Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Red Right Hand (My Favorite Trope)

A lot of authors will tell you that all tropes are bad, and you should do your damnedest to scrape them out of every line of your manuscript. And while there are a lot of tropes that just aren't going to fly in today's literature (Mighty Whitey is one that comes to mind), there are a lot of them that are perfectly functional building blocks. And sure, the bricks might be recognizable, but it's what you actually do with them that determines whether your story is an artistic triumph, or a tumbledown structure ready to keel over in the first strong breeze.

With that said, I'd like to talk about one of my favorite tropes that I will probably never stop using in my own work... the Red Right Hand.

What Is a Red Right Hand?

The phrase Red Right Hand is generally traced back to Milton's infamous work Paradise Lost, where it refers to the vengeance of god. As the phrase has grown in popularity, it's generally come to refer to physical manifestations of a character's monstrous nature.

Note that the phrase is monstrous, and not villainous... not inherently, anyway. Because while there are plenty of Red Right Hand characters who are villains (Dr. Doom, the Phantom of The Opera, Blofeld, Two-Face, and the list goes on) there are heroic characters with this trait as well. The most obvious is Hellboy (given that the Right Hand of Doom is a literal red right hand), but he has some company on the roster. This trope is most commonly seen in folklore, where creatures who try to hide themselves using shapeshifting and glamours will always have some kind of tell. African myths of vampires who never smile to hide their metal teeth, or Japanese legends of kitsune whose heterochromia, fox tails, or unusual feet would give them away, etc. There's even the South American myths of the pink dolphins who change into men, always wearing white clothes and a white hat to hide their blowholes.

This trope's been around a long time, is what I'm saying.

Why I Love It

What appeals to me so much about the Red Right Hand is that it gives your audience a clue that something isn't right... and the more subtle you make it, the more fun it can be to look for.

Since you ask, I do have an example...
In my short story "The Price of Admission" in Noir Carnival, we're introduced to a harried young man who appears to be on death's door. He's desperately searching for the Crone's Carnival, and he needs something that lurks inside. He seems normal enough, until an overeager palm reader takes him by the wrist. He has a double set of palm lines, with one set far deeper than the other, and a lifeline that doesn't end. We also learn in that moment that even those in a place as secluded as the Carnival have heard of the Gemini, and they want no part of the dark road he's walking.

Since short stories only have so many words to make their point, readers quickly find out just what the Gemini is, and why he's come to the Carnival, but that one revelation gets the brain churning. What does it mean that his palm lines are so strange? Why are they so deep? Why do they call him the Gemini, like it's a title instead of a name?

This is the major advantage of the Red Right Hand as a trope. Whether you're using it for heroes or villains, anti-heroes, supporting cast, or anyone in between, it immediately engages the reader and has them wondering why. Why does the Phantom wear a mask? Why does a warlock having a single blue eye make people afraid of him? Why is that handsome man in the business suit always wearing one leather glove on his right hand?

It's a cheap way to immediately hook your audience, sure, but it gets the job done. Provided, of course, that you don't overuse it in any particular story. The Red Right Hand loses its potency if you're sprinkling it around all that often... make it special, and it will maintain its power to intrigue while keeping your reader turning the pages.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

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!

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Avoid Falling Victim To The Toolbox Fallacy

How many times have you sat there, as a writer, and thought that if only you had that one thing you could really get cracking on your book? What was that thing? A special notebook so you could do your plot outlining properly? A new computer so you could write the story? That shiny piece of software so you can get the formats right, or design your own cover image?

If that's the case, chances are you've fallen victim to the Toolbox Fallacy.

What Is The Toolbox Fallacy?

In case you skipped the above video (which you shouldn't, it's quite good), the idea behind the Toolbox Fallacy is that most of us believe that we can't start our projects until we have some nebulous item in our toolkit. You can't get in shape till you have a gym membership, you can't make videos until you get a shiny camera, you can't write your script until you can afford that kicking software suite, and so on, and so forth.

Having a hammer matters... but it's not what makes you a carpenter.
What makes this fallacy such a problem is that, sometimes, you do need a certain tool to do a job. Can't cook without a heat source, you can't draw without paper, and so on, and so forth. However, as Passion of The Nerd points out, it isn't enough to simply have the tools. Or, as he puts it, owning a hammer doesn't make you a carpenter... using the tools is what lets you make things. And sometimes we prevent ourselves from creating, even when we have the tools. Or we blame the fact that we're not creating on the fact that we don't have the ideal tools... even if we do have access to tools that would let us get the job done.

You don't have to sell a lot of books to be an author. You don't have to have a fat publishing contract, and movie studios competing over your book to claim that title. You certainly don't need a top-of-the-line laptop that gleams on your corner table down at the coffee shop. To be an author, or even a writer, all you have to do is write. To produce. To turn your work from a noun into a verb. It's that element, actually doing the thing you talk about, that a lot of folks simply don't do. Maybe it's performance anxiety, maybe it's fear of failure, maybe it's that deep down people don't actually want to change their habits, and make room for another tough thing to accomplish. Whatever the reason, you have to do, otherwise you're just twiddling your thumbs and waiting for a starting gun that's never going to sound..

And as Cracked pointed out in 5 Ways You're Sabotaging Your Own Life (Without Knowing It), the key element is a true desire to do the thing. Because if you want to do something, if you need to do it, you will find a way. You won't need to wait until you can get the funds together for a new laptop; you'll start writing your story longhand with the intention of typing it up later. If you have a computer, you don't need a top-of-the-line software suite to make videos, because you can download free video editing software, and use the camera and mic that come with your computer (or even with your phone, if you want to).

There is nothing standing in your way of creating, except your mind, and the belief that you can't do it until the stars are properly aligned. But while it's nice to have the top-of-the-line tools, the most important things to have is a desire to create, the skills and creativity to shape your project, and the bare essentials to get the job done.

Anything more than that is nice, but not necessary to get the job done.

You Can Do It... Right Now

Think about the project you were going to take on. You know what it is. You've gone over the details, the layout, and every step of your plan. Ask what you want to have to get it done. Now ask if you really need any of that, or if you could instead start that project with just what you have on-hand, right now. If you really wanted to.

I'd lay you a wager that, for every writer out there reading this, you could start that book, that short story, that script, right now. So go do it. Trust me, you'll feel better when you're not making yourself wait any longer.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

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, October 16, 2019

The Tiffany Problem (When People Think They Know History, But Don't)

The figure in blackened armor rode through the muck of the street, light rain beading on his helm like sweat. His horse snorted, blowing steam from its nostrils. The wind snapped the pennant on the rider's lance, showing the colors of his house; a red dragon rampant on a field of black. One of the Drakes, then, no doubt looking to cause trouble as the "noble" lords so often were.

"You there," the figure called, pointing at a butcher standing beneath the awning over his door. "I seek the Lady Tiffany Valis. Where shall I find her?"

And be quick! She and I have business to discuss.
For those who snickered or rolled their eyes at the intro, it's there to make a point. Because, though most folks don't know it, the name Tiffany was actually in common use as far back as the 12th century. It was short for Theophania, in case you wondered. We associate it with modern culture and wealth thanks to its repopularization in the 1960s, and it's significantly more common usage in the 1980s and 1990s, but it's an old damn name.

The problem is that most of your readers won't know that, and there's a name for this weird phenomenon: The Tiffany Problem.

Most People Actually Know Dick About History

According to MamaMia, this term was coined by author Jo Walton. To paraphrase her explanation, it's about the tension between actual, historical facts and people's common perception of what history was like. Or, put another way, the facts of what happened in history versus someone's beliefs about what history was like.

And this rabbit hole gets WEIRD!
If you're looking for a few examples, don't worry, I've got you covered. One of my personal favorites, detailed in 6 Ridiculous Myths About The Middle Ages Everyone Believes is that medieval people were not, in fact, filthy. Washing your hands before and after a meal was customary, and communal bathing was a daily occurrence for many workmen (a tradition carried on from the Romans). It was such a common practice that soap manufacture and sale was on an almost industrialized scale by the 13th century in Europe.

There was supposed to be a scene in the film Gladiator where our protagonist became the celebrity face of a brand of olive oil, according to 5 True Stories Cut From Movies For Being Too Realistic. And in case the title of that article didn't give it away, that was totally a thing that famous gladiators did in ancient Rome. There were even billboards advertising their products, and some of them had frigging action figures! And as I pointed out in the post Introduce Some "Period" Technology In Your Game over on my sister blog Improved Initiative, there are dozens of other things we assume belong solely in the modern day that have been around for centuries.

As a quick for instance; Ancient Rome had shopping malls, complete with food courts. The Persian Empire engineered air conditioning and cold houses where they could store chilled food and ice in the middle of the desert. Over 2000 years ago Hero of Alexandria invented a vending machine that dispensed holy water when you put a coin into a slot. The Vikings had arrest warrants, child support, and welfare systems.

History is a weird damn place, folks.

Embrace The Bizarre Facts (It Makes Your Work Stand Out)

On the one hand, it's entirely possible to just embrace convention when you're writing. Whether you're writing historical fiction, or just using real history as a foundation for a fantasy setting, nothing says you must adhere to all the facts, or confuse your audience with unwilling education.

But wouldn't your work be a lot more interesting if you did?

And you get to be smug that you did the research as a bonus!
This goes beyond naming conventions and cultural quirks, as well; it also applies to the norms that so many people think were common, but in fact weren't. Like how modern borders are just imaginary lines on maps, given that Charles Mann mentioned there were ex-samurai working as mercenaries for the Spanish to protect their shipments in Caribbean in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Or how most traditional cowboys in the old West tended to be either Mexican or black, and that the white cowhand is largely a Hollywood invention. Or about how one of the most feared pirates in history was both a woman, and Chinese.

History is a strange place. And if your work is going to draw criticism from readers for "being inaccurate," there's nothing more satisfying than being able to cite the source. Because then you can start a whole second conversation about your work, and that's always good for drawing in new, interested readers.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

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!

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Evergreen Content, Book Sales, and You! (Making More Sales By Avoiding Cheap Gimmicks)

If you're a fan of genre fiction, then you've probably noticed how trends tend to wash through it from time to time. Vampires were big in the early 90s, for example, and on the heels of Anne Rice they were absolutely everywhere. Then they petered out for a while. Steampunk got really big around the time the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film broke, spurred on by books like Boneshaker. Dozens of series have aped the enchanted school setting of the Potterverse, now, and we were up to our ears in YA dystopias after the success of The Hunger Games.

Numbers are up! Quick, get into that slush pile and grab EVERYTHING with a zombie in it!
Everyone has their own taste in fiction, and sometimes you're looking for a very specific flavor. But if you read a lot of the books that come out in rapid succession after something hits big, hoping to ride that wave onto the bestseller list, you're going to notice that nine times out of ten the only thing they have to offer is they belong in the same genre. They've got brass gears and clockworks, zombies, romantic vampires, and so on and so forth... but there isn't much to make them stand on their own two feet.

The problem with a cash-in book is that it's trying to imitate the identity of books that came before it. These books often lack a strong identity of their own, and thus they can feel sort of like a good book's mildly attractive cousin; not a negative experience, but not one that really sticks with you. Certainly not one you'd review and recommend to others. Even if a writer didn't set out to write a cash-in book (perhaps they just clung too tightly to the established story structure and beats of a genre mainstay, such as how roughly 87 percent of hopeful fantasy authors think they need to write a Lord of The Rings homage) they'll wind up with the same problem.

Evergreen Content, and Telling Your Own Story

There's a concept I came across as a blogger, and it's one that is heavily steeped in the marketing side of things; evergreen content. Basically the idea behind content that's evergreen is that it never goes out of style, so people are always going to be looking for it. Because when something stops being relevant, and goes stale, the traffic's going to drop off, and it stops generating income. On the other hand, something that pulls a steady stream of views, reads, and sales is always going to be an earner, allowing you to get paid for it for years to come.

Which is, of course, the dream.
Give you an example of what I'm talking about, here. The article What Was The Satanic Panic? The Forgotten Witch Hunt of The 1980s is a piece of evergreen content because it discusses a period of time in history. This moral panic is over, so the facts about it aren't going to change. At the same time, though, it's a distinct event that remains relevant since it's tied to American history, pop culture, and the stigma associated with everything from Dungeons and Dragons to violent video games. As long as there are moral panics in the United States (a trend that goes back to the founding of the country, and shows no signs of stopping), then this particular article will be relevant.

Contrast that with the blog post 3 Ways Pathfinder is Losing Its Identity With The New Playtest. This post was a flash-in-the-pan piece that was a reaction to the playtest for the second edition of the Pathfinder roleplaying game, and it had a very short shelf life. The playtest was only out for a year, so anything this article had to say was only relevant for that brief period of time... on the other hand, there was a lot of interest in the subject, and in that short period it did draw quite a lot of views and reads. But no one's come back to it since the full game was released because anything is has to say is no longer valid.

So what does that have to do with your book?

Well, take a step back and ask what the primary selling points of your book are. Is it a solid story that stands on its own as a mystery, an adventure story, or a tale of the macabre? Or is your major selling point that you have zombies in it? Because if that's the case, then you're probably not going to get a lot of traction when that gimmick is no longer pulling in audiences the way it did when The Walking Dead was a fresh network success. You might see some renewed interest when the shambling undead come back into style, but it can take years for that tide to come back in.

What Makes A Book Evergreen?

Unfortunately, this is the part where I shrug my shoulders and gesture vaguely at the market. However, I do have a few general recommendations on how to hold off your book's freshness expiration date as long as possible.

- Don't Hang Your Story Fads and Gimmicks: The key here is that it's perfectly fine to include elements that might be part of a fad, but not to make that the whole of your story. Write a spy novel that happens to have vampires in it, rather than a vampire novel about spies, if you see what I mean?

- Keep Your Story Authentic: When steampunk first started getting popular, lots of people tried to get in on the genre by randomly including brass accents and gears in their setting descriptions and cover design to widen their story's genre labels. While this gave it the appearance of being part of the genre, it was the literary equivalent of just putting on a cheap plastic mask so you could say you were wearing a costume at the bar. Rather than gluing some superficial elements onto your tale, develop what makes it truly unique; people know when they're being pandered to, and generally they don't like it.

- Make It Stand Out: There's nothing worse for your shelf life than just aping what other books are doing, even if you're trying to follow in the footsteps of the classics. While it's important to be able to look at enduring books and ask what makes them last, it's equally important to spin those into your own story instead of just trying to trace them while changing a few minor details. For example, there are probably hundreds of Lord of The Rings imitators out there, but only one of them is Stephen King's Dark Tower series.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

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, October 2, 2019

Consent on The Page (Nipping Problematic Depictions in The Bud)

Emily panted, pressing her back to the wall. She was wet from the rain, and her breath tore in and out of her lungs. Richard stood over her, warmth radiating from his body, his damp mane framing his face. He leaned closer, then stopped. He held her eyes, a playful smile on his lips.

"What are you waiting for?" she asked.

"Your permission," he said, a rough purr in the edge of his voice.

She said yes.
I've mentioned in previous posts on this blog how I started off my career writing romance stories for open anthologies. I also edited a few of them, too. Something I found during that period of my career that was both perplexing, and a little frightening, was how behavior that belonged in a horror novel (or at least in a psychological thriller) showed up again and again on the page. It was supposed to be sexy, but it set my teeth on edge just trying to get through the scene.

And since I've had this topic on my mind for a bit, I figured I'd get up on my soap box this week. Because if you want a scene to work between characters, you need to make it clear where the lines of consent have been drawn.

The Line Between Romance and Horror

I've said this before, but if you had to pick two genres out there that are uncomfortably close it's going to be romance and horror. The reason why I think they're so similar is in the execution; both require build-up, tension, and intimacy in order to really work. The audience has to agree to let you in, whether it's to be scared or titillated by the scenario you're laying out for them.

The difference is context. Because, as the old saying goes, there's nothing wrong with talking a moonlit walk with someone you love... if she doesn't know you're there, though, then this scenario just went from sweet to terrifying in a big damn hurry.

Case in point.
A mistake that a lot of writers make is to assume consent in any given situation unless it's taken away... but if you're not sending clear messages to your audience, then it can be tough to tell which of the two above fonts you're supposed to be reading a scene in, so to speak.

And for those of you out there who are sputtering about how forcing characters to state their desires in dialogue can feel forced and hackneyed, I want to point out that body language, tone, and action can convey your character's consent just as (if not better) than putting it in quotes if you can't find a good way to make that work for your scene. Because all you really have to do is show a character willingly participating in the action of the scene. If your love interest gets kissed, show them returning the kiss. If someone touches them, even if they didn't ask permission to do so, show what the reaction to that is. Are they turned on? Angry? Disgusted? In fear for their safety? What signs are they showing us as the audience, which we could assume the other participants in the scene also see?

That is what's going to make the difference between something feeling like it should have a smooth jazz soundtrack, or menacing cellos threatening to eat you.

Playing With Consent

Now, having said all that, sometimes the whole point of a scene is to play around with consent. The audience feeling unsure about whether the actions they're viewing are wanted or not is not a flaw, that's the feature. This builds a sense of anxiety, and it can be a vital and useful tool in stirring up the reader's emotions to ensure they are experiencing mixed messages; desire for more, but repulsion that says to stop. Feeling guilty, but perhaps wanting to have the decision about moving forward taken out of their hands.

You can still write those scenes. In some stories, that kind of scene is absolutely the right tool you need for the job. However, you need to make sure you're doing it with intention, instead of by accident.

"A perfect punch!" Well, I just sort of closed my eyes, swung, and hoped for the best.
Consent on the page is one of those things you need to fully internalize and think about before you start upending expectations about it. And whether your signals are overt or subtle, readers are going to pick up on them when they're present... and they're also going to notice them when they're absent.

To paraphrase another quote, "If both of the guys in the ring didn't agree to this, it's a crime, not a boxing match." Put another way, if you want your audience to have a certain interpretation of the action on the page, then you need to understand what they're going to pick up on. And, just as importantly, what is going to cause them to walk away with a very different impression than you intended.

Some more examples I've come across, both as a reader and an editor, for those who are curious:

- Depictions of characters (usually feminine and female-identifying ones) purely in terms of their attractive features, turning them into something of a fetishized doll. You see a lot of this in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books, and it feels both overtly misogynistic, and really creepy. It clearly colors all the actions the protagonist takes, and taints interactions that might otherwise read as neutral or positive.

- The focus being placed mostly or solely on one party. There is a lot of this in scenes where traditional male leads are pursuing a lover. Descriptions that are all about the man's sensations, his pleasures, his desires, etc. come across as extremely objectifying, and strip the other character of personhood. Share the spotlight, and show us that everyone's enjoying this scene, if that's the impression you want us to have.

- Ridiculous actions being excused in the name of love. Everything from the full-tilt stalker behavior in films like Say Anything, to the controlling attitudes and expectations in books like Twilight and the 50 Shades series are, at the most generous, extremely tone deaf. If you want to show a character's interest in someone else, depict their interactions in a positive light. Show them acting like a human being, starting conversations, finding common ground, and showing respect. You will get a thousand times more mileage out of one character remembering how to make his love interest's ideal cup of coffee than you will out of big, sweeping gestures or actions that could easily be decisions of a dangerous obsessive if you're looking for a burgeoning relationship.

For more on the subject of consent in storytelling, I recently covered a great gaming supplement over on Improved Initiative. If you're interested, check out Consent in Gaming (If You Haven't Downloaded This Book Yet, You Really Should). It's well worth the read, especially if you enjoy collaborative storytelling.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

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!