Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ethnicity, Gender, and Language in Your Novel

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

Classic Conan stuff right there.

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

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

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

The Difficulties of Description in Today's Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

Every Character Deserves a Full Treatment

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

5 Reasons Donald Trump is Literally The Devil! (An Introduction to Clickbait)

No one likes clickbait. Yet, despite how much we profess to hate it, it is everywhere. Clickbait jams our social media feeds, blows up our phones, and in the case of posts like this one, decorates our favorite blogs. Why? Why can't blogs, websites, Youtube channels, and the rest of the media just give us the information we need instead of trying to fish hook us with garbage? Why is clickbait so endemic to our modern, technological news stream?

You're really not going to like the answer.
Well, firstly, you should know that clickbait is not new by any stretch of the imagination. According to Cracked, newspapers in the U.S. have been using clickbait style headlines and listicles since at least the year 1908. None of those articles won awards, though, which is why we tend to forget they existed. The same way there was a ton of crappy music released over the past several decades, but we forget about it because the classic hits are the only ones that get played on the radio.

Why do we, as authors, use clickbait? The answer is pretty simple; because readers keep clicking it.

Yeah, I didn't want to believe that either. It's why for the first several years I operated as a blogger I didn't advertise in the title that I had numbered lists in some of my posts. Nor did I use titles that were specifically meant to act as a hook. I stated what the post was about in a clear, concise manner, and I trusted readers to click-through if that was what they were looking for.

Then, in the interest of experimenting with style, I wrote a post titled The 5 RPG Characters We Should Stop Playing. I'm used to my posts getting a few hundred hits on average, and maybe 3k-5k for really popular posts. That post got over 30k hits in a weekend. Upon further investigation, I realized it was because the title hit just the right degree of outrage, and it promised a comprehensive list, which are the two things you need for people to blow up the comments section, and share it with all their friends (either because they love it, or hate it).

I kept experimenting, and the results kept coming in. Articles that I wrote with titles like 5 Tips For Playing Better Paladins, and the follow-up 5 Tips For Playing Better Barbarians, consistently get more traffic than articles that don't use the standard "clickbait" format. And when you find a tool that gets results, you use it. Even if you don't particularly care for it, and you wish you had a different way to keep your numbers climbing. Because otherwise, your bills don't get paid.

What Makes "Good" Clickbait?

While the idea of "good" clickbait might be an oxymoron to a lot of readers, there are dos and don'ts when it comes to using this particular format to get more readers to see what it is you're talking about. Amanda Mannen and T.L. Bodine lay out the basics in My Job Churning Out The Garbage Behind Clickbait Titles, but a lot of the high points could stand to be reiterated.

If you're going to polish a turd, make it shine.
The first ingredient of functional clickbait is some kind of strong, visceral target. Take the title of this piece. Trump is a polarizing figure. People who hate him would click that title just to see what sorts of terrible things he's done, and people who support him would click it to see what new incidents they'll need to defend him against. In both circumstances, you have a topic that's likely to draw a lot of eyes, and which bypasses intellectual curiosity entirely to get at something deeper, and more primal.

The next thing you need is a title that implies something. It's why so many pieces of clickbait have titles like "5 Things That Could Kill You Before You Drink Your Coffee," typically with an addition in parentheses like (Number Three Will Shock You!). You're making your reader a promise that if they click your link, you are going to shock and amaze them. Or outrage them, as the case might be. You don't tell them how, in the same way old-style magic posters didn't tell the audience the full run-down of the act. They simply promised to amaze, and that was enough to get people to walk into the theater.

Lastly, you should have a number. It sounds like such a little thing, but people love lists. If you tell someone you've uncovered a celebrity scandal, that may or may not get them to click your link. But if you tell them you've put together a list of the top ten celebrity scandals, well, that is something quantifiable. That intrigues the brain, and even if you're an expert on the subject being discussed, you still want to know which incidents made the list. And if you're making a list, then you should really shoot for a top five, if not a top ten. Sometimes you can get away with three, but readers like divisions of five, for some reason.

If You Deliver, They'll Keep Coming Back

One of the biggest compliments I've received on one of my pieces was, "Clickbait title, but the article delivers." Which is another way of saying, "This sounded like bullshit, but I read it, and everything seemed pretty legit to me."

That is a difficult reaction to get, but if you can manage it you will find your readership growing in fairly short order. Because even if your titles are sometimes a little heavy on the vitriol, or you have to stretch your numbers to make the list, people still value quality. Even if your quality is pressed into a clickbait format, readers are going to pay attention to the things you do. If you don't believe it, just look at the following Matthew Santoro has over on YouTube. Seriously, if clickbait didn't work, none of us would dedicate this amount of time and effort to it.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully you enjoyed it, and you now have a little more insight regarding why there's so much clickbait online. If you'd like to help support me in all my endeavors, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? All I ask is $1 a month, and there's some sweet swag in it for you! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start today?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I Believe in Love (But Not True Love)

I've been running The Literary Mercenary for several years now, and today is a bit of a special occasion. This is my first ever guest post, brought to you by the talented Vincent Cross. If you like what he has to say, follow him on Facebook, or check out his Amazon author page.

And now, without further ado...

I Believe in Love (But Not True Love)

I don't know about anyone else, but when it came time to talk about relationships, my parents didn't sit down to give me the straight dope. I got little hints, here and there, but mostly it was what not to do. Don't mumble, stand up straight, brush my hair, and just be myself. Platitudes, one and all. None of it had any substance, and it was about as useful as tying a boat anchor around my waist while trying to tread water in the dating pool.

And society frowns on slaying your crush's suitors as a display of strength, these days.
So who taught me what a relationship was supposed to look like? The movies I watched, the books I read, and the games I played. And do you know what they told me, every, single time? That love, real love, was easy. That it would always float to the top like good cream, and that no matter what challenges it faced, or how unlikely it seemed, it would always work out in the end.

What a crock of shit.

And of course we know that. We're adults. We know that you don't fall in love with someone because you shared a lingering glance across a crowded ballroom, and danced till midnight. That might lead to a whirlwind, backseat romance, but that isn't the sort of thing that makes a relationship work. Real relationships need things like mutual interest, connection, respect, and most of all, they take a lot of goddamn work.

And most stories don't have time for all that.

They're Just Books

But are they? Are they really?

Yeah, I wouldn't give this to my kids, either.
On the one hand, of course they're just books. They're just movies. They're just comics. But they're more than that. Stories are what we use to shape ourselves. They're the myths we bow our heads to, and that we study. They tell us how heroes, and villains, act. They tell us, in their own ways, what's real.

Maybe we don't really believe that love at first sight exists. As grown-ups, we know that if we see someone, and it makes our hearts flutter, that we're dealing with a bad case of lust. The sort of primal, primitive blood surge that can make you say and do some truly stupid things before you get yourself under control. But there is still that part of us that's eight years old being told that this is what love is supposed to feel like. That if we lose that spark, then we simply haven't found the one. That when we do find that special someone, it will be easy. No arguments, no loneliness, and we'll never wonder about our choice.

That's not a problem with us, as readers. Because stories are how we're hard-wired to see the world, and relate to ideas. It's a problem with our storytellers, who have been feeding us garbage. Giving us the childish simplicity of fairy tales, but then never stepping up the game as we get older, and could use more complex, more instructive stories.

They say if people aren't writing the kinds of books you want to read, then you're going to have to write them. So that's what I'm doing. Along the way, though, I'd like to ask that other storytellers think about the messages they're encoding in their books. There's no such thing as pure escapism. So make it fun, by all means. Make it sassy, dark, or demure, as you wish. But ask yourself what will happen if readers start using your stories as their mythology? What lessons will your gods and saints teach them about love, death, and getting on with your life?

Because, if I had my way, I'd like to make a generation that's less entitled, more respectful, and that understands there's no such thing as true love. That you need to tend that fire if you're serious about not letting it burn out.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. A big thanks again to Vincent for his contribution! For those of you who would like to help support me and my blog, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a small donation? As little as $1 a month is a big help, and it comes with a free book! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, what's stopping you?

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Neil Gaiman Hit It On The Head When He Talks About "The Freelance Mentality"

Because I hope that success can be transmitted via osmosis, I've been listening to Neil Gaiman's View From The Cheap Seats. This book, which is a collection of his non-fiction (including speeches, forwards, newspaper and magazine articles), covers a wide range of topics. We get some personal pieces about famous people he's known and worked with (including his friend the late Terry Pratchett, and his wife Amanda Palmer), as well as literary criticism, and a speech he gave warning about the comics bust in the 1990s when people were buying them as investments.

The point that stuck with me most from the book, though, was his discussion of the freelance mentality. Something that, like a sword, is both helpful, and destructive.

Fitness? Of course I know about fitness! How many words you want?
The freelance mentality is something you develop when you work as a mercenary. It means you're always looking for new work, and there's no such thing as a plate that's too full. Even if you're absolutely swamped with work, and coming up on deadline, you cannot afford to say no to a project. Because you have to keep something in the pipe at all times, otherwise your feast is going to turn into a famine quite quickly. The significantly more famous Neil was a freelancer for over a decade before he had projects like Sandman, Coraline, and American Gods under his belt, but even once he was stacking the sort of royalties you and I can only guess at, he still found it hard to say no.

It's pretty simple to understand why, when you think about it. If you're a soldier, and you spend all your time on the front lines, you develop certain reflexes. A view of the world that keeps you alive. When you return to the civilian world, you're academically aware that things are different. But it takes time for those reflexes to lose their edge, and fade away. Sometimes they never fade, and they're just something you deal with. A coping mechanism that was once necessary, but which is now a hindrance instead of a help.

Gaiman hasn't been the only victim of this condition. The infamous Stephen King talked about how he was convinced, for years, that his success was all going to stop. That there had been some mistake, and all those checks were going to have to be given back. That fear, that mentality, meant he kept writing and submitting. If a magazine needed short stories, he got them done. If a publisher had an opening, he filled it. While I haven't met the man (much to my personal and professional disappointment), I have a feeling that the freelance mentality is partially to blame for him setting the pace he has kept to this day.

Because when you hustle day-in, and day-out, it's something you can't stop. Even when you don't need to do it anymore.

It Works, If You Need It

I don't make the allusion to a battlefield lightly. If you step onto the field as a freelancer, you need to keep your steel sharp. You don't get paid by the hour, you don't get coffee breaks, and you don't get to call in sick. You don't get to miss deadlines, and make it up later. You also need to take on tasks you're not sure you're qualified for, and hope for the best.

Shakespeare gotta get paid, son.
Mr. Gaiman admitted, in one of his pieces, that when he was new to the field he would lie about who he'd worked for, or what subjects he knew about, because he needed the check attached to the job. Harrison Ford found himself in a similar position when he talked up his carpentry skills, but really had no idea how to build sound studios. If you find anyone famous or successful in a creative field, and dig back far enough, you'll find they've stretched the truth about their expertise or experience in order to pay rent.

In a world where you can Google anything, this is more common than ever before.

The most important part of the freelance mindset, though, is knowing where the off button is. Because, if you're lucky, you might reach a point where you can look at a project pitch and say, "you know, I really don't have the time or the skill set for that." When you have a body of work that is paying your debts, and allowing you to feel comfortable, you no longer need to reach for your sword at the slightest hint that someone needs you to use it.

The hard part, of course, is getting to that point. I'll let you know how it goes, if I ever get there.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. If you haven't read View From The Cheap Seats yet, I highly recommend it. Especially if you can find the audio read by the author. If you'd like to help support me so I can keep producing content just like this, well, drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave some change in my jar. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, what's stopping you?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Internal Consistency is What Your Novel Needs (Not Realism)

How many times have you had people complain about a lack of "realism" in fiction? "This one guy killed hundreds of enemy soldiers in a single winter, that's so unrealistic!" "A single soldier climbed a cliff face, was shot half a dozen times, and still took out two bunkers with a hand grenade and his bare hands, that's so unrealistic!" "This guy is using a sword in a modern war, and he captured a dozen enemy soldiers with it, this is so unrealistic!"

She's casting a spell through the mic, that's so unrealistic!
In case you couldn't guess by the sarcasm quotes, every incident I mentioned in the first paragraph actually took place. You can read about the soldiers who accomplished those very things in 5 Real Life Soldiers Who Made Rambo Look Like A Pussy. It goes to show that no matter how ridiculous fiction gets, there is always something more badass (or at least equally badass) that has happened in the real world.

But realism isn't what you should be concerned with, as a writer of fiction. What you should care about is the internal consistency of your world. Which is, more often than not, what we're talking about when we throw around the word realistic.

Your World, Your Rules

The most important thing to remember about your book is that it's your world, and your rules. If you say that the ability to use magic is an inherited trait, then it is. If you say the government has jurisdiction over thought crimes, then it does. It is your world, and it can be whatever you say it is. The key is to make sure that your world has its own internal logic, and that all your rules still hold up when taken to their natural limits.

All goats now have rights... what does that mean for the legal system?
The problem is when you start subverting your own rules, and the internal logic starts to break down. For instance, if you set your book up as taking place strictly in the modern day, using the rules of our world as we know them, and then things that make no sense start happening. Like a 20 mile-an-hour car crash resulting in a 50-foot-high column of fire. Or computers being made to explode remotely without any explanation of where the combustion came from. Things that, in the rules of the world we know and exist in, don't happen.

That's why you need to make your world's rules clear, and follow them. We know, for example, that Superman's biggest weakness is kryptonite. And while there have been a thousand different strips and plots surrounding the character, that rules has never been broken. If someone holds out a chunk of this green, glowing rock, then Earth's mightiest hero recoils like Dracula before a crucifix. Speaking of Dracula, Van Helsing was kind enough to lay out the rules for vampires in Bram Stoker's novel. And when we encounter vampires? Well, they have the same weaknesses that Van Helsing laid out for us. Which cements his reputation as an expert in the field, and makes the mythical creatures true in a concrete, important way.

Dragons Don't Make Your Argument Invalid

There's something that happens in fantasy circles where someone will point out an internal consistency error, and the response is along the lines of, "oh, there's wizards and dragons in this book, but the lead being able to climb a mountain in a day, dressed in a loincloth, is what bothers you?"

Now that you mention it, it really doesn't make sense.
The presence of something completely unbelievable (like dragons, magic, an immortal serial killer, etc.) doesn't give a pass to some other aspect of the story breaking your internal logic. Every aspect of a story needs to be weighed, and judged, on its own merits. Having a character who can shrug off broken bones with no outside aid in less than a week doesn't suddenly make sense just because there are witches in this world.

Especially if said witches didn't offer to heal that wound... for a price.

Well, that's my thoughts for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully some of you find it useful, or at the very least entertaining. If you'd like to support me, and keep this blog going, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron? As little as $1 a month gets you some swag, and helps out way more than you'd think. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter yet, well, why not start now?