Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tax Deductions Every Writer Should Know About

Being an author has a lot of perks. You get to make your own hours, you get to go to a lot of cool events, and generally speaking you have an excuse for all kinds of eccentric behavior. For every up there is a down though, and one of the biggest downs is that authors are generally considered to be self-employed as far as the government is concerned. That means when the tax man cometh you aren't looking forward to a nice, fat check like so many other people; you're making sure you don't lose more than a pound of flesh.

Even Death can't cheat taxes.
The year is drawing to a close, but there's still time for you to hang onto what little you managed to make this year. Whether you're a novelist, a blogger, or any other sort of author I have a secret to tell you...

Any money you spend as part of your profession can be claimed as a tax deduction.

Any Money, You Say?

Within reason, yes. You probably can't get away with calling your new tattoos a career expense (no matter how cool the font is), but there are a slew of expenses you probably aren't thinking about that are perfectly legal for you to claim as an author that could strip hundreds or even thousands of dollars off of your gross income before you pay your taxes. For instance...

Your Bills

Everyone has bills to pay; it's why we do what we do. However if the services you're paying for are a necessity for your career then that makes them a business expense. For example, say you were a reporter. As a reporter you need to have a smartphone capable of taking pictures, shooting video, and browsing the Internet. You need to be able to call from the field in order to get hold of your editor. As such at least a portion of your cell phone bill, and often the cost of a cell phone upgrade, can be deducted as part of your job.

You know you've been eyeing that new model.
As another example, say you were a blogger. Writing blogs is where your money comes from, and you can't do it without Internet access. Therefore at least a portion of your monthly Internet bill is also a work expense. Sure you're also using it to chat with your friends and faff about on Facebook, but if you need it for work then it's still a work expense.

New Stuff

I mentioned a cell phone upgrade a moment ago, but there are all kinds of things you can claim as a deduction when it comes time to pay the IRS enforcers off for the year. Did you buy a new laptop so you could work on the road? Did you buy the new edition of The Writer's Market so you can submit your novel using updated guidelines? Did you buy a microphone to record audio books, or a new camera so you can vlog? All of that qualifies as a work-related expense.

Not everything qualifies.
If you're not sure whether one of your purchases counts as a tax write-off then it's best to chat with a tax expert. Still, if you bought a $750 laptop it's a good idea to hang onto the receipt and to let the tax man know you spent that on your career instead of on yourself.

Travel and Events

While you might write a novel at your desk in the basement, you have to leave your house if you're going to market it. You need to meet with reporters for interviews, show up at radio stations to be a guest speaker, get to the bookstore where your signing is going to be, and perhaps most importantly you must arrive on time to the convention in order to do readings, man the signing table, and make connections with your fellow authors.

There are literally two dozen readers you must reach here.
What counts as a travel expense? Everything! Did you drive to an event specifically for your profession? Then you can claim the mileage as a cost. Did you have to buy a badge to the convention? A hotel room for your stay? A plane ticket? Congratulations, if that is an event you need to be at for professional reasons then you can claim all of those expenses on your taxes. It doesn't matter if you also got to have a fangasm moment at a panel, or that you're there to see friends and get hammered at after parties... the point is the event is important to your career, so you can write it off.

Miscellaneous Expenses

There are a lot of little things that authors don't even think about that can be written off come tax time. Sometimes it just doesn't seem worth it (it's just $3 for a signing pen, after all), but if you add up all of the costs you might find you spend a surprising amount of money throughout the year on your projects.

Do you go out to dinner with your publisher and pick up the tab to get on his good side? Do you have a membership to an industry magazine that helps you get the information you need? Do you pay a membership fee to a website like in order to be able to bid on projects? Did you go on a historic tour or buy reference books to research your plot or to ensure your blog was accurate? Lastly... did you buy a new signing pen?

Every one of these beauties is tax deductible.
It's actually kind of amazing the sheer number of expenses you can claim, as long as you can A) show that the expenses are necessary for you to do your job, and B) that you have a receipt to back up how much you spent on a given purchase.

Does this make up for the fact that as a self-employed individual authors may lose as much as 30% of their income to taxes? No, of course not. But if you manage to pay a few hundred (or a few thousand) dollars less on your taxes then you have money leftover for things like food, rent, the cost of health insurance, and of course enough to buy just one more book.

Lastly, before you just send in a stack of forms telling the government you don't owe them anything, it's a good idea to consult with a tax professional. While dropping a C-note on something you can ostensibly do yourself might make you balk, a tax professional is easily worth their weight in the savings he or she will provide.

Trust me.

If you'd like to keep the Literary Mercenary slogging through the trenches then stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then plug your email into the box on the right hand side, or follow me on Facebook and Tumblr!

Friday, November 21, 2014

What Is A Real Writer's Daily Word Count? (Also, Why NaNoWriMo Gives You Bad Habits)

I told myself I wasn't going to weigh in on the continued existence of NaNoWriMo (I said everything I had to say in this entry last year). I said this November I would just blithely do my own thing and ignore all of the hopefuls who are blazing away at their keyboards until blissful unconsciousness finally claims them. Unfortunately though there's a subject that crops up a lot this time of year, and I think it's one writers need to seriously discuss.

That subject is your daily word count. Specifically what it should and shouldn't be.

1,666 words exactly. There, done!
How many words you put on the page each day is an intensely personal subject. To use a simile it's like working out; the number of words you put down is going to reflect your needs and your goals as a writer. Walk into a gym and you'll see a lot of people doing ostensibly the same activity (exercising), but with a slew of different goals (compete in bodybuilding competitions, shape up for a movie role, look good to get back in the dating pool, improve health, etc.).

Walking into a writing group is a lot like this example. You're going to have the writer who's on deadline, so she has to get big chunks of text done immediately if she's going to get paid. You have the writer who's doing it as a side job with no deadline who's going to shop the manuscript around to publishers once it's done. Then you have the writers who are just getting into the craft, and those who are doing it to stay sharp but who are there mostly for themselves. Every writer there is doing the same thing (putting words on a page) but each one of them has different needs.

So What Does This Have To Do With NaNoWriMo?

Thanks for reminding me...

No worries, bro.
The great thing about events like NaNoWriMo is that it makes writing a more inclusive activity. It gives people who might otherwise have never attempted to write a novel the chance to try it out and see how they like it. However there's a couple of issues with the competition; mainly the word count and how writers have to chase it like a fleet-footed stag across the wastes.

The agreed-upon length of a novel is a minimum of 50k words. That's no mean feat, but in order to make that minimum in one month it means that someone has to write 1,666 words per day. No missed days, no edits, no nothing. The issue, as several writers have mentioned, is that this leaves you chasing word count rather than crafting your story. Also we're talking minimum; so if your story spirals out of control and needs 70k or 100k words to be told then that 1,666 words per day just isn't going to make the 1 month cut off. Too bad, so sad.

So what's the problem? Nothing, if you're writing for NaNo (though really any time you're left pursuing a word count instead of asking yourself if you're telling the story you want to tell it might be time to pick a different metric for your work). Most of us aren't, but the idea that your daily word count is a measure of your skill and value as a writer is something that we can't shake in the wider world of writers. This competition didn't create that stigma, but it has blown it up to the point that even rank amateurs think they can dictate how good someone is based on daily numbers.

So What's The Right Word Count?

Stephen King is reputed to do 10k words per day on a novel, whether he's feeling it or not. Kurt Vonnegut was said to have done one page per day, no more and no less, and he would not proceed until that one page was completely perfect. Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Neal F. Litherland all have one thing in common...

Aside from a love of guns and money?
Different approaches to our works. I can't speak for Hemingway and Thompson (as my Ouija board has recently developed a fickle streak), but I can tell you that depending on the project I can get anywhere from 500 to 2,000 words of fiction in a day. With the blogs and article posts I write to keep the lights on and my landlord happy I'm looking at an addition 1,500+ words of work (or more) every 24 hour period.

I'm no Stephen King, but I can put down a respectable chunk of text.

That doesn't make me a better or a worse writer than any of the other famous authors I've used for comparison. What makes you a good writer? Skill, dedication, imagery, good grammar, proper spelling... all of these things, but not how many words you can put down on a page in a 24 hour period.

Don't get me wrong, it's a nice bonus to be able to crank out work en masse because the words just flow out of you like pop fiction diarrhea. Just don't beat yourself with a yardstick that might not actually mean anything if it takes you 6 months instead of 1 to get your first draft done.

Do What Works For You

I cannot stress this strongly enough; every writer has his or her own process. It sounds like pretentious art major bullshit, but it's true to a degree. Some authors can just bang out a rough draft in a few months (or a month), get it edited, and have it on the shelves by Christmas. Some authors may take years to get their next book out. Even authors who are successful and don't really need a day job can leave their fans twisted in knots awaiting the next development.

We're not naming names.
It's a natural feeling to be frustrated by only putting down a few hundred words (or less... we've all had those days). Progress is progress though, and writers need to learn that we all have off days. More importantly though we all gain stamina. Maybe you'll never be a 10k word powerhouse but if you start out doing a few hundred words a day on one project then that can jump to a thousand words on the next project. Much like the aforementioned exercise it gets easier the longer you stick to your schedule.

So write every day, no matter how much or how little you manage to put on the page.

If you'd like to support The Literary Mercenary then check out my Patreon page and become a patron today! Alternatively check out The Literary Mercenary's tee shirts! Lastly if you want to get all of my updates either plug your email into the box on the right hand side of the screen or you can follow me at Facebook and Tumblr.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Care and Feeding of Your Author: How To Support Your Favorite Writer's Career

I've said it before, but this week I felt the need to remind readers that it is they who make authors what they are, not publishers. While Random House, Penguin, and the other Caesars might look like they have the power it is actually you, the mob, who gets to decide which of us lives and which of us dies.

It feels like this, but with pens instead of swords.
There's just one problem though; some supporters don't know how to make their desires heard. They're not sure if thumbs up or thumbs down is the good signal, or if they're supposed to shout your name, your title, or just shout to make noise. They don't know if they should bring signs and wear your colors, or if that would be tacky.

For those who are tired of metaphors, I'm going to explain in plain English how to help support the authors you love so their careers will flourish and they can keep writing the books that you want to read.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Buy Books

If you want an author to keep penning books then that means someone has to buy the volumes already on the market. It's a pretty simple equation, really. Authors write books, people buy books, author gets royalties. If no one buys the books then the author will have to do something else to make money, and then there will be less time for writing more books.

Some of us even consider piracy, since there's not a lot of money in revenge.
Many times people wonder if really buying one book is going to make a difference. Does one vote make a difference? How about one missed paycheck? One pint of blood more or less? Insulting questions aside, it's true that an author only gets a fraction of a book purchase. This means that authors have to sell hundreds of copies a month and several thousand copies a year just to maintain their careers. While one person buying a book might not make a huge difference, if everyone who wanted to support an author bought a book you'd be amazed at the numbers that can lead to when the quarterly royalty check shows up.

Become A Patron

For those who don't want to buy a book and who would rather offer support in other ways you could become a patron. An antiquated idea, patronage is when patrons of the arts (ie. you) give money to an artist to cover that artist's basic needs like food, shelter, etc. This allows the artist to keep making art, rather than being concerned with whether he'll be able to buy groceries this week. If an author has a Patreon account (I do, and here's where you can find my profile) then you could elect to give that author a certain amount of money a month to help pay bills, buy food, and most importantly not waste 40-50 hours a week doing something other than writing books for your enjoyment. If you'd like to know more about how Patreon works I wrote an entire entry about it right here.

Buy Some Swag

Your last option is to see if your author sells anything other than books. Authors may have tee shirts, bumper stickers, bookmarks, and other promotional items that would appeal to any reader and purchases of those items will also go to help support that author's career. The Literary Mercenary's gear shop is right here for instance, for those who didn't know it existed.

But I Don't Have Any Disposable Income!

That's fair, not all readers do. In fact since books can often be enjoyed in the comfort of a book store or rented from a library they're often seen as a pleasure that the poor can enjoy as well as the wealthy. Just because you don't have gads of money to fling at an author though that doesn't mean you can't still support your favorite tale teller.

In fact you can still offer some pretty significant support at the low price of absolutely nothing.

Willy Shakes, telling it like it is.
The best way you can support authors is by promoting their works. If you have a favorite book then tell your friends and family about it. If you go to a reading group suggest the title for discussion. Post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or any other website that deals in books. Talk about the book on your Facebook page, throw up some pictures on your Tumblr, and if your author has a blog or a website then become a follower. Join your voice with others to help get the word out.

Will It Really Matter?

Yes. Yes it will.

Let me give you an example. I have a little over 200 followers on my Facebook author page (you can follow it here if you're curious). When I post a link to an article or a blog that I've completed and no one likes or shares it then I can expect it to reach between 20 and 30 people on average. If one person shares that link then I will see a reach of between 60 and 120, depending on the follower and how big his or her friends list is.

Imagine for a moment if all 200 followers liked and shared one link. Thousands of people would see it, and at least some of them would also like and share it. This would put my name in front of people who'd never heard of me or my work, and make an impression on them. It could lead to an increase in my readership, more followers, and generally more people who are paying attention to what I'm creating and what I have to say.

Given that I'm a no-name author with a small following I'm sure you can imagine what the spread looks like for authors and artists who are bigger names with bigger pools of fans to draw on.

Things You Shouldn't Do

Some people might think there's no such thing as bad publicity, but that simply isn't true. Just as there are good ways to support your author, so too there are bad ways to support your author.

Don't be that guy.

Just Blast Your Feed Constantly

Authors need other people to help promote them and to spread the good word about their work. What authors do not need is the same one or two fans posting and re-posting a dozen times a day.

Perhaps the most common mistake made by well-meaning fans who want to help an author out is to simply spit out posts all over social media and forums. The best case scenario is that the promotional blitz catches a few new fans, but it's much more likely to simply fade into the background. The worse case scenario is that someone who constantly spams an author will have a forum account closed, be asked to stop posting, or be actively accused of just being a shill for the author. A few shares a week is usually enough to get the message out without barraging anyone with it.

Attack Others

We've all seen this in rabid fandoms. There's a conversation going on about a book you love, and one person has the temerity to speak up about a problem with the book. People immediately swarm that individual like a school of literate piranhas, tearing down to the bone.

Don't do that.

Political parties, religions, and authors are judged by our followers. So while the urge to click the caps lock and shout wilting profanity at someone in the echo chamber of the Internet might be strong, remember that your comments will reflect on the things you love. It's not fair, but it is true.

Offer Hollow Support

We've all been there at one time or another. Maybe you have a friend who's making a movie, a cousin who's writing a novel, or a significant other embarking on a painting. You might be totally unconnected from the work, but you want to help the artist all the same. So you go through the motions of getting a copy, showing up to speaking events, and being a dutiful friend, but you don't really care about the project.

This one's a crap shoot. On the one hand some people are just happy their friends take an interest, even if that interest is perfunctory. On the other hand there are artists that will feel like you're humoring them instead of legitimately trying to help. This can lead to hurt feelings and frustrations on both sides of the equation. This one really only applies to those who know an author personally, and it has to be taken on a case by case basis.

To Sum Up

The short version is this; no author can be successful without an audience. If you want to help the authors you love then the best thing you can do is to be the middleman and put their work in touch with people who will love it just as much as you do. If you have the spare cash to buy the books yourself, or to put some change in your author's tip jar every month then that's great, but if not you can still help.

If you'd like to help keep me up and running then stop by the Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today! To get the latest updates then follow me on Facebook and Tumblr.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

From Galvanism to Google: Tropes That Are Killing Your Novel

Authors have to walk a very fine line between writing what they know and just making shit up. Unless you happen to be Ian Fleming (the guy who lived James Bond's life before he wrote the novels) you tend to rely on a combination of your own experiences and research. Unfortunately for a lot of authors "research" means reading books and watching movies written by people who didn't know what the hell they were talking about. As a result a lot of tropes which should really be put out to pasture keep cropping up again and again in a day and age where they really have no business being.

It is impossible for a single blog entry to cover every possible trope that needs to be brought to your attention; that's what TV Tropes is for. And, just so we're all on the same page, this entry is going to focus on tropes regarding technology and history (for those who want social tropes I already covered cultural appropriation and killing women as a source of motivation).

All right? All right.

Trope #1: Knockout Drugs

We've all read a book or seen a movie where these chemical miracles figured in. Just load up a hypodermic, put it in your crossbow or compressed air rifle, and you can bring down any subject with no muss and no fuss. Your hero might struggle valiantly to remain awake, but in a matter of moments it's going to be lights out no matter what happens.

What, this? It's perfectly safe. Just count backward from 10...
Have you ever wondered why anesthesiologists get paid so much money? You know, the people who take all of your vitals and then carefully administer you with a cocktail meant to keep you unconscious during surgery? It's because if they screw up by so much as a few milliliters it's possible for you to go under and never come up again. That means that unless the people chasing you and firing dozens of tranquilizer rounds at you have a concoction specific to your body chemistry you're either going to just get woozy, or die. Possibly one then the other if you're hit more than once.

While this trope might seem nit-picky it's actually a small representation of a bigger problem; namely authors who throw in science without making an attempt to figure out how it works. We're not talking hand-wavey sci-fi tech either, just everyday chemistry and physics that you can find explained on wikipedia if you need a fast and loose explanation of what you're trying to do.

Trope #2: Everyone Speaks Modern Colloquial Languages

Have you ever been scrolling through your list of TV options and inexplicably found yourself watching one of those ghost hunting shows? Well if you have then you might have been lucky enough to catch one where the crew went overseas to report on some foreign ghostly activities. Maybe they were looking into ancient battlefields in Romania, or creepy islands in Thailand. While it's flavorful, you can tell that the writers (yes, ghost hunting shows have writers) are running out of ideas. How, you ask?

All the ghosts speak English.

That's eerie... how did they know we're American?
Of course any author with a shred of craft would never screw something like that up so blatantly. He would at the very least go to a Google translator program and get a phrase from the ghost's home country. Sometimes that's all it takes, but sometimes authors forget that language changes over time. Put another way that Arabic phrase you're seeing now might work in modern day Dubai, but if your heroes have mysteriously traveled back to the 7th century then chances are good it would be gibberish to anyone who heard it.

Language changes and adapts, and if you're going to play with it then you're opening a big ole' can of worms regarding it. On the one hand it's good form not to have your medieval sword-swinging British badass call someone "dude" on page two of your book, but it's also a good idea to remember that words like warlock have a unique cultural and geographic origin before you start using them in the wrong cultural setting.

In case you're curious, warlock is a British term that was imported from Scandinavia and other parts of Northern Europe.

Trope #3: Everyone Has Cell Phones (And No One Uses Them)

Technology often dates the books we read, and the cell phone is just one of the latest revolutions we use to date when a story takes place. If they're big and blocky we're looking at a story in the 1980s or 1990s, and if they're sleek and computerized we have a modern day or future thriller. The problem with cell phones, just like the problems with any other form of mass-produced technology, is that it will change your story.

How's that you might ask? Well I'll give you a good example.

I wonder what other forms of technology everyone has?
Some time ago I was given a job editing a modern fantasy story. Our reluctant lead had gotten caught up fighting a dragon (long story), and during the "discover esoteric prophecy" part of the book he had to get a piece of information from the radio station he worked at (a co-worker's home phone number, to be precise). So he steals another character's car, tear-asses across town, gets into a wreck, and then has a tense cat-and-mouse through the station for reasons that are never quite revealed. The whole time I was reading this all I could think was "Why are you wasting all this time and effort when you could just call the station?"

The main character had specifically mentioned having a cellular phone. He had the Internet. He even had a home phone for whatever reason (but apparently so did his co-worker). There was nothing to stop him from dialing information to get the number, looking it up in a directory online, or just calling the station and asking the receptionist to give him the number off the piece of paper on the break room wall. All of these were approaches that would have taken less time, required less effort, and which anyone who grew up in the Internet age would have turned to first before getting in the car and driving across town.

The short version? If you introduce any piece of technology whether it's a radio in your wristwatch or a cybernetic Internet connection in your lead's left eye then you need to remember that technology is real to your characters. It's a tool they possess, and if it's something they use on a daily basis then of course it's going to be the first thing they turn to in order to solve a problem. Also, technology affects society. If everyone has cell phones with cameras in them, how hard is it going to be for a blood-soaked shoot out to stay quiet?

The answer, as modern governments have found out, is it can't be hushed up. Period.

Trope #4: Occult Books Just Sitting On Your Lead's Shelf

The plot device of the rare-and-occult-book is not new. It's the whole plot of The 9th Gate and a version of it drives the film Cigarette Burns. Books by their very nature have a certain mystique, and an occult book doubly so. After all if a book has a whole secret cabal associated with it then it must be really special, right?

It would, and that's why we create those plot devices that our protagonists chase after. Regular books that hold important plot information are just that though; regular, ordinary, garden-variety books.

Even these.
The problem with this trope is not the existence of fictional books that drive your plot. If you want to create a book specifically to advance plot and to convey information to your main characters that is fine and dandy. The Necronomicon and other tomes of its ilk are cherished relics in the halls of horror, after all. The problem arises when an author writes the phrase, "so he spent an hour reading through his occult books," or something similar.

There's no such thing as occult books. The word occult means hidden or secret, and the word itself has taken on a mysterious air because of how often it's been used in thrillers and horror stories. If something has been written down and mass-produced though that's about as far from secret as you can get. What most authors mean when they use the term occult books is books about rare, obscure, or mystical subjects. This can be anything from academic treatises on the European witch craze, to obscure tomes about the changes the early Catholic church made to the Bible when translating it from Greek to Latin, to diary excerpts from a cannibal who was arrested and executed in Texas in the year 1902. They're just books... books about weird subjects, but books all the same.

The problem is that when you call them occult books we find ourselves wondering how someone not in a cult managed to get his hands on a secret grimoire, a hand-written account of the life of Paracelsus, or some other truly rare and obscure tome. You can't buy occult books at Barnes and Noble, but you can buy The History of Occult Symbols in America if you're willing to check the bargain bin.

If you want to make your hero's search for specific information feel more real then all you need to do is throw out some titles and author names. Talk about some databases he looked through. If your hero is not an expert in the subject though it's always better to phone a character who is an expert and to let that character deliver the information your hero truly needs to progress the plot. Don't just say you typed some key terms into Google and found everything about an ancient esoteric order. If it was that easy to find then you should be done by chapter four.

As always if you're interested in supporting me and the Literary Mercenary then you can stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you get all of my updates then all you have to do is fill in the box on the right, or follow me on Facebook and Tumblr.