Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Ignoring The Haters" or "The Zen of Not Giving A Damn"

I've been running this blog, along with my gaming blog Improved Initiative, for a few years now. I've published a dozen short stories, been part of at least as many RPG books, and I've got an archive of articles I've set up on the side of the information superhighway over the years. Sometimes, when I'm lucky, people will like and share that content on their social media. A few kind folks will leave comments telling me they like my stuff, and they hope I keep up the good work. But they are in the minority to the negative feedback I tend to get.

Now, of the negative feedback, some of it is valid. People who mention that I missed an errata in the rules, or who point out there's a typo in a subheading, are informing me of genuine errors in my work. Even when that kind of feedback feels snide or aggressive, it still has value because it points out a problem that needs to be fixed. There is another kind of negative feedback I get, though, and anyone who's ever put themselves and their work out there has likely experienced it too.

It looks something like this...

STOP MAKING THINGS!
While cute, this cat represents the massing army of the haters that is constantly recruiting from all corners of the Internet. Some of them hate you, specifically, and they dislike anything you do. Others dislike the idea of what you do, and disagree with your take on a subject, your treatment of material, or just your general stance on things. Then there are haters who just hate, and because you're not on the list of things they like, they hate you on principle. It's not even personal. It's just that in the coin-toss of like/hate, you came up tails.

That can get discouraging, after a while. Especially when it seems like no matter what you write, there's this chorus of naysayers getting ready to shout you down. Fortunately, there's a simple way for you to keep doing what you're doing, and to shed all those haters like a duck sheds water.

Stop giving a damn.

It's Almost That Simple, Actually


You've probably heard this same advice ever since you were little, and someone said something mean to you. Upset, you went to find some comfort. That was when your parent, older sibling, or someone you trusted put their hands on your shoulders, looked you in the eyes, and gave you the key to living a life of zen.

"It doesn't matter if he called you an idiot. He's a dick, just ignore him."

Who cares what he said about your coat. It's warm and comfy, isn't it?
Before you take anyone's words to heart, give those words a simple test. Is there any legitimate criticism within this opinion? Did you misquote a source, incorrectly label the creator of an image, engage in a caricature of a particular group, or present a theory that had been disproven? Or is the person shouting at you simply dressing up, "I don't like what you did!" in different clothes.

Because if they don't like what you're doing, that's fine. They don't have to like it. They also don't have to engage with you, or your work. The door is right behind them. They're free to keep on scrolling, and ignore your happy ass if they so choose.

Listen to Your Numbers


You can have a hundred good reviews, but the five negative ones you got are the ones that will stick with you. You might have an entire comment section full of flame wars and hate, but when you check your traffic and follower count you see that both have gone up substantially. You might get a bunch of shares where people tag your book, or article, as the biggest piece of crap they've ever seen... but despite that, your sales figures are surging.

Numbers don't lie... or have opinions.
While you shouldn't ignore criticism entirely, especially if it does point out genuine flaws in your work that should be fixed, it's important not to get so sidetracked by other people's feelings, or their personal dislike of your style, tone, subject matter, etc. that you lose sight of the metrics that can actually tell you if you're making progress. Because it is not your job to win over the haters, whatever their beef with your work is. Your job is to find your audience, and to give them more of what they want.

Lastly, remember this. Anyone can complain. It takes exactly zero effort to talk about how bad this novel was, or how boring and played-out that series of articles is. It takes work to make something that's better. So, if the criticism is coming from someone who is a creator, and whose work and results you know and respect, that might be worth listening to. If it's coming from Joe-schmo, sitting in his boxers and ranting on Facebook about how unimpressed he is by your work, let him rant. It isn't worth the amount of time it would take you to fire a synapse and raise your middle finger.

Also, because it should be comforting, hate can also make you a lot of money. More on that in How To Make Money As A Writer (By Embracing Your Inner Troll), if you're curious.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing topic. Hopefully some folks out there have found it interesting, and possibly useful. If you want to keep up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help support me and my work, then head on over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All I ask is $1 a month as a donation, and for that you get both my undying gratitude, as well as some free books!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The K.I.S.S. Method (Keep It Simple, Stupid)

Books can be complicated. Take a long-running fantasy series like Lord of The Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. The former has a massive history, a complicated world, and a cascade of actions from the dawn of the world leading to the present adventure. The latter is a political thriller with magic, where dozens of major noble houses, and hundreds of minor ones, all jockey for position in a story line filled with betrayal, murder, and more secondary characters than you could shake a stick at.

But while those books are complicated in the details, the thrust of their stories are fairly simple. In the first story, a magical Weapon of Mass Destruction has to be thrown into a volcano in order to destroy it. In the second, the fight for who sits on the throne of a kingdom is steadily eclipsed by a fight for the entire world, with a massing army of monsters just over the horizon as petty factions fight for scraps rather than uniting against the looming threat.

One sentence. Easy to follow. K.I.S.S.
The problem is that many of us will miss the forest for the trees when we look at the masters, and try to emulate their complexity in our own work without understanding the bedrock simplicity that supports it. So instead of a clock, which runs crisp and clean, we end up with a Rube Goldberg device that technically does the job, but by the time we reach the end we've totally forgotten what we set out to do in the first place.

The K.I.S.S. Method


K.I.S.S., in case you didn't intuit it from the title, stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid. In short, if you're writing a story, make sure you can draw clear lines from where you are, to where you're going. Even if you're putting together a convoluted spy thriller, or a sleight of hand mystery, you need to be sure that everything makes sense once the reader reaches the end.

The easiest way to do that is by keeping things as simple as you can.

Don't make us find the lady for your plot.
As an example, let's take The Maltese Falcon. Private detective Sam Spade takes a case from a woman he's pretty sure is lying to him, and he quickly finds people trying to bribe him, follow him, and shake him down for information. His partner is gunned down in the streets, he finds gunsels and thugs around every corner, and it just keeps getting worse. He has little to no clue what's going on, and every time a new figure steps on the scene things get even murkier. It's not until the end when the deus ex machina is revealed that we finally get all the answers to all our questions.

However, the plot is simple in terms of structure and story. Sam gets embroiled in a conspiracy between four thieves, each of whom are trying to get their hands on a valuable artifact they stole as a group. Despite all the back-and-forth, the changes of allegiance, and even the gun play, the story is simply a gang of criminals where each individual is trying to get their hands on the loot before the others do.

The Importance of Simplicity


Simplicity should be thought of as the foundation of your story. It is the tale you're trying to tell, free from any bells, whistles, or plot twists. Everything, from your hero's needs to your villain's motivations, is something you should be able to explain simply, even if the story attempts to make those things more convoluted.

As an example, take the film Die Hard. It's a classic movie full of twists, turns, fakes, and convoluted decisions, but it can be summed up by Holly's reaction to Hans Gruber's plan. "After all your posturing, all your little speeches, you're nothing but a common thief."

With uncommonly good dialogue
For all the other complications of the plot, from Gruber's fake-out at being a terrorist, to the manipulation of getting the feds to cut the building's power, to John picking off the invaders one by one, that's the plot in a nutshell; a heist movie with a cover story.

Simplicity gives you firm footing to stand on when you start building your story, and hanging window dressing. It is the bedrock that keeps your story anchored, no matter how strange or colorful it gets. As long as there is a clear through-line, and your readers can see it, then you'll never lose anyone. Even better, you won't get lost in a plot morass because you ended up making a swamp when you were trying to grow a forest.

Just remember, if you start running into a problem, what is the simple solution?

That's all for this installment of the Craft of Writing. If you liked it, and you want more, feel free to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help support me and my work, why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All I ask is $1 a month, and for that you buy both my everlasting gratitude, as well as some sweet swag of your own.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

You Don't Need A Degree To Be A Writer

I remember when I was a teenager, and I made the decision to be a writer. I was already a voracious reader, and thanks to extra credit assignments I was passingly familiar with writing short stories for my English classes. So I took the next step, and started writing out of school, putting together stories and universes in the clumsy, excitable way most writers do when they take their first steps. Several year passed where I made progress, and my enthusiasm for the written word remained undimmed. Then I realized I was approaching that mystical age of 18 where I was going to be expected to go to college and choose a career.

I knew what I wanted to do. Problem was, I didn't have the first clue about how to do it.

Problem is, no one else seemed to know, either.
The problem with being a writer is that it's one of those jobs people know exist, but they have no idea what the hiring process entails. It's like being a fashion consultant, or a bounty hunter... there are people who get paid to do these things, but the general population scratches their heads regarding how you get that job. Most folks assume that writing is one of those things you train for at college. After all, that's where journalists and media people get their skills, so why wouldn't it be the place you go to get your degree in creative writing?

You can do that, if you are one of those fortunate people who have a lot of money laying around, and you need to spend it in a hurry. If you actually want to work as a professional writer, though, then that degree isn't going to be worth the paper it's printed on, much less the checks you wrote to the bursar's office.

There's No Universal Way To Be The "Right" Writer


Most careers you go to college for have some kind of universal standard you're being trained to. If you're a doctor, then you're learning how to diagnose illnesses, how to perform surgery, etc. If you're a lawyer then you're learning how the law functions, how to argue within the bounds of the legal system, and what the rules governing our actions really are. Whether your major is research or telecommunications, teaching or psychology, you are learning the skills and rules required to do a given job. A job that is going to be performed within a certain set of boundaries you need to be trained into.

The problem is there are only three rules to being a good writer... and no one knows what the hell they are.

They were lost in the great ruin of Answeria, where dwelt the winning lottery numbers, and the key to successful marriage.
Taking creative writing courses can be helpful, don't get me wrong. You can learn about the elements of story, get feedback on your work, and most importantly, get practice writing (and completing) stories. You can talk to people who have more experience than you, who have been on the inside of the industry, and whose creativity plays well with yours.

With that said, you can achieve all of those things on your own without paying the costs of college classes. You can sign up for writing symposiums, get a writer's group together, go to conventions, read blogs and books by authors telling you about their experience, and submit your work to forums and other places to get feedback. You can learn just as much, and make just as many publishing connections, that way.

Lastly, though, a creative writing degree is useless for a specific reason; publishers aren't buying your degree. They're buying your book.

Will People Buy Your Book?


A degree is a statement that you have been trained by a university in a given field. Even if it's just a welding certificate, your school is stating that you have the skills to do a particular job. Which is great... but a college's assurances isn't what publishers are buying.

This is more what they're interested in.
Publishing is an old-school trade, in the sense that your employers are buying your work. They don't care where you learned to produce it, who taught you, or who you studied under. What they care about is if you can do the job. So if you can write stellar magazine copy that gets readers to actually subscribe and take an interest in a publication, the editor isn't going to care if you got your degree at Princeton, or Cornfield U. Most of the time the publisher doesn't even care if you went to college at all. They only care about one thing.

Can you do the job?

No one can teach you how to write a compelling novel, or short story. You can't get a red stamp that makes you an ace reporter, or which guarantees you can write great product descriptions. Nothing can make you a great script writer... except one thing.

Practice.

Once you go through the process enough times, you'll find something unique happens; people start coming to you. Whether it's readers who want more of your stories, or publishers who have seen your other work and want to hire you, nothing guarantees your tomorrow like the work you put out today.

So sit down at that keyboard, and bleed. Then just keep doing that, day after day, until you get where you want to be.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it helps the writers out there who are wondering how the rest of us do the job, and it stops you from making a foolish decision. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support me and my blog, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, and I'll give you both my everlasting gratitude along with some sweet swag to call your own!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Want To Be A Better Writer? Stop Second-Guessing Yourself

As I've alluded to before, I've been an author for some years now. And before I was an author, I was a young writer trying to figure out how to become an author. I read every genre book I could get my hands on, I picked up the usual how-to guides, I took creative writing classes, and I shared my thoughts and ideas with other writers that I knew.

Some of the other writers I knew when I was younger made the jump from writers to authors (which is to say, from those who wrote as amateurs to those who write as professionals), but not all of them. Not even most of them, if I'm honest. Now, part of that was because not everyone wanted to make that leap. They were perfectly content writing as a hobby, or as a group activity, and they didn't really have an interest in making a career out of it. A lot of folks did, though. However, there was a major problem that stopped many writers who wanted to go pro from doing so. It wasn't their vocabulary, their plots, their subject matter, or even their voice or quirks. It was, simply put, a lack of confidence in their stride. They would take a step, maybe two, and then they'd hit that backspace key until they were right back where they started.

No, wait, I've got a BETTER idea!
There's nothing wrong with deleting text that genuinely doesn't work, and going in a different direction with it. However, if you find yourself constantly asking if you should start over, or start another project entirely, then you might find yourself in need of a firmer stride.

A Bad First Draft is Better Than NO First Draft


You've probably heard that phrase before, but a lot of writers don't really appreciate it. Mainly because, for many of them, the fun is in all the build-up to the project. That's when your synapses are firing, you're creating a world, and you're drunk off the first shot of your new idea. When you're fleshing out your characters, making up your plot, and naming everything, you can feel like the most brilliant son of a bitch who ever put words to paper.

Then the writing starts. For a lot of folks, that's where the fun ends.

Well... what if this isn't the right project? Could I go and PLAN a different one?
Second guessing can take a lot of forms. Maybe you re-write your opening chapter ten times because it never sounds just right. And then, when you finally do get it right, you want to throw it away because it sounds too much like Tolkien, or Martin, or another author you've read a lot recently. It's even possible that you get halfway, or most of the way, to the end, and then decide to scrap it and start over. Or put it in mothballs, and start something else instead. Because it isn't right, or it feels boring, or you don't have the same energy you had before.

Imagine, for a moment, that you had a friend who really wanted to get in shape. They did all their research, and figured out the ideal diet, and the best exercise routine based on their body type, their interests, and their goals. The first session is hard, but they feel it's going well. They struggle a bit with the second, and the third. Then they skip a day, and claim they're trying to reset. Then they show up, and try again, but taking all their weights and reps back to start. The same thing happens. Then they decide to try a different program entirely, thinking that maybe they weren't getting the results they wanted because they were using the wrong method. But they keep bouncing around, switching, and stopping.

Are they still getting a workout? Sure. But that isn't the point of the exercise. The point is to mold yourself into a finished product. If you're constantly backtracking, changing, and not going forward with your book, you have the same problem. You're burning a lot of calories, but adding no page count.

Finish First, Polish Later


Writing, much like exercise, is all about building a habit. It's about programming your mind and body to do the heavy lifting. It takes a while to set a habit, and it takes even longer to unlearn one.

That's why finishing a project is so important.

Don't even think about it.
How many times have you read a bad book, and said, "I could do better than this!" Probably a lot. But it takes just as much effort to write a bad book as it does to write a good book. It takes even more effort to edit that book, get a contract for it, get it edited, and release it to the reading public.

Finishing anything is hard. But once you start doing it, and refusing to stop until you have at least a rough draft, it becomes habit forming. Once you're used to finishing, then you can build your other skills. But being able to write perfect prose does you no good if you never finish what you start.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Told you I'd get around to it. If you want to make sure you stay up-to-date on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to support the work I do, why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today? All it takes is $1 a month to get my everlasting gratitude, and some sweet swag, so stop on in today!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Boy Who Cried Censorship

I spend a lot of time on the Internet talking about stories. I talk about my process, I big-up other authors who need signal boosts, and I try to offer advice that's worked for me in the past. However, there is something I've noticed that has become a part of online discourse in general, and a part of writers' groups in particular, that I wanted to talk about. It's the cry of censorship as a defense against someone else having a differing opinion to yours.

Because unless the government is demanding you stop talking, no one is censoring you.

Yes language means more than what's in the dictionary. We'll get to that.

Meaning, Usage, And Your Opinions


We love the idea of the freedom of speech, but most of us don't actually know what it means. In the broadest of broad strokes, it means you can say what you want without legal reprisal from the government. So if I want to say that Donald Trump is a leaking sack of suet re-purposed for sexual misadventure, I can't be arrested for that. Plenty of people may disagree with me about that, but at least at the time of this writing I'm perfectly within my rights to say that thing.

Now, that right to speak doesn't guarantee anything else. It doesn't guarantee me a right to be agreed with, or the right to use someone else's podium, or the right to be granted equal time by other people. Nor does it mean that I am free from the consequences of my speech.

The arena of public opinion isn't particularly forgiving.
Let's take an example we've all seen before. You're on social media, and you see a conversation that catches your eye. Maybe it's someone lamenting that a new major motion picture has cast a white performer in a role of a character that was originally an ethnic minority. Perhaps you agree with the original poster, or you share a differing opinion, but the next person to comment after you says something like, "Ugh, stop trying to shut out other people's opinions. You're just want to censor people who don't agree with you."

That statement is stupid for a number of reasons.

First and foremost is that, according to the definition we're all working from, only governments can censor people. However, in the sense that some people will attack or shut out dissenting opinions, that does happen. Most of the time, though, that's not censorship. If you go to a Facebook group, or a subreddit, or an open mic night, you are not guaranteed the chance to speak and be heard. You're on someone else's page, and your ability to talk or not talk, to be a member or be banned, is decided by the people who actually run those facilities. If the moderators, bouncers, or page owners decide no, they don't want you in their group, they can shut you up, and kick you out.

That's shitty, sure, but it isn't censorship. You still have the right to say whatever you want to say, but that group has made it clear they don't want you saying it there, and that's why they've closed their door in your face.

What Was That About Consequences?


You know how, when you were a kid, your parents would sometimes tell you that you wouldn't get in trouble if you just told them the truth? Even if you said or did something wrong, they were more interested in honesty than they were in punishment? A lot of the time we think that's how freedom of speech works. You can say whatever you want, and you won't get in trouble for it. Especially if you're just being honest with people.

With the government, that's usually true. With everyone else, not so much.

Yes, I heard you. That silence? That's the sound of judgment, sweety.
From big, important issues of the day, down to issues of nerd emphemera, we all have our own opinions. Whether you feel that Jared Leto is the worst Joker in the series, or you think that writing accents phonetically is a bad idea, those are your opinions. If you put those opinions forth in the public arena, wherever that might be, you'll likely find folks who agree with you. However, you'll also find folks who disagree with you. Their disagreement is not your ideas being censored, any more than if you disagree with someone else that you're censoring them. That's just the open market deciding whether your ideas will be accepted, or wadded up and thrown in the trash.

No one likes to admit it, but sometimes we're the ones the general consensus tosses on the trash heap.

And if there are extreme repercussions for the views you espouse? If you lose friends because they find out you hold particularly sexist views about why it's perfectly okay for women to be paid less for doing the same job? Or if a partner breaks up with you because they found your racist rants on a forum? Or if you get fired because someone caught you berating and belittling someone who is supposed to be part of your team? Well, none of those are censorship. Those are the consequences that come from speaking your mind.

You can say whatever you want. However, you can also hit a hornet's nest with a stick. If the hornets fly out and sting you so badly your eyes swell shut and you can barely breathe, that's not them censoring your stick-swinging agenda. That's reaping the consequences of what you chose to do.

If you're still not sure about the difference, read the comments below. People espousing their opinions? Just fine. But it's my blog, my page, and my soap box, and I don't have to let anyone up here to speak if I don't want to. Is that narrow-minded, or prejudiced, or rude? It might be some, or all of those things. But it isn't censorship.

So, it seems I accidentally did two Business of Writing posts in a row. Next week, something on craft, you have my word. If you want to keep up to date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to support my efforts, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to get some sweet swag, and my everlasting gratitude.