Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Keeping a Consistent Tone Can Make or Break Your Book

Have you ever watched an 80's action movie? If you have (or if you've seen The Expendables, which is a callback to all those old action movies), then you're probably familiar with all the tropes. Our hero will be a hard-as-nails tough guy, he'll go up against insurmountable odds, and in the end he'll come out on top. He'll win the prize, defeat the bad guy, and if there is a female character in the movie, he'll get the girl.

You've got a 1 in 4 chance this guy's in the movie, too.
Die Hard, Rocky, Commando, Under Siege, and a dozen other movies I could name all fit squarely into this genre. And when you pop one of these movies in, you know what you're signing up for. You want explosions, gun fights, busted teeth, macho one-liners, and a body count that's up there with a minor war by the time the credits roll. But how would you feel if, about halfway through one of these good, old-fashioned shoot-em-ups, the hero broke down in tears and started talking about how every man he'd just killed had a life that was gone? Wives who'd never see them again, children who'd never talk to their father, or friends who'd just lost a companion?

You'd probably get mental whiplash, because that's a jarring shift in tone. Sort of like what would happen if you spliced single frames of pornography into family films, as the infamous Tyler Durden was known for. While that works as a joke/device in a Chuck Palahniuk novel, it wouldn't make for a very good movie.

Because tonal dissonance can ruin even the best art.

Keeping a Consistent Tone Takes Practice

It's not enough to know what genre your book is; you have to know what tone you're going for. Just like your setting, your tone is a major ingredient of the final product. So you need to know if your book is gritty, ridiculous, subversive, tense, or slapstick. And once you know what you want it to be, you have to make sure it maintains that tone throughout.

Whatever tone that happens to be.
It's also important to remember that, just like genre, a tone can be a blend of whatever you want. Horror-comedy exists, after all. So if you want to write a story that's a spoof of detective novels, you are faced with the challenge of keeping the tone of a procedural investigation, or a gritty private eye story, while still making it funny. If you want to write a fantasy story that focuses on the pain and suffering of those attempting to undertake a quest, and about the shades of gray both the heroes and villains have beneath their simple exteriors, you can do that, too.

Consistency is what's key.

Now, does that mean you can't have moments of hilarity in a high-octane thriller? Of course not. Does that mean your story about four friends going through a coming-of-age drama can't have moments of visceral horror where something goes awry? Hey, it's your book, you do you. But ask yourself this; if you were eating a bunch of creme-filled chocolates, and then you bit into one that had a ghost pepper in it, would you consider that a unique and clever twist on a routine dessert? Probably not. Especially if you didn't know there was a pepper in there when you signed up to eat chocolates.

Learn The Rules Before You Break Them

We all know there are technically no rules to good writing. Truly masterful authors can subvert all the traditional constraints, and create books that break all the rules without sacrificing quality.

It should be noted, though, that most of us are not masters of the art.

I don't have an entire section of the bookstore dedicated to my work, more's the pity.
As with anything else, before you decry a writing tradition, or piece of advice, as being too limiting, or stifling your creativity, take a step back. Ask what purpose this rule fills, and what end you achieve by breaking it.

Because it's not enough to know you can break the rules. You need to know why you're doing it before you swing that hammer.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. If you like what you see, and you want to support me and my blog, then why not take a trip over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes to keep the lights on is a $1 per month pledge, and in addition to my gratitude I'll be happy to send you some sweet swag. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Who Decides What You're Worth As A Writer?

For those who aren't regulars on my sister blog, Improved Initiative, you might not know that in addition to blogging and writing fiction, I also do a lot of work for tabletop roleplaying games. You know, those things where people sit around a table, roll funny-shaped dice, and tell collective stories.

Ringing any bells?
What most players don't know is there are very few people who produce all the content in this little corner of the publishing industry. In fact, if you put them together in one room, all the industry professionals on the American continent will fit in one, large ballroom. And because there are so few people in charge of making so much stuff, freelancers (like myself) fill in the gaps. We write the rules, the flavor text, and the short fiction that fills up these books.

There's no shortage of work available, either. However, because the going rate for freelancers is .02 per word (and sometimes as little as .01 per word), those who write for games either need to create a lot of content, or they need to be doing something else on the side so their RPG work is all gravy atop their budgetary meatloaf.

It might not seem fair when you earn low wages as a writer, but before you complain that you're working for slave fare, take a look at the big picture. It's often pretty enlightening.

The View From The Publisher's Side

On the one hand, there was an argument made by Christopher Helton that says people who buy RPG books don't understand what they're actually buying. You see, back in the 1970s when Dungeons and Dragons was still new, most of the books came in simple pamphlets. Even the hardcover editions were cheap enough that kids could save up for them on their allowance, or get them as birthday presents.

You know, the OLD books.
However, as times changed, books became more expensive to produce. So expecting to pay the same cost for modern RPG books that people paid in the 1970s and 1980s doesn't make any more sense than expecting to pay a quarter for a cup of coffee, or a nickel for a candy bar. Or expecting to buy a paperback for fifty cents, rather than the $10 we all know a bookstore is more likely to charge. Inflation happened, changes in publishing costs happened, and if more readers understood that so much of a gaming book's $60 or $70 price went to paying the artists and freelancers, as well as the production costs, they'd realize that the publishers aren't making that much more today than they were in decades past.

That's one side of the coin. There is another side, though, and it's the side pointed out by Louis Porter Jr.

As he mentioned in an episode of his YouTube series Transparency Agenda Daily, publishers are more than happy to pay writers more money. Because writers are an investment in a polished, professional, marketable product. However, before a writer can expect a hike in their pay rates, they have to understand two things. The first is that a publisher is working within a budget; they cannot pay you what they literally do not have. So if you ask for a rate that is worth more than the whole project, they can't give you that. It's why you won't see an A-list actor starring in a C-list movie, unless they're doing a favor for a friend, or they really liked the script. The second, and the one that's more important where writers are concerned, is that a writer has to prove they're worth the cost.

If you went to Random House, right now, and asked for the same contract and rates paid to authors like Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, or J.K. Rowling, you'd probably be laughed out of the building. It's not because publishers aren't willing to pay those rates, since those are just three examples of authors who have publishers throwing money at them. No, it's because you don't have a track record to justify that kind of investment being made in you.

If you did, then the publisher would contact your agent, arrange a meeting, and start talks for your next book.

What Are You Worth?

It's all well and good to talk about people earning a living wage, and being able to cover all the necessities in life, but the unfortunate reality that many authors and publishers face is that those ideas really are luxuries. A project may pay so little that it's barely worth doing it, but an author who has rent due next month can't say no, or hold out for more money. A publisher may have great projects to produce, but because there's so little capital in their company they can't afford to spend money until after the project is released, and making something for them to spend on the next project.

And that, right there, is the crux of the matter. If you prove to a publisher that you can make money, then you have something you can bring to the negotiation table. If your record is good enough, you can even play hardball to get what you want.

Some negotiation tools are more unusual than others.
This is one of the harsh truths about the idea of being paid what you're worth. Because when most writers say that, they mean they want to be paid enough money that they don't have to work a day job, and so they can cover all their bills, and have a little savings at the end of the month. However, you need to look at your name, your brand, and your history, and ask if that's what you're worth in investment terms.

Are you skilled enough to produce content (RPG rules, novels, short stories, blog entries, etc.) in a way other writers can't? Do you have a following, or an audience? Do you have a noted history of making bank when you release a project, offering some assurance that if your name is on the cover then the publisher is going to see a return on their investment? Because those are the things that make you valuable in the eyes of a publisher. It's the reason many companies want to buy up the rights to existing self-published book series that have proven themselves when it comes to sales figures, and it's why Johnny Depp will always be paid more than someone who's never been in a movie before.

It isn't fair, and it isn't fun, but reality rarely is. And if you prepare yourself to deal with the situation as it is, rather than what you'd like it to be, then you're already one step across no-man's-land toward success.

Hopefully some folks found this week's Business of Writing post helpful, if not particularly uplifting. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss $1 a month into my jar? It makes a bigger difference than you know, and it comes with some sweet swag! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, now would be a great time to click that follow button.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

We Are The Fools (And We Always Have Been)

In the days of yore, the court's fool occupied a unique position. While the fool was there to be laughed at, to caper and to have ridicule heaped upon him, he was also freed from many of the societal restrictions everyone else in the court had to abide by. If he wanted to talk trash to the duke, or comment on someone's unfaithful wife in public, he was often allowed to do it. The fool didn't always get away with it, but the very fact that he could say these things and live to jest another day was a kind of power that was hard to cope with.

Some clowns are more amusing than others.
(And since so many complaints have come in, photo is by Pat Loika from San Diego Comic Con.)
This isn't a privilege accorded only to those dressed in Harlequin and making fart jokes, though. The power of the creative to stand up, and reflect society back at itself has been a part of every culture. We saw it in the theater in ancient Greece, as well as in ancient China. We saw it in the works of painters and poets, and we've seen it in the works of novelists. Those who have an ability to create are the jesters of society.

Because even when we say something that pisses people off, everyone knows it's kind of our job to say it.

Hamilton, and The Idea of Creative Power

The news exploded when Vice President elect Mike Pence was recently asked by the cast of Hamilton to remember that it is his job to protect the rights of all U.S. citizens during his time in office. This doesn't sound like the sort of thing you'd need to remind the incoming Vice President of, except that Pence's record in Indiana has shown a startling comfort with discrimination, and putting religious principals over equal rights. Those tendencies did serious damage to Indiana while he was governor, and given the context of Hamilton as a play, it seemed as good a time as any to point out that people want reassurance from their leaders that they will be protected.

Especially when a lot of the country feels about as safe as this cameraman.
This provoked outrage, and no small amount of backlash. One of the biggest messages, particularly from those on the conservative side of politics, was that the cast should shut up, and do their jobs. They aren't here to provide political commentary, they're here to be entertaining.

Of course, it's unlikely that anyone who said those words aloud had any idea what Hamilton was about.

The broader point, though, is that there's nothing unusual about the cast's message. We've seen the same situations regarding authors of books people wanted banned, filmmakers whose movies spoke out on particular issues, and from actors who have played controversial roles. Stories don't exist in a vacuum, and it is impossible to keep them "pure". Politics is everywhere, and everything has a message in it, somewhere.

So, if you want to write a book, ask about the message you're trying to send. Because every performance is talking about something, whether it's oppression of the people by a government, the constraints of monogamy on modern women, or commenting on how society views and treats veterans, there's always something being said.

Lastly, don't shy away from your message if you have something to say. Even (or especially) if you know that saying it is going to upset some people. Because you are a fool, and you've got a proud tradition standing behind you. So if you've got a barbed commentary buried just under the surface, let it fly. Because if you don't say it, then who will?

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully some folks found it interesting, or at least thought provoking. If you'd like to help support me and my work, and you don't want to stop by my Amazon Author Page, you could check out The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page instead. All it takes is $1 pledged per month for you to get some sweet swag of your own. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter, well, now would be a great time to start.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

5 Benefits of Being an Author

So, about two weeks ago I put together 5 Unseen Hazards of Being a Freelance Author. It engendered some response from folks who didn't know all the pitfalls that come with the freelance career path. So I thought, this week, I'd shine a light on the other side of the coin. Because there are upsides to being a freelance author, too. Sometimes you have to go digging for them, but they are there.

If you look hard enough.

Benefit #1: No Pants

How's that three-piece suit feeling now?
Life as an author isn't easy, but any time it starts getting me down, I remember that I don't have a dress code. If it's cold, I put on a cozy robe, step into my slippers, and start typing. If it's hot out, then I can work in my underwear all day if I feel like it. Until Skype becomes a mandatory part of the process, I can wear whatever I want to do my job. This attitude extends to other parts of the gig as well. I can drink my own coffee, use my own bathroom, and if I want I can relax on my own couch in between assignments.

Benefit #2: VIP Treatment at Events

Most people think you have to be a bestselling big-wig before you get treated like a Very Important Person at special events like trade shows and conventions. And, for the most part, that's true. No one invites self-published no-names to be the guest of honor, after all.

With that said, though, you can still get some pretty sweet deals if you show up and let them know you're a professional in the field. Even if no one has ever heard of you.

If nothing else, you might get a free drink.
For example, if you're an author who is willing to become a part of a convention's programming (doing signings, sitting on panels, doing readings, etc.), then you can often get your badge cost compensated. Some conventions, like C2E2 in Chicago, will actually give you a day pass for free (along with early access) just for being an author. You can often get access to the green room, and you may even qualify for lower-cost tables if you intend to sell books.

A word to the wise, though. The smaller the show you try to get involved with, the better your treatment will be. If you're not a household name, that is.

Benefit #3: Tax Deductions

I mentioned this one way back in 2014 in Tax Deductions Every Writer Should Know About, but it really does bear repeating. If you're an author, you're self-employed, which means you are going to pay through the nose when it comes to your taxes. However, because you are self-employed, you can write off a plethora of stuff when it comes time to figure out how much you owe your Uncle Sam.

One for me, one for you. Two for me, one for you...
Because you're self-employed, there are all kinds of things you can deduct. For example, did you have to get a hotel room for that convention? Badge? Did you have travel expenses? Business lunch with clients? All of that can be written off at the end of the year. The same goes for new laptops, writing software, and anything else that is directly related to you putting words on the page. You might even be able to claim a part of your Internet expenses, which can bring down the amount you owe the government in a big hurry.

Benefit #4: Make Your Own Hours

This one is a bit of a double-edged sword, but generally speaking it turns out in your favor. If you're the sort of person who despises an alarm in the morning (in which case you're a member of my tribe), then the ability to work when you want to work is a great boon. Especially if you like to work late at night, or in the middle of the day, or change it up from time to time.

Time is meaningless! Your life is a lie!
This doesn't mean you're allowed to work only a few hours a day, though. On the contrary, you have to put in some long hours, pretty much every day. And you still need to make your deadlines. So, you may still be staring glossy-eyed at your screen on your third cup of coffee, but you decide when that happens.

Benefit #5: You're Always Going to Be "That Guy"

Unless you hang out with bounty hunters, Navy SEALs, and lion tamers on a regular basis, chances are good you are going to be the most unusual person in the room when you venture out into the realm of normalcy. You may not think of yourself as all that unusual, but trust me when I tell you that being a practicing author gets people's attention. They probably won't fawn over you like a rock star, but they will sit up and pay attention like a news story they're sort of interested in just crossed their Facebook feed.

So, you write books? Like, for money, and stuff?
On the one hand, this can save you a lot of time and energy when it comes to pitching your work. Because if someone is told what you do, it's likely they'll turn to you and ask what sort of an author you are (or, if you're at a really normal dinner party, the question will be, "are you published?).

On the other hand, you'll likely want to have a script prepared. Because every time you meet a new group of people, you're going to be fielding the same questions. Every now and again someone will throw you a curve ball, but if the folks you're meeting don't regularly run with writers, editors, and other pen monkeys, it can feel like your memory is stuttering.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully some folks enjoyed it, and found a chuckle or two. If you'd like to help support my blog, then why not drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get yourself some sweet swag! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The 5 Worst Mistakes I Saw As An Editor

So, I've mentioned in the past that I've worked as an editor. While I'm not currently in the red business, I did a few years in the trenches, and I saw some bizarre things. Now, I'm not going to name names, but I would like to share some of the most baffling mistakes and decisions I saw fellow authors make.

I'd prepare to make this face, if I were you.

Mistake #1: A Villainous Monologue (In An Empty Room)

Exposition is a bitch, especially if you're not writing from an omnipotent perspective where you can share the thoughts and motivations of your characters with the reader. One of the best ways to solve this problem is through dialogue. Your lead is having an intimate moment with a friend, and shares a dark secret, for example. Or maybe your rivals are smack-talking each other, and so context for their feud can be organically injected into the flow of your story. Perhaps the most over-used version of this is the villainous monologue. You know, the speech every Bond villain gives when the super spy is in an "inescapable" death trap, explaining their motivation and plan.

The villainous monologue works best, though, if there's another character present.

Yeah, that was my thought, too.
To put this into context, the bad guy was an evil sorcerer who was trying to acquire some vague, but powerful, macguffin. So instead of explaining why it mattered to an underling, or examining legends of the trinket, he held forth at great length about what it was, and how he was going to acquire it. To an empty room.

This is probably the worst means of exposition delivery I have ever seen. Sadly, it's cropped up in other places, too.

Mistake #2: An Entire City Full of Seven Characters

Not all novels need a huge cast. Cormac McCarthy can create a compelling work with two guys in a room talking about philosophy, after all. But when your book is set in the middle of a major city (which tactfully goes unnamed, somehow), and your entire cast consists of about seven characters, you've run into a serious problem.

Especially when one of them might as well be this yob.
Now, I don't mean seven main characters; I mean seven characters. Because there were no descriptions of crowds, and no exchanges with wait staff, the lead's neighbors, or any of his co-workers (except the one who turned out to be a satanic dragon... another story for another day), the book took on a sense of unreality. Especially when two members of the cast weren't even given names; they were two, young women working as cashiers whose only lines of dialogue were to confirm for the reader how attractive our lead was.

Pro tip for authors who want their books to remain evergreen; don't compare your characters to movie stars. We've already reached the point where Brad Pitt is that old guy who just divorced Angelina Jolie; comparing your lead to him is going to have no meaning at all to a lot of readers in the very near future.

Mistake #3: No Historical Research

One of the great freedoms of being an author is that you are the captain of the U.S.S. Make Shit Up. You have no idea what alien life would be like because you don't have twin degrees in biology and sociology? No problem, just make them engaging! You're not really sure on the science behind giant monsters? Who cares, they're giant monsters, your audience can deal with it!

Most of the time you can pull the, "my world, my rules," card, and be pretty confident about it. When part of your story is set in an ostensibly real time period, though, you can't hold up that everything-proof-shield anymore.

The beautiful hills of... what do you mean this is 500 years too early for my story?
The story in question was one of those romance novels where the plot is that the two leads were lovers in a past life, and they mysteriously meet and fall for each other again in the here and now. So far, so saccharine, but a hackneyed plot device is still a mostly functional core to build your plot around. And, like many novels that chose to use this particular plot device, the book alternated between scenes set in the past, and scenes set in the present.

The difficulty was that the scenes set in what was ostensibly the Middle East, sometime around the 7th century, felt more like deleted scenes from Disney's Aladdin. There was no mention of the culture, the city we were in was never named (though I strongly suspect it was supposed to be Baghdad), and the few details that were mentioned either used language that didn't fit the culture and time period, or were flat-out ridiculous.

When half your book is set in a real place, in a real time period, you can't just hand-wave the details. Even if your villain is using magic, summoning demons, and using a bound djinn to do his dirty work, you need to make that past life feel authentic, or the whole thing falls flat on its face.

Mistake #4: No Clue How Fights Work

Now, it's perfectly true that you can write a compelling story where there's no violence. Or, at least, no onscreen violence. Cozy mysteries are a good example of how you can build tension, and create character arcs, without a single punch ever being thrown.

With that said, if you're going to have your characters throw down, make sure you know what you're doing.

Here's a knife... do something with the knife.
Now, not everyone knows how to fight. That's a fair point. But if you spend a lot of text leading up to a brawl, and then it devolves into nothing more than a rugby tackle, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. Especially if your character is supposed to know what they're doing, but when it's time to throw down it all devolves into handbag slapping. I laid out some additional advice for this one in Author's Fight Club: Rules For Writing Better Fight Scenes.

Mistake #5: No Concept of Personal Safety

Now, I edited primarily for romance stories, and there are just certain tropes you accept when that genre comes across your desk. However, in order for characters to remain believable, it's important for their actions to have internal consistency. And there are just certain things that real people do not do when placed in certain situations.

No one pets the bear, for example. No matter how friendly he looks.
As a for instance, you are a woman who lives alone. You wake up, and in bed next to you is a man you've never seen before. He's dressed in strange, foreign clothing, and you have no idea how he got in, or what he did to you in your sleep. You don't shake his shoulder, and ask him how he got there; you call the goddamn cops. Which can raise all kinds of issues if he is, in fact, a magical time traveler who has no fingerprints, no visa, and doesn't speak a language anyone knows (since languages change over time, and crusades-era Arabic would be difficult to understand).

These situations crop up all the time. A woman is being aggressively followed by a man she's turned down multiple times, and if he didn't have a, "I'm the main character," sign over his head we'd immediately expect him to be arrested for stalking. A man who seems fairly normal, and even likable, sits a woman down and explains with a straight face that they have been lovers through a dozen past lifetimes. That is not someone with a special soul; he's mentally disturbed, and a possible threat.

Even if the far-fetched and ridiculous happens to be true in your book, you need to massage the situation so it doesn't come across as threatening, dangerous, or bat-shit bonkers. Especially if there's no proof, or even circumstantial evidence, to back up what someone is claiming.

Think about the scene from Terminator where Kyle Reese first explains to Sarah Connor that he's a time-traveler from the future, and that she's the mother of mankind's savior. Not only that, but she's been marked for death by a cybernetic kill droid that will not stop until she's dead. That look on her face? That's what happens when someone tells you something insane with no proof that he's actually here to protect/fall in love with you, and isn't just a dangerously deluded man with a stolen shotgun.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing topic. It was a little self-indulgent, but I hope that some folks out there found it amusing. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little bread in my jar? And if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

5 Unseen Hazards of Being a Freelance Author

Being a mercenary isn't easy. There's the long hours, the thankless jobs, and the sheer amount of effort and will it takes to stay in the game when there are so many other ways to make a living. You get paid pennies, asked to do impossible projects on absurd deadlines, and a lot of the time you have to give up sleep, socializing, or something else in order to keep your paymasters happy.

But you know all that before going in. Or, at least, you would if you've talked to any old hands about how they wound up on their career paths.

You don't choose the writer's life. It chooses you.
A lot of folks think they have the sand, and the skill, to handle those drawbacks. After all, a solid work ethic, a good reputation, and a little luck can do wonders for your career. That's true, but there are other pitfalls no one told you about. Traps that, if you fall into them, can leave you in the bottom of a hole with broken legs, and shattered dreams.

So let's talk about a few of those, shall we?

Hazard #1: You Get Paid When (or If) The Piece Gets Published

Being a freelancer sounds like a pretty straightforward gig. You agree to write a piece for your employer, and when the piece is finished, you get paid. Steak dinner, boom, done, move onto the next assignment.

The problem is that isn't usually how things work for authors.

I know you need this injection to keep going. What's that... when can you expect it? Well...
If you're working for a mid-to-large size company, you might be paid when you hand over the complete project. Once the client has taken a look at it, and found everything to be satisfactory, that is. However, what's more likely to happen is that you get paid when your work is published, rather than when it's completed.

This is true pretty much across the industry. If you get a short story accepted for an anthology, you get paid when it comes out. If you write an article for a newspaper, your check drops after publication. This could mean weeks, months, and in some cases more than a year between when you finish a project, and when you get paid for that project. Assuming something doesn't happen in the interim. Something like...

Hazard #2: Your Employer Can't Pay You

At this point in my career, I've lost track of how many times I've had to send emails to clients to ask about projects I've finished and handed in, only to find out that something went wrong and I'm not going to get paid as agreed. In some circumstances, they just need more time. In others, the project folded, and so I'm not going to get paid at all. This is a particular problem when you're counting on a check from a project you've turned in, only to find that you won't be buying food this month after all

At which point you may as well use that contract for kindling. It saves on the heating bill.
This situation is bad, but it isn't all bad. As a preventative, smart freelancers will try to include a kill fee in their contracts. This guarantees that you'll be paid something, even if the client opts not to publish your piece. Of course, if your employer has collapsed, then even that part of your contract might not be honored.

The upside is that you still have the article or story you wrote, and you're free to try to sell it elsewhere. The downside, of course, is that you've already wasted a lot of time waiting for your client to make good on their part of the contract, and now you need to spend even more time (as well as effort) trying to find this piece a new home. And if you were writing for a very niche market, it may not be worth the time and effort to try re-homing your work.

Hazard #3: You Can't Answer, "What Do You Make a Year?"

I'm not talking about those dinner parties we've all been to where someone inevitably tries to compare bank accounts to see who's the best endowed. No, I'm talking about the dozens of situations where, as an adult, someone in a suit looks across their desk at you and asks you to tell them what your yearly income is.

"It depends," is not an answer they like to hear.
The older you get, the more often you hear this question. It comes up when you want to rent an apartment, or get a home loan. You hear it when you want to buy a new car, or when you try to get government aid. Health insurance, auto insurance, and everyone in between wants to know what the numbers you're working with are.

And if you can't tell them, for certain, then that is going to make them nervous.

Some authors have a fairly steady income. They have a big fan base, a half-dozen books on the market, and their royalties are fairly consistent from one year to the next. Freelancers are, more often than not, the very image of feast-or-famine. Because all it takes is word of mouth to spread around, and bam, you have more work than you can handle, and checks rolling in on the regular. And all it takes is one economic downturn for those clients to dry up and blow away, leaving you struggling just to make your ends meet. Which can be particularly problematic if you are trying to show someone how steady and safe you are as a financial risk.

Hazard #4: You Have To Take On More Than You Can Handle

One of the harsh facts about being a freelancer is that you are always gazing toward tomorrow. Because you might have a steady gig right now, but how long is that project going to last? It might be a few weeks, or it might be a few months, but sooner or later it will be over. Will the client have something else to feed you? Maybe, but if not, you need to know where your next meal ticket is coming from. Which means, unfortunately, you don't really have the ability to say "no" to anything that comes your way.

What? Of course I can handle that! As soon as I finish one or two... other things.
I mentioned this in Neil Gaiman Hit It On The Head When He Talks About "The Freelance Mentality", but it bears repeating. The very idea of saying "no" to a project is something that's typically thought of as a luxury. Because sure, you're up to your ears in work, but it will be done by the end of next month, and you'll need something after that. Or, worse, all the work you're doing now isn't going to pay you until the book comes out in eight months, so you really need a way to keep your lights on between now and that big pay day next year.

Hazard #5: No Sick Days, No Safety Net

One of the primary benefits people look for from an employer is health insurance. Health, vision, and dental are the cornerstones of making sure you aren't power-bombed into a crater when something goes wrong with your body. Unfortunately, unless you either pull in some serious dough, meet the qualifications to get state health assistance (I live in Indiana. Ask me how popular the Affordable Care Act is here), or have a "regular" job on the side, insurance is just one of those things other people do.

Sick days are also not a thing. You make deadline, no matter what your fever is.
Some of us are lucky, because they can claim membership in an association that lets them buy lower cost insurance as if they were part of a union. However, freelancers aren't usually let into those clubs. So unless you've got some extra street cred, you're stuck with the choice of paying through the nose, or drinking some extra orange juice, hitting the gym, and hoping for the best.

How Do You Cope With These Problems?

Ideally, the best way to deal with all these hazards is to make good art, work with people you trust, and to build a reputation that ensures you'll get a steady stream of well-paid projects. Of course, if you can set up some additional safety nets on the side (things like an InfoBarrel account, publishing novels, or running a blog like this one), then you've got additional resources to tap in the event you run into a problem.

That's why I'm grateful for everyone who drops by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leaves a little bit of bread in my jar.

Will that work? Maybe. Sadly, it's entirely possible to do good work, be a competent professional, and still get hosed by something you couldn't have predicted, or prepared for. It's why so many creative professionals I know tend to hedge their bets by either keeping a job that gives them insurance, or depending on a spouse's coverage to let them keep doing their thing. It's also why it seems like every other week there's a Go Fund Me page starting up for a freelance author, RPG designer, or artist. Because we're fighting a dragon without a shield. We might land that killing blow, but if it breathes fire, we've got nothing to hide behind.

Until, of course, luck, hard work, and the support of your fans outfits you in a suit of armor, and you can walk into that cavern with a little more confidence.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it was helpful for those assessing the freelance life, and for those who don't understand the kinds of pitfalls freelancers have to deal with. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, what's the hold up?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ethnicity, Gender, and Language in Your Novel

I was up at Gamehole Con earlier this month helping out TPK Games at their booth. I found some time to wander the dealer room, and at a second-hand book booth I found an old copy of Conan The Avenger. This is one of the first books "discovered" by L. Sprague de Camp (the claim is that he found incomplete and unfinished Conan manuscripts left behind by the original author Robert E. Howard, and there are some who think de Camp just wrote his own stories and passed them off as found work), and it takes place during the infamous barbarian's middle age. He's king of Aquilonia, and a sorcerer steals his wife. So he must trek across Hyborea to save her.

Classic Conan stuff right there.

Enemies crushed, and driven before me. Cue the lamentations of the women.
The book reads more like a collection of short stories chronicling the journey than it did a novel, but that's par for the course during the pulp era. Unfortunately, what was also par for the course was that characters who weren't classically European in appearance tended to be given some seriously racist (and sexist, if we're honest) descriptions. In some stories this wasn't that big a deal, because Conan was constantly surrounded by fantasy Greeks, Britons, and generic townsfolk. In this book, though, Conan had to travel across the map to reach his enemy. That meant he was going through Turan (fantasy Middle East), Koth (generic fantasy African kingdom), Vendhya (fantasy India), and finally Khitai (generic Asian fantasy realm composed of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Japanese cultures and symbolism).

This, of course, meant that Conan was surrounded by characters who weren't of European descent for most of the book. It also meant there was a lot of truly awful, teeth-grinding descriptions. Khitai was the worst (with phrases like, "the slant-eyed beauty" being used in what I assume was intended to be complementary), but there were problems all throughout the book.

Which brings me to today's point. This isn't just a problem with books from the pre-Tolkien age, when the world was backwards and ignorant. We still have them today. They're just a little more subtle now.

The Difficulties of Description in Today's Fiction

We've moved on from the barbaric era of pulp, and our goals are to keep the good things those storytellers brought to the table, while scraping off the dried ichor of xenophobia and ethnic prejudice. And, by and large, we've managed to get rid of the actual descriptions (and a few of the tropes) that defined that era of fiction. We no longer use phrases like, "a visage redolent with the savagery of the dark continent," or, "the delicacy of the female will," to describe characters. Or, if we do, we get called out on it by everyone from our editors to our betas.

But all we've done is put down the obvious problems for harder to spot ones. To paraphrase another social issue, sexism didn't mystically vanish just because women are in the workplace, and a few of them have become CEOs.

Goddamn, it's like these tropes just won't die!
One trope that's gained traction over the past several years is using food to artistically describe someone's skin tone. Chocolate, mocha, caramel, etc. have all been used to make it clear that a character has darker skin. Is that functional? Sure. But the problem is that it seems to be the only way many writers have of explaining to the audience that a certain character isn't white. So, if you find yourself walking into the kitchen to check a dessert's color, it might be time to try another metaphor.

There are other things that bear examination, too. One of my personal pet peeves is writing a character's accent. This happens a lot when someone has a brogue, but it happens when someone is French, Southern, Russian, or just speaks a particular dialect of English that's unique to a single area. This makes the text hard to read, often requiring putting the brakes on the pace for the reader to figure out what a character is saying, but it also enforces the, "my way of speaking is correct, and everything else is a deviation from that." A literary version of the, "why don't you people learn to speak proper English?"

Those are just common ones I've come across as a reader, and during my brief stint as an editor. Other problems include overuse of the word "exotic" to describe someone, the use of the word "gypsy" when we aren't talking about the Dom or Roma people and their culture, and generally not examining the word choices we use, the ideas we're presenting, or asking why characters who look and act differently get to remain cardboard cut-outs while the more relatable (and usually white) cast get to be fully fleshed-out.

Every Character Deserves a Full Treatment

One of the most common questions authors like George R. R. Martin, and creators like Joss Wheadon, continually get asked is how they write such great female characters. And the response is always something along the lines of, "they're characters, and people, who happen to be female. Why is this such a hard concept for people to grasp?"

Why indeed, George. Why indeed...
That same, zen-like logic can be applied to many of the problems authors face with gender and ethnicity as spectra. By rolling up your sleeves, fleshing out concepts fully, and making sure that every character has a story of their own to tell (even if that story never shows up on-screen) you will have a better novel. Not only that, but it's habit forming. If you get used to doing the heavy lifting of research, and you train yourself not to use certain phrases (and certain words) thoughtlessly, the end product is going to be better, overall.

Now, as always, this comes with the implied disclaimer that it's your book, and you can write it however you want. I am just some guy with a blog, and I can't tell you what to do. However, what I can say is that as a writer, as a reader, and as an editor, I want to see work where the author doesn't rely on language, or tropes, that feel like they came out of the roaring 20s.

Conan is a great character, and his books are still fun and engaging. But we should attempt to capture the spirit of adventure, and the richness of the world-building, instead of porting in all the damsels in distress, and backwater tribesman just looking for a big, white guy to lead them to victory.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. I hope it was helpful, and as always, that I manage to plant a seed. If you'd like to help support me and my work, why not go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss some change in my jar? And, if you haven't done it yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to make sure you don't miss any of my updates?