Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Fantasy Writers, If You're Just Changing Something's Name, Don't Bother

How many times have you been reading a book, and come across what sounds like a really unique fantasy race? They're mysterious, they seem to be powerful, and there are whispers about fallen empires and hidden civilizations that might provide a clue to the current plot. Maybe you start getting excited, wondering when the big reveal for the Gethredgi is going to happen. Then, when our heroes find themselves in the depths of a darkened forest, they're suddenly surrounded by strange, shadowy shapes. Then one of them steps forward... and it's just an elf.

Ears? Check. Strange instruments? Check. Perfect hair? Big check on that.
It doesn't just look like an elf, though... it's an elf through and through. Nature loving, aloof, unusual but alluring, etc., etc. Basically the only thing different is the name, and it turns out that all the smoke and mirrors about lost empires or shadowy rumors was just a trick to keep them off-screen long enough that the reader didn't realize your big lead up was to a copy-paste of the same creatures we've seen since Tolkien put his stamp on the genre.

This is a problem that a lot of fantasy writers run into. They want their world and setting to feel different and unique, but they don't want to stretch too far outside of the tropes established by Tolkien, Dungeons and Dragons, and other fantasy mainstays. Because yes these short, burly, bearded master craftsmen who live in the depths of the earth and tend to be warriors are still a thing... but we're calling them the Sha'an instead of dwarves. And these big brutes who like to fight, are hard to hurt, and have a lovely combination of green skin and tusks totally aren't orcs... they're, uh, the Miskai.

If you've ever found yourself doing this, I want you to slap yourself in the face. Hard. Now stop doing this, because you're not doing yourself or your work any favors.

The Name Isn't What Makes You Unique

Too often writers confuse changing the traditional name of something with actual innovation (note that this also applies to minor cosmetic changes, like giving your elves silvery hair, or making your dwarves gray-skinned). If you haven't actually gotten down under the skin of a story element and altered the way it works and functions, then you haven't actually made something new or unique. You've just stolen a car, spray-painted it a different color, and are now trying to tell us it's a different car.

What's worse is that nine times out of ten you're just going to piss off readers because you're essentially expecting them to treat these minor alterations as if they somehow get you away from the accepted mythology surrounding these creatures.

Make your orcs rum-running, dirtbike-riding anarchists, and NOW you've got our attention.
Interestingly, though, if you leave the names the same but change everything else, you'll find that you both have a whole new monster on your hands, and that your readers will be excited about it.

As an example, take vampires. There have been a lot of different versions of them over the years, and we've seen them re-invented time and time again. We've seen them portrayed as the undead, the strigoi, as shambling, zombie-like creatures, as carriers of a plague, as immortal beauties, and we've seen them as split-faced, whip-tongued monstrosities.

Any time there was a huge change in these creatures, they were still called vampires. Whether it was moving from a mystical to a biological explanation, taking them from monsters to sex symbols, or making them from beautiful creatures into hideous freaks, there were huge shifts in the mythology, weaknesses, strengths, powers, and even appearance of these creatures. But they were always called vampires as a way to deliberately play on audience expectations, which would then be subverted.

By changing superficial things, though, you're doing the opposite of that. You're promising your audience that your creatures, magic system, wizards, what have you, are totally different, but then giving them the same old same that they're used to.

Don't Be Afraid To Stay The Same (Or To Change)

Too often genre writers are overly concerned with uniqueness and originality in terms of the tropes they're using. While you should definitely think about those things, what's more important is the story you're telling, and the characters whose journey we're following. As I said back in Your Fantasy Novel Probably Sucks, and Professor Awesome's University Explains Why, everything about your setting is the backdrop against which your story is actually happening. So while unique cities, bizarre magic systems, or a ground-up re-imagining of fantasy race mainstays will be unique, they won't be the things that keep your readers reading.

They'll read for your story, and your story is (or at least should be) about characters.

So if you get too bogged-down in worrying that your elves are too Tolkien, or your demons are too Moorcock, and your rebellious princess just feels like punk rock Disney, take a moment, and ask the important question; are your characters compelling? And if you feel the answer is yes, ask if leaning on these other tropes weakens your story.

If it doesn't, don't give yourself an ulcer over trying to re-invent the wheel.

Because sure, if your orcs look just like the Uruk-hai, and your elves are master archers, some people are probably going to roll their eyes a bit. But if your characters are good, and your story is solid, people are more than happy to walk down a road that has a few familiar sign posts on it.

And if you really want to give them a different experience, don't just throw on a different coat of paint. Dig deep, and go nuts with it!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. If you have examples where a creator tried to seem new and different by just slapping some new labels onto existing tropes, and it really didn't work, leave them in the comments below! For more of my work, go check out my Vocal archive where I write about gaming, sexuality, geeky things, horror, and a ton of other stuff, too. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me and my work, consider either Buying Me A Ko-Fi to leave a one-time tip, or consider joining The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, which is my bread-and-butter for making content just like this. Either way, there's a free book and my gratitude in it for you.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Writers on YouTube? Prepare For An Uphill Battle

Regular viewers know that something I like to do during Business weeks is to offer some advice on different platforms you can use to start earning money from the content you produce. One of the oldest recommendations I made was detailed in Make Money Writing (By Joining InfoBarrel), and it was joined by the more recent coverage on Want To Make Money Writing? Check Out Vocal! that I added earlier this year. Both of which are still solid examples for text-based income, by the by.

However, if you're an author who's been thinking about expanding your brand into the multimedia sphere, then you might be considering using YouTube as a way to boost your signal, and increase your earnings. After all, YouTube is free to join, gives you lots of tools, and it is accessible by huge numbers of people, so why wouldn't you want your work on it? While joining up as a content creator is not an inherently bad idea, per se, it is one that comes with a lot of strings attached. Strings that a lot of folks just don't think about.

Testing... testing...

What Does It Take To Make YouTube Work?

If you're taking your work to YouTube, whether you're creating audio books of your own work, writing skits, or doing a kind of full-cast drama, it's important to know what it is you're dealing with when it comes to this platform. Because YouTube is competitive, but even worse, they raised their bar for monetization earlier this year.

I actually help out on a YouTube channel titled Dungeon Keeper Radio, and we made an anniversary post detailing the requirements and changes to the platform that we (and all the other creators out there) now had to cope with. Give it a listen, and you'll understand why so many people are frustrated with YouTube.

Short version, for those who didn't give it a listen, is that until your channel has 1,000 subscribers on it, and a minimum of 4,000 hours of total run time over the previous 12 month period, you can't get your channel monetized. That means no ads, and no money, no matter how much work you put in, until you clear those hurdles. Given that it was only 10,000 views to get monetized (a significantly easier bar to clear) until the beginning of this year, that's a fairly major change.

So, before you get too involved in your project, ask how many videos you're willing to make before you can get ads on your channel so you can start getting paid. Because if you already have a fairly big following, and you know your work is popular, you might be able to get this sort of thing up and running within 6 months to a year. However, if you are starting from scratch and you don't have a catalog of popular work, any real fan base to speak of, etc., then you are going to find it is a lot harder getting people to hit that subscribe button than you think it would be.

That is, perhaps, the most important thing to keep in mind here. Because while a lot of platforms require you to get a big explosion of attention in order to make any real money, YouTube requires that kind of viral boom just to get the site to agree to pay you in the first place.

Better As A Supplement, Than A Main

The unvarnished facts are that if you want to make a living on YouTube then you need to have thousands of supporters, and you need hours upon hours of watched content every day. And unless you're a singing sensation, a do-it-yourself guru, or you stumble upon the next viral creepy pasta, you might find that it's tough to get enough views to even cut a check every month.

However, that doesn't mean you can't use YouTube as a supplementary platform for your work.

Which can reap benefits all its own.
For example, if you're using Patreon, then you could make audio book entries on YouTube as a way to give your audience some extra goodies, and reward those who give at a higher tier. If you're recording samples of a book that's for sale already, then you could use the popularity of the video to get a buy link in front of an audience to increase your sales. The same is true if you use YouTube to make promotional videos for your work; if they're successful enough to earn you ad revenue, then great, but if not they can still get you increased sales and visibility for your books.

Hell, you could even use YouTube as a way to talk directly to your fans, answer questions, and keep them up-to-date on your appearances, upcoming projects, and your life. As long as you're entertaining, it will help spread the word. John Green did this to massive success, for folks who've been by his channel.

If you've been thinking that YouTube is going to be that secret gold mine where your unknown work suddenly blows up and makes you an Internet millionaire, then I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it probably won't. Barring the usual zeitgeist that seems to select people at random, anyway. But if you want to make videos, audio, etc. as a way to supplement and boost your already existing platform, then you will probably see a lot more success. And even if your attempt at leveraging YouTube to your ends doesn't work out, well, you likely haven't lost much other than time and energy. Provided you didn't go overboard getting expensive film, sound, and editing equipment, anyway.

Speaking of YouTube, though, if you're a fan of tabletop games and fantasy, please head over to Dungeon Keeper Radio and check us out. We can use all the help we can get reaching our goals!

That's all for this installment of the Business of Writing! Hopefully some folks found it helpful. If you have questions about YouTube, and how you could use it for your brand, then leave them in the comments below. For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me and my work, then you can Buy Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. Every little bit helps, and there's plenty of free stuff in it for you as a thank you!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Does Your Masquerade Pass Muster? (Thoughts For Modern Fantasy Stories)

How many times have you read a modern fantasy story where an entire supernatural world is kept completely in the shadows? Whether it's vampires in their ivory towers making secret deals with politicians, cabals of wizards waging war on werewolves, or eldritch beings whose stirrings send ripples through space and time, the general population doesn't know about these things. And most folks, if you tried to tell them, would look at you as if you were a crazy person.

Cynthia, James isn't a vampire. If he tried to bite your neck without consent, file a sexual harassment complaint with HR.
This approach does you two, major favors as a writer. The first is that it means you don't have to re-write any major world events or locations in important, noticeable ways. This means all you're doing is adding the underground stuff, and putting in secret, hidden places that only the denizens of the Night World know about. The second is that it gives your story an extra added thrill, because if this secret world is only known by a few people, then it could potentially be real.

That's a powerful shot, and it's one reason this kind of story is so popular. However, there is one thing that can make or break your story on pure suspension of disbelief... the strength of your masquerade.

How Does No One Know?

This is not a rhetorical question. If you are asking your readers to believe that an entire secret society of dark wonders walks among us, then you have to explain how no one has noticed them. And as the world marches ever onward into the age of satellite surveillance, smartphones, and instant video, this becomes more and more important.

There are a few things you can do to make your masquerade feel more believable, though, and to get your audience focused on your story rather than on the premise you're asking them to swallow to get to your story.

Right, right, no one knows it's the plague because of his mask. Anyway, back to the duke and his party...

#1: The Veil

The first (and in my experience most common) way to have a masquerade is to have a metaphorical or literal curtain of invisibility around the secret world, typically thought of as the Veil. For example, in the Vampire: The Masquerade setting the vampire community has a huge, proactive network meant to keep their existence secret. They own the cops, they own the judges, they own the newspapers, and if there is information they don't want released then it simply will not circulate. Not only that, but it is extremely difficult to collect evidence of a vampire, and what evidence there is looks more akin to shaky Bigfoot-capture footage than proof of nosferatu. So between the money, the power, and the community rules against breaking the secret, they hide themselves in the shadows. There are literally hundreds of these bloodsucking undead monsters all around the world, but their existence is covered up by lackeys, and the efforts of those looking to hide information, camouflage evidence as false, and to make vampires into a popular fiction that couldn't possibly exist.

Some setups go even further, though. In Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, for example, being a part of the secret world means that regular people simply stop registering your presence. You can maybe get their attention long enough to ask a question, but as soon as they look away they'll forget they ever even saw you. You exist as a member of the secret world, now, and by virtue of that membership are apart from the world of the mundane in a real, complete sense.

For those wondering, the second option is harder to do in a unique way, but is strangely easier to swallow since you can just say, "Because magic, that's why."

#2: Isolation

The second thing you can do (particularly if you want to avoid the above approach), is to make the supernatural elements of your secret world rare, and far away from prying eyes. I call this the horror movie approach, since it seems like immortal hockey-masked murderers, ghostly child predators, angry spirits, and demonic possessions would get a lot of attention... but because they're isolated, rare, or unusual, they just don't. Even in horror movies where there are secret societies, church divisions, or multiple generations of victims, it seems like no one in the general population ever lends credence to these stories.

Because it's easier to hide something when it's rare.

If you think about it, this is the key to a lot of cryptid beliefs. Even if you comb every inch of Loch Ness, or beat every push in the pine barrens, it's a lot more believable that one (or maybe a handful) of creatures could evade being discovered in such a big area. Hell, we're still finding isolated tribes of people in the rainforest, and we've been exploring that area for centuries!

One of the best examples of this in my opinion was the Clive Barker novella Cabal. In it a man is driven to hunt down the legends of a city of monsters beneath a necropolis in the middle of nowhere in Canada. A place called Midian. Beneath that necropolis we find the tribes of the moon, who are the monsters from all of our folklore. Hunted nearly to extinction, Midian is one of their last refuges. And we believe it, because their sheer isolation, combined with their relatively small numbers, means that they very well could have escaped notice for decades... or centuries.

This isn't limited to middle-of-nowhere settings like the Slaughter family's house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You can have isolation in urban environments as a subject of blight, or even as a result of money. Monsters could live behind the walls of the old, venerable mansion just as easily as in the concrete gutters of half-abandoned slums. The key is that no one goes there, so how would they know?

#3: The Cthulhu Effect

Those who know the truth are deemed to be mad, and it is only by calling clarity insanity that the world can keep its eyes closed to the threat of the Old Ones.

Or, put another way, convincing someone of the impossible takes a lot of doing. Especially because people do not like to be proven wrong. Even if you can show them facts that proves their beliefs about the world are incorrect, humans have the unique ability to look you dead in the face and say that those are lies, what I know is true.

There is evidence of this all around you. How many people believe the world is flat, even though you have photos from outer space proving the contrary? How many people refuse to consider that the world is billions of years old, insisting that a holy book written in the bronze age is more accurate than carbon dating? How many people totally believe that if you cut taxes on the rich that the money will trickle down to the poor, despite decades of research that state that simply is not what happens?

Now imagine telling a populace who is more than ready to disbelieve easily-proven facts like this that vampires are real. Or that fairies live in the woods. Or that no, really, you can totally do magic? Even if you have video of yourself casting a ritual and summoning a hellhound, the first 50 comments on the video are going to be FAKE! with a helping of, "what editor did you use for this? It's really smooth."

People are stupid, pigheaded, and don't typically react with open-minded clarity when events transpire that could make them re-think their whole worldview. And you can use that to explain how an entire werewolf pack goes undetected when they masquerade as homeless people, or how the popularity of stage magic was engineered to specifically cover up occult practices in a phenomenal act of sleight-of-hand. People don't want to believe that these things are real, and while some of them might, those who see the truth are more likely to be thought of as delusional, dangerous, or both, rather than as witnesses to the world's radical truths.

You Still Have To Explain All This, Though

While you can use all sorts of combinations of the above explanations, the important thing is for you to illustrate how your masquerade functions. If your protagonist gets definitive proof of a werewolf attack, show how the camera doesn't want to be recorded what it's being pointed at. The video is choppy, problematic, and seems to malfunction. Even though it's clear to one character, you should show how others regard it as faked, or how they think this belief in werewolves is a manifestation of the trauma the believer experienced.

And so on, and so forth.

It helps if you have a Professor Van Helsing character to help explain things to the newly exposed, but it's also important to remember that Van Helsing was sort of thought of as a quack with odd, old-world ideas until he managed to convince several thoroughly modern men that the woman they'd been courting had, indeed, become a vampire. And to do that he had to prove to them she was attacking children, and chase her back into her crypt.

Despite their belief, and their slaying of multiple vampires, in the world of Dracula the living dead didn't suddenly get unmasked to the public. They were known to our protagonists who remembered themselves in their ignorance. Who knew that they never would have believed it either, and who understood that it takes extreme circumstances to make someone step over the threshold to the other side of the Masquerade.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing entry. Hopefully you found it engaging, and it got some ideas going for you! If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive. To get updates on all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help support me, you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or head to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular patron. Either way, there's some free books in it for you as a thank you!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

For Better Results, Always Include Links To Your Archives

It takes a colossal amount of time, effort, energy, and luck to get someone hooked on a piece of content you made. Whether it was a blog entry, a gaming guide, a short story, a video, a novel, whatever you made, people don't seem to appreciate the sheer amount of Predator-like hunting savvy you need to have in order to sink that hook.

But sinking that hook is only the first step. Once you have someone's attention, you need to reel them in so they'll check out more of the stuff you made.

That was a tasty worm... got any more?
That's why anytime you create something, you should be sure to tell your audience exactly where they can get more of your stuff. And, in this digital age, that means you need to always include, at the very least, a link to your archive.

More By This Author...

Do you remember, in the time before smartphones and common-place Internet, when there would be a "More By This Author" page in the front of practically every book you picked up? It didn't matter if it was a hard-boiled crime series, romance novels, Westerns, or young adult books, if that author had other books on the market there was a list that told you their titles all the way in the front. And if the book was a second or third printing, and that author had released other stuff in the interim? You bet that list was updated.

Huh... seems like each of the ducklings got a spin-off book. Put a pin in that, mom.
The reason these pages exist is that publishers know something very important about consumers... you can't depend on them to meet you halfway. If someone reads a book, they might very well enjoy the experience. They may even tell themselves that they'll look for more of those books at some point. But unless they loved that book, they aren't going to remember the name of the author or the series. And in the time before the Internet, they couldn't just ask Google to find the relevant information for them. If the local librarian or bookstore staff didn't know the book, series, or author the reader was talking about, then they were out of luck.

Worse, as any marketing professional will tell you, the more frustrated someone gets in the search of a product, the more likely they are to just walk away instead of making a purchase.

As such, the burden is on you to make your stuff as easy to find as possible. If you create videos, always put a link to your channel in the description, and in the end credits. You can find examples of this over at Dungeon Keeper Radio, if you're a fan of fantasy and gaming. If you write books, include a page of author works (and make sure those previous works are linked in ebook files, so readers can just tap their finger, and be off to the checkout). And if you write a blog, you need to be sure you give your readers all the information they need so they can find more of your work.

Take a look at the top of the page. Both halves of my archive are easy to see. Additionally, I have a link to my Vocal archive, since people who enjoy my work here might be curious enough to see what I write over there. There's also a link to my Amazon author page, for those who want to check out more of my work. And, if you dig back through my previous entries, you'll see that every post ends with a list of links for folks who want to connect with me, follow my work, and see all my updates as they happen.

Because sometimes you just need to offer the fish a hook. If they're interested, they'll chomp down on it themselves without a second thought.

That's all for my Business of Writing post this week. Hopefully it helped some folks who forget to mention they've got a whole mountain of other stuff their readers could come and check out. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And to support my work you can either Buy Me A Ko-Fi as a one-time tip, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. Every little bit helps, and there's free books in it for you!