Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Break Up Your Soap Box (By Promoting Fellow Authors' Work)

If you've wandered out into the wastes of the social media wilderness, then you already know exactly how tough it can be to actually sell your books. It's as if the moment someone realizes you're talking about your own work, they turn their eyes away and keep on scrolling. What's worse, though, is when moderators get on your case for promoting your own work too much (especially when the definition of "too much" can vary wildly, depending on which group you happen to be in).

Hey, you promoted your blog last month! Banned!
If you've been looking for a way to diversify your posts, endear yourself to your fellow authors, and keep your income going steady, then I have a piece of advice for you. Are you listening? Good, because this is a success secret that can help you out quite a lot.

Every time you promote your own work, make sure you promote someone else's work after it to break up the flow.

Everyone Loves a Team Player

I did this a while back over on my other blog with the post 5 Phenomenal Authors Whose Work You Should Check Out, and every time someone on my friends' list puts out a new book I try to spread the links around in some of my usual groups, subreddits, and feeds.

Speaking of which, if you haven't checked out either The Nine or The Fall by Tracy Townsend, you are doing yourself a disservice. Alchemy, mystery, and all the intrigue you could ask for awaits!

What are you waiting for? Go get one!
Part of the reason I do this is because authors are a small community, and we need to help each other out. Part of it is because I don't want me feeds to get overly predictable or stagnant, so I try to diversify what I link and the offerings I make. And part of it is because whether someone buys a copy of one of my books, or another author's book entirely, at the end of the day I still make money from it.

More on how that works in If You're An Author, You Really Need an Affiliate Marketing Account, for those who are wondering how to make money by selling someone else's books.

One of the major reasons that self-promotion gets shouted down or ignored on social media is that people see it as an invasion of their community. They're all here to talk about the latest sci-fi and fantasy books, but here you are looking to profit off their love of the genre. Even if the book you're offering is great, and members of this group would genuinely enjoy it, they turn a blind eye to you because you're viewed as an outsider just trying to make a buck off of them.

If you diversify your feed, though, you'll notice this problem starts to go away.

When stuff isn't linked directly to you, people see your posts as expressing a genuine love and recommendation for a thing. And if you attach a conversation starter to the link you're sharing, well, that has the potential to get all sorts of people interested in what you're talking about. And the more comments you leave to keep the conversation going, the more the community (moderators and fellow members alike) see it as you joining in the conversation. Even if your motives are really to help boost someone else's signal.

Then, when it's time to talk about something you've been working on, you're likely to get a lot more positive interaction with the community. Even if all you've been doing is drawing attention to stuff you're hoping to sell copies of, this technique still works as long as your name isn't actually on those other books you're low-key hawking.

Also, make sure you check out Use Text Posts and Comments To Avoid Getting Your Self-Promotion Labeled as Spam if you're looking for additional tips.

Whose Signal Are You Going to Boost?

The other lovely thing is that authors pay attention to people who boost their signals. Even if it's just someone you know casually, or whose acquaintance you made at a con one time, they'll take notice if you cause a traffic spike for them. That can earn you a lot of friends in a hurry, which can come in handy if you need folks to help you get the word out about a new project.

Speaking of which, leave a comment if you boost my signal on Crier's Knife!

My thanks in advance!
It's a triple-win strategy. Group moderators are happy that you're contributing to the overall discussion, you'll earn some goodwill from fellow group members, and other authors will feel you've done them a solid. And, best of all, you can keep your traffic going day in and day out, without worrying about whether you're flying too close to the sun.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! 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 FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Uncomfortable Sexism in Robert Jordan's Work

When most people think of Robert Jordan, they think of his Wheel of Time series. While I read the first ten books of that series (I drew the line at a character whinging for a third of an entire novel about how his wife had been kidnapped by a relatively small number of desert warriors, rather than sending a messenger to the demigod that was his childhood friend and summoning every wolf on the continent to go get her back), my first exposure to Robert Jordan as an author was actually his contribution to the Conan mythos.

This was the book, in case you were wondering.
I found The Conan Chronicles at my local library when I was in 7th or 8th grade, and when I was done chewing through that volume I grabbed the sequel, The Further Chronicles of Conan. Each of these tomes had several novels in them, all of them penned by Robert Jordan. From slaying bandits and outwitting sorcerers, to toppling thrones and splitting skulls, these books hit all the high points I was looking for as someone who was already a fan of the character, and who had read several of the classic pulp stories by other authors. I even remember thinking at the time that Jordan's stories managed to deal much more even-handedly on the very problematic depictions of race that was endemic to the era when Conan first raged onto the pulp fiction scene.

However, the me who had such a fondness for those books was a teenager who wasn't old enough to drive yet. I recently found a copy of The Further Chronicles of Conan at a convention, and out of nostalgia bought it. The more I re-read those old tales, the more I realized something... as a writer, Jordan's depictions of female characters is really problematic.

And, since I have you here, I figured I'd do an autopsy on it so we can see what we can learn.

Welcome to the Party (Better Late Than Never)

I'm aware that I'm far from the first person to have this revelation about Jordan's works. In fact, one could argue that a basic reading of the gendered magic system in the Wheel of Time setting should have been the first gigantic red flag. However, I'm willing to go a step further on this.

I often found Jordan's depictions of female characters more sexist than Robert E. Howard's were.

Damn bold thing of you to say.
Now, to be clear, Howard is still extremely problematic when it comes to many of his female characters, especially those who exist in stories alongside his most famous barbarian. His stories are replete with heaving bosoms, great sighs, and women being slaughtered for no reason other than to drive Conan into a killing frenzy. The body of work's got bugs. However, Howard's female characters often have drives, goals, motivations, and at the very least gave their consent before being ravished by the titular Cimmerian.

I can't say the same for Jordan's stories.

Jordan makes a big deal in practically every one of the six novels in those two collections that Conan will never take a woman against her will. That's spelled out to the audience repeatedly in the text in his own dialogue or inner thoughts... but immediately following that sentence we have our hulking protagonist crushing some woman to his obscenely muscled chest, and kissing her as she tries to push him away, or strike at his head.

This phrase, I do not think it means what you think it means.

That's bad enough, however, Jordan's works also take the "traditional" fantasy outfits worn by many female characters (that is to say fetishized fantasy gear for the male gaze that sold magazines back in the day), and cranked it up to 11. Howard's stories often had the serving women in diaphanous garments, or made it a point to mention the temple's maids wore revealing robes, but Jordan's stories repeatedly draw the reader's gaze back to it. Not only that, but it goes into greater, and at times almost obscene details about how tight a certain noblewoman's breeches are, or about how a certain robe clings to a character's body. Points for absurdity goes to the character of Karela the Red Hawk for dressing in what amounts to a literal chainmail bikini, while supposedly being one of the deadliest and most feared bandit leaders in this part of Turan.

Speaking of The Red Hawk...

While absurd and overly sexualized, Karela as a character (since she recurs in more than half the novels in these collections) is also ground zero for another of Jordan's bizarre habits when it comes to female characters. In short, they get instantly (and occasionally violently) wishy-washy as soon as they're in the presence of a man.

You're already thinking of character names, aren't you?
The most obvious example in his own series was the character of Nynaeve, and how whenever she was in the presence of the dark-haired warrior Lan she was immediately torn between being a strong independent woman who don't need no man, and wanting to simper and pout at him to get his attention. We also see it with the character of Min, who is a street-running, knife-throwing punk rock tomboy, but as soon as she's in a dress near a boy she likes starts arguing with herself about whether or not she should be more feminine to catch his eye.

And so on, and so forth.

It's also one of the defining features of the character of Karela, the Red Hawk. For those who haven't come across these books, The Red Hawk is the most feared bandit leader in all of Turan. There's a huge purse of gold on her head, and her men are brutal, savage, and they follow her like a pack of dogs. Also, since this is a Conan story, she is of course a beautiful red-headed woman in literal boob plate (held in place by fine chains constantly strained to their limits by the fullness of her chest, Jordan points out several times). That's par for the course in the Hyborean setting. However, as soon as Karela is manhandled by Conan (grabbed and kissed against her will as she tries to stab him which then, somehow, turns into passionate sex in a gorge) she instantly becomes two different characters. One is the hard-edged, in-control, Powerful Woman... and the other is a moony-eyed wench who just wants to let go of who she is, and submit herself entirely to this Powerful Man.

This is not a momentary crisis of character; this is Karela's constant state over multiple books. The same state of attempting to be sexless and aggressive (while often still being beautiful to observers), versus being completely submissive to the will of a strong man that so many of Jordan's female characters struggle with.

Now, let's contrast Karela with another character from one of Howard's later short stories; the pirate captain Belit.

Appearing in the short story Queen of The Black Coast back in 1934, Belit is described as a beautiful, northern blonde dressed in the loose, flowing garments of a Black Coast pirate. Her crew attacks a ship Conan is a passenger on, and he kills many of the pirates rather than surrender. Conan is about to die when Belit demands her crew stop. She struts right up to him, looks him up and down, and the two of them instantly recognize the savage and barbaric instincts in the other. More importantly, Belit demands, in words, that Conan come to her, take her as his queen and lover, and the two of them will make the Black Coast tremble at their feet.

While that's a little melodramatic, and more than a little camp, at no point in time does Belit put up resistance that Conan (or any other strong male character) needs to overcome through force. She says what she wants, and becoming Conan's lover doesn't change her essential nature in any meaningful way. She is still fierce, proud, dangerous, and one night she grabs Conan by the back of his neck, looks him right in his blue, northern eyes, and tells him in no uncertain terms that if she were dead and he still fighting that hell itself would not keep her from his side.

If that sounds familiar to the speech given in the film Conan the Barbarian, that's because it was essentially lifted from this short story.

Belit is far from the only lover Conan has throughout Howard's works, and they've come in all shapes, sizes, and nationalities. From blushing maids who asked him to be their first, to jaded mercenaries, to witch women with uncertain motives, but these characters were all unique in their own way. More importantly, none of them suddenly had a crisis of self when they admit they are attracted to Conan, or when they go further and are intimate with him. There were plenty of other problems in the text (especially when they came from non-Caucasian ethnicities), but this specific pitfall was one the older stories managed to avoid.

Hot Take: Make Your Characters Individuals With Agency

I've been turning this over in my head for months trying to figure out what lesson I would suggest other writers take away from this. In comparing and contrasting the two sources, my advice to anyone is to make your characters individuals, who have their own wants, goals, and agency. Because while their relationships with other characters should be important, even intimate relationships shouldn't completely define who an individual character is. And if a night of rough sex had after questionable consent turns someone into an obsessive, violent stalker, that shouldn't be written of as, "Women, am I right?"

Also, since this might still need to be said, if you want your audience to know your protagonist respects people's consent, have them use their words. If you don't, it's sort of sending the exact opposite message you're trying for.

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, June 13, 2019

Attention Authors: You're Not Going To Run Out of Readers

There is a worrying thought that niggles in the mind of every author when they look at their sales charts. It buzzes like a fly you can't quite shoo away, whispering in your ear with the certainty of an anxiety-driven fever dream that it's over. Every book has a shelf life, and yours has spoiled. No one else is going to read it, so it's time to put something new out, or to lay down and die. There's only so many readers out there, after all, and you had your shot.

Guess I'll just bury my career, then.
Before you believe this voice too wholeheartedly, there's something I'd like to remind you of. Something that I've found can act as the garlic to this particular thought vampire; there are new readers coming into your genre every day. So in reality, there is a steady stream of readers out there that don't even know they have a date with your book... you just have to find them, and set them up.

A Potentially Infinite Spread

Think of the biggest bestseller you can. Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone, maybe? Perhaps Stephen King's classic horror It? Or maybe the spy thriller Casino Royale, for the Bond fans out there? These books are all bestsellers, and they've all been read by millions of people across multiple generations. But there are people out there right now who are active readers that have never picked up copies of these books.

So even when you're at the top of a genre, and considered a must-read classic, you're still not out of readers to pitch yourself to.

Speaking of pitches, go get your copy of Crier's Knife!
Even if you reached bestseller status, and you sold one copy of your book to everyone who is currently a fan of your genre as of this moment, there will be more of them tomorrow. New people who just discovered a love of science fiction, old fans who've come back to horror after a long hiatus, or even young readers who are finally deemed mature enough by their parents to be given a copy of your book. You may even have those irregular readers who finally decide to listen to a friend's recommendation, and take a crack at your story.

There are more people out there right now in need of a good read than you could ever reach. Even if you're working in a very niche genre like bigfoot erotica or tabletop RPG guides, there is an ever-growing (and not always obvious) audience ready and willing to snatch up your work.

The Problem Is Reaching Them

With that said, it is entirely possible to reach everyone in a particular venue when it comes to your group. Whether it's a local convention, a regular community yard sale, or the annual library showcase, it's entirely possible that everyone in a limited area has seen or heard of you, and that you've made all the sales you will in that specific venue.

That's why it's so important to spread out, and cover more ground whenever you possibly can.

Pleasure to be here at open mic night! Now, an intro to my novel...
I talked about this in the post Sell Your Book in Unexpected Places (You Might Be Surprised at The Results), but it really can't be driven home hard enough. It is really hard to make your voice heard, and to get people to notice you. The upside is that means you have so many potential venues to move copies of your book that you'll never run out! From Facebook and social media, to your blogs and articles, to local events, to regional conventions, there are so many options out there it will make your head spin!

And each one of them will allow you to reach out to a new group of people who otherwise might never have come across your book. People who've never heard your sales pitch, and who might be starting a life-long love affair with your work.

Having an established audience is good, and a venue where you're well-known is great, but you can never reach too many new readers. Which is why it's important to make sure you go to as many new, unique, and robust venues as you can to find your readers in their natural environment!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! 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 FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Use Occam's Razor to Trim Your Story's Fat

"All other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one."

If you've ever taken a course in philosophy, you've probably heard this quote (or one similar to it) before. Attributed to the Franciscan friar William of Ockham, the quote is typically referred to as Occam's (or sometimes Ockham's) Razor.

Friars, man. They're all about simplicity.
The quote was originally intended as a way to focus one's scientific mind. Because while it might be technically possible that unseen alien beings from the rings of Jupiter secretly broke into your car and turned the volume all the way up when you weren't looking, it's much more likely that your perception of the noise level is different now that you've been away from the vehicle and your ears have readjusted so it just seems louder when you get back in your car. In short, the simplest explanation for the facts you have before you is probably the correct answer regarding what happened.

My recommendation for the writers out there is to keep this premise in mind, both in its literal sense, as well as in a more thematic one.

The Literal Sense

One of the most irritating things a lot of authors do is what I refer to as the Scooby-Doo method of keeping the audience in suspense. In case you've never seen the show, it's about a gang of kids and their talking dog who solve mysteries, and at the end of every episode it turns out the bizarre phantom, ghostly clown, or looming specter was actually just some old white dude trying to run a real estate scam the whole time.

And I would have gotten away with it, too...
If you watch the classic show, though, you'll notice something. The investigators can always identify the culprit once they're unmasked, but nine times out of ten it's a character who didn't appear in the episode, who was never mentioned, and about whom we have been given no information as a member of the audience. As such, there was literally no way for use to figure out the mystery along with our main characters as they set up traps and tried to tie down the supernatural fraud of the week.

In order for your audience to draw the proper conclusions, you need to give them all the evidence so they can start putting the puzzle pieces together. Not only that, but you need to provide those clues in the proper light in order to be sure the audience draws the right conclusions.

As an example, if a character has been arrested, and you want the audience to be unsure of their guilt (or even sure that the character wasn't guilty), then you need to provide something that allows Occam's Razor to lead your readers in the right direction. If someone was killed under a bridge at midnight, and we know for a fact Stefanie was on the other side of town fighting a werewolf when that happened, we also know that she could not, then, have been the killer.

You don't have to be that obvious, but you need to give your readers something to work with to lead them down the correct path of reasoning. Otherwise they're going to feel like you kept all the important information to yourself until the last minute, revealing it only once they'd gone through the rigmarole of reading everything else.

Remember, all of the evidence to solve one of Sherlock Holmes's mysteries is often there in the story, if you can put the pieces together. That's what makes them so compelling, and why readers slap their foreheads when the obvious confronts them.

The Thematic Sense

The core of the friar's philosophy was that simplicity leads to clarity. This is true both when it comes to style, as well as when it comes to subject matter. "Easy reading is damned hard writing," as the saying goes, but clarity of language is your friend when it comes to the stories you're telling. Ugly and serviceable will beat beautiful but confusing every, single time.

However, the other thing to keep in mind is simplicity of story. Now I don't meant that you shouldn't have twists, turns, character arcs, subplots, etc., but as I said back in The K.I.S.S. Method (Keep It Simple, Stupid), you need to draw as many straight lines as you can, even if those straight lines are behind the scenes.

Got an example?
My go-to example for complicated simplicity is The Maltese Falcon. In its broadest possible strokes, Sam Spade is a private detective who gets caught up in a group of thieves all fighting over the loot from their last heist; a valuable bird made of gold and embossed with jewels. While Sam has to pick apart the webs of deceit, and get the facts out of everyone, the story is easy to follow. Each time a new character is revealed, and they provide us another piece of the puzzle, we can slot it into place and get a look at the broader picture as it reveals itself.

While the story as a whole seems convoluted, the actions taken by each individual character make sense. It avoids turning into an overly complicated Rube Goldberg device that strains credulity, and which can make your audience go, "Wait, how did he know doing that would work?"

A perfect example of what I'm talking about there is the Joker's escape in The Dark Knight. It's visually interesting, and a blast to watch, but it falls apart when you try to imagine the sheer amount of planning and foreknowledge it would have taken to actually work. He had no way of knowing his henchman would survive, much less than he'd be brought to the same location he was in so the bomb could act as an escape device, etc. On the other hand, the setup in the film Law Abiding Citizen provides us logical, straightforward explanations for how our supposedly imprisoned mastermind could pull off these impossible acts of revenge. That doesn't make it a better film, but the nuts and bolts hold together much more strongly.

It's one thing to seem confusing. It's another thing entirely to be confusing, once you've pulled back the curtain and revealed your design.

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!