Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Inspiration, Black Magic, and Spite: The Creation of "Little Gods" in The Big Bad II

As I warned people way back in my first post I occasionally take time to talk about what I'm doing with my career. Today is one of those posts, and this is the reason why.

Buy The Big Bad II on Amazon! Seriously, do it.
This book, as you might have guessed, is an anthology edited by John G. Hartness (he hosted a guest post of mine titled Stories Beyond Good and Evil) and Emily Lavin Leverett. The 24 stories inside the collection are all about bad characters doing some truly evil things, and they're the protagonists we follow. My story, "Little Gods" is one of the contributions to the book. As such today I'd like to talk a little bit about that story, about inspiration, and about how some of the best ideas will come at you out of sheer spite.

Inspiration Comes In Many Forms

I do not remember the title, or even the complete plot, of the first modern fantasy book I read. I do remember I was about 10 or 11 years old, I found it in a stack of my grandfather's old dollar store paperbacks, and the cover was a thing of pulp fiction glory. It was the traditional shot of a detective in an overcoat and fedora with his back to the wall and his gat in his hand looking down a dark alley with a beautiful dame pressed up against him, except the alley was full of a black cloud covered in red eyes, and the dame had pale skin and two bright red pinpricks on her neck. As you might guess the story was about a private eye who took a job from a vampire. They questioned trolls, sweated ghouls, and used shapeshifting magic and rune-etched bullets to cut a swath through the dark underbelly of this town.

I was completely and irredeemably hooked.

When people ask me how it feels to write, I just show them this image.
Like any avid reader who discovered a new genre I kept my eyes peeled for more. While a good private detective story would always hit the spot there was just something particularly satisfying about one of those stories that also involved a werewolf, or a vampire, or any of a trove of other beloved monsters. Over the years I realized something though; while there was a lot of modern fantasy on the market there were definite sour notes ringing in my ears.

What were some of the cardinal sins I kept seeing the genre commit over and over again? Well there was using mythical figures as props and place holders instead of turning them into actual characters and parts of your story (Neil Gaiman's American Gods is the opposite of what I'm complaining about). Another big problem for me was seeing stories which had the power progression and magic system of a roleplaying game, which led to main characters starting off as low-powered boots on the ground and ended several books later with them fighting archangels with ancient swords and punching the devil in the face. I wanted to know why so many worlds had huge, global organizations to keep supernatural things a secret when those creatures had consistently kept themselves in the shadows for most of human civilization. I watched as story after story focused on spectacle and coolness factor without providing the sort of atmosphere, hard character choices, and gray areas I'd come to love.

That said, I have a rule when it comes to complaining. Don't criticize unless you're willing to step up and swing for the fences. That's why I decided to create my own modern fantasy world.

Chicago Strange and The Little Gods of The City

My goal in writing "Little Gods" was to craft a short, sharp story that would grab readers by the back of the neck and shove them face first into the demimonde. I wanted to bring readers to a place where the shadows are deeper, the alleys narrower, and the secrets more blasphemous than they're used to. A place where old magic rots in the meat beneath the concrete scabs of the city, and where horrors the uninitiated will never know dance in the darkness.

A place ruled by the Little Gods.

You can hear them if you pray hard, and listen harder.
What are the Little Gods you ask? They are the gods of the city, and the myths of the modern men and women. The Shoot-Up Man, who hands you a needle full of poison and a smile full of promises as you pass him on by. Skid Row Sue, the pretty girl in the tattered dress who wants you to take her home to join the bones in the basement. The Hook Man, who slavers and babbles while he stalks lovers' lane with murder on his mind. They're urban legends whose myths are told and re-told, keeping them vital and powerful.

The Little Gods are not omnipotent though; they can be killed. Their mantles, their crowns, their titles can be passed on to someone else. That's why urban legends take on new names, new faces, and their stories change over the years. There's always a killer lurking on highway two, and before the Hook Man it was Bloody Jacob with his father's straight razor. Before him it was Katey Hatchet the butcher's daughter. Before her it was the Wendigo, and before the Wendigo probably something else.

Our story opens up when someone decides to steal the crown of the Little God of Murder.

Darker Shades of Gray

The tale begins with the Sterile Saint putting word on the street that she wants Richard Blackheart to come find her. The warlock-for-hire comes looking for the Saint, and finds out that she has a plan to rob the Hook Man of his glory. All she needs is muscle, and she's willing to pay his price. There's more to Blackheart than his reputation suggests though, and his client finds out too late that when you buy trouble from the Bad Luck Man you get every penny of what you pay for.

There are a lot of reasons for you to read The Big Bad II in general, and "Little Gods" in particular. It's a story that provides all the darkness you could ask for, and an extra serving of grit for you to swish around in your cheek. It paints a picture of a uniquely bizarre world, and it gives you a snapshot of the kinds of macabre wonders that lurk in out-of-the-way places. Lastly though it strips out good and evil, leaving you in a world where there is only power and those who use it.

Who's the hero? Who's the villain? That's up to you when you get your copy of The Big Bad II.

As always loyal readers, thanks for stopping in and checking out what I have to say. If you'd like to help support me and this blog then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today! If you're worried you might miss an update then make sure you also follow me on Facebook and Tumblr to stay in the loop.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Is Public Domain, and What Does It Mean For Your Novel?

Two weeks ago I wrote a post titled Copyright Myths Authors Should Know About, and given how popular that post was I thought I'd follow it up with a piece about public domain. I'll explain what public domain is, how it works, and why that novel you're working on either is or isn't fan fiction, depending on the copyright of the original work.

So let's get started, shall we?

What Is Public Domain?

Public domain is a legal term used to describe a creative work (book, film, song, etc.) whose copyright either expired or never existed in the first place, thus making it something everyone can use. As a quick for instance the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker never had an American copyright, so the novel can be printed and distributed by any company looking to make a profit. If you want to make a movie based only off of Bram Stoker's novel, or write a story using those characters, then you my friend are good to go because there is no copyright for you to infringe on. You can get more about public domain's legal definition here at Wisegeek.

Public domain is what you get when you pull copyright's teeth.

How Do I Know If Something Is Public Domain?

Figuring out whether something is or isn't in the public domain can be difficult. Fortunately there's a handy list at Teaching Copyright which will show you how to identify whether something has lapsed into the public domain. As a general rule of thumb anything that's common knowledge (names, dates, and other facts), titles, common symbols, and everything published in the United States before 1923 are all public domain works. That includes classics like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Three Musketeers, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and thousands of others.

Sounds legit.
Before you decide to just start using a work because it's old though you need to check to be sure it's actually lapsed into the public domain. While you won't catch any flak for writing a high fantasy version of the Iliad, characters like The Shadow might still be owned by someone.

Why Use Public Domain Works?

One of the big questions people have when it comes to public domain works, settings, and characters is why would you use them? After all shouldn't you try to create something truly unique, and stand on your own two feet as an artist?

Clearly this mysterious questioner is unaware of the pull of fan fiction.

'Nuff said.
People like what's familiar, and as evidenced by Hollywood re-imaginings and re-boots are popular as hell. They also have a long and storied tradition, particularly during the pulp fiction era when multiple writers would use ideas and mention items from other stories. This created a weird, shared-author canon that led to creations like the Cthulhu Mythos which was begun by H.P. Lovecraft, but contributed to by his contemporaries in their own stories.

In some cases public domain works allow you to use an established world to tell a new story. Whether it's the deserts of Barsoom or the darkened streets of Arkham, Massachusetts there's a huge amount of world-building done for you. The rules of the cosmos, the politics of the land, even the timeline is set for you. Not only that but there's a built-in fan base. If you say the word "Cthulhu" people will immediately zero in on you and give you a chance to throw out your line. If you tell someone you're writing faithful cases for Holmes and Watson then there is going to be an interest even if you don't have Benedict Cumberbatch signed on with your project.

Public domain worlds and characters are some of the most often told stories we have. While you might not become the next bestseller writing a story about how Frankenstein's monster and Edward Hyde had to team up to fight a legion of resurrected corpses possessed by demons and led by Jack the Ripper I guarantee you that book will turn a few heads. Before you get started though make sure that the characters as well as the work are public domain. Some of Bugs Bunny's earliest appearances are public domain for instance, but Bugs himself is a trademarked character which means that despite a few episodes of his antics being free for all he himself remains off limits.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Hazards of Writing What You Know

Write what you know.

It's perhaps the first piece of serious writing advice anyone gets, and it is one of the most repeated pieces of advice writers hear. It's good advice too, because after all who better to write about homicide investigation, psychological therapy, or murder than someone who's done it before?

Pictured: An expert in all three.
While there is a certain amount of logic to this line of reasoning though there are hazards that come with taking these four words too closely to heart and not balancing them out with anything else. Some of those pitfalls include...

Being Too Thorough

There's a fine line between doing your research and boring your audience. Crime scene investigation is a good example. Being a CSI tech is an important job, and there's a lot of work involved in the job. But if you get into the minutia of the chemical sprays involved, the layers of precautions taken to protect you from contaminating the crime scene, and the sheer amount of tedium involved in testing and re-testing the same evidence to be sure that your results are correct chances are your audience is going to stop caring in a big damn hurry.

And then you inject the mitochondrial membrane with...
There's a difference between being realistic and covering every, single detail of what your professionals do. Have a doctor, a medical examiner, or a hairdresser as the lead in your story by all means, but don't bog your reader down with unnecessary details that don't advance the story or which aren't necessary for your book to make sense. Just because you find the process of how a public defender gets assigned a case to be fascinating doesn't mean your audience really cares so long as a lawyer shows up to defend the character accused of manslaughter.

You'll Never Branch Out

It's a good idea to write about situations and events you can make believable. That doesn't mean you should write about the same thing over and over again though. For instance you might hit your stride writing novels that always involve horses, and if you manage to carve a niche out doing that then good for you. If you aren't Dick Francis though you're going to start getting pretty predictable pretty quickly, especially when every book is about a jockey tracking down someone poisoning horses, rigging races, or corruption on a race track. I call this Scooby-Doo Syndrome, and it's a great way for your work to get stagnant in record time.

I'm sure there's another example here somewhere...
You should indeed write about things you know; it is never a good idea to make things up when you can track down the facts and get it right, especially if people reading your story will point out that you botched something important that puts a big hole right in the middle of your plot. So write what you know, but make sure you branch out so you know as much as possible.

It Will Be Hard To Keep Yourself Out Of The Story

Nothing is more embarrassing than realizing you've accidentally put yourself in your novel (except perhaps trying to explain to people that no, it's totally necessary for you to be mentioned by name in your own damn novel). Authors can avoid doing this by writing characters who come from different backgrounds, or who have different religions, ethnicities, sexual preferences, gender, etc. One of the easiest ways to put that necessary barrier between yourself and your character(s) is to write something other than what you already know.

Like being eloquent and well-spoken, perhaps?
There's always going to be a little of yourself in your characters, it's something you can't avoid and something you shouldn't really try to. But when your author photo and bio reads more like your character introduction than not it might be time to back up and re-evaluate whether you're too close to the project and what effect that's having on the book. Unless you're Ian Fleming... seriously Ian Fleming was James Bond.

No Advice Is Universal

It's important to remember no writing advice is absolute. The reason for that is because every book, just like every author is unique. What might be good for one particular young adult novel about the son of a sea hag coming into his heritage won't necessarily be good for a particular gritty, hard-boiled thriller about a detective chasing down the terrorist splinter-cell who killed her partner. You should always take advice, even good advice, with a grain of salt. Even if you find it right here at the Literary Mercenary.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Copyright Myths Authors Should Know About

Authors are no strangers to bullshit. We listen to book reviewers, we have agents, we troll forums; we are constantly immersed in a world of people who think they know what they're talking about. Sometimes this can be helpful, like when we meet other authors with more experience, or when we chat with representatives or publishers. A lot of the time though we meet people who are spouting absolute tripe they heard from their second cousin who's writing a slash fiction of John Carter and Tars Tarkas. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference, which is why this week the Literary Mercenary is talking about copyright.

What Is It?

Before we get into too many details let's talk about what a copyright actually is. According to the U.S. Copyright Office copyright is a legal right for someone to make copies of, sell, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or other creative work. A copyright is good for the life of the author, and then for a period of 70 years after the author dies. If the work was anonymous then copyright lasts 95 years from the date of publication, or 120 years from the date of creation (whatever comes first).

The deaths of characters are inconsequential to the life of a copyright.
Those are the basics. Despite how simple copyright sounds though we get all kinds of confused about what actually comes after. It's why we have myths like...

If You Don't Register It Then People Will Steal Your Idea!

I don't know how many paranoid scribblers I've met who won't tell anyone what their books are about, and who have fits at the very idea that someone might read it before it's published. They mail copies of their stories to themselves, and tell you that until you register your work with the U.S. copyright office that it isn't copyrighted and anyone can steal it.

This is a 10-pound tub of bullshit.

I should know... I filled it!
Every work you create has a copyright from the moment it's created according to this. Remember that the next time someone offers to "help you out" by charging a "nominal fee" to get your work copyrighted.

I'm Not Infringing The Copyright Because I Spelled It Different!

I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you are.

We're not talking about public domain works; that's a whole different kettle of fish. What we're talking about is taking a popular work that is copyrighted (say Twilight for instance) and then writing your own strange, twisted sex fantasy using the same world and the same characters. That's derivative fiction, and it requires the copyright holder to give you the okay to do it. You can't just publish that work and claim that it doesn't violate the initial author's copyright.

*coughs uncomfortably*
There are all sorts of derivative works on the market. That said, no, someone can't just copy your work, switch around the I and the E in your lead's name, and then just claim that their book is different. That goes both ways.

But Fair Use!

For those of you not familiar with fair use it's a legal idea that says in certain, narrow circumstances you can reproduce a copyrighted work without violating the copyright, or having to pay a fee in order to do so. If you're reviewing the item in question, using it for scholarly research or using it in the classroom then generally speaking your intent falls under fair use. The same goes for parodies and other forms of commentary more often than not.

That's why no one sues this guy when he writes songs more popular than the ones they're based on.
Fair use is very, very limited though. You can't lift whole chapters, paragraphs, or even lines from poems or songs without running into the question of how much is too much for fair use. More often than not fair use won't protect you if you're making money off of someone else's material in some way, shape, or form (see the above caption for one of the only exceptions to this rule).

I Can't Put My Story Online, I'll Lose My Copyright!

No, you won't.

There's this weird idea that persists among people that if you found it online then it's public domain. If there's no little "c" symbol then the work isn't copyrighted and you're free to take and use it. If someone is offering you a free download or a file transfer then it's totally cool. No, it isn't; it's piracy, and you can be sued for it.

I feel a "but" coming on...
There are buts, and all authors should be aware of them. First of all you can sign away your copyright. For instance, say that you took a job from Tor to write a short story for an anthology. Part of this contract is that you will be paid $400 for the short, but all of the rights concerning it no longer belong to you as the creator. This is one of the only ways you can lose your copyright; because you sold it as stipulated in a contract. "Work For Hire" is the phrase to look out for with this one.

The other issue involves publishing rights, which is different from copyright and often a source of confusion. Say you get a contract from Random House for a novel you've posted online (maybe you wrote it for NaNoWriMo or something, I don't know). RH might want exclusive worldwide print rights (meaning no other company can make print copies). They might also want exclusive, first-run digital rights... which might be an issue if it's been sitting up on the Internet for the world to see. On the one hand no, you have not given away your copyright. But what you have done is published it in a medium, which means that you can't give someone else the right to be first. That's the trade off; if you do publish your work in any way (self, small, or big name) then you've used some rights to that work.

That's it for this week's entry, though feel free to comment if you have questions or want to see other topics covered in the next Business of Writing entry I do. If you'd like to support this blog then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and consider becoming a patron today! If you want to keep up on all the latest and greatest for my updates then make sure you're following me on Facebook and Tumblr as well!