Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Become A Successful Author (By Setting The Right Career Goals)

There is no conversation opener more guaranteed to start a fight in the world of writing than, "what is your definition of a real author?" Some people will offer the blanket statement of, "anyone who finishes a project is an author." Others will be more specific, saying that, "anyone who is published is an author." Sooner or later, though, someone is going to disagree. When that happens you'll see statements like, "anyone who makes money from books is an author." And the list will continue to get more and more narrow until someone throws up a variation of, "if you aren't writing every day, and you still have to go to a 9-5, then you're not a real author."

Shots fired. I repeat, shots fired.
So, who's right? Absolutely no one, which is what makes the whole conversation sort of inane. Not only that, but oftentimes the people involved in the debate are confusing the word real with the word successful, and different people have different images of what it means to be a success. For some people it's that six-figure a year income, invitations to conventions, and the ability to walk into any bookstore in the country (if not around the world), and be treated like some sort of rock star. For other people, though, the definition of success might be a small check that covers a few bills, or which can fatten up a savings account. For some authors money never even enters their minds; they just want to complete a book, and share it with as many people as they can.

A Metaphor

I'm not in a mood for clever transitional material. Sue me.

All right, let's picture the writing community as a gym. There are the usual aerobics rooms, free weights, weight machines, stationary bikes, stair masters, and treadmills. You have an entire room full of straining, sweating people off in their own little worlds, interacting only briefly to ask if someone's finished with a machine, or to get a spot. While they're all there doing the same activity, each person is doing it in his or her way, and chances are they're on different routines, and working on different goals. Barny is retired, and he's there to keep healthy while working a new activity into his daily routine. Miranda uses it as a way to unwind, but she also likes the health benefits and how she keeps her figure. Jim is training for a marathon, so he's working on his time, distance, and endurance by cross-training. Sally is going for power, hoping to win a championship for an upcoming competition.

No one was sure what Harry was there for, but he had a shelf of these things at home.
The point is that being an author is a lot like going to the gym. Even though you're writing the same way everyone else is writing, that doesn't mean that you have the same goals as the guy next to you, racking out 400 pounds on the bench press.

Be Successful By Deciding What You Want

Not to get all after-school-special on you, but if you want to feel pleased with your work at the end of the day, then you have to be the one who decides whether or not you're successful. Part of that means you have to sit in your chair, put your fingers on the keys, and actually write the stories, novels, poems, or whatever you want to make up your body of work. Another part of it means that you need to be honest with yourself about what it would take in order for you to be satisfied. For example, do awards matter to you? Will self-publishing be enough, or will you feel you haven't truly succeeded until you've had a book published by one of the big five companies like Random House or Penguin? Do you want positive reviews of your book, or will you not feel satisfied until you can give your day job the finger and write full-time?

Successful writers know what they want, and they work toward their goals. If you ignore your needs, and don't set a particular goal, then you're like that person who walks into the gym with no plan, and no goals. Even if you're fit, and you have skills, you're not actually going anywhere by just working up a sweat by doing whatever, and leaving. If you decided on your goals, and found a routine that would help you match them, you'd see better results a lot faster.

As always, thanks for dropping in! If you liked this week's installment of The Literary Mercenary, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! Also, if you'd like to help support me then buy a book at my Amazon author page, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fire Your Muse, And Get to Work!

I see a lot of people going on about the Muse. These people talk about her as if she's some strange, ephemeral being who keeps inspiration in a compact like magical cocaine that writers snort in their sleep so they wake up with a head full of brilliant ideas. Ideas of such power, and sheer creative insight, that they will be unable to step away from their desks until, lathered in sweat and exhausted, their latest work is completed.

To hear these writers tell it, the Muse is a necessary part of everything they do. They simply cannot delve into a new project, or finish up an existing one, without a line or two of the good stuff she provides. Because without that golden spark, man, nothing you try to do is going to be any good.

Artist's interpretation.
Do you know what that sounds like? The most abusive relationship ever. It's only made worse by the fact that you're having it with an imaginary personification of an idea.

That makes you one of two things; crazy or lazy.

The Lie of The Inspired Writer

People have been trying to figure out where inspiration comes from for a long damn time. The Greeks and Romans, in typical fashion, personified the idea of inspiration in the form of minor goddesses who granted ideas to thinkers, poets, playwrights, etc. This fit right in with much of the rest of the culture's spiritual beliefs, which was that mankind is at the mercy of cosmic forces it cannot hope to understand, and thus simply had to labor under the whims of fate and the divine. So if a poet couldn't write a poem, it wasn't his fault. He was simply not graced by the muse that day.

We know better than this, don't we?
There are two problems with this mindset. Problem number one is that idea that inspiration comes from some unseen ether outside of you, and that only when the stars are aligned will it fire that mystical synapse that gives you great ideas. The second problem is the idea that inspiration is the fuel that makes the creative engine move, and without it you simply sit still.

Neither of these are true. I'm not an expert in neuroscience, so I can't say with any degree of certainty where the hell inspiration is born. I have found, though, that the more I read, the more I plot, and the more I write, the easier and easier it is to drop a bucket down the well and bring up great ideas. Also, inspiration is more like a NOS unit on your brain than the gas tank; you can get from A to B just fine without it, but the ride won't be quite as intense.

You Are In The Driver's Seat

When writers complain about lack of inspiration (or lack of motivation, since it often amounts to the same thing), there's a tendency to put the problem at arm's length. They want to write, they really do, but they can't. It's not their fault, and there's nothing they can do but sit and wait for the winds to change so they can get back to it.

If you want to get somewhere, you need to break that habit and take responsibility.

Own your shit.
For example, if your current scene feels wrong, it's not because the forces of inspiration are aligned against you. It's because you haven't found the proper solution yet. If you're trying to come up with a project, don't just sit there and wait for an apple to fall on your head; take initiative and go find something. If your beta readers and editors gave you feedback, get up off your fainting couch and turn that feedback into a better book.

Like I said in Writer's Block Isn't Real (So Stop Complaining About It), most writers are more than willing to keep their fingers on the keys when the project is fun. As soon as they hit a snag, or the going gets tough, suddenly their enthusiasm for it wanes. They go out with friends, watch Netflix, or start plotting a different book (one that's still got that new idea smell) rather than clocking time on the book they're already wrist-deep in. The difference between being the writer with a double-digit Amazon author page, and the one who whinges about how he is sure this time will be different, is how hard you're willing to put your nose to the grindstone to get the job done.

You don't need some magic fairy dust to write a good book. What you need is skill, dedication, and long, long hours in front of your machine. That jolt when the lightning strikes is addictive, and it's a high that every writer knows, but you need to be able to work whether or not you've had that fix. If you do, you'll notice something funny. Inspiration gets easier to find the harder you work; almost like it's a part of the writing process, instead of the all-or-nothing catalyst that makes the whole thing run.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Do I Need a Literary Agent to Get Published?

To most starting writers, and even a few established ones, literary agents are near-mythical champions who swoop in the uplift the talented and the deserving. These men and women stand for writers, opening doors and fighting for better royalties, more earnings, and a bigger advertising budget. In the minds of many, a literary agent isn't just someone who helps you succeed, but rather the reason you succeed in the first place.

Twenty percent royalties, and a Christmas-season release.
Allow me to shatter that image by explaining what these agents actually do, and don't do, for you.

A Literary Agent's Job

The first step is to strip away the mystery behind what a literary agent does. An agent is a professional go-between, who uses his or her connections to act as a middle man between talented writers, and publishers who are looking for talented writers. Many agents had previous lives in the publishing industry as editors, publishers, or even as authors themselves (typically they've done at least two of these three gigs). When they leave the publishing world to become agents, it's kind of like how police officers or military personnel go into the private sector. They aren't in their old world, but they still have all the connections, reputation, and weight they used to, and an agent can use that to your advantage if you are the one being represented.

There are some places, like Random House, Penguin, etc. which require you to have an agent in order to get your manuscript reviewed. Or at least that's what they say on their submissions page.

Do You Need An Agent To Be Successful?

That depends on your definition of successful. If your first novel absolutely must be published by a big name company, then yes, you're going to need an agent to get you through the front door. However, if your definition of success as an author is pretty much anything other than that, you can forego the step of finding an agent without too much worry.

Especially if you can fight your own publishing battles.
You know how I mentioned a little while ago that agents make their contacts by working in the publishing industry? Well, authors do pretty much the same thing, so the usefulness of an agent goes down the more contacts and connections you develop as an author. Every editor you work with, every fellow author you meet, and every panel you're on brings you into contact with more connections. Not only that, but the more work you have on the market, and the more successful you are, the more likely it is that bigger publishers will lift the velvet rope without someone else vouching for you.

If that seems confusing, it shouldn't. Publishers are interested in making money, which is why whether you love them or hate them, authors with big audiences like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Jim Butcher, J.K. Rowling, etc. can pretty much just walk into the VIP entrance and skip all the rigmarole. If they write something, publishers know they'll make bank on the book, even if the book is critically panned. You, Joe or Jill Schmo, they know nothing about. Worse, there are quite literally hundreds of thousands of other authors just like you that they also know nothing about. Big publishers simply do not have the time to waste reading through huge slush piles when they already have a stable of steady earners making them money.

The agent's job is to convince a publisher to take a risk on you, and agents who have picked winners in the past will be trusted by publishers. If, on the other hand, you're already making big waves and your books have become a phenomenon, then bigger houses may try to recruit you. Better contracts, bigger advances, and other benefits are all part of the deal when a publishers wants that half a million books you sold with your last release to be sold through them instead.

Hopefully this clears that up for you. If you've got other curiosities, you might find answers in my blog post Questions Beginning Writers Ask (That Experienced Writers Are Tired of Hearing).

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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

If There's Something Wrong With Your Book, Don't Just Keep Writing

One of the most common pieces of writing advice I've come across is to just sit down, and do it. It doesn't matter if you're tired, frustrated, you don't like what you're writing, you're internally bleeding; whatever it is, just write until you can't write anymore. While it sounds good in theory, it's a lot like suggesting that if you want to get to your destination, you just have to drive. Directions, storms, snow, blinding fog, none of it's really a problem. Just put your foot down, and you'll eventually come out on the other side.

Just remember to stop when you get to the end.
Pushing yourself through obstacles and solving problems to keep your book going forward is great. Sometimes all you need to do is build up some momentum on your project. Other times, though, it's a good idea to put on the parking brake, get out of the driver's seat, and have a look around to see what it is that's stopping your progress.

Learn To Trust Your Instincts

A story is a lot like a house; anyone can build one, but only those with experience, skill, and a bit of talent can turn them into truly functional works of art. If you were in the midst of building a house, and you felt there was something wrong, you wouldn't just keep building, telling yourself you could go back and fix it later before you put on the finishing touches. You'd put down your hammer, and examine what you'd put together thus far to figure out what's giving you a bad feeling before the roof collapses in on you and wrecks all the hard work you've already put in.

Right... NOW I remember what that was holding up.
Let's take the metaphor a step further here. Your outline, whether it's in your head or written down on a yellow legal pad, is similar to the beams holding your structure up. If you're getting into the meat of the book, and you feel like you're on shaky ground, it might be because one of your central pillars (character motivation, for example) isn't as sturdy as you thought. Maybe you were so excited to get to the big villain reveal in the master bedroom that you just sort of nailed some wood together, called it stairs, and ran forward before they could fall apart on you, but now you're realizing how shaky that progression will be for your readers. It's possible that at first glance everything in your book is rock solid, but when you crouch down and look, you notice that you forgot to tack down your chapter three exposition, and it's shifting out of place in a way that's going to make the audience ask awkward questions when plot holes start showing up.

Okay, I've finished torturing the construction metaphor. The point is that you, as an author, need to know yourself, your process, and your story well enough to have an instinctual understanding of what's wrong when the manuscript isn't doing what you want it to. If you're stalling out in chapter five, ask why. Do you need to change the setting for the scene, perhaps having a confrontation with a rival in a park or at the beach instead of in the cafeteria? Is it because you need to alter the tone of the scene, or do you need to put in more lead-up so the bare-knuckle brawl that's coming doesn't feel so rushed? Did you notice that your hero's cocksure attitude has actually made him come across as a jerk, and you constantly find yourself wondering why anyone would put up with his shit even if he is supposed to be your lead?

Whatever the problem is, don't flagellate yourself every time your fingers stop punching keys. Get out, and look around. Make sure you're not stuck in a rut, that your fluids are good, and that you have fuel in the tank. If, after checking everything that could be wrong, you're still not moving forward, that's when it's time to drink some coffee, and give it some gas.

Once you're sure the road is clear, and the only thing getting in your way is that you're standing still.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

If You Want People To Treat You Like A Professional Author, Act Like One

Several years ago I'd been given a freelance editing assignment from a publisher I knew. The manuscript he'd given me was one of the worst things I'd ever read. The sort of manuscript whose margins I jammed with comments, questions, and arrows pointing at major plot holes. By the time I rounded the third chapter I was so frustrated with it that the only reason I was still going was the $200 price tag attached to the job. To try and blow off some steam I posted to my Facebook that there were some days I really hated editing, and today was one of those days.

Two hours later, the publisher got hold of me, and made it quite clear that when I had a job to do he didn't want me making even vague references to it. Especially not if those references were to complain about how bad it was. So I finished the job, collected my fee, and took a valuable lesson to heart over the incident.

No, not "talk shit, get hit." That was a different project.
The lesson, in this case, was to comport myself professionally any time my words might be seen by anyone. That means that if I'm posting on a forum, speaking at a convention, getting interviewed on the radio, or just updating my Facebook page, I have to remember people are listening. Not only are they listening, but what I say today might come back and punch me in the dick four years from now, long after I've completely forgotten about it.

When in Doubt, Kayfabe

For those of you who were never professional wrestling fans, kayfabe was one of the biggest unwritten rules among its stars. It stated, more or less, that you were always in character. If you were out to eat somewhere, and your rival walked in, you didn't buy him a drink and talk shop. You got in his face, and caused a scene, because that was part of your job. You were an actor paid to continue the fiction that what happened in the ring was real, and to maintain that fiction for your fans.

As a writer, you need to do the same thing. The only difference is that the persona you're taking on is a professional author.

Trust me, it's a lot easier.
What does that mean, though? Well, it means that even if you think the cover your publisher gave your book is stupid, you don't go to your Tumblr page to throw a hissy fit about it. It means that if someone decides to sling a vicious tweet at you, and the first thing that crosses your mind is, "eat shit and die, motherfucker!" that you don't send that. That even if someone is coming at you with low blows, foul language, and accusations of all sorts of hackery, that you keep your head high, and rise above it. You maintain the image of the consummate professional.

Is that easy? Hell no, especially not if you're used to just letting fly with whatever comes to your mind, and if you consider personal attacks on other people to be one part art form and one part national past time. But, tempting as it is to vent your frustrations on a group by "calling out" whiners, fakes, and posers, ask yourself what you're really getting out of that. Sure, maybe it felt good in the moment. Maybe you thought of something so stinging, and so clever, you just couldn't keep it to yourself. But what will that kind of behavior do to your image? This is something you should think about, since people often buy a book based on who the writer is (or at least who they think the writer is) in addition to what that person actually wrote.

Sure, leaving a nasty comment on a random social media post might slip under the radar. Perhaps you can get away with the occasional bit of crudeness, or invitation for someone else to go and perform sexually impossible acts upon their person. As long as you don't, say, have a long history of homophobic instances, what does it matter if you blow your top sometimes?

It matters because there are always going to be people trying to bury you in shit. They'll accuse you of being a hack, of being elitist, or even of getting where you are purely because of your connections instead of your talents. While this is going on, you're trying to wipe off as much excrement as you can, and to keep your reputation polished. So why give these nameless, faceless enemies of your career more ammunition by acting like a reality TV star instead of someone who's here to kick ass, and write books?

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