Wednesday, December 24, 2014

How to Get Your "Big Break" as an Author

There's a myth you hear authors talk about, particularly when we're in our cups. We call it the Big Break; that mythical, mystical time when our careers will somehow transform from tapping keys at the kitchen table and jotting notes in tiny, ragged spiral bounds to interviews on morning TV shows and cashing fat royalty checks. Like all big fish stories the idea of the Big Break is mostly bullshit, but like most legends there's a nugget of truth in it.

Your career can take a sudden turn for the better. But more often than not this transformation is going to come as a result of hard work and good planning instead of the fickle finger of fate.

Getting a badass book cover helps, though.

Step One: Produce Good Work

While this sounds like a no-brainer it's a step that over-enthusiastic writers who are eager to reach the big time might forget. There's no substitute for hard work, and writing is no exception. If you want to get yourself a big break then you need to make sure you're producing work that will wow readers; especially the critics. In a perfect world all you'd have to do is write good stories to be successful, but even in this imperfect world you need a solid foundation for your career.

Step Two: Publish

Again this sounds self-evident, but as an author you've got the worst of both the temp and contract employee worlds. Editors and publishers see dozens of authors a day, and thousands of them a year more often than not; if you want to stand out then you need to publish and publish frequently. Now you only have so much control over this (unless you're self-publishing, in which case the onus is totally on you), but the more publications you work with the bigger your reach will grow. The more times you see success with the same publisher the more valued you'll be and the more likely you are to get more attention. Either way your stories will be read by a bigger audience (statistically speaking) and you will develop relationships with more editors, publishers, etc. Which leads us to...

Step Three: Network

We've all heard the phrase, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." Well I hate to say it, but these words are just as important for authors as they are for stock brokers. This is why even if you're an introvert it's important to get out there, shake hands, give away business cards, get interviewed, and overall add people to your roll-a-dex.

I'll give you a first-hand account of this. Several years ago I'd published my first few short stories (which are out-of-print, though you can still get copies in this month's free fiction giveaway!) and I was looking to get a little publicity. A friend of mine introduced me to a friend of his who worked for a local magazine. I got a piece run on my story, and that piece was seen by the public radio station. I was invited in as a guest, and read some of my story on the air. Much to my surprise I met several people over the next few months who had heard my reading, and who were floored that I was that author.

On the one hand this one incident didn't skyrocket me to bestseller status. It did get me a few moments in the spotlight as a direct result of good networking, though.

Step Four: Volunteer

While this might seem like it goes directly against my credo of never work for free, open up your ears and listen for a moment. Volunteering doesn't mean giving your stories away for free, or manning a booth at a show for no compensation. In this case it means that you need to reach out and help others if you expect them to help you. Did you meet a cool artist at a convention? Exchange pleasantries with another author from an anthology you were both published in? Made the acquaintance of a publisher who has an open call going on right now? If you want them to help you make it big then you need to step up and take action by helping them out first.

How much you can do will vary. For instance you might just be able to write a good review of a book and put it out on the net. Maybe you stop by to give a good rating to a book on Amazon and Goodreads as well. Perhaps all you can spare is sharing that author's post on Facebook. That kind of effort can go a long way, and it is appreciated. You might have more resources though. Maybe you have a cousin who works at Random House and you could hook a friend up with a direct line to a big-name company. Maybe your roommate runs a really popular podcast, and you could get your new acquaintance a place on the guest list. Maybe you know a Big Name, and you could make the introductions for someone whose talent and drive you believe in.

Networking is good, but if you help others then they will come back and help you. Don't keep score though; if you act like someone's in your debt then they might not do you any favors at all.

Step Five: Repeat

So you got a phenomenal short story out in a collection. The anthology gets a little bit of press, and then it drops off the radar. You didn't win any awards, and your royalty statement is barely enough for a celebratory ice cream cone at McDonald's. Know what that means chief?

Time to get up and do it all over again.

Success can come at any step of the formula. You could write a book that shoots straight to the top of the bestseller list for no understandable reason. You might write five novels, or ten, before getting endorsed by someone with a huge fan following which turns your work into gold. The point is that your word processor is not a high-quality sniper rifle that's able to take precision head shots which earn millions of dollars a pop. It's a machine gun with no support, spraying your words all across the reading public. Maybe all you'll do is make a lot of noise and get people's attention. Maybe you'll wing a few people. Maybe if you're extremely lucky you'll slam your story right into the hearts and minds of those who needed it. But if your first book doesn't get the job done then it's time to reload and try again.

Unlike bullets though a single big hit can retroactively make a lot of your previous attempts into hits as well! Every new business contact, every new fan, and every new book is an opportunity for that big break... just remember that.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Is "Character-Driven" Being Used As An Excuse For Bad Writing?

Before we get this week's entry started I'd like to let all my readers know that I'm having a holiday giveaway! If you want to get a rare, out-of-print title from yours truly all you have to do is email and ask. Full details of the giveaway can be found right here on Improved Initiative.

Now, onto this week's entry!

I love meeting fellow authors. Whether it's at a convention or a coffee shop, a reading or a talk it's always a pleasure to meet someone else who feels strongly about the same passion. Over time I've learned to understand and admire writers of other genres and styles. That said, red lights and alarm bells still go off whenever someone opens a conversation with, "I write character-driven stories."

Say that again, I'm not sure I heard you right the first time.

What's Wrong With Character-Driven Stories?

Nothing, and everything. You see the problem comes when you examine what the term actually means, and what a lot of writers think the term means.

What the term character-driven actually means is that the character is driving the story. Whether it's a meth-addled rock star riding the roads on an iron horse to try and find himself again or a young girl questioning the teachings of the religious cult that's raised her for her entire life, you have a setup that only exists because the character is changing somehow. The character is creating a story, rather than being acted on by outside forces. That is fine and dandy, a-ok and no issues here.

The problem is this is not often the definition that people are using. To hear some writers tell it a character-driven story is a story that has been scrubbed completely clean of all that nasty plot. It's a story about a person, and that person's internal struggles and revelations. About life, the soul, and the universe... things that would only be cheapened by expecting the character to take any sort of action or achieve any kind of goal.

You keep using this word. It does not mean what you think it means.

Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts

The problem with many authors who actively use the term character-driven is that they think it's one or the other. Either you sit and plot out everything that happens and you jerk the character along your plot rails or you focus on what that character is thinking, feeling, and about his or her development. You can't do both!

In fact it's just the opposite. You have to do both in order to have a complete story.

You might decide to sit down and write a story about a homicide detective who has to delve into the life of a victim that reminds him of his daughter. On the one hand the book might have the internal journey the detective takes, showing us how his views of the world are shaped and how the nature of his calling have warped his soul out of true. That's compelling stuff... but he's still got to pursue the killer. He has to view crime scene photos, interview witnesses, run down clues, make deductions, and do things in order for the book to continue on. He doesn't have to catch the killer, but if all he does is sit around his desk and navel-gaze for a week then he's going to lose his shield in pretty short order.

It's perfectly fine to have a story that focuses on a strong, engaging character. In fact it's a great idea if you want us to see how this character grows and changes, developing in ways that take us on a journey. On the other hand people have to actually do things, otherwise the only ride we're going on is following their daily commute to work, watching them write poetry, or tagging along on an endless series of social events. While not every novel has to be about black ops agents averting nuclear war, or death-defying quests to toss magic rings into volcanoes before an ultimate evil destroys the known social order and installs absolute tyranny, it helps if all of the character development is actually because of something. It could be training to run a local marathon, getting a better job, or working through a sticky marriage full of secrets, but no character is an island. They will do things, and things will be done unto them. It's how they react that matters, and how they change that makes them drive the plot.

You might have a supercharged engine, but it won't go anywhere suspended in midair. It needs to be in a car, and only then will the two halves result in a ride someone will actually want to take.

Thanks again for dropping in on The Literary Mercenary! If you have comments about the blog feel free to leave them below or send them directly to me via the form on this page. If you'd like to support me in my endeavors then stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! Lastly if you want to make sure you get all of my updates either submit your email address using the form on the right, or follow me on Facebook and Tumblr!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Why Do People Hate Artists Who Expect To Be Paid?

Conventions are one of my favorite things. I get to meet readers and other writers, sit in the green room with guests of honor, and hold forth during panels. I also get to see friends I only see during cons, and I get to write all of it off on my taxes. This past November was my second year at Windy Con in Chicago, and overall I had a great experience. It was also the first time that I had someone decide to hold up their opinion flag and wave it vigorously at me.

Opinions are like dicks; glad you've got one, I don't need it in my face.
Generally speaking when I'm at a convention people don't decide to walk up to my table and harangue me about how I'm doing my job wrong. Part of it's because I'm affable, friendly, and there to have fun. Part of it is that I'm a white male dressed in combat boots and weighing in at about 225 pounds. Putting both halves together means that I don't have to deal with problems the way some of my fellow authors and artists do when someone decides to inform them they aren't being a proper artist/author/filmmaker/painter/etc. In this instance an individual who is a former editor of a major publisher decided to pick up the book from my table (Sidekicks by Alliteration Ink which you can check out here), then snort at my business card. He then proceeded to talk down to me about how real authors do it for the love of the craft, and about how if you're just doing it for money then you've got no business being an author.

I smiled politely, nodded in the pauses, and eventually he grew tired and moved on.

Show Me The Money

There are two reasons I bill myself as the Literary Mercenary. One, it's pretty goddamn catchy. When you make most of your connections at cons and big events you need something that's quick and easy to remember, and that handle has proven to be a great advantage for not being forgotten. The second reason is that I'm a professional, and I expect to be paid for the work that I do. I make no apologies for expecting cash on the nail if someone wants me to put words on the page for them.

Is this the emblem of someone that works for exposure?
If I was an accountant or a blacksmith no one would be surprised. In fact I doubt I'd ever have to remind people that they have to pay for my services with real money if I wasn't a creative professional. But I am, and as a result I meet a lot of people who are interested in what I do until they realize that I'm not just going to give it away willy-nilly.

And I know I'm not the only one.

Problems With Pomplamoose

Pomplamoose is an indie music duo who recently posted the breakdown of their yearly finances. The point was to illustrate where money goes, and why touring really isn't a smart move if you're not a superstar. Instead of empathy for the artists who have to stretch budgets and try to make a living on very little though, Pomplamoose was blasted. Why were they paying back up singers so much money? Shouldn't those singers have just been happy to be on stage with a successful band? Why did light designers and sound techs get paid money for a job a computer could do? And so on and so forth, essentially demanding to know why the band had chosen to pay other professionals the value of their work rather than keeping all the cash for themselves. If they'd taken advantage of other creative professionals and given them pennies on the dollar, or paid them in sandwiches and "exposure," they would make a real living. Or Pomplamoose could charge less for the overall endeavor, enabling more fans to enjoy them for less money.

Martial artists are never asked for freebies because they may just oblige you.
Everyone who is trying to make a living as a creative professional has heard these arguments before, and they're like trickle-down economics. You know, if you just give all the money to rich people then eventually it will work its way down to the poor. The difference is in this case we're being told to just keep making art and giving it away for free because eventually people will come to value what we make and money will mystically come our way.

Neither circumstance works. In the former all the rich people hoard the money for themselves, and in the latter art isn't valued because it's been free for so long that the very idea of paying for it will stop occurring to people.

So what's the problem? Is it that artists are greedy? Is it that people are shitheads? Is it that the marketplace is flooded with so much creativity that the supply far exceeds the demand? Well according to this article it might be a lack of empathy between artists and fans.

What is Art Worth?

It's no secret that art is typically seen as a feast or famine career choice. The maxim is that with dedication and hard work you'll eventually rise to the top of your field and become rich and famous, but that's no more true with writing books and making movies than it is with working in an auto garage or building rocket ships. No one can download car repairs or make photo copies of a NASA satellite though, which presents authors with a unique challenge: Convincing culture that art doesn't grow on trees, and that you can't just pluck it off a branch as you walk by.

If it was that easy there would be no problem.
Art is a necessity. People want to read books, admire paintings, watch movies, and listen to music. But the idea of paying for these products is something people instinctively resist when all it takes is a right click to download the product for free. If an artist is famous then they can obviously afford to cover one little pirating, and if an artist isn't famous then they should be glad that someone as discerning as you wants to read their work.

Stop and ask yourself what you would say if you got your dream job, but were told that you'd be working without pay until after your review. You'd say no, particularly if you still had to work a day job to cover your expenses waiting for the day that your dream job paid you enough to stay afloat. Now imagine if the hiring rep's response was, "Come on, everyone's going to see what a great job you did. Think of the exposure this will grant you! I'm sure that someone who can pay you will see this on your resume and snap you up immediately." Your reaction would likely be to slap this person, or at the very least to say something rude at a very high volume.

This is the reality that artists deal with every single day. Now imagine if artists were treated with respect, paid a fair price for their work, and given bonuses instead of pats on the head. Would that make them sell-outs? Or would it make them just another part of the workforce creating things that we desperately need?

Something else you might not know about Pomplamoose is that they created Patreon, a system for fans to support the artists they love. If you'd like to see more from the Literary Mercenary then check out my Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to get the latest updates with no extra work just plug your email address into the box on your right hand side, or follow me on Facebook and Tumblr.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Why Are Technology And Magic So Often Mutually Exclusive?

Normally I'd ramble for a bit and tell people about my latest book releases, maybe plug a tee shirt, or offer a back link to something you might find helpful. This week though I'm talking about something that's very near and dear to my heart, so I'm skipping all the usual fluff. In short I would like to ask my readers a question, and it's a question I want them to take very seriously.

Why are magic and technology so often seen as mutually exclusive in mainstream fantasy and sci-fi?

Except in very rare circumstances.
There are countless examples of this sliding scale in fiction. In stories like A Flight of Dragons the whole premise of the book is that science and technology is actively eradicating most kinds of magic. In the popular series The Dresden Files just being near magic makes technology act up (which requires our lead to avoid things like computers, cinemas, and at times actual electric lights). Even in the classic series Harry Potter there's just something about the presence of magic that renders technology non-functional more often than not.

Why do we do that?

Clarke's Third Law

Even if you have no idea who Arthur C. Clarke is, you've heard his third law. In a nut shell it states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. This is an oft-quoted rule when it comes to fiction, but according to Esther Ingels-Arkell over at i09 the law doesn't really work the way we think it does.

Accroding to Arkell's argument this law only holds water if the feat being accomplished is something we believe we can't do ourselves with the right time and training. While we might not be able to build a TV or a laptop, much less a car that runs off of solar power or methane gas, most people who know these things exist believe that they could be replicated by anyone. The reason that we freak out about magicians who seem to be able to levitate, people whose brain waves can bend spoons, and those who can be buried for a week before rising unharmed is that we know, deep down, these are not things that anyone can do. These things are well and truly magical.

Is Magic V. Technology Really About Ignorance?

Let's go back to A Flight of Dragons for a moment. The central crux of the story is that mankind is embracing technology and logic, and it is this philosophical decision to give science a big ole' bear hug that is robbing the world's great wizards (well, all but the evil one) of their powers. This is in a very real sense a metaphor for how we as readers and writers often think about magic. Magic is a product of a simpler time, whereas science is a product of enlightenment. Science can be explained, and magic can't be. Even in our fiction magic is something that just can't exist in a world where we've split the atom, have flying cars, or combat capable laser cannons. And if it does exist then technology just closes its eyes and refuses to admit that magic is there.

I see your fireball, and raise.
Well, most of the time anyway.

Breaking The Mold

There are a lot of niches where the sliding scale has been trod underfoot. The roleplaying game Shadowrun and the books set in its world combines the elements of high fantasy with the gritty neo-noir of cyberpunk for a strange, exciting love child. D20 Modern allows mages to store spellbooks on their palm pilots, and in Pathfinder gunslingers might adventure alongside sorcerers to deliver a one-two punch (even in this game though the resistance to guns existing alongside magic is prone to some hardcore resistance).

In the spirit of this co-existence I'll make a suggestion that goes even further; what would magic enhanced by technology look like? Say that ancient covens always had 13 witches because that was the timber the chant required to hit the proper level; what could one witch with a mixer and recording software accomplish? If psychotropic mushrooms altered your brain chemistry and perception so you could see spirits and ghosts, what could modern pharmaceuticals allow you to do? Using enchanted steel to make a sword is one thing, but what about bringing magic and science together to make a rail gun straight from the heavens?

What kind of marriage would you give science and magic if you wanted them to play nice?

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