Thursday, July 19, 2018

Make Sure Chekhov's Gun Is Actually Loaded (Trimming The Fat in Your Story)

If you've ever read a book or watched a movie where your perspective lingered just a little too long on that gun hanging over the bar early on, then you've felt that little tightening of the skin between your shoulder blades. That feeling is because you then you understand what Chekhov's Gun is. In short, it's when something seemingly insignificant is introduced early in a story (someone mentions the owner keeps a Magnum under the counter, there's a lingering camera shot of a creepy book on a shelf, etc.) that will become important later on.

Because, as Chekhov himself asked, if the gun never goes off then why are you wasting our time making us look at it?

The bigger the gun, the more important this question becomes.

Trim The Fat

Every aspect of a story is there in service to that story. Got a scene where your lead is having coffee with her girlfriend? Then that scene should have dialogue that sets up plot points, actions that reveal important aspects of character, or at the very least it should introduce additional members of the cast. Otherwise all you're doing is faffing about, wasting your audience's time and risking the interest you've oh-so-carefully cultivated.

As an example, I'll walk you through a story that didn't keep things nice and tight. The horror film Nails.

You have now seen everything you need to of this film.
So, Nails opens up with a little girl in the hospital being seen to by a gigantic orderly. He's trimming her nails, and saving them in a little envelope. A little creepy, but it's shot so that he seems sweet, if a little odd. We fast forward to our protagonist (blonde personal trainer whose husband is a coach) being hit by a car and put in the hospital. She wakes up to a concerned child and husband, unable to speak, and confined to her bed. She might make some kind of recovery, but she's partially paralyzed, and a lot of stuff is broken.

Then, to make matters worse, her room is haunted.

We hear weird stuff, and catch glimpses of a ghost that resembles the orderly we saw earlier... except, you know, all deadified. Protagonist is next-to-hysterical, and though no one believes her, closed-circuit cameras are installed in her room. This settles her for a bit, and she talks to the hospital shrink. He lets drop that a man did commit suicide by hanging himself in her room's closet. This sets off a whirlwind of investigation montages, and our bed-bound blonde discovers that the orderly who killed himself was a giant of a man referred to by the staff as Nails, for his bizarre habit of saving the clipped toe and fingernails from children he cared for. It was made clear that everyone thought he was harmless, despite the fact that he'd come to the hospital himself as a teenager, raving and clawing himself practically down to the bone. He got better, and when he did, he was given a job at the facility that had healed him.

Then dead children started turning up. Nails fell under scrutiny, and his suicide was seen as an admission of guilt.

Our protagonist brings this up to the psychiatrist, who gets super-shifty about the event. She tries to tell her husband, but starts getting the feeling that he's cheating on her with one of the college co-eds on his team while she's in the hospital. And, of course, Nails is getting bolder, and hurting her more and more. This culminates in Nails finally going on a rampage, killing the co-ed, our protagonist's husband, several staff members, chasing our protagonist and her daughter through the hospital, until he finally kills our protagonist.

That's all fairly straightforward... but there was so much time wasted on pointless side plots that never pay off.

For instance, the whole thing about Nails' brutal self-harm and his intense psychotherapy regimen. We get a few, brief glimpses of it... but that's it. We never find out what happened before he came to the hospital, what was wrong with him, and why it suddenly stopped. It doesn't tie into what his ghost might want, or why it's picking now to suddenly get active. We spend way too much time with the psychiatrist hemming and hawing about Nails, setting up the possibility that the shrink was actually the one killing the children and using Nails as a fall guy, because that goes nowhere, too. We even find out that our protagonist was, in fact, the little girl Nails was taking care of in the opening scene, but absolutely nothing is done with that connection. She didn't rat him out to the cops, and he's not seeking revenge on her. She didn't know he was innocent but kept silent. She didn't even see him die and repress the memory. Hell, we never even confirm that her husband is cheating on her! All it would have taken was a single slip of the tongue, and a shot of the car his co-ed athlete drove to close the circuit on her injury, and make it seem that the hit-and-run was actually the mistress trying to take her out so she could steal her husband.

But no. All of these things are just mentioned, and then dropped like a dead salmon on the kitchen floor.

All told, these dead-end scenes waste between 20 and 40 minutes of our time. That is a lot of dead space for a film of this length. It's space that could have been used to decide what was actually going on, and to genuinely raise the stakes and tension (as well as providing some much-needed structure). For example, is Nails a secret child-killer rising from the dead to finish what he started with the last victim who got away? Was he a wronged man whose spirit was re-awakened by the proximity of the man who framed him, and he's trying to reach out to our protagonist to get her to help him? Does Nails feel betrayed by her, and thus his spirit is trying to get vengeance? Was his torture and pain as a teenager symptomatic of an unquiet spirit that needed to get closure? Is her husband cheating on her, or is it all in her head?

We don't know. And, to make matters worse, we waste so much time on all of these un-fired guns that we forget there's a story being told, and it all sort of devolves into mush. Generic, unsatisfying, and overall confusing.

If You Aren't Using It, Get Rid of It

A writer's mind might be a hoarder's paradise, but when it comes to the story on the page you need to make sure that if you don't need it that you aren't wasting your reader's time with it. If you managed to hook them, and they're turning pages, then make sure you don't squander their good will. Get to the point, keep it tight, and make sure the safety is off on any plot pistols you walk past.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it helps some folks out there who's been wondering how to quit shooting blanks in their stories. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become one of my patrons. There's free stuff in it for you, in addition to my undying gratitude.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

If You're an Author, Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

I grew up with the desire to write for a living, and since my late teens I'd found ways to earn pocket money with my craft. It was about ten years ago, though, that a friend of mine told me about Demand Media Studios (now known as Leaf, for those who are curious). While there were all sorts of problems with the company (it paid writers peanuts, it was uncommunicative, the terms were pretty shifty, and the list goes on and on), it was the first time I made enough money writing to cover all of my expenses. After about a year of writing in my spare time (which was limited as I was still a college student), and working smaller jobs, I decided to cut ties with hourly work entirely.

For a while, things were pretty good. I could get up whenever I wanted, work in my pajamas, and all I had to do was crank out 5 or 6 articles a day. I pulled down enough to pay off my car in about six months (while still saving money on the side), and I even participated in a profit-share offer the company had so that some of my articles generated income far beyond their initial payment. When I got my degree, I moved out into an apartment, maintained a healthy savings account, and for a few years life was pretty peachy.

Then the numbers turned on me.

Like they do, the shifty little bastards.
At first it was little things. Not as many topics were available to write on, so there weren't as many articles for me to claim. That was okay, I was still getting by without too much of a problem, especially since my profit-shares were filling in a lot of gaps. Then the company started changing rules about who could write what, asking for qualifications I didn't have (for the record, no one writes an article for $15 if they have a Master's degree). And, after a solid run of about five years, there was no more work for me. Or, at least, none I was allowed to do.

The result was that I learned a very important lesson; don't put all your eggs in one basket.

A Dozen Streams Make For A More Reliable River

Unfortunately for yours truly, I'm still not making the money I was working for Demand Media Studios (and given their reputation for paying pennies on the dollar, that's a sad statement). I've also had several promising horses die under me since then, as well. I built up a big archive on Yahoo! Voices that was starting to turn a serious profit just as the site shuttered its doors, for example. I was stoking the furnace for Google AdSense when the company sent me an email letting me know they were terminating my account. I've worked for half a dozen different article-based hub sites that were good for a season's worth of paychecks before they folded, and I've had several clients who promised me a flood of work, but found they only had the budget for a squirt or two.

While a lot of those punches hurt (particularly the ones where I was just starting to let my guard down), I learned a very important lesson from DMS. Diversity is your friend, and the more income streams you have available, the less likely you are to find yourself completely dried up.

All right... just got to get up again...
So what do I do to keep that flow going? Well, my main income is still writing blog entries for clients using a service that's very similar to what I did back in the old days. But rather than just depending on that (since some clients accept my work same-day, and others can take a year or more to get to my entry), I have cultivated a number of side streams.

As a for instance, I run this blog as well as my gaming blog Improved Initiative. Both blogs have ads on them, which aren't worth much in this age of AdBlock, but folks who like my work and who want to support me can tip me by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or becoming patrons on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Additionally, I write articles for websites like Infobarrel and Vocal, both of which pay me based on the popularity of my posts.

And in case that wasn't enough (because it isn't), I also write short stories, RPG story and mechanics, and books.

Books just like this one, in fact!
Is that enough for a comfortable life? No, not really, since you ask. However, it is much more reliable than the situation I put myself in a decade ago when I was a much younger writer. Because I don't want any avenue that I write for to close up shop. However, if I go to login one day and find out that one of my streams has dried up overnight, I've still got half a dozen others I can focus my attention on.

And, sometimes, that's all it takes to stop a minor inconvenience from becoming a disaster.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post! For folks who have questions about how to spread their eggs around, feel free to leave them in the comments below. If you'd like to help support me, feel free to check out any of the options I linked above. And to stay on top of all my latest releases, simply follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Inherent Weakness of "The Chosen One" Trope

Harry Potter. Neo. Aladdin. Anakin Skywalker. All of these characters, and a thousand others besides, have the dubious honor of being the chosen one. No I'm not capitalizing it. Because, despite how common this trope is in our stories and myths, the idea of a chosen one has a serious flaw in it. A flaw that tends to make it ring a little hollow, and which has to be ignored like a sour note at a piano recital.

In short, of all the tropes out there, this one is perhaps the most passive way to fold your protagonist into the story.

Don't worry guys, I've got this... for reasons!

Characters Need To Act, Not Be Acted Upon

The trope of being the one, special person decreed to be the protagonist is functional, and it's been around since the days of ancient Greece. We wouldn't have been using it for so long if it didn't get the job done. However, the idea of being the one means that at best your protagonists are the ones being acted upon, instead of acting. At worst, you end up stripping them of their agency, and making them feel like all their actions are pre-ordained. That can be a rough story to keep interesting if you aren't Sophocles.

The guy who wrote Oedipus Rex, for those who were wondering.
The issue you run into is character investment, and development. If you've been bumbling along in your life as a med student/farmer/pot boy, and suddenly someone comes along to inform you that you have been chosen (named by a seer, described in a prophecy, etc., etc.) you aren't actually invested in the thing you were supposedly chosen to do. You literally just found out about this honor you were named to, and now you have to scramble to gear up for the challenge. In a lot of cases, you weren't even aware of the world that you now have to save (again, Harry Potter, The Matrix, etc.).

What you should do, instead, is to make characters who are invested in the tasks they're set, and the story they're a part of. Characters who want to defend their homeland, avenge fallen friends, score that big pay day, or just do the right thing want to achieve their goals for reasons we can sympathize with (or at least understand). We never question their motivations, or wonder why they don't just pack it in and walk away (a problem we often have with chosen ones who have nothing aside from their chosen status actually driving them toward the end game). And it saves a lot of time.

More on this at "The Chosen One" Vs. The One Who Chooses for those who are interested.

But If You're Going To Do It Anyway...

If you really like the idea of this trope, though, I can only recommend that you bend, twist, or outright invert it in some way.

As a for-instance, you have a protagonist that's mentioned in prophecy. Their status gets them access to resources, trainers, and confidence no one else would have had. Then, once they've done the thing they were supposed to do (even if it resulted in their glorious death), you reveal that the prophecy was hogwash. It was created, spread, and spoken of specifically to become self-fulfilling. It was all a cynical way to motivate someone to step up, and be the hero.

You don't have to go full inversion, though. For example, you could make it so that those who are chosen are not chosen for the purpose they think. Perhaps they're a sacrifice to sate an ancient god, their entire destiny of saving the world being true... from a certain perspective. You could even actively attempt to undermine the prophecy, with the character doing everything in their power to fight against their role, but their actions only bring them to the end that was pre-determined (Oedipus, if you're feeling tragic, or Inspector Clouseau if you want it to be amusing). Or you could make it so that the protagonist we have is a fake-out, and it's actually someone else who is the chosen one who steps up in the ultimate moment.

Again, I would recommend steering clear of this trope whenever you can. But if you feel it's integral to making your story work, at least do your best to make sure it doesn't rob your protagonists of their agency, or your tale of its tension. Otherwise readers are very likely to put it down, and walk away.

For more on character agency, check out What Is Character Agency (And Why Do You Need It)?

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing update. For those who'd like to check out more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive. Follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay on top of all my latest releases. If you'd like to help support me, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page or consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi. Either way, there's a free book in it for you!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Importance of Gumption As An Author

A while back, I read the book Gumption by Nick Offerman. Well, more accurately, I listened to it. Because who wouldn't rather listen to that man's sumptuous voice tell you stories that make you wonder what it is you're doing with your life?

Worth the read, if you can get hold of it.
While the book makes a lot of good points, and is overall an entertaining read, it made me think and reflect on what it takes to be an author. And how gumption (in this case referring specifically to the self-motivation to take on a task) is so important to your overall success.

No One Else Will Make You Do The Thing

I've been writing for cheeseburgers and rent for about ten years, now. I've written short stories, radio plays, blogs, gaming books, and more articles than I can readily count. And in the last few years, a lot of clients have sought me out and offered me work. Every now and again I get lucky, and a project just plops into my lap. However, getting to the point where people knew who I was, and who were familiar with my work, meant that I had to be the one who took the initiative. I had to find, then respond, to classified ads for freelance writers. I had to make phone calls to newspapers, asking if they were accepting stringers. I wrote emails to the directors of gaming companies. Sometimes I got lucky, and got the opportunity to take on a project or two. Other times I was told that no, there was no space available for a freelancer.

And when that happened, I decided to find sites that let me publish my own work, and started building an archive. I got out there, volunteering at conventions, plumbing the corners of social media, and telling anyone who would listen about who I am, and what I do. I watched my numbers, and listened to reader feedback whenever something I did (or was part of) got released. If a piece got rejected, I found another place to submit it. I kept putting one foot in front of the other, even on days when my numbers were low, and the criticism brigade was out in force. I rolled the dice, and waited to see if today was going to be my lucky day.

I've never been picky about what kind of dice I roll, professionally.
After going through that for a decade, I feel I can say with some confidence that gumption is one of the most important part of this process as an author. Or any kind of artist. Gumption is what allows you to hammer through a project, believing in your skill to craft something that people will enjoy. Gumption is what makes you raise your voice, and ask for a chance to step on the stage. It's what lets you shake off rejections, and what gives you the ability to take dipping numbers and negative sales in stride. It is the fire that you keep burning so that no matter how many walls you have to climb, how many doors you have to kick in, or how much vitriol you have to slog through, you never run out of steam. Gumption is what turns you into an unstoppable force... a juggernaut made of words.

That determination, that refusal to quit, is the sort of thing that makes epic music swell in movies like Rocky. But when you're an artist, the knockouts come behind the scenes. They happen quietly, as readers text and chat about your work. As the number of likes you get go up, and as you start seeing yourself get coverage in places you didn't expect. And that's a great feeling... but that kind of stuff doesn't just happen. It takes work... and most importantly, it takes effort.

That's why a lot of it rests on you. You need to get up, wrap your hands, and hit the bag until the seams break. And when they do, and the stuffing comes out? Hang up a new bag, and keep punching. Because there is no end to the routine, the training, or the montage. Every time you knockout a short story, or pummel a novel into shape, you've just got time for a drink of water and a breather before that bells sounds, and you're back in the ring.

You aren't going to win every fight. But to get knocked down again and again, and come up swinging, that takes gumption.

This is all for my thoughts for this installment of The Business of Writing. If you're a keyboard gladiator out there, don't worry, you're not the only one. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. If you want to stay on top of my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help me keep this blog going, consider supporting me by becoming a patron on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buying Me A Ko-Fi. Both are great ways to keep my work flowing, and to get yourself some sweet swag as a thank you.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Trouble Reaching Word Count? Try Fighter's Block!

I have made my feelings about writer's block clear in the past (they're in the post Writer's Block Isn't Real, So Stop Complaining About It for those who didn't read that installment). However, I also recognize that different writers will need different methods of motivation, and will think around corners in unique ways when it comes to their work. That's why, when I heard about Fighter's Block, I figured I'd do my part to spread the word about the app.

Right tool for the right job, and such.

How Does Fighter's Block Work?

Have you ever played a turn-based roleplaying game like Final Fantasy? Same thing, except instead of pushing buttons on a controller, you're adding word count to your manuscript in order to defeat the monster before it defeats you.

Before the battle begins, you input the word count you're aiming for (start small if you're not used to this, is my advice). Once you have your word count in place, you can change the cosmetic aspects of the battle to suit your preferences (different hero, different monster, etc.). Once you have all of your settings just how you like them, click Fight and start writing. The monster will continuously attack you, dealing damage. In order to keep yourself healed, and to overcome the monster, you have to write. Plain and simple.

Of course, there is a pause button in the event you need to get more coffee, go to the bathroom, or something like that. And to judge from the big question mark boxes, there are extras you can unlock over time the more you use the app.

What Do You Have To Lose?

The point of Fighter's Block is that it gives you a stimulating challenge. You've got a pause button in case you need to take a moment to think through a piece of dialogue, or a particular fight scene, but the rest of it is just training your brain and your hands to work in concert to get from where you are to where you want to be on your manuscript. And if you like to gamify solutions to your writing problems, this is one of the more interesting apps I've seen for doing so.

Also, if you're looking for an editing method for solving story structure, I'd recommend my other recent post The Rubber Ducky Method Can Help You Solve Plot Problems. Because if it's dumb, but it works, then it ain't dumb.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. Hopefully you find it useful, and if you try out Fighter's Block, leave a comment so others can see how it worked for you. For more of my work check out my Vocal archive, and to stay on top of all my latest releases follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help fund my ongoing efforts consider dropping a few quarters into The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buy Me A Ko-Fi if you felt this was a valuable piece of information.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Your Brand Is Just As Important As Your Books

Authors are full of odd beliefs, and quaint ideas. Perhaps the oddest belief I've personally come across, though, is the idea that their work exists in a kind of white space, separate and apart from who they are, and the life they live. This notion that your art will be judged entirely apart from you as its creator is, frankly put, ludicrous. All you need to do is to look at any artist in the world, and ask if who they were wasn't taken into consideration when examining their art.

"If you set his politics aside, though, the book isn't too bad."
You are an integral part of your book's success. Or, at least, the persona you create for yourself as the writer is.

Brand Management and Book Sales

We tend to think of a brand as something for shopping malls, or chain restaurants, but we never realize that as authors we are also our own business. As such, our brand is a combination of our reputation, our unique imagery, our niche, and all the things the public associates with us. Take a moment, and think of some businesses out there. Now ask what their carefully-crafted brand is supposed to say to you. Chances are you thought of things like Wal-Mart being a friendly store that has everything you need, or McDonald's giving you an affordable meal exactly the way you want it. But brand is more than just your commercials, your uniforms, and your reputation. It's also your actions, your attitude, and what you choose to show people.

Case in point.
Wendy's, for those who don't know, is a fast food place that sells burgers. A little pricier than McDonald's and Burger King, its brand was based on old-fashioned quality and taste. But thanks to social media, it scored serious brand points by also being snarky at other businesses in a way that got them attention in a good way. Seen as clever and amusing, they gained followers (and one presumes sold more burgers as a result of the hijinks).

What does that have to do with books? Well, ask Orson Scott Card.

If you don't know who Card is, he was the author of Ender's Game, as well as other popular novels. However, he is also a person who has espoused extremely negative views of homosexuality, and those views are on record (things like how being gay is a direct result of child abuse, for instance). Whether that was intentional or not, those views have become part of his brand as an author. Hence why lots of readers have turned away from him as a creator, and why boycotts of his work (and movies based on his work) tend to spring up.

Remember that. Because your brand is about more than your color scheme, your genre, your name (or pen name), and what's on your business card. It's also about the tone you take in public, how you comport yourself, and what you go on the record saying. For good, or for ill.

Your Reputation Follows You

Your brand isn't something you can just walk away from. It follows you, and every time you take to social media, publish an article, or put out another book, that brand is being added to. Which is why it pays to sit a spell, and actually think about what side of you the public should see. Do you want to be seen as a writer of a particular genre? Do  you want to come across as cooky and unusual? Mysterious and withdrawn? Or do you want to seem friendly and approachable to encourage more people to follow your work?

Good artwork helps. Especially if it's instantly identifiable.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing. Hopefully it catches people's attention, and gets you thinking about how you look from your reader's perspective. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and to stay on top of all my releases follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my work, Buy Me a Ko-Fi or drop a few quarters onto The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. My eternal gratitude, as well as a free book, shall shortly follow.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Rubber Ducky Method Can Help You Solve Plot Problems

We've all had those moments where we're looking at our manuscript, and we know something isn't right. You've been over the timeline, you've checked character motivations, and everything seems like it should fit. But you're still coming up with 2+2 = chair, and that is not a satisfying conclusion at all.

If you find yourself in a tight spot, and you need a little help, it might be time to try out the Rubber Ducky Method.

All right, I'm here. Let's fix the problem!

What The Hell Is The Rubber Ducky Method?

The Rubber Ducky Method, or Rubber Ducking as it's called, is actually something used by computer programmers to fix their code as something of a last resort when they can't find a problem. According to a story found in The Pragmatic Programmer,  there was a computer programmer who carried a little rubber ducky around with him when he was at work. When none of the usual methods of solving the problem worked, he would take that tiny rubber fowl, sit him on the desk facing the screen, and then explain the code to him line-by-line.

The programmer would not skip lines that looked okay, nor would he allow himself to be vague. He would explain every detail to Mr. Quackers, reviewing it with him detail by detail and line by line until they found the problem together.

There you are, you little bastard! Thanks again, Quackers!
In addition to feeling like something a writer trying hard to up their eccentricity score would do, this method works because it forces you out of your own head. Whether you're explaining your story to a rubber duck, your stuffed bear, or to your writing mug, the point is that you have to actually explain what you're doing to this new companion the same way you'd have to explain it to a friend or co-worker. Which is an ideal way of realizing that, no, the explanation for why the protagonist is being double-crossed by the count doesn't actually make sense, since it's a move that doesn't benefit him in any way, and it is the hollow note that's screwing up your manuscript's flow.

This task tends to fall to my squire, when I'm in need of assistance.

If Nothing Else Works, The Absurd Is Worth A Try

Every writer has their methods, and some of those methods are stranger than others. However, if you find yourself staring at your screen, trying to will sensible story structure into place with angry glares and frustrated growling noises, it might be time to get a pocket-sized writing buddy. Someone supportive, and non-judgmental, who only wants to help you figure out why this plot twist toward act three is falling on its face.

What have you got to lose?

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. I hope it works for folks out there, and anyone with stories to share about it should feel free to leave them in the comments. If you'd like to see more of my work, then stop by my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support my projects, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or tossing some change into The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Both options help a lot, and there's a free book in it for you as thanks!