Wednesday, December 27, 2017

To Make Money Writing, First, You Have To Write

To make money writing, first, you have to write.

It sounds like the sort of riddle you'd find in a fortune cookie, doesn't it? Akin to the classic, "to go forward, first, you must go back." It sounds both obvious, and like nonsense, all at once. However, if you're a writer, this is one of the most important pieces of advice you can internalize. Because if you want to get recognized, you need to show off your skills to the world. You need to get your name out there, and you need to sink your hook into readers. You need to prove that your stories don't just exist in your mind, but that you can (and have) put them on the page.

Choose your weapon.
What does all of that mean? Well...

You Have To Do, Before You Can Earn

Being a writer is one of those jobs where you are paid based on your skill, and your ability to finish the job. The difficulty is that, even if you're one of the most talented writers in the world, you need to have examples of your work to prove that you can do what you say you can. And you need those examples out there, in the public eye, where potential employers can see them in order to evaluate your skills.

Story time?
So, back in 2013, I was given an opportunity to pitch myself to Paizo to write one of their Pathfinder Tales. At this point in my career, I didn't have a lot of work on the market I could point to as an example of my style and skill. Several pieces had been accepted by small presses, but none of them were out yet. All I had were a couple of short stories I'd published on Yahoo! Voices (which is now defunct). Even though I felt like I was shooting myself in the foot, I sent along the links to see if the company's head of fiction would give me a shot.

I wasn't too far wrong. When the editor saw the links I'd enclosed, he almost tossed my email in the trash sight-unseen. But he decided to give it a look, and after reading the two short stories I'd put up on the site, he decided I was just the kind of author he wanted to give a shot. So I pitched him an idea, and a few weeks later, Paizo accepted my short story The Irregulars.

That is not the only time I got an opportunity because of something I'd already published, either. When I decided to write character conversion guides for the Pathfinder roleplaying game on my blog, several clients approached me to contribute to their RPG books. Partly because those guides were popular within certain parts of the RPG community, but largely because they allowed me to demonstrate that I understood how to write game mechanics in a way that readers could understand, and implement. Several times I've gotten emails from publishers I've worked with before because they need someone to contribute a story, or they want to know if I'm interested in being part of a book.

Part of that is networking, but another part of it is that these are people who have seen my work. I've demonstrated that I can do the job, and they have an idea of what they're in for. And while I haven't written a popular series or bestselling novel, I've spoken with some authors who've done one, the other, or both. If you have that kind of accomplishment under your belt, you often find the velvet ropes that keep out lesser-known or untested writers simply don't apply to you. Because people have seen your work, and they know the kind of market share you have (even if it's a smaller niche than your Rowlings and your Kings).

Publish Or Perish

A writing career is a lot like an avalanche. It can't happen without snow. Everything you publish is another snowflake. The more of them you stack up, the bigger the chance that unstoppable force will be unleashed.

But if you never put any snow out there, you'll never get your avalanche.

Especially not if you give up at $3 and change.
That doesn't mean you need to work for free. But it does mean you need to put out a lot of work. You need to submit reams of short stories, publish drifts of articles, and throw out manuscript after manuscript for novels. You need to submit to anthologies, submit to publishers, and submit to agents, but if that doesn't work, you shouldn't be afraid to put it out there yourself.

Those ideas in your head? Those perfect utopias filled with thrilling stories and impossible visions? They're all worthless. Your writing can't do anything until you get it out of your mind, onto a page, and in front of readers. Whether you're selling copies, collecting ad revenue, or getting patrons to fund your work, you need to put it out there. Because it isn't until your name is floating in the stream, and people have some idea of who you are and what you can do, that you can start opening up the doors to more prestigious assignments, and high-paying contracts.

So, you do need to go backward to go forward... at least in terms of how most people think a writing career is supposed to work.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing. Hopefully folks out there find it helpful! If you want to keep up-to-date on my latest work, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you'd like to toss a little change in my tip jar, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All it takes is $1 per month to help, and to get some sweet swag from yours truly as a thank you.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Give Your Fantasy Nations A Personality

France. Germany. The United States. North Korea. Iraq. Chances are good that, as soon as you read the names of these countries, an image sprang to your mind. Not only that, but the image probably turned the country into a kind of anthropomorphized version of itself. You know, America is a big, aggressive guy with heavy boots, and is probably packing an oversized pistol on one hip. France is an elegant woman with dark hair sitting as a sidewalk cafe sipping coffee. North Korea is a plain-looking, humorless man in a white button-down shirt with straight, dark bangs. Etc., etc.

Now, these images are stereotypes of the nations in question. However, the fact that you can immediately create that image shows you have some working knowledge of the country in question, and there are several touchstones you have with them. If you're creating fantasy nations, then you need your readers to be able to do the same thing with the information you give them. Otherwise you risk seriously losing your audience's attention.

"And so the Ephrendior-" Wait, are they the traders or the river pirates? I don't remember.

Provide A Handhold For Your Readers

The nation of Herrantia was formed in 300 PrA., after the fall of the Korruscanti Empire. Found west of the Shirrai Mountains, the League of Doggal banded together in order to form a single, cohesive nation after the Grassland Wars left the populace decimated. In the time since then, Herrantia has risen to become a member of the Dragossi Compact, and has signed the Black Sea treaties in order to remain at peace with its neighbors.

You see that paragraph? It's bad fantasy writing. The problem is that a lot of authors think this kind of entirely made-up encyclopedia entry about their countries makes them feel more realistic. They have dates, map coordinates, and a snapshot of all the political alliances this nation currently holds... but it doesn't actually tell us anything about the nation itself. What is it known for? Who are its people? How would we recognize someone from that place? Are they feared? Reviled? Well-loved? Are they peaceful or violent? These are things we should know.

Herrantia was birthed from the blood of a fallen empire, and it came into the world with a sword in its hand, bellowing a bone-chilling war cry. Little more than herdsman and raiders, surrounding peoples soon learned Herrantian cavalry were a devastating force on the battlefield. Mercenaries and war lords, it wasn't until the tribes were pitted against each other by foreign masters that they said enough, and forged their own nation from the spoils of war. Though Herrantia is wealthy now, in both coin and land, its people have not lost the sharp edge that got them where they are today. But, as the old proverb says, war feeds a glutton for a day, where peace will satisfy a man for a lifetime.

While a little longer, the evocative language here immediately gives us an image of a young nation that isn't very far removed from the battlefield it was forged on. While peaceful and respected now, Herrantia is definitely nouveau riche in terms of a world power. Add in the fact that they were known for their cavalry, and readers can immediately form an image of this nation. A sort of Mongolia under the khans, after the empire was forged and prosperity was widespread for those beneath their rule.

Use Your Ciphers With Care

One of the most basic ways we illustrate our nations is by giving them a representative character in our stories. For an example of this, you need look no further than the Belgariad. Practically every member of the main cast is from a different country, and every one of them is the Ur-example of their nation. While this is technically functional as a storytelling tool, it can also be problematic. Especially if you want to present the characters in your worlds as varied, and to avoid stereotypes.

Those Argonians... kinslayers, the lot of them. Wonder how there are any of them left, really.
A good way to get around the whole "person as representation of entire country/culture" trope is to use the items, religion, and other associated parts and pieces of a nation's makeup and history rather than making the entirety of a character into the cipher. It's also helpful to focus on things that are truly universal (or nearly so) in a culture.

As an example, say it is tradition in Herrantia for every adult to be armed. Whether it's a dress scimitar worn at court, or a work knife stuck through the sash, bearing a weapon is a mark of adulthood and respect in their culture. As such, Herrantian steel is held in high regard by warriors, and it might be a symbol of deep apology, or of great trust, for a Herrantian to offer you their weapon. It symbolically means they are willing to place themselves in your power while being unarmed, and at your mercy.

That's one, little part of Herrantian culture, but it could easily be one of the things they are most known for. And since it is a cultural quirk of the nation, it is less problematic than focusing on behaviors that might vary from person to person. Because while not every Herrantian may be a skilled rider, knowledgeable in the ways of horses and livestock, or particularly resentful of being at peace instead of at war, that quirk identifies someone as part of that culture, and gives readers an easy-to-remember thing about Herrantians.

Be Memorable, But In A Good Way

If you want people to remember your made-up nations, then you need to make them distinct, immediately recognizable, and your readers will need a touchstone to let them know who you're talking about. Avoid boring, overly-detailed descriptions with a lot of dates and meaningless names in them, because without context you're just going to frustrate your readers. Lastly, think carefully about who or what you're using as a cipher to explain this nation to your readers. Because while giving your countries personality is a necessity, you don't want to go too far and spill over into crass stereotyping, or making a nation of hats.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. If you would like to check out some of my other work, then head over to my Vocal archive. If you want to help support me, stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and consider becoming a patron. As little as $1 a month makes a big difference, and it will get you some sweet swag as a thank you. Lastly, if you want to keep up-to-date on all my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What's Going on With Patreon? What Happened, and How You Can Help Your Favorite Creators

If you're going to be a creative professional in the Internet age, you need to make sure you don't put all your eggs in one basket. For instance, I run both this blog and the gaming blog Improved Initiative, I'm a freelance RPG designer, I write short stories, I publish books, I contribute to sites like InfoBarrel and Vocal, and at any point in time I've got my fingers dipped in half a dozen other pies.

At the end of the day, though, what really helps me keep my creditors happy is the support I get on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. While I don't have the biggest following out there, it's often enough to make sure I don't have to pry open my savings account when the first of the month rolls around.

Seriously, I cannot thank you all enough for your support.
However, if you've been wondering what all the rumblings about Patreon changes were about (and wondering why creators like me have been panicking), allow me to break it down for you now that the worst appears to be over.

Good Idea, Bad Idea

The way Patreon worked, up until this whole kerfuffle started, was pretty simple. Patrons (people like you) would donate money to a creator. So if you wanted to, say, fund The Literary Mercenary, then you would go to my creator page, and pledge a certain amount per completed blog entry, or per month. Then, at the end of the month, Patreon would charge you that amount, and it would slide over to my tip jar, where I could use it to pay rent, buy food, stuff like that.

Seems pretty simple so far.
What most patrons didn't see, though, was that we had to pay a tithe to Patreon when it came time for our patronage to come in. So they would take some fees out of our pockets, and we would get what was left. For someone like me, who only had about 29 patrons, I was forking over less than $20 a month. Not too bad, in my opinion. Especially because I could absorb the costs in private, which meant this wasn't something my patrons had to worry themselves over.

Now, even though this was a perfectly functional system, there were no creators out there who liked paying fees. It was just what we all had to do to use the platform. Those fees kept Patreon running, and they allowed us to use the platform, so we all have to chip in to make sure the thing that made us money could also keep making itself money. Patreon saw this, and wanted to throw creators a bone so they could keep more of the money that was pledged to them. Which was where the idea got floated that Patreon would only take a 5% cut of a creator's earnings from that point onward.

To make up the difference, though, they wanted to charge service fees to patrons. So for every pledge someone made to a creator, they were going to get hit with an additional service fee, and a small percentage of their pledge, over and above what they were trying to pay to the creator.

Needless To Say, This Did Not End Well

The result of this decision to shift costs from the creators to the patrons with almost no advanced warning, and with no way for creators to opt-out of the new structure, led to a lot of blood loss. People started hemorrhaging patrons, because while some people just support one or two creators, a lot of patrons like to give $1 to 10 or 15 creators to help spread out that support. Which meant that those patrons were going to get hit with a service charge for every, single creator they supported. Add to that the patrons who were more than happy to give a couple of bucks to a creator, but who did not cotton to also being the source of Patreon's funding as a site, and there was quite the outcry.

Fortunately, between the mass exodus, creators writing in to complain, and patrons writing in to complain, it seems that Patreon is well aware it has stepped in a stinking pile of bad idea. According to emails the company sent out recently, it will not be pursuing this planned change to the fee structure. From what they're saying, everything is going to stay just how it was before this whole thing got started. Patrons pledge what they want, that is all the company charges for, and us creators will handle the costs behind the scenes for service charges and other things like we always have.

Of course, the only reason this is happening is because enough people complained, and withdrew their money. Patreon is just like its creators in that respect... if our supporters leave, then we're going to have to get a day job pretty soon. So if you've been withdrawing your pledges in anticipation of bigger fees, it should be safe to come out. But keep an eye open, just in case there is another proposed change in the works that we haven't heard about yet.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing update. Hopefully it helped folks out there get a handle on what's going on, and answered a few questions. If you'd like to help support me and my work (writing, gaming, or otherwise), then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. I'm offering extra swag, since I lost about a sixth of my own patreons, and I'd like to persuade folks to chip in if I can. Lastly, if you want to keep up-to-date on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

What Is Your Book's One-Sentence Summary?

Brevity is the soul of wit, as someone far more famous than me once said. Unfortunately, a lot of us seem to believe that our books are so special, and our ideas so unique, that in order to fully appreciate them someone needs to have the entire context of the world history, the verbatim prophecy given to the protagonist at the start of the journey, and a crash course in the current political climate.

Everything can be boiled down to its simplest, core elements, though. That includes your book. If you think you can't simplify it, then you may not know your own book as well as you think you do.

If it's more than one sentence, keep working on it.

Why Simpler Is Better

Every story has a simple through-line that anyone can follow. From complicated spy thrillers, to trilogy-spanning epic fantasy, there is an A to Z line you need to know. As a quick for-instance, take the First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. While it might be a little spoilery, a simple explanation is, "Duplicitous wizard recruits a team to help him defeat an ancient foe, and to prevent a cataclysmic shift in the world's power balance." Now, the series is obviously more convoluted than that, with a dozen different characters whose perspectives we follow, curses, redemption, damnation, and a thousand shades of gray. However, that basic explanation provides a toe-hold for any potential reader to quickly get a grip on what's going on.

So what is your book about?

For example, Blood and Rubies might follow Captain Shellain "Red Mane" Waters as she takes leadership of the Brothers of the Red Sails, tracks down and recruits Bertrand "The Black" Henderthrane, formerly the captain of the royal guard and the deadliest swordsman in a generation, and wins the allegiance of the mad sorcerer Hethrader. She might slay sea serpents, lead royal shipments of supplies into ambushes, and execute the governors of towns who don't swear loyalty to her and her cause. The story might have dozens of betrayals, spies whose allegiance we're never sure of, and at least one bittersweet romantic subplot, but the core of the story is still, "Outcast pirate princess finds allies, and fights to take back the throne of her nation from those who usurped it."

The simplification serves a few functions. The first is that it keeps clear in your own mind what your book is actually about. That way no matter how many kidnappings, new characters, explosive gun fights, and back-alley knife duels you have, you never lose sight of where your story is supposed to be going. The second is that when it comes time to pitch your book to someone, whether it's a publisher or a potential reader, reviewer, etc., you can sum up what they're in for in a single breath before giving their attention time to wander.

Because it's hard enough to capture someone's attention, and if you are fortunate to have it for a moment, don't squander it with an aside to explain the history of Choana's elected monarchy or by waxing about the magic system used by your wizarding spies. Hook the reader hard, and make them want to know about all that other stuff. In short, get to the point, and see if they bite.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully some folks find it helpful for putting their big ideas into a small, easily digestible hook. If you want to keep up on all my latest posts, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you're like to help me keep doing what I do, then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to leave a little love in my tip jar. And if you pledge at least $1 per month, I'll even send you a free book as a thank you!