Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Advantages of Public Domain Settings and Community Content Programs

Intellectual property refers to creations of the mind, while a copyright is the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell and distribute something. And if there's anything authors out there know, it's that they hold the copyright to anything they create on their own, and it is considered their intellectual property. You can't just use someone else's intellectual property, put it out there, and charge money for it... that's how you get sued.

It's the main reason you can't just write and sell a Star Wars novel without permission from Disney, or draw and sell your own comics where the Hulk competes in a chess competition against the Leader. Because unless those who hold the copyright give you permission, you're not allowed to make a profit off their intellectual property.

It's complicated, but those are the broad strokes.
There are gray areas and exceptions, as there always are, but it's the reason so many authors are concerned with writing original works. Because as long as the thing you are making is unique to you, it is your intellectual property, and no one else can use or publish it without your permission.

However, I'll be the first to tell you that trying to establish your own voice for your unique stories is far from an easy thing to do. Beyond just writing the story, editing it, finding the right cover art, etc., you need to convince people that your world is the one they should take a trip into. One thing I've learned trying to sell copies of my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife is that if there's one thing readers love even more than an exciting new world to explore, it's one they already know and love. So it's not just that you have to convince them to give your book a try, but that you need to convince them it will be at least as satisfying as a trip down a more comfortable, well-worn trail into a much-loved favorite read.

And that is a tough sale to make. Fortunately, it is possible for your work to occupy familiar ground that the reader already knows and likes, while also being a unique work of fiction in its own right.

Public Domain, and Community Content Programs

Public domain, in general, refers to works that are not protected by copyright law. This means you are free to publish and distribute them because they, in effect, belong to everyone.

Getting that brainstorm, now?
While you're not allowed to write an unauthorized account of what went on in Mordor, and you can't use Hogwarts as your setting, you can write a story that takes place in these public domain sandboxes. You can even put your own twist on things to make your book that much more interesting!

For instance, you could write a story about Dracula and his brides with a tone that's more like James Bond or Charlie's Angels, using the original source material to create a sexy, supernatural spy thriller that would turn its share of heads. If you wanted to adapt the original Phantom of The Opera (the one that appeared in the novel, not the changes and adaptations made by other writers and musicals), and turn him into the pupil of an aging Scarlet Pimpernel who gives Erik the mantle to go out and continue his work, that's also on the table. If you want to write a Sherlock Holmes mystery that is more like Remington Steele, when it's actually Watson who is the genius detective and Sherlock is an out-of-work actor he hired to act as his mouthpiece, there's nothing stopping you from doing that, either.

And it's not just older novels, either. Lots of companies have community content programs out there that let you write in their worlds.

I talked about this back in Community Content Programs For RPGs Are Another Avenue For Authors To Get Paid, but I'll go over the broad strokes once more. A community content program is when a company (usually an RPG publisher in my experience, but there may be others out there) allows creators to write stories and create products within their worlds and settings as long as they abide by the rules. These rules usually mean the work has to be published in a certain location, has to have marks that identify it, and it usually has to abide by setting canon. If you can do that, you're golden!

What does that mean in practical terms, though?

Well, let's say you're a fan of Vampire: The Masquerade, and you've always wanted to create fiction for it. You could write a novel set in that world, using the Storyteller's Vault. The same is true if you wanted to do a collection of Werewolf: The Apocalypse short stories where there's one story per tribe. Heck, I wrote an entire 100 Kinfolk series for werewolf in partnership with High Level Games just creating 1300+ characters to be used in this setting! And if you want to write a module that takes place in the Forgotten Realms? Well, the Dungeon Masters Guild allows you to publish that module using the setting, characters, and resources owned by Wizards of The Coast.

So What's The Advantage?

In all of these incidents, you are still telling a unique story all your own. However, it is part of an established canon that people are already familiar with, and which might poke them in their comfort zones as fans of a particular world, setting, or established characters.

Basically, you don't have to do the hard work of breaking new ground, and convincing readers that they should give it a try. You're already within an established thing they've heard of, and your premise alone might be enough to intrigue them. In this instance, it may be that much easier to clench the sale, because all you had to say was, "A graduate student at Arkham University is trying to help a Martian Thark get home using the ancient knowledge locked within the Necronomicon, but when it transports them both to Barsoom things soon get even weirder."

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, May 20, 2020

Past or Present Tense: Which is Better For Your Story?

Writers will argue about anything, and I've already touched on a lot of subjects that will get heated if you discuss them in writing forums, or at a panel at a convention somewhere. While I was polling some of my regular readers for topics, I came across one that I didn't actually think was a big deal, but it turns out there are a lot of folks who have very strong opinions on this.

So I figured I'd talk about the Past Tense v. Present Tense conflict that's been raging for the past several decades, and offer my thoughts on the issue.

For those who thought Chicago V. MLA was a big deal, buckle up!

Using Tense as a Tool of Your Story

Near as I can tell, according to articles like The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense, the use of present tense as a long-form writing style has been considered a mainstream option since roughly the 1980s. Before that, most commercially successful novels (and most fiction in general) were written in the past tense. But once someone proved that a present tense novel could work, it sort of became the new thing to do. So younger authors experimented with it, some of them were successful, and so on, until some authors just thought that present tense was how you did it now. Times had changed, and you simply couldn't write in past tense anymore.

To be absolutely clear, you can do basically whatever you want. You can even be successful with it, since success is determined by number of readers and sales rather than by which items on a particular list get checked off. Past and present tense are both viable tools. However, you should think of them as two different types of screwdriver. They might arguably be the same tool, but they are not both useful in the same situations.

Keep your toolbox varied, is what I'm saying.
The primary advantage of present tense writing is that it gives your story a sense of immediacy. The reader is right there, sitting on your protagonist's shoulder and watching the story unfold as they do. And that is an effective way of telling a story, there is no doubt.

However, using present tense also locks you into a particular time frame. The reader, much like the characters, are forever in the midst of now, which can limit you in ways that using the past tense doesn't. This can also work really well for ratcheting up tension, since there's no way of knowing whether risks that manifest are going to be overcome, or if this is where the narrative is going to end. While there's no denying that present tense offers intensity, it can be like the intensity and immediacy of a sprint. It's why it usually works far better in short fiction, where the limitations mentioned don't present such an overall problem to the story being told. And while a reader might be willing to go with you on a journey of several hundred pages, doing so at full-tilt might be to the detriment of your story, and the patience of the reader.

Past tense, in fairness, can feel languid at times. There's also that implied question of, "Well, the narrator is telling the story in the past tense, so clearly that must mean they survived?" unless you're doing a third-person omniscient in the past tense. However, a past tense narrative can jump back and forth over the time, and provide a great deal more freedom than the present tense can. It can also allow for suspense in ways that present tense can't. A good example of this is Poe's short story The Maelstrom, where we see a man so crippled by fear and anxiety that we then wonder what he could have survived to turn him into the creature we see before us. A present tense narrative can only go forward, and that works for some stories, but not for others.

Which Should You Use?

Neither tense is inherently superior to the other, in general. However, something I would recommend you keep in mind is that past tense can often be more forgiving than present tense because it provides you more options and structural tricks to help keep your story moving. However, there are going to be stories that will work with either tense, if you've got the skill to design your narrative around that particular setup.

End of the day, though, this guy is going to be a deciding factor.
Like with anything else, however, whether you should use past or present tense should be decided (at least in part) by your readers. Which genre you're writing, the length of your project, and who your targeted demographic is will make a lot of difference. Because in many instances, readers may be ready and able to accept present tense for a story. In others the very fact that it's told in present tense may be a turnoff large enough to reconsider your story's tense in the first place.

That gets into marketing decisions, and trying to move copies off a shelf, but it's important to remember that writing the book and selling the book are just two sides of the same coin that is your career. So you should keep in mind that one can (and does) affect the other.

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, May 13, 2020

What a $1,200 Check Means For Me as an Author

We have all been watching our mailboxes pretty hard since the current relief package was announced, and though not all of us who qualify have received our stimulus checks so far, a lot of us have. I got mine in the middle of last month, and it's currently sitting in my savings account just accruing interest until I need to call on it.

The time is coming when Jackson will need to be deployed.
It's generally considered taboo to talk about one's earnings (doubly so if you're bragging, and triply so if you're broke), but my hope is that this $1,200 stimulus check will give everybody a solid frame of reference for this conversation. After all, that's roughly a month's earnings at the federal minimum wage, working a 40-hour week. And while I'm generally told that I'm "making it" as a creator, most months my creative projects don't land anywhere near that particular mark on their own.

So, What is $1,200 To Me?

First things first, $1,200 is more than I have ever received for any single writing project in my life. Full-stop, hands down. I've written for magazines and newspapers, blogs, books, and RPG companies, and I have never received a check that large for anything. Ever.

Another factor to consider is that as a full-time creator, I don't have hourly wages. I have no regular paycheck that I cash every two weeks, thus allowing me to measure my monthly and yearly income in a reliable manner. So I have to put this $1,200 into different terms so it will make sense.

Let's break these numbers down, shall we?
Let's start with book sales. When I sell a copy of my novel Crier's Knife, or my short story collection The Rejects, I net about $3 off that sale online (or about $4 if it's an in-person sale at a convention or similar event after shipping and other costs). So that would mean I would have to sell roughly 400 copies of my book online (or about 300 copies of it in-person) to make that much cash.

There are some authors who can do that. I know a few authors personally who make those kind of numbers every month, spending every weekend at one show or another hawking their books (or who did that before the pandemic hit, at least). But if you want some behind-the-scenes numbers, the largest number of books I've ever off-loaded at an in-person event is about 15 as of time of writing. My biggest month was on an anticipated release when I sold 50 books through Amazon. Now, to be fair, I do not have the budget to get a table at big events, or to keep a few hundred books on-hand for sales purposes, but even if I managed to do that every month (which I certainly do not) that would mean that $1,200 would be roughly a season's earnings for me.

Let's check a few other metrics.

I write a lot of articles for Vocal, and I'm a member of the Vocal+ program. That means that I make $6 per 1,000 reads my Vocal archive articles receive. That's pretty good, as far as compensation goes. However, the numbers aren't on my side there either.

$1,200 breaks down to roughly 200,000 reads per month. Now, that's totally doable. There are even a few noted contributors on the site who've managed to do it. For me, though? Well at time of writing I have 162 articles in my archive, and they tend to get between 420 and 480 on an average day (I have occasional spikes, of course, but that's the average). Still, let's round it up and say that I was just a tad more popular, so I managed 500 reads per day on average. That's 15,000 reads a month... which comes out to about $90 or so. So an entire year's worth of reads at that level would come out to just over $1,000... that's not nothing, of course, but it gives you an idea of what I'm working with here.

What about those RPGs I spend so much time working on?

Well, that's going to vary based on the particular project. Some of them pay me .20 per sale, others pay me as much as .60 per sale. But in terms of combined affiliate earnings and royalties that I earn from RPG sales, that comes out to roughly $100 to $150 a month (though I am seeing some serious spikes thanks to everyone being home and deciding to expand their RPG collections and play time). Even if we add in the $100 or so I often make in a per-word payment per month, that's still about 6 months worth of earnings in a single check.

Again, This is Just Me

The above breakdown is highly personal to my work, my earnings, and my audience... but any way you slice it, that $1,200 is the equivalent of a few months of my creative earnings (at best). Now, I live in a city in Indiana where rent isn't sky high, I'm healthy enough that I don't have a lot of medical concerns (at time of writing, at least), and I don't have credit card or student loan debt collectors breathing down my neck. I'm extremely fortunate in all of those areas.

There are other authors who make a lot more than I do. There are also authors who have far bigger expenses than I do thanks to student loans, medical needs, childcare costs, living in major cities, and other expenses. But the number of people who write for a living who make $1,200 a month (or more) from their creative works is nowhere near as large as a lot of folks seem to think... and as we've established, that $1,200 is barely enough to cover rent in some parts of the country.

The same stimulus doesn't have the same impact on all of us.
So if you're stuck at home, and you want to make a difference in an author's day, you can. You can buy a book, share a link, leave a review, or read an article. If you have a little cash to spare, you could even become a Patreon patron (perhaps even at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, if you were so inclined).

Because at the end of the day we depend on readers just like you. We depend on you to read our books, share your opinions, leave your reviews, and boost our signal. If we are successful, it's due to your efforts as our readers. Even if you're stuck at home and you feel powerless, know that you are the ones who decide whether or not we are successful.

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, May 7, 2020

You're Never Going To Get Better as a Writer If You Never Start

Going to the gym intimidates a lot of people. They know that establishing a routine is important to getting in shape, and they want to do it, but all they can think about is how everyone must be judging them. Whether it's because they're lifting tiny weights, or their stamina is too low, or they clearly don't know what they're doing, the idea of being new where other people can see them paralyzes them with indecision. When that happens, a lot of folks prefer to just stay home, and not take the risk.

One more chapter... come on...
The same thing happens to a lot of writers out there. And, unfortunately, that inability to start is what stops you from getting any better.

There's Only One Way To Get Better

The only way to get better at something is to do it, and the same is true for writing. I talked about this way back when in If You Want Your Art To Improve, You Need To Invest In It, but it's one of the hardest steps for a lot of people to take.

Because no matter how naturally talented you are, and no matter how many years you've been reading books, or how much advice you've read on the subject, chances are good that your early efforts are not going to win you any prizes. In fact, no beating around the bush, they're probably going to suck. Just like how your form is going to be terrible your first time lifting weights, your stamina is going to be lackluster on your first long run, and your early paintings are probably going to be awful.

But if you want to be Bob Ross, Stephen King, etc., then you've got to go through that learning period.

It was a lie, there are mistakes. A shit load of them.
I'm not saying this is an easy thing to do. Far from it, I'd argue that buckling down to become a writer takes grit, determination, and the willingness to be bad. But if you don't have that willingness then you're never going to get any better.

So if you're worried about writing a story with plot holes you could put a fist through, a main character with glaring flaws, a timeline that doesn't make sense, or a hackneyed plot, you have my permission to do it. Right now. I release you from the responsibility of the flawless, because perfect is the enemy of done.

Take Your Ego Out of The Equation

One of the biggest problems for creators of all sorts of that we get our egos caught up in our work. We treat it like an extension of ourselves, and when criticism hits, it splashes back onto us. Sadly, there's no getting around this. They say that the master has failed more times than the student has even attempted, but the thing is that you don't see those failed attempts when you're looking up to a creator. You see the successes they put on display, but not the mountains of bad prose, awful poetry, cringe-worthy plot devices, and the armies of beheaded characters who did not serve a role within the story.

What he said.
You need to be able to hold your work at arm's length and see it for what it is. You should still love it, and enjoy it, but you also need to learn to recognize its flaws, and to see where things went wrong. That's part of the creative process, and while it might hurt to admit our mistakes, it's the only way we get better. And as I said in Want To Be A Better Writer? Make Lots of Pots, the experience of completing a project is far more useful than taking years and years to make one, perfect thing. Practice makes permanent, and it's only by writing that you build up the muscles and the mental reflexes to spin ideas out of the ether, and to see problems at a glance.

Just like there's no way to get 6-pack abs while sitting on the couch eating potato chips, there's also no way to become the best writer you can be if you never sit down and write. So go do that... now. Don't worry about not being bad, like I said, you've got a permission slip.

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!