Wednesday, March 30, 2016

What Authors Need To Know About Fair Use

One of the most commonly asked questions I see writers asking online (aside from "what should I name my protagonist?" and "how do I get published?") is whether or not it's okay for them to mention the titles of books, song lyrics, and other intellectual property in their novels. They've read books that use lines from a movie in dialogue, or which incorporate famous books into their plots, but they've also heard stories of authors being sued because they took too much of something that wasn't theirs, and put it in their book.

So what's the answer? Fair use, since you ask.

What does that even mean?

What Is Fair Use?

As I said in Copyright Myths Authors Should Know About, fair use is a legal idea that is often important for authors to know and understand. In broad terms, fair use means that if you are taking a portion of a copyrighted material, and using it in very specific ways, then you are not infringing upon the creator's copyright. Two of the agreed-upon things that fall under fair use according to Stanford include:

- Parody: This is why books like The Wobbit by Paul Erickson exist, and are allowed to make money.

- Commentary and Criticism: This is why movie reviewers can quote the film without being sued. You can't be a critic if you aren't allowed to talk about the work in question.

Outside of these defined areas, fair use can get a little murky. For example, it's possible to take short snippets of copyrighted material, and to mix them together in order to create something new. Youtube has an educational video on this topic, and it explains why there are music videos using copyrighted songs, and copyrighted movies, but by splicing them together into a music video the creators are making something new, which often grants them fair use protection.

So It IS All Right?

I didn't say that.

Fair use is tricky when it comes to fiction. On the one hand, telling the audience that your protagonist has had nightmares ever since he read It by Stephen King is not a copyright infringement. You could even give a summary of some of the scenes, driving home the effect they had on the character, and you'd still be in the clear. You wouldn't start sailing into troubled waters until you started pulling swaths of text from the book, and re-printing them in your own novel. In much the same way you can tell the audience that, in a tense restaurant scene, the song Don't Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult is playing over the speakers. You won't start skating over the line until you begin quoting the lyrics in your story past a certain point.

Strap in, cupcake, because it gets more confusing.
Generally speaking, you can talk about books, music, movies, and other creative works without any real worry, as long as you don't start cutting pieces off of them and putting them in your book.

And since you ask, fair use is only about infringing on copyright. There are a slew of other problems authors can run into when they try to re-create a reality as they know it in their books. Especially if the real-world entities they're depicting take offense to the way they show up in a book.

Need an example? Well, if you want your main character to stop and get food from a real-world burger chain, then your portrayal of the restaurant could lead to legal action from the corporation (in theory, at least). The same is true of portrayals of real people, and particularly of celebrities and other public figures. Even a discussion of real-life products, could be enough to cause trouble.

Is that likely? Not terribly. For example, no one is likely to take legal action against you because you listed all the stats on your protagonist's muscle car, or because your detective with a drinking problem favors a particular brand of hooch. However, the more visible your depictions are, the more likely it is that a company, or a person, might take notice of what you're doing, and raise a complaint.

It's Always Better to Err on The Side of Caution

So what do you do, with so many pitfalls just waiting to entrap you? Well, the easy solution is to write a story that doesn't take place in the modern day. That way, with the kingdoms, villages, etc. all made up, there's no chance for you to accidentally go too far in your depiction of the modern world, or to quote a song or story that isn't in the public domain.

Of course, that isn't always a worthwhile solution. Sometimes you just need a modern setting to make your story work. If that's the case, remember that it's always best to err on the side of caution, and to leave out details that might be considered problematic. For instance, don't say that your protagonist is going to Barnes and Noble. Instead, say that it's one of those corporate bookstores, where everything is big, open, and smells vaguely of spilled espresso. Don't say that your lead picked up two or three McDoubles; instead tell us that she hit a drive-thru for the kind of food that had become a guilty pleasure after she reached adulthood. Max Brooks gives us a master-class in this by using descriptions in World War Z that may refer to actual celebrities popular during the book's publication, without ever mentioning them by name. The one that stuck with me was, "the drugged up whore famous for being a drugged-up whore." A description that could apply to a slew of names in Hollywood, but which could equally be no-one.

And if you feel the need to include a poem, a song, or to throw in a copy and paste from your favorite novel to build some context, stop and ask yourself how much is too much. It might be one of those darlings you're better off drowning in the editorial stream.

It's an easy enough habit to keep, once you're in the zone.
So, just to refresh, it's perfectly fine to mention factual things in your story. Under narrow circumstances, you can ever reproduce copyrighted works without suffering any consequences. However, if you want to stay as safe as possible, try to make sure you're not giving any unintentional product placement to companies who may object to being in your book.

As always, thanks for stopping in to see what I've got to say this week. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today! Also, if you haven't done so already, why not follow me at Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay up on my most recent releases?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Are We Done With The "Family in The Fridge" Trope Yet?

For those of you who haven't read much of my fiction, I love dark stories. I love the tension that comes when you don't know if the lead is really going to pull through, and I love that moment of shocked catharsis when the rope snaps, and the bridge drops out from under me. Those are the kinds of stories I read, and it's often the kind of stories I write.

If you don't believe me, check out my latest release!
With that said, I would like to address something that I think has become a problem for those trying to create gritty, edgy fiction. The problem, as I see it, is that authors are much too quick to resort to murder as a method of character development. Worse, all of this bloodletting is happening off-screen somewhere. Worst, though, is that it often serves the dual function of making sure the writer doesn't have to put that much thought into their protagonist's relationships.

Before you continue, note that this is a complaint regarding character backgrounds. If family, friends, lovers, etc. whom we have established and who are part of the story die on-screen deaths, that is a totally separate issue.

The Family in The Fridge

When we conceive of a character, we usually see the broad sweeps first. For example, the grizzled detective, or the won't-take-no-for-an-answer reporter. Then we fill out the details, inject personality, and we realize them as complete people. The problem is, too often, we realize them in a vacuum. We just put in all the hard work creating one person, and the idea of going through the web of that character's connections to family, friends, and others just seems like so much additional work. So we start looking for reasons not to do it.

Now, I'm not saying that every character you create needs to come from a loving home, with a huge network of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and extended familial connections. What I am saying is that people need support networks, and family tends to figure into them somehow. If that isn't the case for your character, you need to have an explanation for why that is.

These explanations don't have to eat up a lot of word count, either. For example, your grizzled detective has been divorced twice, and has two kids, neither of whom much like him. That one sentence conveys the fact that he has tried, and failed, to maintain a steady romantic relationship, and that parenting isn't something he's really good at. Alternatively, our reporter might have been raised by a single mother, and raised poorly, so the two of them aren't on speaking terms. Again, this one sentence fills in a lot of gaps, and allows our brains to move on with the rest of the story.

These facts are Spackle in your story; meant to fill in the cracks. Because no one person is an island, you have to tell us why there are gaps when it comes to the important people in our lead's life. You don't put glitter in your Spackle, because that just draws attention to something you're trying to camouflage. Killing your character's entire family, or just portions of it, is like putting glitter in your Spackle, and then shining a light on it to draw extra attention.

There are some things you don't want your readers to notice.
Having dead family members is a tried-and-true method of creating pathos, but it's often like using a sledgehammer to put in roofing nails. And the sexier the death, the bigger the hammer you're swinging around.

Let's go back to our previous example. Now, instead of being divorced, our cop's first wife died in a car wreck, and his second of cancer. An accident and a disease; nothing he could do. More importantly, though, they're pedestrian causes of death. He lost someone he cared about, and the death drove a wedge between him and his kids. Especially if he turned to the job as a way to find his center, and to keep going past his grief. It's sad, but it's the kind of street-level sadness that happens all the time. It doesn't make our detective stand out as special. Tragic, but not special.

But what if we spiced up that death? Let's say that his wife and kids were kidnapped by organized crime, and held in a hostage situation. He tried to save them, but they killed his wife, and crippled his children before he could bring them down. They still have that same mixed bag of grief, regret, and resentment, but because we brought in men with guns as a way to make things grimmer and darker, we've also put a strain on our reader's belief.

Could that happen? Sure, it's within the realm of possibility. But why are you choosing that particular hammer? Why is it necessary to your story?

Don't Scream When a Whisper Will Do The Job

Have you ever watched a fencing match? You can always tell the amateurs because their movements are big and sweeping. Every attack is a full-body lunge, and every block is a swing of the sword you could see from the third row. If you watch experienced fencers, though, you'll notice their movements are much more controlled. A truly accomplished swordsman can block simply by shifting his blade a few inches, and changing the way he stands. Fights between two experts can be over in moments, and often with no more than a few steps and subtle movements.

Writing a book is a lot like fencing. You're trying to get the measure of your reader, and to distract them with feints so they never see your real killing blow coming. To do that, though, you need to draw them in. Make them follow your lead. The best way to do that is to save the flash and splash for when you really need it.

Otherwise you come a step closer to the Family in The Fridge singularity.
If you've decided your protagonist's parents, siblings, children, significant others, etc. all have to die, take a moment to examine that decision. Why is that necessary? What does your story gain by throwing one more character on the slab, especially if they were buried before your book even starts? If there is no reason except that bringing the hammer down on those connections was your first instinct, or because it was simply easier, re-examine that choice until you have a better reason.

Also, if you liked this week's post, you might also be interested in The Disposable Woman: A Trope That Really Needs to Go as well as Are "Tortured Souls" Really Just Stunted Characters? 

As always, thanks for stopping in to see what advice I'm dispensing this week. If you'd like to help support this blog, and my work in general, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? For as little as $1 a month, I can keep the doors open and the content flowing. Also, if you haven't yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

"Like For Like" is Not a Good Strategy For Authors Trying to Network

Networking is the name of the game when it comes to being an author. Sure, you have to write good books, and you have to get them published, but who you know is a huge part of that process. The more editors, book reviewers, and other authors you know, the bigger your network grows, and the more options you have when it comes to your career. You need to get some more reviews for your latest release? Sharon knows some people at the site she used to work for who'd be happy to oblige. You have a project that can't seem to find a home? Steve knows a publisher who's looking for just the kind of book you've written. You're having a weekend giveaway? Irene has room for a guest post on her hugely popular book blog, so you can tell her readership about it to spread the word.

This is the easy part of the job, right here.
But how do you get that network? Especially if you don't know anyone right now who can introduce you to all their friends? Well, I'll tell you one way not to do it; liking other authors, publishers, etc. on social media with the expectation they'll like you back.

That Isn't How Professionals Do Things

Let me be clear, the idea that you could follow someone on social media, and that the person in question will return the favor, was once a common part of online etiquette. I say, "was once," because these days it would be like challenging someone to a duel because they insulted your mother; it would be ridiculous. Not only would no one take you seriously, but you'd probably end up being either punched in the head, or roundly ignored by all the folks not living in the 17th century.

Follow my author's page, you knave!
Unfortunately, this is a huge mistake a lot of authors make when they're starting out and trying to build their network. They find someone who is doing well (an author whose books they've seen, or a small publisher that's won some awards), and then they start following that person. Then they pitch a fit when, instead of immediately getting a re-follow, the author or publisher continues on as if it's business as usual. Because you might be some no-name, just-starting-out writer, but that's just rude!

Except that it isn't. That kind of behavior is the equivalent of guys who befriend women with the express purpose of trying to have sex with them, while claiming the whole time they're just there to be friends. Then, when the target of their affections "friendzones" them, they throw a tantrum because that's not how it's supposed to work!

All Right, Smart Guy, How Do I Grow A Network?

I'm glad you asked, bold italic text.

If you are a writer, and you want to grow a network of other professionals you can turn to for help, then you need to go out there and meet them. That means you need to go to genre and book conventions, volunteer to be part of writing events, and join social media groups and forums where other professionals come to talk. You need to introduce yourself, make friends, and if you're in meat space, hand out business cards. And if you really want to endear yourself to your new friends, follow the advice I gave in The One Phrase Every Author Needs to Know For Networking Success by offering to give these other authors some free publicity. A book review, an online interview, or something similar always earns you good will, and that can go a long way toward converting you from "some random person" into "part of my trusted network" in a big hurry.

You also need to write like a motherfucker.
When you start publishing regularly, something weird happens. Suddenly, you have all sorts of people sending you messages and inviting you to work for, and with, them. Maybe it's because the bigger your body of work is the more people see it, or because someone who publishes regularly is an appealing prospect, but whatever the reason, the more you produce, the more people will seek you out rather than the other way around.

This sounds strange, but I've found it to be true. Roughly half the authors I'm currently connected to added me to their friends' lists because we were mutually published in an anthology. A lot of the work that comes my way writing for RPGs finds me because my gaming blog Improved Initiative is regularly updated, and sees frequent spikes of popularity. If you have work on the market, and people see that work, then they'll come to you.

So get back to work!

As always, thanks for dropping in to see what I've had to say this week. If you want to help support me and what I'm doing, then why not drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today? As little as $1 a month can make a big difference when it comes to keeping the content coming. Also, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter to keep up on my latest?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

There Are No New Stories to Tell (But That Shouldn't Stop You From Writing)

Every writer has had that moment. You know, the one where you realize that the story you're working on is just a new version of something you read years ago. Then, once you've seen it in your own work, you see it everywhere. Sons of Anarchy is just Hamlet with motorcycles. Batman is just Zorro in a more contemporary setting, and Zorro is just the Scarlet Pimpernel in Spain-controlled California instead of revolutionary France. The Hunger Games is a less-interesting version of The Running Man, which is itself just a darker take on the sort of world we see in Battle Royale, all of which trace back to even earlier stories like The Most Dangerous Game.

And these two? A mechanized Roland and Oliver.
Every story you know of has already been told, and chances are good it was told back when togas were still considered the most fashionable form of dress. For most of us, this realization creates a weird, existential moment. The sort of moment when we gaze deep into the abyss, and have to really decide whether or not we want to continue writing. Some of us break our pens, close our notebooks, and walk away. Others take up the cry, though, and go howling off into the night, bellowing until our stories are heard.

And what is that phrase we shout, which gives us such courage? What words could possibly push back that darkness, and give us the wherewithal to step into the light and proclaim that our stories deserve to be heard?

You've Never Seen it Like This Before!

So what if your sci-fi novel is just a retelling of the Trojan War, but with space marines and galactic empires? There are two questions, and only two, which you need to answer. Number one: is that a story you want to tell? And, more importantly, number two: is it a story that people want to read? Because if the answer to both of those things is yes, then it's time for you to get cracking.

Seriously, what the hell are you waiting for?
I can promise you right now that any idea you have for a novel has been done by someone, in some way, before. I can also promise you that those other authors didn't write the book the same way you would. So, no matter how many zombie apocalypse stories, or Cold War spy thrillers, or just Westerns there are on the market, that doesn't invalidate your book. After all, The Expendables was just a Frankenstein of every 80s action movie trope and actor we could find, but even though it didn't do anything different, it was unique enough to put a lot of butts in a lot of seats.

That could be your book. Even if it looks like something we've all seen before on the surface, the tone, characters, and specific plot will be unique to you. And, of course, there's always the chance that your readership has never read the older inspirations, so you'll feel new to them, even if you're hitting a lot of classic notes.

Thanks for tuning in this week to hear me ramble on. If you'd like to help support me and my work, then consider stopping by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Remember, as little as $1 a month can make a big difference when it comes to keeping the content faucet turned on. Also, if you want to stay up-to-date with my latest, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, too!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Getting Published Isn't A Big Deal (But Don't Let Your Readers Know)

Let me recount a conversation I've have a few hundred times since I became an author. It goes something like this:

Random Person: "Wow, you're a published writer?"
Me: "That is why I have 'author' listed on my business card."
Random Person: "I mean, I guess that makes sense, but wow... that's such an accomplishment!"

No... really, it isn't.
This is the part where I have to act all self-effacing, in order to make a good impression on a potential reader. However, after the two or three-hundredth time I've had this discussion, I just want to grab the person by their (occasionally virtual) shoulders, and shake them till their teeth rattle. Possibly while shouting, "do you have any idea how truly unimpressive simply 'being published' is?"

Blowing Away The Smoke

As I observed in Things You Should Never Say To An Author, and the follow-up More Things You Should Never Say To An Author, the general public doesn't know a whole lot about how books are published. There's this assumption that authors are like wild animals, and that through some bizarre, creative Darwinism, only the truly talented will be able to walk bloody and triumphant through the arches of publication. After which, they usually assume, come rock star fame and fortune.

Are you not entertained?!
Unfortunately, though, the general public doesn't know the difference between, "I was one of the five new authors that Random House picked this year," and "I'm one of the 900 poor schmucks that this really disreputable place published this year." As an author, I've been on both ends of the spectrum. I've had some work published by places I was really excited to be featured by (like my story The Irregulars, published by Paizo), and there have also been some places I'd really rather not talk about. So I won't.

Those of us who are already working in the field know this, but I want to say it for all the newer writers, and non-writers who don't know any better. Getting published is not impressive. Anyone can get published. Anyone. Without question.

Here are some things that are impressive. How many books you've sold/ebooks have been downloaded. How many reviews your book has on Amazon or Goodreads. How many awards/nominations for awards your book has received. How many Top X lists your book has been on. Those are things that show your book is a stand-out, and they are things you can brag about. Just being published isn't a big deal, because anyone can go to a tiny publisher who will literally publish any manuscript which comes their way, and claim the title of published author.

The Caveat

The only time being published is impressive is when you got into a select group. As I mentioned, anyone can get published. Even if self-publishing was not a sophisticated option that lots of authors use to reach a huge audience, which it is, most publications aren't that impressive. Then there are the elite companies and books that really do stand above the others. Projects that not just anyone can walk into, and get their name on. Those are things you should be proud of.

You'll have to bleed through two or three of these.
For example, if you are published by a very selective (and highly regarded) company, then that's a big deal. If you have a piece of your work included in a prestigious "best of" collection, and you find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the big names in your genre, that's a big deal. You don't talk to these companies, or submit to these books... they come to you. Sort of like how no one gets to join the Skull and Bones Society; you have to be invited.

That is a mark of prestige. Anyone can get published, but not just anyone can get published by this company.

As always, thanks for tuning in to hear what I have to say about the current state of the writing world. If you'd like to support my ongoing efforts, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? As little as $1 a month will keep the content coming right to you, fast and strong. Also, if you're not subscribed to me, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to make sure you don't miss any of my updates.