Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Making Use of The Fantastical Mundane in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

When someone picks up a sci-fi or a fantasy novel, it's like they're getting off a plane in a foreign country. Some things feel the same, but others are decidedly different. Many times there are sights and happenings that, in the world they know, would be cause for great concern. Or for wonder. But in order for someone to figure out the context, they have to look at the locals. Are they running in a panic? Bowing in supplication? Or does an elephant walk down this street every day, its driver chowing down on what looks like a fast food hamburger?

Don't mind Johnny. He's tools through here every Thursday with that pack of gunships behind him.
The problem is that sometimes we get so wrapped up in our worlds that we forget to make clear what's an everyday piece of magic or technology, and instead geek out about everything. That can kind of de-value the excitement, which is why it's important to keep in mind what I call the Fantastical Mundane.

What Is The Fantastical Mundane?

In the old days of science fiction, every story was filled with rapture over the technological toys on display. Everything from gasping depictions of rockets, to amazement at the power of ray guns. That trend (along with a lot of others), changed when John W. Campbell took it upon himself to start re-shaping science fiction as people knew it.

More on who Campbell was, and how the editor of Astounding Stories could create such widespread changes, in the video below for those who want some context.

One of Campbell's many tenets was that if something is not unusual or impressive in the context of the world the story is taking place in, then it should be regarded as ordinary. A mundane part of the world to the characters we see, even if the thing in question would be a marvel to the reader. Whether it's seeing an elf when you pass through the forests, or having a replicator in your office that can make anything from coffee to a cheese burger at the touch of a button, those things should be treated appropriately in order to give the reader context.

As a for-instance, none of us can do real magic... but how impressive does the magic have to be in this setting for someone to be unnerved by it? Is someone snapping their fingers to produce a flame to light a cigarette just a handy parlor trick, or is that enough to make someone's hair stand on end? Is someone carrying an energy pistol a sign that they're a member of an elite unit tasked with handling the latest in technology, or is that just as common as seeing a police officer with a handgun in their duty belt? Is a troll coming into town cause for panic and terror, or just mild curiosity because you don't see them all that often this far to the south?

Set The Tone, And Conserve Your Wonder

You know how certain characters, such as Kratos in the God of War series, are always angry and screaming? And how this makes it impossible to tell the difference between their default emotion, and when they're being enraged and violent because they just learned their wife was dead, or they'd lost a child, or something else that should have had a big impact?

Same deal here. If everything is treated with awe and wonder, then it becomes impossible to figure out which things are really weird, unique, or unusual, and which ones are Tuesday.

But for every rule, there is an exception!
But what about when you want everything to seem weird and unusual to your reader? Well, that is where you need to introduce the Everyman to the situation. I talked about this a little back in How To Stop Your "Everyman" Character From Becoming a Clueless Dipshit, but the purpose of the Everyman is to provide the audience with a cipher. Someone who knows about as much as they do, and who gets walked through this strange and unexpected world. It's characters like Jake Sully in Avatar, Michael in Underworld, or Richard in Neverwhere; their purpose within the story is to be just as shocked and confused as we are by this strange world they're walking into.

Even in these situations, though, other members of the cast are the ones cluing them (and the reader) into the Fantastical Mundane. When Richard is freaked out at the market of unusual creatures from the new world he's fallen into in Neverwhere, for example, it's the Marquis de Carabas who reassures him that hulking troll is just selling kebabs, and who steers him around the counter crones who would eat him alive. He, like the audience, has no context for what's safe and what's dangerous. The cast around him does, though, and guides him through getting acclimated to his new surroundings.

Remember, you can be as weird and out-there as you want to be! But you need to make it clear what is a curiosity, and what is an amazement, or your audience might get overwhelmed by it all.

That's all for this Craft of Writing installment! If you'd like to see more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page where you'll find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you want to stay on top of all my latest releases, you can follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and even on Pinterest where I'm creating boards for my books and most popular posts! And, if you'd like to help support me you could Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a regular, monthly patron. A little bit of help goes a very long way!

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Amazon Expects Readers To Pay If They Want To Leave Book Reviews

Online customer reviews are a way of life. Whether you're going out to eat, buying a car, getting your gutters cleaned, or buying a book, you always check to see what previous users have had to say before you put your hard-earned money on the line. In fact, as Invesp points out, as many as 90 percent of people will do a quick check on a local business's online reviews before trying them out. Of those folks, roughly 88 percent said they trusted online reviews just as much as they would a personal recommendation from someone they know.

This one looks good... let's give it a try!
If you're an author, then you already know how important good reviews for your book can be. Especially when it comes to the Internet's biggest marketplace, as I mentioned back in How Many Book Reviews Do You Need Before Amazon Promotes You? However, if you're hoping to get your readers to leave you a whole bunch of 5-star reviews on Amazon, prepare to run face-first into an unexpected hurdle.

You Want To Leave Feedback, Make Sure You're Paid Up!

Ideally, the book review process is a simple one. If someone reads your book and likes it, they can sign onto their Amazon account, call up your title, click how many stars they think you deserve, and maybe leave a little blurb about what they liked. Or hated, if that's the case. The more reviews you have, the more likely your book is to be seen, and the more sales you're likely to make. After all, if more than 50 people thought this book was great, then this is clearly something you need to check out for yourself!

In case you were looking for your next recommendation, you should check this one out!
It's already hard enough to get readers to go and leave reviews on your book, but as I've found with my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, Amazon recently enacted a policy change that makes it even harder.

These days it isn't enough to have an Amazon account if you want to leave reviews. It's not even enough to buy your book through Amazon. In order to leave a review on it, the account holder needs to have spent at least $50 through that website in the past year. Otherwise they're not allowed to leave reviews. Even if they discovered your book through Amazon in the first place, and that's where they bought your book to read it. Unless they've spent that money (gift cards don't count according to the Amazon policy), then they can't share their thoughts with the community at large.

That's a kick in the teeth no matter who you are. Because whether your fans came across your book during a free giveaway, or they simply don't have a lot of spare dosh to throw around, leaving a review is one of the best ways to help the authors that you love without spending any money in the process. Unless, that is, you're trying to leave that review on Amazon.

So Go To Goodreads Instead!

If this is a problem you've ever run into (I've had three readers message me personally to inform me they ran into this wall, so I can only guess the number who had this problem and didn't tell me about it), then I have a workaround for you! You can still help the authors whose work you want to promote, share your opinion, and do it all for free.

Head over to Goodreads, and leave your review there.

Seriously, everyone is welcome over there!
While Amazon's algorithm is seriously powerful, Goodreads is no slouch at getting the word out about your work either. It even has buy links right on the page (as you can see on the page for Crier's Knife), in case someone sees it, thinks it looks good, and wants to pick up a copy. It also shows how many people are currently reading your book, and how many people have marked it to-read, which can be helpful.

This is not an either-or proposition, of course. If you're a reader who really wants to help an author you like reach a bigger audience, then leave reviews in as many locations as you can! But if you find yourself standing on the other side of Amazon's velvet rope because you don't order enough stuff from them to share your opinion, well, you're more than welcome on my Goodreads page!

We Can't Do It Without You!

Authors might be the ones writing the books, but it's the vocal readers who boost our signal that really drive our careers. Remember that, without you, there's no way we could afford to do this sort of thing for a living! Also, if you want to know some more ways you can help the authors you love without spending green to do it, check out 10 Concrete Ways You Can Help Authors You Like!

That's all for this Business of Writing installment. If you're an author, make sure you have a place all your thrifty fans can go so that Amazon doesn't silence their voices (and cost you money).

For more work by yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, and stop by My Amazon Author Page! To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and now on Pinterest where I'm building boards to keep track of both my books and RPG supplements. Lastly, to help support my work, consider Buying Me a Ko-Fi or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

If You Want Your Art To Improve, You Need To Invest In It

How many times have you wished you were better at something? A better writer, a better painter, a better sketch artist, whatever your jam happens to be? If you're like most folks with a creative streak, I'm sure it's a constant wish. You know that you can't just snap your fingers and get more skilled, but who has the time to write? Or draw? We all have lives we're living, and there just isn't always room for our art.

Real talk, here. If you want to improve as a creator, then you're going to need to make room for it. Because if you aren't willing to invest in your art, then you're never going to get any better at it.

Lessons From The Great George Carlin

May he never be forgotten.
If you've paid even the slightest attention to comedy, then you know who George Carlin is. Considered a master of the craft, his cutting insights and caustic wit made him a legend among audiences, and an idol among comedians. What most people forget, though, is that when he started off George wasn't anything special. He was a guy who did goofy voices, had good timing, and was generally amusing. So how did the guy who was sort of funny end up becoming a mythical pop culture figure?

Bad financial decisions, and a lot of pressure, since you ask.

You see, back around the end of the 70s, George was starting to get burned out on comedy. He'd had a good run, and he was thinking about getting into movies instead. It wasn't an uncommon career path, and he figured that a change would do him good, creatively and professionally. However, young George had made some mistakes in spending too much money, and now his future self owed the IRS quite a tidy sum of money in back taxes. With all of the other debts he'd incurred, staying in comedy was just a more reliable way to dig out of the hole.

The results speak for themselves.

As Carlin said himself in later interviews, being forced to stick with comedy likely saved his career. Because not writing new and better jokes wasn't an option. Also, since he had to constantly tour and constantly create in order to stay one step ahead of the bill collectors, he got really damn good at his craft. So much so that most people are shocked to hear that he ever considered hanging it up in the first place.

No One Else Is Going To Put The Gun To Your Head

I said this before in Want To Be A Better Writer? Make A Lot of Pots!, but it bears repeating. If you want to get good at something, then you have to put in the hours and develop your skills. Not only that, but you need to keep that edge honed, because it will go dull if you don't use it.

And if you want to get that razor edge, then you need to spend the time with a whetsone, some oil, and finally a strop to get yourself there. Wishing and sighing ain't gonna do it for you.

I'd start turning, if I were you.
If you want to get better, then you have to prioritize your art. You need to let people in your life know that it's important, and you need to practice every day. Not just when inspiration strikes you, or when you feel like it. Some days you spend twenty minutes with a notebook, others a few hours with your laptop. Which tools you use, and how long you spend may vary; the point is you're doing it. Work on a schedule. Sometimes you won't like the work you do. Sometimes it will be sub par, or just junk that you delete the next day. Sometimes you'll get half of a good story out, and you'll have to fix it in editorial. That's great. All of that is great.

Because the only way you're going to improve is by doing it. And the only way you're going to do it is if you decide to do it. Because not all of us have the luxurious misfortune of an outside entity pointing a gun at our heads and screaming, "Write something good, or else!"

You need to look in the mirror, and do it to yourself.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. Hopefully it helped some folks out there! For more work by yours truly, check out my Vocal archive as well as My Amazon Author Page where you'll find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. You can even catch my new books, RPG supplements, and other articles on my Pinterest now! Lastly, if you want to help support me, please 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, March 6, 2019

In Case You're Wondering, Novels Really Are Easier To Sell

I love reading short stories. I've always enjoyed the art form, and I treated both collections and anthologies as a kind of sampler platter. Which is to say, they were the thing I checked out when I wasn't sure what I liked in a genre, or when I wanted a lot of different flavors by the time I closed the back cover. These books were often how I found new authors, and how I explored new aspects of genres I liked. That was why I started writing short fiction; I figured it would give people a sample of my work so they could decide if they liked it or not.

Then I wrote a novel. And let me tell you, the difference in selling these two very different products is like night and day.

"So this is my fantasy novel-" Great, I'll take two.

People Really Like Novels (While Shorts Remain A Tough Sell)

For folks who haven't been by My Amazon Author Page lately, I've been a part of a lot of short story anthologies over the years. I've also released my own collection of steampunk noir shorts, titled New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam. From fantasy and sci-fi, to horror and romance, short story anthologies have been universally difficult for me to sell. That is not to say that they don't sell, of course, but you really need to have your pitch down perfect to get people to take a bite on a bunch of shorts. And even then, you're more likely to get them to take a card than you are to close a sale.

By contrast, I released a sword and sorcery novel last year titled Crier's Knife. And you know something? It is a lot easier to get people to buy copies of this book than any short story collection with my name in it.

Speaking of, go buy your copy today!
To be clear, I am not selling gangbusters. But in my experience, both online and in-person, novels hook more potential readers (and buyers) than short stories do. Especially because, with an anthology, someone tends to get entire stories with their sample. With a novel you only get a few chapters, which is enough to draw you in, but not enough to satisfy you. When you combine that with the fact that readers seem to enjoy long-form fiction, it's just easier to convince people to check out your book if it tells a single story, and has a bit of heft to it.

I'm not the only author who's noticed this phenomenon. Jason Sanford talked about it on his blog in the post Should Authors Avoid Short Stories if They Desire Literary Success? In this post he brought up something interesting... mainly that we don't consume our fiction the way we used to. Which is to say that in the old days we got our sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. mainly from magazines. They were all over the place, and they were paying big money to fill their pages. So much so that many writers would use short stories to pay their bills while they completed novels, thus making it seem that you should write short stories to build your audience and start stacking checks, and then release a novel to cash in. Then, as novels began to grow more common in new and burgeoning genres, they became the main meat for readers, and short stories became a kind of side dish.

In today's Internet age, magazines are niche publications. While there are lots of digital places where short stories are more than welcome, collections tend to move minimal copies unless the people in them are already famous, and have a following eager to gobble up any new content from them. And while you can do well with novellas (at least according to some metrics), short stories still tend to fall into the bottom of the barrel most of the time when it comes to sales.

There's A Market For Everything

Now, does that mean you can't make money writing short stories? Of course not! You totally can. Writing for open anthology calls can make you semi-regular paychecks, get your name out there, and help you build both your network and your readership. It pads your archive of work, and helps draw more people to you.

However, if you had the option of spending a year putting together a collection of short stories, or a year working on a novel, you're going to get a lot more bang for your buck out of the novel. Whether you're bringing it to readings, trying to move copies at a convention, or just doing online link sharing, a novel will almost always score higher, all other things being equal.

Just something to think about.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing installment. For more work by yours truly, check out my Vocal archive. Also, I'm on Pinterest now, so come take a look at my boards where you'll be able to find all kinds of fun stuff! To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

Lastly, if you want to support me, Buy Me A Ko-Fi, or go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! Every little bit helps, you can trust me on that score!