Wednesday, October 25, 2017

5 Tips For Making Character Relationships More Believable

You've created the best possible character for your book. They're deep, rich, full of history and unusual skills, and they immediately intrigue anyone who hears their pitch. The problem you're running into, though, is that whenever this character tries to interact with people who are supposedly important to them things feel forced, stilted, or just silly. In short, even when they're having coffee with a childhood friend, or expressing how much they love their partner, it comes across like a scripted cliche more than a genuine moment.

Tell me, husband, what did you do while I was off fighting space aliens?
You know these issues when you see them. Whether it's in comics, TV, movies, or books, you can tell when the writers just didn't put as much thought into characters' relationships with other people as they did into the characters themselves. They expected the declaration of love, importance, etc. to just be accepted on its face.

If you're looking for shortcuts to make these relationships feel real, though, here are some simple ones to keep in mind.

#1: They Know How Another Characters Likes Their Coffee

You can really use any sort of food preference here, but by showing that one character knows, and considers, another character's preferences, you're showing that they have a pre-existing relationship. One version of this shorthand is when a character's friend has had a hard night, so the character brews up some coffee, and then adds milk, sugar, and a dollop of honey just the way their friend likes it. Or they know what brand of beer their friend likes (doubly important if they're a beer snob), or they remember what food allergies someone has. It shows they've known each other for a while, and that the character cares enough to pay attention, and remember, things that matter to their friend.

#2: They Have A Ritual Just Between Them

If you've known someone for a long time, chances are good you have your own language. You might have pet names for each other, a particular kind of hand jive, or you clasp forearms like the barbarian heroes of old. For a good example, just look at Predator. You know that scene where Dutch and Dillon slap hands, and then arm wrestle to prove how manly they are? While immediately showing us that Arnold Schwarzenegger looks better in his 40s than we will ever look, it also shows us the characters have a history, that they're old friends, and that time has changed them since they last saw each other. All of it contained in that single ritual we never see them go through with any other characters, implying as we go that they were particularly close friends.

#3: They Know Each Other's Tics

We've all had those moments where we thought we were being sly, or keeping a poker face, but as soon as we were out of ear shot of passersby our friend looked at us and says, "All right, what's the matter?" When we protest that nothing's wrong, they fold their arms, and remind us of a tell we have that no one else would pick up on. They way our tone of voice changes slightly, or how we get quiet unless someone is asking us questions, or even how we rub that lucky coin with our thumb when we think no one will notice. If you want to show that characters know each other, make it hard for them to hide their true feelings. You also have to explain how the one character knew. You don't want us to think they're psychic, after all... unless they are.

#4: Show Us They Matter

It's easy to put words in your characters' mouths so they tell us their children mean everything to them, or that they love their spouse more than life itself. That's melodramatic, but it's the kind of melodrama we tend to accept. If you want to be more subtle, show us the ways characters have meaning in others' lives (even if the characters are dead). When your protagonist gets advice from her father, does she follow it, or discount it entirely? When there's a shooting reported, do they text their daughter to make sure they're okay? If they lose someone, what things set off that grief? Is it the sight of their spouse's craft box, half rolled out from under a desk? Is it a particular song they always sang? Is it a certain smell? Show us those things, and give us a flash of insight as to why those things are instantly associated with this other character.

#5: Make Sacrifices

When we think of sacrificing for the ones we love in stories, we tend to think of the big, sweeping gestures. Something bad happens, so you drop everything to track down the terrorists who kidnapped your kid, a la Taken. However, the truth of how much you care about someone is often written in small sacrifices, rather than big ones. Does your protagonist cancel dates, or call off work, to go take care of friends or family? Are they willing to show up as moral support when that character is having a tough time? Do they get angry when woken up by a phone call at two in the morning, or are they concerned because their son would only call like that if it was an emergency?

Make Us Believe

If you want us to buy that your character is an ex-special forces soldier, you'd adjust the way they talk, and the skills they possess, to reflect that career. If you want us to believe they're a competent detective, you'd show us how they go about investigating crimes. So, if you want to drive home that these relationships with other characters are genuine, you need to start small. Because it's not always about taking a bullet to save your loved one from getting shot... sometimes it's about reading your kid a bed time story to establish that, yes, you do love them, and they love you back.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully there are some folks out there who found it helpful. If you enjoyed it, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter? And, if you've got a few extra Washingtons you could spare, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 a month to make a difference, and to get yourself some free books as a thank you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

5 Ways Writers Are A Lot Like Prostitutes

They're skilled, glamorous, exotic, and more than a little edgy. You watch them on the Internet, and you listen to interviews with them, and you think that, maybe, you could do what they do. Some day.

I'm technically talking about being a writer, but I suppose the same thing could apply to being a high-class escort.

You want a package deal, or are we going by the word, here?
I've had a long week, and I'm feeling a little ragged round the edges. So I thought I'd do something that's mostly silly, but with a grain of truth lodged in the middle of it to kind of hold the premise together. So, let's get started, shall we?

#1: We Have An "Exotic" Profession

Let's get the low-hanging fruit out of the way first. If you're a writer, and especially if you write some kind of fiction, you're seen as something unusual by people who never venture too far out of the realms of normalcy. People are often impressed, thinking that writers are men and women who live in unusual places, like communes by the sea, or forgotten manor houses in New England. They can't believe that we're people, and we do things like shop for pants, meet for breakfast, or go to the gym.

Sort of the same with prostitutes. People know they exist, but they sort of forget that they take off their work clothes, and go back to being normal people when their job is done.

#2: People Can't Believe We Get Paid For That

Psh, they get paid how much to do that? Well, hell, how hard can it be? I do that for free, and I've never had any complaints.

I'm sure that sex workers will hear this diatribe a lot more often than writers do, but we're no strangers to the spiel. Because a lot of people write in their free time, and they happen to think they're pretty good. But they don't seem to realize there's a big difference between the stories you share with your partner in the privacy of your own home, and the leap it takes to do it full-time. Whether you're in the mood, or not.

#3: We Don't Make Anywhere Near What You Think We Do

I blame TV for this one. The only depictions we ever seem to get on most shows (even on a lot of cop dramas), is writers with literal millions to throw around on whatever whimsical thing they feel like doing. Even in old-fashioned shows like Murder She Wrote, the writer in question never seems to be hurting for resources, despite being independently employed, and a senior citizen, meaning all those health bills are coming out of her pocket.

Prostitutes get a lot of the same rap in our fiction. Because while we see plenty of independents getting booked, or becoming victim of the week, the recurring characters all seem to be madams, high-priced call girls, or similarly glamorous, independent women (never seem to be a lot of men, but I don't watch as much TV as I used to).

Even the best of us aren't making that much cash. And those who are, man, they know how to hustle.

#4: People Can't Believe We Expect Them To Pay For Service

What do you mean you're gonna charge me? Come on, we're friends, aren't we? Really? Seriously, it will take you, like, half an hour!

If you're good at something, never do it for free. While that might be how the saying goes, the world seems to think the exact opposite most of the time. People are more than willing to acknowledge your skill, and that you are the best they know at the trade... but they will still pitch a fit if you expect them to pay rates like some kind of client!

#5: Clients Don't Want To Hear No

Now, this one is a serious issue, and I wanted to take a moment to point that out. People who are not willing to take no for an answer is one of the primary ways sex workers are put in danger by their clients, and it's also one of the primary causes of sexual harassment.

With that said, I've lost track of the number of clients who seem to develop selective deafness when it comes to things I won't do. Whether it's genres I don't work in, being vague about when and how I'll be paid, or me pointing out that what they're asking for is way beyond the scope of what I'm willing to do, they've settled in their minds that it's my job to make their vision into a reality. They just seem to forget that I have to agree to take the job for that to happen.

While this might have been a silly Business of Writing entry, hopefully some folks found it amusing. Next week we're back to Craft, and I'll be talking about much more serious subjects. If you enjoyed this post, and you want to keep up to date on my work, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to toss some support my way, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Want To Be A Better Writer? Make A Lot of Pots!

There is a story that makes the rounds from time to time on social media. You can find the full version in The Best Way To Learn Something? Makes Lots of Pots, but I've included a paraphrased version of the story for those who don't like to click exterior links.

One semester, a pottery teacher cut her class in half. She said that students in the first half would be given the entire semester to make a single pot, and that pot would be the entirety of their grade. Students in the second half of the class, though, would be judged purely by how many completed pots they made. The first half of the class threw themselves into their research, reading about method, and studying those who'd come before. They experimented with different techniques, but rarely for very long. The second half of the class, by comparison, got out their clay, and got to work. Good, bad, pretty, ugly, didn't matter to them. The question was whether the pot was done, and if it was, if they had the time and energy to start another one.

Yeah, you pretty much know where this one's going.
Since you are all very intelligent readers (as evidenced by your choice to patronize this blog), you probably guessed that the students who made a great deal of pots were better at the craft than the students who tried forever, laboring over the one, perfect pot.

The lesson, translated for writers, is that you're better off writing a lot, than trying to write perfectly. Even if it's bad. Even if it's ugly. Even if you know you can do better. You're better off learning how to go from A to B, and actually completing something than you are striving for months to do it once, and to do it perfectly.

Practice Makes Permanent

It's an old saw, but it's one that plays the right tune. If you want to be a better writer, you have to write. Yes you need to understand story structure, pacing, character building, world building, evocative language, dialogue, and the thousands of other things, but the best way to get an understanding of all that is to sit down, and bleed all over your keyboard a time or twelve. As I said in If You Write One Story, It May Be Bad. If You Write A Hundred, The Odds Are In Your Favor, the best way to become a better writer is through strain, sweat, and work.

Hello, my old razor. Shall we get started?
There are no shortcuts. Just as there is no magic pill you can swallow, or miracle device you can strap to your stomach to give you 6-pack abs, there is no guide you can read, or technique you can follow, that will make you a better author. The only way you're going to look like an action hero is to get off the couch, eat your protein, and work out like a mad bastard. The only way you're going to become a better writer is if you sit down in front of your device, and start putting words on the page.

Even if they aren't the best words, or you're pretty sure other people could do it better, put them on the page. Keep putting them on the page until you reach the end. Edit it, and when it's complete, set it aside, and start on a new one.

You've got a lot of pots to make.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. Second verse same as the first, but what was true the first time is just as true the second time. If you want to keep up on my updates, follow me on FacebookTumblr, and Twitter. And if you want to help support my work, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon Page. If you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll make sure to send some free books your way as a thank you!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Professional Writers Know How To Monetize Their Work (That's What Makes Them Professionals)

I've met a lot of folks over the years who have told me they want to be professional writers. Some wanted to be bloggers, some wanted to write novels, others wanted to write comics, and a few wanted to contribute to roleplaying games, but all of them wanted to quit their day jobs and write full-time. In my limited observation, there was a major factor between those who saw at least some success, and in those who never even got onto their tiptoes.

It was, what I like to call, the Rumpelstiltskin factor.

Let go of the Benjamin, or I will destroy everything you've ever loved!
You see, most of the folks I talked to had ideas. Some of them had outlines, and a few of them actually had words on the page. One or two of them had complete projects just laying around. Out of that "most" group, people seemed to lack the understanding that all the straw they'd made wasn't going to spin itself into gold. They understood the writing part, but either didn't know (or didn't want to know) how to monetize their work once it was done.

That is, when you get down to the brass tacks, the only difference between the professional and the amateur.

Wanting To Do Something Is More Important Than Knowing How

Quick aside here. Have you ever known anyone who smoked? I mean a couple of packs a day, does a decent impression of a Mack truck smoking? You have, good. Well, if you wanted to make that person quit smoking, what do you think would be a better solution? A gross ad campaign showing diseased lungs and all kinds of raw tumors? Or short vignettes explaining how to actually quit?

If you guessed the second one, you're tragically wrong.

Well, shit.
Motivation to do something is often more important than knowing how to do it, as Cracked pointed out in 5 Ways You're Sabotaging Your Own Life (Without Knowing It). If you want to lose weight and get in shape, you will figure out how to make that a reality. Even if you can't afford a gym membership, and have limited resources to cut out in your diet. If you want to quit smoking, you will do your own research, and figure out what you need to do. As long as you have someone pointing a mental gun at you to get it done.

I point this out because a lot of folks who want to write professionally claim they don't know how to take their talent, and turn it into money. That's a fair point, especially if you're just starting out. However, if you have access to the Internet, you should have a pretty firm grasp on your options with about a month's worth of research (and that's being generous). Figuring out how Amazon's Create Space works only takes about half an hour (with an hour or two tacked on if you read the entire manual, cover to cover). There are places on Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, and god only knows how many other social media sites where you can pop up, and ask the community to throw how-to resources at you. Resources like Questions Beginning Writers Ask (That Experienced Writers Are Tired of Hearing), or 5 Signs You're Dealing With A Vanity Publisher.

A week of dedicated reading will make you as expert as you can get. Without actually doing the job, that is.

Go In, Guns Blazing

Something that isn't often touched on, I think, is that being a professional writer is more than just getting paid to indulge yourself all the time. You aren't writing a story, and only when it's complete asking how you're going to turn it into a rent check.

That's something you need to know (or at least have an idea about) before you put a single word on the page.

It's an easier habit to get into than you think.
As an example, let's say you're writing a hard sci-fi novel. By the time you finish the pre-writing/outline phase (everyone's got their own process), you should already know where you're going to send this manuscript once it's ready for print. If you're going for traditional publishers, you should already know which ones will accept your genre and estimated word count, and you should have at least three or four back-ups in case the first one says no. You should also be familiar with your self-publishing options, and how those options work, in case you choose to go that route instead.

You can swap out the variables here, but it's pretty much the same process. If you're writing an article for a website, you should know how it will be categorized, and have some idea of the popularity of the search terms and subject matter you're touching on. If you're putting together a comic pitch, you need to know who you're going to reach out to for an attempted sale. If you've got a script for a film, you need to have a list of people you're going to call once it's ready for a reading.

This gets a lot easier once you've got some published pieces under your belt, and you start getting a feel for the publishing world's rhythms. But that experience is a lot easier to get when you sit down at your desk, not as an auteur, but as someone who is here to do a job, and sell a product. Because, at the end of the day, that's what you're doing. Standing on the side of the information superhighway, with your hat on the ground, trying to tell people a story.

The Job Is Never Over

Some folks say that they don't want to write anymore as soon as they think of it as a job. Once it's something they have to do, rather than something they want to do, it's just work. That's an important thing to know about yourself before you take a swing at this industry.

Because, as the song says, it's a fun job, but it's still a job. And if you come to work, you're going to get much better results than if you come to play.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. If you like it, and you want to keep up on my latest, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to toss a little coin in my cup, check out The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is a post of at least $1 a month, and I'll be sure to send some swag your way as a thank you!