Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Don't Put Real People In Your Novel... Seriously, Don't Do It

People say some confusing, frustrating, and outright rude things to writers. I've chronicled some of them in Things You Should Never Say To An Author and More Things You Should Never Say To An Author, but there's one which hasn't made it onto these lists yet. It's a question which only comes from people who've read your book (or at least some of it), and most of the time these people probably don't realize they're being insulting. That question?

Who is this character, really?

Your mother.
There seems to be this strange, mis-guided belief among the reading public that authors are all petty, vindictive dickheads who use their novels as an excuse to inflict pain and suffering on cardboard cut outs of people in their real lives. That is not to say there aren't authors who do this. I'm sure there are plenty of authors who've parodied childhood bullies, unpleasant in-laws, and ex-lovers in their books. But you shouldn't, and here's why.

Reason #1: This is Not Amateur Night

Think about the last person you met whose work included references to actual people from the author's actual life. Chances are good that instead of Ian Fleming (the author of James Bond who based a lot of the super spy's story on WWII-era spies he worked with) you're probably thinking of that kid from your high school creative writing class whose stories were all about rebellious teens and their cartoonishly restrictive parents. Or maybe you think of that one friend you had in college whose protagonists always wound up with beautiful girls who were suspiciously similar to classmates he could never get to go out with him.

You are shooting blanks, my friend.
The point is that taking real people from your life and sticking them right into your story is not good for your art. It prejudices you regarding the person portrayed (for good or for ill), and you are more likely to write them as a parody than as a character with any actual depth. You rarely know real people as deeply or as thoroughly as a character you've created from the ground up, because you don't have access to all the facts and background of real people. With characters you sort of need that.

Reason #2: There Might Be Consequences

Maybe you're thinking hey, this is my story and I'm not going to let some random guy on the Internet tell me how to write. And you're correct, you don't have to listen to me. The person you might have to listen to though is the fellow in the black robe holding the little wooden hammer.

Tough critics ain't got nothing on lawyers.
It is not overly common for people put into your novel to sue you, but it is definitely possible. The more famous you get, and the more money the book generates, the more likely a lawsuit becomes though. Maybe the guy you made into the villain feels this book is libelous. Maybe a woman whose character was murdered is claiming pain and suffering. The reasons can vary from the legitimate to the ridiculous, but even if you win the suit there are the legal fees, the cost of defense, and the fallout the accusation might generate. It could damage your reputation, get your book panned pretty harshly by critics, and if you're publishing with a company instead of doing it yourself it could get your book pulled from the shelves.

What You Should Do Instead

Unless your book is explicitly about real people (or parodies of real people) you should not attempt to cut large swaths out of reality and paste them onto the page. With that said though it is a good idea to carefully observe the people around you. Look at how they act, listen to the things they say, and attempt to understand their psychology. If you can do that then you'll end up creating deeper, more believable characters.

And how is that any different?
Because plagiarism is copying down a single document verbatim. Research is taking parts and pieces from different documents and gluing them together with your own words. The former is considered bad form, and is something you should avoid. The latter, while harder, ultimately creates a better finished product that you can't be sued over.

As always thanks for stopping by! If you'd like to help support this blog stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and consider becoming a patron today. If you want to make sure you stay up to date on all my new entries and content then make sure to follow me on Facebook and Tumblr as well.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Elevator Pitch: What It Is and Why You Need One

Every author dreams of finding themselves talking to a publisher who's a big deal. The kind of person who could open up a cell phone, call an assistant, and have a five-figure contract in your hands by tomorrow if he likes your idea. Maybe you're at a cocktail party and you just said something really witty, and he wipes a tear from his eye, gives you a smile, and says, "So, tell me about your book." This is it, the moment when you get a chance to hook that big fish, but you can see someone else making a beeline for him. You know you've got thirty seconds, maybe a minute, before the big deal's attention will move on and you'll be lost in the shuffle.

So what do you say?

The Elevator Pitch

The term elevator pitch has been used for decades because it refers to the scenario where you and the aforementioned important publisher are in an elevator. He's going up to his floor and you have between now and the time he gets there to sell him on your book. What you don't want is to be reaching for a good explanation, tossing in buzzwords, or rambling through the entire plot. You want something short, sweet, concise, and engaging.

In short, you want a hook.

Tell me more.
That's the whole point of your elevator pitch; you want your audience hooked on what you just said. You could go on at length about how your main character is a demon who is summoned by a young girl and bound into service to help her find a mysterious artifact of power, and how your lead has to contend with other persons who want the same item, but you'll start losing the thread of the tale and your listener will wander away. Instead you should say something like this:

"My novel is a gritty crime thriller in the spirit of The Maltese Falcon, if Sam Spade was a demon."

Whether modern fantasy is your genre or not, that is the kind of line that is going to make people stop and blink for a second or two. That's the reaction you want.

Elevator Pitches Are For More Than Just Publishers

Getting your book published is just the first step; you're going to have to help sell it too. That's why you don't want to hang up your elevator pitch just because your book is newly minted and breathing on the shelves. If it worked once then there's no reason it won't work again. And again. And again.

So what is this thing about?
The number of times you are going to be asked by people what your book is about is legion. Casual acquaintances, complete strangers, and everyone in between is going to ask you some variation of the question within ten minutes of learning you've had a book published. If your elevator pitch got a professional publisher interested then it should work great when you're being interviewed, when you're trying to hand sell your book at a convention, or when you just want to leave someone with an itch in their head to know more about what your book is really about.

Your book is an infinitely complex tale, and everyone is going to have a favorite character, moment, or scene. Your job is to be the travel agent and to find the hook that gets every reader to want to travel to this mythical land you've created.

Speaking of which, would you like to read a story about a budding romance between two young journalists forced onto a knife edge in the flickering light of the silver screen? Then check out Double Feature, my contribution to American Nightmare.

You know you want to...
As always thanks for stopping by The Literary Mercenary, and if you find the advice herein helpful stop by my Patreon page and consider becoming a patron today! Also if you want to get all of my updates then you should make sure to follow me on both Facebook and Tumblr so you don't miss a thing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Why Killing Lead Characters Is A Good Idea (Even If You're Not A Horror Author)

You know those people. The heart-breakers. The ones who take your trust, nurture it, and who snap it in half the moment you get complacent. You know their names. Stephen King. George R. R. Martin. Frank Darabont. Brian Keene. Joss Whedon. David Eddings. They are the creators and dreamers who suck you into their stories, make you love their characters, get you to choose favorites, and then kill them right in front of you.

Some people accuse these creative hatchet men of using blunt force trauma on an audience's emotions just to get a reaction. The claim is that killing off main characters or giving you an ending where the bad guy comes out ahead is nothing more than a lack of talent trying to camouflage itself with shock. I've got news for you though; we need more stories that do this.

The Anatomy of The "Fuck-You" Ending

Comedian Reginald D. Hunter refers to a certain type of movie in one of his funnier stand-up bits. A young man is riding a bus in China when two men in ski masks with guns stand up, force the driver to pull over, and rob everyone on the bus of their valuables. The masked men then force the driver, a young and attractive woman, off the bus to the side of the road. Everyone sits on the bus and does nothing, waiting for it all to be over, except for a young man who stands up and demands to know if they're going to just let this happen.

That was the plan, now that you mention it.
The young man descends from the bus full of outrage and ready to defend the driver's honor. He interrupts the attackers before they can commence with the sexual part of the rape (though just barely), and is promptly beaten bloody and mostly senseless by the two professional criminals. The criminals take their loot and leave. The boy reaches out to the driver who is in shock and disarray. She abruptly snaps out of it, straightens her clothes, and walks to the bus. She throws the boy's backpack at him, shouts for him to go away, shuts the doors in his face and the bus drives off. The boy is limping down the highway with his backpack when he hears sirens, and he thinks that at least the driver sent an ambulance for him. The ambulance shoots past, along with a dozen police vehicles. Turns out the driver went over a cliff, and everyone on the bus was killed.

Dark stuff for a 12 minute movie, huh?

Dark endings, or fuck-you endings as Reg would call them, have some elements in common. They have a main character who is striving to do something, who fails in the goal (even if it looks like the character somehow succeeded), and an ending that shows you just how vulnerable people really are by refusing to cut away as this character's hopes, dreams, and even life are ground into dust beneath reality's harsh boot heel.

So Why Do We Need More Of These?

Why would anyone want to watch movies or read books with fuck-you endings? Why would you invest that amount of time, energy, and love into something just to watch it crushed before your helpless, hoping eyes? Well for some people there's catharsis in that. The thrill of hope and the sharp downturn of failure create one hell of a cocktail, as evidenced by the vitriol it foments in many people who are infuriated by these kinds of stories.

These stories have a higher purpose than just abusing your reader's heart strings though. They create tension; not just in the story someone's reading, but in every story.

Really though, you didn't see it coming when they cast him as Lord Stark?
Visualize a world without stories like Game of Thrones for a minute. A world where in the end of The Mist the father, son, schoolteacher and friends drove out into a normal world and survived the monstrous trauma of the creatures in the fog. A world where every character in every story managed to make it through and beat the odds.

You know what audiences would be in that world? Complacent.

This same point was touched on by Eric Vespe in his article here, but it bears repeating. If every book you ever read had the main characters succeed and make it through the certain death of the big climax, what would you have? A world of action movie heroes and schmaltzy "but I thought you were dead!" reveals that lets the audience lean back in their seats and yawn at the supposed "threats" to the movie's heroes and heroines. A world where no matter how big the explosions or how fast-paced the gun fights the audience knows the heroes are going to come through unscathed.

Unless you kill them.

As soon as you show the audience you're not dicking around they are going to be on the edge of their seats. Suddenly every fight with sword-wielding thugs or car chase through crowded streets represents real danger. In a world where main characters are not sacrosanct there's a good chance no one is going to stop the executioner from dropping the sword on the hero's neck, and the plucky heroine might not get the miracle cure for the plague before the last page. Even if you're not reading a book by an author known for killing fan favorite characters there's always going to be that question in your mind; is this book the one where the author decides to take off the kid gloves?

Even if you're not writing books with fuck-you endings in them you're benefiting from authors who have. So before you condemn these endings as Nihilistic shock-and-awe, realize what they're doing for your stories.

Here's a big ole' book of fuck-you endings. Check it out!
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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Make Money Writing (By Joining

When I was in middle school and adults asked me what I wanted to do for a living I told them I wanted to write books. They laughed and told me with an imagination like mine I should have no problem, but that I should have a normal job as well. All writers, or so they assured me, had to be teachers or garbage men or something until they became famous enough to live purely off their books.

This ladies and gentlemen is what we refer to as Grade-A Bullshit.

If there's one thing I know, it's bullshit.
If you want to follow in the footsteps of such luminary authors as Stephen King by becoming an English teacher and writing in the copious amounts of free time you'll have (if you aren't laughing you've clearly never seen how time-consuming teaching actually is) then by all means do so. If you think you've got the drive and sheer balls to hold down a day job and then spend hours a night banging away on a keyboard then I salute you.

This post isn't for you.

This post is for people who want to make money writing interesting articles. It's for people who want to take a chance that the fickle finger of the Internet gods will fall on them and fill their bank accounts to bursting (or failing that at least give them enough money to pay bills with a little cash left over). It's for people whose eyes light up when they hear the word royalties and who see no reason to start earning them years from now instead of right now!

Let Me Tell You About InfoBarrel

Some of you have likely looked into websites that will pay you to write before coming across my blog. HubPages is perhaps the most popular website out there, but its competitors like Triond, Xomba, and even are all ready and willing to take your content and publish it for you. The problem with these sites is that if you don't have a Google Adsense account then there's no way you can get paid.

That's what makes InfoBarrel different from other sites.

That, and the fact that they pay you in cash instead of promises.
At a glance InfoBarrel is just like any popular site out there driven by user-created content. You set up an account, and start writing articles. InfoBarrel puts ads on your articles, and based on how well they perform you get paid. Some of the ads need to be clicked by readers, and some of the ads just need to be viewed a certain number of times, but whenever you meet the threshold you have money in the bank.

The site has two ad tiers; Tier 1 which is Google Adsense ads, and Tier 2 which is miscellaneous ads.

I Thought You Said I Didn't Need Google Adsense?

Keep your stockings straight, I'm getting to it.

In case you're not a regular reader I'll give you some background. Up until late 2014 I had a Google AdSense account of my own, and it was tied right to this blog. Then I was kicked out of Google's super-secret clubhouse, and told that I can never have an AdSense account ever again. You can get the full story on that right here. I also had over 400 articles on Yahoo! Voices when that site shuttered its doors in August 2014 (which cut another few hundred bucks out of my monthly earnings), and I needed a place to put them.

I had an InfoBarrel account from several years ago, so I fired it back up and started posting.

For the first two months I received Tier 2 earnings only, which amounted to a little over $5 or so. I went to my user account, agreed to the latest terms and conditions, and then clicked the Advertising Profile tab and enabled First Tier Ad Management.

And then money?
The way Google AdSense works is that Google tracks everything with your account number on it, tabulates your cut of the advertising money, and then kicks it to you on a monthly basis. If you don't have a Google AdSense account then you can't use any website that works with Google to pay its writers. How First Tier Ad Management works is that you are joining a collective AdSense account for all the authors on InfoBarrel that have also clicked that little box. Infobarrel manages the AdSense for all the views on all your pages, and at the end of the month you get your portion deposited into your account.

In this way you can make AdSense money without needing to have your own personal AdSense account.

What Can I Write About?

Anything you damn well please, within reason. When creating your content you need to write about something interesting, which is going to be just as relevant in five years as it is tomorrow, and which has pretty pictures in it (seriously check out the image I used for The Succubus. It's no wonder it pulled over a thousand hits). Whether you're a fan of history or celebrity trivia, cars or life hacks, you can put up articles about anything as long as it doesn't advocate violence, show people how to do something illegal, and wouldn't be considered pornography.

If you're looking for examples check out my InfoBarrel author page and read some of my posts.

How Much Can I Make?

Depends, how many page views can you get?

InfoBarrel is just like any of the aforementioned sites in that you are there to get your ads seen. That means you need to have thousands of hits per month (or per day if you can swing that bat) in order to hit the $60 minimum payout (don't complain, Google AdSense's minimum payout is $100).

It also depends on how creative you get.
There are a lot of ways to start stacking greenbacks in your account. One way is to create a lot of content so that you'll get a huge amount of page views just be sheer weight of numbers (this is kind of how Dean Koontz got rich). Another method is to create very targeted content that will have a lot of appeal to a certain demographic; flower arranging, green energy home solutions, tabletop roleplaying guides, all of these are meant to pull in people who share a narrow interest. Some people just hope they become a viral sensation, bringing in a few hundred thousand hits with nothing more than luck and the power of zeitgeist.

Will you make enough to quit your job? Not for a long while, barring some stunning luck. Will you be able to create an income stream that will help support you and which can win you a bigger audience?

Yeah, you should be able to manage that.

If you'd like to join Infobarrel today just click my referral link!

If you'd like to support the Literary Mercenary then stop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! Seriously, as little as .50 per entry or $1 a month can make a big difference when everyone works together. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then make sure to follow me on Facebook and Tumblr!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Tips For Tightening Up Your Writing

Writers more than almost anyone else are prone to go mad around the new year. We promise to write this, edit that, finish this project, and finally get around to publishing that one secret story we've never put to paper before. By and large the madness passes by the time Valentine's Day rolls around, and we get back to business.

Some resolutions are well-meaning though. A few of them are even necessary. If you made a resolution to sharpen your stories by tightening up your prose, let me hand you a whetstone.

The metaphors are mixed, but you get the thrust of it I'm sure.

Tip #1: Take Out Unnecessary Words

The kingdom of the novel is full of swooping paths that lead through mountains and caves, round huge lakes and across the seas. You can write however much you want, but many writers use this freedom as an excuse to create loose prose hung with extraneous words like a gypsy fortune-teller's baubles. While the loose, flowy prose is interesting, even engaging, it's all too easy to trip on the excess.

One of the best ways to eliminate roundabout writing full of phrases like I reached out my hand to take it is to write short fiction. I highly recommend everyone write at least some short fiction before taking on a novel because it teaches you to trim the fat and get to the point. If you only have 3k or 5k words to tell your story in you learn really damn quickly to cut out adverbs you don't need, and to remove instances of words like that, just, up, down, and others.

Words. Do. Not. Bleed.
Every writer has words that keep showing up in text which could easily be removed. For instance say you wrote, Terese sat down on the chair, sighed quietly to herself, and put down her book on the side table. A tighter, smoother sentence would read, Terese sat, sighed, and laid her book on the side table.

One sentence doesn't make a lot of difference to your overall word count, but if you go through your entire manuscript and trim the fat you'll see thousands of words vanish. You'll also notice your writing style is punchier, and easier to read.

Tip #2: Ask What This Scene Is Showing Us

Imagine for a moment that you were making a movie. You need to ask what every camera angle, every action scene, and every word of dialogue is telling your audience. For instance if there was a 5-minute scene in the middle of Casablanca where Rick played solitaire after he got drunk in the bar what would we get out of that? Does it act as a setting for a monologue? It is a statement on how he's desperate to do absolutely anything but face his lover's return? Or is it a waste of 5 minutes that would be better spent focusing on an actual aspect of the drama that's going on in the story?

This is why we scrapped the scenes with Legolas's kid sister.
This is one thing that books and movies share; if a scene has no purpose you need to cut it.

It can be hard sometimes to figure out if a scene has purpose, or if you're faffing about. For instance, does that scene with your lead catching coffee with her mom show us important things about how she was raised and the sort of relationship she has with a female role model, or was it just stuffed in there as a way to eat up word count? Is the action scene where your detective takes down a team of three bank robbers a gratuitous shootout, or does it illustrate the sort of man he is when lives are on the line and he has to do his job?

These aren't always easy calls to make, but your job is to tell the story. Does the story benefit from following your teenage monster hunter through every high school class every day of the week, or should we just skip to the part where she's tracking a werewolf on Wednesday afternoon while ditching Spanish III?

Tip #3: Listen To Your Beta Readers, and Kill Your Darlings

They'll never feel a thing.
Every author has beta readers (here are the 5 types every author should have). These are the men and women you trust to tell you if you got your facts right, if your characters are going off the rails, and if you've got holes in your plot. For some reason though when beta readers tell authors they should really get rid of a certain scene they flip their collective shit. They couldn't possibly get rid of the spunky kid sister, or cut out the long reminiscence about the lead's first ever sexual encounter. It's special... and important... and...

And I've got news for you; your word babies are no exception to the rules of good writing. Stories are stories, and if you put in a scene, plot twist, character, etc. that isn't passing muster it's your job to drum it out.

That doesn't mean you should immediately cut out a scene that you feel strongly about. You need to talk with your betas (or editors, or both) about why they feel this thing should be removed. Does the scene repeat an important point that's already been mentioned and thus comes across as unnecessary repetition? Is it just fan service in the event it's a pointless shoot out, sex scene, etc.? Is it offensive, a common complaint with profanity, violence, rape scenes, and other elements? You might decide to keep a scene even if it's been suggested you should delete it, but make sure you're doing it to remain true to the story and not because you have an attachment to that particular piece of prose.

Tip #4: Avoid Metaphor Vomit

This one is a warning based on my personal experience. Writing a great metaphor is a satisfying experience, but metaphors are the spice of your prose. If you use them too much then pretty soon you have one big symbolic mess that is difficult to make any sense out of.

A few solid metaphors are good. Make sure they're spread out so you have plenty of normal, easy-to-read text between them.

Hopefully you found this week's Literary Mercenary helpful. Good hunting to my fellow authors in 2015, and if you'd like to help support me drop by my Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you catch all of my updates then follow me on Facebook and Tumblr as well!