Wednesday, February 27, 2019

"Where Does The Poop Go?" is The Most Basic (and Ignored) World Building Question

When we sit down to build worlds, we tend to focus on the big, sexy topics. How does magic work in this strange, new world? What forces power the drives that let the Astro Navy reach the outer rims? How many social orders are there within this great dystopia, and what led to their savage struggles for dominance in the decaying world?

All of that stuff is important, no doubt. It's fun, it's engaging, and you're going to spend a lot of time on it. But there is another question you need to answer before you start writing. A question that a lot of us tend to ignore.

Where does the poop go?

Because until you know that, you don't know shit.

Why Does It Matter?

If you find yourself flabbergasted, asking why it is important to your story that you know where your world's bodily wastes go, chances are that it isn't. Unless you're pulling an It and having a monster who lives in the sewers, or you're going for a musketeer-style underground infiltration, it probably doesn't matter all that much to the narrative that you understand where all that excrement goes.

But from a world-building perspective, it is one of the most important questions. And it's far from the only one.

Okay, I'll bite... why?
How we deal with our waste is one of the fundamental questions of society. Do we have big, public engineering projects that deal with it (whether we're talking New York or ancient Rome, doesn't matter), or is it just a mad free-for-all where everyone just tosses it out the window? If the former, is the system old and crumbling (which could symbolize break-down in infrastructure), or is it well-maintained and sort of taken for granted? If the latter, does all this waste cause sickness? Or is civilization significantly far-out in the wilderness that you have plenty of room to fertilize the fields, as it were?

The way your world deals with poop is just one of the many nuts-and-bolts questions you should have the answer to. Even if that answer is, "It's set in 2011, so they have whatever modern sewer systems we're used to," you still need to have that answer.

This applies to all those niggling, homely questions you may not want to make time with, but which you still need to answer in order to give your world that bedrock foundation it needs. Questions about what people eat, what their hygiene is like, and if they put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us do. Questions about who trades with whom, what commodities are valuable, and how certain items made it to the other end of the world. Especially if your story isn't set in a world that has Amazon Prime shipping, and a massive global trade network that links one end of the planet to another.

The ho-hum, everyday matters need to be examined, and decided upon, just as much as the big, world-shattering ones that typically inspire you in the first place. Because you are going to nail down those big questions completely. But it's the bolt with the missing nut that's going to trip you up in chapter 12, and leave you shouting at your screen.

Every. Single. Time.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing post! Hopefully it got some wheels turning. If you've got a foundation question that you feel is just as important as where people poop in your world, then leave it in the comments below!

If you'd like to see some more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page, where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! And if you'd like to support me, you can Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

5 Tips For Surviving Conventions As An Author

I just got back from Capricon, and like always it was a working vacation for me. I brought my newest novel Crier's Knife, I was on all sorts of panels, I spent some time at a signing table, shook a lot of hands, and refreshed connections with some folks whom I hadn't seen since... well, since last time we were at this convention.

And in case you were wondering, working vacations are the only variety I get.
As I said back in Can Authors Advance Their Careers By Going To Conventions?, these events are one of the best places to be if you're in the business of writing and selling books. However, if you're not a veteran of the convention circuit, it's really easy to make some rookie mistakes that can ruin your weekend. So while my latest endeavor is fresh in my mind, I figured I'd make a couple of recommendations for all the authors out there.

Tip #1: Wear Comfortable Shoes

Seriously, it matters.
For a lot of us, conventions are when we break out the super nerdy parts of our closets. And while you might be tempted to slip on your steel-toed Doc Martens that look like something out of a 90s comic, make sure they have the right inserts before you do. Because that is going to matter.

This tip applies to anyone who's showing up at a convention, but it goes double for authors looking to sell books and make connections. Because chances are good you're going to be on your feet all damn day, and you're going to do a lot of walking. The last thing you want to do is limp up to a potential contact, or lose track of your sales pitch because all you can think about is how badly your feet hurt.

Seriously, a $10 pair of Dr. Scholl's is worth the cost.

Tip #2: Volunteer For Programming

Even if you're not sure you should be on this panel, volunteer anyway.
When you go to a convention, your goal is to make connections. Connections with fellow authors are just as important as connections with potential readers. However, there is a divide between those who are on panels, or behind signing tables, and the sea of attendees who gently lap against that shore.

You want to be on the professional side of that divide, and that's why you should always reach out to programming a few months before the event to volunteer.

To be clear, it isn't that there's anything wrong with being an attendee, but that guest of honor you want to network with is a lot more likely to remember you if you were on a panel with them for an hour and a half than if you were one of a few hundred people they met and talked to for a couple of minutes. And if you're part of programming, then other attendees are going to look at you as a cut above; your opinions will be listened to, and your status seen as larger than it is. Not only that, but if people in the audience think you made some good points, they're a lot more likely to buy your book.

Which you should have on a stand next to your name tag, just to drive home who you are.

Tip #3: Stay Fed, and Hydrated

Find the green room, if you can.
Again, this is something for everyone, but it is super easy to lose track of when you last had a glass of water and a sandwich when you're at a con. Especially if you're really rolling when it comes to selling books, or shaking hands. So make sure you actually eat breakfast, and that you keep a granola bar or two on your person as you tour through the convention.

Also, something for folks who followed my second tip. Most conventions have a designated green room, which is a sort of lounge where programming participants, convention staff, and guests of honor can go to get some food, and relax in a place that isn't open to the general public. Which means that stopping to rest for a bit, and to pop a top on a diet coke, might also mean you get a chance to share a table with the Big Names attending that year so you can strike up a conversation. It's a great way to get that natural, organic conversation with someone because they have their guard down, since they aren't being beset by the public.

Tip #4: Get Your Game Face On

Hey! Did I tell you about my book?
If you're going to a convention, you should stand out. Be memorable. Have a schtick people recognize, and which makes an impact.

What does that mean? Well, it can take a few different forms. As an example, Paul A. Erickson is a fellow author I met at Capricon many years ago who wrote The Wobbit. As you can probably guess, this book is a Tolkien parody, so Paul showed up to con in full Bilbo Baggins attire, complete with fuzzy feet slippers. That got people's attention, and everyone who commented on his look got a card, letting them know who he was and what he did.

You don't have to go that far with it, if you don't want to. If you're more of a jeans and tee shirt kind of author, that's fine. But if that's the case, make sure you have your pitch down to a fine delivery, and that you have something people can latch onto when they try to remember you. Myself, I have a green leather beret that I always wear to events so that people can pick me out of a crowd... it works, and goes with the Literary Mercenary theme.

As long as people remember you, and can easily associate you with your business card, bookmark, etc., then you've got a solid schtick.

Tip #5: Act Professional

Don't squee... don't squee... deep breaths...
It is shocking how far you can get by just acting like you're more important than you are (in a good way). I talked about this in Why "Fake It Till You Make It" Is Great Advice For Authors, but all of that goes double when you're at a convention.

Now, don't confuse acting professional with being cool and unflappable all the time. You want to be relatable, and you're not going to lose all of your credibility if you geek out about something. This is a con, geeking out is what everyone is here to do. But remember that when you're at a convention, all eyes are on you. And there are probably cameras and recorders all over the place. If you get into a heated argument with someone over nothing, or you start losing your grip on your adult words with kids in the audience, that's an impression you're going to have to work hard to scrub out.

So remember, get plenty of sleep, make sure you're not cranky, and ask yourself if what you're about to say is the impression you want your potential fans and business contacts to have of you. Because those moments we wish no one had seen tend to come around to bite us when it hurts the most.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing installment! Hopefully it helps folks out there who've decided to start hitting conventions this year, and it helps remind my fellow veterans of some things that are all too easy to forget. For more work by yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page where you can pick up books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter! And if you'd like to help support me then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular patron today! Even a little donation can go a long way.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

There is No Such Thing as Forced Diversity

I've written fairly often about what people would term "social justice" issues in fiction. From Asexual Awareness in Fiction, to What Would A Woman Do?, or even my fairly recent post from late last year Avoid Back-Handed Inclusion in Your Book, I've had a lot to say about representation in fiction. While a lot of the response has been positive, there has been one, consistent complaint used as a push-back whenever I (or someone else) talks about these topics. A line of reasoning that those embracing it seem to feel is the perfect counter-thrust to completely derail the conversation.

They simply say that they are all about diversity, but that "forced diversity" can ruin a book.

I don't know if you realize it, but those words are literally meaningless together.
I'm not the first person to say this, but I am going to re-affirm what other folks have said. There's no such thing as forced diversity. No one is forcing you to do anything. Either make your book more diverse, or don't. But if you choose not to, don't pretend it has something to do with a purer expression of your craft when it's just that you can't be bothered to swap up the color and gender palette.

Diversity And Representation Are Marketing Concerns

If your book has an all-white, all-heterosexual cast, that isn't going to stop it from selling. Those kinds of books have been selling for literal centuries with no problems. Also, this cannot be overstated, no one is going to make you change that roster. There isn't some kind of quota at publishers that say you have to have X number of black characters, Y number of strong female characters, and Z number of trans or genderqueer characters. Readers don't keep those checklists, either. It isn't going to be held against you.

However, it's not going to earn you any points, either.

This is the point where we talk about numbers.
You know that point I made above about how all-white, heteronormative casts have been the norm in books for literal centuries? Given that there are thousands of other books out there who made the same casting decision, how is yours going to stand out?

Because, and this is a little-known fact that some folks seem to miss, if you include an under-served group in your cast then members of said community are a lot more likely to actually check out your book. Why? Because getting the chance to see yourself in a work of fiction, and to have the issues you struggle with represented on the page, the screen, etc. is a huge selling point. And the more underserved a demographic is, the less competition you'll have in that area.

So, if you wanted to take a purely capitalist approach to things, then yes having a prominent trans character in your main cast would immediately put your story on some people's radars. From asexual strippers who hunt vampires, to a burly black cop comfortable in his gay sexuality hunting down serial killers, you would raise eyebrows, and get people to pay attention. Even if these characters aren't your main lead, just having them featured as part of the major cast of characters will generate buzz.

They're Story Concerns, Too

If you're one of those writers who just wants to be realistic in their casting (assuming you write fiction set in the real world), then you should also be interested in having a more diverse cast... because that's the world we live in! That isn't a new fact, either; people of all skin tones, a wide variety of sexualities, and all kinds of genders have existed in different cultures all over the planet without regard to where lines are drawn on modern maps for most of recorded history. From gay friars who were happily devoted to one another in medieval England, to Japanese mercenaries fighting the Dutch in the 1600s, our real-world history was a pretty diverse place.

But we're not even on Earth!
And if your story is set in a fantasy or sci-fi world that has no bearing on our Earth? Well, let me ask you this... does your story have humans in it? Because if it does, and they're supposed to be humans we can identify with, then you can only improve your setting by adding more options to it. Because it might seem easier to make fantasy or alien races a stand-in for a certain religion, ethnicity, sexuality, etc., but it just makes more sense to be genuinely diverse in your casting.

Again, remember, no one is forcing you to do this. If you think it's just easier to leave Buck Manwell, Space Force Captain and rugged, womanizing adventurer exactly the way he is, it's your book. You can do, or not do, whatever you want with it. And if you're just writing that book for your own pleasure, then that's fine... but if you're writing that book with the intent to sell copies, build an audience, and increase your professional reach, then diversifying your cast just makes sense.

Not only that, but it's a fairly easy habit to get into. Just look around, and ask why you've made certain characters in your cast the "default" setting. Then change them, and see what happens. You might be surprised at the results you get.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment! Hopefully it got the wheels turning for some folks. For more work by yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or stop by My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And if you'd like to support me, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular monthly patron. Every little bit helps!

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"The Rule of 10" or "Why Numbers Are Deceptive in The Writing World"

Despite the fact that authors deal in words, it is numbers that rule our lives. Everything from page count, to margin size, to cover image dimensions, to how many re-tweets our book release announcement gets are the determining factors in whether our careers rise or fall.

That's bad enough, but I've talked about this before in posts like Authors Live Under The Tyranny of Numbers (Here's How You Can Help!). Today I'd like to talk about something else, though. Namely about how frustratingly deceptive numbers can be for all the creative professionals out there.

Come on baby... papa needs a bestseller!

There's Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Figuring out how well your book is or isn't doing can feel like reading tea leaves. The reason for this is that it's easy to get caught up in numbers that look good for you, but whose true import is difficult to determine. Even if you have access to all the necessary metrics, authors are often just as surprised as anyone when a book does well. Or, worse, they might think their book is doing really well, when it actually isn't.

How does that happen?

Well, if you're solely focused on your sales, you're never going to get confused. More sales equals more success, and as long as those numbers are good, you're doing great. The problem is that there's so many other numbers out there, and they're easy to reach for if you don't have those reassuringly high sales figures.

No, I only sold 5 copies. But there were THOUSANDS of free downloads!
For example, say your book is enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited program. That means you get credit for members who read your book, and you earn a fee per page. Since that's the case, it's only natural that you'd get excited when those numbers start climbing. 300 pages here, 250 pages there, hey, looks like you're doing pretty good! Even if no one buys your book outright, if enough KU members just read it, that won't matter, will it?

Well, that depends. Because the per-page value of a read will fluctuate based on the number of members in the program in a given month, as well as the total number of pages being read that month. Not only that, but what looks like a lot of page numbers to you might, in fact, be nothing more than a drop in the bucket. You won't know that until the month is over, though, and you find out that what you thought was going to be a few hundred bucks in your pocket is just a single Jackson and some change. All because a bunch of members cancelled their accounts, and those who were left read more books, thus lowering the value of every individual page that was read that month.

This is just one example of how numbers can be deceptive for authors, especially if you don't have any concrete idea of what those high numbers really mean.

As another example, I recently hosted a free download for my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife. It did fairy well for me, with exactly 700 downloads over the weekend. That's a pretty solid number, and something to be excited about... or is it? Because if I'd sold 700 books over the weekend, sure, I'd be over the moon. That would probably be over $2,000 in my pocket! But I gave away 700 free copies, hoping that it would generate buzz through people telling their friends, leaving reviews, etc. The problem is that while more downloads is always good, it is not at all indicative of the amount of buzz your giveaway is generating. Because 100 people who tell all their friends, make social media posts, and leave reviews are exponentially more valuable than 100,000 people who read the book, and then tossed the file in their recycle bin never to be mentioned again.

The Rule of 10

As a way to avoid getting caught up in false excitement over things like social media shares, free downloads, and other metrics whose impacts are difficult to track, I find it's easy to implement the Rule of 10. While not a scientific term, it helps you keep things in perspective, and gets you asking important questions about the value of the statistics you're looking at.

More goddamn numbers.
Imagine you're going to move, so you ask your friends to help you pack up and haul stuff. Chances are good you'll get help from 1 in 10 of the people you ask. Some may tell you they can't because of work, or say they'll help only to be mysteriously absent on loading day, but motivation doesn't matter here; you can expect a 10% rate of help on your request.

The same thing is true when it comes to your numbers as an author. Some people might really wish they could help, and other people assure you they'll be there to help you get the job done, but only 1 in 10 of those people is going to actually show up when it matters.

Take that giveaway I mentioned. 700 people downloaded the book, and of those 700 people I'd bank that about 70 people actually read it. There might be more, or there might be less, but that's a number I think is fairly realistic. Then, of those 70 people, I predict that 7 of them will actually give me some return on the freebie investment (go buy another book of mine, follow me on social media, leave a review on the book they read, etc.).

You can apply this rule to most other promotional efforts that are difficult to track, too. A blog post about your new book is blowing up? Cool. So of the 10,000 people who read the article, maybe 1,000 people actually checked out your book's page. Of those 1,000 people, you might get 100 of them who read your free sample, buy the book, or save it for later.

Now, 100 sales is still 100 sales... but it's important to remember the connection between, "This piece of promotion is getting really popular!" and, "Holy crap, my sales are through the roof!" is a nebulous one at the best of times.

Be That 10%

I said this in 10 Concrete Ways You Can Help The Authors You Like, but it bears repeating; if you can be the activity in an author's career, then you are that 1 friend in 10 who said they would help, and actually showed up on moving day. So tell your friends, buy a copy, leave a review, and see if you can ask around to find other 10% people who have the follow-through to help authors move books.

Trust me, if only 1 in 10 folks is helping, we need all the help we can muster.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing entry. If you'd like to see more of my work then check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. To help support me and my work, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron today!