Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Who's Your 5th Business?

Beneath the skin of every story there is complicated machinery at work. Villainous machinations, misunderstandings, motivations, desires, dreams, and needs are the cogs and gears that turn the mechanism. All these parts and pieces are what fit together, fire your characters' synapses, and keep things moving forward.

Scene 1, Act One: The Gun Goes Off
While there are no universal rules for writing, there is language we can use to talk about these nuts and bolts. Our protagonist, for example, is our lead character. The antagonist is the opposition to our lead. We can talk about character development where the cast members change (or don't), we can talk about plot arcs, personal arcs, plot twists, prologues, and epilogues.

There is a term not all of us know, though. In fact, I just came across it the other day listening to Stephen King's Revival. However, the idea of the 5th Business is now locked in my brain as a term for certain pieces of machinery I hadn't codified before, so I thought I'd share it.

The 5th Business

As Language Hat tells us, this term comes from the novel 5th Business by Robertson Davies. The title is explained by a quote on the dedication page that reads:

Those roles which, being neither those of Hero nor Heroine, Confidante nor Villain, but which were nonetheless essential to bring about the Recognition or the denouement, were called the Fifth Business in drama and opera companies organized according to the old style; the player who acted these parts was often referred to as the Fifth Business.

What does all that mean?

Well, in the book this quote precedes, starts with a mis-aimed snowball. The action was precipitated by a character who had none of the traditional roles listed in the main cast, but whose actions meant they weren't part of the background scenery. In short, the character who threw that snowball became an agent of change. The snowball hit a pregnant woman, making her give birth early. It saddled the boy who dodged the throw with a sense of lifelong guilt. It affected other members of the cast in a profound way, acting as the nudge that pushed them onto certain tracks of development.

And now, my action complete, I'm off to someone else's story!
That is the role of the 5th Business; acting as an agent to bring about the Recognition, or the unraveling of the play. While this was an invention of the author (who attributed the quote to a Danish author in order to satisfy his publishers at the time), it is one that has a use when discussing the role of certain integral parts of your story's clockwork.

So whether your 5th Business is part of an inciting incident, or their actions are what set the stage for the upcoming events, ask yourself who they are. Not only that, but ask if they understand the events they're setting in motion, and whether they understand they are agents of your story. Because a lot of the time, the 5th Business really has no intention of meddling in someone else's affairs... but that doesn't stop their actions from crystallizing someone else's path.

Or even several someones.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully some folks out there find this interesting, and if you'd like to see more work from me, go and 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 support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or becoming a regular, monthly patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Either way, there's a lot of free stuff in it for you!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

How Do You Make A Living Writing? Easy... You Need Fans

If you read any writer blogs (mine included) you'll find dozens of entries about how to get more people to look at your books. You'll find all kinds of advice on how to take advantage of algorithms, which platforms to use for the best signal boost, and how often you should update your social media... but every now and against it's important to remind yourself where your money comes from.

Because it comes from your readers. You could have a utility belt of cool gadgets and marketing theories, but when it comes down to it, without your readers you aren't clearing any checks any time soon.

There's a new one in the series? Score!
So before you get too caught up in writing a new blog post, sharing a new status update, or in putting together another ad campaign for your book, remember, those are the means, not the end.

Focusing On Fans Gives You Some Perspective

You need to hit big numbers in order to clear big paydays, but it's important to take a moment to remember that every one of those numbers out there is a person. They're someone who selected your work, and who read it. They had an experience with something you created, and they came to you looking for something particular. They gave you their time, their energy, and in a lot of cases, they gave you their money.

Thank you, Sumo_577. I will never forget you.
Aside from feeling humbled that there are people out there who voraciously consume your work (or who like it enough to review it and tell their friends about you), it helps to remember that you're not just pleasing algorithms and getting arbitrary up-views from robots. You write for people, and it is those people who constitute your audience.

Then you need to act accordingly.

That means when you're posting in a forum, remember that the people who see your words will form opinions of you. When you're on a panel, or giving an interview, think about the ramifications of what you say, and the thoughts you express. If you're frazzled and stressed, but someone got the courage to approach to ask for a photo or an autograph, remember that they support you. Be polite, be professional, and always thank them for the help they give you. Basically all the stuff I mentioned a while ago in Your Brand is Just as Important as Your Books.

There's more than just cultivating your image, though; you need to treat your readers (and potential readers) like people.

That means you should climb down off your soap box, and talk to people rather than talking at people. Engage with them, and have a conversation rather than shouting out your view, thought, or ad for your book and then walking away. If someone talks about your work, take a moment to thank them. Be sincere. And, if you really want to sweeten the deal, give them something for free as a way to thank them for being one of your readers. An ebook usually works nicely, because even if they don't prefer electronic reading, it often is the thought that counts because it shows that you noticed them, and value them.

Once you get into this kind of mindset, and you incorporate it into your attitude and practices, you might be surprised how many people it draws. And especially how many readers will keep coming back (or offer other forms of support for your work) once they realize you aren't just thinking of them as numbers on your monthly royalty statement.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing installment. If you like my work, and want to see more of it, remember to check out my Vocal archive! If you'd like to help support me, then consider leaving me a small tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or becoming a regular patron over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Either way, some free stuff and my gratitude will both be yours! Lastly, to stay on top of all my latest updates just follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Remember, Fantasy Can Be Anything You Want

What do you think of when you hear the word fantasy? Is it hobbits and elves? Dwarves and magic rings? Knights in shining armor fighting dragons? Wizards with long beards and big staffs alongside orcs drooling black ichor as they roar and rush into battle?

Tell me this, though... do you think of grim monster hunters with muskets? Battle-ax wielding barbarians hammering at the steel skin of lost alien guardians? An abandoned noble raised by the jungle venturing into a forgotten land to overthrow its saurian overlords?

I ask, because all of that stuff is fantasy, too.

For those looking for required reading.

There's So Much More Out There

I've railed against this before, and I think it bears repeating. Tolkien's contributions to the genre, and setting the mold for what people tend to think of as high fantasy (the sort of thing with huge timelines, epic, sweeping backstories, ancient wizards, secret princes, and that sort of thing), is all well and good... but it is not all there is out there.

Tell you about a thing that happened to me a while back. I was at a convention, and found an old, plastic-bagged copy of previously unpublished Conan short stories by Robert E. Howard that was printed several decades ago. In the introduction for the collection there was a line talking how the writer hoped to see interesting work from a new up-and-comer to the genre... that up-and-comer was J.R.R. Tolkien.

Hey, everyone! Make room for the new kid!
I bring this up because for me, fantasy was more about the Weird Tales days. Where you'd have dashing swordsmen and frenzied barbarians side-by-side with lost alien civilizations, shape-shifting lizard men, Puritan witch hunters, and all sorts of other nonsense. They were all strange stories that at the time defied genre labels, as many of them mish-mashed elements of what we now think of as traditional fantasy, horror, science fiction, and others into a single story. But the thing is, no one was interested in putting a label on what was and wasn't fantasy. It was allowed to be as strange, as weird, and as unusual as the writers could conceive of, and to go in all sorts of different directions.

My thoughts, to you out there reading this... embrace that.

Want to puts guns into your fantasy setting? Do it, I would love to see more dragon hunters using high-caliber weapons. You want aliens? Cool, Lovecraft wasn't the first to do it, and he sure as hell won't be the last. You want civilizations that bear no resemblance to the traditional half-dozen square miles of pseudo-English countryside that get dug out of the Middle Ages? Go nuts! You want magic that merges with alchemy and technology? Make it happen!

And if someone tries to tell you that's "not really fantasy" then you should ask them what they would call it instead. Because gatekeepers are going to keep doing their thing, but it can be amusing to watch them sputter as they try to tell you that a story about a fictional reality with all the hallmarks is somehow not allowed to wear the same label as a story about elves and dwarves.

Don't feel you have to limit yourself thematically, contextually, or even aesthetically when it comes to the fantasies you choose to write.. because we could all use a breath of fresh air.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. Hopefully some folks found it interesting, and it sparked some new ideas. For some unique takes on fantasy, consider stopping by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out, or heading over to Vocal to look at some more of my work. If you'd like to stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support my work consider leaving me a little tip by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular patron. In either case, there's free stuff and my thanks just waiting for you.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Want More Eyes on Your Work? Try Sideways Marketing

In order to clearly define who you are, and to make yourself easy to find for readers who are looking to buy what you're selling, authors tend to do our very best to carve out a niche for ourselves. Usually that niche is built around the genre we write in (or at least the genre we're best known for), and all the keywords we try to associate our names with. And sometimes you can get so invested in that label, and the niche that you're aiming for, that you forget your work might appeal to more than just that specific, target audience.

The question, of course, is how do you broaden your impact zone to include more readers?

Well, I've changed the sign. Was sort of hoping the rest would just come.
If you've been wracking your brain over this particular question, then might I suggest something I call sideways marketing?

What Is Sideways Marketing? How Does It Work?

To understand sideways marketing, you need to understand sideways thinking. Also called lateral thinking, it's a type of problem-solving where you tend to examine preconceptions, sift through wishful thinking for potential solutions, and let your creative processes take over. It is most defined, though, by asking one, important question... why?

How does that help you sell books, exactly?
Since lateral thinking is sort of hard to wrap your head around, I'll provide a concrete example that I just had some small success with.

About a month ago, I wrote an article titled What Is The Monster in "The Ritual"? For those not familiar with the film, "The Ritual" is a horror movie with an extremely unique monster in it. A group of friends go hiking in Sweden, they wander off the path, and find themselves in the territory of a primordial creature... a god that was all but forgotten from the old days. One of its worshipers tells us that it is a jotun, a bastard child of Loki, but we never hear its name spoken. So I laid out my theory as to which of the god of mischief's children the monster was, and how its identity might be reflected in the film's creature design.

Now, when I completed this article, I did my best to boost its signal through channels that focused on horror... because, after all, it was about a horror movie. And while I got some positive results from Facebook, Reddit, and several other places where I lurk, the overall numbers were not that great. And, since the earnings for that article depended directly on the number of readers I attracted, I had to figure out some way to get more people to read it... but how?

That was when I asked myself why? Specifically, I asked why I was restricting myself to horror-specific avenues. Because while there were definitely folks interested in my viewpoint who were horror film fans, the discussion was about a modern piece of art depicting a Norse god and Norse mythology. Once I realized that I'd been the one choking my potential audience, I expanded my marketing efforts to include pages dedicated to mythology, to history, and to the lore and religion of the Norsemen.

What I found was that horror fans were passingly interested in what I had to say. But that mythology fans were quite interested in my interpretation of the monster, and the choices the creature design team had made to realize the bastard child of a shapeshifter onscreen. And that interest led to comments, discussions, and a much more sustained effort by readers to pick up my work, and see what I'd had to say.

I more than doubled the exposure, clicks, and reads in less than a day, just by including a niche I hadn't actually considered when I'd first written the piece.

It Takes Some Getting Used To

Lateral thinking is not something you just start doing one day. It takes practice, time, and effort. However, in terms of your marketing, every successful application of a sideways strategy helps create a kind of mental muscle memory. And, even better, it often helps you see future places you could expand your work into.

Sometimes it's obvious what you can do to get your work in front of more people. However, if you take a moment, and examine your strategy, you might find there are some really simple adjustments you're not making that might open the floodgates.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing topic! If you've had any great successes by applying lateral thinking to your marketing efforts, feel free to boast about it in the comments below. For more of my work (from discussions of the effects cannibalism has on the human body, to how you can make parchment paper using tea) check out my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me in my work, you can drop a tip in my jar by Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or you can become a regular patron by going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and signing up. Free stuff, and my eternal thanks, await you!

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Authors, Remember, You Don't Have To Re-Invent The Wheel

If you're an author, then chances are you want your stories to stand out. You want to be thought of as new, unique, fresh, and different both from those who came before you, as well as from your contemporaries. Speaking as someone who enjoys experimenting with genre mash-ups, I get this feeling. However, I have a piece of advice I'd like to share for all the folks out there getting brain cramps from their mental gymnastics.

Don't try so hard to be different that you lose sight of what you're here to do.

Seriously, it's okay to use an old mold. You don't have to start from scratch.

Store Bought Is Just Fine

Have you ever tried to cook something from scratch? Whether you were baking a cake, or making your grandmother's old meatloaf, it was probably a great deal more difficult than using store bought ingredients, and just whipping them together. And sometimes that effort is really worth it. Sometimes, though, there's no way to tell the difference between homemade and store bought. Even if you put ten times as much sweat, effort, and swearing into doing it the hard way.

Writing is kind of like that.

Let's say, for example, you want to tell a high fantasy story. However, you want to stand apart from other entrants into the genre, so you do your best to scrape off all the serial numbers you can find. Traditional elves, dwarves, and orcs? Nope, they're gone. Then you go through the traditional bestiary, and you toss out all the dragons, ogres, trolls, unicorns, and other stuff. You flip the assumption of a human-centric world, and put a different creature at the top of the food chain. You make your own magic system, you add in non-medieval technological elements, and you put together a massive timeline of events for how your world got to be the way it is.

There's nothing wrong with any of these changes... provided they are in the service of your story, themes, and narrative. As soon as you start making changes just to be different, that's when you can end up cutting off your nose to spite your face.

And that won't get you anywhere.
As an example, say you choose to keep the basic archetypes of fantasy races (the long-lived ones, the not-quite-as-long-lived crafters and enchanters, the humans, the bigger, tougher humans who are a different color, and at least one race that's like humans, but tiny), but you rename them something specific for your world. Nothing says you can't, but you need to ask why you're putting in all that effort (and asking your readers to learn a bunch of new names and titles)? Is it because your creatures are already different enough from their store-bought variety that your readers would have trouble thinking of your red-skinned Marat as orcs, or your insectoid immortals as elves? Or is it just because you want to avoid as many familiar touch-stones as possible?

Changing something because it adds to your story, or because it supports the themes you're working with is good. Avoiding tropes that have become problematic, or even regressive, is great. However, refusing to use something because it might be considered a trope, or because someone else did something similar in their world so yours has to be different, is just punishing yourself for no reason. And worse, it's possible that if you don't use any trope, or have anything that feels familiar, your readers might feel lost instead of intrigued. So change responsibly, and make sure the changes you do make are always in the service of the story, world, and theme rather than out of a need to try treading fresh ground.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing advice. For folks who'd like 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 me, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or dropping me a tip over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page.