Wednesday, December 30, 2015

To Make A Living As A Writer, Try Broadening Your Horizons

Every writer who's ever put words on the page has had the same fantasy. In fact, if you've had it, you've probably guessed it based on that sentence alone. Just so we're all on the same page, though, the fantasy is for you to be allowed to write what you love, and for those projects to pay you a living wage.

Which is different from a killing wage. Significantly different.
It doesn't matter if you're a novelist or a script writer, a master of horror or a weaver of romance. Whatever your area of expertise, and your preferred type of project, the goal is to reach the point where you don't have to worry about taking a break for lunch. Where you can wake up whenever you damn well please, sit down at your desk, and focus completely on the story you want to tell.

Some of us get to that point sooner than others. Some of us are never going to get there. Which is why this little piece of advice is one that I feel compelled to give. Are you listening? Good, because...

You Can Write More Than One Thing

When I was a much younger man, I thought that the only way to make a living as a writer was to be a novelist. I wanted that job bad enough to taste it, and if I'm honest the taste has never gone away. It gave me a lot of practice writing fiction, and when I was just starting out I even managed to win the odd contest or two. It wasn't until I got into college that I realized there was more to the world of writing than being a novelist. There was, for example, my school newspaper.

Hey, you need to start somewhere.
It doesn't sound like much, but short of an occasional gift certificate or tiny check, the paper represented the first paycheck I'd ever earned with the written word. It wasn't enough to do much at $5 an article, but it was a proof-of-concept. It was real evidence that there was a market for my skills. More importantly, it made me realize that I could still work on my stories, while earning money writing something else as well. There was no need to drive a delivery van, or sit around in a security shack, when I could just write instead. This knowledge didn't shift my personal focus from the goal of writing fiction for a living, but it did make me re-evaluate the idea that I had to have a day job I didn't like while I was working on said focus. After all, if there was one opportunity out there, then there had to be more... didn't there?

There was, as it turned out. What I hadn't realized was there is text all over the world, and writing is a skill that translates pretty well from one project to another. I made contact with other local newspapers to get work as a stringer and occasional feature writer. I managed to wrangle a short-term position writing articles for a men's magazine. I wrote ad copy for catalogs, and product descriptions for websites. I joined websites where I wrote reams of articles, earning up-front payments, as well as earning royalties and revenue share on some of my work. In the past few years I've been running this blog, as well as my gaming blog Improved Initiative, and I've worked with a lot of publishers who needed help producing rules and mechanics for tabletop roleplaying games. And somewhere in there I've published two dozen short stories, and completed at least one novel-length manuscript.

The result of all that work? Well, I'm certainly not in that six-figure range. Hell, some years I'm barely in the 5-figure range. However, I've made a lot of contacts, and I've learned a lot about the business of being a professional writer. More importantly, though, I've managed to pay rent on time, and buy the occasional cheeseburger, with nothing more than word count. Not because I kept my nose to the grindstone, and refused to step away from the one true calling I felt for writing books, but because I recognized that I had to do more if I expected to put "writer" on the profession line for my taxes.

That's the secret I would share with anyone who wants to claw their way up to that final plateau. The day might come when you get that book deal, or you self-publish the next big series that locks you into a bigger tax bracket for the next ten years. But between now and then, you've got bills to pay. So why not use the skill you've been sharpening so hard for so long?

Lastly, if you're looking for places you can start making a living as a writer, I'll save you some searching. Just check out Where To Find Online Writing Jobs, and Make Money Writing (By Joining

As always, thanks for checking in with The Literary Mercenary! If you want to help support me (and possibly get me a little closer to that future where all I do is write blogs and books), then consider stopping by my Patreon page to become a patron today! If you'd prefer to get regular updates on my latest and greatest, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Overlooked Writing Advice: The Cool Down Period

Most writing advice is concerned with getting you from Point A to Point B on your project. Mentors will talk about plot twists and characterization, while writer's groups will focus on tone and description. Magazines talk about inclusiveness and representation, and blogs promise to share the secrets of the perfect chapter opener. And while all of that is good advice, and covers a huge variety of topics every writer needs to pay attention to in order to produce quality work, there's one message that gets lost in all the breathless discussions and shouted advice.

When you've finished your rough draft... stop. Take a breath. Cool down.

Have some hot chocolate. Seriously, you earned it.
As I mentioned in my previous post The Five Types of Beta Readers Every Writer Should Have, completing a project is a lot like giving birth. It's harder than it looks, and it can eat up huge amounts of your time, energy, and attention. Not only that, but when you finally finish the process, you've been so completely focused on it that you have no perspective regarding what you're looking at. Your baby is going to be perfect to you, even if it's covered in dangling plot threads, malnourished in places, and bellowing exposition at the top of its voice.

That's why, before you do anything else, you need to save your rough draft, make a backup of that save, and then shut it in a drawer for a while. Don't dwell on it, don't look at it, and don't go on to other people about it. You just spent a huge amount of time turning this thing from an idea into words, and now you need to rest before the next step.

Come Back With Fresh Eyes

How long you wait before moving on to the next step will vary by writer, the size of the project, and how long it took to complete. For example, if you took a few hours to research and write up a blog entry or a basic article, then when you're done with it you should walk away for a little bit. Make a sandwich, have some chips, or check your mail. Then, once you've had a chance to take a breather, come back, pick up the red pen, and get back to work.

Holy shit, what was I drinking when I wrote this intro?
The bigger the project, and the more time you've spent submerged in it, the more time you should take between when you finish the rough draft, and when you start the edits. If you spent a few days, or a few weeks, hammering out a short story, then you should take a few days to recuperate. If you've just finished a novel, then chances are you've been submerged in that world for between a season, and a year or two. Take a few weeks. You just incrementally pulled a hundred thousand words (or more) out of your guts. Take a drink, and collapse for a bit.

Also, if you've finished a bigger piece of work, you should consider doing something else in between the end of your first draft, and editing. If you just finished an epic space opera with ancient villains in star-destroying ships, maybe write a short horror story about two kids who go into a haunted house on a dare and get more than they bargained for. If you just finished writing a short story for an anthology about robots, then start another one about an Afghanistan war veteran dealing with feelings of existential dread. By submerging yourself into a different world, you pull out of the one you previously spent so much time in. The result is that when you come across a sentence the seems out of place, you're more likely to catch it, and fix it.

If you've pulled completely out of that world (or as completely as you can), then you come at your rough draft as a reader, instead of the creator. Which, trust me, is a godsend for sanding off the burrs and tightening up your narrative.

While you might be tempted to just skim the work, and ship it off to an anthology call, an agent, or a publisher (or just put it up under your self-published works), you really want to take a moment. You're drunk off the creative process... sober up before you decide to show off your latest creation to the world at large.

As always, thanks for stopping in to hear what I've got to say. If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Also, if you're in a giving mood this holiday, there's a special gift awaiting anyone who becomes a patron of mine before the new year. Just go to my Patreon page, sign up, and receive two free ebooks, along with my thanks!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Don't Wait Until You're "Good Enough" To Get Paid

Over the past several years, I've met a lot of people who wanted to build careers as entertainers. Sometimes they were going it alone, and other times they had collected a group of like-minded creatives who wanted to combine their efforts to build something bigger. Almost universally, though, these seemingly very serious people operated under a faulty belief.

That belief is that, in order to build an audience and a career, they had to provide completely free content with no attempts to make money for a certain period of time.

Because otherwise it's prostitution? Or something?
I'm going to repeat that, just to show that it won't make any more sense a second time through. There is a genuine belief among authors, video creators, bloggers, podcasters, and a whole bunch of others who legitimately want to turn their creativity into a career, that they have to operate for an arbitrary amount of time, or collect an arbitrary amount of followers, before they're allowed to make money. As if there's a magical point where you've proven yourself worthy of trying to earn money from your own efforts.

Let that sink in for a moment, and ask yourself if any other self-employed person would even consider embracing this logic. If someone painted houses, would he print up a bunch of flyers, business cards, and buy all of the necessary tools and equipment, then paint houses for free for a year just to prove he's good enough to be paid for it? Would someone running a landscaping business insist on building up a client list of 50 people before asking to be paid for all the work they were doing? No, because not only is that a great way to burn yourself out and dig yourself into a massive hole of debt, but it's stupid. No one would do that much work for no earning potential.

So why do creative professionals think they have to?

If You're Going to Get Paid, Then Get Paid

It's hard enough making money as an independent creative professional without forcing yourself to do it for nothing in the name of paying your dues, or perfecting your skills, or whatever excuse you're giving. If you're going to make a career out of your art, whatever that art happens to be, you need to be just as serious about your money as you are about the things you're creating.

Money isn't something you play around with. You won't have that much of it.
For starters, most of the ways that you get paid as a creative professional either cost your audience nothing, or are totally voluntary. If you put ads on your blog, or if you are included in the Youtube ad program, then that won't get in the way of most reader's experiences (provided, of course, you avoid tiresome pop-ups and ads that make loud noises). If you set up a Patreon page, then it's up to your readers whether or not they want to fund your efforts (incidentally, if you become a patron for The Literary Mercenary before 2016, there's two ebooks in it for you!). Heck, you can even put a tip jar on your blog (instructions here) so that people can toss you a little green when they feel you've done a good job.

Even if you do all of that, though, it's going to take years for you to build up a big enough following to start realizing a profit. Making a real living practically requires you to be struck by viral lightning.

But People Love Free Stuff!

That's true. However, it takes a colossal amount of work and effort to make people realize that art doesn't just grow on trees in the first place. Now try giving people free art for a year, getting them used to getting all that free art, and then asking to be paid. Some people will support you, either by pledging cash, putting up with your ads, or leaving you tips. Others will scoff at you, demanding to know what makes you think you're so special that you should make money doing this?

Chances are good, though, those people would have reacted the same way if you'd asked up-front.

You made it, and you deserve to be paid for it. You put in the time, and the effort, to create content that your audience is consuming. It has value, but giving it away without asking anything in return creates the illusion that there is no value. And it doesn't matter if you try to make money right off the bat, if you wait six months, or if you hold off until you have a thousand followers, the reactions won't be any different. If anything, they'll be worse, because suddenly you went from an artist who selflessly didn't make any money, to someone who now expects to be paid.

If you're going to try to make money later, start doing it now. Waiting does nothing but empty your stomach, and pour cool water on your fire.

All of that said, thanks for stopping by and listening to yet another of my hopefully helpful rants. If you'd like to get your two free ebooks, then become a Patreon patron today! All it takes is $1 a month to keep great content coming your way. Also, if you want to be sure you don't miss any of my updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter!

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Are "Tortured Souls" Really Just Stunted Characters?

I am a lover of Grimdark fiction. There is no event too awful, no betrayal too personal, and no petty stab too low for me to turn my face away. However, as someone who finds great catharsis in books where terrible things happen to people, I've begun to notice a trend. Too often authors will use a character's suffering as a substitute for giving that character a well-rounded personality, and actually developing that character throughout a story.

I have begun to refer to these characters as Tortured Souls, and much as I grew up loving them, I'm starting to get a little sick of them.

You know who you are.
Since I have this convenient image of the Dark Knight, I'll use him as an example. Now, I've given Batman a lot of shit before (particularly in my post Why I Hate Batman (And What Writers Can Learn From His Character Mistakes)), but he works as an ideal example for what I'm talking about.

So, who is Batman? He's someone who's dedicated his life, and a fortune, to building a private arsenal and cementing himself in the underworld scene in one of the most crime-ridden cities in his world in order to bring down the bad guys. That is compelling stuff, and it's no surprise that when he debuted as a character readers wanted to know more. What you might not know is that Batman didn't even have an origin story until he'd been around for a few issues, and started selling really well.

I cannot overstate this; Batman was so compelling as a character that we could have completely skipped the "my parents were murdered in front of me when I was nine" backstory, and fans would still have wanted more of him.

However, as most fans know, the dead parents are what we got. And since the character's descent into the realms of dark and gritty (courtesy of writers like Frank Miller), the dead parents are one of the most-often used shields to excuse Batman's behavior. Writers have, in essence, allowed something that happened to him when he was a child to completely determine the entire course of Bruce's life. The result is that sometimes the stories we get, and the methods we see, feel child-like.

How does a billionaire with one of the greatest intellects in the human population fight crime? Is it by funding social welfare programs to help give poor people the means to live happier, more productive lives? By dedicating some of his wealth and insight to the criminal justice system, and attempting to find the causes of crime in Gotham so he can pull them out by the roots? Perhaps running for public office so he can institute real change?

Nah, he's just going to dress up in a costume and punch street toughs until we run out of goons to throw his way.

Got Any Other Examples?

I do, in fact.

You see, the popularity of the Tortured Soul has led to a lot of different versions. Characters like The Punisher, Spawn, Sandor Clegane, Drax the Destroyer, Rorschach, and dozens of others from popular fiction fall into this unfortunate niche. These characters, despite their differences, are driven by a single event, and that event is intensely personal to them.

However, we also never see them do anything to get past that event, because that kind of growth would remove said event's ultimate power over them.

I really hope I don't have to add him to the list, too...
So what separates a Tortured Soul from a character who simply has a dark or troubled past? Well, there are a lot of items, so I'll throw a few bullet points at you.

- Tortured Souls are anchored to this one event. Practically, this means that you are not allowed to develop the character past the traumatic experience, and the trauma ends up dictating everything about them.
- Tortured Souls get a free pass on awful behavior. Not just gunning down Mafia members, or beating confessions out of street toughs, but simple acts of common social grace. It doesn't matter that the T.S.'s main form of communication is to threaten someone with violence, or that his or her favorite topic of conversation is how many men he's killed. We excuse it, because they've been damaged.
- Tortured Souls are shallow. This doesn't mean they aren't compelling, or that they won't command a huge fan base. However, because of their stunted growth as characters, they act better in supporting roles than they do in lead ones.

So what, you might be asking, separates characters like Jessica Jones or Spider-Man from the Tortured Soul label? After all, the former grew up in an abusive household before being raped by a mind-controlling villain, and the latter let the thief go who ended up killing his Uncle Ben. Why aren't they on the list?

In short, because these characters work to get past the events that happened to them. Jessica, despite her often abrasive nature, faces her fears and overcomes the things that were done to her. She also learns how to trust people, opening herself up to new relationships, and how to not take responsibility for things that aren't her fault. Mr. Parker, while he does feel incredible guilt for not stopping the street tough who ended up shooting his uncle, realizes that he cannot take responsibility for that man's actions. However, because he has powers, he believes that he is required to use them to help people, instead of for his own selfish or petty wants.

If you're worried that your character is walking into that morally grey, more-than-a-little fetid swamp of the Tortured Soul, ask what defines them aside from this incident. Once you've done that, ask what happens to the story when these characters learn how to deal with the things that have happened to them, and move on. If that's never going to happen, you might want to head back to the drawing board.

Awful Events Are No Substitute For Character

It's important to remember that someone surviving awful or traumatic events can be compelling, but it is by no means automatically so. However, a lot of lazy writing comes from trying to spice up a character by having them go through something terrible. Rather than work on creating complete personalities, or a compelling life goal, some writers will just throw in dead parents, a murdered sibling, child molestation, rape, or all of them in no particular order.

Author Seanan McGuire (her website is right here, if you haven't been there yet) in particular has had fans write in, asking when her female leads are going to get raped. As if it's some mark of character development to undergo this horrific experience.

There is no way to make that opinion less repugnant, so have a silly goat.
While it's true that it's your book, and you can have whatever events happen that you want to, it's important to step back and ask why things have to happen in a given way. Do these traumas and personal violations add to your story in some way? Or are you just trying to use a short-cut so you can fit in more gun fights and brooding?

As always, thanks for stopping in to check out this week's Literary Mercenary. If you want to make sure you catch all my posts, then follow me at Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you've got a little leftover change in your pocket, and you'd like to help support this blog, then feel free to stop by my Patreon page to become a patron. If you join soon, there's some sweet holiday swag in it for you!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

You Don't Get To Be A Special Snowflake, Just Because You're A Writer

So, a while ago I posted an entry titled 3 Tips For Formatting Your Manuscript (So Editors Won't Want to Stab You). I wrote this post because, though I'm primarily an author, I've been an editor, and I saw the terrible things that flourished in the slush piles. The goal was to let writers know that if they were going to submit their manuscripts to a publisher, they needed to conform to the standards the men and women holding the red pens expected to see.

Jesus, Jeff, this one didn't even type the thing up...
Overall, the responses were positive. Lots of editors and editor/authors shouted thanks that someone was talking about three of the big manuscript problems they've had to deal with. Authors who intended on submitting their work to publishers were equally grateful for the heads up, since they wanted to make sure their manuscript looks as polished as possible before submission.

There were a few voices, however, raised in protest. Shrill voices that shouted I had no authority over them and their works, and that they were going their own way. While I certainly have no power over my fellow writers, I would like to take this week's update to address those who are under the mistaken impression that authors are truly free to do whatever they want.

On The Subject of Special Snowflakes

It doesn't take a lot to be a writer. Anyone who has a story to tell, and who's willing to put in the time and effort to get it on the page or the screen can claim the title. Writers can do it for fun, in their spare time, as a hobby, or just because they like putting their creativity through its paces. Authors, according to my personal vernacular, are writers who want to go pro.

And bring home that filthy lucre.
There's more that goes into making the jump from a writer to an author than just putting your stories up for sale, though. There are expectations you have to meet, lines you have to color inside of, and rules you simply have to follow. The three I mentioned in my previous post are, quite literally, the least of the rules you'll be expected to labor under as an author.

And some folks just don't get that.

I have a hypothesis regarding this. Put simply, it's that most writers are told they have the freedom to do whatever they want, because it's their story. They can kill their leads, use whatever language they want, and take whatever crazy twists and turns they feel like. They can write their stories in blogs, jot them down in notebooks, type them up as word documents, or even click them out letter by letter on their phones. Writers have complete and total freedom to do whatever they want.

Authors don't. While it's true that authors provide the books publishers need, or can become one-person publishers in their own rights, authors still have to conform to certain rules. There are word count rules, formatting rules, spelling and grammar rules, all of which were just guidelines back when you were a writer. If you expect to get cash in hand, then you'd better learn to deliver on expectations.

Aren't Self-Publishers Immune to This?

No, they aren't. While some may claim otherwise, self-publishers are held to the same standards as any other author in terms of the finished product. And, perhaps unfairly, self-publishers are put under even more intense scrutiny than traditional publishers.

Oh who cares about the formatting, a house is a house, right?
Readers judge books in a lot of different ways, and only one of those ways is the actual content. Everything from the look of the cover to the word spacing you choose is being checked mentally against what readers expect to see. So if you, for example, chose to double-space your book in order to make it look bigger, readers are going to see that. Some might look past it, but others will see a book with too much open space, shut the cover, and walk away.

Your audience expects your book to deliver certain things. One of those things is for it to look professional, which in this case means that it looks like any other novel they would pluck off the shelf. New chapters start on a new page, sentences have one space after the period, and indentations are set at .5, no more, no less.

Can you do something different with your book's layout? Of course you can. However, like stories which contain unpopular subject matter, those books will be a harder sell to publishers, and they may be outright banned by many self-publishing services. Why? Because self-publishing sites still have guidelines that authors who use them have to abide by. So even when you're doing it yourself, you still have to conform to the guidelines.

Take Your Ego Out of Your Work

Authors should enjoy their work. They should take pride in their work. However, if your head starts swelling, and you start thinking that your stories are so special that you get to ignore the rules, then you need to remember something important. There are hundreds of thousands of authors and aspiring authors out there, which means there are always other people that publishers and readers can turn to.

And every one of them is special, too.
Does this mean you have to be conformist in your work? Of course not. If you want to write stories with edgy subject matter, or which cause controversy, then you won't be the first to tap that market. You can write in any genre you want, any style you want. If an editor wants you to make a change, and you feel strongly against that change, then you should sit down and hash it out to see if you can't come to an agreement.

If you balk at changing something in order to meet an industry standard, though, you might want to step back and reconsider your career choice. Because chances are good you're not an auteur genius, and if you were, you'd be way too busy counting your money and answering fan mail to complain about what a trench typist like me has to say about anything.

As always, thanks for stopping by. If you want to keep up on future updates for The Literary Mercenary, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, too. If you want to help support this blog, then stop by my Patreon page, and become a patron today! All I ask is $1 a month, and that goes a lot further than you might think.