Wednesday, February 26, 2020

If You're Going To Cons as an Author, Wear a Hat

For those of you who aren't in the Chicagoland area, I was at Capricon two weekends ago. It's a convention that I love, and that I would highly recommend any sci-fi and fantasy fan attend. And like most Capricons, I found myself on half a dozen different panels, shuttling between readings and room parties, shaking hands and passing out business cards.

One panel I was on in particular stuck with me, though, and it was all about being a professional author. It was almost my first hall panel (when the panelists and attendees are there bright and early, but the hotel staff hasn't opened the room yet so you just start lecturing your gathered audience in the hallway). I was seated next to the very talented Jonathan P. Brazee, and we shared the space with authors like Tim Akers, as well as K.M. Herkes. And while we were all talking about what it takes to hand sell books, how to hustle, and how we got into writing professionally, we all simultaneously stumbled on one of the great secrets of standing out at a convention when you're an author.

You need to wear a hat.

No, seriously, do it.

No, This Isn't a Joke

Take a moment and think of several famous authors you can actually identify by sight. George R.R. Martin is one, but so is Sir Terry Pratchett. If you're a fan of unique cyberpunk, you might also think of Megan Mackie, author of the The Finder of The Lucky Devil. All of these folks might be known for their talent and skill with words, but they're recognized for their iconic headgear. And when you're at an event that will have between 1,500 and 50,000 people (depending on the size of your preferred convention) you need something that will let people identify you at a glance.

Maybe you've seen this handsome bastard around at shows, for instance?
For those of you who've never met me in person, I picked up that green leather beret for a song at a Renaissance festival about 7 or 8 years back. I started wearing it to cons mostly just so I'd get some use out of it, but also to play into the whole Literary Mercenary angle. And the point at which I really stepped back and realized how closely people associated it with me was when I was at Gen Con about three or four years ago.

Let me paint the scene for you. Gen Con was swollen to a fresh capacity, drawing roughly 60,000 attendees. There were hordes of fellow gamers, and a small army of professionals trying to keep the wheels turning. I was all over the dealer's room, and making my way into the Ennies with the intent of shaking a few hands and maybe getting a new job offer or two. At the end of that convention, not one person remembered my actual name. But more than two dozen designers, writers, and RPG professionals immediately recognized my hat, and remembered that I was the Literary Mercenary. Even if we'd just had a quick 10-minute conversation the day before, they remembered my beret, because not one other person at the whole con had one like it.

That one piece of information, and the name associated with it, was all it took. Because if you type my handle into Google, you can find my real name, and an email to offer me a job. Some did, and all because of that one, strong impression.

Crown Yourself

Why are hats (or in the case of K.M. Herkes, an eye-catching shade of blue hair) so effective? Well, it's generally because hats stand out. In addition to being something you instantly notice, a hat can be seen from a distance, and if your hat is unique then it will also be lumped in with your persona as an author.

Fortunately, a good hat can also last a very long time. So if you've got something that would make you easier to remember, don't be afraid to pop it on your head and stand out from the crowd. Because before someone can read your book, they actually have to notice who the hell you are.

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 as well as my recent collection The Rejects!

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, February 19, 2020

The Pros and Cons of Using Tabletop RPGs as a Writing Tool

Tabletop roleplaying games have been around for decades now, and at this particular moment they're undergoing something of a resurgence in popularity. Between shows like Stranger Things, which heavily feature Dungeons and Dragons, and the popularity of online live play shows like Critical Role, it seems that more people than ever before are getting into this particular hobby.

Believe me, we are happy to have every one of you!
If you're a fan of genre fiction, though, you've likely noticed the impact tabletop RPGs have had for some time. Writers like R.A. Salvatore, Ed Greenwood, as well as Chris A. Jackson, are known for their novels that explore the settings these games take place in, for example. Additionally, many of these games will adopt popular fictional settings, from Tolkien's Middle Earth to the Known World of A Song of Ice and Fire, and give players the chance to forge their own tales in realms they've only read about before.

A lot of folks use these games as ways to test out story ideas, character concepts, and to help them build worlds. However, there are good sides and bad sides to using RPGs when it comes to your writing.

The Pros

Just take a drink... what can it hurt?
Before we get started, I'd like to establish some bona fides. First, I've been playing RPGs on the regular for about fifteen years or so. I'm also a content creator for these games, with modules like The Curse of Sapphire Lake for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, and supplements like 100 NPCs You Might Meet at The Tavern on the market right now. Lastly, I've used several games to explore characters and ideas for stories, such as in "Jungle Moon" and "Dead Man's Bluff," both found in my latest release The Rejects. I also run the gaming blog Improved Initiative.

This is a topic I know a little something about, is what I'm trying to say.

So, from the pro side of things there are a lot of benefits for writers who take up tabletop roleplaying games. First and foremost is that these games exercise your creativity (often in ways you don't expect). They let you experiment with personalities, archetypes, character arcs, and histories, getting all the reps you need to pump up your imagination. These games also give you a sandbox to play around in, testing out different ideas and structures to see what most appeals to you. Perhaps most importantly, though, these games are group affairs, so you can play off all the other folks involved, get feedback from them, and build off of the collective activity.

And that's just what you get from being a player.

If you take the extra step to become the dungeon master (the person who runs the bad guys, voices all the other characters, and generally breathes life into the setting) you can learn a whole new set of skills. Everything from constructing narratives, to filling plot holes, to making the world feel real and lived-in are things you learn how to do when you sit behind the screen. And while the extra character creation and world building are good practice, you also learn how to cover all the details when it comes to the world. Because when your players ask you what the history of a particular symbol is, or what kind of sewer system the city of Karoka has, you learn there's always more going on in the world than what you think to put on the page.

The Cons

Oh god... not again!
 Before you get too enthused at the idea that a DND boot camp will turn you into a brilliant novelist, I'd like to let a little air out of your balloons. Not all of it, of course, but there are some genuine traps I've seen a lot of writers fall into you need to be aware of, and that you need to watch for in your own work if you use tabletop games as your training ground for writing.

Keep all of these things in mind, because they'll save you a lot of time, trouble, and frustration along the way.

First and foremost, you need to know where the lines are in a game so that you don't end up using someone else's intellectual property. I've talked with dozens of different RPG players who were going to write novels about their favorite characters or adventures who didn't realize until someone pointed it out that everything from the names on the map to the gods of the realm are the intellectual property of the company who created the game. So unless you're writing the book for that publisher (great work, if you can get it), you're going to have to go through and scrub everything in order to make sure nothing you can be sued over makes its way into the final product. And depending on how intimately your story is connected to this specific setting, that might torpedo your whole project.

Another problem I see a lot of writers deal with is that when they base their books off of RPGs they often end up with a distinct RPG feel to them, which can introduce a flavor to their stories they may not even realize is there at first. For example, roleplaying games generally have tiered threats and achievements, with the player characters growing in power over the course of the story. So they start off protecting towns from goblin raids, and end the story fighting god-like wizards for the fate of the world. Now, there's nothing wrong with that kind of escalation, but if your story has definite periods where the party "levels up" in threats and powers, just happening to discover new abilities when they most need them, that can impose a structure you weren't intending on your narrative.

Where the hell did all this come from?
Speaking of unintentional structure, another issue folks who try to write stories and novels based off their gaming experiences run into is adopting the framework of the game for how things work in their books. As an example, in fantasy RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder your spellcasters have a certain number of spell slots per day they can use for their magic. This is meant to keep things fair in the context of a game's challenge, but it isn't necessarily something a story will benefit from. If your protagonist is a wizard, though, and that limitation has been part of their character since their inception, you might simply adopt this Vancian magic system out of reflex. The same is true with iconic magic items, the special abilities of the monk, or the rage of the barbarian; if you get too steeped in how things work in the game, you often end up copying and pasting those elements into your story without asking whether they're helping or hurting.

To be clear, that's not inherently a bad thing. There is, after all, an entire genre of Lit RPG books which are supposed to feel like you're reading an RPG campaign. But if you aren't doing it on purpose, it likely won't make your book better.

Lastly, something I would recommend to those looking to use RPGs to enhance their writing is to test out concepts and ideas, rather than simply recording the events of a campaign and then writing them in a more engaging prose format. Part of the reason for this is because (with very few exceptions) you are not the only one at the table, and the other players may not take kindly to having their characters wind up in your work. This goes double if you're the dungeon master, because then it feels like you ran the game so your friends could write your book for you. Learn how to test specific elements and ideas, and to take those things out of the game, polish them, refine them, and spin a book about them.

You get a lot more mileage out of this approach.

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, or my short story collection The Rejects!

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, February 12, 2020

The 5 Stages of Hand Selling Your Book

For those of you who aren't in the Chicagoland area, I'm preparing to head up to Capricon this week (and for those of you who are in the area, come by and say hello!). And since I'm going through my list of stuff to pack, and it's been a while since I've talked about the ancient art of hand selling. One of the toughest parts of the hustle for most authors (especially those of us who aren't the best at the marketing and social interaction part of the job), I thought it would be of use to some of my readers to go through the flowchart of the hand selling process.

All right, let's do this thing.
And for those unfamiliar with the term, hand selling is when it's you and a potential reader, face-to-face as you make your pitch the old-fashioned way. It's also what you spend a majority of your time doing if you're an author looking to bring home fewer books than you brought to a signing, event, etc. If you're not sure how to go about the process, or if you find it intimidating, hopefully this breaks it down for you a bit.

Stage One: The Setup

Here reader, reader, reader... I've got a treat for you!
The first stage of hand selling your book is making sure that you set the stage for the sale to come. Most commonly that means setting up a table, whether you're doing a signing in a book store, or you're in the dealer's hall of a convention center.

So lay out the set dressing.

Make sure you have your books on display (I highly recommend using folding wooden easel holders, as they take up less space in your travel bag and look pretty elegant to boot), and focus the attention toward a central area. If you have a series, put them in order from left-to-right, as that's the direction folks read. Usually I recommend placing yourself in the center, as all the books lead to you, which helps funnel attention.

Don't be afraid to get creative with it, though. If you need to draw some extra attention to yourself, lay out a book cloth with contrasting colors. Bring a knight statue to hold your signing pen. Put a skull on the table. Set up a flag along the front, or on a stand nearby so people can see you from down the row. And if you want to stand out, put together an outfit that gets people's attention. It doesn't have to be complicated, but props to you if you go all-in on a theme (Victorian adventurer for a steampunk series, wig and fake feet for a Hobbit parody, etc.). The idea is that your trap needs to get people to slow down long enough to enter stage two.

Stage Two: Engagement

Yes... come closer. This one likes you, I can tell.
Getting a potential reader to glance at your table is sort of like having a fish nibble at your hook. You need to engage them, but you don't want to drive them off by jumping the gun. It's a delicate balance, and it can be tough not to get too salesy with your approach. Keep things relaxed and natural, and open a conversation with someone. Once you get them talking, you've gotten them to stay in your orbit.

This is particularly easy if you're at a convention. Asking someone how they've liked the event so far, or picking out a piece of fandom they're displaying is typically enough to spark at least a little conversation. This goes double for folks in cosplay, or who are actively sporting references to their own favorite parts of pop culture. Bonus points if you're both fans of the same thing, and you can get them to talk about themselves for a little bit. It's an odd quirk of conversational law that once you've let someone else talk, they'll often return the favor and let you talk about what you're doing. And if you pay attention to what they say, and the signs they show, you can often make stage three a lot easier.

Also, bonus tip; have a game, a handout, a bowl of candy, or something to give to people. Everyone loves free stuff, and if they feel like it's a compliment to their taste in TV, movies, books, comics, etc., then they'll be flattered to boot.

Stage Three: Sinking The Hook

A classic pulp fantasy, you say? What's it about?
Sometimes you get lucky and your potential reader will skip straight to this step for you, but you should never rush to get here. If you try to sink your hook with someone whose interest hasn't been gauged, it can be pretty hard to make a sale.

In short, this is the part where you try to convince the potential reader to buy a copy of your book. Sometimes it's easy. For example, when I brought a box of From A Cat's View to Windy Con a year or so ago, all I had to say is that it's an anthology of stories told from the perspective of cats. Half the folks were already reaching for their wallets before I told them about my story Stray Cat Strut, and how it was basically what you'd get if Disney ever did a rendition of The Big Sleep. Other times it can be tough to figure out what your potential readers are looking for.

Also, sometimes you just don't write the sort of books they want to read. However, there's usually a way to get someone to at least consider what you've got on-hand. Don't be afraid to ask them questions about what they like in their books, and to try to cross-reference it with something in your inventory. Incidentally, it also helps if you've got more than one book with you. Because if someone wants a sword and sorcery novel, then Crier's Knife is going to be right up their alley, but if they're more of a pick-and-mix fan then they might find that my new release The Rejects is more their style.

Options are definitely your friend at this stage.

Step Four: Get The Book Into Their Hands

Go on... pick it up. See if you like it!
This is actually a trick I've learned over the years from fellow con authors, and while it sounds silly, it works. If someone looks like they're on the fence, and they're trying to tell themselves no, hold your book out to them. Let them get a good look at it if they haven't picked it up yet. Sometimes that tactile sensation is all it takes to turn, "Well, maybe if I have the budget later," into, "Sure, here's my card."

I don't know why this works as often as it does, but it's a handy trick. Also, if someone is holding it, don't ask, "So, do you want one?" Instead ask, "Would you like one or two?" By steering the inertia toward a sale, it makes people more likely to at least grab one copy. Might be a little underhanded as far as tactics go, but psychological warfare is the name of the game here.

Stage Five: Take a Card

Go on, take a card... it's free!
Even if someone isn't interested in your book (or at least in the books you've got with you at that time), don't let them leave your table empty handed. Make sure they have a business card, a bookmark with your name and covers on them, or something so that they'll have a token to remember you by. If you've got an email list, try to get them to sign up. Everyone loves free stuff, and if you never lay eyes on them for the rest of the convention that token should connect with the experience they had with you, and it might make them look you up when they get home. Bonus points if you offer them something for free, like a digital copy of one of your books if they send you an email.

Also, if someone does make a purchase, be sure they take something with, too. You can never sink the nail so deep that one more whack with the marketing hammer is truly wasted.

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 as well as my recent collection The Rejects!

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, February 6, 2020

Which Stories From "The Rejects" Would You Like To See Expanded?

This week I thought I'd do something a little different for my readers out there. I have a question I'd like to get some feedback on, and I figured I'd reach out directly to those who come across this page. If you've picked up a copy of The Rejects, did any of the tales in it catch your interest? If so, would you like to see me expand on the worlds and settings of any of them?

And if you don't have your copy yet, well, go check it out!

In My Copious Amounts of Free Time...

For those who haven't had a conversation with me in person, one of my signature speech tics is the phrase, "Yes, in my copious amounts of free time." Because between adding to my Vocal archive, running two blogs, ghost writing for clients, and working on half a dozen tabletop RPG projects at any given time, I still try to squeeze in some fiction writing. In addition to this recent release, I've got another manuscript currently being reviewed by a publisher, and a second manuscript I'm considering going over for a self-publishing release.

The average author's brain can keep over 16,000 tabs open at once, for those who didn't know.
However, with that said, I do have several long-term projects that should be wrapping up in the next few months. That means they'll be moving out of my hands and into the publisher's territory, freeing up at least some time and energy for me to think about what steps to take next. And while I've got a small notebook filled with even smaller print, putting together this collection reminded me how much I enjoyed several of these stories. Not only that, but it made me think about the potential this little glimpse into their worlds represented.

Two of the short stories presented are actually from potential series I've thought about writing. "Heart and Soul," is the second published short story in what I call my Chicago Strange setting (the first story was "Little Gods" published in The Big Bad II), and "Suffer The Children" is an introduction to the world that Malachi inhabits.

Both of these are modern fantasy stories, but they also have distinctly different styles and feels to them. Gerald Caul is a much more academic character, a traditional private-eye archetype using his knowledge of folk charms and hedge magic to swim with the big fish in a world filled with fairy tale gods and terrifying manifestations of modern myth. Malachi, but contrast, is a rough-and-tumble bruiser who hammers his way to the truth of a case fist-first in a world that is filled with creatures from Mesopotamian, Abrahamic, and Middle Eastern myths (as opposed to the ever-present Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Viking gods that fill up a lot of modern fantasy stories).

While most of my other stories weren't meant as test-dives for larger series, several of them I feel had real potential. For instance:

- Asking what kind of a world we would have if a majority of the early superheroes we saw were people of color, and focusing on the drawbacks and lifestyle difficulties of their metahuman abilities in addition to the power fantasy of using them for good. "Hero's Wake" was a great exercise in this, and I'd be more than happy to return to that setting for future stories.

- A traditional sword-and-sorcery setting with dueling champions, bloody betrayals, and where steel is the only friend you can trust. While both "Champion For Hire" and "Mark of The Legion" were written independently, it might be fun to combine the two of them into a single project for folks who enjoy the pre-Tolkien pulp era of fantasy.

While I have thoughts on several of the other stories in the collection, particularly the demon-haunted world of "Dressing the Flesh," I don't want to spoil my own stories, here. So I figured I'd let the potential of those tales speak for themselves.

Of Course, There Are Other Options

Choose wisely.
I do have other irons in this particular fire, as well, some of which have been waiting quite patiently for me to turn my attention to them. So if nothing in my latest collection really sparked you as a reader, would you like to see either of the following books instead?

- Crier's Silence: A sequel to my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, where we find out what happened to Dirk's elder brother Silence Crier, and what he did when he was banished from the mountain of Ben Morgh.

- Untitled Clockpunk Mecha Novel: An idea that I had recently which exploded in my mind, this unique setting combines alternative technologies, saurian monsters, and hulking war machines known as imperators. From honor duels that smash steel and snap cables, to bone-crunching battles with felldrakes and other deadly denizens of the world, I hope folks enjoy this one as much as I do... when I get to it.

There is one other book idea, but that one I'm keeping under wraps for now. It has to do with that manuscript I mentioned someone was taking a look at earlier... but rest assured I'll update you on that one when I have more information!

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, or my short story collection The Rejects!

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!