Thursday, February 27, 2014

Stop Calling Me A Starving Artist

I made the decision to become an author when I was 14. I won my first poetry competition at 16, and when I was 19 I fell victim to my first publishing scam. I remained undeterred, and when I was 24 became a freelance writer working for newspapers, magazines, websites, and anyone else who would pay me to create the content they needed. When I was 28 years old in the year 2012 I hit my stride as a fiction author and got my first taste of success. Since then I've had short stories featured in seven different anthologies, I've had four stand-alone stories published, and I've even self-published an additional three stories. If all goes well I'll be releasing my first book in 2014.

You wouldn't know it to look at my royalty checks, though.

This is $10 and one gun more than I made in royalties last year.
Whenever I start talking about the financial realities of being an author, people feel the need to give me advice. "Why don't you get a day job?" is probably the most common tip I get, in case the idea didn't occur to me. "You just need to write something that gets popular," is another one. My least favorite, typically accompanied by a slap on the back and a hearty laugh, is "Well you're just doing your time as a starving artist."

We need to stop using that phrase. Why? Well, I'll tell you why.

The Double Standard

Calling someone a starving artist or a struggling artist might be accurate, but it's also putting them in a box. If someone is a painter, or an author, or a steel sculptor there's no need to put a qualifier before it. Defining someone by the art form he or she practices is enough. By calling attention to the person's lack of financial success all the speaker is doing is invoking the double standard of the art world.

The who with the huh?
The double standard artists are forced to contend with is pretty simple. On the one hand artists are told their art cannot be defined by a price the way other work can be. Because art is judged subjectively, there's no way to put a universal price on it. On the other hand artists are judged directly in proportion to how much money they make from their art. The Catch-22 here is that an artist's success justifies the price of the art, but if you can't sell the art in the first place you can never achieve that kind of success.

If an artist does get noticed, and manages to achieve success that can also lead to self-sustaining cycles which are referred to by laymen as "the Big Break". Artists which make a lot of money like rock stars or bestselling authors are judged to be "good enough" for their success because if they weren't then why would so many people pay them for what they produce?

This reasoning shows up in bookstores all the time. People buy bestsellers not because they like the author, or even because they know what the book's about; it's the idea that a book which sold 100,000 copies must be worth something. This logic flaw goes both ways though, which is why if an author hasn't sold a lot of books people may make the assumption he or she simply isn't good enough. We assume an author's previous sales reflect his or her talent, and it's why no one feels bad judging creative professionals they see as struggling.

The True Secret to Success

What really makes an author successful? What puts food in the pantry and pays the rent check every month? What's the big secret of success that divides the struggling from the commercially successful?

You. Readers.

Yes, even this guy.
This is where those cycles I mentioned earlier come in. If a writer gets on the bestseller list, or wins an award, that writer is going to get time to promote to the masses in traditional media, genre magazines, and a dozen other places that "struggling" writers simply won't be able to reach. People see an author and think "wow, he's on TV. Guy must have written something pretty sweet to land this day time spot." By getting his or her signal boosted an author finds an audience, and that audience grows. They visit the author's blog, come to events, buy copies of the book, clamor to see a movie get made, buy merchandise, etc., etc.

You want to know how quickly that can happen? How fast someone can go from a struggling nobody to a celebrated master in a genre? The answer to that is Clive Barker.

Today people know Clive as a painter, a director, an author, and a master of horror. Once upon a time though he was a fairly fresh author with a book of short stories that was tanking badly on the British market. "The Books of Blood" is famous now, but there was a solid chance it was going to fade into total obscurity. Except that one reader thought it was pretty goddamn good, and he said so.

That reader was Stephen King.

Practically overnight the sales of the book skyrocketed, and what had looked like a half-sunk career with maybe one or two more books in it became a titan in the horror genre. Did King's opinion change the words in the book, or alter the intent that Barker wrote them with? Did his approval magically transform a struggling author into a bestseller?

No. The readers did.

The Moral of the Story

The point I've been trying to make is that all of us are authors. We put words on a page for the enjoyment of readers. By separating us into successful authors and struggling authors we are being labeled in ways that can and do affect our careers. Do people want to read the latest release from a "struggling" author? Probably not. Would they be interested in a "local" author? How about a book written by a "horror" author, or a "science fiction" author? That sort of labeling plays less on the heart strings, and more on a reader's curiosity.

Secondly, just because someone isn't on the bestseller list doesn't mean there isn't a great story waiting between those covers. I'm not saying you should just throw aside your favorite writers to start snatching up everyone you've never heard of, but just keep in mind that the number of 0's on a check doesn't necessarily mean what you're buying is a well-written story. Not that you didn't already know that of course, but it bears repeating.

Third, if you really want to help then take a lesson from Mr. King. The greatest compliment you can pay to an author is to tell someone else how great his or her book was. Leave a review on Amazon, make a post on a forum, put up your favorite quote on your FB page, or just talk to your mom and dad over coffee about this fantastic tale you couldn't put down. By doing that, and doing it honestly, you might be the first pebble of an author's own, personal avalanche.

Thanks as always for stopping by the Literary Mercenary. If you'd like to help keep this blog going feel free to donate at the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" button on the upper right hand side, or stop by my Patreon page. Feel free to follow me on Facebook or Tumblr. Interested in some of my books? Check out my Goodreads page.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Multiple Points of View in Your Novel: Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

A point of view is the lens through which we view a story. Some stories have a window directly implanted in a single character's head, while others prefer a panorama of views with a different window behind the eyes of every member of the cast. No one approach is superior to any other, as any bestseller rack can prove, but it's important for the serious student of storytelling to step back and ask if a kaleidoscope is really necessary when a porthole will do the job just fine.

The Different Perspectives

An example of the extremely rare worm's-eye-view perspective.
There are only three perspectives from which a story can be told; single perspective, multiple perspective, and omniscient perspective. No matter who we're seeing the story through, these are the only three ways it can be done. A single character perspective has us follow a one character (typically referred to as the main character) for the entirety of the story. Everything is told from that perspective. A multiple character perspective will head hop, taking the reader into the perspectives of several different characters and getting the story with multiple leads. An omniscient perspective gives us the view from god's recliner, letting us dip into the minds and feelings of characters as we wish.

It should be noted here that perspective is not the person a story is written in; it is not first, second, or third person. It's possible to write a first person story from a multiple character perspective (though with everyone calling him or herself "I" that's going to get really confusing really damn fast), just as it's possible to write in the third person from an omniscient point of view. Got that? Good, glad I could clear that up for you.

Don't Bring a Swiss Army Knife if You Need a Screwdriver

Never mind. Just never mind.
All right, mixed metaphors aside, I have a serious problem with hop-heads. These writers think that just because they have a big cast that means the audience has to know what every member is feeling and thinking. We don't need to know, and I guarantee you that nine times out of ten we don't care what's going on in the supporting cast's heads enough to jack in and find out.

Perspective exists for two reasons; first, it helps the reader form an emotional connection to a character. The more characters included in the mix, the harder this is to do. You should limit the number of characters whose perspectives we get, though some sources like Darcy Pattison recommend never going over 5 characters. The more characters the audience has thrown at them, the harder it can be to really tug their heart strings when those moments become necessary. The second reason perspective exists is to provide a vantage point to watch the coming drama.

Perspective is the seat you happen to be sitting in while screening the big game. Would moving a few seats over actually change the story? No, because you're surrounded by the same screaming fans, and you have roughly the same view of what's happening from way up high. But would you see a different game if you were sitting over on the opposing team's side of the field? Or if you were down at ground level, close enough to get decent cell phone shots of the plays as they're happening? How about if you were playing the game in question, and you were right there in the action? Yes, changes that extreme can tell a completely different story.

What Are You Talking About?

All right, plain English time. The only time you should shift a perspective is when it serves the story. In Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy there are at least three separate perspectives. The reason for that is the characters are all playing out their parts on different sides of the continent, and are not aware of each other. Despite that, the actions of one group still affect the actions of another which creates a bigger sense of the drama as a whole while increasing the scope of the novels. Additionally every time the perspective shifts it's done with the full intention of leaving a cliffhanger, which keeps the reader turning pages to find out what's happening. That is a perspective shift that is purposeful, which serves the plot, and which helps keep the story moving.

Make sense?

I think I saw the horse twitching... beat it harder!
All right, I'll give you another example. Let's take the Harry Potter series. Now ask yourself if you would have liked it as much if we'd bounced between Harry's perspective and, say, Professor Snape. First and foremost, the big twist at the end would have lost all of its punch. Secondly, why would we do that? The series is about Harry's journey into becoming a wizard, and the eventual self-fulfilling prophecy he was born into. Putting another character's perspective into that would have been pointless.

Which is kind of the point.

Here's My Perspective

The perspective a story is written from must always be used to support what the story is about. It is not a shiny red ball to be thrown in as a way to hook the audience, and it isn't a spice to be poured in until it overpowers the taste of your book. Lastly, and most important, perspective is not a cheap, lazy way for you to plug us into your characters' heads so you can just mainline what they're thinking and how they're feeling to us. That's telling, not showing, and I already wrote a guide about fixing that here.

If you feel you need to use a third-person omniscient perspective to tell your story in the proper way, that's fine. It's also fine if you decide to do a single character in the first person. Any time you decide that we absolutely must ride around in more than one head, ask yourself why. If it's necessary to show the audience what's happening, then by all means do so. If it's because you just want to play in your sandbox, or because you don't want to go into the work of writing snappy dialogue and developing characters through their actions, then stop. Your characters, just like real people, will be judged based on what they do. We don't want to be told what they're thinking or feeling; show those things to us without literary parlor tricks.

As always, thanks for stopping by the Literary Mercenary. We've added a new button on the right hand side where you can subscribe to us via e-mail so you never miss an update. It's free to you, good for us, and has exactly no impact on the environment. Lastly, if you really want to keep up to date with the latest literary doings, follow me on Facebook or Tumblr.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover (Even Though Most People Do)

Wanted to start this week's entry off letting readers know all new followers for the Literary Mercenary, as well as my author Facebook page here, or my Tumblr page here in the month of February will receive a free ebook. Just follow, then contact me to get your free book!

Book Covers Make Your First Impression

How often have you been browsing online or wandering the aisles of a bookstore when something caught your eye? Maybe it was a wizard in a back alley with a glowing staff, or a redhead with a machine gun facing off against a werewolf, but whatever the image was it arrested your attention and stopped you cold. It made you look at the book, and at least half the time (an arbitrary number I'm basing on absolutely nothing) it made you pick up the book to find out what the hell it was about. Maybe you bought the book, and maybe you didn't buy the book, but either way you noticed it. That's a good book cover's job; getting browsers to stop long enough for the author's words to suck them in. If your book cover doesn't do that, then you have a serious problem. That serious problem, of course, is that you'll have a hard time selling books.

Traditionally the publisher takes care of the book cover. It has a vested interest in selling a lot of copies, and as such takes the marketing aspect of book covers quite seriously. For indie publishers, self-published authors, and those who work on the bottom of the food chain though, a poorly made cover is often a dead giveaway. If your cover turns heads though, it doesn't matter who published you; your metaphorical foot is in the door.

What Makes a Good Book Cover?

There's a lot of debate over what a "good" book cover does or doesn't look like. Art is subjective, and it's impossible to guarantee how someone will or won't react to a given book cover. There are certain elements that make a book cover good from a marketing perspective, though.

That got your attention, didn't it?
This cover belongs to the 1950s-themed horror anthology American Nightmare, which is currently available from Kraken Press here (It contains my contribution "Double Feature", which you should definitely check out). The image uses a dark background to bring across the air of danger, and it catches your eye by putting red and white in contrast in the foreground with both the title and the Cadillac. Once the eye has been drawn by the color scheme it notices the tentacles, and the uncanny image slaps the conscious brain with a desire to know just what the holy fuck is happening in this picture.

That's sort of the reaction you're looking for.

What Makes a Bad Book Cover?

Let's take this one step at a time...
Before I begin I would like to state that I mean no disrespect to Jupiter Gardens as a publisher. I had a good, working relationship with them, and it's because of them that many of my stories reached a reading public. With that said though, this design for the cover of my novella "The Unusual Transformation of Abraham Carver" (which you can still read here if you want to) has made selling it very difficult for me for a variety of reasons.

Let's start with the color scheme. The photograph is a gray scale that has both light and dark, which makes it difficult to focus on the foreground. Neither the title of the book nor the author name pop out, which is confusing to the eye since they bleed into the background. The rainbow logo at the top is more eye-catching than anything else, and the two figures have nothing to do with the novella because the cover is one that the company used for a number of projects. All the artist had to do was change the title and author name, and the new cover was ready to go. This cover gives the reader no idea what the book is about, and in this case rather mis-represents the story. The novella is a dark, steampunk erotica that deals with a wife attempting to understand the bizarre changes her husband is going through after being the subject of an experimental medical procedure. What in the cover gives the reader that impression?

Nothing. The correct answer is nothing.

What Your Book Cover Needs to Do

Aside from just being goddamn awesome.
Good book covers convey what will be found in the following pages. They provide an eye-catching, engaging image that meets a certain, professional standard. They put the title, as well as the author's name, front and center. Most importantly, a cover design can be reduced to one-square inch of space as it will be on a website without losing clarity. A cover that's simply too busy, and which has too many elements, may be overlooked as messy or boring by readers who are in a hurry to get their next story fix.

Humans are visual creatures, and it's ironic that in order to sell a book it requires a cover that arrests the wandering attention long enough to make someone pick the book up and take a closer look. As consumers we also tend to associate sleek, engaging covers with professionalism. We know consciously that a terrible story might have a really pretty cover, but it's not something we think about. On the other hand we might admit that a poorly made cover might have an amazing story underneath it, but we rarely check to make sure. Much like people, we often associate a pretty face with a story we really want to be told.