Wednesday, March 29, 2017

You Get Better Results When You Tell Your Audience What To Do

We've all heard this age-old joke. A man is sitting on the couch, watching TV. His wife joins him. She turns to him, and says, "Well, we're out of toilet paper." He nods, acknowledging that her message was received. She waits a few moments, then says, "Yep, there is no more toilet paper in the entire house." Her husband nods, and this time adds a monosyllable that isn't quite a grunt to show that he got the message. After ten minutes or so goes by, she gets up, and storms out of the room. He is confused by her behavior, and left scratching his head.

We, the audience, understand that when the wife said, "We're out of toilet paper," what she meant was, "I would like you to go to the store, and bring back some toilet paper." Why didn't her husband do it? Well, because she didn't put her request into words that he would recognize as a call to action.

Wait... you wanted me to do what, now?
If you're a creative professional, you cannot be subtle when interacting with your audience. You need to tell them what you want them to do, when you want them to do it, and how to get it done.

Keep it simple, straightforward, and make sure there's no way to miss the directions you're giving.

Calls To Action, And You

In marketing, the term for telling your audience what to do is a call to action. It's why every commercial ends with something like, "Buy now!" or, "Call us today!" Even something as simple as, "Follow us on Facebook," is a clean, straightforward call to action because it's clear what the advertiser wants you to do for them.

Buy my book! Or at least check out the free sample.
Think of your marketing like getting a hit in baseball. You have good form, you swing, and you connect, but you need that follow-through. Without follow-through, a perfect hit loses all its potential, and plops right into the dirt. That's your call to action; the follow-through that turns a solid hit into a home run.

Where Does It Go?

There are a few different schools of thought on this one. For instance, some marketers say you should tell your audience to do the same thing three times throughout a piece of content, because by the time they reach the third one you'll catch everyone willing to do what you asked. Other people argue that telling your audience to do something more than once is just going to annoy them, and you should save your call to action for the end of your post. That way you'll only deliver it to audience members who were well and truly hooked by your content.

Seriously, did you go buy my book yet?
Where the schools of thought agree, though, is that you need to make your calls to action blatant, you need to explain what the audience gets out of it, and you need to ensure they can accomplish the action in as few steps as possible.

As a for-instance, if you wanted to support me, and get your hands on a collection of dark, steampunk noir stories, I'd tell you to go buy a copy of New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam.

In that single call to action, I laid out everything the audience needs to know. I told them I have a book for sale, what genre it fits into, and that they should go buy a copy if they want to support me as an author. That's the difference between saying, "Hey, my book is out there," and, "Hey, if you haven't read it yet, go get this specific book." Lastly, anyone who clicks that link will go right to the Amazon purchase page, so all they have to do is throw the book in their cart, and checkout. It can be done in a matter of minutes, and takes a minimum amount of effort on the part of the reader.

That final part is more important than most people think. Because no matter how much someone wants to help, or how little it costs them to do so, nothing will botch up your audience's follow-through more than making it inconvenient for them. You want them to click one link, or follow one social media page, or do something else equally simple. You don't want them to have to go through more than one loading screen.

Put another way, someone is usually more than happy to take a step to the right to support creators they care about. But if you ask them to step to the right, open the door, create a new account, fill in their credit card details, and then take a survey before they're allowed to help, they're going to quit somewhere around step three, leaving you high and dry.

Marketing is like writing, in that you should follow the K.I.S.S. method. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

That all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully it helps folks out there who are trying to mobilize their audience, and herd them toward a particular goal. If you like this piece, show some love by stopping by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Pledging at least $1 a month buys you a free book, as well as my everlasting gratitude. Lastly, if you want to stay in the loop, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to get all my latest posts.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Why Do You Have Your Best Ideas In The Bathroom?

We've all been there. Maybe you had one taco too many, and now you're seated on the throne, taking care of some pressing paperwork. Or you're in the shower, rinsing off the sweat and salt of the day. Then, out of nowhere, an epiphany! You get an idea for a new book, or you realize what's wrong with your chapter seven plot twist, or you suddenly know what to do about the problem of your protagonist's parents!

Thanks hot water!
Almost every writer out there has a story like this, and all of them share a single element; a completely mindless activity. Whether it's showering, taking a dump, lifting weights, fishing, doing the dishes, or any of a hundred other tasks, your brain disconnects as soon as your hands go to work. You can do these tasks on muscle memory, after all, so your brain is left to its own devices while your meat goes about the busywork.

Take Your Hands Off The Wheel, and See What Happens

Mental Floss lays out the chemical reasons for how we get great ideas when we relax our brains, but I'll sum them up for you here.

So, your brain has something called a default mode network, sometimes abbreviated as DMN. This network clears the passages between the different parts of your brain, and allows ideas and intuitions to flow freely. The problem is that, while we might call it the default setting, it isn't the mode most of us are in a lot of the time.

You see, most of the time we are focusing on something we're doing. Maybe it's solving an issue at our desk, navigating city traffic, or laying out a budget for the coming months, but whatever it is, this kind of thinking shuts off the default network, and boosts the frontal cortex. This is where a lot of our ability to focus comes from. Unfortunately, that very focus can often be a detriment when it comes to thinking around problems. Especially if those problems are creative in nature.

There's a reason we still use word association, after all.
This is actually one of the reasons creative people tend to be more easily distracted, according to Shelley Carson at Harvard. The insinuation is that it's hard for them to turn off the DMN fully, or that it's easy for them to revert back to it... even when they should be focusing on something else.

It's not just being in the right state of mind, though. You have to relax, too. Because when you relax, your brain releases dopamine, and that is the feel-good rush you need to really get the juices flowing. It's particularly useful for those who've returned to the DMN state, because then it lights up different parts of the brain, and things start bubbling up from the depths.

Practice Self Care, And See How It Helps

Sometimes the weight of a project can really get to you. When you feel like you've written yourself into a corner, or there's just too much word count for you to ever come up with, remember to take a break. Take a steamy shower. Clean the kitchen. Hell, light some incense and meditate for a bit. Whatever it takes to get your mind to unclench, you need to do that.

Think of it like a muscle cramp. You got there by putting in intense, focused effort. Some time on the couch with a heating pad is a lot more likely to ease that cramp than doing another set of bicep curls while hoping for a different result.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. I hope folks found it interesting, and if nothing else that you'll now have a conversation starter when you sit down with a friend who talks about their latest shower inspirations. If you'd like to see more from me and my blog, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! As little as $1 a month gets you my eternal gratitude, as well as some sweet swag to call your own. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, then now would be a great time to get started.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Success Is Not A Sprint... It's A Marathon

We love success stories. The tale of how a couple wrote a lurid indie romance novel, and a year later they're paying off their mortgage, is a particular favorite. We love telling the story about how J.K. Rowling was rejected dozens of times, but when the first Harry Potter book hit the market, it exploded. Even success stories we disapprove of, like the massive success of Twilight or its offshoot 50 Shades of Grey, still fill us with a kind of awe. And envy, because if those books can do it, then why can't we?

Come on... what's a guy got to do to make a little scratch around here?
Something that we tend to forget, though, is that being an author isn't like winning the lottery. You're not looking for one, big payday. You're setting a foundation to erect a money machine that will continue long after you've written this article, that blog entry, or the other novel.

In short, you aren't running a sprint. You're gearing up for a marathon.

It Takes A Lot Of Work To Be An Overnight Success

It's possible for your first book to be a roaring success. You might get snatched up by an agent with an eye for talent, placed with a major publisher, and your book could fly off the shelves. You could get a major movie deal, and thanks to the film's success, your name is known far and wide for this one story you told.

Possible doesn't mean likely, though.

What's significantly more likely is that you'll get a dozen or more rejection letters for your book. You might finally place it with an agent, or a mid-size publisher if you're either lucky, or have connections. Barring fate and friends in the right places, you'll probably get published by a small company, or you'll do it yourself through a self-publishing platform. Then, once your book is actually available, you'll find that no bookstores will put it on their shelves. The mainstream media won't be terribly interested, unless it's a slow news week, and most of your attempts to move copies aren't going to go very well.

Even if you offer a special deal.
You'll sell some books, of course. Everyone sells a few books, but it's unlikely your first book is going to make you a lot of money without a lot of luck, or some serious marketing zeitgeist.

So what do you do when that happens? When you spent more than a year of your life to make something, and it seems no one's really interested in it? Well, you keep marketing it. You also spit on your hands, get a grip, and start working on the next project. And the next. And the next.

A funny thing happens at that point. First, you're working too hard on writing new projects to really worry about your low sales figures. Secondly, your figures are going to start going up a little at a time. That's numbers of sales, reviews, followers, and all the other metrics that matter. Why? Well, if you put one letter in a bottle, you'd be pretty unlikely to get a response. A hundred letters, though? A thousand? People are going to start to notice.

Stack Up Enough Content To Create an Avalanche

There's an old saying that goes, "the best advertisement for your recent release is your next release." That goes for authors who write stand-alone books just as surely as it does for those who write series, because when a reader decides they like your style, they will look you up by name. If you have ten books they haven't read, they'll start working their way down that list. This means that things you already had on the market get retroactively popular as you accumulate new readers.

Don't take my word for it, though.
Vincent Cross is a Chicagoland author, and fellow con rat, and in 2016 he started releasing stories of his own through Amazon's Kindle Direct platform. I asked him what his numbers looked like, and what he said was about what I expected. His best month, when his first release got rolling in November, netted him about $20 in sales. Attention fell of, though, because you can only repost a link so many times. Then, when his next piece went live, the process started all over again.

Every time, without fail, there's a scattering of older titles that pick up reads whenever a new piece hits the market. Because at least a few people who've seen the new stuff want to know more about his body of work. Speaking of which, if you're curious about that cover up above, go take a look at his most recent release The Terror From Titan. And if you like what you see, check out his Facebook page.

Endurance is The Stat That Matters In This Game

Becoming a successful author is a lot like going from being a couch potato to being a bodybuilder. It doesn't happen overnight. Worse, before you see real progress, you're going to have to deal with some serious sore muscles, and peering into the mirror for any evidence that what you're going through is having an effect. A lot of authors will quit after their first, second, or third swing gets them nowhere. Others stick it out, and when they do, something happens. They might not win the trophy, or go down in history as Mr. Universe, but they still get the physique they've been trying for. They still end up with the power, and build, and the prowess they've been working toward this whole time.

Five more pages! Don't give out on me!
If you have a huge archive of work, and you put it out there for people to see, trust me, you will find readers. You might not live in the lap of luxury, and have lines of people waiting around the block to get into your book signing, but mark my words, you'll grow a following.

And who knows? It might be the next book release, the next blog entry, or the next article that garners you widespread attention. But if you don't push for one more rep, then you'll never know.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. It might sound similar to what I've said before, but I think it's an important message to remember for all those authors out there discouraged by giving it their best, and getting nothing back. If you like what I'm posting, though, consider showing your support by going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! $1 gets you my eternal gratitude, along with some sweet swag in the form of free books. Also, if you haven't followed me on Facbeook, Tumblr, and Twitter, why not start today?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

How A Grain of Irritation Builds A Pearl of Story

So, as I mentioned way back when I first started this blog, I'm going to have occasional posts where I get up on my soap box and talk about how I do things. This is one of those posts. So instead of trying to offer general advice on craft and industry, today I'm going to share some information about how my personal process works. So if you've been curious about that for one reason or another, then today is your lucky day.

Let me show you how I make these.

A Lifetime of Literature

In order to be a good writer, you have to do a lot of reading. That's a truism that we all know, and it's one I took to heart early on in life. I checked out whole shelves of the library, bought anything I could get my hands on, and traded for pulps, paperbacks, and even a few classics before all the used bookstores shuttered their doors. I always have a book on CD in my car, and I finish them with some regularity between errands, conventions, and other appointments. In addition to books, though, I am an avid lover of genre films. Sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and others have made up a lot of my entertainment diet over the years.

I've consumed a huge amount of media, popular, obscure, and otherwise. Some of that media has been great, and it's shaped me as both an author, and as a person. Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are two titles that come to mind right off the bat. Other stories, though... they weren't so great. In fact, some of them were downright awful. Poorly thought out, badly constructed, rushed, hacky meals that, if someone had physically asked me to eat them, I would have sent it back to the kitchen and demanded something fit for human consumption.

I'm sure you all have a book or two you could think of.
However, while I might learn important lessons in craft from reading books I love, I gain inspiration from books I don't like. Because nothing makes me want to roll up my sleeves and write a good story than seeing someone who did it in a way that stuck its thumb in my eye.

My Brain is An Oyster

Do you know how pearls are made? Well, it all starts with a tiny irritant. A piece of sand, or a chunk of rock, gets pulled inside an oyster, and gets stuck. The meat inside an oyster is sensitive, so it starts excreting a defensive coating. The irritant is coated repeatedly, until it's smooth, and can no longer cause the oyster any pain. By the time it's done, though, the irritant has turned from a worthless, painful speck, into a beautiful work of art.

That's kind of how my creative process works.

I sense you're looking for an example?
If you haven't read The Big Bad II, you really should. Because in addition to a bunch of other great stories, you'll come across a dark little piece I wrote called Little Gods. The basic premise is that Richard Blackheart, warlock for hire, has his services paid for by a woman called the Sterile Saint. She's trying to take the mantle from the Hook Man, Chicago's little god of murder, and she needs help. A mercenary to his core, Blackheart takes the job... but he does it in his own way, and for his own reasons.

This story takes place in what I refer to as my Chicago Strange setting, and a lot of the elements of that setting came from things that frustrated me about the urban fantasy novels that made up the rest of the genre at time of writing. The biggest issue I kept running into as a reader was the way so many authors felt the need to bring in pagan gods, but then to have them act just like any other character, or to put them there for nothing more than name-drop purposes before going back to the (now less interesting) main character. Neil Gaiman's American Gods managed to strike the balance between beings who possessed immense power, and who were also very vulnerable, and very mortal despite that power. That novel made other attempts at turning gods into side characters, from the Dresden Files to the Iron Druid series, stick in my craw. After a while, I'd actually shut books who started name dropping gods if the plot wasn't actually about those gods, and what they were doing.

Why did I do this? Unanswered questions, mostly. For example, if the author declares certain gods exist, then which ones are real and which ones are fake? In worlds where the Abrahamic god is real, and pagan gods are also real, where does the power of one end, and the other begin? If these deities are walking the world, then are they getting involved with things? Does it matter how much someone believes in them, or is that irrelevant to their existence? Why couldn't you think of a deus ex machina that was a little less literal?

So many questions, and so little attention to them, annoyed me. That annoyance got into my head, and made me examine the setting I was putting together. There should be some kind of divine force for this dirty little noir world I'd made, but I didn't just want to rip off real-world religions. The more famous Neil had already done it far better than I thought I could. So I created something different.

I made the Little Gods.

Who are the Little Gods? They're the whispers on the street corners, the legends in the back alleys, and the stories you tell around the campfire. They're the bloody faces who come through your mirrors, the maniacs that prowl lovers' lane, and the lost souls who walk weeping through the streets under full moons. The little gods of the city, as some call them, are urban legends. The patrons of murder, death, sorrow, and luck, all of them waiting and listening as their stories are spread just a little bit further through the cracks of the concrete grapevine.

The Little Gods are not permanent, though. Their mantles can be stolen, and their stories changed. The Hook Man is the little god of murder, it's true, but there were others before him. Bloody Jake, Kate Hatchet, Raw Head Bloody Bones, the Wendigo, and others. The pantheon of this city is ever new, ever changing, and when something grows too old, or too corrupt, it will be torn down by a younger, hungrier rival who wants its place at the top of the heap.

Don't Complain, If You Aren't Willing To Do Better

That's just one example of how my brain sees an idea that irritates something sensitive in my head, until my creative process coats it in enough layers that I have my own version. The irritation I dealt with while attempting to read The Space Wolves Omnibus (I made it 100 pages before I gave it up) led me to pen my story Heart of The Myrmidon, for example, because I wanted to see what would happen if the gigantic super soldiers still had emotions, and could suffer existential crises. I wrote New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam because so much steampunk that I saw was either saccharine, or involved the authors just sticking some gears and brass on modern machinery, and calling it good enough. It wasn't, so I tried to write something better.

The list goes on, and I have a ton of other projects coming down the way that grew out of a single irritant that just got lodged in my eye. But, by the time I've coated, and dissected, and planned, and written, you know something? Not only do I have a new story (or in some cases a full-on manuscript), but the original irritant no longer pains me. I still won't like the place it came from, but I will no longer feel the need to lash out at it.

Because I already created something that soothes my frustration, which I think will give readers a new take on this idea. And that is the best answer a writer can give to something they don't like.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it helped some folks out there, and even if it didn't, that you found this look into my head to be entertaining. If you'd like to support me, and help me keep the blog going, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today. Pledge at least $1 a month and you'll buy not only my everlasting gratitude, but some sweet swag as well! Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, why not start today?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Most Authors Aren't Really "Making It"

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Authors lie. In fact, lying is our job. We are told to create plausible impossibilities, and to tell them to you in such a way that you believe, in some small part of your mind, that what you're seeing is the truth. We make you invest in this lie we're telling, and when it draws to an end, we make you want us to keep lying to you. To draw that illusion out over another book, and then another, until you can live an entire life inside this place that doesn't exist, with people who never were.

For a penny a page, I'll lie until the world fades away.
This isn't just something we do on the page, though. We do it all the time. If you meet us at signings, or at conventions, or just talk to us on social media, we spin a fiction about who we are. As a result, we tend to look put together, professional, and confident, even if we're anything but. And given that most of us are professional tale-tellers who understand how to create a certain impression, most people who make our acquaintance don't realize something very important.

We are, by and large, broke as shit.

The Simple Secret of Most Professional Artists

Now, I don't claim to know everyone who writes books. I certainly don't know everyone who paints, sketches, sculpts, and animates. However, I go to a fair number of conventions, and I've been a professional writer for over a decade now. So what I can tell you is that, in my experience, artists who are "making it" (here defined as not needing to work a "day job," and making enough money from their art alone to live a comfortable lifestyle) are sort of like unicorns. You may hear about them, and meet people who claim they've met one, but seeing one in person is always a little breathtaking.

We captured one here, a long, long time ago. Rowling, was its name.
The difficulty, I think, is that people who aren't in the industry only hear about successful authors. They hear about J.K. Rowling reaching billionaire status, and they hear about Stephen King buying a radio station out of political spite, or they hear about George R. R. Martin's latest Song of Ice And Fire sales, and they think well surely other authors are still successful. Maybe not millionaire successful, but if you write books, and put them out there, it should be possible to make a living, right? After all, authors like Ben Reeder get bestseller status for their latest books before they're even officially released, so surely it can't be that hard?

That sound you're hearing? That is the laughter of most authors in the world.

For every one author I meet who sells enough books to cover their house payments, I meet a dozen others who feel like beggars, holding out their books instead of wooden bowls or change cups. It's much more common to meet authors who live at home with their parents, who depend on a partner's income, or who have already retired from a previous career, than someone who actually makes grown-up money in this field.

But we can't tell you that, because it sort of splashes mud over our image when we're trying to sell our talent, instead of a sob story.

I'm Not A Unicorn (Just A Workhorse With A Taped-On Horn)

I'm an author. I work primarily in short stories, but I contribute to roleplaying games, I write two blogs, I keep an InfoBarrel archive, and I actively work on a dozen projects at a time. I'm not a 10k words a day sort of fellow, but I spend most of any given day in front of my machine either writing new material, or marketing material I've already put out.

You know, like this book. Go read the free sample now!
Do you know what all of that earned me in 2016? Between independent articles, ghostwriting, book royalties, short story publications, blog ads, and the contributions of my loyal Patreon patrons? The total was about $13,000 and change.

Now, if that was my earnings from any, one source, that would be pretty spectacular. I'd gladly take $13k in book royalties for a year. Or in ad revenue, or in Patreon patronage. But that's the combined total of everything I put out in the whole year, and the royalties for everything I'd put out in the years before that.

On the one hand, that's the way the market rolls. Those who write popular articles, books, blogs, etc. make bank, and those who don't... well, don't. However, I want to let folks know that, in some circles, I'm considered a success story. So the next time you're wandering through an art show, or you talk to an author at a convention, remember that you matter. Your purchase, your review, or even just you becoming a follower might be the pebble that starts their avalanche.

And even if you're not, I can assure you, no author is so successful that they'd say no to one more reader.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully I've shone a little light into my corner of the industry, and folks here found it interesting. If you'd like to support me and my blog (maybe to make 2017 a slightly better year), then go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page today! As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it gets you some sweet swag as a thank you from me. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet... why not start today?