Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What is Author Blaming, And How Can You Deal With It?

We're all familiar with victim blaming. You know, when you look at a victim of a crime and suggest that what happened was somehow, in some way, that person's fault. The tired old saw of, "it's terrible she got raped, but look at what she wore to the club!" is perhaps the most well-known example of victim blaming. Others, like how the fellow who got mugged shouldn't have been flashing his cash around at the bar, or how the family who got burglarized should have installed a security system, point out that, at some level, people viewing the situation want to believe that the victims brought what happened on themselves. That there is some blame these victims can be saddled with in order to make them at least partially (if not fully) culpable in the terrible events they've endured.

Using this as a basis, I'd like to explain author blaming, why it happens, and how you can deal with it.

Are You Saying That Writers Are All Victims?

Don't get ahead of me.

By using the term author blaming, I'm not attempting to claim that authors deal with something that's anywhere near as bad as the victims of actual crimes. I'm not attempting to belittle victim blaming that happens in other areas, nor to usurp the sympathy for those victims to re-direct it onto my own cause. The point I'm trying to make is that authors, as well as other creative professionals who are not yet household names, often face extreme criticism from people who insinuate that an author's lack of monetary success is entirely their own fault.

I've got no joke, so have a silly goat instead.
If you're a creative professional, you've likely have a conversation that goes something like this with a friend, family member, or just a casual acquaintance.

Person: Wow, I really admire the guts it takes to put yourself out there. I love what you create, and I can't wait for your next project.
You: It's the job! Long hours, crap pay, but every day is a little closer. If I can grow my fan base a little, and get a firm hold in a niche, I'll be able to do more.
Person: So, you up for going out to lunch?
You: I wish I could, but I've got $5 to my name right now.
Person: Ugh! Have you ever considered just working a regular job so you can stop being so poor all the time?

Authors have to deal with a bizarre Catch-22. On the one hand, our profession is outside the realm of most people's experiences. For the average person the path is clear; you go to school, get some kind of training, get a job, and then you work that job (or a job like it) until you retire. To those people, people who have never stepped off the path where they work for someone else, an author is a rare and magical thing, because they're people who have decided to use their own talent to create stories (or blog entries, poems, or whatever else you write) instead of putting on the workaday yoke.

On one side of the coin, the author is the daring revolutionary, refusing to follow the status quo while blazing his or her own path with nothing but guts and talent!

On the other hand, though, most people seem to believe in the idea of cosmic fairness. Put in simple terms, if you write good books that deserve to be read and recognized, then fate will ensure you rise to stardom. Even if you wrote a book, published that book, marketed that book, and are actively writing more books, there's this unquestioned assumption in many people's minds that if you're not a success, it's because you aren't good enough to be one.

On the other side of the coin, authors should be punished for stepping off the path, and for their arrogance in believing that their creativity means they should be able to make a living.

It's kind of like nudity in a slasher movie. The public wants to see authors take their tops off, but then when the market drives a machete through our chests it's obviously our own fault for not deciding to stick to the straight and narrow like the chaste girl in glasses. You know, the one who's probably going to survive to the end, and chop the market's masked head off in the bargain.

How Do You Deal With That?

Make no mistake, it is homicide-inducing levels of frustrating to have people who are not creative professionals themselves, and who have no idea what it takes to do your job, try to tell you what you need to do to be successful. Or worse, telling you, personally, that you're a failure and should give up (something that happens a lot more virtually than it does in person, but it's not an unknown occurrence). However, depending on how well you know someone, and how much effort you're willing to put in, there are some steps you can take to turn the situation to your advantage.

Everyone loves bullet points!

Step One: Correct Your Audience's Misconceptions

Interactions between authors and non-authors are a lot like when you have to deal with tourists from another country. In this case, the country of normal. Tourists have an idea of what life in your country is like, and they make an effort to speak your language and follow your customs. Unfortunately, their knowledge is imperfect, so you have two choices; correct their knowledge, or walk away and let someone else deal with it.

Sometimes it may be as simple as directing them toward the massive archive of work you have created (between this blog, Improved Initiative, my Amazon author page, and my Infobarrel article archive, I think I'm starting to make a dent), and explaining to them that you weren't hoping to live independently off the sales of one book. You might also need to explain that you work longer hours as an author than anyone who has to punch a time clock, just in case they thought you were trying to skate by on an hour of writing a day. Sometimes the conversation may be more complex, and you'll have to explain current trends in fiction, illustrate how difficult it is to get assistance marketing your work, or explain that even if you sell a lot of copies, it might be months before you actually have that money in your bank account.

No matter what, though, you must maintain a professional, and friendly demeanor during the first step. You're not attempting to prove your critics wrong, but rather to show them that their assumptions are based off of an incomplete knowledge of how your career actually works.

A lot of people will just tell you you're making excuses, and walk off in a cloud of smug. Some people won't, though, and that's where the next step comes in.

Step Two: Show Them How They Can Help You

Sometimes step one is all you get. Someone criticizes your career choice, and you engage them in a conversation about it. Sometimes nothing gets resolved, and all you get for your trouble is a headache and a lot of wasted energy. Other times, though, someone will have his or her perspective corrected, and realize there are many more factors at play than personal effort, and that it's just as impossible for an author to self-levitate through use of their bootstraps as it is for anyone else.

A lot of the time this is where the conversation ends. If you're lucky, and you make a positive impression, it's possible to turn this person into a supporter. That's why it's important to give people business cards, persuade them to take a look at your book, or if you're online give them web addresses where they can find your work (sort of like I did above).

The key with this step is to weave people into your network by showing them all the different ways they can help support you and your career if they want to. For example, people who really like your work can buy your books, and leave reviews to help make your books more visible. If someone wants to give money right to you, then you can put a tip jar on your blog (like I have in the upper right corner), or they can become a patron on your Patreon page (mine is right here, if you're curious) to help fund you by tossing a few bucks in your account every month.

If your mysterious someone doesn't have the money to support you financially, or simply isn't sold on being that big of a fan, that's all right, too. They can still support you by following you on your social media pages (I'm on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, for instance), and by promoting your posts through liking, sharing, and most importantly actually viewing them. Between book sales, blog traffic, patronage, and just using word of mouth to make more people aware of you, it's possible for one person to make a big damn difference in your career.

Not Everyone is Going to Be a Fan

It doesn't matter how talented you are, or how many people love your work, you're not going to be everyone's cup of tea. Your Aunt Rita will always pat you on the hand, and tell you that she prays for you, because she's too polite to say she thinks you're refusing to grow up. Your friend Jake will live through you vicariously, but he'll never buy a copy of your books because he'll feel like he should get one for free because he knows you. And there will always be people, at conventions, on forums, and even at talks and book signings you set up, who will think you're a sham because you don't have a laundry list of awards, and you don't have a six-figure income.

When that happens, it's best to just do like Disney says, and let it go.

Trolls gonna troll.
You should make an effort to get as many people on your side as possible. After all, sometimes all it takes is one person to share your post with their massive group of online friends to find yourself at the start of a viral avalanche. Maybe that person you were polite and friendly to knows someone at a major publishing house, or a radio station, or a TV network, and suddenly you find doors opening to help boost your profile that you'd never expected.

Author blaming happens, and it happens a lot. How you respond to it can often have unexpected consequences, though.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

What Is Character Agency (And Why Do You Need It)?

So, let's say you're reading a book. Your main character is just working his regular job, dealing with life, when suddenly a group of werewolves tries to kidnap him. He's not a fighter, he has no combat experience, and he has no idea that these creatures even exist. He's saved at the last moment by a vampire, who whisks him out of harms way. The two forces fight over him like a soccer ball, until it's finally revealed that he is the key to creating the ultimate monster. His power is unlocked, and he immediately starts tearing into those he considers the villains of this centuries-long struggle for power.

Does this sound familiar at all?

Here's your hint.
Yes, this is the general plot of the movie Underworld, but it's also the plot to dozens of modern fantasy novels if you lightly tweak the story, the creatures, or you flip the gender of the "lead" and his love interest. The reason the word "lead" is in quotes, by the by, is because while Michael Corvin is one of the central macguffins of the entire film, his character really is little more than a talking soccer ball. He could just as easily have been replaced by a corpse, and the film wouldn't have lost a great deal.

Let's Talk About Character Agency

Character agency, in a nutshell, is how much a character can act in the context of the story. Put another way, it's how much your character decides to act, instead of being acted upon. Characters like Michael Corvin, Bella Swan, and others don't act; they are acted upon. In some few instances, they react. They don't participate in the plot; the plot is something that happens to them.

Even Winston was a master of his own fate, by comparison.
It is, in a very real way, like passive tense. Characters without agency are passive. These characters are acted upon, and they have very little to do with the story. They tend to be surrounded by other forces, and to be pushed back and forth by those forces. Characters like Christine Daae in The Phantom of The Opera, for example. While she is, ostensibly, one of the leads of the story, she's little more than a puppet being controlled alternatively by Raoul and the Phantom. She sings because the Phantom tells her to, and she runs away from the Phantom because Raoul wants her to. She's kidnapped by the Phantom so Raoul can chase them, and even when Christine is told to make a choice at the end of the play (or novel, whichever version you're enjoying), her choice is nullified by the Phantom, who sends them all away.

At no real point does Christine decide what she's going to do, or how she's going to do it. She is an object, and objects are not characters that garner a whole lot of interest.

If you're not sure whether or not your character has agency, then ask what they're doing. Characters who have agency will see problems, and do something to try and deal with them. The actions the characters take don't have to work, they don't have to be smart, and they don't have to be brave, but the character has to be able to act without someone else pulling his or her strings.

But They're Not The Real Main Character!

Lack of agency tends to happen a lot in what I've dubbed cat's paw syndrome. This is when your story has a "lead," but that lead isn't really the main character of the story. The main character, the one doing all the acting and who is really behind the plot, is someone that the lead will slowly uncover. Typically this is because the actual main character is supposed to have a lot of mystery and build-up surrounding him or her, and we need an outside source not to spoil the surprise. Hence we have a cat's paw who, while part of the story, isn't actually the person the story is about.

I'm sure we can all think of at least one story that goes like that...
While you can argue that characters like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Michael Meyers, and even Dracula are all the true main characters of their books, films, etc., that doesn't mean the author gets to knock off early when it comes to the rest of the cast. Jonathan Harker, while he may not be the main character of the novel, is still capable of taking action within the story. Even though he is trapped by the count, and left to the brides for months on end, he still manages to escape and make his way back to England. Not because they let him go, or because Van Helsing kicked in the door and rescued him, but because Harker was capable of taking action on his own.

We see this in non-horror series as well. Sherlock Holmes is the reason you read his stories, but the narrator and character whose perspective we get is that of Dr. Watson. And while Watson is constantly jerked around by the machinations of his slightly-crazed flatmate, that doesn't reduce him to a perspective on a rope.

Don't Skimp on Character

Agency is something all characters need in order to step into the third dimension. In order for us to buy that the story is real, and to maintain both our suspension of disbelief as well as our enjoyment, we have to see people taking actions. While they can be forced into decisions from time to time, or follow the obvious course, we still have to see them actually doing something in order to invest us in their story.

Even if they aren't, technically, the real lead.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Do Book Giveaways Really Work?

Your job, as an author, is to tell a story. Whether you're writing shorts about tragic romances or medieval political thrillers that go on for thousands of pages, all you have to do is tell your story, and tell it well.

Well, that, and sell thousands of copies so you can pay your bills at the end of the month.

Pictured: The kind of sales that make most authors salivate.
We rarely stop and consider just how many copies of a book we have to sell in order to actually turn a profit. For example, say you get 50% of ebook sales, and your ebook is priced at $2 (this is just an example, your numbers will vary based on publishing company and method). That's $1 a sale. So how many books would you have to sell just to pay your rent/mortgage? 800? 1,000? More?

If you're reading this, chances are you think that's fantasy territory. The idea of selling a fraction of those numbers, even if you have to do it by hand at a convention, sounds like a huge windfall. However, there are authors who manage that kind of overnight success. And one way they've done it is through book giveaways.

Or, at least, that's what you've been told.

The Legend of Mark Dawson

If you keep an eye on the latest success stories from fellow authors, you've likely hear the tale of Mark Dawson's success. And if you haven't, it's on Forbes. Even if you've never read his story, though, you're going to feel like it's all too familiar. Dawson was an author who put a lot of love, skill, and heart into one book, and because his publisher didn't do its job on the marketing front it went largely ignored. So Mark wrote another book, and decided he would publish it himself. He put in a ridiculous amount of research, put it up on Amazon, and nothing happened. So he decided, for a lark, to host a free giveaway for a weekend. Two days later, he checked his numbers...

Holy shit... numbers!
... and found he'd moved 50,000 copies. They were, in fairness, 50,000 copies he would receive no money for, but that is a lot of eyes to get on your book with a single promotion. It also meant that Mike suddenly had a significantly bigger audience than he'd had before, and they were all leaving positive reviews of the free book they'd just downloaded. They wanted more, and that hunger was enough to kick him into high gear. That was when he created the globe-trotting assassin John Milton, and started writing a series about his adventures. Which, in turn, led to a six-figure income.

So All I Need To Do Is Run A Book Giveaway?

Yes, and no.

You see, a book giveaway is not a guarantee that you are suddenly going from the poor house to the big house. You're not drilling for oil or mining gold; you're recruiting. Part of how successful your giveaway will be is determined by how good your book is. The rest is pretty much determined by how many people see your giveaway, and decide to take part in it.

Artist's depiction of Dawson's giveaway.
The reason Mark Dawson, and other authors like him, keep cropping up in our social media feeds and in the news is because they conjure huge numbers of readers out of the ether. Often that's because they work hard, they cultivate an audience, and they make sure to keep their readers happy by giving them what they want. However, going from nowhere into the stratosphere is caused by one, impossible-to-predict quantity.

Luck. Pure, simple, do-da, clueless, luck.

Hosting a book giveaway is good for your numbers. There are readers out there who regularly scroll through free offerings to make sure they have all the ebooks they could ever want. Readers are also loathe to pass up a free book, and if all they have to do is click a button to get a book, then they probably will. The catch is that your book still has to stand out in order to get readers to actually open the file. As we all know, just because you download something, that's no guarantee you're going to read it anytime soon.

So, in an ideal world, every giveaway you host will generate a legion of fans who have just discovered you, and you will experience a huge burst of activity as your new base devours all your other books like a plague of literate locusts with money to burn. What is more likely to happen is that between a few hundred and a few thousand (depending on your reach and how many people help spread the signal) people will download your free book. Of those downloads, a fraction will read it. Of those who read it, a fraction will decide they like it, and seek out more.

Speaking of, check this out and see if you like it. The first two stories are free!
When the worst case scenario is getting more readers who will add you to their list of authors they like, and the best case scenario is an explosion of popularity and overnight celebrity, there's no reason not to host a book giveaway. You should, however, keep your expectations reasonable. Sometimes the lightning doesn't strike, but that's no reason not to fly your kite the next time the clouds get stormy.

Hopefully you found this week's installment something you can take to heart. If you want to make sure you get all of my updates, then either plug your email address into the box on the right, or follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter. If you'd like to help support me, then visit The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and toss some bread in my jar. Every little bit helps, and you'd be surprised how far $1 a month can go.

Also, if you prefer novels to short stories, go check out my latest sword and sorcery release Crier's Knife!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How to Stop Your "Everyman" Character From Becoming a Clueless Dipshit

Let's open this entry by talking about Ghostbusters. It's a classic movie, and it's become part of our cultural mythology (along with a television favorite around this time of the year). Three individuals who are both scientists and paranormal experts get together, prove the existence of life after death, and then build unlicensed, unregulated nuclear reactors to power wildly inaccurate ray weapons to permanently imprison the souls of the dead who are burdening the living.

But what about that fourth guy? You know, the one who was different from everyone else.

You know, the guy with no degree.
Winston Zeddemore was notable because, in addition to being the only black member of the team, he was originally intended to be the most intelligent and highly educated of the four-man spirit-catching crew according to commentary. So why the sudden drop in IQ points to make Winston the equivalent of an amateur exterminator getting illegal on-the-job-training? Because he was the everyman character the audience was supposed to both identify with, and to whom important plot points could be explained in short, simple words.

The Danger of "The Everyman"

The idea that your book should have a character who acts as the touchstone for the audience isn't new. It isn't even a bad idea. In fact, the bigger and more unlike our reality a story's setting is, the more these characters may be necessary in order to give readers some shorthand on this new world. Bilbo Baggins had no special qualifications, but got swept up in a madcap adventure out into a world he didn't know, and which readers discover along with him. Richard Mayhew is just an average Londoner with a job and a girlfriend, but when he stops to rescue the Lady Door, he becomes an unwilling member of the world of London Below, and his struggles to understand the world educate the reader on what sort of mess Richard has gotten into. Even Harry Potter, despite his status as an underaged plot device, was experiencing a fantastic world he'd never suspected existed, bringing the audience along on a tour in his wake.

"What are those things?" How the hell should I know? It's only chapter three!
The risk with using the everyman character is that it's easy to take a wrong step and turn him from someone the audience can understand and identify with, into a bumbling moron who becomes a parody of what he's supposed to be. In short, he ceases to be a character at all, and becomes a sounding board to clue the reader in to exposition. Once readers realize that's what's happening they'll begin to dislike the character. If it goes on for too long, they'll stop reading altogether.

How To Avoid The Devolution of The Everyman

The first and most important step you can take is to make sure your everyman character is still a character. He or she should have definable characteristics, a complete past, and a lifetime worth of learned experiences and emotional reactions. These characters don't simply show the readers the world of the story, but they have to react to the experiences they're being put through in believable ways based on who they are.

It was right around then that Watson got sick of his roommate's shit.
Take Dr. Watson, for example. He's a surgeon, a soldier, a capable man, and a veteran of a terrible conflict. Despite his intellect, though, he isn't a crime solver. Watson makes an ideal everyman because he observes what's happening, but still has personal agency. He lacks the knowledge and expertise of Sherlock Holmes, but that doesn't make him stupid or incapable. The world doesn't turn around Watson, or really around Holmes, and they have lives that are hinted at beyond the pages of their stories.

Because of this you never roll your eyes at Watson. Sure, you're probably more interested in what Holmes is doing, but you accept Watson is a real person, and you don't really question the fact that he's the one we're seeing this story through. After all, if we were seeing it through Holmes's perspective, the mystery would be over in two pages, and very little of the logic would make sense to us.

And now, here's a brief list of do-nots you should carefully consider for your exposition ciphers:

- Don't turn your everyman into a five-year-old who asks constant questions about everything. Conversation is a great way to avoid an exposition dump, but if you overuse it readers will get bored.

- Don't make your everyman just a pair of eyes. The character isn't just there to observe; the everyman needs to be an active participant in the story. It's what makes Michael Corvin in Underworld particularly dull.

- Don't be lazy with why your everyman is involved. Chosen ones like Neo and Potter work on occasion, but that deus ex machina has very limited mileage. A personal connection to someone in the cast, a stake in the outcome, or just getting caught in a crossfire will invest the audience significantly more in a character yanked into a situation he or she is unfamiliar with, possibly in a world that character doesn't belong in.

Lastly, Consider Eliminating This Character

Let's go back to the interesting bit of trivia at the beginning. Would Ghostbusters actually be a worse movie if Winston had three doctorates, and was attracted to the operation out of genuine scientific curiosity instead of being some random dude who needed a job and was willing to take risks? That will vary based on opinion, but was there anything complicated enough in the film that absolutely required someone to act as a translator for the audience?

Ghosts are complicated shit, yo.
More often than not, you don't need a character in your book expressly to translate things for your audience. Even if your main character is a special forces werewolf called to a secret meeting with shape-shifting clan chiefs, you should be able to clue the reader in on the nuances of power structure and rank based on the way characters act and speak to one another. If your lead is an alchemist mixing up a magic potion, just make with the magic. We don't need a clueless apprentice standing by and asking for the cliff notes about how the process works.

At the end of the day, you need to understand the story you want to tell, and what you need from your cast in order to execute that story. If you want to keep a little mystery, like with Holmes or Hercules Poirot stories, then you'll need someone else to tell the tale in order to keep the audience guessing until the big reveal at the end. However, if you want to write a story about a vampire mercenary who is part of a greater, secret world containing monsters of myth and legend, maybe you should trust your readers to pick up what you're laying down without the need of a plucky sidekick to ask for clarification.

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