Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Sell More Books (By Always Being Ready To Sell More Books)

I'd like to start this week's entry off with a story. There's a local Chinese buffet in my town, and when I have a big story on my mind along with a big hole in my stomach I like to go there with a writer friend of mine to talk over plot while eating until I feel I have ingested my money's worth. Several years ago I was engaged in this pleasant past time, and discussing a novel idea I was contemplating. We were going back and forth on the finer points of plot when a woman I'd never met before stopped at our table and asked what we were talking about.

"We're writers," my friend said with a pleasant smile.

"Oh," our guest said, returning the smile in kind. "Are you working on a book?"

"Indeed we are," I said.

Right here is what professional authors whose books aren't flying off the shelves refer to as the sweet spot (or some variation thereof). What I had was a total stranger who had approached me of her own volition, and who was interested in my craft. The appropriate response for such a chance encounter would be to perhaps ask if she liked to read science fiction or fantasy (I had a story of each genre available for sale at the time), and if she was a fan of either/both genres to hand her a business card and tell her to take a look at my work. Perhaps I could even go so far as to offer her a free digital copy for finding the author "in the wild" instead of at an event.

That isn't what happened, though. Instead we all sat in a slightly awkward silence before she walked off, and my friend and I went back to our food and our conversation.

Five minutes later, I did this.
It's all too easy to let yourself sink into a routine, as an author. When you go to a book signing event, or you're at a convention as a panelist or a guest, you've got your professional face on. You're there to show people how awesome you are, and if all goes well to persuade them to buy a copy of everything you've ever had published. When you're just living your day-to-day life, though, you tend to leave your game face at home.

If you want to sell more books, don't do that.

I'm not saying that you should carry a briefcase with a full press kit in it everywhere you go, but it's a good idea to keep your professional face in your back pocket along with a few business cards and maybe a promotional bookmark or two. When you're at a bookstore or a convention you're fighting for attention, and it's kind of like you're one of a hundred other people in an orange vest during deer season. You're competing with all these other head hunters, and the readers know you're gunning for them. But if someone just walks up to you at a party, in the park, or in a restaurant it's like you're sitting on your back porch, rifle over your knees, and a deer just walks right out of the woods and stood there in your sights.

So what's your book about?
There's another benefit to this author-in-the-wild setup as well. At a convention, a book signing, or any other event, you're an expected presence. Finding an author at a convention is about as surprising or unusual as finding an 80s action movie on TV on a weekday afternoon. This means that unless you pull out all the stops and make a big impression you're going to fade into the background.

Meeting an author in a place you don't expect to meet one, though, makes the experience special. It's like how seeing a tiger at the zoo is no big deal, but seeing one while you're at the coffee shop is something you're going to talk about for weeks. As a tiger who writes books, this can be a huge advantage for you. Not only will you have no competition for a reader who is enthralled that a creature like you can be found in such a normal place, but that reader is more likely to tell other people about you. Whether she has a few friends in a reading group, or a thousand followers on Facebook is impossible for you to know. If you send her away with your business card, a smile, and the promise of a free book, however, you're a lot closer to finding a fan (and even better a fan that will talk about you) than you were five minutes ago.

While we're on the subject of selling books...
As a closer, did you know that May is National Short Story Month? As my last post for the month I'd like to let all my readers know that my new book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam is now available! You can find it, along with a dozen other books, on my Amazon author page. The first two stories are free, so why not click over and see if this is the book you've been looking for?

As always, thanks for stopping in! If you'd like to support me and my blog, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and even on Twitter.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why Writing Horror is Hard

Book genres are a little like high school stereotypes. Romance is the head of the drama club, always over-acting and swooning onto over-stuffed couches. Sci-fi is the fellow in horn-rimmed glasses with a calculator that clocks more power than your main computer, and who may or may not have a work table with a functional light saber on it. Westerns and Adventure novels are the inseparable tough guys; lords of the grid-iron, a little pushy, a little on the slow side, but good enough when you remind them to act like people. And Horror... well...

Horror is, to put it bluntly, the kid everyone was afraid of. You know the one; death metal tee-shirt, homemade piercings, and that glint in his eye. Some people said he was harmless, and other people knew that somewhere deep down inside it was only a matter of time till the bomb went off.

You knew something was wrong when you discovered his happy place.
The problem is that a lot of readers fall into that, "you don't really take him seriously, do you?" category when it comes to horror. That's easy to do, particularly when the only sort of horror you've seen involves brutal, pointless torture under bright fluorescent lights. However, Nihilism in a hockey mask does not horror make. If you're wondering why your attempts to chill your readers' blood are coming out lukewarm at best, then you may have forgotten...

Horror is Quiet

I'm only going to say this once; jump scares are not horror. Roaring chainsaws, snarling monsters, and howling beasts are not horror. Horror is not a scream as a crazy person runs toward you with a fire ax. That may be scary, or unsettling, but it isn't horror. Horror is a whisper you can barely hear, but which you're sure is somewhere right behind you. You might even see what it is, if you're brave enough, and you can turn fast enough.

There is no Slender Man in this picture.
You know how in the movie Alien we never really get a look at the creature in its full form? We see the aftermath, we hear it in the walls, and we catch glimpses as it skulks and skitters from the corners of our eyes, but we never really see it. In an original cut of the film when Ripley was stuck in the escape pod with it there was a scene where we got to watch the creature stand up and face her. A full-on, no tricks, fully lit shot of the alien rearing to its full height to stare down our heroine. Do you know what that did?

It destroyed the horror. Because when put out under bright lights it was really, really easy to see it was just a guy in a humanoid suit that wasn't really very scary.

The lesson you should take away from this is subtlety. Good horror is like good sex. It starts slow, builds tension and anticipation, and then when you can't take it anymore bodily fluids fountain all over the place while people scream.

Horror is Intimate

Let's go back to that sex thing for a moment. Let's say you're in bed, and you know you have a night of much-anticipated intimacy coming. Your partner kisses you softly, and says they'll be right back. You hear them pad to the bathroom, and shiver as you strip off your clothes. You lay there in the dim light, and you hear them returning. You see their silhouette, and smile. They slide into bed with you, you kiss them, and that's when you realize something is terribly, terribly wrong.

Her eyes... what happened to her eyes...
The point I'm making here is that horror doesn't come at you when you're expecting it. It follows you, smiles at you, and makes you think it's just another story. You don't notice that it's getting closer and closer, until you turn and realize you're nose-to-nose with a fang-toothed fiend. In order for horror to be effective it has to get under the reader's skin. It has to make the reader trust it, and be willing to take off their clothes (in this case a lowering of their mental and emotional barriers). And then, only when the reader is really ready can horror show itself and have a real impact.

Horror is Personal (And Visceral)

Everyone has a friend with a weird fear. Maybe it's raw meat, or little spiders, or old people. Regardless of what it is, though, a situation that would barely even register in your mind could leave your friend rattled for hours, if not for days.

Horror knows what those things are, and it seeks them out in every, individual reader.

Oh god, it's coming right at me!
In order to be effective horror needs to be visceral. It needs to reach right into the readers' guts and start yanking on their cables. For instance, is your reader afraid of spiders? If so then all you'll need to do is mention a character seeing a bulbous, black-bodied arachnid perched in its web, with the wet jewels of its multi-faceted eyes twinkling in the twilight. Other readers may not have an inherent fear of spiders, so just seeing it won't be enough. In that case you'll need to have it scuttling across a dirty wall, jerking back and forth in an unsettling pattern. Perhaps a character sees it feeding, mummifying a tiny victim before spiking into its body and draining it of blood like a vampire with segmented limbs. Maybe your reader needs to feel the pin-pricks of tiny, hairy legs as it drags its body along your character's arm, or the chittering sound before the spider plugs his ear by crawling inside.

That last one got you, didn't it?

There are certain, nearly-universal things that will trigger revulsion and horror in someone. One is a violation of the self, but others may include injuries and pain, sensations and tastes, or even smells and sounds. The agony of torn muscles or snapped ligaments can make stoic readers squirm, and descriptions of the miasma of rotting carcasses or the slimy, clingy feeling of swamp muck as it tries to pull someone under can hit a reader right where his or her amygdala lives.

Know what scares people, and be able to turn on the ghoul lamp no matter how mundane something should be.

Horror is Real

One of the primary reasons horror is hard to write is that you have to make the reader believe it. More often than not you have to convince the reader that werewolves, zombies, curses, ghosts, and a bevy of other beasts and monstrosities are not only real, but that they're in the room right now!

Can't tell if drunks... or shambling corpses...
Horror, more than almost any other genre, requires an iron-clad suspension of disbelief. Every person your reader meets, every average day and long night needs to feel authentic. From the dialogue your heroes engage in, to the urban legends they encounter, everything needs to be organic. If they come across as artificial then your audience might see behind the curtain. On the other hand one reason that small-town-with-dark-secret stories work (and have arguably made Stephen King into a millionaire) is that we believe these places and people are real.

The internal logic says that if the small-town professor, his wife, and his son are real, and his neighbors, the highway he lives near, and even the town he works in are real, then of course the ancient burial ground that resurrects the dead must be real, too.

Shadows and Starlight

For all its power to elicit terror and to make the pulse race, horror is a fragile thing. You know your book can't actually harm the reader, and the reader knows it, too. You have an empty gun. Your job is to hold that empty gun to your audience's head and convince them, at least for a moment when you cock that hammer, that there really is a bullet in that chamber.

Do you feel lucky, punk?

If you'd like to see how well my horror measures up to this guide then check out American Nightmare by clicking the link below the picture, or check through the other titles available on my Amazon Author Page. If you'd like to support me and my blog so that I can keep producing content like this then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or all three.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Do Book Series Really Sell More Books Than Stand-Alone Novels?

I'd like to start this week's post off by reminding everyone that May is national short story month. If you want to get into the spirit of the holi-month, then take a look at New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam!

You get two stories free, but be careful, this book has teeth!
Now that I've done my duty and informed you of that tasty little tidbit, let's move onto this week's topic, shall we?

Do Novel Series Sell Better Than Stand-Alones?

With the jaw-dropping success of books like A Song of Ice and Fire or Harry Potter, to say nothing of The Hunger Games or The Wheel of Time, lots of authors with money on their minds are eyeing the series as a way to get their hands on fat stacks of greenbacks. All they need to do is pull a J.K. Rowling and, bam, they're sipping champagne on Good Life Beach.

Dibs on the blue one!
This logic isn't wrong... the problem is, of course, that the chances of your book series being the next Harry Potter is about the same as you picking a particular grain of sand out of the above picture. While we know that in the thinky-thinky parts of our brains, we often don't really come to terms with it until we've launched out boats and watched them sunk in the Amazon sea.

Is It Really A Better Idea To Write A Series?

Here's how the logic goes for authors who want to write a series as a way to sell more books. You tell a story that will take somewhere between three and twelve books, and by hooking readers with one book you'll make sure they keep coming back every time you put out a new one. You won't just sell a few extra copies of your previous books; you'll sell every previous book because people want to get caught up on your series as a whole.

That sound pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Before you start jotting notes on book four's plot arc, though, you need to ask yourself:

- Does your story require a series?
- Do you have the staying power to write a series?
- What if your first book flops?

These are some serious questions you need to answer before you start working on that 10-book monster between your ears. Nothing is worse than writing a series that leads off strong, but where character arcs meander, the thread of the plot gets lost, and your cast has to re-hash things that have already been solved in past installments. Coming in at second and third place in the awful-shit trifecta is an author that doesn't have the muscle to keep a series going, or who pins an entire career on a series that brains itself on the concrete fresh out of the gate.

We know what the best-case scenario for a series is; you sell a million copies, tell your manager to suck it, and get a contract guaranteeing you a six-figure advance for the next three books in your series. But what about the worst-case scenario? What do you do when you pour everything into the knock-out punch that is your first book, only to get a sea of form rejection letters? Do you work on book two of the series hoping the first one will eventually get picked up, thereby putting all of your chips on black? Or do you move on to a different project and then try to get your series published later?

Overlooked Truths

It's true that by writing a series of books you will have a bigger product on the market for your readers to check out. But the question you need to ask is whether or not a trilogy of books, or a five book series, will sell better than three or five stand-alone novels. Maybe it will, and maybe it won't. What if those novels are set in a shared world, so they get the benefits of cameos and tie-ins without sharing a plot? What if they're in different genres, which results in you drawing fans from different spectra?

What if you gave away a free gun to every 500th reader?
The point is there is no guaranteed way to sell more books, except to write more books and to write them well. The number of books you sell is dictated by your fan base, and how famous you are. That's why you could write a fantastic story of love and triumph, a riveting tale of heroism under fire, and you will still be out-sold by Jenny McCarthy.

Can you sell a huge number of books with a series? Sure you can! But it pays to look at the potential your series has to fail, as well as the potential it has to rise. If you're already established, you have an agent, or you have a company that is more than happy to take your series as you finish it, then that's probably a good investment. If you don't... well, you might be in for a very rude awakening.

My recommendation? Try a stand-alone first. If you really want to be adventurous then write a book that can stand on its own, or which can become the first in a series. That way if it does well you can keep going, and if it bombs you can move onto the next project without tying your next half dozen projects to a book that some publishers (and readers) may consider a boat anchor.

If you'd like to support this blog then make sure you stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you catch all of my updates then be sure to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and now on Twitter as well!

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Asexual Awareness in Fiction

I want you to do something for me. Pick up any kind of pulp fiction from the early part of the 20th century, and give it a read. I want you to focus particularly on how these books portray minority characters. In Robert E. Howard's work you'll see black men with sloping foreheads and savage natures, and in H.P. Lovecraft's stories you'll see swarthy foreigners who are always in league with fell, ancient powers. The portrayal of characters of color as either brutal savages, evil villains, or hopelessly incompetent caricatures wasn't in every story being told at the time, but it was common enough that phrases like, "if it's brown, take it down," exist for explaining how to survive in some of these fictional worlds.

Do you have a point?
The point is that these stories came from a time long before the civil rights movement in the 1960s. They were written before the creation of the Internet, and while international book sales did happen they were nowhere near as common as they are today with our point-and-click digital book buying. In short they were written in a time where the authors felt they could portray parts of society who didn't have a voice in any negative, patronizing, or outright prejudiced way they wanted to.

The good news is, of course, that the parts of society being maligned by their representations in fiction eventually made their voices heard, and we've taken care of such obvious negativity.

Haven't we?

Asexuals: An Overlooked Minority

You've obviously read the title of this post so you know where I'm going with this. So let's address the big, hulking elephant in the room; asexuals exist. The simple definition is that asexuals are people who feel no sexual attraction. They are not psychologically deranged, they aren't celibate, and they aren't in need of a good bang to fix them. They are simply people for whom sex holds no interest.

It's more complicated of course, but we're sticking to simple definitions here. You can get more nuanced info at The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network.

But that's unpossible?
Yes, Spot, that's the reaction a lot of people have. Ever since some jackass with a gift for clever wordplay said, "Sex is what makes us human," people have clung to sexual desire as a standard feature of the human experience. If someone lacks this feature then people will freak out about it, either demanding proof that this person isn't just feigning a lack of interest, or trying to "fix" someone who identifies as asexual, aromantic, or both.

There's even a cool term you get for checking both boxes; aro-ace.

Ignoring that flies, fish, and ferrets all fuck, and are no more human for the experience, this belief shines through really strongly in our fiction. Aro-ace author Lauren Jankowski weighed in on the subject.

"Basically, in the modern era when it comes to mainstream entertainment, most characters who can be read as asexual are non-human. My own experience with it is that I've found tons of villains that were asexuals, but very few heroes (a lot of Disney villainesses can be read as either asexual or queer, which is incredibly aggravating). I know some people have observed that a lot of fantasy creatures (dragons, aliens, etc.) are often portrayed as asexual."

She's got a point.

Take a moment and ask yourself when was the last time you saw a character who could be read as asexual (not even one who out-and-out said it, just one you could interpret that way) in a heroic role. Hell, even a neutral role. Some of you might be able to come up with Sherlock Holmes or Hercules Poirot, but aside from a few great detectives who else is on the roster that is undeniably human whose lack of interest in sex isn't made to make them seem alien or "other" to you as the reader? And how often when it's brought up that there's no sexual partner in this character's life does Hollywood decide to throw one at this character just to show that no, they totally do sex.

Why Do We Do That?

Lauren went on to say that part of the problem she's experienced as both a reader and writer is that the hierarchy of relationships in society puts sex at the top. Put another way, if you're not banging someone then they're obviously less important than the person you are engaging in bedroom aerobics with. This means that platonic relationships, whether they be chaste love or closely-bonded friendships, are put on the bottom shelf.

So what should you do? Well, that depends on your story.

If you want to write a bodice-ripper, far be it for me to tell you not to. If you want to give your readers a payoff where you CIA assassin and his KGB counterpart go into hiding to live and love away from both nations, I'm certainly not going to stop you. Love in all of its gooey forms makes a lot of stories work, and without it their engines grind to a halt.

But the next time you're thinking about labeling your heroine as aromantic so the audience will view her as damaged, or you're contemplating making someone asexual as either a gag or so the reader won't identify with that character... don't. Why? Well because there are people in your potential audience who will see that, and who have had more than enough of that kind of treatment.

Secondly, it's lazy writing. You can do better than that.

If you'd like to see more from Lauren Jankowski check out her author page, and stop by Asexual Artists, an ongoing project she's running to help put the spotlight on asexual individuals in the arts.

If you'd like to support me then just stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today! If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then be sure to follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and yes, even on Twitter.