Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tips For Hand-Selling Your Book

This year I had the distinct pleasure to attend Windy Con as a panelist. For those unfamiliar with the convention it's dedicated to science fiction and fantasy in Chicago, which makes the attendees rather a mixed bunch. For myself the best part of the convention was meeting fellow authors, and swapping war stories about how we'd all gotten where we are today. I gave away a lot of swag, met some truly talented people, and I even managed to learn a few things. The most important thing I learned is that it doesn't matter how brilliant your story is unless you can sell it to anyone who crosses your path.

 Generally this is left up to the marketing department. Authors will provide the story, show up to book signings, give interviews, etc., but we aren't supposed to have to hit the streets and try to get people to buy our books straight from us. Needs be when the devil drives though, and if you want to move copies then you have to bite the bullet and do what you need to do. There's no reason to make it harder on yourself than it already is though. So here's a simple list of tips I picked up while watching my fellow writers work.

Tip #1: Make Eye Contact

Look into my eyes. Buy my book
Aimee Kuzenski, author of Eye of the Storm, made me realize something very important. As soon as one becomes an author, they gain mesmeric powers like something out of Dracula. All you have to do is make eye contact with someone in a rushing crowd, and beckon to them like Bela Lugosi to hook a potential reader. Seriously though, if you're hand-selling your book you need every weapon you can get, and social convention is a powerful thing. If someone meets your eyes and you smile at them, chances are they'll at least stop for a few moments at your table. Sometimes that's all you need.

Tip #2: Get Your Book in Their Hands

Humans have a lot of really strange tics in their psychology. One of those is that something becomes more real to them if they pick it up and handle it. Author Blake Hausladen made particularly good use of this tactic by handing anyone who stopped at his table a copy of his book Ghosts in the Yew. Once someone actually touches your book, you're that much closer to getting them to take it home.

Having a sexy book cover helps.

Tip #3: Push Subtly

Authors are masters of wordplay, but this has to be a part of your sales pitch if you're ever going to get copies off your table and into the hands of eager readers. A successful hand-seller won't ask, "So, are you interested in a copy?" when someone is holding his or her book. Instead, that author will ask, "So, would you like one copy or two?"

Oh god, what do I say, what do I do?
This changes up the dynamic entirely. You aren't simply asking someone to give you a yes or no now; instead they'll have to back up the conversation. That's hard to do, and a lot of people simply won't do it. This is especially true if they have convention money burning a hole in their pocket, and you managed to engage them enough with your book to get them to the point of consideration. Little changes in wording can result in a lot more sales.

Tip #4: Be Visible, Be Personable

The first thing you have to do if you're going to sell copies of your book is to make sure people see it, and see you. It sounds simple, but a lot of choices can affect how many potential buyers you get to interact with in any given location. If you have a table, for instance, where is it located? In the back corner of the dealer's hall where the lighting is bad and the crowds are thin? Or are you in the hallway on the way to the food court, where everyone is going to have to walk past sooner or later? If no one sees you, then you might as well not be there at all.

Also, break down as many barriers between you and the people you're trying to sell to as possible. Putting yourself on the other side of a table makes you harder to approach; it gives you an air of being someone apart from the potential reader. So while you shouldn't obscure your table by blocking your books, you should come around and talk to people. Shake hands, engage, and be friendly. People are much more likely to help you out by buying a copy if you're nice to them.

Tip #5: Have a Gimmick

Ever wonder why it is every business has a logo, a mascot, or some easy way to identify their products? It's because sales gimmicks work. People who claim they're nothing but cheap tricks might be right, but gimmicks are cheap tricks that make you more recognizable and which do at least some of your marketing for you. Paul Erickson, author of the parody The Wobbit, comes to conventions dressed as a Bilbo look-alike, complete with curly wig, furry feet, and the One ring around his neck. What are you doing to get noticed?
I have a high-caliber gimmick, myself.
All you need to do is ask yourself a few, simple questions. Will this make people notice me? Will they view it in a positive way? Will it help me sell books? If the answer to those three things is yes, then I suggest you do whatever disgusting, hilarious thing it is you were considering doing in the name of your career.

Tip #6: Don't Let Them Leave Empty-Handed

Perhaps the most important thing you can do as an author is to give something to everyone. Even if you don't make a sale, perhaps because someone has no spare cash on them at that moment, make sure you give them a piece of swag. A bookmark advertising your novel, a post card, a business card, a free pen; anything that makes someone remember you positively is a chance to make a sale at a later date. If nothing else that person might get curious, wondering at what point they met an author at the convention they were at, and check out your book or website online. The more seeds you plant, the better your chances that something will grow out of it.

As always, thank you for stopping by the Literary Mercenary's Business of Writing update! If you'd like more information about what yours truly is up to, follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Tumblr, whichever you prefer. Lastly, if you want to see more of what the Literary Mercenary has to offer stop by my Vocal archive, or My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Beyond the Purple: Dealing With Purple Prose in Your Fiction

Books are a unique kind of magic. They use words, sometimes written by people thousands of miles away and decades in their graves, to reach into the hearts and minds of readers to tell stories. The best books will run their fingers through the readers' minds, and play merry hell along their heart strings before grabbing hold of their collective guts and yanking. Good books do this by creating realism, using beautiful language, and many times through particularly vivid imagery.

Bad books, on the other hand, tend to fall victim to the disease of purple prose.

What is "Purple Prose"?

A three-lobed burning eye.
Generally speaking purple prose refers to a style of writing that is far too flowery and overdramatic. It's characterized by unnecessarily complex words, long running metaphors, and multiple spurts of description all in the same sentence. Purple prose, like pornography, is often tough to define. Most writers know it when they see it, though. So for that reason, here's an example.

"Jack stepped forward, punching Rob in the face."

This is normal prose. It's simple, straightforward, and it lets the reader know exactly what happened. It might be a little bland, but sometimes that's the sacrifice a story has to make to get the point across.

"Jack brought his right fist down, smashing Rob with a hammer-blow to the back of the head."

This is a little more vivid, and it gets the blood flowing. It's more specific as to the type of blow, where it landed, and the amount of force behind it. It's edging toward pulpy wording, but it's meant to excite the reader. This kind of language is typically good for action scenes.

"The blond giant snarled, the war cry of a lion, before swinging a mighty blow at his enemy that left his opponent staggering, reeling, blood spattering from his nose and mouth like a crimson rain."

Ummm... what? Because you read the previous two incarnations of this sentence you can take a guess what's happening. However, in this throbbing, turgid third sentence we have no names to describe who is doing what. There's entirely too much symbolism and description packed in, and the whole thing has become one big mess. That is typically what people mean when they're talking about purple prose.

Kill Your Darlings

With the strictest of prejudice.
Sir Arthur Quiller-Coach originally gave this fantastic, three-word piece of advice. It's since been repeated by William Faulkner, and it was the constant refrain of Stephen King's book "On Writing". These and other writers have fully endorsed pen monkeys the world over putting all of the pulsing purple prose they want on the page. Writers just need to delete it once they've gotten all that purple out of their systems. No matter how proud you are of a sentence, a turn of phrase, or a really great metaphor, you might still need to drown it in the Editorial River.

How Much Purple is Too Much?

Just give me a goddamn checklist already!
One person's purple prose is another's vivid imagery. It's why there are still arguments about whether authors like H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard were literary geniuses, or pulp-magazine hacks. As with so much else in writing it's largely up to the writer, the editor, and the beta readers to come to an understanding over how much purple is too much. It often comes down to personal style, the genre someone is writing in, and a dozen other factors.

That said, there are some things writers need to watch out for to make sure they don't bruise their language too badly.

#1: Does it Make Sense?

Whenever you finish writing something, leave it for a few days. A week if you have the time before a deadline. During that time start a different project, read a new book, watch a movie, and then come back to your story. It will shock you how many phrases or descriptions you used that were brilliant at the time, which completely snap the thread of your narrative and leave you asking "what the hell does that even mean?"

#2: Does it Fit With Everything Else?

Have you ever been reading a story or article, and right in the middle the writer gets really erudite for no reason? That happens a lot in purple prose. It feels like the author learned a new word, and wanted a chance to show off that he or she knew it. If you're writing about high school kids chances are you should use the word "backpack" or "messenger bag" instead of "valise". By the same token, if you've been using very straightforward prose for everything, don't start slapping a bunch of metaphors and similes down on the page.

#3: Does it Add Something?

Perhaps the most important question concerning pulsing prose is whether or not it adds to the story. In a fight scene or a love scene this kind of language might be used to increase a reader's pace, and to get the blood pumping. In a chase scene, or a confrontation with a squamous monstrosity, getting a little purple might churn readers' stomachs, or make sweat pop out on their foreheads. But if a writer is using this kind of language to describe getting ready for work in the morning, catching the city bus, or going out to get a newspaper then it can quickly become boring. Much like exclamation points, writers shouldn't go beyond the purple too often. Doing so will reduce the power this kind of prose possesses.

As always I hope that my readers found this installment of the Literary Mercenary helpful. If you want to plug in and follow all of my updates then drop by my Facebook or Tumblr pages. If you're curious about my own published work, stop on by my Goodreads page and show me some love. Lastly, if you'd like to support the Literary Mercenary then please share the blog with your friends and family. Or drop a few cents into the tip jar on the top right of the page. Or both. That would be good too.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Make Money With Your Blog: How to Add a Tip Jar

Lots of people think making a living from a blog is easy. Just pick a topic you like, or that you know a lot about, and start writing articles. Pretty soon you'll be able to cut your day job down to part-time, and soon after that it's easy street thanks to the miracle of modern technology and the civilization-wide stretch of the Internet. For those of you humping your mattresses to this capitalism wet dream, allow me to throw some cold water on you.
The only thing smaller than this picture is your projected earnings.
For those having trouble reading this little image, it's a chart of the average earnings for readers over at ProBlogger. More than 50% of those bloggers earn $99 or less a month. Only about 14% of these bloggers (who I am using as a representative population) make enough money to pay their bills from blogging alone. What I'm trying to say is that having a blog, even a successful blog with a lot of traffic, doesn't necessarily guarantee you can quit your day job. This is especially true because if you are a blogger (like me) then you can't tell your readers to just go and click an ad (which I am not telling you to do) because that's where your paycheck comes from. What you can do though, is pass the hat.

Adding a Tip Jar to Your Blog

Take a look at the upper right side of your screen. Most people who read blogs tend to develop tunnel vision because all of the ads are off to the side, so you might have missed it. You see that big "Donate" button? That is yet another way that this blog puts money right into my pocket.

One of many.
If you're a blogger who wants to get more money out of your blog there's no reason not to install one of these buttons. At worst you waste a couple of minutes of your time. At best your devoted fan base will hand over cold, hard cash for you to write articles, draw a comic, make ridiculous videos, or do whatever it is you do that draws crowds of morbidly curious Morlocks from the bowels of the Internet.

Step One: PayPal

I'm going to assume everyone reading this, particularly my fellow freelancers, has a PayPal account. Log in, and when you get to the home page go to the Merchant Services button along the top of the page. Click that.

Step Two: Button Creation

Click the "Create Payment Buttons For Your Website" option. This will take you to a basic screen where you can select a "Donate" button just like the one this very blog boasts. Once you've created the button there will be a long list of code for you to use. Highlight and copy that code.

Step Three: Apply the Button

If you happen to have a BlogSpot blog then this is going to be easy. Go to your blog's Layout tab, and find a place where you can put a gadget. Click the section of your blog you want the button on, then scroll down the list of options. Choose the "HTML/JavaScript" button that allows you to use third party features. Paste your PayPal button's code into the next window, then click save. Name the button, and bam, you have a way to skip the middle man entirely!

So I'm Good Now, Right?

I wouldn't quit my day job, if I were you.
Depends on what you mean by good. If you have a readership of thousands who are willing to throw their pocket change at you every month, then it's entirely possible you're done with regular, offline employment for good. On the other hand if people aren't clicking ads on your blog, what makes you think they'll take the time to throw you so much as their two cents? Especially if you aren't following the basic formula to make money blogging I talked about here?

There are success stories about people, largely webcomic artists, whose fans were so eager for more strips and more stories that they paid for the artist to work at home full-time. There are also stories about young adult manuscripts that hit it big, and stories about husband/wife writing teams who paid off their mortgages by self-publishing smut. You know what you don't hear about, though? You don't hear about the years of effort those creative types put in to polish a product that readers wanted. You don't hear about all the networking that had to be done, all of the late nights and costly convention trips that were made. You don't hear about all the ground work that went into the huge success that, to hear the story, sounds like it happened overnight. Lastly for every one story you hear about where someone made it big I guarantee you there are hundreds, if not thousands, who are trying to pull the same trick. Odds are you, and I, are one of the latter instead of one of the former. So rather than using gimmicks, or begging for readers to drop a nickel in your cup, it's a much better idea to create solid, evergreen, actionable content that people will find useful for years to come. Or to make cat videos. That usually works out pretty good, too.

As always, my thanks for dropping by and checking out the Literary Mercenary. It's your page views and commentary that keeps this blog going, so if you want to see me cover something don't hesitate to contact me and ask for it. If you'd like to follow me then pop on over to Facebook or Tumblr and hitch your wagon to my page. Also, if you happen to have two cents to spare, toss it through my donate window.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Under the Black Hat: Writing Believable Bad Guys

Heroes and heroines tend to be the characters readers root for. Whether they're ass-kicking monster slayers, knights in shining armor, or everymen and women placed into extraordinary circumstances, it's their collective duty to get the job done. Without villains though (who see no need to differentiate based on gender), the whole story falls apart. What's the hero going to do without an evil count to oppose, a shady corporation to investigate, or a monster from the depths to slay? Absolutely nothing, that's what.

More often than not though, villains get the short end of the stick when it comes to an author's creativity. They receive stock lines, ham-handed backstories, laughable motivation, and dozens of other hiccoughs that render them paper tigers to be slain by charismatic leads. Great villains make the heroes up their collective game though, and they create better stories overall. So here is the Literary Mercenary's guide to helping you make your antagonists more awesome, brought to you courtesy of Notes From the Editor's Desk.

1. Avoid Accidental Tropes

Let me guess, you call yourself...
Every writer's first step when creating a villain should be to carefully read this list. Go ahead, I'll wait. Did you read it? Good, then I don't need to go over every trope you've just seen.

The Evil Overlord List hits on some of the biggest, most common tropes that writers have used for villains in novels, comic books, movies, and television for decades. These tropes aren't inherently bad, but they are tropes for a reason. Sometimes recognizing one of these tropes, like the hero stealing a bad guy's uniform to sneak into the castle of doom undetected, will end with readers rage-quitting and not even reading to the good part.

2. What's Their Motivation?

But why is he tying Nell to the tracks?
This is a major problem I've seen both as a reader and an editor. Readers understand villains are doing bad things... but why are they doing them? Sometimes that why is just as important as the actions themselves.

I'll give you an example. In Shakespeare's "Othello" (if you haven't seen it there's a fantastic film with Lawrence Fishburne, which I highly recommend) the title character's life is ruined by the meanness and duplicity of a fellow soldier named Iago. Iago pours poison in the cast's ears, raising every hand against Othello until the big O murders his loving, loyal wife, alienates everyone he once called friend, and is driven to suicide. Why did Iago do this? Because of rumors that Othello slept with Iago's wife, and because Othello passed Iago over for promotion.

Is that petty? Of course it is. The reason such a petty motivation makes sense is because Iago is a man playing for very small stakes. His reputation and livelihood, neither very great to begin with, are trod underfoot. Othello didn't do this maliciously, but Iago needs someone to blame for his problems. Once he has someone to blame he uses every resource at his command to bring absolute ruin to that man as a way to lash out and feel like he's getting revenge. A villain's goals, and the reasons for those goals, have to make sense in the context of that character's story. Otherwise the character is pushing the big red button without provocation, and that is the surest way to bore readers.

3. Just Because They Are Bad-Guys, That Doesn't Mean They Are Bad Guys

Art Thou Wroth, Brother?
Generally speaking, no one thinks of themselves as the villain. Dr. Doom views himself as a benevolent dictator, taking care of his people and his country. Dracula is an ancient being leaving behind a country that's killing him to seek out richer opportunity among the fresh blood of the new world. Darth Vader is the right hand of the emperor, a man who brought order to a galaxy that was tearing itself apart with war and corruption. Every character on this list, and thousands of others besides, could very easily have been the hero if the book was written with a slightly different take. No one sits around twirling his mustache and laughing wickedly about the wrongs that have just been successfully perpetrated.

It is important to mention this rule only applies to human characters who possess all of their mental faculties. A character like the Joker, who suffers from mental instability, can perpetrate acts of wanton destruction and murder for no reason other than the sheer, personal pleasure it brings. Other characters, like H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu or Clive Barker's cenobites, are not human. The idea of good or bad as humans know it doesn't really apply to forces of nature, or beings with a truly alien view of reality. That's why characters like these tend to have human followers whose motivations and purposes we can more clearly understand.

4. The Sliding Scale of Villainy

Just how big of an inconvenience is awakening the Old Ones going to be...?
Villains come in all shapes, and sizes. They come with a bevy of motivations, desires, goals, and wants. They are characters. It's also important to remember that villains dictate the scope of a story. Bad guys always make the first move, and they're the ones who decide just how epic a story is going to get.

Take one of the oldest stories in fantasy; the knight in shining armor fighting a dragon. The dragon has kidnapped a girl, and the knight steps in to save her. This basic setup is exciting, but the stakes are only the lives of the knight, the girl, and the dragon. Maybe the knight's horse as well. Now, say the dragon stole a princess. This implies the bloodline of a royal family, and possibly a nation, is also in the balance. Take it one step further; say the girl who was kidnapped is tied to the well-being of the world, and if she dies then the world's life force will also be snuffed out.

Villains can always escalate a situation, but writers need to ask why. What will be added to the story by increasing the stakes? Do the villains need to be on the big screen, or are their motives and goals meant for a small scale? Take Jack the Ripper. Jack terrorized White Chapel, killed a dozen women, and carved a reputation as a fiendish serial killer that lives to this day. But how much of a threat could a lone, knife-wielding killer be? Could he affect the fate of an entire city? A nation? The world? Probably not, and especially not without some serious plot-stretching or historical re-touching. This is why murder mysteries tend be very small, and very personal. By contrast, a character like Azathoth (pictured above) simply cannot work on anything less than an epic scale. A crawling chaos who devours worlds and rends souls from galaxies without truly noticing is a major league force to be reckoned with. Just the implication of his existence ups the ante.

5. Kill Your Darlings

Yes, editing feels like this. Every Time.
To paraphrase the great sage and eminent junkie Stephen King, "kill your darlings". Nowhere is this truer than with your villains. If a goal makes no sense, if dialogue feels forced or grandiose, or if the bad guy is making decisions that don't jive with the setup you've given, uncap the red pen and get to work. Most importantly, ask yourself why. Why does your villain want to rule the world? Why does he keep murdering his lieutenants when they fail? Why does he play chess, collect art, or give the hero a fighting chance? In the end, why is the most important question you can ask.

Thank you, as always, for dropping in on Notes From the Editor's Desk, and the Literary Mercenary. Remember that we run on Google AdSense (for an explanation of what that means, go here). Follow me on Facebook, or mainline me on Tumblr. As always, feel free to submit requests or ideas for future blog entries.