Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Avoid Inappropriate Language In Your Writing (And I'm Not Talking About Swearing)

There is nothing more irritating than when you're reading along, and you come across a bit of inappropriate language in the book you were enjoying. Everything was going fine, and you were enjoying the read, but then the author decided to use that word. The word that yanked you out of the narrative, and left you frowning in disapproval. Maybe you kept reading, hoping it was a one-off thing, but it kept happening. After a while you just couldn't deal with it anymore, and you tossed the book into your "donate to charity" pile.

Because who the hell writes a sweeping, Viking romance novel where the lead uses the word "dude" all the time?

Not cool, bro. Seriously not cool.

What Is "Inappropriate Language" in a Novel?

A lot of people think of "inappropriate language" as anything pornographic; descriptions of sex, curse words, intimate detailing of gore, etc. All of these things are perfectly fine, and I covered some of that in my entry Profanity in Fiction: When It's Okay To Say "Fuck". That's not what we're talking about in this entry. This entry is talking about using language that, because of time period, genre, or your established world, will knock the reader out of the story because they know the language you're using doesn't belong here.

Got an example?
I do, since you asked!

Many years ago, I was editing a manuscript. The manuscript in question was pretty tropey, and it was full of some of my least-favorite favorites of the romance genre; past lives, split-screen telling where we bop back and forth between the now and the then, a heroine whose actions make no sense, and whose job is a sheer convenience of the plot... I could go on, but I won't. The problem I kept running into was the sheer lack of research put into the story, which was a problem given that half of it was specifically set in the 7th century in what was ostensibly the actual Middle East.

There were a lot of problems with these sections. There was no attention paid to the fashions that would have been worn, and the city we were in was never mentioned (though it felt like it was supposed to be Baghdad). No attention was paid to religious observances, and even the general layout of the city was sort of hand-waved away in case we began to notice that the setting the author was trying to use was flat and empty. In short, I was getting irritated. Fully half the manuscript seemed to have been an afterthought, just filling out the page count. Then we see our villain, who in the only mark of real fantasy, had unearthed and practiced some form of dark magic. The author referred to him as a warlock, and that was when my brain jammed on the brakes.

Why was that a problem, you ask? Well, the author clearly came from an Australian background, and was using a British English term for an evil spellcaster. Not an issue, if we'd found it in the modern-day sections of the story. The problem was that we had people in the 7th century in the Middle East, using a word that wouldn't be invented for another 300 years on the other side of the world. Here's some more on the etymology of the word warlock, if you're a nerd like me.

Was that the author's fault? Yes and no. This example is kind of obscure, however, it came as a result of little to no effort being put in to make the historical time period come across as either rich or genuine. A little research into the folklore of that area would have turned up all kinds of myths regarding magic users, and terms used to describe them. Even if all someone did was check the history, that person would find that the word sorcerer would be significantly more appropriate.

Small Pebbles Start Big Rock Slides

It might not seem like a big deal to use the wrong word every now and again, particularly if your audience still gets the point you were trying to bring across. But if you don't pay attention to the words you use, and the phrases that crop up in your work, then it can sneak up on you when you've done something that you cannot square with the world you've created.

The face you'll be wearing when it comes time to edit.
Here are some more, quick examples.

- Someone says "Yes, Fearless Leader!" while they're trying to be sarcastic. Problem is, the book takes place in a dystopian future where no one's heard of Rocky and Bullwinkle, which is where the phrase came from. How did it survive?
- Your hero's condition is referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The problem is that this is a WWI-era story, so it would be called shellshock. PTSD wasn't a term anyone conceived of until after Vietnam.
- The author describes the villainous banker's mustache by saying it made him look like Hitler. But the book is set during the Prohibition era, before the Nazi party's rise to power, and long before the celebrity of Adolf Hitler. Why would anyone not our modern reader get the reference?

Language is just like anything else in your story; it has to be seamless. In the same way you can't have heroes using certain guns ten years before they were invented without some kind of explanation, you also can't have colloquial slang from the 1980s crop up in your Civil War epic. Unless, of course, you are making the purposeful decision to use inappropriate language as a way to generate humor, or as a way to spoof the genre, tone, or setting in question.

If you're trying to play it straight, though, the devil really is in the details.

Thanks for stopping by! If you'd like to make sure you keep up on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! And, if you'd like to help support The Literary Mercenary, then stop by my Patreon page to toss a few bucks in my jar every month. Seriously, $1 goes a lot further than you might think.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How AdBlock Hurts The Creators You Love

Is there anything worse than Internet ads? They clutter up your search results, they get in your face when you're trying to check your mail, and they crowd in on the sides of the blogs you're trying to read. Worst of all, though, are the mini-commercials that play before the song you really want to listen to, or the tutorial you're trying to watch. Really, with so many businesses trying to jam their products in your face, it was a godsend when you got AdBlock installed on your computer, your tablet, your phone, and if you're old-school, on your desktop, too.

The problem is, what's good for you is actually terrible for the creators making the stuff you like.

After all, wouldn't you help us out if it didn't cost you anything?

Ads Are How Most Online Creators Get Paid

Most people never stop and ask how creative professionals on the Internet get paid. After all, if you buy an author's book, then that author gets a cut of the sale (which are called royalties). If you buy a painting, then the artist who painted it gets a piece of that (or all of it, if the painter is selling it him or herself). But what about people who create YouTube videos, who write blogs, or who design any of the dozens of other things you can get free access to on the Internet? How do they get paid?

Simple. They get part of the ad revenue generated from their pages.

Take this blog, for example. I don't charge any membership fees, and anyone can read it for free on any device. In fact, the more people who read my blog, the more money I make. Because, in addition to dispensing wisdom on the writing profession from my soapbox, this page has ads on it. The more traffic I get, and the more people who see those ads, the more money I make. That's the same for anyone who uses an ad-based platform, whether it's writers at InfoBarrel, or YouTube celebrities like Jim Sterling.

Speaking of Mr. Sterling, he did an episode of The Jimquisition last year for the Escapist covering this very topic. As such, I thought I'd share it to hammer the point home.

So, there you have it. No one likes Internet ads. However, if you have AdBlock on your devices, then you are, effectively, not counted when the end of the month rolls around and our paymasters figure out how much money our traffic earned us. And, to be honest, we need all of the numbers we can get, because it takes thousands of hits for us to earn as little as a few bucks.

That's why I'd like to ask a favor of my regular readers. If you have AdBlock installed on your devices, would you consider turning it off when you read either The Literary Mercenary or Improved Initiative?

If you'd rather keep blocking ads, but you still want me to keep creating content on a regular basis, you could visit my Patreon page to become a patron, instead. $1 an entry, or even a month, goes a long way toward helping me provide even more content for you, my readers.

Well, thanks for stopping by! If you'd like to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then plug your email into the box on the right, or follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

3 Tips For Formatting Your Manuscript (So Editors Won't Want to Stab You)

Writing isn't easy. It's a long, winding road that takes a combination of guts, perseverance, and no small amount of luck, in order to reach that shining plateau of professional success. You'll meet a lot of people along the way, and some of those people are going to be editors. In order to make a good impression on your editors, here are some basic formatting rules you should follow, regardless of what your manuscript happens to be about.

Trust me, you'd rather have them as friends than enemies.

Rule #1: The Tab Key Is Now Dead To You

Never say its name again. Ever.
The tab key has likely been your friend for years now. When you first started writing papers, you were told in no uncertain terms that you hit the tab key in order to indent your text. Well, that was true then. However, you're not printing out a book to turn in for a grade. You're going to send it off to be published. And that means your old friend tab is just going to drag you down.

Why is that? Because in the age of the ebook, and digital publishing in general, the tab key is persona non grata as far as your software is concerned. If you're trying to publish a manuscript into multiple formats, then the first thing you'll notice is your hundreds of tabs have completely screwed up your page appearance. Either you get a page covered in bizarre spacing, or you get a page with no spacing at all, making it impossible to tell where one part ends, and another begins.

What You Should Do Instead

Go to the options in your word processor. Click Format, and then click Paragraph. Once you're in this screen, you set the first line indent to .5, and check the box that says Automatic. After you've completed that simple step, boom, your manuscript will automatically format your paragraphs in a way that will transfer over easily, regardless of whether you're using an Amazon, Smashwords, or Adobe format for your finished project.

Rule #2: Stop Putting Two Spaces After Your Period

Seriously. Stop that shit.
This one is a little less cut-and-dry than the tab issue, but it's still something that irks the living shit out of a lot of editors. You see, the whole reason that people have been taught to put two spaces after a period was that during the days of typewriters and real, physical newspapers, that was how publications in New York did it. The problem was that typewriters weren't universal, and when you were inking the day's happenings you didn't want your page to look too crowded. Some American papers used two spaces, some used one.

However, you're not writing your manuscript on a typewriter. You're writing it digitally, and you can assume there's a uniform number of spaces both in ebook and physical format.

What You Should Do Instead

Just stop. Really, it's that simple. Not only that, but if you're writing a 100,000 word manuscript, you'll cut out entire blank pages that were otherwise spread throughout your work.

Rule #3: Stop Thinking Page Count, Start Thinking Word Count

Seriously, it doesn't matter what page you're on.
This is another one of those changes that came about thanks to publishing, as an industry, going digital. The reason that page count doesn't matter is because you could take the same story, publish it in a dozen different formats, and get a different page count every time. In .epub you have 25 pages, in the physical anthology you have 20, in .pdf you have 16, etc.

You know what doesn't change? Your word count. That's why publishers use word count as the basis for the heft of a manuscript instead of page count. Because a 100-page novel may be thick or thin depending on spacing, but 50,000 words is 50,000 words no matter how you cut it.

What You Should Do Instead

The best way to achieve this mindset is to write projects that fill a certain word count. Anthology calls will typically ask for short stories in 3,000, 5,000, and 10,000-word increments (but 20,000-word novellas are not unheard of). If you participate in calls like these, even if your stories aren't chosen for inclusion, you begin to get a sense for how many words it takes to tell a story of a certain size. That sense of story will allow you to lengthen or shorten a project during the plotting/brainstorming phase, ensuring that you don't end up shooting for a novel, and winding up 30,000 words short of where you wanted it to be.

This concludes my introduction to formatting. If you are an author, or an editor, and there are other habits you find lurking in the slush pile which you feel deserve extra attention, then please use the form on this page to send me an email.

If you want to make sure you get all my future updates, then please follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support The Literary Mercenary, then stop by my Patreon page to become a patron today! If you join by the end of November, there's a free gift in it for you, too!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Wil Wheaton is Right: Authors Every Year Die of "Exposure"

Authors, and really creative types in general, are used to be treated like some bizarre kind of second-class citizen when it comes to our work. On the one hand, people love and value what we do, assuming the existence of movie theaters, book stores, art galleries, comic books, and all the other things produced by creative people and devoured by the populace for entertainment are a guide to go by. On the other hand, no one seems to want to pay for it.

This situation flared up again, when the Huffington Post contacted geek demigod Wil Wheaton and asked to republish a piece that he wrote. For exposure. You know, in case you didn't know who he was, or something.

Huffington Post: An Artist's Interpretation

What Happened?

So, here's the way things went down according to Mr. Wheaton's blog post on the subject. An editor from the Huffington Post contacted him, and asked if he would be willing to let them re-publish his article "Seven Things I Did To Reboot My Life". It's a solid piece, it generates lots of traffic, and it makes sense that the Huff Po folks wanted to get in on that. Wil said sure, that sounds great, what sort of payment are we talking about? Huff Po's answer included terms like "unique platform" and "wide reach".

Boiled down, the answer amounted to, "we're not going to pay you for it, but we're going to put it in a place where a lot of people are going to see it, and we'll make a lot of ad revenue from it."

The Literary Mercenary's Post-Engagement Breakdown

I made my feelings known on this issue pretty clearly over two years ago in my entry Professional Rule #1: Never Work For Free. However, because of the nature of this particular incident, I feel that more than a blanket statement about how creators need to pay artists the value of their work is necessary.

Value will vary, based on work.
All right, let's rewind back to the beginning of this sorry situation. We have an article that's been written by Wil Wheaton, who is a celebrity with a known fan base. That's important to mention because when you have someone that's a Name, with a capital-N, that person brings a guaranteed readership to the publication. It's why reality TV personalities and rock stars get book deals with no questions; publishers know they are going to move copies based on that person's name. So, we have the winning combination of a well-received article, and a famous author.

That's a solid one-two punch from Huff Po's perspective. If they can get the go-ahead to reprint this, they're going to see a jump in traffic. More traffic means more advertising, and more advertising means more money for them. In case you were wondering, the Huffington Post is valued at several million dollars. Also, in case you were wondering, they pay exactly $0 of that to their contributors.

Put another way, that's like Random House asking to republish a novel from Stephen King or George R. R. Martin, and then paying the author nothing for either the rights to the book, or royalties from its sales. In short, the Huffington Post is sitting on a mountain of advertising money that comes from the ads on their site, but when it comes time to compensate the people making that money by creating the site's content, the company line is, "you should just be happy we're putting your work in a place where so many people will see it!"

That takes balls.

Not just because you're telling your authors, who are making you money through their sweat, effort, wit, and audience clicks that you can't afford to pay them, even though you're a multi-million-dollar website. Publishers can set up whatever pay structure they want, and if you approach them as an author you're pretty much agreeing to play by their rules. No, this took balls because Huff Po knocked on Wheaton's door, said, "that's an awfully nice blog entry you've got there. Would you be willing to give it to us so we can make money off of it without sharing any with you?"

What Needs to Change

In a nutshell, authors need to get a slice of the pie.

My go-to example here is a platform like Infobarrel (if you're curious about what I write there, here's my archive). While it isn't as big as the Huffington Post, and certainly doesn't have the reach, what it does do is cut its writers in on the site's profits.

Here's how it works. Authors create content, and the content is then posted on the site. Infobarrel tracks the views, ad clicks, and all the other activity that goes on during the month. At the end of the month it splits the money each article made, keeping a portion for itself, and giving the rest to the author who is responsible for the traffic. So, if you join the site, write an article, and your post goes viral, generating millions of hits over the next month, then you are going to have your rent, food, and possibly a small vacation, taken care of. Not only that, but the site is also going to see a big influx of cash. In a situation like this, everyone wins!

There is, of course, no guarantee that using a site like Infobarrel, or Helium, or whichever other sites are still online, is going to mean money in your pockets. After all, there's no guaranteed way to predict whether your latest makeup tutorial, movie review, or explanation of the behind-the-scenes causes of World War I, is going to be a huge success. However, the more content you produce, and the bigger your audience grows, the more likely you are to bring in regular traffic that makes you, and the site, money.

Paying authors will probably cut down on the number of Ocean's 11-style heist plans, if nothing else.
There are, of course, a thousand different discussions branching off this main one. For example, should authors be paid up-front for their work, especially since there's no guarantee it will be a traffic magnet? Should authors with a bigger fan base or following be paid more, regardless of their skill? What, precisely, are we using as the basis for when authors are being taken advantage of?

Actually, I have a simple answer for that last one. If you want to take an author's hard work, and then use it to generate a profit, but you are not willing to pay that author in any way, shape, or form besides allowing them to sign their name to the piece, then you are exploiting that author. Pay them by the word, share your ad revenue, and by all means try to get a good deal on the work, but do not simply swipe it, post it online, and then roll around in the money like some kind of political cartoon.

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