Wednesday, July 25, 2018

5 Mistakes Authors Need To Avoid When Networking

Networking is one of the most important things you can do as an author, next to writing books. Because it's who you know that lands you opportunities in life, and if you have a robust network then you are much more likely to find yourself rubbing elbows with bestsellers, big-time editors, and successful reviewers who may be willing to reach down to your level to give you a hand up.

With that said, though, networking takes experience. It takes finesse. It's a skill, and like any skill, you need to practice it. Which is why the first thing you should do is read through this update from author Seanan McGuire. Read through it, then take a moment to absorb it. Because the incident in question is a textbook case of what not to do.

Please, for the love of god, stop talking.
And, just to hammer home the points (some from observation, others from personal experience) here's some more stuff you should not do.

#1: Do Not Hard-Sell People You're Trying To Connect With

If you have a strong hard-sell game, that's great. Save it for the readers you're targeting when you make hand sales from a booth. When you're trying to make a connection with a fellow author, an editor, or even someone who's a Name in your genre, leave your car salesman impression at home. Because I guarantee you that they have already had to deal with this situation more times than they can count, and all you're going to do is piss them off. Worse, they'll remember you as the pushy guy, and that will get doors slammed in your face instead of held open.

The best thing you can do when approaching people you hope to connect with is to be friendly and casual. Tell them you admire their work (a nice, neutral opener), and if you're in-person (say at a convention or similar event) mention something you saw them talk about. If they seem eager to talk, and a conversation starts, run with it. If not (you caught them in the middle of doing something else, you're at a signing table with a line behind you, etc.), this is not the time to try to crowbar yourself into their good graces. It won't work, and will achieve the opposite of what you want.

#2: Don't Make It All About You

Have you ever been at a dinner party, and there's that one guy who seems to have this compulsive need to make everything about him? No matter what you're trying to talk about, he needs to put his two cents in, and re-focus the attention on him. You know how annoying that is?

Well, you're being that guy.

Authors big and small hear it all day, every day. No matter what forum they're in, what social media group they're part of, or what convention they're attending, someone always wants to talk their ear off about how they really want to be a well-known author. They just need an agent, a shot at pitching to a better publisher, or someone to take a look at their manuscript. And chances are that we might sympathize with you, but if you're just talking about yourself, what you're here for, and what you need, that is quickly going to turn into a song no one wants to hear.

Take a breath, and relax. Try to see who you're talking to not as a business opportunity, or a potential stepping stone. Realize they're a person, and treat them as such. People are more likely to help out those who treat them with dignity, rather than those who just want something from them.

#3: Don't Push Your Card

When you've got a business card, the urge to offer it can be an almost overpowering. After all, that's what you have it for, right? However, if you're trying to get your foot in the door with someone you want as a contact, look for the signs that they're interested before holding out your card. Once it's been offered, they'll probably take it, but you should try to be sure they aren't just going to throw it out once your back is turned.

If someone asks for your information, and has a pen out to write it down, that's a great time to offer your card instead (provided it has the info they're looking for on it). Ditto if someone is interested in a project you've completed, or wants to get in touch with you later. Or, you know, asks for your card. But don't jump the gun, because that will be seen as pushy.

Business cards are like bullets. Sure, you can spray them everywhere and you might get a hit or two, but if you're patient, you can make each shot count.

#4: Invading A Group

This one applies directly to Seanan McGuire's tweets, and I want to emphasize it here. If someone is already involved in a conversation, or is part of a group discussion, you would really be better off to try later if you're looking to connect for networking purposes. Especially if it's clear in the non-verbal cues (chairs turned inward, circle is complete, no empty spaces, etc.) that this is not a group that's looking for more voices to join it.

You might be able to slip in quickly to get a word in edgewise ("Hey, I really liked that panel you were on," or, "Sorry to interrupt, but could I get a quick autograph?"), but no more than that. Now, you might want to take this risk in the event the group invites you to join, but don't depend on that. If no one extends an invitation after you've delivered your greeting, asked your question, or made your minor request, keep walking. Do not stand there and keep talking. Even if everyone in the circle is wearing a patient smile, you're actively damaging any goodwill you might have managed to accumulate, and you're only hurting yourself. Several minor interactions are better than one, long conversation, because then you'll feel familiar and accepted. So exchanging a pleasantry or two on day one, asking for an autograph on day two, and then getting a conversation on day three would work a lot better than trying to skip ahead to fit all your dialogue in.

#5: Being Just Another Attendee

This one might seem a little on the elitist side, but one of the big mistakes that I see a lot of folks making when they try to network (particularly at events) is that they just come as any old attendee. If you really want to stand out, you should consider volunteering. Because an endless stream of people may go by on the attendee side of the table, but if you're on a panel with someone who had insightful things to say, or you shared a signing table with someone, or a volunteer made sure you always had a bottle of water when you needed one, that makes you stand out. A lot.

Three dozen people might have tried to get this person's attention as attendees. But if you were in their bubble in a professional capacity (or even as an official part of the event), then you're a lot more likely to be noticed, acknowledged, and fondly recalled. Even if all you did was share a table in the green room, and talk sports over hot dogs. You don't have to be famous to get in on this action, either. Just be willing to throw your hat in the ring, and do your best!

That's all for this week's installment of Business of Writing. Hopefully it helped, but if there's advice I missed, or questions you want to ask, feel free to leave it in the comments! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To keep up on my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to support me, then Buy Me A Ko-Fi or drop some change in my cup on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Either way, my gratitude, and some free stuff, will be yours!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Make Sure Chekhov's Gun Is Actually Loaded (Trimming The Fat in Your Story)

If you've ever read a book or watched a movie where your perspective lingered just a little too long on that gun hanging over the bar early on, then you've felt that little tightening of the skin between your shoulder blades. That feeling is because you then you understand what Chekhov's Gun is. In short, it's when something seemingly insignificant is introduced early in a story (someone mentions the owner keeps a Magnum under the counter, there's a lingering camera shot of a creepy book on a shelf, etc.) that will become important later on.

Because, as Chekhov himself asked, if the gun never goes off then why are you wasting our time making us look at it?

The bigger the gun, the more important this question becomes.

Trim The Fat

Every aspect of a story is there in service to that story. Got a scene where your lead is having coffee with her girlfriend? Then that scene should have dialogue that sets up plot points, actions that reveal important aspects of character, or at the very least it should introduce additional members of the cast. Otherwise all you're doing is faffing about, wasting your audience's time and risking the interest you've oh-so-carefully cultivated.

As an example, I'll walk you through a story that didn't keep things nice and tight. The horror film Nails.

You have now seen everything you need to of this film.
So, Nails opens up with a little girl in the hospital being seen to by a gigantic orderly. He's trimming her nails, and saving them in a little envelope. A little creepy, but it's shot so that he seems sweet, if a little odd. We fast forward to our protagonist (blonde personal trainer whose husband is a coach) being hit by a car and put in the hospital. She wakes up to a concerned child and husband, unable to speak, and confined to her bed. She might make some kind of recovery, but she's partially paralyzed, and a lot of stuff is broken.

Then, to make matters worse, her room is haunted.

We hear weird stuff, and catch glimpses of a ghost that resembles the orderly we saw earlier... except, you know, all deadified. Protagonist is next-to-hysterical, and though no one believes her, closed-circuit cameras are installed in her room. This settles her for a bit, and she talks to the hospital shrink. He lets drop that a man did commit suicide by hanging himself in her room's closet. This sets off a whirlwind of investigation montages, and our bed-bound blonde discovers that the orderly who killed himself was a giant of a man referred to by the staff as Nails, for his bizarre habit of saving the clipped toe and fingernails from children he cared for. It was made clear that everyone thought he was harmless, despite the fact that he'd come to the hospital himself as a teenager, raving and clawing himself practically down to the bone. He got better, and when he did, he was given a job at the facility that had healed him.

Then dead children started turning up. Nails fell under scrutiny, and his suicide was seen as an admission of guilt.

Our protagonist brings this up to the psychiatrist, who gets super-shifty about the event. She tries to tell her husband, but starts getting the feeling that he's cheating on her with one of the college co-eds on his team while she's in the hospital. And, of course, Nails is getting bolder, and hurting her more and more. This culminates in Nails finally going on a rampage, killing the co-ed, our protagonist's husband, several staff members, chasing our protagonist and her daughter through the hospital, until he finally kills our protagonist.

That's all fairly straightforward... but there was so much time wasted on pointless side plots that never pay off.

For instance, the whole thing about Nails' brutal self-harm and his intense psychotherapy regimen. We get a few, brief glimpses of it... but that's it. We never find out what happened before he came to the hospital, what was wrong with him, and why it suddenly stopped. It doesn't tie into what his ghost might want, or why it's picking now to suddenly get active. We spend way too much time with the psychiatrist hemming and hawing about Nails, setting up the possibility that the shrink was actually the one killing the children and using Nails as a fall guy, because that goes nowhere, too. We even find out that our protagonist was, in fact, the little girl Nails was taking care of in the opening scene, but absolutely nothing is done with that connection. She didn't rat him out to the cops, and he's not seeking revenge on her. She didn't know he was innocent but kept silent. She didn't even see him die and repress the memory. Hell, we never even confirm that her husband is cheating on her! All it would have taken was a single slip of the tongue, and a shot of the car his co-ed athlete drove to close the circuit on her injury, and make it seem that the hit-and-run was actually the mistress trying to take her out so she could steal her husband.

But no. All of these things are just mentioned, and then dropped like a dead salmon on the kitchen floor.

All told, these dead-end scenes waste between 20 and 40 minutes of our time. That is a lot of dead space for a film of this length. It's space that could have been used to decide what was actually going on, and to genuinely raise the stakes and tension (as well as providing some much-needed structure). For example, is Nails a secret child-killer rising from the dead to finish what he started with the last victim who got away? Was he a wronged man whose spirit was re-awakened by the proximity of the man who framed him, and he's trying to reach out to our protagonist to get her to help him? Does Nails feel betrayed by her, and thus his spirit is trying to get vengeance? Was his torture and pain as a teenager symptomatic of an unquiet spirit that needed to get closure? Is her husband cheating on her, or is it all in her head?

We don't know. And, to make matters worse, we waste so much time on all of these un-fired guns that we forget there's a story being told, and it all sort of devolves into mush. Generic, unsatisfying, and overall confusing.

If You Aren't Using It, Get Rid of It

A writer's mind might be a hoarder's paradise, but when it comes to the story on the page you need to make sure that if you don't need it that you aren't wasting your reader's time with it. If you managed to hook them, and they're turning pages, then make sure you don't squander their good will. Get to the point, keep it tight, and make sure the safety is off on any plot pistols you walk past.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it helps some folks out there who's been wondering how to quit shooting blanks in their stories. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become one of my patrons. There's free stuff in it for you, in addition to my undying gratitude.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

If You're an Author, Don't Put All Your Eggs in One Basket

I grew up with the desire to write for a living, and since my late teens I'd found ways to earn pocket money with my craft. It was about ten years ago, though, that a friend of mine told me about Demand Media Studios (now known as Leaf, for those who are curious). While there were all sorts of problems with the company (it paid writers peanuts, it was uncommunicative, the terms were pretty shifty, and the list goes on and on), it was the first time I made enough money writing to cover all of my expenses. After about a year of writing in my spare time (which was limited as I was still a college student), and working smaller jobs, I decided to cut ties with hourly work entirely.

For a while, things were pretty good. I could get up whenever I wanted, work in my pajamas, and all I had to do was crank out 5 or 6 articles a day. I pulled down enough to pay off my car in about six months (while still saving money on the side), and I even participated in a profit-share offer the company had so that some of my articles generated income far beyond their initial payment. When I got my degree, I moved out into an apartment, maintained a healthy savings account, and for a few years life was pretty peachy.

Then the numbers turned on me.

Like they do, the shifty little bastards.
At first it was little things. Not as many topics were available to write on, so there weren't as many articles for me to claim. That was okay, I was still getting by without too much of a problem, especially since my profit-shares were filling in a lot of gaps. Then the company started changing rules about who could write what, asking for qualifications I didn't have (for the record, no one writes an article for $15 if they have a Master's degree). And, after a solid run of about five years, there was no more work for me. Or, at least, none I was allowed to do.

The result was that I learned a very important lesson; don't put all your eggs in one basket.

A Dozen Streams Make For A More Reliable River

Unfortunately for yours truly, I'm still not making the money I was working for Demand Media Studios (and given their reputation for paying pennies on the dollar, that's a sad statement). I've also had several promising horses die under me since then, as well. I built up a big archive on Yahoo! Voices that was starting to turn a serious profit just as the site shuttered its doors, for example. I was stoking the furnace for Google AdSense when the company sent me an email letting me know they were terminating my account. I've worked for half a dozen different article-based hub sites that were good for a season's worth of paychecks before they folded, and I've had several clients who promised me a flood of work, but found they only had the budget for a squirt or two.

While a lot of those punches hurt (particularly the ones where I was just starting to let my guard down), I learned a very important lesson from DMS. Diversity is your friend, and the more income streams you have available, the less likely you are to find yourself completely dried up.

All right... just got to get up again...
So what do I do to keep that flow going? Well, my main income is still writing blog entries for clients using a service that's very similar to what I did back in the old days. But rather than just depending on that (since some clients accept my work same-day, and others can take a year or more to get to my entry), I have cultivated a number of side streams.

As a for instance, I run this blog as well as my gaming blog Improved Initiative. Both blogs have ads on them, which aren't worth much in this age of AdBlock, but folks who like my work and who want to support me can tip me by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or becoming patrons on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Additionally, I write articles for websites like Infobarrel and Vocal, both of which pay me based on the popularity of my posts.

And in case that wasn't enough (because it isn't), I also write short stories, RPG story and mechanics, and books, which you could find on my Amazon author page!

Books just like this one, in fact!
Is that enough for a comfortable life? No, not really, since you ask. However, it is much more reliable than the situation I put myself in a decade ago when I was a much younger writer. Because I don't want any avenue that I write for to close up shop. However, if I go to login one day and find out that one of my streams has dried up overnight, I've still got half a dozen others I can focus my attention on.

And, sometimes, that's all it takes to stop a minor inconvenience from becoming a disaster.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post! For folks who have questions about how to spread their eggs around, feel free to leave them in the comments below. If you'd like to help support me, feel free to check out any of the options I linked above. And to stay on top of all my latest releases, simply follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Inherent Weakness of "The Chosen One" Trope

Harry Potter. Neo. Aladdin. Anakin Skywalker. All of these characters, and a thousand others besides, have the dubious honor of being the chosen one. No I'm not capitalizing it. Because, despite how common this trope is in our stories and myths, the idea of a chosen one has a serious flaw in it. A flaw that tends to make it ring a little hollow, and which has to be ignored like a sour note at a piano recital.

In short, of all the tropes out there, this one is perhaps the most passive way to fold your protagonist into the story.

Don't worry guys, I've got this... for reasons!

Characters Need To Act, Not Be Acted Upon

The trope of being the one, special person decreed to be the protagonist is functional, and it's been around since the days of ancient Greece. We wouldn't have been using it for so long if it didn't get the job done. However, the idea of being the one means that at best your protagonists are the ones being acted upon, instead of acting. At worst, you end up stripping them of their agency, and making them feel like all their actions are pre-ordained. That can be a rough story to keep interesting if you aren't Sophocles.

The guy who wrote Oedipus Rex, for those who were wondering.
The issue you run into is character investment, and development. If you've been bumbling along in your life as a med student/farmer/pot boy, and suddenly someone comes along to inform you that you have been chosen (named by a seer, described in a prophecy, etc., etc.) you aren't actually invested in the thing you were supposedly chosen to do. You literally just found out about this honor you were named to, and now you have to scramble to gear up for the challenge. In a lot of cases, you weren't even aware of the world that you now have to save (again, Harry Potter, The Matrix, etc.).

What you should do, instead, is to make characters who are invested in the tasks they're set, and the story they're a part of. Characters who want to defend their homeland, avenge fallen friends, score that big pay day, or just do the right thing want to achieve their goals for reasons we can sympathize with (or at least understand). We never question their motivations, or wonder why they don't just pack it in and walk away (a problem we often have with chosen ones who have nothing aside from their chosen status actually driving them toward the end game). And it saves a lot of time.

More on this at "The Chosen One" Vs. The One Who Chooses for those who are interested.

But If You're Going To Do It Anyway...

If you really like the idea of this trope, though, I can only recommend that you bend, twist, or outright invert it in some way.

As a for-instance, you have a protagonist that's mentioned in prophecy. Their status gets them access to resources, trainers, and confidence no one else would have had. Then, once they've done the thing they were supposed to do (even if it resulted in their glorious death), you reveal that the prophecy was hogwash. It was created, spread, and spoken of specifically to become self-fulfilling. It was all a cynical way to motivate someone to step up, and be the hero.

You don't have to go full inversion, though. For example, you could make it so that those who are chosen are not chosen for the purpose they think. Perhaps they're a sacrifice to sate an ancient god, their entire destiny of saving the world being true... from a certain perspective. You could even actively attempt to undermine the prophecy, with the character doing everything in their power to fight against their role, but their actions only bring them to the end that was pre-determined (Oedipus, if you're feeling tragic, or Inspector Clouseau if you want it to be amusing). Or you could make it so that the protagonist we have is a fake-out, and it's actually someone else who is the chosen one who steps up in the ultimate moment.

Again, I would recommend steering clear of this trope whenever you can. But if you feel it's integral to making your story work, at least do your best to make sure it doesn't rob your protagonists of their agency, or your tale of its tension. Otherwise readers are very likely to put it down, and walk away.

For more on character agency, check out What Is Character Agency (And Why Do You Need It)?

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing update. For those who'd like to check out more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive. Follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to stay on top of all my latest releases. If you'd like to help support me, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page or consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi. Either way, there's a free book in it for you!