Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How Long Should A REAL Novel Be?

People love giving writers advice, but as I pointed out in Copyright Myths Authors Should Know About, most of the people giving advice are just bending over and farting out something they think sounds good. Nowhere is this more true than conversations about manuscript length. People will argue back and forth about how long a book should be, and in many cases the length a book must be, before it will be seen with favor by a publisher. Unfortunately, most of the "rules" you've heard are probably either made-up, or so out of date as to be laughable.

Which is why this week, The Literary Mercenary would like to provide some rough guidelines for writers who are trying to figure out how much is enough, and how much is too much.

Mileage, and word count, may vary.

The General Guide to Novel Length

The following numbers come from The Writer's Digest, and you can check them out right here, if you're curious. They're a few years old, but judging from my own research and conversations with those working in the industry, they seem pretty reasonable.

For "standard" manuscripts:

- 80,000 - 89,999 is completely acceptable
- 90,000 - 99,999 should be just fine
- 100,000 - 109,999 pushing your luck

Those numbers are a ball park for your "average" novel. However, some genres have different averages. Science fiction and fantasy, in particular, are given a pass on being "too long" because of all the additional world building that has to go into the novels. These genres tend to fall more into the 100,000 - 115,000 word range before you start getting too long.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, young adult books and Westerns are allowed to be much shorter than your average novel. Westerns can get away with 65,000 - 80,000 words, and YA novels can range from 55,000 - 69,000 words without much issue.

If You Really Need To Know... Ask

I want to stress at this point that the lengths mentioned above are general guidelines only, and there's no guarantee they're accurate to any one, specific publisher. You know why? Because every publisher is different. So, in a way, this is a lot like dating advice. You can get general tips about the things that are and aren't acceptable, but if you want to know about that guy or girl you've got your heart and/or genitals set on, you should try asking them instead of me.

Seriously, email works wonders.
While you can buy a copy of The Writer's Market, most publishers have their word count guidelines listed on their websites. And if you're serious about getting yourself published traditionally, you should do a quick tour to see which houses you can work with, and which ones simply aren't going to be pleased with a book of your length.

And For The Non-Traditionalists...

I mention traditional publishing specifically, because publishing houses set their own standards. If you're going the self-publishing route, then you are the one who gets to set your standards. Well, you, and your readers. Which is why if you get complaints that your book is too long, too short, too padded, etc., you might want to pay attention. Otherwise, though, if your fans are happy, you're good to go!

As always, thanks for sticking your head in to see what I have to say. If you'd like to help support The Literary Mercenary, stop by my Patreon page, and consider becoming a patron. As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and help me on my quest to deliver you solid content week after week. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Diversity in Fiction, and The 2016 Oscars

If you own a TV, listen to the radio, or browse the Internet, chances are good you've come across the budding storm that is the 2016 Oscar Diversity Scandal. If you haven't heard about it, somehow, then check out this article quoting the academy president, this video, and this list of highlights.

Up to speed? Good.

So what does the lack of diversity in mainstream film, and the significantly bigger lack of diversity in film awards, have to do with people writing books? Well, a big part of it is the argument that crops up, and which I have to listen to, every time this big, scary, capital-D discussion comes up. It doesn't matter if we're talking about college admissions, actors, authors, imaginary characters, or CEO job positions. The argument goes something like this:

"It doesn't matter what a person's skin color/gender/background is. We pick the people who do the job best, and who make us the most money."

I smell self-serving bullshit.
The argument accomplishes two things for the person making it. First, it depicts them as a truly color and gender-blind person. They're only interested in results, this argument protests. Second, it says that everyone has the same opportunity, and that because everyone has that same opportunity, those who come out on top did it all themselves.

I'm sick of hearing this, because it isn't true.

First, The Obvious

Before we get started here, I am aggressively white. My ancestors came to America from Norway and Sweden, via England and Ireland. I'm also male, and come from a middle-class background. I am often the subject of unfair treatment, but that treatment always benefits me. Because of the way I look, the way I talk, and because of my cultural heritage, I'm playing the game of life on easy mode in America.

A reference shot, for those who've never seen my book jacket.
I have never, for example, walked into my local comic shop wearing a Batman tee shirt and had someone demand I prove my fandom by asking me a slew of obscure trivia questions. I've never had someone ask me whether the book I was selling at a convention was full of "chick stuff." And I've never had someone insinuate that I got one of my stories published because the editors wanted to have someone of my ethnicity/gender/etc. in their book in order to score "diversity points" with readers.

You know something else that's never happened to me? I've never had someone tell me, "you can't do that," when I said I was going to be an author. More specifically, I've never been told that people of my gender or ethnicity don't write horror, sci-fi, or fantasy, as if that opinion was a fact. Editors have never suggested I change my work when I write stories with main characters who shared my ethnicity or gender because it, "might have trouble selling." I've never had to write under a pen name because readers are unlikely to buy a book if they think it was written by a man. Most notably, though, I've never had trouble finding representation in any of the fiction I love. Movies, comic books, novels, TV shows, and even video games have provided me with a life-long parade of manly white men whose adventures I have followed.

The idea that other people have to deal with any of the arbitrary barriers I just listed, and whose most common representation in the media they love is as comic relief, villains, and stock characters, is something that I think we should address head-on.

An Example of Social Factors

Anyway, back to the issue at hand.

My point is that movie studios aren't a colorblind mass who choose actors, directors, screenwriters, and composers based on an impartial judge of talent and past performance. It's just as often that someone lands a starring role because they fit a certain look, said something clever at a party, have the right friends, or graduated from the right college. It is, by no means, a merit-based career where people are rewarded based purely on the talent they've displayed.

To show the kinds of ripple effects unseen social barriers can create, I'd like to present an example that has nothing to do with movies or books, but which is illustrative of the impact social challenges can have on entire groups of people for generations.

This example is full of terrible stuff, so have a silly puppy before we start.
Have you heard of the Federal Housing Authority? Well, one of the many responsibilities this federal organization had was helping people become homeowners. The logic was that the more people who bought homes and owned property, the steadier the economy would become, and the better off society would be as a whole. As such, this organization gave out mortgages at lower rates to qualifying people. It was a good idea, but it was an idea with a heavy streak of institutionalized racism running through it.

You see, for many decades, the FHA gave out housing loans to white people who wanted to buy homes, but found reasons to deny minority applicants. This helped ensure that white neighborhoods stayed that way, but it also made sure that many minorities had to either get more expensive loans, or make due with renting. This allowed white families to acquire property, and to begin accruing wealth. Said wealth was handed down through the generations, providing firmer footing for their children and grandchildren.

This lending policy was eventually discovered, and steps were taken to reverse it. However, the rock had been thrown into the pond, and the ripples were still going. Because predominantly white families had been allowed to buy homes with low rates, the recipients had been able to move up the financial and social ladder. Minorities, on the other hand, had often been forced into poverty, saddling the next generation with debts and hardship instead of upward mobility. It was theoretically possible for these other groups to move forward now, but instead of starting at the beginning, many families were struggling just to get to the beginning after generations of hard living and wrecked credit scores.

The ripples go further than individual families, though. This lending policy contributed to minorities being segregated into low-income areas, and helped stop people from moving up financially. Additionally, when education was funded by home and property taxes in the school's area, it meant that schools from affluent, white communities received a great deal of funding, while minority-dominant schools received significantly less. This led to a gap in the way the next generation was educated, and the resources they were allocated. More graduates came from the schools with the funding to hire good teachers, and from communities where families weren't struggling to overcome a slew of other obstacles in addition to making good grades. The result? More of the kids from the predominantly white communities went to college, got degrees, and made the necessary connections to help them get further in their careers.

You still with me?
Now, none of that means there weren't people from bad homes or poor neighborhoods who didn't end up being successful. It doesn't mean there weren't failures in the affluent communities. It doesn't mean that those who achieved didn't work for their successes. However, it's a lot easier to graduate from high school if your parents have good jobs with benefits, if you have teachers who are happy with their salaries, and if you don't have to work a part-time job to help out with the household bills. And it's a lot easier to graduate from college if you were able to get grants and scholarships, or if your parents can help you pay the costs, so you can focus on meeting people you need to know, and getting the degree you need.

So What Does That Have to Do With The Oscars?

The point is that these kinds of background manipulations happen at all levels of society, including movies and books. There isn't a dearth of minority and female roles in Hollywood because the picky public won't go to see them (just look at the rave reviews for the last Star Wars film, or Mad Max: Fury Road). The dearth comes from the money men only being willing to green-light projects that conform to their expectations. Additionally, it isn't that female action figures don't sell. Executives don't want to confuse their demographic by making toys of action-oriented women like the Black Widow, or Rey, even though there's a huge market demand for them. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; we've decided these movies don't sell, so we don't make them. Because there are none of these movies, everyone assumes it's because they don't sell.

After all, why would you refuse to make something if there were hordes of fans lining up to throw money at you for giving them what they want?

The same thing happens with books, too.
What people are asking for with the Oscars, and with most other fiction awards, is not to take awards away from white actors, or white authors. Especially from our favorites, whom we all agree have earned those awards. What we're asking for is genuine opportunity for people who haven't been given a shot. That the next time Hollywood is making an action movie where the hero's ethnicity isn't specified, that you consider casting someone who isn't a straight, white man in the role. Or, if Hollywood really wants to branch out, to purposefully tell stories from someone else's perspective.

No one is denying the talent on display at the Oscars. What we're asking is where are all the other talented people who deserve recognition as well?

Thanks for tuning in to this week's rant. For those who'd like to help support me and my blogs, check out my Patreon page. As little as $1 a month can be a big help. If you want to make sure you don't miss out on my future rants, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, too, while you're at it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Vagabond Writer is a Reality, Thanks to Modern Technology

There's a certain, punk rock aesthetic that comes with being a writer. There's something about the non-conformist beat poet, the hard-line reporter, or the tale-telling wanderer that taps into what drives us. That idea that you're on the edge of the unknown, and that you have seen and experienced things others haven't, is one reason Jack Kerouac is both a person, and an archetype. After all, it takes guts to hit the open road or the city streets armed with nothing more than a notebook and your wits.

For those of us following in the footsteps of our forebears, though, it's a lot easier than you ever thought possible.

Adventure awaits!

Uproot Yourself... Seriously, It's Pretty Freeing

I didn't grow up in a particularly tech savvy home. Sure, we had a VCR, a few video game consoles, and we eventually got a computer when it was clear that schoolwork was going to be turned in on a disk instead of as a stack of papers, but my house was alternatively mistrustful of the latest gadgets, and unwilling to pay for access to them. I didn't discover what the Internet was (outside of movies) until I got to middle school, and I didn't get a really solid handle on it until my junior year of high school when I completed the Cisco networking program my school offered. I also worked a lot of different jobs in my late teens (often simultaneously), and every one of them was a job that required you to be in a certain place, at a certain time, to do a certain thing.

That's why, when I found out there were websites that let me make money by writing articles, I felt genuine freedom in a way I hadn't experienced since I got my driver's license.

I can leave the box now?
For the last year of my college experience (there was a gap in the middle, it's complicated, best not to ask), I managed to make a pretty decent wage without giving up any of my free time, or homework hours. All of that because of the student computer lab, and the gig I was working in the campus writing center. Because, for those who've never been in such a place, no one comes to the writing center unless they have a paper due in about an hour. While I was working there I helped 7 people in 8 months. Which meant that while I was technically on-duty and open for business, I was also online writing articles.

That meant my expenses were covered, and as soon as I finished up my classwork, I was free to do whatever I pleased. Which was, ironically, usually more writing.

The Adventure, and Discipline, of The Traveling Writer

In time, I got my degree, and quit working at the writing center. Since I didn't have to be up at any particular time, and I was on my own schedule, I established a semi-regular pattern. Wake up, sit down at my desk, check messages, and write until I hit my quota for the day's earnings. Take a break, relax a bit, and work on secondary projects. Read a book, go to bed, do it all over again.

Shakespeare gotta get paid, son.
On the one hand, my career choice meant I didn't get days off. On the other hand, I slowly came to realize that no one was going to make me work but me. Fortunately, by the time I realized that, I had a pretty good handle on what I needed to accomplish in a day to make bank by the end of the month.

I also realized something even more important. Because I could do my job from anywhere, that meant I could go anywhere to do my job.

That sounds self-evident, but think about it for a moment. How much time, and effort, do you typically put in trying to get days off to go on a vacation, or to visit friends, or to attend a convention that you really like? Most of the time it isn't even the fuel costs, or the oil change; it's getting more than two days off in a row to make your stay worth the trek.

Because I had a laptop, I had the world out in front of me. Which meant that I could drive down to visit friends in the middle of the week, and while they were at class, I would work, so when we were both mutually finished, we could enjoy the local events. It also meant I could go to conventions like Gen Con in Indy, or Windy Con and Capricon in Chicago, and not worry about paying my rent when I got home.

The Anchor's Gone, and It's Never Coming Back

A lot has changed since those gilded days. Work is more plentiful now, but often not as high-paying, and the hours writers like me (the unknown, but hard-working) clock are more numerous than ever before. However, the Internet has flexed its muscles, and stretched out into more places than we ever thought it would. It's available in hip cafes and over-priced coffee bars, but you can also get it in hotel lobbies, fast-food booths, and even at your gym (probably).

Seriously, though, you could write and update a blog from this thing.
If you ever find yourself pounding the pavement, with a backpack of clothes and a messenger bag with a laptop in it, remember that all you need to do to find work is log on. If you've got the discipline, and a little bit of luck, you might even manage to become the master of your own destiny, in addition to your own boss.

Thanks for sticking with me through this week's rambling update! If you want to help support me, and get some free swag, then visit The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! If you want to make sure you get all my latest updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter while you're at it!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

4 Tips For Creating Character Quirks

So, you've done all the hard work that comes with making a fully-rendered character. You know all the important events of this character's life, you know who their friends and lovers are, and you've delved deep enough into their psychology to know exactly how they'll react to everything you're going to throw at them in the upcoming story. You have, in essence, made the dough, baked the cake, and put the icing on top. It's perfectly fine as it is... but it would be a little bit better if you added a few sprinkles.

Because everything is better with sprinkles.
The sprinkles, in this dessert-related metaphor, are your character's quirks. By themselves, they're not enough to make up for a burnt crust or stale icing, but on top of a character that's already really good, quirks can be the final, finishing touch that makes that character great.

There's just one problem... how do you give a character quirks? Well, follow these simple tips, and see if anything strikes you.

Tip #1: Look At How This Character Grew Up

Examine your vocabulary for a moment, and ask yourself where you picked up your iconic phrases. Was it because you had a friend in third grade who always set the standard for classroom lingo, and one or two sayings just stuck? Did your grandmother have a phrase she always said around the house, and you, your mother, and your aunts all adopted it without any real thought? Did your dad, or older siblings, have a particular thing they said that you adopted to try and imitate them?

What did you say, boy?
Childhood is full of quirks that stick with you into your adulthood. A character's favorite candy might be connected to a certain relative, or a family member. A favorite song, or a hated one, might be as a result of something that happened when the character was just growing into their teens. Would a folksy background occasionally shine through the sheen of sophistication on a big city lawyer? Does this character refer to a sweet, carbonated beverage as soda, or pop? Or do they instead just call everything Coke, regardless of the brand name?

Tip #2: Look At Their Work History

Once someone is old enough to be employed, they start absorbing the culture of their workplace. Whether it's rushing around a restaurant as a member of waitstaff, de-greasing engines in a motor pool, or being all you can be as part of the army, every job leaves it's mark on people who do it long enough. Sometimes all it takes is leaving that job behind for a while for the quirks to fade, but some of them hang on, and become a permanent part of a character's personality.

He just can't sleep with the lights on.
For example, if a character had to keep to a certain schedule for several years, it might be something that's impossible to break. The result is someone who keeps the hours of a vampire, needing half a dozen cups of coffee in the morning to function, but who is wide-eyed and ready to go if working in the wee hours. Did working in England give the character a taste for tea instead of coffee? Did time spent in prison mean that the character developed coping mechanisms that appear strange on the outside? Things like always sitting with his back to a wall, or responding to even mild disagreement or challenge with threats of overt violence?

Tip #3: What's Happened In Their Adulthood?

We never stop growing and changing, and just because someone has reached adulthood that doesn't mean that person is now stuck in their ways. We pick up new interests, and we branch out into new hobbies. Maybe we were introduced to them by a friend or significant other. Maybe we stumbled across them on our own, and just stuck with them.

Some hobbies are odder than others.
For example, did someone who suddenly found themselves as part of an affluent community take up wine tasting? Or develop an interest in fine art? Did someone from a poor community spend a lot of time at the museum because it was free on weekday afternoons, which resulted in an eclectic knowledge of bizarre history? Everything from a casual interest in stage magic, to learning how to sing, play an instrument, or speak another language can all be considered quirks if they're a kind of hidden talent that doesn't show up on-screen very often.

Tip #4: What Are They Afraid Of?

Not all quirks are harmless things; sometimes they speak to the darker parts of our pasts, or the shadows of our psyches. For instance, someone whose uncanny valley is triggered by clowns or dolls won't be able to deal with these tiny reflections of humanity. Other people may be unable to deal with cities at night, because of all the in-grown, programmed fear they've absorbed of dark alleys, loud noises, and grimy gutters. Other people may be unable to handle the quiet of the country, especially at night, when anything could be out there.

Sometimes fear quirks are less vague. Someone might refuse to eat in a certain restaurant, or is really uncomfortable around dogs. Stage fright could be a real, palpable fear, often stopping someone from putting their true skill or knowledge on display. It's also important to ask what characters aren't afraid of. Characters who love spiders, who think snakes are adorable, or who can walk out on a 30th story ledge without the slightest hint of vertigo have quirks... and they're quirks that, in the right circumstances, might prove quite useful.

Just Add A Few

Quirks, much like sprinkles, should be added with a bit of restraint. Having a few can add a final touch, making your character cupcake really unique. Pouring half the bottle onto your sweet, though, will end up with a glut of extras that hide the meat of the character underneath. Remember, it's best to have a few quirks, rather than throwing in a few dozen. One or two add flavor, but more than that you start to drown out the rest of your dish.

As always, thanks for stopping by The Literary Mercenary to listen to me talk about writing. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, stop by my Patreon page to become a patron today! Also, if you want to keep up on my latest posts, then be sure to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter as well.