Wednesday, July 27, 2016

It's Not Illegal If Your Main Character Does It!

I have always had a sweet spot for stories about revenge. Whether it's Frank Castle donning the death's head skull and waging his one-man war on crime, or Frankenstein's monster killing everyone his creator loves because he backed out on his promise, I could not get enough of these stories. I tried. I really tried, but there is something so viscerally appealing about a wronged party getting a piece of their own back that it became my book candy of choice.

So, of course, when I got to high school (the angstiest of the angsty periods in most writers' lives) and took creative writing, that was what I wanted to write about. Fundamentally good characters, pushed past their limits, until they have to come for their own in blood and pain.

Basically the plot of every Mel Gibson movie ever.
It was freeing, to be allowed to write that kind of story for class credit. However, one of the first pieces of constructive criticism I ever received was from the teacher in that class. It was a single question, and a question that I think all authors who get a little too caught up in their stories should remember.

"What's going to happen when the cops catch up to him?"

Your Story Doesn't Exist in a Vacuum

Play a game, sometime. Go to Netflix, pop on any 80's action movie you can find, and count the number of laws being broken. From illegal carry and use of a firearm, to reckless endangerment, to out-and-out murder. Sometimes in the triple digits, if you're a fan of Stallone or Lundgren. And yet, when the film is over, ask how many times those crimes are addressed. Sure, sometimes the lead dies heroically at the end to save a beloved family member, but more often than not it's the hero in a hospital bed, being told he can go home in a week or two. Good job, you sure showed those gangsters/private military contractors/corrupt public officials what for.

That isn't just a little hole in your plot. That is something you could drive a convoy through.

Side-by-side, even.
It isn't just revenge stories that suffer from this problem, either. From swashbuckling space operas, to black bag spy thrillers, too often writers will just hand-wave legal repercussions in favor of characters doing badass things in badass ways. Because, let's face it, if even a layman's grasp of the law was easy, more of us would have gone to law school. We became authors so we wouldn't have to deal with all that nonsense, and we could just make up our own worlds.

However, it's important to remember that breaking the law is something that adds serious drama to your story. It's a mark of the stakes being raised, and it means there's even more pressure on your protagonists. Because not only do they have to accomplish their goals (whatever those goals are), but they have to do it knowing they can't turn to the authorities for help. Or, worse, that if the authorities get wind of it, they'll have another force to deal with on top of their antagonists.

Normal people who go outside the law are going through a transformation. Those who already exist outside the law (mercenaries, assassins, and others) are exotic in ways that normal protagonists could never be.

Think It Through, And Do The Hard Work

There are going to be laws in any setting you set your story. Even the dystopian hellscape of Mad Max has laws, bleak and terrible though they might be. The whole concept of Beyond Thunderdome is that the law, though functional, has been written and enforced by maniacs. It's a central part of the film, and acts as a kind of framework for the events that transpire.

Even the law of the jungle is still a law.
This goes deeper than just, "did your main character break the law?" though. What it is really about, and what your take-away should be if you've read this far, is that all your character's actions need to have reasonable consequences. That includes both their good actions, and their bad ones.

For example, if your protagonist is a violent bully, always waving around a gun or getting into fist fights, those are not qualities that should endear them to anyone. It certainly shouldn't get them promoted. If your male lead is constantly ignoring when partners tell him, "no," and yet he's seen as strong and romantic, take a step back and ask if that isn't a euphemism for, "rapey." And, if someone is constantly putting themselves in violent situations, ask what that does to their mental health. John Rambo was a man whose experiences broke something inside of him, and that made his actions (at least in the first film) extremely tragic. It's also what led to the extreme escalation from both sides.

That's cause and effect in action, right there.

Does that mean all your protagonists need to be well-balanced, law-abiding citizens? Of course not! It does mean, however, that when they do something, it's your job to create believable reactions, or explanations for a lack of reaction. For example, when your protagonist shoots three mob enforcers in a diner, and then isn't even questioned by the police, why is that? Is it because no one saw him? There was no evidence? His name never came up? Is it because the cops don't care, and are writing it off as gang-related so they don't have to spend resources tracking down the killer? These are all options, but you need to tell your reader why things happen the way they do if you're going to preserve the sense of reality in your world.

Internal consistency is key, and it is the greatest law that governs your work.

As always, thanks for stopping in and checking out this weeks Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it proved thought-provoking. If you'd like to help support my blog, then I'd ask you to please head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, and leave a tip for me. As little as $1 a month makes a difference, and it gets you some sweet swag, too. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why Other Authors Are Your Allies, Not Your Competition

Anyone who has been an author, or thought about trying to become an author, has no doubt seen a message that says, "other authors are your allies, not your competition." In one way, this seems like total bullshit, as every author is clearly competing with every other in a very real way. There are only a certain number of places on the store shelves, a certain number of people reading books, and with a certain amount of disposable income, and everyone is trying to get to the top of that heap.

Artist's Interpretation
However, if you step back from the dog-eat-dog, pure capitalist viewpoint, you'll see there is a lot of truth to the idea that we are all in this together. Helping fellow authors doesn't hurt you; if anything, it gives you allies that can help you keep your head above water.

Building Each Other Up, Instead of Tearing Each Other Down

Since people love real-world examples, I'll share one of my own here.

For those who have never been to The Literary Mercenary's sister blog, Improved Initiative, it's where I talk about tabletop gaming. Pathfinder, Dungeons and Dragons, the World of Darkness, stuff like that. And, over the past three years or so, that blog has garnered a reputation and a following. Not a huge one, but it is still there.

Would you get to the point already?
Right. So, I was in a Facebook group dedicated to the Pathfinder roleplaying game, when a fellow I didn't know made a post, asking for advice on whether he should start a blog of his own. He'd been an avid gamer, and wanted to figure out a way to make his hobby into a career. On the one hand, if this fellow did write a blog, then that was (technically) one more website gamers could go to for the resources they needed. And, if he was good, then it would mean I'd have some serious competition on my hands.

Or would I? Because Simon Peter Munoz, creator of the Creative Repository Blog, is quite good as a blogger, gamer, and designer. However, rather than trying to discourage him, or undercut him so he couldn't take any of my traffic, or my audience, I offered him a hand up. I shared my experience being a blogger, answered what questions he had, and I try to mention his work as often as possible (speaking of which, if you're a gamer, go check out the CRB Facebook page). But why do that? Won't that take people away from my blog, and hurt my income?

The reason you may think that is because of the primary, incorrect assumption we make when we turn publishing into an "us versus everyone" game. We assume that there's only so much success to be had, and that if someone else gets more, there is somehow less for us. Which isn't, strictly speaking, true.

You see, I have an audience. Simon, now that he's been in the game a while, also has an audience. I tell my audience about the stuff that he does, and do my best to big-up his signal when I can. He returns the favor. The net result is that, working together, we both have bigger audiences than we'd have had separately, with more exposure, traffic, and success all around.

Networking Helps More Than You Know

There's an old phrase authors should remember. If you act like the world is against you, sooner or later you're going to be proven right. If, on the other hand, you help other authors succeed, then they're going to turn around and repay the favor to you. If you introduce someone to a publisher, editor, or opportunity, then that means when someone they know is looking for someone that has your skill set, your friend is going to hand that someone your contact information.

Because that's what makes the world go round.
Sometimes all it takes is kind words, and the occasional book review, to make a new friend. And, when you have a book coming out, all those friends that you helped are more likely to help you get the word out. You can do all the marketing you want, but there's nothing like having a dozen, or a hundred, people with blogs tell the world at large that your latest release is not to be missed, and that they should go get a copy right away.

Also, speaking of shout-outs, you should all check out Ben Reeder's Amazon author page. He does good work, and you won't be disappointed.

Thanks for stopping in to check out this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it taught you a valuable lesson regarding sharing, and not looking at your readers as a finite resource that must be controlled at all costs. As always, if you'd like to help support this blog so I can keep the lights on and my coffee cup filled, just stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a tip or two in my jar. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, please follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter if you'd like to keep up with all my latest posts.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Recipe For A Hard-Boiled Mystery

Mystery stories go back a long way. In fact, one could argue that Greek tragedies like Oedipus Rex are, at their core, mysteries. Without the lead trying to get to the core of the situation, and the facts slowly unfolding to show the truth of the tale, there would be no story. There would also be no dramatic revelation at the end.

Bet you didn't see that coming, did you?
There are a lot of different flavors of mystery, too. There's the warm cup of cocoa that is the cozy mystery, the unlabeled box of chocolates that is the whodunnit, and the bowl of healthy wheat cereal that is the procedural. However, there's a certain, indulgent satisfaction to the hard-boiled mystery. It's that deviled egg with a little too much pepper that may not be good for you, but when you see it laying out, you just can't turn it down.

If you've been looking for a recipe to write your own hard-boiled mystery, with an extra dash of noir, then let The Literary Mercenary break it into bite-size chunks for you.

And if you'd like some hard-boiled steampunk, check out New Avalon!

Step One: Your Setup

As with any dish, the most important part of a hard-boiled story is your base. The environment your world takes place in needs to be a place of hard edges, and gritty corruption. The sort of place where the pavement is always cracked, and where no good deed goes unpunished. Your cast should draw inspiration from those surroundings. Detectives in hard-boiled stories aren't uninvolved geniuses, who treat the bloody bodies that come across their desks as interesting problems to be solved. These victims worm their way under the detective's skin, whether he (or she) wants them to or not. The horrors drive them, and make them refuse to let go.

If you've ever seen Chinatown, then you know the kind of moral sinkhole I'm talking about.

Sort of like this, if it was raining, and there was a body in the dumpster.

Step Two: The Case

Hard-boiled stories don't dick around with slice-of-life stuff. Every case that makes its way down into these gutters is awful, even if it's in some subtle way. Like how a cheap drink might taste fine at first, but it leaves an aftertaste that makes you regret it all night. A missing purse, or a strange stalker, will never turn out to be something simple, or mostly harmless. It is going to escalate, and people are going to get hurt. Your detective is probably on the list, but other people, especially if they're innocent, definitely will be.

And blood is always what it takes to pay for blood.
It's important to include a note about escalation here. In hard-boiled stories, particularly the private detective genre, there's a tradition that what you're investigating is not where the resistance is coming from. Or, at least, not completely. For example, a detective is hired to look into a young man's death on a college campus. He asks questions, and ascertains that the young man did, indeed, commit suicide. That's not the problem. The problem is that there's a secret, buried in his financial records that shows he's been paying someone off. Someone who has a tidy blackmail ring going, and who just wants all this attention to blow over so he can get back to business as usual.

Of course, when the detective starts poking around, and asking more questions than the cops, that's when the shadowy villain tries to run him off. Maybe he tries to buy his services, maybe he sends bully boys around to run him off, or maybe he pulls some strings to get cops, lawyers, or other people to try and stonewall the detective. Either way, the resistance means the detective has to push back, which leads to more resistance, which leads to a harder push back.

This is typically how cases get solved. Not through finding fibers at the scene, or by a brilliant deduction, but with gunfire, bloody knuckles, and pushing until the bad guy tips his hand, and gives away the game.

Step Three: Resolution

What makes hard-boiled stories different than so many other mystery flavors is the resolution. That final bite that leaves you drained and satisfied. In softer mysteries, the villain gives up when confronted with the facts, or the cops go off to get him. In hard-boiled stories, the mystery isn't just about solving the case; it's personal. It's about our lead facing the darkness in the world, staring into that abyss, and seeing if today is the day they succumb.

You can only wash it clean so many times, before the stains are permanent.
Generally, there are two ways a resolution goes; a heroic resolution, and a brutal resolution.

The Maltese Falcon stands as one of the most iconic of heroic resolutions. Sam Spade, a guy we think is more concerned with angles and money than with justice, reveals that despite the temptation, despite his rage, and his love, he's going to turn over the crooks to the cops. Even though one of them is the woman he's grown to love. In heroic endings, we realize that despite the drinking problem, and despite the hard man attitude, there is something noble, and good in our protagonist.

The brutal ending, on the other hand, is the opposite of that. The heroic resolution speaks to what's good in society. It speaks of sacrifice, and of doing what's right. The brutal resolution, though, is intensely personal, and visceral. Our hero knows the villain isn't beat, and that if he takes him in, he'll wriggle free. Maybe it's because the system is too corrupt, or because the villain has too much money, but our hero takes the role of judge, jury, and oftentimes executioner. Or, perhaps, it's because lethal injection after sitting in a cell for 20 years is too good for him, and our lead puts two in his head. Not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's what he wants to do. Even if it's clear that by doing so, our lead is taking one step closer to the shadows that lurk in his world, instead of walking in the light.

And, That's It!

Follow this simple recipe, my friends, and you'll have your very own hard-boiled tale. Just remember, you can make it as simple or as complex as you want, because it isn't the mystery that's the main focus. The mystery is important, but it's just the road we're walking on. What we really care about is the journey, and how it affects the lead characters you have walking it. You need to show how it changes them, or how they resist change, in order to really leave your readers salivating.

As always, thanks for stopping in and checking out this week's Craft of Writing post. As always, if you'd like to help me stay caffeinated, a tip in my jar over at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page would be much appreciated. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Let "Joy on Paper" Help You Promote Your Book

Promoting your book isn't easy, especially in this particular day and age. While you'd think that being a local author would be enough to score you some street cred when it came to the local news spots, especially if they want to focus on the achievements of community artists, you'll find a lot of doors getting shut in your face if you aren't the latest acquisition of a big-name publisher. Newspapers and their associated websites will drop your email into the trash without a second glance, and even local radio stations will hang-up on you.

Well, most of them, anyway.

There is someone willing to hand you the mic, though.
If you've never heard of Joy on Paper, then allow me to be the bearer of glad tidings. This show, which goes out live on the air in addition to being podcast, is part of the Tampa area's Tan Talk radio network. WTAN1340 is what you're looking for if you want to tune-in. The host is Patzi Gil, referred to on-air as Patzi with a "Z", and she wants to give a platform to authors just like you.

Seriously, I was on the show recently, and it was a delight. I talked about this very blog, and got to tell a bigger audience than ever before about my book New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam. Seriously, check out my interview, if you want to get a feel for the show's format, and whether it's right for you.

There's No Such Thing As Too Much Promotion

Before you dismiss the above information as unnecessary, I'd like to remind you there's no such thing as too much exposure when it comes to your work. Especially in an era where everyone is inundated with media trying to grab their attention, it pays to have some extra help in your corner. You'll also be in good company. In addition to distinguished authors like yours truly (I said distinguished, not famous), the show also has guests with names you'd be more likely to recognize. Names like Clive Cussler, for example.

You know, this guy?
Whether you're still trying to move your first book, or you're releasing the tenth in a successful series, stop by Joy on Paper to see if there's a slot where you could tell people about it. And, if you decide to reach out, mention that the Literary Mercenary sent you. It can only help your chances.

As always, thanks for stopping by to check up on this week's Business of Writing entry. Hopefully you found it helpful, and you make Joy on Paper one of your regular podcasts. If you'd like to help support this blog, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to put some bread in my jar? And, lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?