Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Take Inspiration From The Things That Piss You Off

"Where do you get your ideas?"

This is, perhaps, the most trite question any author will have to field. Some of us will offer a self-deprecating smile, and talk about how all they do is watch and listen to the people around them. Others will lean in, as if they're imparting a secret, and confide that the ideas for their stories come to them in dreams. And there are at least a few of us who shrug, and claim we have no idea where these inspirations come from.

I'm not going to beat around the bush on the subject. My greatest inspirations come from consuming media that pisses me off.

I got sick of reading bad steampunk, so I wrote some better stuff.
Part of that is because I am a creature of spite, and nothing makes my pilot light flare like seeing a good idea executed poorly. The other part of it is that, if you're going to complain about how a movie, book, or comic is a steaming puddle of afterbirth, then it's your responsibility to do it right.

Put Up, Or Shut Up

I have half a dozen examples of this process, but I'll talk about one of my favorites. I am, as I mentioned in What is The Difference Between Tragedy and Grimdark?, an avowed fan of the grimdark genre. I like my warriors brutal, my motivations murky, and my protagonists more flawed than low-quality rubies. As both a writer and a gamer, I admire the sheer creativity of the Warhammer 40,000 game, which gave grimdark its name.

What I did not enjoy was the Space Wolves Omnibus.

Even though I felt I should have.
For those not familiar with the genre, some of the most famous heroes (and I use the term loosely) in the 40k universe are space marines. These genetically-altered, cybernetically-enhanced super soldiers are colossi in power armor who have had their fear, their hesitation, and even their free will, stripped from them. They have sacrificed their humanity to become living weapons for the emperor, and they are forces to be reckoned with.

That's compelling stuff, and it's one of the many reasons I like this universe. So when a friend handed me the Space Wolves Omibus, and told me it was the origin story of Ragnar, one of the most infamous of the Space Wolves (take all the stuff I just said about giant cyborg super soldiers, and now add in a dash of vikings), I expected to tear through this book like a kid left alone in a room with a chocolate cake.

The problem was, as soon as I put a forkful of this story in my mouth, I found out it was made of wallpaper paste.

The book opens with the kind of fast-paced, hard-hitting action I expect from a Warhammer book. Great stuff for a few pages. Then we go back in time... back to when Ragnar was a boy on an underdeveloped planet. Just one more youth out to prove his mettle sailing the seas, showing no fear, and killing sea monsters with a spear. Then his people get killed, and Ragnar gets recruited along with another survivor as a candidate for the empire's highest honor.

That's a summary for the first hundred pages and change, which is about where I stopped. It was, by no means, the end of the book. But I felt that the whole purpose of going back to Ragnar's youth was to show us who he'd been before he underwent the procedure. Who was his family? What were his aspirations? Did he have lovers? Was he a good man, or was he cruel? How was the person he'd been back then altered, or erased, by what was done to him when he became one of the infamous space wolves?

Sadly, aside from the opening action sequence, it was all bland, cookie-cutter stuff. No great depths were plumbed, and no great characterization too place. No mysteries about who he'd once been were revealed.

That was about the time I cracked my knuckles, and got to work.
I let that disappointment roll around in my head for a while, and when I'd tumbled the gemstones of my malcontent, what fell out was a pretty engaging idea. Picture a dystopian society, where humanity's first intergalactic war had reduced much of the world to rubble and ruin. Corrosive rains, blasted cities, and hives of people living underground as they tried to undo some of the damage they, and the invaders, had done. Relics of the conflict exist everywhere, from massive gun emplacements, to a militarized culture, but one of the most unusual relics are the Myrmidon. Alien-human hybrids, the Myrmidon were created to act as shock troopers whose unique anatomies allowed them to access and use salvaged alien technology to aid humanity's fight. Now that the threat is defeated, though, what do we do with these perfect warriors we built? These perfect warriors who bear physical, mental, and emotional scars from the battles they fought to keep us safe?

That was the premise for my short story "Heart of The Myrmidon," which was featured in the collection End of Days. It wasn't the last story I set in that world, and though the original story is out of print, it's possible that some of the newer tales might be seen in the near future. If things swing my way, that is.

Fix Things, Don't Just Urinate on Them

There's a strong urge among those who are new to spite to take a thing they don't like, and lambaste it. Whether it's a person whose beliefs they find offensive, or a TV show they find banal, there's a temptation to just defecate on it, then point and laugh.

Your goal shouldn't be to just vomit your hate over something. It should be to help an idea live up to its full potential.

Kind of like how we're supposed to treat other writers.
Remember, spite is a powerful thing. But you should use it to build, and improve, instead of tearing down and destroying.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully some folks enjoyed my thoughts on the subject. If you'd like to leave a little bread in my jar, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? $1 a month helps more than you know, and there's some sweet swag in it for you! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Making Money By Self-Publishing With Kindle Direct Publishing Select

Self-publishing has come a long way over the past decade and change. With the rise of the Amazon Empire, and the success of the Kindle publishing platform, authors now have the ability to submit their work for ebook and print publication on demand. Anyone who owns a Kindle (or a device capable of reading Kindle ebooks) can download and read your work, often for a fraction of what it would cost to buy the same book at a bookstore. That means more readers are more likely to see your book, check it out, and give you a hefty cut of the royalties.

Yeah, eat it traditional publishing!
While you miss out on the other advantages that come with traditional publishing (the advance checks, the assistance in promotion, getting your book on store shelves, stuff like that), there is something to be said for the control that comes with Kindle publishing. If, that is, you're willing to wear the hats of editor, marketer, cover designer, formatter, and a few others as well. Hard work, and a little luck, can be what gets you noticed, earns you a following, and puts a check in your hand every month.

If you're contemplating using Amazon, though, then you should also think about Kindle Direct Publishing Select.

What Is Kindle Direct Publishing Select?

This program, usually called KDP Select for short, is a way you can make more money from your digital books. The way it works is that, when you first put your book up, you click the option to enroll it in KDP Select. This means your book is going to get more promotion from Amazon, comparatively speaking, and that it will be part of the Kindle Unlimited library. That means any user with a Kindle Unlimited subscription, which lets them read all the ebooks they want that are part of this program, can do so without any extra charge.

Don't worry, you still get paid.

It just requires a bit of math.
The way this works is that anyone who is a Kindle Unlimited member has to pay a fee for that service. So, at the end of the month, all the money is put together in a big fund. Then Amazon looks at how many pages were read in which parts of the world, and divides the fund up accordingly. Then, based on the number of pages that were read in a certain area, a royalty is paid to the authors. Royalties are only paid the first time a particular user reads your book, and there is a 3,000 page limit when it comes to how much page count you get paid for.

However, before you start asking about picture books and research tomes, Amazon uses something it calls Kindle Edition Normalized Pages. These "normalized" pages are meant to represent a "standard" length page, which means that your pages are likely to be counted differently. If you have a text-heavy novel, for example, then you probably have bigger pages than the display suggests.

While the specific payment will vary from month to month based on how many total pages were read, and how much money Amazon brought into the fund, generally speaking this is still a good way to make additional royalties. Because you have a whole new demographic available to you, and at the end of the day, money is money.

Additional examples and specifics are located on the Kindle Direct Publishing Help Section.

Is It Worth It?

Some authors might feel that tying themselves exclusively to Amazon, even if it's only for 90 days, is just too constraining. However, unless you really do have a huge audience using other platforms that will make up for your losses, Amazon is offering a fairly sweet deal. While it might not be quite as sweet as it used to be, before the current overly complex formula that decided how much every page was worth on a month-to-month basis, it's still better than what you'll find in other places.

Well, that's it for this week's Business of Writing edition. Hopefully it was useful, for some of my fellow authors who've been contemplating the leap into Amazon's frothing waters. If you'd like to support me, then why not stop by my Amazon author page to see if any of my books tickle your fancy? Or, if you'd like to support this blog specifically, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a small donation. $1 a month will do quite nicely, and keep content just like this coming right to you. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start now?

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

If You're Going to Be an Author, Learn to Think in Word Count

I'm going to make an assumption here, and assume that we've all had to write a paper that came with a page count requirement. Maybe it was a term paper in college, or a report you had to write in your senior English class, but we all had to do it. More importantly, we all learned ways to gently massage our page count to make it seem a little longer. A slightly bigger font, tweaked spacing, the inclusion of charts and images, or just adding big, block quotes were all ways for you to eat up space, and make the arbitrary page count the assignment required.

No need to lie about it, we're all friends here.
An unfortunate habit of projects being assigned to us in school with this metric, though, is that a lot of us think in terms of pages when it comes to being authors. When you're talking about a short story, or a novel, you talk about the page count. If someone asks how your project is coming, you tell them what page you're on, or you tell them how many pages you need before it's done.

You probably don't want to hear this, but you should really stop that. For the same reason the U.S. should bite the bullet and switch to the metric system; because a page-based metric is not going to get you very far in the world of publishing.

Word Count is Where It's At

As I mentioned in 3 Tips For Formatting Your Manuscript (So Editors Won't Want to Stab You), page count is a useless metric when we're talking about the publishing industry. Because, as I pointed out in the introductory paragraph, there are a thousand little things that can totally alter page count. You could double-space your work, use a size 14 font instead of a size 12, or simply save your work as a pdf instead of a Word document, and it will change your page total.

But word count, is word count, is word count.

But this? This you can trust.
Not only is word count a more reliable judge for the size of your story, but it is the metric used throughout the publishing industry. Whether you're submitting short stories to an anthology call, or sending a novel to a publisher, they want to know your word count. And if you're self-publishing, you have to follow the program's formatting guidelines. That means that your page count is going to be meaningless, unless you wrote your manuscript using the same guidelines your platform requires.

The bigger benefit of learning to think in word count, as opposed to page count, is that you get a better sense of how long a story takes to tell. Whether it takes 5,000 words, or 50,000 words, thinking in word count lets you get a sense of exactly how much story you can tell within those parameters. That means you're a lot less likely to go over your limit, or to find yourself struggling to get another 10,000 words out of your plot so you can submit your manuscript for review.

While being able to turn a phrase is important, and coming up with brilliant plot twists can make a name for you in certain circles, there are few skills as valuable as plotting out how long your story will take to tell. Much like an architect who gives accurate estimates for a project, authors who have a sense of the scale and scope of their stories will find them easier to complete on time, and at the proper length.

That's all for this weeks' Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it helped some of you out there. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today? All it takes to get sweet swag is to drop at least $1 a month, and in addition to your gift, you get even more content just like this. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

5 Warning Signs You're Dealing With A Vanity Publisher

I first decided I was going to become an author around the age of 13 or 14. I took classes in high school, won a few contests (and did a lot of extra credit), and when I turned 18 I decided to submit a book of poetry to a publisher. I wasn't expecting much, because despite the colossal size of my ego, I was well aware that I'd only been honing my skills for a few years. However, my book was accepted. Not only was it accepted, but it was praised.

That's where I should have gotten suspicious.

I was young and stupid. Learn from my mistake.
I, like many starting authors, fell victim to a vanity publisher. And today I'd like to show you a few warning signs that should send up red flags.

#1: The Name

I fell victim to Publish America. If I had not been 18 and convinced of my own genius, I would have taken one look at that name and laughed out loud. While not every vanity publisher has a name that screams, "I'm here to bilk you out of your money," a lot of them still do. And with all the publishing tools we have available today, they can pop up like dandelions.

Before you even consider talking with a publisher, run a search on their name. Find out how long they've been around, and what other authors have to say about them. Check to see who they've published, and if they're names you know and respect. See if you can find anyone who's been rejected by them, and keep an eye out for fluff pieces written to bolster their image.

#2: Thick, But Impersonal, Praise

One of the big things that suckered me in, and which is a baited hook to a lot of newer authors, was the praise. Even if you believe your writing is good, the idea that someone in the industry agrees with you can shoot you into the stratosphere if you haven't built up the proper amount of cynicism. Before you get too satisfied with yourself, though, it's important to take a good look at the acceptance letter. Does it mention any specifics about your book? Does it give the sender's personal opinion? Sometimes an editor will, indeed, offer praise. When that happens, it will never be generic.

#3: Asking You For Money

I covered this one in Questions Beginning Writers Ask (That Experienced Writers Are Tired of Hearing), but it bears repeating. Authors do not pay to be published. Period. End of story.

The publisher pays you, not the other way around.
Now, it should be mentioned that if you want copies of your book to sell at shows or fairs, you still have to buy those. A publisher will typically sell them to you at, or near, cost. However, real publishers don't pitch you the opportunity to be in a "special, collector's edition" volume, or try to get you to pay for an upgrade to your book.

This applies to marketing your book, as well. If you get published, your publisher will want to sell as many copies of your book as possible. That means they're going to give you an attractive layout, a noticeable cover, and they're going to promote your book. While smaller presses will have a shorter reach than bigger ones, every company is going to have a marketing plan that they'll discuss with their authors. If at any point in time they lay out a marketing plan, and then tell you that you'll have to cover these "expenses," you should run the other way.

The publisher is the company investing in you. They are the ones making the lion's share of the profits. If they want you to foot the bill, but are still taking the bulk of the earnings, that is a scam in progress, my friends.

#4: The Publisher Dodges Your Questions

Publishers and their authors need to be on the same team. If a publisher doesn't give you specific answers to your questions, especially for basic things like what percentage you get, how long the editorial process should take, and where your book will be available for purchase (and in what formats), that should put up some serious red flags. Those are things every publisher knows, and they should be in your contract. If they aren't, then you are looking at a shoddy publisher at worst, and a scam at best.

#5: The Publisher Takes Your Rights

Most publishers ask for first-time rights from their authors. They want to be the first ones to publish your book, both physically and digitally. A contract will specify when rights return to the author, and it will typically avoid acquiring things like audio rights, film rights, and other rights considered more minor.

Vanity presses, on the other hand, will usually try to keep your publishing rights indefinitely. That way not only did you fall into their trap, but if your book is actually good, then you can't wait for your contract to run out, and then take it elsewhere. They keep the rights for years, and in some cases they may have the rights permanently if you don't read the fine print.

Always read the fine print.
If there's anything in your contract you don't understand, ask about it. If you don't get a clear answer, walk away, and walk away quickly. A publisher should be transparent with you when it comes to the terms of any legal agreement, and if they're trying to hide something, it is not in your best interests.

Well, those are the five warning signs that come to my mind, though I'm sure there are others. Hopefully this week's Business of Writing post saves a few folks from the pitfalls of vanity publishing. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little bread in my jar. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, then why not start now?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

It's Okay, All Authors Have Off Days

There are few things more frustrating than when you're having an off day at the keyboard. Maybe you're about to hit word count, and you suddenly realize that you need to delete everything you did today because you went in the wrong direction. Maybe you can't focus because the day kept interrupting you, so by the time you sit down to work on your manuscript you're out of energy, and it's the middle of the night. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, if feels like you're pulling teeth. That are trying to bite your fingers off.

And your story is a tiger.
When this happens, there's something you need to do. You need to take a deep breath, hit that save button, and walk away. Because if you don't, you're going to hurt yourself.

Learn To Recognize (And Accept) Your Off Days

I reach for this metaphor a lot, but writing is a lot like working out. Some people are born with natural talent, and everyone can get better at it through practice and dedication. But, more importantly, if you strain yourself too hard, then you might pull something. Which is why it's important to recognize when your grip is slipping, or you're trying to do too much. Because if you don't, you're going to do more harm to yourself (and your manuscript) than good.

Always brace your wrist when throwing plot hooks.
Even if in normal circumstances you're capable of doing a five-mile run, or putting up a 200-pound set on the bench press, sometimes you can't. Maybe you tweaked your knee going down the stairs, or you have a bit of a chest cold, and it saps your energy. When that happens, you might only be able to do half your normal weight, or go half your normal distance. You might even find it more beneficial to take the day off, to rest and recuperate.

There's nothing wrong with that, and sometimes it's what you have to do to avoid getting a brain blowout. The key to remember, though, is that you have to be able to recognize when you aren't punching at the top of your game. And then, once you learn how to recognize that, you need to be able to take a breath, push back from the desk, and tell yourself, "Not today. Tomorrow, though, I'm going to smash this."

It's Both That Easy, And That Hard

On the one hand, walking away from a project seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world. But too often we get so wrapped up in what we're doing that it's hard to realize we should let go, step back, and get some perspective. Just like writing is a habit you have to develop, being able to recognize when you need give your brain a rest is also a habit.

Because if you aren't performing your best, your book is going to suffer. So make sure when you settle your fingers on the keys that you're ready, willing, and able to give it your best.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing article! Hopefully you all enjoyed it, and found something worth taking away from it. If you'd like to help support me and my blog, then stop on by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little bread in my jar. Everyone who donates more than $1 a month gets free stuff! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, now might be a good time to start.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

If You Write One Story, It May Be Bad. Write A Hundred, The Odds Are In Your Favor

I am a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. While his work is very much a product of its time, everything from Tarzan to John Carter affected my tastes as a reader and writer, in addition to sending ripples through pop culture for more than a century to come. There is also an oft-repeated quote of his that I paraphrased for the title of this post. That sentiment is something authors should keep in mind, both when it comes to creating work, and in terms of making money as a professional.

Maybe Edgar was onto something...
To change the wording without the sentiment, if you write one story, it may not catch on. If you write a hundred of them, though, then you have a much bigger chance of being seen, and followed, by an audience.

Everything You Write Is A Spin On The Wheel

We like to believe that only objectively good books succeed. That the reading public supports books that have good messages, or that tell heartfelt stories with skill and gravitas. That there is a kind of cosmic justice to who gets fat checks, and who gets goose eggs. However, anyone who's ever seen a bestseller list has likely noticed that trashy, know-nothing books that exist purely for base entertainment succeed fairly often. More often than so-called "good" books, in fact.

There's a simple reason for this. Because the market does not reward talent, skill, or quality. The market rewards whoever the mob decides should be rewarded. Maybe that's the pioneer in science fiction, who wrote an insightful book about the nature of prejudice, and the complications that lead us to fight one another. Maybe it's the erotic fan fiction that, somehow, made it to press.

The mob is a fickle beast, at best.
Complain about the system all you want, if you're going to be an author, this is the arena you have to fight in. You need to win the crowd to your side. Maybe you do that in your first fight, getting everyone on their feet clamoring for more. It's possible. Not likely, but possible.

If you want to be a contender, though, you need numbers on your side. As I said in You Need Quantity AND Quality to Make a Living as an Author, the most successful authors out there are the ones with big libraries. Part of that is because when a reader discovers you, and they like a book you wrote, they're going to want more. So the bigger your library is, the more content there is for your fans to consume, and share with their friends.

More importantly, though, every book is another bullet you can fire at the bulls-eye. Maybe your first book barely nicked the edge of the target, and you didn't get more than a few reads and reviews. Your second book was closer, because you happened to hit a genre that was big right then, and you got some promotion from fellow authors and book reviewers you've worked with over the years. It isn't until you're fifth book that you hit dead center, and suddenly everyone's wondering who this hot, "new" author is that just put out this hugely well-received book.

It's All About Luck (And The Odds)

Authors need a lot of things to succeed. They need good ideas, skill, editors to help them, beta readers to point out problems, and the dedication to keep going book after book. Authors need to be able to look at the long-term goals of their careers, and to take advantage of short-term opportunities to make sales, make friends, and broaden their networks. But what authors need most of all is luck. Stupid, blind, clueless, impossible-to-predict luck.

Like the kind you get from this ancient die.
We like to believe that we're pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps (typewriter ribbons? Does anyone still use those?), but most of our success is because we finally got the right opportunity at the right time.

For example, say you're at a convention party, and you're just chatting with someone about books. You talk about your own complete-but-unpublished novel, and your companion is immediately interested. Unbeknownst to you, they're an editor for a big-name publisher, and they want to see how well your book would fit in the catalog. Maybe you wrote a guest post for a small publisher, and a popular podcaster saw it, and wants to have you on the show to promote your work. It could even be something as simple as writing the right story, in the right genre, at the right time, making sure that you quickly rise to a position of prominence in your niche, and get noticed by even more readers than you'd ever intended.

Even professional gamblers can be dealt a shitty hand. The question is are you willing to pony up for the next round, or are you going to go home with empty pockets?

As always, thanks for stopping in to check out this week's Business of Writing post. If you'd like to help keep this blog going, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leave a few bread crumbs in my jar? All it takes is $1 a month to get yourself some sweet swag! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, there's no time like the present.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Advice For Writing The Other, By Some of The "Others" in Question

As my regular readers know, I had a job as an editor for a while. During the brief period of time that I wielded the red pen of judgment, I noticed something odd. Namely that a lot of writers who crossed my desk seemed to have difficulty with characters outside their own experiences. Male writers whose female characters were flat, white writers whose characters of color were cringe-worthy stereotypes, and straight writers who did not have the first clue about what gay couples did in the bedroom.

Real bondage looks nothing like this, in case you were curious.
This is called, "writing the Other," and it put me in an awkward position. Because on the one hand, I was the editor, and I had found a serious problem with the writer's work. On the other hand, for those who don't have a book jacket with my photo handy, I am a white dude. So, while I was perfectly capable of pointing out what was wrong with the scenario in question, I never felt entirely comfortable in the role of explaining how to correct what was happening. After all, except in a very narrow selection of situations, I was not the Other that was being described, so what the hell did I know?

Fortunately, 5 Writing The Other Fails And How To Avoid Them has very solid advice that I wanted to share with everyone this week.

Writing The Other is an Exercise in Craft

In this guest post hosted on John Scalzi's blog, folks like K. Tempest Bradford and Lauren Jankowski weigh in on various examples of failure in writing the Other. And, while the examples provided are phenomenal in addressing specifics, I think one of the most important things authors can take away from the post is that writing the Other is something everyone can do. It isn't something everyone will get right on the first try, and it takes work, just like any other aspect of writing. It is, though, something that you can do.

Just remember to keep an eye out for the Goat of Criticism.
With that said, it is important to remember that writing the Other takes practice. You need to learn about the Other in question, and you need to form a complete picture of the characters, and their struggles. You need to push aside crass generalizations and lazy prejudices in order to create fully-formed characters with agency in the story. And, unfortunately, you won't always know when you've succeeded. Which is why it's important to listen to criticism, and to expand your pool of beta readers as widely as possible to be sure you have a lot of eyes on your project.

Authors always need to take their ego out of the process when listening to feedback, but that goes doubly for situations where you're writing about an Other. Because getting defensive about how you didn't mean to be offensive, or about your particular choice of language, misses the point. If you want to write the Other, and write them well, you have to listen, instead of talking.

Well, that's it for this week's Craft of Writing topic. The folks who contributed to 5 Writing The Other Fails And How To Avoid Them are really the ones doling out the wisdom on this topic. If you'd like to help support this blog so I can keep shooting more updates and advice straight to your screens, then why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? As little as $1 gets you some sweet swag, and it's a serious help to my endeavors. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, why not start now?