Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Don't Oversell Your Twist (No One Thinks You're Clever)

Generally speaking, I don't think it's a good policy to bad mouth other writers. We all work ridiculously hard, and just because one person's stories may not be to my taste, that doesn't make them a bad writer. However, I sometimes come across an example that is too perfect not to use to illustrate a point I want to make.

To that end, I'm going to talk about The Border Lords by T. Jefferson Parker.

Does this scream vampires to you?

The Setup and The Oversell

The general setup, in case you didn't pop over to check out the Amazon preview, is that there's a federal sting operation going on in California to try to stop the flow of gang enforcers and a new brand of machine pistol that are coming up from the cartels in Mexico. When an undercover agent goes rogue, and starts dishing out his own brand of high-caliber justice that leaves a wake of cartel bodies in his wake, it's up to his former comrades to track him down, and get to the bottom of what's happening.

Solid hook, I'm down.

Ah, but there's a twist!
Instead of any of that stuff I mentioned, though, the book opens with a priest outside of a cave full of bats in South America. He enters, and extracts a bat for some use that isn't made clear. We then get into the whole story of an agent going rogue and mowing down cartel gunman as he reaches progressively higher levels of insanity. It's revealed that he crossed paths with this unusual priest, and that the priest spent a great deal of time with him. Filled his head full of odd ideas, and even got him to drink a special blend of something that the priest made himself. Not long after this, our undercover operative starts feeling stronger, hearing strange noises, and growing more violent and aggressive. He is repulsed by water and bright light, as well, in case the bat cave was too subtle.

Rather than being treated like a subplot, the whole question of where this agent's enhanced strength, impossible perception, and bizarre sensory sensitivity is coming from becomes one of the main issues of the book; especially when his wife starts displaying similar tendencies and abilities. And the author kept randomly drawing our attention to copies of Dracula being left around the set dressing.

As gimmicks go, it wasn't necessarily a bad one. Was one of our protagonists turning into a vampire, or had he simply contracted rabies? You could get a couple of chapters out of that arc, or more if you played your cards close to the chest. The problem was that the twist was so oversold, and it took so long to resolve, that it became more annoying than intriguing.

Back to Chekov's Gun Again

As I said back in Make Sure Chekov's Gun is Actually Loaded (Trimming The Fat in Your Story), anytime you draw your audience's attention to something, that detail should come back around to be important later. Like how you don't spend a lingering shot on a rifle in act one if you aren't going to take it off the wall and shoot it in act three.

The first major issue with the twist in this book is that it played hard to get for so long that by the time it was revealed you simply didn't care. The back and forth over whether it was science or magic, a disease or a supernatural template, would have been cool if it was either more subtle (descriptions from witnesses who saw him in action claiming the agent was more than human, for instance, instead of constantly putting the audience in his POV), or if it was resolved quickly instead of hemming and hawing for most of the novel. I had it as an audio book, and there was barely a CD left to go by the time it was finally dropped that no, it's just rabies.

Shots fired.
The other issue was that the twist wasn't driven by the cast and their experiences; it was driven by the meta narrative. Chapter upon chapter describing how it was hard for the agent to shower, or to drink water, and the references to vampire novels, and so on and so forth. A mystery isn't really a mystery when you get to watch someone commit the crime in real time from a god's eye view. Rather than letting the reader try to put the pieces together by judging from the aftermath, working alongside the investigators as they watched security camera footage, showed up at hotel rooms, and tried to track down their operative's movements, the reader was just told what was happening, but not why it was happening.

In short, rather than letting the tension build, and slowly giving out information so the audience could follow along at a steady pace, the author just pulled back the curtain and asked us practically from chapter one, "Is this man a vampire, or simply mad? You decide!"

If it had been a minor subplot, or something that had been resolved quickly, that would have been a neat little twist. Drawn out for the length of the book, with what felt like at least a third of the total text dedicated to it, the whole science-or-magic thing eclipsed and spoiled the rest of the plot, which was supposed to be about gun runners and gang lords across the Mexico border.

The best way to describe this twist is to imagine it as garlic powder. A pinch of it would have added a nice little zing to the story I was otherwise enjoying. As it was, a third of the meal was just garlic seasoning. And that's enough to kill any vampire book quite dead.

Quick and Fast, or Long and Slow

Twists and subplots are the seasoning of your story. They add much needed flavor, and enhance the experience. However, seasonings cannot stand on their own. So make sure that your story is solid and meaty without them, and that you either add the spices slowly over a long period of time to draw out the flavor, or that you get a quick, sharp tang before you get back to the rest of your meal. Because people aren't here just to eat the spices; they're here for your actual plot, and the characters who are part of it.

It takes practice, but this is definitely something I would recommend all writers do. Because we so often get caught up in our own brilliant plot strings that we don't notice when things have turned into one, big, useless tangle.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Sell Your Book in Unexpected Places (You Might Be Surprised at The Results)

We all know that when you write a book, the actual keyboard clacking is only half the job. Once you finally manage to dot every "i" and cross every "t" you still have to go out and sell the damn thing! For some authors, it's easy. They set up a few signings, go to a few conventions, and boom, their loyal fan following starts turning the wheels to make sure everyone knows their latest work is hot off the presses.

For the rest of us, though, we have to climb up on our soap boxes day after day, and hope to fish enough eager listeners out of the crowd to turn a profit.

Sir, have you read this book? It will change your life!
A lot of authors, though, only limit themselves to the places where the competition is fiercest. Book stores, conventions, and social media. And while you certainly shouldn't stop going to those places to hawk your wares, it is a good idea to ask what other places you might be overlooking where you could find a fresh audience who hasn't bought a single copy of your work just yet.

Farmer's Markets and Garage Sales, Anyone?

The next time you're out and about, really take a look at the events in your local town. Ask yourself what draws big crowds, and once you know, ask how you can get in on those events.

Annual book sales are a great place to start!
Some things are pretty obvious. For example, does your library host a big book sale event every year? Stop in and ask if they'd allow you to set up shop and be the friendly local author meet-and-greet! This is a particularly useful strategy if you've got several books under your belt, but you don't have enough local name recognition to draw your own audience.

This is just the most obvious place you should check. Some others you might want to consider are:

- Farmer's Markets: While most people are there to buy produce, that just means you have even less competition from other authors. And since at least some people there will be bored and curious, that's your chance!

- Garage Sales: You can technically have a garage sale anytime, but lots of places have community-wide garage sales. That's when all the bargain hunters come out in force, so make yourself visible and try to offload some books while you're at it!

- Fairs and Carnivals: The county fair might be a little big (or not, depending on what you're willing to get involved in), but there's probably some sort of local show you could slide right into. I live in Valparaiso, Indiana, for example, and we have Popcorn Fest every year round the town square. Hundreds of locals just wandering around eating popcorn just looking for a book to read!

- School Events: You probably have a college or a high school in your area. Reach out to them and see if they have any events you could get in on. A college might be interested in having you give a talk about the industry, and a high school might have a creative writing club you could speak to. They might be smaller events, but a write-up in the school paper can go a surprisingly long way.

- Open Mic Night: To be clear, we're not talking about karaoke here. If you've got a local cafe or coffee shop that hosts poets, singers, and others, then feel free to take the stage. It might not have the same effect as some of the other suggestions, but it does make you the center of attention long enough to plant a hook in the audience. A talk with the owner or manager might even let you make an event of it, complete with signing table!

All The World's A Stage

I said this back in Sell More Books (By Always Being Ready to Sell More Books), but the sentiment is still the same. Every venue has the possibility to be turned into a place to move your books... you just need to look around, and see what options you have.

You might be surprised at the amount of attention you receive when people find an honest-to-goodness local writer in their midst unexpectedly. Play it up... it helps with the sales.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you enjoyed it, though, you might want to go check out 10 Things You Can Do To Sell More Books. Or, if you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Don't Define Your Book By What It ISN'T!

Your story needs to have an identity of its own if you want it to stand out. Whether that identity is, "A gritty, back-street noir tale, but all the characters are animals in New York City," or, "A pulp adventure through the wilderness as a lone man seeks to rescue his wayward kin," your book needs to be something you can clearly define before you can get someone interested in it.

Well, it's a fantasy story... but not THAT kind of fantasy... it's like... uh...
One problem that a lot of writers run into is that they try to define themselves by what they are not. It doesn't work for politicians, and it doesn't work in sales. So before you write one more word, sit down, and ask yourself what your story's identity is, rather than just making a list of stuff that it isn't.

By the by, my two examples were my story "Stray Cat Strut" in the collection From A Cat's View, and my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife respectively. Go check them out!

Focus on What You're Actually Giving Your Readers

Have you ever heard what I call the Nice Guy Refrain? You probably have, even if you've never heard it called that before. Generally speaking, it's when single guys complain that a girl (or just girls in general) doesn't want to date them, and then they list off a bunch of negative qualities they don't have, as if that should make them more desirable. For some reason.

I don't do drugs. I don't catcall or get physical. I don't, I don't, I don't...

You never shut up, is what you don't do, Kevin.
The problem with this, as you've no doubt noticed, is that the Nice Guy Refrain doesn't include positive aspects of the person. Never do you hear about how they're a dedicated guitarist, or how they have an active Twitch feed where they paint portraits, or how they have a side hustle where they fix cars for family members who can't afford to go to a garage. Because as soon as you mention those things, the Nice Guy Refrain stops, and we can look at what they do instead of what they don't do. 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person over on Cracked really puts this in perspective, and I highly recommend reading it.

The same sort of logic applies to your book.

Telling someone your book, "Isn't like Tolkien," or that it's, "Not a cozy murder mystery," doesn't actually do you or your potential readers any good. Not being something doesn't help give your story form or shape. And thinking of it in terms of what it isn't, or what it doesn't do, can often leave you with a story that can't stand on its own two feet.

So, instead, ask what your story is. Define it by the things you consider positive qualities, rather than the negative qualities you feel it lacks. Is your story a sweeping epic, or a claustrophobic journey into the human psyche? Is it monstrous, sad, brutal, or intricate? What does it offer the reader, and why should they pick it up?

Because not being a different book tells us nothing about what you've actually written, and you need a hook if you want to haul readers into your boat.

That's all for this installment of the Craft of Writing. Hopefully it gave all of you readers and writers out there something to think about! For more of my work check out my Vocal archive, or head over to My Amazon Author Page to get a full list of my books.

To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and now on Pinterest as well! To support me, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patron page to become a regular, monthly patron. Even a little donation can make a big difference!

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Want More Eyes on Your Book? Try Guest Posting!

If you're a regular reader here on The Literary Mercenary, then I'd like to inform you you're a member of a rather exclusive club. Which is my way of saying that I don't get anywhere near as much traffic on this blog as I'd like. Even so, just last week I got an email from the folks over at NFReads. They'd come across my blog, saw me talk about my novel Crier's Knife, and they invited me to write a guest post on their platform promoting it.

Which I did, and you can check out the article Pulp Fantasy: The Land We All Forgot if you're interested.

And that's our segue into today's topic...
For folks not in the know, writing an article like that for someone else's platform is called guest posting, and it is often the cornerstone of making sure you get a lot of eyes on your book, blog, or other writing project.

How Does Guest Posting Work?

Guest posting is, at its core, pretty simple. You find a website (or in a truly fortunate case, a website finds you), and you write a post for them. The post needs to fit with the site's themes and subject matter, but that post should also mention who you are, provide a link back to your site, and ensure that folks who read said post find out about you, and what you do.

But why would you post on someone ELSE'S page instead of your own?
There are a lot of reasons you should invest in guest posting, but the biggest ones are that they give you bonuses in the numbers game that is selling books. For example, when a search engine indexes your blog, or even your book's sales page, it examines how many reputable websites have links back to it. These off-page links are important in boosting your visibility, and the bigger or more important the site your guest blog appears on, the more heavily weighted the links on that page are going to be.

It's the same reason I mentioned my book as well as My Amazon Author Page when I wrote the post 3 Reasons "Bloat" is a Made-Up Problem for the RPG website High Level Games. Because the more reputable websites I have pointing back to my books and my blogs, the more likely I am to turn up on the first page of related search results.

In addition to jacking up your numbers, though, guest posts also allow you to tap into that other website's audience. For example, John Hartness is a writer and publisher who gets way more traffic than I do, even on my best days. So when he asked me to write a guest post to help boost the signal for the anthology The Big Bad II (a super fun collection where the bad guys are the protagonists), I wrote up the post Evolution of Evil to talk about the themes I was getting at with my modern fantasy story Little Gods.

While my post wasn't a viral sensation, it put my name and my story in front of a lot of people. Far more than the number of folks who would have found out about it if I'd put that same post here on my own blog. And while a lot of folks probably skimmed right past my information, even if they read the post itself, some folks may have clicked on my information. That would have brought them straight to my site, and given me a chance to suck them more permanently into my orbit.

Is that all it does?
Those are the two, major benefits of guest posting. However, providing guest posts can also endear you to the person(s) who run the website you're providing the content for, it can establish you as an expert in your field, and just generally make your name a lot more visible. If you're the sort of reader who prefers itemized lists, then 8 Reasons Why Guest Posting is an Advantage by Branding Personality lays it all out by the numbers.

Keep Your ROI in Mind

When I started this blog, one of my first posts was Professional Rule Number One: Never Work For Free. And I stand by the points I made in that post; if you are taking the time and effort to create something, then you need to be sure you're getting a return on the effort you're putting into that project.

Where my dividends at?
The thing I cautioned about then, and which I'd like to remind folks about now, is that returns can take a number of different forms. In their most basic form, it's you getting paid in some fashion. Maybe the individual agrees to pay you a fee, or to do a profit-share model with all the traffic your post produces. On the other hand, the site you're posting on might be so prestigious that the sheer amount of run-off traffic your post generates is worthwhile in and of itself. Alternatively, you might be writing your guest post as a kind of quid-pro-quo to improve (or even establish) your professional relationship with the site owner.

All of these are potential returns. Some of them might be in your hand as soon as the article goes up, others will take time to start paying dividends. But it's important to remember that just because something doesn't have a dollar sign attached to it, that doesn't mean you're working for nothing. Just take a minute to evaluate, and to see what benefits you get from this endeavor to make sure it's worth your while.

That's all for this Business of Writing installment. Hopefully it gives folks out there something to chew over! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, and make sure to stop by My Amazon Author Page.

To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and even Pinterest! To help support me directly, consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or going to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a monthly patron. Even a little bit can go a long way!