Wednesday, September 27, 2017

5 Writing Rules That Help You Get A Better Second Draft

Writing is an art form, and generally speaking there is no way to police the creative process. Something that breaks every, single rule you have for what is acceptable might achieve great commercial success, much to your chagrin. Alternatively, something you consider one of your greatest successes might be something another author (even someone who is in the same weight class and genre as you) would never have touched with a ten-foot pole. We are all unique, and each of us uses our own process.

Yeah, I'm going down this rabbit hole.
With that having been said, it is a good idea to find some rules that work for you, and that help you get from Point A to Point B when you sit down to tell a story. And since I'm elbow-deep in the second draft of a novel manuscript at the moment, I figured I'd share some of the rules I've developed as a response to the editing process.

Rule #1: When In Doubt, Cut It Out

One of the most important rules of editing any draft is that if your initial effort is fatty or bloated, it's time to take the scissors and start sculpting. If you want your book to have six-pack abs, then it's going to have to feel the burn. Whether it's a cool phrase you thought of that really doesn't work, that second or third fight scene you put in for additional fan service, or just re-iterating a piece of exposition you already laid out, start cutting. Flab, even flab that might be funny, or fun, or full of witty text, is your enemy when you're editing.

Rule #2: Always Ask "Why?"

So, you've got your book. Maybe it's good, maybe it's bad, but it's on the page in front of you now rather than in your head. When you're editing, you need to have a little man on your shoulder ask "why?" every time you come across a salient point. It isn't enough to ask why, though; you need to have an answer. So when your little editor asks, "why are these characters at odds with each other?" you should be able to answer, "they're professionally competing for a promotion and glory, and while they have mutual respect for each other, this tension over their egos is what stops them from being friends." If you ask why, and you don't know the answer to the question, it might be time to reconsider that particular story choice.

Rule #3: Always Ask "Why Not?"

When it comes to a book, the parts of the story you choose to tell us are just as important as the parts you don't. So, in addition to asking why, the editor sitting on your other shoulder should be asking why you didn't do something. So, for example, if the question is, "why didn't this character bring back-up with them on their quest, choosing to go it alone?" you should have the answer ready to fire off. Whether it's that they're a loner, and have no one they can call on for aid, or that they're arrogant and think they can handle it themselves, or that what they're doing is highly illegal and they don't want criminal charges falling on their friends, you need to have answers to the "why not?" editor, too.

Rule #4: Don't Be Afraid To Explore

Just because you're trimming down your first draft, that doesn't mean you should feel afraid to explore things you didn't while you were getting the initial words onto the page. For example, if it feels like the chemistry between two characters changes too suddenly, then slow it down. Add a chapter, or event, where they address some of their friction, and put it to bed. Show change happening so the audience doesn't get whiplash. Maybe you skipped the protagonist's journey from the wilderness to the capitol, but you make reference to some cool stuff that happened on the road. Well, you can expand on that, and show the audience what happened. You can make room, and stretch out, if it makes the story better.

Rule #5: Look At The Big Picture

When you're initially writing a book, it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. Every day you're focusing on a new section of the wall, laying your mortar and bricks along the lines you previously set out. But once it's done, and you step back, you might notice your wall is crooked as shit. Or that, while it's functional, it would be better if you could have bent it in a different direction. Because it's not enough for a book to just be readable, and to make cognitive sense; you need to identify all the problems, and iron them out. Whether that means nixing the witch in chapter eight because she just feels like a token way to deliver exposition, or choosing to injure your lead in an earlier chapter so the fight scenes feel more tense later on, the point is always the same. You need to look at the book as a whole, and understand where little changes need to be made to alter the bird's-eye view.

That's all for my thoughts on this week's Craft of Writing post. If you'd like to stay on top of my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you'd like to help support me and my work, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to help keep the content flowing, and to get a free book as a thank you.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Best Advice For Writers, "Say The Lines, Cash The Check, And Buy Yourself Something Nice"

As writers, we sometimes get caught up in the bullshit of our own reputations. We buy into the idea of the noble storyteller, or the tortured typist, sweating under the strain of our own ideas. We cast ourselves as the suffering artist who is trying to take the universe in our heads, and show it to the rest of the world the way we see it. And when we have to lower ourselves to write ad copy, or to write blog entries for clients paying us money to do our jobs? Ugh, the insult of it all! That we should use such great talents for such low, base ends.

Gonna lay some wisdom on you, here. This comes from Jon Pertwee, a fellow who once starred in an odd little sci-fi show called Doctor Who. When he was on the show, some folks he knew told him to do something very smart. "Say the lines, cash the check, and buy yourself something nice."

It's in this interview, in case you're curious.

The next time you find yourself rubbing your temples, and ready to send your client a strongly-worded email about how stupid their whole project is, remember these words. And remember that you are not some great genius intellect to whom the tides of creativity bow. You are, very likely, just a person with a pen who was willing to do the job.

Not Everything You Write Will Fulfill You

One of the major reasons that I'm a writer, instead of a security guard, a cashier, a stocker, or a landscaper, is that writing is the job I like the most, and which I have the best track record with. And sure, there are some times where I've been working on a story, or writing a script, when I got that rock star feeling of being the gifted man doing great work.

Most of the time, though, that's not how it feels. Because the bulk of my day is not spent working on novels, short stories, YouTube scripts, or RPG guides. Most of my day is spent writing for clients. Because they need content, and I need to eat, so we can help each other out.

A couple of 600-word posts? Sure, I guess I can get 'em to you by Friday.
Now, I like eating. I like having happy landlords. So, when a client presents me with a job my primary concern is what I'm being paid to do it, and whether I feel my talents are up to snuff. If the job's fun, well, that's a bonus. But I'm not being paid to have fun. I'm being paid to create a product that will get my clients money. Whether that means a world guide that will sell copies, a blog post that gets traffic, or a novel that flies off the shelves, I am only as valuable to my clients as the end results my work creates.

I'm a mercenary, through and through.

Still, it pays to remind myself that my clients aren't here to feed my ego. They aren't giving me work to do so they can watch the glory of my process, or marvel in my creative genius. They're paying me to do a job. And if I do it well, then they're going to pay me the next time a job comes up. And the next, and the next.

Because brilliance is a lot more common than you think, but reliability is what builds your rep. So the next time you find yourself staring at the screen, muttering about how this job is beneath you, or about how you should just tell your client to stick it, take all that spare energy, and put it into the project. Hit the word count, turn it in, and when the check clears, treat yourself. Go get a milkshake, have a cheeseburger, or check out that latest flick at the movies. Whatever will make you happy, use your check to remind yourself that you earned this with nothing more than words.

It helps keep things in perspective. Both the good, and the bad.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it helped folks who, like myself, need to let the air out of their egos every other Thursday. If you want to stay on top of all my releases, then make sure you follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support me and my work, then stop on over at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tear Down The Monoliths (No Race, Religion, Etc. Is Universal)

How many times have you been reading a fantasy story, and you didn't bat an eye when someone started speaking elvish? How many times have you been elbow-deep in a sci-fi novel, and you were told that every member of an alien race without fail holds a particular cultural viewpoint? Now ask how many times you ground to a halt, and asked exactly how many separate, thinking, feeling individuals were painted with the same brush?

You racist son of a bitch, there is no such thing as an "orc" language!
This very same logic, applied to humans (even in fantasy settings), tends to trip our bullshit detectors. When we hear a character decry that all followers of the White Prophet are evil, there's a part of us that asks, "Really? Out of the millions of members of that religion, every man, woman, and child is a baby-killing monster? Come on." But we just accept that when we're talking about made-up races. Whether they're elves or Vulcans, Klingons, or orcs, we just accept that they are all universally the same, no matter where they're from. They share the same language, the same culture, the same religious beliefs, and more often than not the same political views.

If you really want your work to stand out in the genre, scrap this broad-brush paint job, and do the heavy lifting.

Make Your Cultures Feel Organic

When you create a culture, whether it's for humans in a fantasy setting, or for a non-human race, you need to ask what needs informed that culture. How did it develop? What reinforces its values, what are its rules, and what does it frown upon?

Now, once you've done that, you need to go to the next culture, and do it all again, from the ground up.

Now repeat until the map is full.
Once you have your cultures and races established, that's just the foundation of your world. Now you need to ask if they evolved based on other factors, with familiar and recognizable elements of one culture shifting and changing to suit a new place.

As an example, say you had a group of traditional Tolkien elves. They left their forest to establish a new colony, and traveled south. What they found was a tropical forest, denser, and larger than their northern counterparts. These new forests were also filled with older magics, and stranger beasts than the temperate woods of their homelands. They are, however, still elves, with all of the inherent benefits and abilities that makes them what they are.

So how do they change to fit their new home? Do they darken in hair and features, blending into the teak and mahogany woods? Are their clothes still as elegant and flowing as before, but now they're woven from spider silk? Do they ride leopards instead of caribou, and are they fiercer in combat as a result of the predatory mount choice? Is the bow still their weapon of choice, or have they mastered the spear, the dart, and other weapons more suited to the shorter range that's more common in the dense rain forest? Do they still stay apart from humans, or have they made alliances with local populations, intertwining their lives with the lives of such short-lived mortals?

Now look at the other aspects of their cultures. Did they bring their gods with them, or have they taken up new pacts with the spirits of this forest? Has their language changed to fit their new surroundings, creating new words to suit new ideas that weren't present in the forests of the north? What traits is their environment, and culture, rewarding and reinforcing?

It's also important to remember that nothing happens in a vacuum. As cultures interact, they'll take ideas or concepts, and change them to make them their own. There will be transfer... so ask what that interaction teaches each culture taking part. Is it that one culture adopts the fashion and greetings of another? Do certain turns of phrase just become part of everyday use? Or does one nation develop extremely precise aerial weapons, since they've been at war with a foe that rides on flying mounts?

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

There are certain shortcuts you can use to bring across ideas quickly. However, if you want to add instant depth to your world, put in different factions of a faith. Make the mountain elves different from the forest ones. Give your orcs different ethnicities and cultures to show that, while they might be universal as a presence, they are just as unique and varied as humans. And if you really want to make people flip their lids, make an island nation of surfing dwarves.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it got the gears turning for some folks. If you want to stay up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to help me keep creating content, and get some free books out of the deal, then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is a minimum of $1 a month, and I'll send some books flying your way as a thank you.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What Is Your Book's Unique Selling Point?

"So, what's your book about?"

"Well, it's a riff on the old pulp private detective stories. The main character gets dragged into a complicated web of mysteries, and he has to try to parse the truth from what his client, her enemies, and his old acquaintances are telling him is going on. It's kind of my homage to The Maltese Falcon."

"Why would I want to read that when I already have a Dashiell Hammett collection?"

"My book's take on Sam Spade is a demon pulled straight out of the lower hells by a witch who wants him to track down her lost soul."

"Shut up and take my money."

"He looked, rather pleasantly, like a blonde Satan."
There are millions of books on the market right now, and there will be thousands of new ones released by the end of the year. People only have so much time to read, and if you manage to grab that fleeting moment of someone's attention you need to pin them down with something that will hook their interest. To that end, you need to know what the most appealing thing about your book is, and you need to be able to explain it quickly, and efficiently.

In short, you need to know what your unique selling point is.

Where's The Hook?

A USP is, essentially, an elevator pitch that you give to potential readers. If someone is walking by you at a convention, or they've paused for a moment at a signing, how are you going to summarize the multiple years and hundreds of pages it took you to tell this story so they want to pick it up, and take it home with them?

While every book is unique, and special, there are ways you can shorten the pitch so it fits in a sentence or two. For example, "It's the Trojan War, but with space marines," is a description that would make me flip the book over to get the more detailed version. A description like, "It's your classic, macho shoot-em-up, but the protagonist is gay," might also turn a few heads from readers who like Mack Bolan, and who wonder what it would be like if he was into dudes. Maybe your book could be described as, "Lord of The Rings, minus the walking, and with ten times the body count."

Tell me more.
Your USP is about more than just pitching your book to readers, though. It's about knowing what niche you fill in your genre, and in the market. If you were writing fantasy books in the 80s, for instance, then you would know everyone and their mother was trying to be Tolkien. Just like how today you can walk down the fantasy aisle and see the thousands of bastard children George R. R. Martin has spawned. What makes you stand out from all those other books jockeying for space in stores, on shelves, and in customer reading lists?

Is it that your complicated political drama taking place in a fantasy kingdom is seen through the lens of a matriarchal society? Does it have a lot more onscreen sex, bondage, and gratuitous cod piece shots? Or is the cast of protagonists all the old-school, old guard of the world? Like if Tywin, the Queen of Thorns, Maester Aemon, and all the other old farts had been the people we were following around the whole time?

In short, your USP tells people what you're offering that they can't get anywhere else. Because it's not enough to just have a story, and write it down. You need to tell people why they should be reading your book, instead of going back to the authors they already know they like for their next hit of that dream stuff.

And before you go, a steampunk noir collection that takes you on a walking tour of The City of Steam!
That's all for this week's Business of Writing. If you like the work I'm doing, and you don't want to miss the next installment, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter? Lastly, if you want to chip in some support, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month, and you'll get free books on top of my everlasting gratitude.