Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Readers Are Going To Make Assumptions About Your Book (So Feel Free To Play With Them!)

We always say not to judge a book by its cover. If you've been in the game for a while, though, you know that readers are going to do just that. They make judgments based on you as the author, your name, your genre, your cover art, and a thousand other little details that get calculated in the first few seconds of exposure. The same thing happens as soon as someone hears your sales pitch. No matter how fine-tuned you've got it, they're going to have reached certain conclusions before you get even halfway through it.

It does you no good to ignore this, or to wish that it didn't happen. The human mind forms judgments and separates things into categories. However, with a little bit of strategy, you can actually hack this tendency in order to surprise your readers and catch them off guard.
 
Also, before I forget, make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter to get updates on all my latest releases and new projects!

Speaking of My Latest Book...


My latest release is a perfect example of reader assumptions in action, and before I even typed the first word of the first chapter I could already hear readers dismissing it as a cozy mystery or a YA novel because my main character was a cat, and the cast was made up of street-level animals. As most folks who've read Marked Territory already know, however, this book does not pull punches when it comes time for the cast to throw down... and alley cats are nasty, vicious creatures when the claws come out.

Seriously, go get your copy today if you don't believe me!

For some readers (judging from the comments I got on social media) this was pretty jarring. They saw there was a cat on the cover, and read the blurb about him helping out a bunch of strays on the south side, and assumed this was gonna be a bloodless tale of a bruiser with a heart of gold. The book is far more similar to stuff you'd see from Dashiell Hammett or Robert B. Parker in terms of content, though, and tends to focus a lot more on underworld figures and solving the central mystery. When violence breaks out, though, it's short, nasty, and brutal.

Using Their Assumptions To Your Advantage


Some people will argue that if your book runs counter to what someone thought it would be, then it's your fault for not putting some sort of indicator on it. On the other hand, some people believe that it's the consumers job to check what they're purchasing, such as how parents who took their kids to see Watchmen in theaters had only themselves to blame for ignoring the R rating because it was, "just a superhero movie," and should have been safe for the little ones' eyes.

I tend to fall into the latter category, for those who are curious.

On the one hand, I can confirm that you're going to have to field questions from people who want to check their own assumptions. And if you answer honestly, you very well might lose a sale or two (I've run into this with people looking to buy a book for a particularly young reader, and that is definitely not my audience). You're also going to receive at least a few strident comments from people if they bought a book expecting it to be one thing, and it turned out to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

With that said, anything that makes you stand out from the rest of the field (and which gets people talking) isn't something you should avoid!

I've had conversations with several authors, especially newer ones, who worry that stepping too far outside of genre conventions and reader expectations will mean their stories aren't as widely read or accepted. However, I'd venture that if everybody else is trying to fit in, and you're willing to stand out, then people are going to notice you a lot more often than they will your peers.

If you're worried about not fitting a formula or confounding expectations, don't worry. That might just be what you need to get people to sit up and take notice!

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 cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my most recent short story collection The Rejects!
 
And to stay on top of all my latest news and releases, collected once a week, make sure you subscribe to The Literary Mercenary's mailing list.

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, November 25, 2020

There's Only So Much You Can Do To Sell Books (On Your Own)

The holiday gift-buying rush is upon us, and it's always the time of year when authors try to get a couple of last-minute sales under their belts. Heck, if you haven't checked out my noir mystery novel about a New York City alley cat titled Marked Territory or my sword and sorcery adventure Crier's Knife, they'd be ideal for some of the folks on your gift list!

The intro sort of illustrates my point, though. There's only so much you can do as an author to be successful... and there's no guarantee that even if you push all the right buttons that you're going to get the result you're shooting for.

Just a few more social media posts... surely that will do it...

Authors Depend on You


I'm going to start this off by saying that if you are an author, you have to tic all the boxes on the checklist that you can. You need to write a good book. You need an eye-catching cover. You need to cultivate your social media presence, and if possible build yourself a platform. Whether it's a blog, a YouTube channel, an Instagram page, you need some way to reach more people. You should probably have a mailing list as well (speaking of, sign up for The Literary Mercenary's newsletter to get weekly updates on all my releases), ensuring you can reach people without depending on the algorithms that run social media and search engines. You need to try to boost your own signal as best you can, and to do everything possible within your control.

But none of that will get us anywhere without a hand up from you.
 
With that said, though, at the end of the day we can shotgun blast our books all over every corner of the Internet. We can buy ads on the most popular social media platforms, hire companies to boost our signal, fill up forums with comments, spam our links into bookmarking sites, and shout from the highest rooftops... and when all is said and done not move a single copy of our books.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Part of it is that unless you're already famous, your voice gets drowned out pretty easily. Another part of it is that people basically discount anyone who is obviously trying to sell them something. Whether it's people who avoid looking at your table at a convention, or who down vote you for "spamming" your book on a group, no one wants to listen to your self-promotion. It's almost a conditioned response; like how you used to immediately get up to go to the bathroom as soon as a commercial came on TV, and you blocked out whatever product was being sold.

But do you know what happens as soon as you start talking about our books? People listen.

The human mind is both amazing, and dumb.

It sounds stupid, but it's true. I could deliver the most carefully crafted sales pitch in the world, but a majority of people who hear it are immediately going to ignore it because I'm, "just trying to sell copies of my book." But if you say to your friend, your co-worker, your siblings, or your spouse, "Hey, this was a really good book. You should read it!" they're going to weigh your opinions far more heavily than they do mine.

Why? Well, because they have a personal connection to you. Not only that, but because you stand nothing to gain by saying this book was great, so why wouldn't they trust you?

This is why having good reviews on websites matters (that, and if you have 50 reviews or more your book gets its signal boosted in places like Amazon). It's why you sharing a link on your Facebook wall or your Twitter feed matters. And if you have a platform of your own, whether it's a blog, a YouTube channel, or even a podcast, using that to big-up the signal of a writer you know is what we need to actually reach potential readers.

We could be the most brilliant campaign designers out there. We could ensure our books are visible, and that our ads show up everywhere. We can use all the keywords we want to make sure we get steady streams of eyeballs... but none of that is going to be as effective as you telling people in your friends group and/or your audience that we wrote something good.

Because they know you. They trust you. And the easiest way to get them to know and trust us as authors is to vouch for us. Get your friends to give us a chance, because they aren't going to take us on our own merits even if we do actually write exactly the sort of things they'd love to read.

Please. We're sort of depending on you.

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 noir thriller Marked Territory, 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, November 18, 2020

You Really Can't Do Too Much Research For Your Book

One of the major appeals of writing fiction is the idea that if you don't know the answer to something that you can just make it up. Not sure how light is focused into a beam that fires from the tip of your futuristic private eye's laser pistol? Good news, you can just create the mystery element of the Forunex crystal that makes light-based weaponry practical and compact. Unsure of how spontaneous combustion would be possible from a physics and chemistry standpoint? Well, since the Devotees of Fire are granted power by their god, it's magic so you don't have to explain a damn thing!

It can really make your life as a creator easier in a lot of respects.

In other respects, though...

A problem that a lot of writers run into, though, is they get too drunk on their own creative abilities. Just because something is fictional, that doesn't mean you shouldn't at least do a Google search, or crack a book, to make sure you aren't going in the completely wrong direction.
 
Also, before we continue on, make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter to be sure you don't miss any of my updates!

Let's Look at Werewolves For a Second


Oh yeah, we're going to fight about this.

If you've ever read a piece of werewolf fiction, or even played a game like Werewolf: The Apocalypse, you're likely very familiar with the idea of strong alpha leaders, the right hand of the beta, and the shifty omega no one likes. These are terms and ideas that are used to describe the structure of wolf packs, thereby allowing the reader to have one foot in reality, and one foot in a fantasy.

Unless they've read a science article since roughly 1980 or so.

As Knowledge Nuts points out, the idea of violent struggles for dominance is what you see in captive wolf packs. When wolves have no relation to one another, and no existing family structure, which means these wolves were basically in animal prison. In the wild wolves act nothing like this. They're tight-knit family groups that care for one another, and a wolf's age is a far more likely indicator of status than how violent or aggressive they are. So trying to map the social dynamic of a violent prison gang onto all werewolves actually undercuts your attempt to bridge reality with fiction if the reader is aware you're citing debunked, outdated ideas in the story.

This is just a small example of how you need to make sure your research impacts the fiction you're creating. And the more closely tied to reality your fantasy is, the more research you need to do. Because if your central conceit is, "I have giant robots in my story," then you can probably just ask your audience to buy that without going into too many details of the physics or how these huge machines function. But if your story is set in a near-future Moscow, then it would probably help to actually research the culture of the country, the function of the government, and the ranks of the armed forces to make sure you get those things correct. Especially if your robot's pilot would have to complete regular military training, and then meet the standards of that country before being allowed into the heavy armored division.

You Can Never Know Too Much


While it's possible to go overboard on description and detail, and to bog your book down with adverbs or purple prose, you can never do too much research as a creator. Because even if you find a bunch of details that aren't going to be relevant to your story, they're still going to inform your view and your process. Whether it's how many samurai were actually women, to what the code of chivalry actually demanded from knights, to what gender roles were actually held by the Vikings (with men being beautiful and perfumed, and women being the heads of the household's finances), these little factoids can take your book in unexpected directions.

Additionally, a little extra research can often stop you from including debunked facts, outdated worldviews, or offensive stereotypes in your stories... and that's worth a little extra time hitting the books, don't you think?

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 cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my most recent short story collection The Rejects!
 
And to stay on top of all my latest news and releases, collected once a week, make sure you subscribe to The Literary Mercenary's mailing list.

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, November 11, 2020

The Best Gift You Can Give An Author This Holiday Season

It's almost that time of year again. Even in the age of Covid-19 people want to reach out to their friends and loved ones, and let them know they're thinking of them during the holidays. And if you have an author on your gift list, you might be scratching your brain more than usual to find an appropriate gift for them to let them know they're in your heart even if travel restrictions and safety precautions mean you'll likely be limited to face timing.

I mean, what do you get for writers? A novelty pen holder shaped like a knight? A set of Moleskine notebooks for all their ideas on the go? A bottle of their favorite spirit of choice so they have something to crack open either when they land their next big contract, or when they need a shot of something when their current manuscript turns into a slog?

Is it coffee? Is that the secret?

Well, the thing about writers is that each of us are different and unique individuals with our own wants, needs, and tastes. However, I will guarantee you that if you really want to make the writer in your life feel special, there are two things you can give them for the holidays that will make them smile.

Reviews, and sales.
 
Also, if you haven't done so yet, sign up for The Literary Mercenary's newsletter! As a preemptive gift for me, and for you.

A Gift For Every Budget


I want to drop a little knowledge on you. Most folks who are regular readers around here have likely come across these facts before, but if you're new, this single image lays it all out for you.

You can probably see where this is going.

Every single notice on this digital cork board is a reason that the holidays can be an ideal time to really make an author's month. If you have a friend or family member that you know would enjoy one of their books, buy them a copy, wrap it, and put it under the tree. You can get them a hard copy or buy them an ebook, the author doesn't care because they get royalties either way. Heck, if you've got several friends that you know would enjoy a particular book, make it a holiday book club!

I can personally attest to that fact in the upper left hand corner. There have been some years that I've barely cracked that $10k mark, and only a fraction of that income came from my book sales. Every little bit really does help when that royalty check comes in.

Also, your regular reminder I have a new novel out!

If you don't have a budget to buy a whole bunch of books, though, then you can make a big difference to your author friends by reading their books, leaving reviews, and boosting their signal on social media.

I'm not kidding about this, either. At time of writing, Marked Territory just picked up its 11th review. My novel Crier's Knife rounded 21 reviews a few weeks back. My short story collection The Rejects has only managed to snatch 3 reviews since it came out a little less than a year ago (not surprising, short stories are a tough sell, but it is disappointing). There's only so much you can do on your own (especially in a pandemic with no in-person events you can attend), and authors need all the help they can get right now. So if you can give an author you like a leg up, that is a big deal! It might not feel like it, but it is.

If you're wondering why, it's because you are seen as an unbiased source to all the shoppers on the Internet. Of course we think our books are great; we wrote the damn things! But when you leave a review or share a post on Twitter or Facebook, people who see that see a person who is giving their honest opinion about a book. And if a few dozen of you all have the same high opinion of something, well, then the onlookers are going to have to check it out for themselves to see what the fuss is all about, aren't they?

Need Some Authors To Help Out This Holiday?


While I will never say no to more sales, ratings, and reviews, I did want to take a moment to boost the signal on some of my fellow authors and their books this week. We're almost into the time of thanks, and then the season of giving, so consider checking out some of the following!

- Geisha Hands by Lauren A. R. Masterson: Written and illustrated by the author, this historical fiction novel is definitely worth your time.

- The Hole Behind Midnight by Clinton Boomer: If you need your modern fantasy hit, and other authors just aren't packing the punch you need, Clinton has you covered. When you turn the final page, you'll with you didn't have to leave the bizarre world of the 25th hour!

- Bitter by Ruth de Jauregui: For those mystery lovers who like a side of grit, this is one you shouldn't let pass you by. Ruth's been working on the Bitter series and setting for some time, and this is enough to give you a bit of a taste.

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 noir thriller Marked Territory, 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, November 4, 2020

NaNoWriMo Is Not (Generally Speaking) How Professionals Write Books

Before I get too far into this week's post, I want to start with the caveat that every writer has their own comfort zones, their own acceptable word count, and their own rituals. Some people do it faster, some people have more re-writes, and some people have been doing this so long that it practically seems like magic when yet another manuscript slides off their desk.

With all of that said, NaNoWriMo prepares you to be an author in the same way that watching gonzo porn prepares you for a night of romance. Some of the same elements are indeed present, but if you think this is the way it works then you are going to be sorely disappointed.

Seriously, that is NOT how this works!
 

Bad Habits Lead To Bad Writing


For those not familiar with this November event, NaNoWriMo is when everyone hunkers down in November to hammer out that novel they've been talking about for years. You have to hit a particular word count, which means that you need to get several thousand words a day in order to be done with it by the end of the month.

Is this real writing? Absolutely! People are sitting down and putting words on the page to tell a story, and that is literally all it takes to be considered "real" writing. However, as with my adult film comparison above, there's more to writing a novel than just the mechanical process of putting one word in front of the other.

There may not be a lot more to it, but there is more.

However, Nano teaches you to write at a dead sprint when a novel is really more like a marathon. There are some writers who can put out a manuscript in a month, but the Stephen Kings and Robert Louis Stevensons are sort of the exceptions that prove the rule. Most people cannot hammer out several thousand words of prose in a sitting... especially not if they have a social life, a full-time job that isn't selling books, etc. And that doesn't even get into the editing process, re-writes, submissions, self-publishing, sales, and the hundreds of other areas you need to be skilled in if you want this to be your job.
 
The pace required to complete the challenge keeps you going forward with no time to pause and evaluate what you're putting down. Whether you thought of a change that would improve your plot, or you realized there's a mistake, you just don't have the time to go back and change it. Anymore than you'd stop to tie your shoe during a sprint. Worse, if it turns out your story needs more space to stretch out, but you've only budgeted your efforts to hit the minimum word count, then you're going to add an extra stress trigger into your brain because you "failed" to accomplish what you set out to do.

I could go on, but in many ways, Nano is kind of like a crash diet. You will achieve what you set out to, but it isn't really a sustainable result. And if this is something you want to maintain long-term, you need to develop better habits, and make more permanent changes to your routine rather than just slam energy drinks and go nuts for one month out of the year.

Hey, It's Just For Fun!


If you are one of those people who just wants to sit down and pound away at the keys for fun this November, far be it from me to hold you back! If you're someone who is using this as your excuse to finally indulge and see if you have what it takes, or you're looking for something exciting to do when going back into quarantine, then by all means go for it!

However, my point is that the pocket universe of NaNoWriMo that crops up every year is not how things work if you're a professional writer. And just because you managed to finish a manuscript for Nano, that book has no better chance than any other at becoming your meal ticket just because of how quickly you wrote it. If anything, I'd suggest that it's probably going to need a great deal more revisions than something that was put out with more attention to detail, and at a steadier pace.

Pshaw, this writing thing is easy!

And I'm sure there are people out there right now saying that of course it's different when this is your job! Stop ragging on people who are just doing this for fun! But the human brain is exactly as smart as we'd expect electrified jello to be, and it often draws false conclusions. Whether it's comparing yourself to that fitness model who spends a dozen hours in the gym and has an entire lighting crew to make them look their best, or watching a romantic comedy and forgetting that acting that way in real life would get you slapped with several felony charges, even the smartest among us are working with brains that are pretty stupid.

So if you want to participate in NaNoWriMo, please, do so! Break that keyboard, write your story, and have a blast with it! But if you want to be a professional novelist, understand that the Nano format is not a great way to hone your craft, and to produce the best quality work you're capable of. And while a crash workout designed to get your toned and fit fast might get a lot of immediate results, it isn't a great strategy if you want to become a body builder.

Lastly, don't get too hung up on your daily word count. A couple of paragraphs a day will have a complete manuscript in less than a year... you don't need to go overboard with it.

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 cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my most recent short story collection The Rejects!
 
And to stay on top of all my latest news and releases, collected once a week, make sure you subscribe to The Literary Mercenary's mailing list.

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, October 28, 2020

The Strange Excitement of Forced Success

For those who don't know me, I basically decided that I was going to be an author around the age of 13. Since I was still at that age where adults were constantly asking me what I was going to do when I grew up, I remember being told time and time again, "That's a great goal, sweetheart, but you need to do something other than write novels. After all, what if that doesn't work out for you?"

I'm sure most creative professionals have heard the same spiel in one form or another.

Some adults calmly explained to me that it takes a long time to write a book, and I'll have bills to pay in the mean time. Others talked about how famous authors like Stephen King were teachers while they worked on novels in their spare time (telling me both that they liked these creative works enough to pay for them, and that they sort of missed how condescending it was to relegate the writing itself to a back room hobby, but I digress). While this didn't dissuade me, exactly, it did underline that I was going to have to really pour on the energy if I expected to be able to do this without also pulling a 9 to 5 the rest of the week.

And I realized something earlier this month... I've done it! Well, sort of.

And a big thanks for all the folks who helped me get here!

Also, for those who haven't seen it yet, I've got a newsletter! Sign up now to get weekly updates, and don't miss a single trick while I keep bringing you fresh content.

When The Eggs Weight-Test Your Basket


Folks who check my updates know that I'm a pretty busy bee. Ring of Fire recently released my cat noir novel Marked Territory, I manage two blogs, I'm constantly expanding my Vocal article archive (which is sitting pretty at 178 articles at time of writing), and I've released 46 separate RPG supplements such as 100 Sights to See in a Steampunk City and 100 Fantasy Tattoos (and The Meaning Behind Them) that earn me royalties.

Of course while working on all of that, along with probably a half dozen other projects that I haven't mentioned, I was also writing content as a freelance blogger. I wasn't writing as much content as I had in the past, but it was still the first thing I did everyday when I logged on before I got to the "fun" work.

Come on baby... go viral! I believe in you!

About halfway through the summer, though, I started noticing that my "day job" writing just wasn't paying me anymore. As with so many things, writers get paid when the articles get approved, and more and more clients were scaling back their publications, or just sitting on content for months. Sometimes a batch would squeak through, but it went from triple digit checks every week, to $50 a week, to about $20-$30 a week.

I have a small mountain of content still waiting for approval (enough to equal a second stimulus check if the clients would just approve it), but that income stream has shrunk to a trickle.

And you know what? The past few months I've actually managed to survive. I'm not thriving by any stretch of the imagination, but thanks to sales events like Drive Thru RPG's "Rogue-Tober," as well as the generosity of a handful of new patrons (you can always sign up at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon if you'd like to help keep things going, as well), and the semi-viral success of my article Partners and Polycules: Polyamorous Designations Based Off Dungeons and Dragons Dice, I've managed to break even without tightening my belt too much.

I don't feel secure where I'm at by any stretch of the imagination. I've got a dozen more projects I'm working on as we speak to expand my archives, and to make sure my readers have even more stuff to check out. But it's an odd feeling realizing that I sort of got where I want to be (or at least I'm a lot closer than I thought) when I wasn't even looking.

Missing The Forest For The Trees


The best comparison I have was when I was working two rather strenuous jobs in my early 20s. During the day I walked roughly 10 miles or so delivering newspapers, and then I drove a bakery truck overnight. The bakery was across town, and roughly a three mile walk where I left my place at 1 in the morning, and got there around 2ish. I needed both jobs to cover my part of the rent, and no matter what I tried to do nowhere else in town was hiring. So for roughly two months my schedule was get up, deliver the afternoon papers, come home, eat dinner, and relax. I'd either watch TV, read a book, or nap, then walk across town, deliver donuts till 5:30 or 6, take the bus home, and do it all again the next day.

I wasn't in bad shape when I started these jobs. But as they said in Fight Club after a month or so of this routine I was carved out of wood.
 
Artist's Rendering
 
The sudden realization that without going to the gym, making big changes to my diet, or really noticing it that I'd gotten extremely fit sort of threw me when I looked in the mirror. I was still tired a lot of the time, my feet hurt, and I'd worn the heels of my boots at an odd angle, but I hadn't really noticed just how far I'd come in adding lean muscle and peeling away extra pounds.

A similar thing happened with regards to my current body of work. I'd just been plugging away at it over the past couple of years, making sure that I put up articles as fast as I could, didn't miss deadlines, and generally tried to build that cushion. While I'm knocking on wood as I write these words, even in the midst of a pandemic my archive was still expansive enough that I was able to pay most of my bills between sales and patronage, with my leftover Vocal reads used to fill in the cracks.

Since about August, I've thrown myself into writing entirely new gaming projects, my current novel manuscript has rounded 56k words (coming into the home stretch), and I've got a whole list of Vocal articles I plan to add. While it feels like the devil is nipping at my heels a little bit, there's also a certain invigorating feeling of climbing without a harness; of being on the trapeze without a net.

Something could go wrong. I could lose my patrons, websites I use for hosting could shut down, projects could get terminated, contracts revoked... but for the time being I'm flying. It's a stumbling flight, and I can see the jagged rocks from where I am, but goddammit I'm in the air and I will stay there through sheer force of spite if that's what it takes!

I hope, my friends, that someday you also get to feel this feeling. Though preferably not in the midst of a global pandemic.

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 noir thriller Marked Territory, 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, October 21, 2020

3 Common Horror Mistakes That Can Really Ruin Your Story

It's October, and that means there are a lot of people penning horror stories right now. Maybe you're taking up a seasonal challenge, or perhaps you're trying to land some work in the anthologies that always seem to rise from the grave around this time of year. Whatever the reason, though, if you're not an old genre ghoul there are a lot of traps just waiting for you to step in them out there. That's why this Halloween season I'd like to offer you all a seat by the fire so I can give you a warning or two about the dos and do-nots of horror stories.

Don't mind that noise. It's just the wind.

And for those who are wondering about what my bona fides are (or if you'd just like to check out some fun horror stories this spooky season), this genre has sort of been my comfy place for much of my career. From having short stories in collections like SNAFU: A Collection of Military Horror and American Nightmare, to the cosmic horror elements of my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, to the stinking alleys and backwoods copses laden with monsters in my collections The Rejects and New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam, I like to think I know at least a little bit about this particular subject.
 
Also, if you want to stay on top of all my updates, releases, news, etc. then please consider signing up for my weekly newsletter!

Now then, without further ado...

#1: Rushing To Get To The Good Part


Don't rush to the climax... you've got word count to fill.

Pacing and presentation are two of the most important parts of a horror story. If you've ever seen someone tell a ghost story around a campfire, then you already know this. You need to draw the audience in, and ratchet up the tension gradually so that when you deliver the scare it sticks the landing instead of making the listeners sigh and roll their eyes.

In its way, horror is sort of like that third date. You know what you're in for, but you don't just show up on the doorstep ready to go. You take your time along the evening, testing boundaries, and getting little glimpses of what's to come. That excitement builds, and you may have a couple of close calls, but you don't get to the proper reveal until you're finally back in the house, with the candlelight dancing on the walls. Then you hear that zipper come down, and you see her run her fingers through her hair, peeling off that skin suit and dropping it to the ground, those intense blue eyes staring at you from her lipless, lidless face as the blood pounds and the muscles twitch.

As for presentation, think of the xenomorph in the Alien franchise. The movie gives you little glimpses here and there. It lets your mind do the work, and it gets more and more tense, until you're practically jumping at shadows. There is a deleted scene where we got to see the creature just standing there under the light, though. And you know what? It's not scary. When it just stands there with no shadows, no creepy echoes, no blur of movement, it creates no tension. It still looks weird, and clearly inhuman, but it's the difference between seeing a lion in an enclosure at the zoo, and knowing there's one stalking through the shadows just beyond the reach of your flashlight.

#2: Your Entire Cast is Made of Assholes


Jesus... these kids just get worse and worse every film...

This is a trick a lot of people use to try to have their cake and eat it, too. We want to have people get beaten, tortured, or killed in brutal ways, but to make sure the audience doesn't feel too bad about it we make sure it's abundantly clear these are bad people. Maybe it's the homophobic guy at the truck stop who beat up the gay server, or the woman berating the barista because her coffee wasn't just how she liked it. It might even be the schoolyard bullies that we see making other kids' lives miserable. Whoever it is, we give the audience an out. We let them know it's okay not to feel too bad for these characters... after all, they probably had this coming.

You can get away with that once, or maybe even twice in a horror story. Perhaps for the establishing kill to tease there's something wrong, and then a last, satisfying death before the conclusion (like the businessman who keeps trying to sell out the other, non-wealthy passengers in any survival horror movie where cooperation is literally the only way to get past the danger). All the other injuries, wounds, and deaths in the story, though? Don't shy away from those! Let them happen to people who seem to be nice, or good, or honest. Let the audience's guts clench, and their mouths drop open. It isn't horrifying to see someone you're invested in hating get torn apart by a werewolf... it's satisfying!

Don't be afraid to have bad things happen to good people. And don't stuff your story to the gills with people so actively terrible you can practically read the order they're going to die in like some kind of bizarre Hollywood tarot.

#3: Mistaking Cruelty For Horror


Go on... just put your foot in it!

Horror can be cruel, but cruelty is not inherently horrific. This is like that thing they taught you in math class about squares and rectangles. The problem is that a lot of people write stories that are nihilistic and empty in an attempt to be scary, but if the cruelty isn't reinforcing a message of some kind then it just results in an audience that went through an unpleasant experience without any kind of catharsis or purpose. Like eating spoiled devil's eggs just because you could, rather than to make a statement on gluttony, or the human condition, or about how we will go to lengths of astonishing self-harm under capitalism if that's what it takes to survive.

To take that last example and run with it, there's a beautifully grotesque short story in Clive Barker's The Books of Blood Volume 2 titled "Dread." If you haven't read the story or seen the film based on it, the short version is that a psychology graduate student is kidnapping people and subjecting them to the things they fear most to torture them. The reason is to try to understand the origin of fear, how it can be overcome, and where people's minds will break. Ironically these very acts end up creating the antagonist's worst fear, which was that he would be hacked to death by an insane clown with an ax. There is a scene early on in the story where the antagonist forces a vegetarian woman into a room, and locks her in with a perfectly-cooked steak. It is the only thing she will get to eat, but she fears the meat. The longer she waits, though, the more disgusting and spoiled the meal becomes, and the more she will need to eat it to survive.

Hunger eventually wins, and though the meat has gone rancid, she eats it out of desperation, too far gone for the fear to affect her any longer.

This scene is witnessed quickly in both text and film, but it isn't just pointless cruelty for the sake of cruelty. The experience shows that the villain of the story is willing to go to horrifying lengths because of his obsession, and that once someone becomes a subject they are no longer a person to him. Then, in a microcosm, the vegetarian's struggle with her own fear, and her de-evolution into a baser animal who does things to survive that her upper brain would never have allowed. It acts as foreshadowing for what's going to happen to our protagonist once he finds himself face-to-face with his own inner demons.

Yes, torture porn, I'm getting to you.

For those clearing their throat about to cite the many examples of stories where pointless cruelty is the thrust of the whole endeavor (the Hostel series comes to mind, for those seeking examples), I'd like to point out that even bleak horror stories that seem to have no rhyme or reason to their violence and brutality are often using that lack of reason to make a point.

Take the film Seven. It's a detective story about tracking down a killer who is obsessed with a deeper meaning, with purity, and with object lessons. In a very real sense the film is about the fragile nature of security, and how those who cannot or will not look at the bigger picture will be shattered when tragedy arrives on their doorstep, blood dripping off the hem of its overcoat. While at a glance it looks like nothing but a grotesque murder spree with allusions to faith, as Ryan Hollinger points out, its subject matter challenges our definitions of "realism," and what we expect from a narrative.


We see this in a lot of films. Hostel is about the drives of those with power to seek forbidden experiences, and how they never expect to be taken to task for the things they do. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has allusions to the lost generation who died in a pointless war in Vietnam, as well as criticisms of the meat industry and the cruelties it's responsible for. Even the outlandish A Serbian Film is making a political statement on how a particular ethnic group is portrayed in fiction, using the brutality and grotesque actions to create a parody of these stereotypes.

There is cruelty in all of these examples. That cruelty is in service of the narrative, however, and it's used to drive home what the stories are about, in addition to their actual plots. But just throwing cruelty into your story doesn't make it any more compelling, or any more inherently frightening. In fact, handled poorly, it can be the final nail that makes your audience walk away.

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 cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my most recent short story collection The Rejects!
 
And to stay on top of all my latest news and releases, collected once a week, make sure you subscribe to The Literary Mercenary's mailing list.

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!