Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why You Should Eliminate "Fashion Inventories" From Your Book

As I warned way back in my first post on this blog, some days I will pull up my soap box, climb up on that son of a bitch, and let fly. Today is going to be one of those days. So, if you're really attached to the fashion inventory as a tool of your writing, I'd suggest you keep on walking. I'm not going to say anything you're going to like today.

Are they gone? Good. Now then, let me explain why this particular quirk of style is a tumor we should all start cutting out of our work post haste.

Some of you may need bigger knives than others.

What Is A "Fashion Inventory"?

So, you're introducing a new character, and you want to do something that really cements them in your audience's mind. Not only that, but you want to be sure that the image you have in your mind is as close to the image in your reader's mind. If you're boring, what you do is give us a full description, complete with hair color, eye color, height, weight, age, build, and a full inventory of tattoos and scars. Unless you're writing a detective novel, in which case you can sometimes get a pass for using procedural-style character description, that's going to turn your audience off faster than cutting a power line with a machete.

When you apply that kind of exhaustive, and yet somehow soulless, detail to what someone is wearing, then you have created a fashion inventory.

"He wore a-" infuriated expression is the term you're looking for.
What I'm not saying here is that your character's clothes don't matter. Clothes make the man, or woman, in many cases. However, how you describe what your character is wearing needs to convey something about them to the reader. It isn't just what they're wearing, but how they're wearing it, and what it says about them.

As a for-instance, take the rather irate-looking fellow above. You could list what he's wearing, from the denim vest, to his pegged jeans, to the camouflage head wrap, but you wouldn't be capturing the essence of the man. You would be telling us the sea is wide, blue, and wet. Instead, you might want to say something like:

He looked like a blue-collar thunder god, the flash of his belt buckle followed by the heavy thump of his engineer boots as he crossed the boards. His thick, white mane, like the temper in his eyes, was barely restrained as he shifted his attention to the new fish.

A little flowery, sure, but it gives the audience more than just an itemized list of what they're looking at. It creates an impression of the character, and feeds the imagination. The description focuses on the important connections you want the audience to make (blue collar implies work wear like denim and Carhartt, along with heavy boots, while comparing him to the likes of Thor or Zeus brings across that he is physically powerful, and carries a lot of presence into the space he occupies), without getting bogged down in unnecessary details.

Only Mention Details Your Audience Needs To Know

Any time you focus on what your character is wearing, ask why it's necessary to your story. Especially if you're going to tell instead of show.

Don't give me dictation. Paint the picture.
For example, say you're going to tell your audience a particular character is wearing an Armani suit, or a Rolex watch. That's one, acceptable way to use what someone is wearing to tell us something about them (in this case that they are wealthy). However, rather than naming names, you could just as easily describe the character as wearing a tailored suit, and a time piece that cost more than most people's cars. The latter is more descriptive, and it doesn't depend on the audience being familiar with the brands you're talking about. Alternatively, you might have a character in a short skirt, or with rolled sleeves, which allows us to catch a glimpse of a prison tattoo. That is both descriptive when it comes to what we see, but it also creates a metaphor. This character carries a harsh past that, despite their current attire, still shines through from time to time.

In short, if a character's clothes don't express something we need to know, then don't distract us with them. And if you ever find yourself going on for more than a paragraph, re-evaluate why that's necessary.

You're an author, not a runway director.

As always, thanks for popping in to check out my latest Craft of Writing post. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month to keep me going, and it will get you some sweet swag just for signing up. Lastly, if you haven't done it yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

How Do You Sell Books? Alec Baldwin Has The Answer

Being an author is a tough racket, right? You have to get out there, find leads, and convince people they need your stories in their life. You need to find readers who aren't a fan of your genre, and make them a fan. You need to find people who don't read, and make them want to read your book. Every conversation, every social media post, is an opportunity. An opportunity for you to close the sale, get your book out there, and get yourself another satisfied customer.

Alec Baldwin explains it better than I can, so I'll let him give you the talk.

That is Baldwin's only scene in the film Glengarry Glen Ross, and he was nominated for an Oscar for that speech. What's more interesting, though, is that people will have one of two reactions to that scene. The first is, "fuck you, who are you to tell me how to do my job?" The second, and the one that is far more useful, is, "fuck yeah, let's go close some goddamn sales!"

If You Can't Sell Your Book, Who Else is Going to Sell It?

When it comes to book sales, there are a lot of things you can blame. You can blame the market for pushing your genre to the bottom of the pile. You can blame search engine algorithms for not putting you in the front page. You can blame readers for not putting up reviews, or you can blame your own introverted tendencies that keep you from getting out there and hitting the bricks.

In the end, though, none of that makes any difference. The only question is are you selling books, yes or no?

You might call them aggressive sales tactics. I call them shock and awe.
Look at yourself as if you were a publisher (because in a lot of cases, you are). Are you a good risk? Good risks are people with built-in audiences, who make regular sales, and who produce content that can be marketed. Note that how "good" your book is doesn't come into play, unless we're talking about the number of 4 and 5-star ratings you get, because quality is subjective. Difficulty, struggle, these are things that are about your perspective, and your feelings.

Sales are objective. Did you close? If you didn't close, how do you expect to keep doing this?

Take A Lesson From The Master

If you haven't read anything by Blake Hausladen, go check out his Amazon page. Don't keep reading waiting to see where I'm going with this, go check him out. Now.

Did you see his books? Good. Now, what would you say if I told you he shows up to every convention he attends with a case of books, and when he goes home all he takes with him is the case? You're probably want to know how he does that, and how you can do it, too.

It's simple. Find people waiting to give you their money, and take it.
It's simple; he sells. Blake doesn't just stand behind a table, waiting for someone to glance his way. He calls out, and gets people's attention. He shakes hands, and starts conversations. He doesn't say, "would you like to buy my book?" he says "how many copies do you want?" He makes certain that no one walks away empty handed, and he does his absolute best to make sure everyone remembers him, and his book. You know, all the stuff I mentioned in Tips For Hand Selling Your Book. He also maintains his presence online, ensures people see his books, and builds his audience. He knows that writing the book is just the first step. If he wants to stay in the game, he's got to sell as many copies as he can, to everyone he meets. And, sometimes, he'll even sell two at a time.

That is the sort of effort it takes to sell books, and a lot of the time authors really aren't ready for that kind of slap in the face. Especially if they're still drained from the writing portion of the job. However, much like going to war, it's either stand up and shoot, or lay down and die.

And while we're on the subject...
And, since I made it through this whole post without one pitch, I figured I'd put it near the end. If you're a fan of visceral stories, steampunk, noir, and books that make you tear up a bit, your library will be incomplete until you check out New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam. The first two stories are free to read, so click the link, and take a look. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

All right folks, thanks for stopping in and checking out this week's Business of Writing post. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, but I didn't manage to sell you on getting a shiny new book, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and keep the content flowing your way. Also, you'll get some sweet swag, like the book I just mentioned. Lastly, if you haven't done it yet, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to get my latest updates with no waiting.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Self Care is an Important Part of Being an Author

As a professional blogger, RPG designer, and author, I spend a lot of time in front of my laptop cranking out content. Because of how sedentary this job is, it also means I spend at least a few days a week going to the gym, undoing the damage sitting around does to my waistline. However, sometime last week I increased my weight, and tweaked something in my lower back. Nothing torn, nothing sprained, but there was a discomfort that wouldn't go away. So I worked around it, which meant that I had to lower the weight on some of my other lifts, and skip a few others entirely in order to give myself time to heal.

Which I did, in case any of my readers were concerned for my well-being.

Everything is back to normal... of course, none of this is my blood.
However, while I was working around this temporary injury, I started thinking about the similarities between weightlifting and writing. It's a comparison I've used before, but I've never stepped back to appreciate how much mental effort is required in both of them. And, more importantly, that pushing yourself to write can sometimes be just as dumb as trying to increase your weight when your body is at less than full capacity.

It's Okay To Take It Easy (When You Need To)

Writing is, in many ways, like working out. Your success is a combination of your natural strength, your dedication, and your routine. Just like how you have to stick to your regimen in order to keep your body fit, you need to write every day if you're going to produce books, blogs, etc. on a regular basis.

It is still possible to sprain your brain, though. And you need to be able to recognize when you're getting to that point.

It's okay to put the weight down if you're feeling the strain.
When you're exercising, you get to know your body. One of the sensations you learn to feel for is the difference between your muscles hurting because you're working them (and getting sore), and your muscles hurting because they're getting close to injury. It might take a few accidents, and a little bit of recuperation on the couch, but you learn to judge those sensations quite accurately.

The same thing happens when you're writing.

If you're jamming away on the keyboard, but you're not making the sort of progress you want, then stop. Take a deep breath, and back away from the project for a moment. Get some perspective, and analyze what's going wrong. Is the problem with the project, perhaps in the form of a plot twist that isn't working the way you want, or that the dialogue isn't coming out the way you like? If it's a manuscript issue, then get some water, slap some chalk on your hands, and once you've had a small breather, come back at it while maintaining good form.

But what if the problem is you? Not that you're punching above your weight class with your current project, but that you're coming at it with a hand tied behind your back. For example, did you get a good night's sleep? Have you eaten recently? Did you use up all your energy cranking out work that was on deadline, so your mental biceps are like noodles? Are you currently under a lot of stress because of an argument with a family member, or did you just get back from a convention, and haven't had time to decompress?

In those situations, you need to know your limits. If you told yourself you were going to do 1,000 words, but you're struggling to get there, there's no shame in hitting save with 500 words, and then tending to yourself. If your routine says one thing, but you feel that limit coming up in your mental muscles, put the project down. It will be there tomorrow.

Most importantly, do not feel guilty for taking care of yourself. You have to do the work to finish the book, the same way you have to sweat in order to get the physique you want, but you will do neither of these things if you push until you burn out.

It Gets Easier

The thing that can be hard to remember is that the longer you do this, the easier it gets. Plot problems that would have cracked your teeth when you first started will be solved in a brief moment of reflection. Dialogue that would have made you sweat bullets will flow like water from an open tap. Because you gain skill the longer you do something. And, while skill by itself is impressive, it's important to remember that if you are alert, energized, and awake, you'll be better able to wield that skill.

Hopefully some folks found this week's installment on The Craft of Writing helpful. If you're one of those folks who'd like to keep this blog going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar? $1 per month is a big help, and it gets you some sweet swag to boot. Lastly, if you haven't done so already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

How Many Book Reviews Do You Need Before Amazon Promotes You?

So, you have a book available for sale on Amazon. Congratulations! However, you soon begin to realize that you threw a small rock into a big pond. It might be a great rock. It might even, in fact, be a diamond the size of your fist. The problem is that only a select few people, those already in your audience and whom you have promoted your book to, have seen it. Your ripples, in other words, didn't get you noticed.

Goddammit! My sales rank slipped again.
If you're wondering why your Amazon sales are low, chances are good it's because you aren't pushing the site's red buttons. Or, in technical terms, the activity on your sale page isn't satisfying Amazon's algorithm.

Please The Algorithm, And Sell More Books

For those of you whose eyes glazed over in math class, an algorithm in this sense is a formula used by a search engine to determine how good or bad a given page is. It's like that extremely shallow roommate you used to have who ranked people's value based on an arbitrary measurement of how much they made, how tall they were, and how many Monty Python references they could catch in a single evening. The only difference is the criteria used by an algorithm to determine how good, or how bad, a given page is.

That's why, when you do a Google search, some pages end up at the front of the line, and other pages end up 10,000 pages further along. The algorithm has decided that the pages with the right keywords, a lot of traffic, and regular updates, among other things, are the ones that are the best match for what you're searching for. And when we're talking about Amazon, the algorithm decides what order books show up on in searches, as well as which books appear on the front page, and in the, "customers who bought this also bought X," bar that makes recommendations along the bottom of the screen.

If the Amazon algorithm likes you, it promotes you, and promotion like that translates into more sales. If it makes it easier, think of the Amazon algorithm as the bouncer at the bestseller club. If you make it your friend, and it decides it likes you, not only will it let you in, but it will call you out of line, and tell you to go straight to the VIP lounge for being such a great author.

So, how much will it cost me?
Sadly, the loyalty of the Amazon algorithm cannot be bought. Nor can it be manipulated, since Amazon keeps the details of what the algorithm looks for a closely-guarded company secret. However, if you want to get the algorithm on your side, there are some things you can do.

#1: Sell Books

In some ways the algorithm is a self-perpetuating cycle. If you sell books, then the algorithm notes that you're a high-selling product, and it promotes you. While this might not help you much right now, it will be an aid if you start picking up consistent sales with the other tips.

#2: Keywords and Ranking

What's true at Google is true on Amazon; sometimes it's all about your tags. If you write in a niche genre, and you climb to the top of that genre's charts, then you're more likely to get extra attention. For example, you might be in the top 50,000 in sci-fi, but you're top 10 in steampunk. So that gives you an advantage. And, of course, if you have a title, a genre, or something else (like your name) that's getting searched a lot, that's going to increase your ranking as well. Because...

#3: Activity

This is where we get down to the bone and marrow. If your page gets a lot of traffic, even if you're making few sales, Amazon is going to notice that. If you change your price (especially if you make your book cheaper for a time), that could gain you some traction. That strategy should only be used every 6 weeks or so, though, according to The Book Designer. But one of the biggest, most important things you can do when it comes to activity on your book, is getting it reviewed.

Every time someone reviews your book, that's like refreshing your standing with the algorithm. It's significant activity that shows people are paying attention, and if people are looking at something, Amazon wants to sell it to them. And if enough of that activity builds up, Amazon is going to start letting your book cut to the front of the line, and featuring it near other titles, since it's clear people are reading it, and that it's popular.

How Many Book Reviews Do You Need?

The magic number, according to a lot of authors is around 50. According to R. R. Virdi (whose Amazon author page you should really check out), there is a definite difference in how Amazon treats you when you have 50 reviews, as opposed to only 10 or 20. That includes showing up higher in search results, as well as finally appearing alongside some of your competition when it comes to their pages.

Which is why I'd be much obliged, if I could persuade you to stop on by?
So, with that in mind, I'd like to remind my readers that if you love noir, steampunk, and stories that will gently wrap their fingers around your heart before squeezing till it pops, check out my book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam. The first two stories are free, and it's part of Kindle Unlimited. If you do get your hands on it, please leave a review. Good, bad, ugly, or otherwise, I'd be pleased to hear your thoughts.

As always, thanks for stopping in to check out this week's Business of Writing post. Also, if you'd like to help keep this blog going strong, why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in the jar? As little as $1 a month will have a big impact, and it will get you a free book to boot! Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, please follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay up-to-the-minute on all my latest.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What if The Entire Marvel Universe Switched Sides?

The Internet has been on fire for over a week now regarding the latest comic book controversy. Though I haven't read the story line myself, I think we've all seen the panel where Captain Steve Rogers is standing in his full red, white, and blue regalia, and he says the two words that sent tectonic cracks raging through Marvel's fan base.

No, this is not a joke.
If you're interested in more information, you can get a general gist on a website like UpRoxx. I only brought up this controversy because the night before it broke wide open across the Internet, I was engaged in a thought experiment with a friend of mine. One of those little conversations that happens when you examine stories and characters, and ask yourself what would happen if you shined a light on them at a slightly different angle? That conversation was sparked by a Cracked After Hours video where the hosts asked why we regard Charles Xavier as a hero in the X-Men?

Think about it. He trains super-powered child soldiers, wipes the minds of his loyal pupils when they begin to question his mission, and rather than using his intense psychic abilities to influence elections, or to help stop prejudice against mutants on a national scale, he uses pawns to win ground battles in a literal race war. Those don't sound like the actions of a hero, and all we did was shift our view slightly so the shadows sit a little differently on his bald pate.

The conversation we had took this experiment to its logical conclusion, and we went through the Marvel universe hero by hero, and villain by villain, asking what would happen if their traditional roles were reversed? What we found was that the difference between good guys and bad guys isn't as far as the black-and-white natures of their comics would have you believe.

The Lensherr Academy For Superior Learning

The conversation began with the obvious starting point; if Professor X is the callous, hyper-intelligent villain who plays chess with real people's lives, then Magneto is clearly trying to oppose him in this endeavor. Which would make sense, since he was a survivor of the Holocaust, and he saw what the sort of total war waged by unquestioning fascists in black leather could do to people. And given the raw power of Xavier's mind, Erik's team was formed from the outcasts, the dregs, the unwanted, and the indomitable. Toad is a socially maladjusted jokester who lashes out when he's backed into a corner, but with a family to call his own could grow into a fighter to be reckoned with. Mystique has lived many lives in the shadows, and she's seen first-hand the destructive power a psychic with control over minds can wreak. Even Cain Marko, realizing the threat his step-brother posed, sought out the fabled Gem of Cytorak in order to unleash his own hidden potential just to stand a chance.

Mr. Marko's work attire.
And really, why wouldn't someone be afraid of what Charles has done? He's used a device that amplifies his own power, allowing him to seek out mutants anywhere in the world. Invasion of privacy on a massive scale is just the first step, though. He's used that power to gather a pair of living guns (the Summers' brothers Cyclops and Havoc), a woman worshiped as a god (Storm), a disenfranchised genius who can crush a man's head in one hand (Beast), and dozens of other people who possess colossal power, weak wills, and who devote themselves wholly to his cause. He even keeps a violent, unkillable government experiment on a leash, always helping him just enough that he can never leave... assuming that Charles is really "helping" Wolverine when he goes digging around in his brain.

It's not a superhero team... it's a cult.

How Much Further Does It Go?

The Marvel Universe is full of popular characters, and many of them can turn on a dime with minimal, if any, changes to their backstories and existing canon. For example, The Fantastic Four are seen as some of the greatest heroes in the world, and one of the first superhero teams. However, their family dynamic tends toward abuse and neglect, and it's perpetuated through continual attack and threat from the outside. Reckless behavior, personal endangerment, and experimentation for the sake of experimentation are not the actions of heroic scientists and selfless do-gooders. Is it any wonder that Victor Von Doom, a man who has learned painful lessons at the hands of his own hubris, sees the threat they pose to the world and attempts to find countermeasures?

A true scientist, and a true hero.
Pair up and hero and any villain, and you'll be surprised how easy it is to shift those shadows. What if Bruce Banner hasn't been able to cure himself because, deep down, the Hulk is who he really wants to be? A force of nature who doesn't have to think about right and wrong, good or bad, but which is like injecting yourself with a hurricane? Who would give up freedom and power like that? And, of course, wouldn't it be a mark of great bravery and selfless sacrifice to try to fight fire with fire, as General Thaddeus Ross did when he underwent experimentation to protect the world against the random rage and destruction that followed the Hulk everywhere he went?

Dr. Stephen Strange is a crippled alcoholic with an ego that destroyed his life... is Baron Mordo really that suspicious for not trusting a man like that to turn over a new leaf so quickly? Thor has the power of a god, and though he often regrets the misuse of his strength, he can be like a child throwing a tantrum among breakable toys. Loki might be seen as mischievous, but is it really such an evil act to try and hold back a thunderstorm's indiscriminate violence with nothing more than cunning? The Red Skull was the embodiment of the Nazi war machine's ugly evil... but what if "Johann Schmidt" had been a volunteer from Poland who's main goal was to get close enough to cut off the Third Reich's head, only to find when he dug deep enough that he was one man, outnumbered, and hopelessly outgunned despite the power he'd paid such a dear cost for?

What's The Point of All This?

I'm sure there are some readers who've gotten this far, and wondered if they showed up at the wrong blog. After all, isn't the point of a writing blog to talk about writing?

What do you think I've been doing?
This week's Craft of Writing post has been an exercise in creative flexibility. Because when we sit down to tell a story, we often think we know who the good guys and the bad guys are. Even if there's going to be a heel-face turn somewhere down the line, we've got a solid grasp on what's going on. But it pays to examine your characters in alternative lights, because you might find alternatives to what you thought you knew. And, as I mentioned in Under The Black Hat: Writing Believable Bad Guys, no one thinks of themselves as the villain.

Even in comic books.

As always, thanks for stopping in to hear what I had to say this week. For those of you who'd like to help support me, and keep the content flowing, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page today. As little as $1 a month will make a big difference, and it will earn you some sweet swag while you're at it. Lastly, if you haven't done so already, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?