Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Pros and Cons of Using Tabletop RPGs as a Writing Tool

Tabletop roleplaying games have been around for decades now, and at this particular moment they're undergoing something of a resurgence in popularity. Between shows like Stranger Things, which heavily feature Dungeons and Dragons, and the popularity of online live play shows like Critical Role, it seems that more people than ever before are getting into this particular hobby.

Believe me, we are happy to have every one of you!
If you're a fan of genre fiction, though, you've likely noticed the impact tabletop RPGs have had for some time. Writers like R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, as well as Chris A. Jackson, are known for their novels that explore the settings these games take place in, for example. Additionally, many of these games will adopt popular fictional settings, from Tolkien's Middle Earth to the Known World of A Song of Ice and Fire, and give players the chance to forge their own tales in realms they've only read about before.

A lot of folks use these games as ways to test out story ideas, character concepts, and to help them build worlds. However, there are good sides and bad sides to using RPGs when it comes to your writing.

The Pros

Just take a drink... what can it hurt?
Before we get started, I'd like to establish some bona fides. First, I've been playing RPGs on the regular for about fifteen years or so. I'm also a content creator for these games, with modules like The Curse of Sapphire Lake for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, and supplements like 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern on the market right now. Lastly, I've used several games to explore characters and ideas for stories, such as in "Jungle Moon" and "Dead Man's Bluff," both found in my latest release The Rejects. I also run the gaming blog Improved Initiative.

This is a topic I know a little something about, is what I'm trying to say.

So, from the pro side of things there are a lot of benefits for writers who take up tabletop roleplaying games. First and foremost is that these games exercise your creativity (often in ways you don't expect). They let you experiment with personalities, archetypes, character arcs, and histories, getting all the reps you need to pump up your imagination. These games also give you a sandbox to play around in, testing out different ideas and structures to see what most appeals to you. Perhaps most importantly, though, these games are group affairs, so you can play off all the other folks involved, get feedback from them, and build off of the collective activity.

And that's just what you get from being a player.

If you take the extra step to become the dungeon master (the person who runs the bad guys, voices all the other characters, and generally breathes life into the setting) you can learn a whole new set of skills. Everything from constructing narratives, to filling plot holes, to making the world feel real and lived-in are things you learn how to do when you sit behind the screen. And while the extra character creation and world building are good practice, you also learn how to cover all the details when it comes to the world. Because when your players ask you what the history of a particular symbol is, or what kind of sewer system the city of Karoka has, you learn there's always more going on in the world than what you think to put on the page.

The Cons

Oh god... not again!
 Before you get too enthused at the idea that a DND boot camp will turn you into a brilliant novelist, I'd like to let a little air out of your balloons. Not all of it, of course, but there are some genuine traps I've seen a lot of writers fall into you need to be aware of, and that you need to watch for in your own work if you use tabletop games as your training ground for writing.

Keep all of these things in mind, because they'll save you a lot of time, trouble, and frustration along the way.

First and foremost, you need to know where the lines are in a game so that you don't end up using someone else's intellectual property. I've talked with dozens of different RPG players who were going to write novels about their favorite characters or adventures who didn't realize until someone pointed it out that everything from the names on the map to the gods of the realm are the intellectual property of the company who created the game. So unless you're writing the book for that publisher (great work, if you can get it), you're going to have to go through and scrub everything in order to make sure nothing you can be sued over makes its way into the final product. And depending on how intimately your story is connected to this specific setting, that might torpedo your whole project.

Another problem I see a lot of writers deal with is that when they base their books off of RPGs they often end up with a distinct RPG feel to them, which can introduce a flavor to their stories they may not even realize is there at first. For example, roleplaying games generally have tiered threats and achievements, with the player characters growing in power over the course of the story. So they start off protecting towns from goblin raids, and end the story fighting god-like wizards for the fate of the world. Now, there's nothing wrong with that kind of escalation, but if your story has definite periods where the party "levels up" in threats and powers, just happening to discover new abilities when they most need them, that can impose a structure you weren't intending on your narrative.

Where the hell did all this come from?
Speaking of unintentional structure, another issue folks who try to write stories and novels based off their gaming experiences run into is adopting the framework of the game for how things work in their books. As an example, in fantasy RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder your spellcasters have a certain number of spell slots per day they can use for their magic. This is meant to keep things fair in the context of a game's challenge, but it isn't necessarily something a story will benefit from. If your protagonist is a wizard, though, and that limitation has been part of their character since their inception, you might simply adopt this Vancian magic system out of reflex. The same is true with iconic magic items, the special abilities of the monk, or the rage of the barbarian; if you get too steeped in how things work in the game, you often end up copying and pasting those elements into your story without asking whether they're helping or hurting.

To be clear, that's not inherently a bad thing. There is, after all, an entire genre of Lit RPG books which are supposed to feel like you're reading an RPG campaign. But if you aren't doing it on purpose, it likely won't make your book better.

Lastly, something I would recommend to those looking to use RPGs to enhance their writing is to test out concepts and ideas, rather than simply recording the events of a campaign and then writing them in a more engaging prose format. Part of the reason for this is because (with very few exceptions) you are not the only one at the table, and the other players may not take kindly to having their characters wind up in your work. This goes double if you're the dungeon master, because then it feels like you ran the game so your friends could write your book for you. Learn how to test specific elements and ideas, and to take those things out of the game, polish them, refine them, and spin a book about them.

You get a lot more mileage out of this approach.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The 5 Stages of Hand Selling Your Book

For those of you who aren't in the Chicagoland area, I'm preparing to head up to Capricon this week (and for those of you who are in the area, come by and say hello!). And since I'm going through my list of stuff to pack, and it's been a while since I've talked about the ancient art of hand selling. One of the toughest parts of the hustle for most authors (especially those of us who aren't the best at the marketing and social interaction part of the job), I thought it would be of use to some of my readers to go through the flowchart of the hand selling process.

All right, let's do this thing.
And for those unfamiliar with the term, hand selling is when it's you and a potential reader, face-to-face as you make your pitch the old-fashioned way. It's also what you spend a majority of your time doing if you're an author looking to bring home fewer books than you brought to a signing, event, etc. If you're not sure how to go about the process, or if you find it intimidating, hopefully this breaks it down for you a bit.

Stage One: The Setup

Here reader, reader, reader... I've got a treat for you!
The first stage of hand selling your book is making sure that you set the stage for the sale to come. Most commonly that means setting up a table, whether you're doing a signing in a book store, or you're in the dealer's hall of a convention center.

So lay out the set dressing.

Make sure you have your books on display (I highly recommend using folding wooden easel holders, as they take up less space in your travel bag and look pretty elegant to boot), and focus the attention toward a central area. If you have a series, put them in order from left-to-right, as that's the direction folks read. Usually I recommend placing yourself in the center, as all the books lead to you, which helps funnel attention.

Don't be afraid to get creative with it, though. If you need to draw some extra attention to yourself, lay out a book cloth with contrasting colors. Bring a knight statue to hold your signing pen. Put a skull on the table. Set up a flag along the front, or on a stand nearby so people can see you from down the row. And if you want to stand out, put together an outfit that gets people's attention. It doesn't have to be complicated, but props to you if you go all-in on a theme (Victorian adventurer for a steampunk series, wig and fake feet for a Hobbit parody, etc.). The idea is that your trap needs to get people to slow down long enough to enter stage two.

Stage Two: Engagement

Yes... come closer. This one likes you, I can tell.
Getting a potential reader to glance at your table is sort of like having a fish nibble at your hook. You need to engage them, but you don't want to drive them off by jumping the gun. It's a delicate balance, and it can be tough not to get too salesy with your approach. Keep things relaxed and natural, and open a conversation with someone. Once you get them talking, you've gotten them to stay in your orbit.

This is particularly easy if you're at a convention. Asking someone how they've liked the event so far, or picking out a piece of fandom they're displaying is typically enough to spark at least a little conversation. This goes double for folks in cosplay, or who are actively sporting references to their own favorite parts of pop culture. Bonus points if you're both fans of the same thing, and you can get them to talk about themselves for a little bit. It's an odd quirk of conversational law that once you've let someone else talk, they'll often return the favor and let you talk about what you're doing. And if you pay attention to what they say, and the signs they show, you can often make stage three a lot easier.

Also, bonus tip; have a game, a handout, a bowl of candy, or something to give to people. Everyone loves free stuff, and if they feel like it's a compliment to their taste in TV, movies, books, comics, etc., then they'll be flattered to boot.

Stage Three: Sinking The Hook

A classic pulp fantasy, you say? What's it about?
Sometimes you get lucky and your potential reader will skip straight to this step for you, but you should never rush to get here. If you try to sink your hook with someone whose interest hasn't been gauged, it can be pretty hard to make a sale.

In short, this is the part where you try to convince the potential reader to buy a copy of your book. Sometimes it's easy. For example, when I brought a box of From A Cat's View to Windy Con a year or so ago, all I had to say is that it's an anthology of stories told from the perspective of cats. Half the folks were already reaching for their wallets before I told them about my story Stray Cat Strut, and how it was basically what you'd get if Disney ever did a rendition of The Big Sleep. Other times it can be tough to figure out what your potential readers are looking for.

Also, sometimes you just don't write the sort of books they want to read. However, there's usually a way to get someone to at least consider what you've got on-hand. Don't be afraid to ask them questions about what they like in their books, and to try to cross-reference it with something in your inventory. Incidentally, it also helps if you've got more than one book with you. Because if someone wants a sword and sorcery novel, then Crier's Knife is going to be right up their alley, but if they're more of a pick-and-mix fan then they might find that my new release The Rejects is more their style.

Options are definitely your friend at this stage.

Step Four: Get The Book Into Their Hands

Go on... pick it up. See if you like it!
This is actually a trick I've learned over the years from fellow con authors, and while it sounds silly, it works. If someone looks like they're on the fence, and they're trying to tell themselves no, hold your book out to them. Let them get a good look at it if they haven't picked it up yet. Sometimes that tactile sensation is all it takes to turn, "Well, maybe if I have the budget later," into, "Sure, here's my card."

I don't know why this works as often as it does, but it's a handy trick. Also, if someone is holding it, don't ask, "So, do you want one?" Instead ask, "Would you like one or two?" By steering the inertia toward a sale, it makes people more likely to at least grab one copy. Might be a little underhanded as far as tactics go, but psychological warfare is the name of the game here.

Stage Five: Take a Card

Go on, take a card... it's free!
Even if someone isn't interested in your book (or at least in the books you've got with you at that time), don't let them leave your table empty handed. Make sure they have a business card, a bookmark with your name and covers on them, or something so that they'll have a token to remember you by. If you've got an email list, try to get them to sign up. Everyone loves free stuff, and if you never lay eyes on them for the rest of the convention that token should connect with the experience they had with you, and it might make them look you up when they get home. Bonus points if you offer them something for free, like a digital copy of one of your books if they send you an email.

Also, if someone does make a purchase, be sure they take something with, too. You can never sink the nail so deep that one more whack with the marketing hammer is truly wasted.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife as well as my recent collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Which Stories From "The Rejects" Would You Like To See Expanded?

This week I thought I'd do something a little different for my readers out there. I have a question I'd like to get some feedback on, and I figured I'd reach out directly to those who come across this page. If you've picked up a copy of The Rejects, did any of the tales in it catch your interest? If so, would you like to see me expand on the worlds and settings of any of them?

And if you don't have your copy yet, well, go check it out!

In My Copious Amounts of Free Time...

For those who haven't had a conversation with me in person, one of my signature speech tics is the phrase, "Yes, in my copious amounts of free time." Because between adding to my Vocal archive, running two blogs, ghost writing for clients, and working on half a dozen tabletop RPG projects at any given time, I still try to squeeze in some fiction writing. In addition to this recent release, I've got another manuscript currently being reviewed by a publisher, and a second manuscript I'm considering going over for a self-publishing release.

The average author's brain can keep over 16,000 tabs open at once, for those who didn't know.
However, with that said, I do have several long-term projects that should be wrapping up in the next few months. That means they'll be moving out of my hands and into the publisher's territory, freeing up at least some time and energy for me to think about what steps to take next. And while I've got a small notebook filled with even smaller print, putting together this collection reminded me how much I enjoyed several of these stories. Not only that, but it made me think about the potential this little glimpse into their worlds represented.

Two of the short stories presented are actually from potential series I've thought about writing. "Heart and Soul," is the second published short story in what I call my Chicago Strange setting (the first story was "Little Gods" published in The Big Bad II), and "Suffer The Children" is an introduction to the world that Malachi inhabits.

Both of these are modern fantasy stories, but they also have distinctly different styles and feels to them. Gerald Caul is a much more academic character, a traditional private-eye archetype using his knowledge of folk charms and hedge magic to swim with the big fish in a world filled with fairy tale gods and terrifying manifestations of modern myth. Malachi, but contrast, is a rough-and-tumble bruiser who hammers his way to the truth of a case fist-first in a world that is filled with creatures from Mesopotamian, Abrahamic, and Middle Eastern myths (as opposed to the ever-present Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Viking gods that fill up a lot of modern fantasy stories).

While most of my other stories weren't meant as test-dives for larger series, several of them I feel had real potential. For instance:

- Asking what kind of a world we would have if a majority of the early superheroes we saw were people of color, and focusing on the drawbacks and lifestyle difficulties of their metahuman abilities in addition to the power fantasy of using them for good. "Hero's Wake" was a great exercise in this, and I'd be more than happy to return to that setting for future stories.

- A traditional sword-and-sorcery setting with dueling champions, bloody betrayals, and where steel is the only friend you can trust. While both "Champion For Hire" and "Mark of The Legion" were written independently, it might be fun to combine the two of them into a single project for folks who enjoy the pre-Tolkien pulp era of fantasy.

While I have thoughts on several of the other stories in the collection, particularly the demon-haunted world of "Dressing the Flesh," I don't want to spoil my own stories, here. So I figured I'd let the potential of those tales speak for themselves.

Of Course, There Are Other Options

Choose wisely.
I do have other irons in this particular fire, as well, some of which have been waiting quite patiently for me to turn my attention to them. So if nothing in my latest collection really sparked you as a reader, would you like to see either of the following books instead?

- Crier's Silence: A sequel to my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, where we find out what happened to Dirk's elder brother Silence Crier, and what he did when he was banished from the mountain of Ben Morgh.

- Untitled Clockpunk Mecha Novel: An idea that I had recently which exploded in my mind, this unique setting combines alternative technologies, saurian monsters, and hulking war machines known as imperators. From honor duels that smash steel and snap cables, to bone-crunching battles with felldrakes and other deadly denizens of the world, I hope folks enjoy this one as much as I do... when I get to it.

There is one other book idea, but that one I'm keeping under wraps for now. It has to do with that manuscript I mentioned someone was taking a look at earlier... but rest assured I'll update you on that one when I have more information!

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Use National Celebration Days (And Months) To Boost Your Book's Signal

As I've said time and time again, the thing you need in order to sell books isn't a perfect cover, a butt load of talent, or an amazing story no one has ever read before. Those things help, but what you need is buzz. Attention. An audience that is tuned-in, and interested in the product you're trying to sell them.

Managing that is by no means easy. However, one thing you can do is to tie your marketing efforts into a holiday, or observance. It makes for good synergy, and if you can perk someone's interest with a celebration they've never heard of before, then your book is going to be right next to it as a way for them to participate.

National Hot Springs Reading Day? Huh, I didn't even know that was a thing!

Promote The Day, Promote Your Book!

For a lot of us, this isn't exactly something new. After all, every October I always share around my  50 2-Sentence Horror Stories link around, along with reminding folks about collections like SNAFU: A Collection of Military Horror, as well as American Nightmare which have some of my work in them.

If you write romance, then you remind people about your releases around Valentine's Day. If your book is Christmas-themed (whether it's a steamy holiday love affair, or an end-of-year murder spree), then you make sure to crow about it when that time of year comes around. And so on, and so forth.

Is this the romance, or the murder? Get a copy to find out!
However, there are a lot of other celebrations going on throughout the year that you might want to check out. Not all of them will be for every author (though you can sometimes stretch and bend in order to fit your work under certain umbrellas), but some of the more interesting ones I've come across include:

- National Short Story Month: May is both National Short Story Month, and the month my birthday happens to fall in. It's why I always remind people that if they haven't grabbed a copy of New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam, and this year I'll mention The Rejects as well, it would be a great present for me, and for them.

- National Science Fiction Day: While unofficial, this day is on January 2, the birthday of famed writer Isaac Asimov. A solid day for anyone from cyberpunk to space opera to make a play for attention.

- National Poetry Month: April is National Poetry Month, and if you're having a tough time moving your books, this would be the time to get people to sit up and take notice!

- Romance Awareness Month: While not specifically book-themed, Romance Awareness Month is August. And if you feel you have a book that sets a good example for people to follow (or that provides a great escape) this is a solid time to let folks know. You might even go so far as to suggest a book exchange, and evenings spent together reading with your significant other for the month.

- Free Comic Book Day: May 2 every year, this one is usually only celebrated in comic book stores. Still, if you have superheroes in your book, or you actually put together a graphic novel, this would be a great time to boost your signal.

- Free RPG Day: Taking place in June every year, this one is great for folks who write roleplaying games, or whose books are Lit RPGs.

- International Fairy Day: June 24 every year is dedicated to celebrating these little creatures. And if you have fairies in your book, or just the fey in general, this would be a good time to let people know.

Don't Forget To Sweeten The Pot!

Whatever holiday or celebration you're using (and there are plenty I didn't list out), it's important to remember that just opens the door for you to make a pitch. It gets people's attention. However, it's a good idea to give them a little more. A reason to click-through, and to snatch a copy of your book right now.

Well, who could say no to that?
Perhaps the best thing to do is to pair a discount, or a giveaway, with an appropriate day/month. Because cheap/free books are always great, but if you're doing it to make an occasion, suddenly it feels like something a little extra special!

So keep an eye on your calendars, and ask what days would be ideal for a thematic offer. Because if you can hook them with one book, they'll come back for more. They always do.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife as well as my recent collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Sometimes Having Superpowers Sucks (And That Makes Characters More Relatable)

If you crack open a comic book, or switch on a superhero film, one of the first things you notice is that having superpowers looks awesome. Whether it's Superman's fight for truth and justice, Spider-Man desperately battling to save his city, or Captain America's ability to go all day and all night without so much as slowing down, the power fantasies on display are engaging, thrilling, and just downright fun.

Well, most of the time, anyway.
While there are some heroes whose powers create complications in their lives (the Hulk is the perfect example, but characters like the Thing, Dr. Manhattan, Deadpool, or the very obscure Mr. Bones are also on the list), those tend to be the exceptions rather than the rule. More often than not heroes (and even a lot of villains) tend to have powers that improve their lives... often in meaningful ways.

One thing you can do, though, is to introduce complications. A drawback or two to go with that power. So step back and ask how, exactly, your character's powers affect their personal lives? What potential issues and sensitivities do they create? How do they manage them? And how involved is that management?

And for those who are curious, I've been dwelling on this idea thanks to the short story "Hero's Wake" in my recently released book The Rejects. Also, if you'd like more examples of superheroes caught between a rock and a hard place with their powers, take a look at KM Herkes and her novel Rough Passages, where powers tend to manifest along with mid-life crises rather than puberty for once!

Wetting The Bed, and Power Drawbacks

The basic plot of "Hero's Wake" is that one of this world's best-known metahumans has passed away, and his friends and family are coming together at his funeral. No masks, no costumes, no code names, just people who knew him, and who are going to miss him. One of the younger members of the team he helped establish loses control of her emotions, and the grass all around her starts blooming as she cries, flowers and greenery rising up at an unnatural rate.

When our protagonist comforts her, she says not to worry about it. They've all had their share of bed-wetting incidents, especially at times like this.

Seriously, go get your copy already!
As we see the other guests, we start to notice they've all taken little precautions to help stay on the level throughout the evening. One speedster wears these high, chunky heels because it stops her from accidentally moving too fast. A pyrokinetic stays away from the alcohol table, because it interacts strangely with the mutations that give him his gift. A super soldier is constantly eating, because if he doesn't then his metabolism will have him starving in a few hours. And though our protagonist has lost her father, she's very careful about who she embraces. All it takes is a moment of lost control, and she could crush someone to death in her arms because she was seeking comfort.

On the one hand, that's a bit of a look behind the curtain when it comes to metahumans. It gives you a glimpse into their lives, and makes them seem more human, and less like an archetype in a set of spangly tights. On the other hand it can be a lot of work, and it establishes a very particular tone. Weighing those things is important, as this advice needs to be evaluated on a project-by-project basis.

This concept can extend out past comic books and their associated sci-fi settings into other genres, as well. For fantasy stories, do your elite warriors develop a dependence on their performance-enhancing mutagens, needing to keep a steady stream of them in their systems in order to fight at full strength? Does being a sorcerer mean you have to wear particular kinds of clothing to avoid setting your robes on fire because your body produces so much heat? Does too much use of your magic make you feverish, risking death? Are those with orc heritage prone to skin conditions, or scars that overcompensate, making them stronger but also unsightly?

Whenever you've got characters with unusual abilities, powers, or attributes, it's worth taking a moment and asking what the drawbacks of those things might be. Sometimes they'll be small, like how elves speak softly because their ears make them sensitive to noise. Other times they'll be large, such as how a psychic might get overwhelmed by the noise of too many thoughts in a crowd if they don't take careful precautions. But whatever the situation, you can learn a lot about your characters (as well as making both them and their setting that much more interesting) if power has a bit of a price to it.

Even if it just means the guy who shoots lasers out of his face is colorblind, and didn't realized his girlfriend was a redhead until their second anniversary.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

"The Rejects" is My New Release For 2020 (and You Should Totally Check It Out!)

2019 was an extremely busy year for me, as a creator. I started the Great Reshuffling, where I started moving and re-homing old articles of mine to my Vocal archive, which is a process that should be done in the next few months for those who've been following along. I had several RPG products released onto the market (at least 1-2 a month, if I'm being accurate), such as the Dungeons and Dragons module The Curse of Sapphire Lake, as well as working hard on 100 Kinfolk: A Werewolf The Apocalypse Project. I took on several short-term writing contracts, I judged a fiction competition for the first time in my career, attended a few conventions, and finished off a manuscript for a new novel.

However, it's been a hot minute since I released my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife last year, so I wanted to make sure my readers had something new from me to start the year off right. So this past summer I started putting together a unique collection of short stories that I like to call... The Rejects!

Come on... you know you're curious.

What is "The Rejects"?

Folks who've followed my career know that I've written a lot of short stories over the past dozen years or so of my life. For a while I was putting out 1-2 a month, on top of running blogs, handling freelance assignments, etc., and I had a fairly steady acceptance rate of around 80 percent or so for several years.

However, that still meant that roughly 20 percent of my stories came back to me.

Yeah, that math checks out.
Some of those stories eventually found homes with other publishers in fresh calls, but a lot of the ones I'd written kept getting cut for length, or being not quite right for the publishers I sent them to. One tale in particular, Dressing The Flesh (which you can read part of in the book's free sample) had a terminal case of, "Always a bridesmaid, but never a bride."

After a fresh consult with my beta readers, and deciding that I still loved these stories, I figured it was time to take matters into my own hands.

But what kinds of stories are actually in this book? Well, as someone whose tastes and writing projects have been all over the genre spectrum, I can say that the only really unifying themes are that these are stories I've written, and they were all rejected at least once before they wound up here. There's horror, science fiction, steampunk, thrillers, fantasy (traditional as well as modern), a weird Western, a ghost story, and many more.

In addition to genre, though, this collection boasts:

- A love-lorn ifrit
- A troll that eats child molesters
- The second story ever published in my Chicago Strange setting
- Several flavors of vengeance
- Two short stories inspired by gaming projects
- Two short stories about metahumans that are from opposite ends of the tonal spectrum

In short, it's a bag of trail mix! There might be some parts of it you like more than others, but if you've been a fan of my work thus far then I have a feeling you won't find too much to complain about if you dip a hand in, and scoop up some stories!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Age Needs To Be More Than Just a Number For Your Characters

Fiction is full of characters whose appearance belies their age. From vampires and aliens, to elves and mutants, there are a dozen tropes surrounding characters who are somewhere between long-lived and immortal. However, this is one of those areas where the urge to tell often overtakes the urge to show... and you really get way more out of these reveals if you show them to your audience rather than just tossing a number at them.

There's a reason this have been on my mind again, of late, for those who are wondering.

Doing It Poorly...

Giving examples is one of the best ways I've found to make solid points about techniques to use in writing, but I figured we'd get the most out of these examples by starting with the bad ones. And while there are plenty of potential examples out there, the one that bubbles to the surface in my mind is Twilight. I'm not even going to put an affiliate link for that book, that's how negatively I feel about the series, and the imprint it left behind on pop culture.

That's a whole separate blog post.
For this example, I'm going to use the film rather than the text. Simply put, the revelation of the vampire characters' ages tends to be done as matter-of-fact exposition rather than revealed through actions, speech, style, etc. We never have a moment where Edward has oddly dated speech or slang, or where he inadvertently reveals something telling (even if was a simple, "I learned to drive stick shift," cutting himself off before revealing he's older than automatic transitions, to say nothing of modern cars). In much the same way that the signs for him being a strange, inhuman creature are all blatantly just handed to the audience, we just get told his age instead of drawing out the suspense and letting us work for it. As such, it just slides right off of us without impact.

There are other vampire movies that do this (most whose names I can't remember, as they were only shown on Saturday afternoons by hosts with specific, spooky schticks), but we also see it in the original Dungeons and Dragons film. While a slapstick romp that's alternatively fun and cringe-worthy, there's a throwaway line in it where our comedy sidekick is trying to put the moves on an elven woman. Her curt response is to just toss her age at him (something absurd, I think it was in the 800s), and then to move on with her scene.

The issue is that in these examples, being told how old these characters are has no bearing on how we perceive them. It isn't reflected in meaningful ways, and there's no weight behind it. It's no different than being told someone is 26 or 40... we can mentally accept the age, but it doesn't affect the characters or the story in any way that re-contextualizes them.

Doing It Well...

From the other end of the spectrum, when a character's longevity is revealed over time, or in meaningful ways, it can be like a punch to the gut to the audience. It can make us feel for them, and at the same time add so much weight to the story, and their interactions in it, that the fact becomes impossible to ignore.

You probably know where this one is going.
If you've seen the extended edition of The Two Towers, then you already know the scene I'm talking about. However, in case you haven't seen it, for a swath of the film the young blonde Eowyn has been trying to catch our ranger's eye. One thing she does is make him some soup while they're on the trail; she's not much of a cook, but she tried. Then she brings up something funny her uncle said. He remembers Aragorn from when he was a boy, and said the ranger rode to war to war with Thengel, Eowyn's grandfather. Rather than laughing about how the king must be mistaken, Aragorn nods, and says he's surprised Theoden remembers, since he was only a small boy at the time.

We watch as Eowyn re-evaluates what she knows of Aragorn in that moment, going from playful, to surprised, to horrifically awestruck every time she guesses a higher number. Realizing in a way that is real for her, and thus real for the audience, that Aragorn's blood has made him long-lived, and that he has seen and done things far beyond the scope of a mortal's years.

It's not just the revelation that Aragorn is actually 87 when he looks like a rugged mid-30s, but Eowyn's reaction that drives it home. It casts all the skills he's displayed in a different light, and makes us look at him with a fresh perspective. It makes us realize that, for all his nobility, passion, and strength, that he is in a lot of ways an outsider to other people. That those who were afraid of the man called Strider might have had good reason to feel the way they did after all.

There are other instances of similar reveals really adding a lot to how characters are perceived. Wolverine, for example, played on this for years as we steadily realized he was far older than any living mutant on the heroes' side of things. Sometimes it was subtle, with mentions of certain bits of history that he was present for, or showing us skills he'd learned that he'd never showed off before. Other times it was blatant, with flashbacks in the 60s, World War II, and other eras where Logan looked the same as he always has. And in the Netflix adaptation of the Witcher, we see that Geralt is the stoic, grunting, easily annoyed curmudgeon many of us think our grandparents are... and that the mutations that make him so good at what he does might be responsible for his long life. Possibly feeding into the legends that Witchers have no feelings... because on a long enough timeline, everyone you knew or cared about will die, and you'll be left as their children, and even their grandchildren, grow old all around you.

Give Your Years Some Weight

If you're going to have characters whose age defies their appearance (or if it's something people just can't tell when they look at them in the case of strange or alien characters), don't just write a number on it. Writing a number tells us nothing, and gives us no value; it's just a fact.

Make us feel this character's age in big ways, and small ones. Show us the parts of them that never changed, and the little things that make them unique. Give us a glimpse into their inner lives, and show us a piece of their past that can put who they are and what they're doing into context. It's harder, yes, but you'll get a lot more oomph out of it, and it can make a character into an audience favorite if you do it just right.

Also, for more on this topic I'd suggest checking out the 4 Tips For Making Long-Lived Characters FEEL Old over on my sister blog Improved Initiative!

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!