's no life after Google. In fact there are several Google AdSense alternatives that are robust, functional, and which will make certain that your blog or website has the capacity to earn you money as long as you keep your traffic up.

Rather than give you a list though, I'll just tell you which one I found to be the best value; Infolinks.

What Is Infolinks?

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Infolinks puts ads on your website or blog which are geared toward what your viewers want. All you have to do is keep creating good content, and as long as you bring in traffic you can leave the advertising part of things up to Infolinks.

Best of all, you don't have to worry about Google deciding to cut you off for reasons they won't divulge.

Sounds Good To Me!

I thought it might. Though there's a special added bonus as well; even if you have Google AdSense on your page, you can still incorporate Infolinks. So at the end of the day there is really no reason not to go check it out right here.

Just tell them the Literary Mercenary sent you, and don't forget to follow me on Facebook and Tumblr to get all of my latest and greatest.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

How to Get Writing Jobs

I'd like to apologize to my regular readers for taking last week off. You see I was busy being kicked into the gutter by Google, and the boot prints haven't quite worn off yet. The full account of what happened (and the rather bloody financial shape it left me in) can be found at this post right here, and I would encourage all readers to please check it out and help out if you can.

Now then, I'd like to talk to you all about the secret to getting writing jobs.

What is a Writing Job?

While the name should be pretty straightforward I'm going to clarify the types of jobs I'm talking about here. I don't mean getting a book published, or starting your own blog. I am not referring to joining a website where you can put up whatever content you want either, since that is essentially you getting up on a platform and trying to gather your own audience. What I am talking about are "traditional" writing jobs; where your employer pays you a fee to create content according to his or her needs.

Rocking it old school.
The advantages to traditional writing jobs are pretty obvious. They provide you a steady source of income, you have something resembling job security (or at least you know how much money a given project is worth), you can put the job on your resume, and you may even manage to get a reference for future jobs out of an employer.

In short you get all of those things that you don't get as someone who's independently employed, for lack of a better term. Not only that, but you can still run your own projects on the side while paying rent.

Step One: Tune Up

Before you even think about looking for a writing job you need to make sure you've taken a whetstone to your craft, and your words are sharp enough to shave with. If you were trying to get a gig as a lead guitarist you wouldn't leave the basement until you could shred your potential employer's face off; being a writer isn't much different.

This is actually how I write most of my editorials.
Once you've got your voice, style, and rhythm down you need to compose a couple of sample pieces. While it's more impressive if these samples have been published (it doesn't matter where, just so long as they've been published by someone), publication isn't always a necessity. You should have at least three completed pieces to hand out as samples, but the bigger a variety you have the better.

Step Two: Kick In The Door

I've had a fair number of writing jobs, both traditional and non. I've written for two college newspapers, two local newspapers, I've contributed to a now-defunct magazine called College Gentleman, run blogs on a steampunk website, been a columnist at Kobold Quarterly, edited stories for Jupiter Gardens Press, and I've contributed content for Paizo publishing's Pathfinder roleplaying game. While those jobs sound like they're all over the board (because they are), I got each and every one of them with the same, tried and true method.

I would like a job, please.
When you get a traditional, non-writing job there's a formula you follow. You fill out an application, submit it to a manager, wait for an interview, and hope you get a call back telling you when to start. When it comes to writing jobs, even "traditional" ones, things tend to be a little faster and a whole lot dirtier. As such the best way for you to get the job you want is to take the initiative, and kick in the door. Most of the time your future employer will be shocked by the splintered wood hanging off the hinges, and impressed by your initiative. If you're asked to submit some samples, then you have a more than fighting chance of getting the job.

This isn't just tough talk either; getting a job as a writer is largely in how you present yourself. If you show up with a ready portfolio, an eye-catching business card, and a firm handshake then prospective employers will mark you as someone to try out. You probably won't receive a contract and a corner office on the spot, but you might get picked up as a stringer for a newspaper, a pinch hitter for a magazine, or you'll be asked to submit a smaller section of a bigger project in a game booklet. Once your employer sees how you respond to pressure, how you work with a team, and how your quality stands up, you can expect to see more work come your way along with a potential for that full time gig and retirement package.

Just remember that you want to seem enthusiastic, sincere, and qualified. If you're sending an email then be sure you've read it a dozen times, and that you've made it very clear what you want and why you should be given a chance. If you're showing up to an event like a job fair, a convention, etc. then you want to make sure you've got copies of your resume, plenty of business cards, and that you've practiced how to pitch yourself without sounding like you're pitching yourself. In short you want to sell your future boss on the idea that you will be a valuable asset to have on speed dial.

Step Three: Repeat

I'd like to say there's a big secret to getting steady work as a writer, because if I could I'd have a best selling book on the market and I'd never have to work again. Sadly being a writer is a lot like being a sculptor or a painter; some of us land cushy jobs where we can skate by with plenty of time and effort for other projects, and most of us end up patching together a collection of odd jobs and pennies to pay rent.

A lot of us do things we aren't exactly proud of.
The difference between the writer who has enough work to pay for insurance, a new car, and the occasional cheese burger on the weekend is not usually a matter of talent or skill, though. It's usually decided by who is willing to get back up and come out swinging in the next round. If one job prospect doesn't work out you thank them for the consideration, and move on to the next company. You go to the next convention, the next job fair, the next publishers' event, and you dive in with a sharp smile and a business card in hand.

Most people think it's the fastest or the strongest fighter who's left standing at the end of the day. More often than not though it's the person who refuses to go down.

On that note, for those who'd like to help support me and The Literary Mercenary, please consider checking out my Patreon page and becoming a patron.

If you'd like to plug in to my updates then you can follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or enter your email into the box on the right hand side to get updates sent to your inbox!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"Zen And The Art of Lazy Writing" or "Why You Should Stop Giving White People Katanas"

Anyone who's read my blog before knows that I tend to talk about things in the writing profession that upset me. I've discussed misogynistic tropes, called out lazy writing in romance novels, and I've addressed reams of things you should never say to an author. This week I'd like to stick with what I'm good at, and point out another piece of bad writing which I think we can all agree has had its 15 minutes of fame and should move along now.

Unless this is what you want your book to be about?
I'm talking of course about the katana.

The Facts

Why am I picking on the most awesome sword history has ever created, you might ask. Is it because I simply haven't heard the good word of Hattori Hanzo? Am I a sword snob who feels that weapons like the Ulfbehrt (find out what that is here) are superior to the creme-de-la-creme of Japanese weapon smithing? Do I have a vendetta against fun?

Yes. Mostly, though, it's because there are too many facts getting in the way for me to be silent any longer.

What facts could get in the way of this blade?
Let's begin at the beginning, shall we? The legend is that a katana, when forged by a master sword smith and placed in the hands of a trained warrior was a terrifying weapon. The steel, folded thousands of times, could cut through armor and bone, leaving a wake of bloody bodies behind a samurai as he decimated the battlefield. Superior to any other blade ever produced anywhere in the world, the katana still stands as a testament to the purity of the culture that created it.

That's all well and good. The problem is that it's one part myth, and one part bed time story according to this article.

Here are the facts. A katana is a curved sword which, in the hands of a truly capable warrior who had trained with one his entire life, was a deadly weapon. The problem is these swords were forged from tamahagane, which was also known by the more common European designation of "pig iron" in the days of yore. This subpar metal was all smiths had to work with, so they folded the iron 7 or 8 times to beat some of the carbon out of it. The result was a sword that would take an edge and do damage if you swung it like a fishing rod (you'll notice that samurai have a limp-wristed style that is the polar opposite of many other fighting styles), but which would shatter into a thousand shards if you swung it with all your might the way you would a broadsword.

None of that applies to a katana made from the high carbon steel that we can produce today, of course. Even cheap steel would have been a miraculous, near magical thing in the days of feudal Japan, and a katana made from high carbon steel will stand up to quite a beating and an awful lot of use.

The Real Problem: Cultural Appropriation

The real issue for writers is not whether or not the katana is or isn't history's greatest weapon. We have access to magic, super science, inhuman heroes and mutated villains. If we say that a sword has a blade forged in a dying star with a pommel hammered from the holy grail itself then no one can contradict us.

If we have this weapon being wielded by someone with blond hair and blue eyes though, sooner or later someone's going to call bullshit.

This is where we get to the meat of the problems with the katana; it's a Japanese weapon, but there are a whole lot of people wielding them in today's fiction who aren't Japanese, who have nothing to do with Japan, and who really have no reason to own one of these weapons much less be able to use one.

We call this cultural appropriation. For those of you unfamiliar with the term it essentially means that one group of people appropriates parts of another, typically less powerful group's culture. If you saw the VMA awards in 2013 then you saw Miley Cyrus twerking despite that dance being part of African American culture for decades. Having your 23-year-old caucasian stripper with blond hair and green eyes cut down vampires with a sword that only belonged to the warrior class of feudal Japan is essentially the same thing.

Your argument made flesh.

Don't Be That Writer

In an age where representation of different ethnicities, genders, and sexualities is becoming more and more important to readers, writers can no longer afford to rely on tropes like the Mighty Whitey to create action heroes. It falls to us to examine our work with a critical eye and to ask why? Why does a warrior for the Christian God who was born in New York and trained by knights from Europe fight with a katana? How would someone without a lifetime of discipline (and we're talking the feudal kind where training started at age 5 or 6) ever wield this weapon effectively?

What's wrong with just making your main character Japanese, and having the hero come from overseas? Or, if you really want to go the whole nine yards, setting your book in Japan!

If you find yourself coming up with a lot of complicated reasons why someone who is not from a certain part of the world, or a certain culture, has a given skill, trait, item, or other plot-important thing, then you need to put on the brakes and take a good, long look at what you're writing. The last thing we need is another white guy showing up with a katana.

As always thanks for stopping in to have a look at The Literary Mercenary. If you want to follow me then here's my Facebook, here's my Tumblr, and you can get updates by email by filling in the box on the right hand side of the screen. If you'd like to support me and my blog then you can stop in to either my tee shirt shop or my Amazon author page where all my books are listed by clicking the links on the right side of the page. If you'd like to leave a tip then click the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son," button on the right, or you can stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today!