Thursday, June 25, 2015

Is Having A Bad Job Worse Than Having No Job?

I remember, quite vividly, the first experience I ever had as a professional writer. It was the second semester of my freshman year in college, and I saw an ad in the student paper looking for reporters. I started submitting features to the paper the very next week, and at the end of the semester I had a check for $75 in my hand for all my hard work. It wasn't enough to pay for a month's rent, and it was barely enough to cover a decent grocery bill, but that payment represented something more than the numbers that followed the dollar sign; it was hard proof that someone, somewhere, thought I had enough skill as a writer to give me money for it.

That experience was like throwing jet fuel onto a dying blaze. Confident that I'd done it once, I sought out other writing work. I changed colleges, and was given my own column in fairly short order at my new school's paper. I contacted a local rag in town, and after a brief interview was contributing one to two features to them every week. Then I discovered, and realized that the Internet was packed with people looking for someone just like me. I wrote ad copy for catalogs, ghost wrote romance stories, and pretty soon I was rolling up my sleeves and trying my hand at content mills to cover my monthly expenses. In 2012 I started publishing fiction on a regular basis, and soon after that I started my two blogs, in addition to taking on the mantle of freelance RPG designer.

I also got this book published earlier this year.
I've had a lot of writing jobs. Before that, I also had ten years of working more "regular" jobs. I was a car lot porter, a movie store clerk, a cashier, a delivery driver, an office temp, a security guard, and a dozen other things, too. Although I had different responsibilities, different co-workers, different hours, and different bosses, every one of those non-writing jobs had something in common; discontent.

I hated every aspect of every job I worked for nearly a decade of my life, and for the longest time I thought that was just what work was. You woke up, got dressed, did your best to keep your anger and resentment to yourself, and then when you got home you collapsed as all the tension from the day bled out of you. Work left you drained, and unhappy. I thought it was completely normal to spend your days off living in dread of the coming week, knowing that you only had a brief reprieve before you had to go back to doing that thing you hated surrounded by people you couldn't stand. Then I discovered something I'd never experienced in any other position, and having discovered it, never looked back.

That thing was a combination of enjoyment, pride, and that feeling you get when you're allowed to do something you know you're good at. Most people refer to it as job satisfaction, and even when I was being asked to make a captain's bed sound exciting for the Fall edition of a furniture catalog, or writing up completely fake success stories for a Ukrainian dating website, I still had a steady IV drip of that feeling. Even if I was making rent by the skin of my teeth and eating Ramen noodles for the fifth meal in a row, that sensation was (and is) a treasure to me.

Are Bad Jobs Worse Than No Job?

There was more to the difference than just some ephemeral matter of perception, though. In all the non-writing jobs I had I was a nameless, faceless drone. I was a set of hands set to do a menial task, or a warm body to sit in one place to make sure nothing blew up. I was not a valued part of a team; I was a cog who was paid the minimum wage associated with the job I was doing, who would be replaced as soon as my wheels began to squeak.

That's no way to live, and it seems that science agrees with me.

I think we've found part of the cure, actually.
You see, according to surveys done by Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA), the quality of your work directly affects your psychological health. How directly does it affect you? Well, the results go so far as to suggest you are psychologically worse off having a bad job than you are remaining unemployed.

What HILDA's numbers reveal (and what most people who have had jobs know) is that tasks which are boring, repetitive, which don't engage you, or which are a poor match for the skills you do possess are likely to lead disengagement. In a lot of cases this can result in a revolving door as you get a job, work it until it grinds your gears down, and then for one reason or another step back out of that revolving door to look for something different.

Jobs Are More Than A Paycheck

If the only thing you get out of your job is money, chances are good you don't like your job very much. If you're going to do a job, and do it well, you need more than a carrot on a stick. You have to enjoy what you're doing, you have to do it with people you like, and you need to feel some sense of accomplishment in what you've done. All of that has to balance out with the money you earn, and the benefits your job provides you.

Some jobs are ALL about the satisfaction.
I've had a lot of jobs, but this is the only job I've ever had that I've never wanted to quit. Not even on days where the trolls are out in force, clients reject my drafts, or that dreaded form rejection letter shows up in my inbox. Not even on days where I'm working till hours past midnight, like I am right now. Writing allows me to engage my mind, sharpen my skills, and to sit back at the end of the day with the knowledge I've created something valuable through willpower and hard work.

Would I write if no one was paying me to do it? Probably. Work that nourishes the soul and rejuvenates the heart is work you will feel compelled to do. However, just because a car mechanic gets a sense of personal pride out of repairing a damaged engine block, that doesn't mean he isn't going to give you a bill for the services he performed on your behalf.

Did you find this week's installment helpful? If you did, and you want to show your appreciation, then support me by going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread into my humble jar. If you want to make sure you don't miss a single update, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter as well!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Writer's Block Isn't Real (So Stop Complaining About It)

Think back to the first real job you ever had. You know, the one where you had to clock in for a shift, or actually hand a customer an invoice for the job you did. Maybe you flipped burgers, or waited tables, or washed cars, but whatever you did you knew when you showed up to work that you were getting paid to do a job. So you rolled up your sleeves (literally or metaphorically), and got down to business.

Now ask yourself what your supervisor's reaction would have been if they saw you weren't doing the job you were being paid to do, and your answer was, "I just don't have the inspiration to work today."

Odd, I don't feel inspired to pay you, either.
It sounds patently ridiculous, doesn't it? Yet, for some reason, people think that being a writer gives them a special dispensation to just stop working because the job gets hard. People call it writer's block, and they need to stop. Immediately.

Writer's Block Is Not Real

I'll give you another scenario. Say you want to get in shape, but you've never been an athlete, and you have no idea how to train your body. You had gym class in school, but you're pretty sure you didn't really learn what you need to know there. So you go online, you watch workout videos, read exercise blogs, and you try to get a grasp on how this whole thing works. Maybe you do a small routine on your own at home, just to see if you can get a feel for it. Before you walk into the gym and just start trying to lift something nearly as big as you are, though, you call up a friend of yours. You know, that friend who's been doing this for a while and who can show you around, give you a spot, and offer you a few pointers.

So you go to the gym, and you start lifting. You're naturally pretty strong, and you feel good about yourself. Your friend tells you that you're looking good, and shows you how to adjust your form for better results. Then when it's his turn on the bench you notice he's lifting double your weight. Not only that, but he's doing it with some ease. He's still sweating just as much as you are, but he isn't struggling. How come he can do that?

Do you even write, bro?
In this scenario your natural strength is your talent as a writer. The blogs you're reading are the advice guides written by authors who've come before you, and your friend is a mentor with more experience as a writer. The weight, in this case, is the project you're writing. The reason your mentor can rack out a short story with no problem, and even bench press a novel without slowing down, is that he's been practicing this craft. He's got his form down, his writing muscles are developed, and he has an intrinsic feel for the balance of a story because he's been doing this a lot longer than you have. Even on an off day (because we all have off days), an experienced writer will be able to put up bigger projects without losing good form.

If you just walk in off the street without any experience, throw a novel on your bar, and find you can't push the weight up it doesn't mean you have a "lifting block," it just means you need to work up to that level.

No Excuses

Writing isn't easy. You're going to have those days where you realize your plot twist is falling apart, your main character is too shallow, or that your story has a big damn hole in chapter four that you didn't notice. There will be days that you only get a few hundred words in before your brain cramps, and you have to put the weight down. Sometimes you just need to grunt, and grumble and drop the weight because you lost your form, your grip slipped, and you need a moment before you can try to pick it up again.

What matters is that you take responsibility, tug your gloves a little tighter, and go back to your project.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and all that.
Writer's block puts the onus on something else; something that isn't your fault. You have writer's block, but it's not like you can change that. It's that silly muse, not giving you your daily dose of inspiration so you can be an auteur genius and tell the story you want to tell.

You don't have writer's block. Maybe you have a story with a plot snag, or you bit off more than you can chew with your word count, but those are problems you are fully capable of fixing. So pour yourself a cup of caffeine, bust out a notepad, and if you need to, call up that friend of yours who can always knows just where to put your story Spackle. It won't be easy, and in all likelihood you're going to have to strain a muscle or two, but you are in control of your own story.

Thanks for stopping by, and as always your patronage would be quite welcome if you wanted to stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little bread in my jar. Also, if you want to be sure you don't miss any of my updates then you can follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

How to Make Money as a Writer (By Embracing Your Inner Troll)

When you decided to become a writer, what sort of daydreams did you have? Packed bookstores full of readers with well-worn copies of your latest release, all of them breathlessly asking for your signature? Conventions offering to pay for your air fare and hotel room if you'd just consent to be one of their guests of honor? Maybe it was something as simple as getting big, fat royalty checks every quarter that would let you pay off your car, erase your student debt, and maybe put a down payment on a house?

Then you started working, and before long your fantasies mostly consisted of being able to go to a high-class establishment for a nice lunch when your royalty check came in.

The kind of place that's geared toward your pocket book.
For some writers, not making enough money to pay their bills is okay. They're less concerned with making it big (or just making it), than they are with being able to share their works with the world. That's great, good for them, and if you're one of those writers then you just keep doing you. For those of us who would like to write books, blogs, and contribute to sundry publications without the need to also dedicate 40+ hours a week to another profession, I've got a tip for you.

Embrace your inner troll.

What Are You Talking About?

You've heard the phrase, "there's no such thing as bad publicity," haven't you? It was true when your primary exposure came from newspapers and magazines, and it's just as true today. In fact, given that outrage and offense are the two primary currencies of the Internet, it might be even truer now than at any point in human history.

I want you to do something for me. Go to whatever your primary social networking site is, and scroll through your news feed. See how long it takes before you stumble across a link to an article that someone shared out of anger, or frustration with the content. Now ask yourself how many times you've seen someone do that, and then re-shared the link because you, too, were outraged. Did you leave it at a share, or did you also put it up on another social media page? Did you mention it in conversation later, telling your offline friends to go and check out this thing that made you really mad?

That is how you pay the troll.
I have unfortunate news for you; all that effort you put in because you were mad at what that person said online likely paid his rent for the month.

You see, trolls are kind of like Freddy Krueger. If you talk about them, and share their stories, and let other people know they exist, then their power (and by extension their earnings) grows. The only way to truly harm trolls (just like authors) is to keep quiet, and to forget about that book they wrote, or the article they published that made your blood pressure spike.

Fortunately for you and I, this weakness doesn't seem to be known to the populace at large.

But I Don't Want To Be A Troll!

I'm not saying you have to live under a bridge, vote for the Tea Party, or shout out offensively racist, sexist, or otherwise terrible things. What you do have to do is grow a thicker skin, and don't be afraid to put out work that is honest, and which you know will be attacked. Even attacked viciously. Because every time someone comments about what an asshole you are, your post gets pushed back to the top of the order, and more people will see it.

Don't take my word for it, though. Check out this piece by professional troll Nicholas Pell.

Sounds legit.
Since no one on the Internet really believes you until you share a personal experience that may or may not be indicative of a trend, though, I'll tell you about a piece of my own professional trolling (which I think I'm going to re-name "ogreing" to give it a sense of legitimacy).

In 2014 I began contributing content to a website called Crit Confirm, which is mostly dedicated to tabletop gaming and associated areas of geekery. The way the site pays its authors is that ad revenue for the month is split according to the amount of traffic each contributor brings in. I was the new guy, so I knew I was going to have to do something pretty big in order to get a lot of attention. So after some thought, and a whole lot of research, I penned the post Diversity in Gaming: Will Gamers Slay The Serpent of Sexism?

Know what happened? Every Facebook group I posted to, and every forum I shared the link on, lost its collective shit.

Why's that, you might ask? The article itself isn't overly incendiary, and there's plenty of articles and statistics linked in the text. Well, as I said in the opening of the article, sexism is the vitriolic heart of the fireball that is the diversity in gaming discussion. All you have to do is say the word, and it's likely to bring a lot of people with a lot of negative things to say out of the woodwork. My article was no different, in that sense. Several users got banned from one FB group in short order, and in less than 24 hours the post was taken down from three separate pages because of the negative attention. This made a lot of users curious about what was going on, and so they tracked down the link and shared it on their personal pages. One user went so far as to start up a whole new FB group specifically to discuss social issues surrounding roleplaying games, re-posting my article for all new members to see, read, and discuss.

When the dust settled I had earned roughly half of the site's ad revenue for the month based on my traffic. From one piece. People were that upset over the relatively straightforward article.

Just Be You... With An Edge

Being an ogre doesn't mean you have to change the way you write, and it doesn't mean you have to be dishonest. It doesn't require you to be someone, or something, you're not. All it means is when someone leaves a nasty comment, or talks about what a hack you are, you just smile and remember every time they say your name you get a little more powerful.

And a little richer.
It can be a fine line to walk, and it takes some practice. What you're trying to do, in essence, is use the vitriol of the masses like a shot of NOS in a race car in order to reach a much bigger swath of people. That means you carefully pick your title, your subject material, where you post links, and how you respond to negative comments (hint: reminding people that by commenting they're actually helping you is likely to lead to a fury of shit-talking, which ironically enough still helps you). Once you hit your stride you'll find that people who like your work will talk you up, and that people who loathe your work will talk you up even more!

Well, that's it for this week! If you found this piece of advice handy, and you'd like to see more posts like it in the future, go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and throw me your support! If you want to make sure you don't miss any future updates then submit your email address over on the right, or follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How to Avoid Dating Your Novel

Some stories are not meant to be timeless. Novels like Heart of Darkness or 11/22/63 take place during very specific eras, and they're meant to represent those time periods accurately. So if you're writing a book that is supposed to take place during the Son of Sam killings, or penning a novel set during the War of the Roses, you want your audience to know that because time is an important part of the story.

If a particular time period is not part of your novel, though, then it's a good idea to avoid dating the telling.

Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of the Sons of Arius...

Creating a Timeless Tale

Have you read World War Z? If you haven't, you should. The book is a faux historical text containing the stories of those who survived the great zombie war. In one section we get the story from the perspective of a mercenary who was hired to protect a bunch of wealthy people from the dangers of encroaching Zack. In that section he talks about celebrities like, "that famous coked-up whore, who was famous for being a coked-up whore," taking refuge in the fortified mansion he was safeguarding.

Who is he talking about? Well, judging by the release time he's probably making a reference to Paris Hilton, who was a tabloid darling due to being an heiress constantly caught doing drugs at lavish parties. However, as anyone who's a fan of pop culture is aware, Paris hasn't really been famous for a while now. Sure a lot of this generation would recognize her name, and we might have vague memories of her having a reality show at some point, but that's all we'll be able to give you.

But will your children, or your children's children know who Paris Hilton is? Probably not. So if she was mentioned by name (even assuming that reference was supposed to be about her instead of some other celebrity), that would have really dated the mercenary's recollection. So if you know that the zombie apocalypse happened while the Hilton heiress was still famous, that puts an expiration date on the event. If instead all you know is that celebrities and the 1% hoarded a bunch of food, resources, drugs, and technology into a compound while the rest of New York starved and fought the living dead, though, then suddenly this story could be set tomorrow instead of ten or more years ago.

Why does it matter? Well, you know how movies about cutting edge technology, or hacker culture, are always laughable just a few years later (assuming they weren't laughable to begin with)? In the movie Hackers, for instance, a laptop that weighed slightly less than 20 pounds and got 28.8 kbps per second was lauded as the amazing wave of the future. Show that to someone born just a few generations later, and watch their faces scrunch up in confusion as they try to figure out what something that's a fraction of what the audience can get on their cell phones should impress the lead characters so much.

The look someone would give you bragging about those speeds now.
Accidental dating can take your reader out of the moment, particularly when they thought the story you're telling was set now, but is in fact set about 20 years ago because of a reference you made in your text. Dating can also be distracting, particularly when readers get more caught up in trying to figure out what the pop culture references you're trying to make mean and when they're from, instead of focusing on the hunt for a serial killer you're trying to write a novel about.

It's All About Timing

If you don't need something in your story, cut it. Whether it's a pointless, meandering scene where your hero sits in a coffee shop, or an in-depth explanation of a piece of ghost hunting equipment, anything that creates a drag on your story, or which sends up signals you don't want sent should be done away with.

So how do you avoid accidentally dating your story? What references can you make, and which ones should you avoid? To make life a little easier, here are some general dos and don'ts you should keep in mind.

- Don't Mention Unnecessary Specifics: Say your story is set in New York. If you don't want your reader to be able to say whether your story is pre or post-9/11, then don't make any mention of the Twin Towers. Talk about the skyline, by all means, but don't mention that the towers are there, or note their absence if it makes no difference to the story you're telling. The same goes for the specific brand of cell phone your hero uses, what movies are in theaters, or which TV shows are currently popular.

- Use Metaphor or Archetype: If your hero is putting on the charm, you might be tempted to describe what he's doing as his "best Tom Cruise smile." That works great if you're set in an era where Tom Cruise is a heartthrob and a ladies man, instead of the creepy face of Scientology. Instead try something general, like, "I turned up the wattage, and gave her the full Hollywood grin." We get the leading-man style expression, but now you haven't tied yourself to someone who might have fallen into obscurity, or who might be reviled instead of loved years after your book comes out.

- Freely Use Age-Old Touchstones: This is mostly for pop culture, but it applies to other things as well. For example, if you have someone in a bar then it's perfectly okay to mention liquor brands that have been around for more than a century. On the other hand if you have someone drinking Zima, then you've got a story that never made it out of the 90s. By the same token you'll probably be able to get away with drinking Coke or Pepsi, but if your hero has a hankering for Coke Black or that Halloween edition of Mountain Dew, you may have just planted a flag on the year your tale is taking place in.

Books last a long time. Say your novel comes out next year; how many more years will you be trying to sell copies? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty? One of the best ways to ensure your book ages well is to only call attention to dates, times, or historical hints that you want your reader to see. If you're still not convinced, pop in a copy of Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was a blockbuster hit... but ask yourself how easily the plot could have been totally and irrevocably buggered by cell phones being a common technology. Now ask if any audience born after the death of the pay phone could really take it seriously.

As always, if you'd like to support me and my blog then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! If you want to make sure you're getting all of my updates then you can also follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.