Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Looking For Cover Art For Your Book? Try RPG Now!

We all know we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover... but let's be honest, we do. Everything from the quality of the art, to the font choice of the title, to how it all comes together is indicative of skill and investment. If someone has a professional-looking cover, then someone is likely to assume the same level of care and attention to detail was also taken with the story behind that cover.

And if your cover sends a different message? Well, readers pick up on that, too.

Trust me, a good cover pays dividends.
If you're going the self-publishing route, though, chances are you don't have a big budget to spend on your cover art. Especially because getting art from a professional artist can run from several hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on what you want, and who you want it from. So what most authors do is look for stock art. Stock art is a piece that an artist can sell over and over again, giving different people the rights to use it on book covers, magazines, etc. Since the artist is making multiple sales over time, stock art tends to be a lot less expensive than an individually commissioned piece.

That doesn't make it cheap, though.

In fact, if you've been trawling through sites like Shutterstock, you've likely noticed that the license for some of those images can be pretty high. Even worse, some sites are geared toward larger publishers, so you can't just buy the rights to use one image; instead, you have to buy half a dozen that you may not need, or even want, just to get access to the one you care about.

If you're running into many of the same issues I did, might I recommend giving RPG Now a try?

What Is RPG Now?


If you've never been to the site before, RPG Now is a site that hosts independently published roleplaying games. So whether you're looking for a Dungeons and Dragons adventure, or you want a list of merchants on hand for when your players go to buy armor, you can easily find those resources on this site.

However, there are a surprising amount of resources on this site which are there for publishers and designers, rather than for players. Which is why if you type the words "stock art" into the search bar you are immediately hit with a deluge of pictures from kobold warriors, to crumbled ruins, to brave adventurers heading into the wilderness.

Something like this, perhaps?
That's the cover of my recently released fantasy novel Crier's Knife, and in case you're curious that artwork is by a fellow named Jack Holliday. A talented artist, you can find his pieces under J.H. Illustrations (and if you're looking for this picture in particular, you can find it under Standing Stones).

How much did that cost me for beautiful art like this? Well, if you didn't click through to see it yourself, I paid $4 for the rights to use it on my cover. Something that, if you're publishing a book, is probably well within your budget.

Jack is far from the only artist on the site, and there is a lot of art on there. Not only that, but some of it is actually free for you to use (with the proviso that you credit the artist)! While the site definitely caters more toward sci-fi and fantasy (since those are the major markets for roleplaying games), it's worth a browse no matter what genre you're writing in. You never know what you're going to run into!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing installment. Hopefully it helps some folks out there find affordable art that will give their books the extra oomph they need to catch potential readers' eyes. If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive! To stay on top of all my recent releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support my work you can leave me a tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, by becoming a patron over at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or by going to My Amazon Author Page to buy a few of my books! No matter which option you take, every little bit helps.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Understanding The Flat Arc (Because Sometimes Your Characters Don't HAVE To Change)

I'd like to start this entry off with a bit of good news. I recently put out my first novel! Crier's Knife is a sword and sorcery tale, with all the flashing blades and fell magic you'd expect from something in the genre. Our protagonist is Dirk Crier, a mountain boy from a witchbred clan, and one day his grandmother sets him the task of fetching his cousin Teller. Teller has a knack for getting into trouble, but this time he's up to his neck in real darkness; the kind you don't walk out of without leaving a little blood behind you. So Dirk rides out to either bring Teller home, or to make sure his kin has plenty of company on the long road to hell.

Seriously, the first few chapters are free, go read them!
One of the questions people keep asking me about this book is who is my protagonist, and what's his arc? Well, Dirk is a member of the Crier clan who, left to his own devices, would be happy building himself a cabin on the slopes of Ben Morgh to live a fairly quiet life. But when trouble rears its head, it's his job to put it back down again. In short, he's the family's enforcer, and the nasty work tends to end up in his lap.

As to his arc, that got me wondering. Because, you see, most folks only know about the two major types of character arcs; positive character arcs (where a character confronts and overcomes a flaw or fear to succeed and become better) and negative arcs (where a character fails to overcome a flaw or fear, and hurts themselves or others in the process).

There is a third kind of character arc, though, according to Well-Storied; the flat arc. In a flat arc a character's morals and beliefs are challenged, but they hold true to who they are and overcome.

That is a perfect description of Dirk, and the arc he has in Crier's Knife.

"Flat" Is Not Synonymous With "Bad"


Now, there's a big difference between a character being flat, and that character having a flat arc. Because flat characters are dull, boring, and one-dimensional. Characters with flat arcs, on the other hand, are some of the most famous and lauded personas in literature.

Like this guy, for example.
At his core, Batman is a character with hundreds (if not thousands) of flat arc stories. Sherlock Holmes is another character with a lot of flat arcs (this condition is particularly common among detectives and serialized characters, if you keep track). The same can be said of characters like Conan, or Solomon Kane. Sam Spade, Hawk, and even Captain America find themselves with a lot of flat arcs, as well.

Because, you see, these characters already have The Truth figured out, when it comes to their worlds and stories. They don't need to climb a mountain to talk to a sensei, to uncover their inner strength, or to learn lessons to overcome a challenge. They know what to do, and they do it. So, as readers, we get the satisfaction of fast-forwarding to what many consider the "good part" of a positive story arc. The part when the protagonist has learned their lesson, overcome their flaw, and is ready to rock and roll.

(Also, to head off any quibbles here, characters who are serialized will have different arcs in different stories. It's true that character like Batman have had positive arcs and negative arcs throughout their runs, and those story lines tend to be the memorable ones. By and large, though, the bulk of their story lines are flat arcs, with the exceptions sort of proving the rule.)

There's Nothing Wrong With Holding Steady


I will admit that flat arcs tend to be some of my favorite stories. While I understand the appeal of a positive arc (because personal growth and change to overcome obstacles is motivating and engaging) as well as a negative arc (because, as I've stated in the past, I'm a great lover of the "fuck you" ending), I find that a flat arc is often the most useful for when you already want your character to know who they are, and to have their world figured out. And since flat arc stories tend to create conflicts that fall into the No, You Move category, they can be fun and compelling without the need to do a lot of navel gazing that may not be necessary for your story.

This quote is basically a summation of the flat arc conflict.
So the next time you're writing, remember that it isn't either self-discovery and success, or crashing and burning because you didn't overcome. Sometimes your character just looks at the world, plants their feet, and says, "Bring it on."

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post! Hopefully it engaged some folks out there, and if you're curious what an engaging flat arc would look like stop on in and read the first few chapters of Crier's Knife for free!

If you want to stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, as well as my Amazon Author Page. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi as a tip, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron!

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

If You Want To Get Noticed on Social Media, You Need To Interact

Social media is, on the surface, one of the greatest blessings a professional creator could ask for. It costs you nothing to sign up, you can immediately join all kinds of communities, and with zero impact on your marketing budget tell everyone about your latest project. All it takes is starting a conversation, and from that point you've got it made in the shade!

The problem most folks run into, though, is they don't know how to break the ice... or if you're looking for a more accurate visual metaphor, they aren't sure how to kick the anthill.

Hoo boy that's a lot of potential views... now to get the proper wind-up...
The problem most folks run into is that they just toss out a link, and back away. They might even include a short message like, "Hey everyone, I'm super excited because I just dropped a new release! Come check it out?" While there's nothing wrong with that in theory, you're still up on your soap box shouting down at the crowd. What you need to do is step off that box, and have a conversation with folks.

You Get Better Results Talking To People, Rather Than At Them


Think about the posts you make in groups when you aren't trying to get a spotlight on your professional releases. When you're just there to share some info, or to poll other members, or to ask a question or three. Are your posts more casual in tone? Do you include pictures for attention? Most importantly, do you ask questions that other people can see and respond to?

Because you should do all of those things when you're writing a promo post.

You there! What's your favorite horror novel?
While people on the Internet don't traditionally need your permission to share their thoughts and opinions, if you outright invite them to leave comments on the post you made then it's like they're compelled by ancient fey law to say something. Which is precisely what you want them to do.

Here's a perfectly functional example of what I'm talking about:

Hey guys, it's International Cat Day, so I wanted to ask everyone a quick question... who is your favorite fictional cat? Alternatively, what is your favorite book where the protagonist is a cat? Asking because I just finished reading From A Cat's View, which has my hard-boiled feline tale "Stray Cat Strut" in it. While I still love Leo, my Maine Coon enforcer who works the mean streets of New York, this book was full of other great stories. Now I'm in a groove, and I was hoping you could all make some additional suggestions for me!

The tone of this post is extremely casual, which immediately makes it feel less like a sales pitch. Even though I specifically mention a book that I admit I'm a contributing author to. Instead of a commercial, it feels like one of those, "Oh hey, I've been reading this thing that's pretty unique. You heard of anything like it so I could keep going down this rabbit hole for a while?" conversations that happen all the time on social media. Because while the plug for my story and the collection it's in is fairly naked, it has at least some cover in that I'm talking to the people in the group to try to start a conversation.

And every time someone leaves a comment on that post, it gets pushed back to the top of the group. Even if I'm the one leaving a comment in response to something someone else said, which is why I will always reply to someone else's thoughts and suggestions. And every time that post buoys back to the top of the group, that's a chance for more people to see it, and give their input. It's also a chance for spirited debates to start (or flame wars, those are good for business, too), and every time someone stumbles across the post they might click the link to see what book I'm talking about.

Every click-through to From A Cat's View is, therefore, another chance to make a sale. And even if only one in every ten people who see the post click it, and only one in every ten of those people decide to get a copy, those numbers can get pretty big if the conversation keeps refreshing your post to the top of the page for two or three days on end. Especially if people share the post to keep carrying on that conversation on their own pages.

The point here is that if people see you are genuinely involved in the conversation, then that makes you seem more approachable. You're no longer just some random person tossing out a sales link and trying to get money out of everyone else's wallet. No, you're just like them; a reader, a cat lover, and someone just looking for recommendations. This stops people from seeing you as a billboard (which can be easily tuned-out), and it makes you a part of the community.

It doesn't guarantee that you'll avoid catching flak for self-promotion (even if you're burying the lead), nor will it skyrocket your sales overnight (barring some fantastic luck, anyway). But I can say that if you re-think your post style and content, you'll find that you get a lot more engagement from people if you try to set up a round table discussion than if you get up on your soap box and talk at people instead of to them.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully this helps folks who've been trying to drum up some numbers, but have fallen short.

If you'd like to see more of my work, then you should check out my Vocal archive, or head over to my Amazon author page to Buy My Books! If you want to stay up on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, to help support my work you can Buy Me A Ko-Fi to give me a one-time tip, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. Either way you'll have both my eternal gratitude, as well as some free stuff as a thank you for your help!

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Thousand Masks of God (A Writing Trick For Fantasy)

If you're a fan of fantasy, chances are good you've noticed how crowded the field of the divine can be. This can be particularly problematic in this genre because deities are assumed to be real forces in a lot of fantasy stories (particularly when their servants are the ones standing in as heroes or villains, and drawing their power from that divine source), and thus they represent a major force within the world.

There is an old trick regarding the divine, though, that you can use to clean up the field. I call it the Thousand Masks of God.

For who truly knows what the divine is?

What Is That?


The Thousand Masks of God is a simple idea, and it's one you've probably seen before if you're a fan of fantasy. It's the idea that there is only one set of gods (or sometimes only one god), and that these divinities appear to different cultures in different ways. Sometimes this is done on purpose (a divinity that appears as an old, bearded man to one culture, but a young mother to another), and other times it's human error (due to cultural differences, two very different people received two very different interpretations of the same being, and the same event), but the point is that there is actually a small number of divine forces at work in the world no matter how many different gods people think they're worshiping under different names.

Let's take a real-world example. Many cultures have a patriarch god in their pantheons; the Greeks had Zeus, the Norse had Odin, and so on, and so forth. Under the Thousand Masks of God, those patriarchs would all be the same divinity. While each might capture an aspect of him, they are just a hint of the true nature of that god. None are false, but each is only a singular aspect, seen through the lens of that particular culture.

What's The Purpose?


As a writing/world-building tool, this trick offers you a couple of different advantages. First and foremost, it means that you only have a handful of divinities to keep track of in your world's events and struggles. Secondly, it allows you the opportunity to give your characters (and through them your reader) a peek behind the curtain at pivotal, important points in the story (assuming you're going to reveal the true nature of the divine, which is a necessity if you're going to use this setup). Most importantly, though, this trick allows you to hand-wave away multiple pantheons or deities existing when their doctrine expressly says they're the only gods, or the only true gods.

That escape hatch comes in handy if you want to portray something like angels, demons, rakshasa, etc. in a way that seems to run counter to their presented mythology. Because if these beings, and those who control them, are only glimpsed through a mirror darkly, it's not always possible to understand their true motivations. Especially if you throw in Orange and Blue Morality on top of flawed human understanding.

To Be Clear, You Aren't Blowing Any Minds


That's your prose's job.
Every writer discovers the tools of the trade in different ways, and one of the most frustrating experiences you can have is thinking you've discovered something new and unique that's actually been done a thousand times before by writers you've never heard of. This trick is one of those things I thought most writers knew about, but there are always new folks coming into the fold who think this idea is groundbreaking.

Let me be clear, it isn't. Also, if you're concerned with being new, unique, and original, then writing may not be the career for you. Every story has been told before; the best you can do is hope to tell it in a new way that everyone really likes.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. If you liked it, and would like to see other examples of my work, then check out my Vocal archive. Also, don't forget to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to get all of my recent updates and releases. If you'd like to support me you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, become a patron on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly tipper, or you could go to my Amazon author page to Buy My Books!

Whatever method you choose, know that I'm grateful for any support you can offer!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Controversy Generates Attention (And Attention Generates Sales)

One thing I hear from a lot of writers is that they're worried their books might be too controversial. This might sound like a polite version of that too-edgy-for-you storyteller we've all seen in our writing circles, but sometimes it is a genuine concern. They're worried that, if certain aspects of their story remain how they are, that it could turn off potential readers. That's a legitimate concern, but I'd like to take a moment to ask you something.

Do you know what Assault on Precinct 13, Hereditary, and Cannibal Holocaust all have in common? Well, to one degree or another, it's controversy.

Holy shit you guys, you have GOT to see this!
Whether or not you have strong opinions about those three films in terms of quality, each one has moments in it that made crowds suck in their breath, and never stop talking about it. Some people were shocked in a good way, some were shocked in a bad way, but the louder the conversation got, the more people who weren't previously a part of it wandered over to see what the fuss was all about. And they had to buy a ticket just like everyone else.

This happens with books, as well. And while there's no shame in avoiding it if you feel it's bad for your brand (or puts too much strain on you as the creator), it's important to remember that anyone who makes a fuss over you is doing you a favor.

There's No Such Thing As Bad Publicity


Some authors are fortunate enough that their marketing efforts generate mostly positive buzz. They put a new twist on an old formula, get booped on the head by a generational zeitgeist (looking at you, Rowling), or just acquire a slow and steady growth in their readership. However, not all writers are that lucky. What they need is a boost to get themselves in front of a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise see their book, or if they saw it wouldn't be all that likely to check it out.

Take Patrick Wensick, for example.

Patrick who?
If the name doesn't sound familiar, he's the guy who wrote Broken Piano For President. As I mentioned back in my post Will Self-Publishing Work For You? Maybe... If You're Lucky, Wensick's novel spent a week in Amazon's #6 spot for best selling books due to his cover design. It's reminiscent of a Jack Daniel's bottle, and the manufacturer sent him a cease and desist letter. That letter went viral, with a lot of people arguing over whether the cover was or was not a big deal... but during that argument, Wensick picking up a lot of attention, and resultant sales.

Now, that controversy lacked a lot of the uglier aspects that can come with the territory. Particularly if you make points about sexism in fantasy, racism in science fiction, or really any combination of social issue and genre these days. If you get attention for those stances, unfortunately, there are a lot of ugly corners of the Internet that will stamp their feet and leave less-than-constructive criticism all over the place.

However, even when that happens, it leads to an equal-yet-opposite reaction. All you have to do is look at the outrage Anita Sarkeesian got when she proposed her Feminist Frequency project to look at tropes in video games. A truly staggering amount of hate came her way, but she reached her financing goal in a tiny period of time, and blew far past what she'd initially asked for.

Not everyone wants to take that risk, and that's a fair point to make. Especially in the era of doxing, online threats, and dangerous ideology. However, controversy can be good for you from a platform perspective, and from a financial one.

Just something to think about.

That's all for this week's installment of the Business of Writing. If you'd like to check out more of my work, you can find interesting projects on my Vocal author page. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to support me, then you should consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron.

Or you could stop by My Amazon Author Page to buy a book or two!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Try The Hemingway App To Clean Up Your Writing

First things first, I wanted to share a spooky little side project I've been working on for a bit. I've recently put together 50 Two-Sentence Horror Stories over on Horror.Media, and I wanted to make that my Halloween season gift to all my regular readers.

Now, for your regularly-schedule post!

An Editor That Works For You


As technology grows more sophisticated, it becomes an ever-more-useful tool in allowing artists to do more with less. While it's still a good idea to employ an editor with experience, a keen eye, and a pulse, you may not have the need or budget for that every time you write a blog post, or turn in a paper for your psychology class.

However, what you can do is get your hands on Hemingway, and let it show you some of your problem areas.

Take this out. And this. That's fine, lovely actually. This, though, this is garbage...

What Is The Hemingway App?


Short version, Hemingway is an app that lets you check and modify your work. A digital editor, it can point out not just where you have misspelled words and grammar errors, but also show where you've slipped into the passive voice, and bring your attention to words and phrases that have simpler, more straightforward alternatives. In short, it reads between the lines about as much as a computer can... for now at least.

It can't read your thoughts, but baby steps, folks!
You can get the app for free, and it can be used either as a writing platform to check your work as you write it, or you can paste an already complete project into the app to give it a solid going over. You can even list certain goals, like a maximum number of adverbs (since they're a danger in large numbers, as I said back in Blithely Digging Your Grave With Adverbs), or a maximum number of passages in the passive voice.

In short, it's an editor that gives you some creative freedom on what rules you want to break, while still drawing your attention to things that might be problematic if you just let them all slide. A solid investment for writing in the digital age, and a big help for people who know that a man who is his own doctor has a fool for a patient.

There is one thing that Hemingway doesn't do, though, and that's light the fire under you to actually get to work. If you find that your problem is less about getting a finished product you like, and more about not staring at a blank page for hours on end, then you might want to take a look at Fighter's Block instead. I covered it a while back in Trouble Reaching Word Count? Try Fighter's Block! earlier this summer.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully some folks out there find that a new editing app is just what the doctor ordered! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and to stay on top of all my new releases follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to support me, you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to give me a tip. Alternatively, check out my Amazon author page to Buy My Books!

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Being a "Po-Fessional" Author

We're all familiar with the idea of Schrodinger's Cat, right? We live on the Internet, this is a thing we've heard of? Well, for those who need a refresher it's essentially a thought experiment. You place a cat in a box with a source of radiation, and a flask of poison. When a Geiger counter detects radioactivity, the poison is opened, and it should kill the cat. However, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics says that as long as you cannot observe the results the cat may exist in two states at once, both dead and alive. Because quantum physics gets silly when you take it too far.

When you're a minor league creative professional, you also exist in a strange double state. On the one hand, you are a known professional who produces quality work. On the other hand, you also live below the poverty line. I have come up with a term for this... the Po-fessional.

When one remains in a quantum state of valuable, yet unpaid.

Being Broke In The Time of Demand


We live in a world where it is more possible than any other time in history to be a professional creator, but which is also ironically one of the hardest times to make a living with that trade. Everyone wants art to grace their walls, books to read, comics to enjoy, and music to listen to. Not only that, but there's big money in becoming a YouTube star, in writing Amazon's next big Create Space sensation, or in running a podcast that attracts a huge audience.

There are a lot of artists doing all of these things as we speak. They're putting their time, their sweat, and their passion into making something for other people to enjoy. And you know something? Most of them aren't making any real money from it.

"How is that possible?" you may ask.
Well, a big part of it is because the corporations who make the real profits while providing so many platforms (Amazon, Google, etc., etc.) specifically set things up so that they get the biggest benefits, while giving the creators a pittance. I talked about some of this in Writers on YouTube? Prepare For An Uphill Battle a few weeks back, and it's a prime example of moving the goal posts so that creators have to work even harder (for free) before they "earn" the right to be monetized. Another reason is because passive earning mechanisms that worked in the past (mostly ads) are being ignored/blocked by readers, which means that the kind of traffic that would once have generated a fairly livable wage is now worth bare pennies. A perfect example is how last week's post Fantasy Writers, If You're Just Changing Something's Name, Don't Bother generated about 16,000 views in a few days... all of which earned your humble author about two shiny dimes in ad revenue. Once upon a time, that would have been close to $50. You add in fees that many platforms charge on creator earnings, and the fact that a lot of clients simply don't have the budget to offer creators anything remotely close to professional rates, and you have a situation where businesses get paid even when the artists don't.

This means that, now more than ever, creators depend on our audiences to help support our projects. We depend on you to look at our stuff, share it around, and to help fund us through tips and donations (such as through The Literary Mercenary's Patreon or Ko-Fi pages). We also depend on you to understand and appreciate that we have bills to pay, and that we are working hard to make things that you will value. To know that you, more often than not, are the only reliable paymasters we have since corporate backing, sponsorship, and even ad revenue rarely amounts to much these days.

It's A Tough Situation To Crawl Out Of


Note that, earlier in this post, I referred to myself and other creators like me as minor league. We're good enough to be paid, and for people to acknowledge that we have some skill, but not good enough to demand the kinds of salaries that major league creators are given. We don't get $50,000 advances, VIP treatment at conventions, and we don't have inboxes crammed with big businesses looking to secure our talents.

Why? Well, because we haven't actually succeeded yet.

That's the Catch-22 of this whole thing. If you want to get to that point where you get the kind of wages that can sustain your life while you create, you have to prove that you can still sell gangbusters without that kind of support. It's insane, but there it is. With so many creators out there, companies can pick and choose who they want to back. So if you're a YouTube creator, you aren't going to start getting those posh checks until you've proven you can bring in 50,000+ views on every video you produce. If you're an author, you don't get publishers willing to make a deal until you've already got a big audience clamoring for new titles. Etc., etc.

So, the next time someone makes a thing you like, keep that in mind. If you can afford to, buy some of their merch, or make a donation to their fund. For example, you can get a lot of my books on My Amazon Author Page. If you can't afford to help that way, then leave them a nice comment, like and share the thing you saw, and tell your friends about them. It helps a lot more than you can imagine, trust me on that.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. If you like it, please share it with the folks you know who need to hear this particular message. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To follow my work, hit me up on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! And if you want more of my work, check me out on Amazon.