Thursday, November 30, 2017

Just Because You're Having Fun, That Doesn't Mean You Shouldn't Get Paid

I have come to the conclusion that no matter who you are, if you expect to get paid for something that other people do for fun, you are going to get a lot of angry messages on your social media feed. I was recently reminded of this when I published the post What Does It Take To Be A Professional DM?, since about half the comments left on it were some variation of, "how about you not be a piece of shit, and try to make money off something people do to have fun?"

Of course, you know, this means war!
It is worth noting that no one who read that post claimed that being a dungeon master was easy (because it isn't). No one argued that it doesn't take skill to be a dungeon master, or that it didn't take time, energy, and investment to make sure an entire table of players had a good time. The main source of outrage, paraphrased, was that the commenters were willing to do all that stuff for free, and for their personal enjoyment. So anyone who participated in that hobby as a for-profit enterprise was clearly doing it wrong, and they should be shunned for polluting the purity of a fun hobby by twisting it into a source of income.

Think about that for a moment. Someone who is willing to do a difficult job that is often in demand, spending copious amounts of their own time, energy, and often money to provide a positive, engaging, entertaining experience for other people should never, ever make a profit off of that. They should just enjoy the activity, and that's that.

Replace being a dungeon master with being a blogger, a video creator, an author, a painter, a sculptor, or any other creative activity, and you'll get much the same result. Without fail.

Your Job Isn't Supposed To Be Miserable, You Know

Kara Dennison recently hit the nail on the head with her post Creativity For A Living: The Curse of The Jobbing Hobbyist. The post touched on the usual suspects, such as how it's hard to be creative on a deadline, and how difficult it is to get people to see that art is neither frivolous, nor a luxury, but that it is a necessary good that's consumed in huge quantities every day. However, the third point in the post is one of the most important, I think.

Simply put, the money you're paid is for your time, and your effort. It is not to compensate you for doing a job you hate, or that makes you miserable.

There is no fringe benefit that can stop making me feel empty inside.
This is something a lot of folks overlook. The main reason they overlook it, I feel, is that when someone writes, draws, or plays a game as a hobby, they tend to do it for their own amusement. You draw when you feel like it. You write when you're inspired. You're not thinking about what would get the most hits on social media, or what would look good on a tee shirt, or wondering if you can finish the project fast enough to get it on the slate before the next convention, because it's not about all that. It's about you, and your personal enjoyment.

Now, that isn't to say that creative professionals don't enjoy the work we do (I wouldn't put out as much content if I didn't enjoy holding forth on all these topics). However, a lot of people think that because we enjoy our jobs, that should be payment enough. After all, they hate their jobs, so why should we make money for doing something they would gladly do for nothing in their free time to relax?

Because, to re-iterate, you are not paid for enduring something you don't want to do. You're paid because you put in the time and effort to do your job.

The Other Reason is People Need To Be Taught To Value Art

If you go to a restaurant, you can always tell the people who have worked as wait staff in the past. They're understanding, they know how to talk to their server, and they always tip. Even if the service wasn't great, they know how hard the job is, and they understand how tough it can be to make ends meet, so they always leave a gratuity.

You can also tell the people who have not had experience working in a restaurant, or who have never had friends or family members who worked there. They tend to be the people who are demanding, pushy, and who won't leave a tip unless their server went above and beyond, acting more like a personal servant than a staff member. Because, as they rationalize, that server will make minimum wage if no one tips them enough to go over, so not tipping them isn't really hurting them.

The problem creative professionals run into is that a lot of people have worked in the service industry, or have friends who have worked in it, so they empathize with the struggle. They understand how much work goes into that job, and they value it. However, if someone views writing a book as something you do on your own time, for fun, then they aren't going to think twice about just downloading a free copy off of a pirate site. If someone thinks that drawing is something you do to unwind at the end of the day, then they don't hesitate to right-click on a digital gallery and steal an image for their own use. Because, hey, this person should be happy someone like you values their art enough to take it, and use it. You made it from passion, and that creative experience should be enough payment for you. Never mind the long hours you put in, or the fact that you own the legal copyright to that work, because it would just be selfish of you to expect to be paid in real money on top of all those feelings of accomplishment.

Of course, the truth of this situation is that when someone is a creative professional, we aren't just sitting around indulging our own fancies all the time. We are creating art specifically to enrich the lives of others, to make statements, and to provide experiences. We write books, we make films, we whisper into a microphone for a podcast, but we don't do that just to amuse ourselves. We crunch the numbers, we research the market, we hustle at conventions, we invest time, effort, and money into building the brand, and we do our best to provide something of value.

That's exhausting. But sometimes just having someone come up and say, "Hey, I really like what you're doing. It's good. Keep it up!" is the most rewarding thing that can happen. With that said, if you can afford to drop a dime into someone's Patreon jar, you should maybe do that, too. Share the links, buy the merch, leave reviews, and if you value what someone does, help give them the support to keep doing it.

Speaking of which, if you enjoyed this latest Business of Writing post from yours truly, why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today? For as little as $1 a month, I'll even throw in a free book or two as a holiday thank you! Lastly, to stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, too.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Never Explain The Impossible (If Doing So Serves No Purpose)

How many times have you been reading a fantasy or sci-fi novel, and found your interest ebbing away as the author goes on for page after page describing the mechanism by which their magic works? You know, like when Michael Chrichton dedicated page space to explaining the particular mechanism of time travel in Timeline, not in dialogue or as part of showing off how smart a character was, but as an aside to the audience told by the narrator?

Well, if you haven't read the book, I'd hold up that decision as the exact wrong way to make the impossible aspect of a story feel real. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks who feel that by laying out an entire schematic, and proving they've thought through exactly how everything from summoning spells to warp drives could work, that it will win them points with the audience.

The Dungeon Master has spoken.
You won't get brownie points. Because no one is here to look at the pretty scenery.

Acceptance Justifies The Impossible

First, let's talk about how the author needs to justify the impossible in their story. Whether it's aliens, ancient sorcerers, fire-breathing dragons, time travel, or anything else, there's a knee-jerk need in some authors to lecture about all the details so the audience can cram every bit of knowledge about these things into their heads. That doesn't make the impossible elements more interesting, though. If anything, treating them like the subject of an academic lecture can make them seem boring.

Because no one wants to be force fed information.

Instead, treat these impossible elements as matter-of-fact. If you state that something is real, then the audience has to accept that reality. That's the contract you've made with them. So be confident in your assertions about what elements do exist. If your protagonists sees a spell being cast, describe the ritual, and its effects. If they see a ship winking out into hyper space, or someone firing a laser rifle, don't pause the story to explain the mechanics of these occurrences. You're pile-driving your own pacing, and worse, taking something exciting and fun, and boring your readers with it.

So then the ion streams are fed into the polarizing chamber, which reverses their flow, leading to...
There is one exception to this advice; when you are using this explanation to make a point, or to show us something about a character.

As an example, take your sci-fi space marine. He's gruff, unpersonable, and extremely dangerous. He also fights in a suit of powered armor, naturally. If you have a scene where he's stripping, cleaning, and re-assembling his gear with a secondary character, it's all right to have him narrate the function of the tech he's inspecting. Not because you're trying to convince the audience that you consulted an engineer, and these combat suits are plausible. Rather, it's because you're showing us that the marine not only knows how to care for the gear, but has the technical understanding to explain it to someone else. Additionally, this scene could act as a way for the second character to get some insight below his gruff exterior. Whether it's a bonding moment with a younger character (sort of like a dad showing their kid how to do car maintenance), or finding common ground with a technician or engineer who isn't a fighter, the explanation is not the point of the scene; it's the story and character development it facilitates.

As an alternative example, take the character who has to walk us through a scenario in order to explain an important plot point. For example, a wizard is found dead inside a magic circle. The runes should have prevented any outside force from entering, so the assumption is he killed himself. However, careful examination of the circle reveals the materials it's made of wouldn't achieve that result. By dropping the little bit of knowledge that silver is meant to keep things in, not to keep them out, what was a suicide has suddenly become an imprisonment, and potentially murder. In this scenario the explanation of the intricacies of summoning and protective magics is not meant to intrigue your audience all by itself; it's meant to show that your protagonist is learned in the ways of magic, and to point out that the plot is deeper than we thought it was a moment ago.

If You Don't Need The Explanation, Don't Give It

Everything in your book is meant to serve a purpose. If you're cramming in extraneous detail that does no one any good, you're wasting both time and reader attention. So, unless it serves a greater purpose, we don't need to understand how your faster-than-light travel works, what altered physics allows the sorcerer to breathe fire, or how dragons fly. Simply tell us that these things happen, and get on with the story.

Remember, I said in Your Fantasy Novel Probably Sucks, And Professor Awesome's University Explains Why, no one falls in love with the set dressing. We're here to see the play.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing entry. If you liked it, consider following me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to get all my regular updates. Lastly, if you want to help me keep this blog going, consider stopping by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron! As little as $1 a month goes a long way, and it gets you a free book or two as a thank you.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

When You're An Author, The Squeaky Wheel Gets The Grease

There is a complaint I've fielded many times, and it comes in a pretty wide variety. Sometimes it's, "Why are you always posting your stuff in this group? Why don't you go start your own page?!" Other times it's, "Dude, stop spamming your Patreon. If you've gotta beg for money, maybe you should go get a real job!" Every now and again it's, "Hey, just so you know, I blocked all your ads to be sure you don't get paid when I look at your content."

Boiled down, the most basic form of the complaint is, "Shut up!"

Generally speaking, I agree with all the folks who complain about how often I have to get up on a soap box to talk about what I do. Believe me, I would absolutely adore having a career successful enough that there was a legion of fans waiting with bated breath for my latest release so they could run off to social media and tell all their friends about how amazing my work was. Because if I had a following so big that everything I put out got tens of thousands of views, and I had a few thousand bucks rolling in every month from Patreon, believe me, I would just quietly work while the audience did the hard work of marketing for me.

And you know, every now and again that happens. Sometimes I'll write a post, and before I can pop over to a Facebook group to share it, someone else has already started a discussion. One time I woke up, ready to tell folks about a new book release, and I found someone had already tagged me, and there were half a dozen congratulations. But that isn't normal. Most of the time I have to go over to my social media pages, get up on my box, and shout as loud as I can in a digital medium to persuade someone in the crowd to come over and see all this work I'm doing.

Why do I have to do that? Well...

Algorithms Suck, And You Have To Repeat Yourself

Real talk, here. I've got about 665 followers on my Facebook page at time of writing. Not a lot, but not bad for an Internet nobody. Now, this is a group of people who have chosen to follow my page of their own free will. By clicking the follow button, they have told Facebook they are interested in what I have to say. So you'd think that, when I make a post there, my followers would see it.

Ah my sweet Summer child. You know not what lurks in the wastes of social media.
It's possible that's how Facebook worked, in the long ago and far away. But today, if I make a post on my author page, my reach is severely limited. An average post will reach between 74 and 150 people. A popular post, one where my followers actually see, like, comment, and share what I put up, might reach as many as 400 people. Once I even reached 500, but that was an occasion so rare that I can still specifically recall it.

So, despite having a couple hundred followers, an average post from me might show up on 100 of their news feeds. Using the rule of 10 percent, only about ten of those followers will interact with that post. That is a very small drop in a very big bucket. So I have to post to my personal page, to group pages, to Reddit, to Google +, to Tumblr, to Twitter, and to anywhere else I can find.

Unfortunately, if you want to get noticed, you've got to put your message in as many places as you can reach, because only a fraction of the people are going to see it. And of those who see it, only a fraction of them are going to interact with it.

The Squeaky Wheel Really Does Get The Grease, Though

For some people, a post is only spam when the person repeats the same thing every day. For others it's when someone posts more than once a week. And for a rather vocal minority, any time a person posts about their own work at all, it should be labeled as spam.

You can't please everyone, though, and you shouldn't bother trying to. Instead, make sure that you set your speaking platform up in such a way that you're in compliance with a group's promotion rules, and do your best to get noticed. Give a good speech, provide a good product, and if someone wants to start taking shots at you, be professional. If you do that, I promise that you will start to find an audience. Not only that, but if you ask the people interacting with your content to do something, there's a better than average chance they'll do it.

Which, really, is pretty good odds.
Try it. Ask people to share this post if they liked it. Ask them to follow you on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter if they like what you're doing. And ask them to become patrons by going to your Patreon page to donate at least $1 a month.

Most importantly, though, you have to keep asking. Because, as I mentioned before, you're going to miss a lot of people on any given sweep. But people who didn't see your first request might see the second, or the third, or the fourth. If you keep squeaking, sooner or later folks are going to grease you up. Especially when it's clear they can't shut you up.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing. Just remember, when people start trying to shout you down, keep your voice raised. Someone's hearing you.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Just Change One Thing (A Simple Formula For Modern Fantasy)

If you're trying to write a modern fantasy story, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. After all, what do you let in, and what do you keep out? Does your world have vampires? And if you do, are there werewolves as well? What about angels and demons? And if you allow them in, do you keep things old testament, or do you let in all the pagan gods along with their hosts of spirits? Does your world have magic, and if so, what kind? Or do you have several different kinds, each with their own history, philosophy, and requirements?

Take a deep breath... You don't have to make this so complicated.
Stop. If you find yourself in this situation, just stop.

Now, put your gears in reverse, and go back to the beginning. Make one change, and see where that gets you.

Avoiding Kitchen Sink Settings

Let's be real, some authors are perfectly comfortable with a kitchen sink setting. They've got everything in their world, and they can explain it effortlessly to the audience in a way that is easy to digest, and which makes everything seem wondrous and vibrant. However, something a lot of us seem to forget is that not all of us can pull that off. So, if you find yourself getting overwhelmed trying to make your modern fantasy setting vibrant and unique, do yourself a favor and keep the floodgates closed.

Instead, change one thing. Flick one element, and see what sort of ricochets it makes throughout the world.

One change is usually enough for most settings.
Take the standard zombie apocalypse scenario. Whether it's what we see in Night of The Living Dead, or the near-future setting of The Newsflesh Trilogy, there was one change made to the world we know and love; the dead get up, and hunger for the living. Everything else in this setting revolves around that singular difference, and the world's response to it.

If you want to make a setting where you can focus on your story, while also making everything feel unique and surreal without feeling crammed, follow that same logic. Change one thing, and then follow the ripples to see where they go.

As a for-instance, let's say there are people who have learned the secrets of ancient magics, and can wield them from the shadows. Their doings are kept private, and secret, known only to a few, and believed by even fewer. So you have a world where strange, inexplicable instances suddenly take on sinister meanings, and where agents of those learned in the secret ways go forth to do their master's bidding. What you have here is Harry Potter, if it had a baby with Jason Bourne. The intrigue and escape of a secret world where magic is real, but where only a privileged few know about it. Thus you can reveal, or not reveal, as much as you want through those who are in-the-know. Same way spy novels work, giving you access to the world beneath the world where only spies and operatives tend to lurk.

You don't have to throw ancient gods, fairy tale monsters, demons, or vampires into that mix... magic and skullduggery creates a unique enough setting on its own that you don't have to hang twelve lampshades on it to stand out. More importantly, though, there's less stuff for you to keep track of, and for your audience to have to learn. Because you're essentially giving your readers a crash course in your world, its language, and the rules it runs on. The fewer things they have to keep track of, the less chance there is they'll get confused, overwhelmed, or find cracks in the foundation.

It's Not For Everyone

To reiterate, this is just one way of doing things. It isn't inherently better, or worse, than any others. But if you keep finding the disparate elements of your world rising up to overwhelm you, then maybe you should remove some of those elements entirely. After all, if you've got your audience hooked with, "Club DJ necromancer has to survive death threats from fireball gang to uncover what really happened that night in a Brooks Street alley," then adding in vampires or werewolves won't, necessarily, make that better.

It will, though, make it more complicated. That might not be what your story, or your audience, needs.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. It's a day late, for which I apologize, but I'm getting prepped for Windy Con. So, if you find yourself attending, feel free to track me down to say hello! Also, if you want to stay up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me and my work, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a little love in my cup. For as little as $1 a month, I'll even send you some free books as a thank you.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Getting People's Attention Builds Your Base (And Fills Your Pockets)

Have you ever seen A Nightmare on Elm Street? Even if you haven't, you're probably familiar with the series' villain, the infamous Freddy Krueger. A horribly burned phantom, Krueger haunted the dreams of an entire generation of characters, dispensing brutal, vicious death as they slept. The challenge for the heroes became fighting sleep itself, staying out of the murderous ghost's realm as long as they could.

That setup was a lot of fun on its own, but there was something else that made Krueger unique as a villain; the source of his power. While some spirits drew power from their rage, or from the blood spilled in their haunt, Krueger's power was drawn directly from his own legend. The more people who knew his name, and his story, the stronger he became.

A silly story, maybe, but it still has a hold on your imagination.
While that's an essentially inspired twist on the Don't Say His Name trope, it's also a handy way for me to explain what it's like being an author. Because, for the most part, we tend to be ghoulish creatures with strange gimmicks who play on the emotional sensitivities of a particular brand of victim. Also, our power grows in direct proportion to how many people know who we are, what we do, and who talk about us.

Spread The Legend

In all seriousness, though, this is how you maintain your career as an author. Publish or perish is not just something we say to sound cool. Because as soon as we stop putting out content, and people stop talking about us, we fall out of the public eye. And in the darkness of obscurity, with no one reading our books, checking out our blogs, or stopping by our channels, we wither and die.

Put another way, being the center of attention is what puts you bucks up.

How many times did they say your name today?
Note that I say attention, but don't qualify it as good attention or bad attention. Because, at the end of the day, there really isn't such a thing as bad press. Especially when you consider that the Internet seems to run on outrage.

So, on the one hand, it's nice to sit down on a popular show to talk with a host who is cooing over your latest release to their thousands of fans. On the other hand, you can get shot to the top ten on Amazon's bestseller list if you're slapped with a viral cease and desist order by Jack Daniels (more on that story in Will Self Publishing Work For You? Maybe... If You're Lucky!).

Because whether you're getting glowing praise, or you're an Internet-wide trash fire, people are going to show up to see what's going on. And if they're already standing there, chances are good they're going to tell their friends about you, and they might buy a tee shirt and a copy of your book while they're at it. Even if it's just to see what all the fuss and hype is about.

Keep The Whisper Stream Going

If you have an author you love, and whom you want to keep coming back time and time again, then take a moment to follow the advice I put out in Care and Feeding of Your Author. You should, of course, buy their books. However, there's other stuff you can do to help keep the legend alive. Follow their social media pages, for example, and like the posts they make. Share their work with family and friends, and leave reviews on all the big websites telling everyone how much you like their books.

Also, feel free to reach out to the authors you like with some words of encouragement. Let them know they aren't just screaming into the void; you're listening, eagerly, for what they put out next.

Seriously, that's more important than we let on a lot of the time.
That's all for this week's Business of Writing. Hopefully it got your attention, and gave you something to think about. If you'd like to stay up-to-date on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to show some love, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to put a few bucks in my tip jar. For as little as $1 a month, I'll even send you some free books as a thank you!