Wednesday, August 26, 2020

To Help Show Instead of Tell, Nix Your Internal Monologues

One of the oldest pieces of writing advice out there is, "Show, don't tell." If you're a writer you've probably seen this in every style guide, heard it from most of your creative writing teachers, and seen it mentioned in blogs just like this one. The problem is that this writing proverb (because that's really what it is) doesn't offer a lot of concrete ways to actually do what it's suggesting.

As such I thought I'd make a suggestion for this week... cut out your internal monologues. Or, if you can't cut them out entirely, keep them short, simple, and to-the-point.

I remember it was 1917 the first time I heard that name...

Don't Make Your Book Feel Like a Recipe Blog

Since quarantine began I, like everyone else, have been doing far more cooking than I ever actually did before. And since I have a sweet tooth I wanted to find something tasty I could make without causing my waistline to swell, since I'm doing home workouts instead of going to the gym these days. When I put up a recipe in Creamy Yogurt Jello: An Ideal Dessert For Those Looking To Lose Weight, all the commenters who saw it said the same thing.

"This looks really good. Thank you for not putting up some story about your family tradition when all we wanted was the recipe!"


My grandmother first taught me this when I was 17 and dating my first girlfriend...

I had seen the memes and jokes about how any time you try to find a simple recipe for homemade cornbread or peach cobbler that you always had to wade through paragraphs of fluff about how the author first learned to make this recipe as a child, or about some traumatic life event that gave birth to a new family tradition. I thought it was exaggerated... for those not used to searching through cooking blogs looking for recipes, there is no exaggeration. Several sites I visited literally had a "Skip To The Recipe" button on top that automatically bypassed 3/4 of the page to get to the part that mattered.

Internal monologues can end up like that; a big, bloated, ponderous read that might be interesting under the right circumstances, but which kills the pace and frustrates the reader.


Show Us The Reaction

The key thing about "Show, Don't Tell" is that it's about insinuation. It's when you paint the audience a picture, and lead them to draw conclusions. You do this through atmosphere, tone, and by narrating events that happen, but not by opening up someone's head and just giving the audience a Shakespearian aside.

Give you an example. Take the following exchange:

"Hey Jake," Marjorie said.

Oh God, I thought. She's talking to me... she's really talking to me! Be cool, don't worry, it's fine. Say something smooth. Don't stare! You're staring, shit, open your mouth and get it in gear!
"You mind if I get past you, here?" she asked.

"Huh?" I managed. "Oh, yeah, no problem."

That was smooth, guy. Real smooth.

Does this work? Sure, it conveys the sense of nervous panic of our protagonist screwing up a social interaction. It's clumsy, though, and it doesn't offer any nuance or set dressing... it's just telling the audience exactly what the lead is thinking in his own words.

For contrast, try the following.

"Hey Jake," Marjorie said.

My heart hammered, thumping in my ears. I swallowed, hoping it might quiet the noise in my head a bit. I turned, smiling, but when I tried to say something my mouth had gone completely dry. I coughed, trying to clear my throat.

"Sorry," I finally managed. "What do you need?"

"Could I get past you?" she said, pointing with one lacquered nail at the space just down the narrow hall.

"Huh?" I followed where she was pointing. I felt the flush creeping up my neck, and tried not to think about it. That just made it worse. "Oh, yeah, no problem."

This description is a little melodramatic, but it gets the point across. Our protagonist, whoever he is, comes completely undone when Marjorie is near him. But rather than just giving the audience the soundtrack of Jake's panicked mind, we get to see the reaction he has to her presence. We can make the connection easily enough without being told by Jake's own running monologue what he's thinking.

If You Need To Tell, Put It In Dialogue

Not every internal monologue is related to a social situation like this, though. Sometimes these monologues are used as a way to information dump important plot elements. Maybe it's the ghost story behind a particular abandoned house, a traumatic experience a character had as a child, or a complicated relationship they have with another character.

If you absolutely need to say something directly to the audience, try putting it in dialogue between two or more characters. It tends to make things flow a lot more organically, and you usually cut out a lot of needless detail when you force yourself to frame information in the context of speech.

Just have them talk... trust me, it works a lot better.

Take some of the following examples:

- "You're seriously not scared of this place, are you?" Jack asked. He held up his hands, wiggling his fingers and widening his eyes. "Who's that crossing my threshold? Whose blood do I smell?"

- I held up the report, frowning as I read over the pertinent details. "Rachel, they're not serious about this, are they? The suspect had 12 witnesses and a video call showing they were out of town. It's open and shut!"

- "Look, I know you and your dad have had your problems in the past," Jennie said. "But he's really tried to change. Just take the weekend, and give him a chance?"

Each of these gives the reader a clue to the nature of what's going on in the story, without bogging them down with unnecessary details. Because sure, the full ghost story about Bloody Charlie might be important to the narrative overall, but it will be way better if it's told in dialogue around a campfire, or during a power outage in a different scene. The full police report being referenced might have a lot of names, times, and information, but if it's not pertinent right then and there you don't need to have the detective mentally read it for the audience. The character with the rough relationship with their dad might have been abused or neglected, or just had a falling out over differences of opinion... unless it's absolutely necessary to give full details for context in that moment (and it almost never is), just tell the reader the important bit (Jake is scared of a ghost story, the case against a character is very flimsy, there's a bad history at work), and move on.

Think of It Like a Play

If you've never written for stage and screen, it's an activity that can put a fine edge on your craft. Because you have to use set details, lighting, direction, action, and dialogue to put things on display for the audience. Sometimes characters will monologue, but often you need the audience to realize deeper implications by having them witness expressions, tone, emotion, and behavior.

That sort of thing is a crash course in showing, instead of telling.

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, August 19, 2020

To Survive in Today's Markets Readers Need To Care About You (Not Just Your Books)

There's this weird habit that almost every writer I've ever met has where we put our work out on center stage while keeping ourselves in the shadows as much as possible. The idea, from what I've managed to gather, is that writers as a whole want to tell a story without ever actually talking to anyone. Unfortunately, that's a good way of shooting yourself in the foot in today's climate.


Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

Because when people make a purchase, they aren't just in it for your story. They want that, don't get me wrong, but it is equally important to readers and fans these days that they know their money is going to you, personally. And it helps if they like you as a person, before they get into whether they appreciate what it is you're making.

Don't Be Afraid To Step Out of The Shadows

I touched on this back in Your Brand is Just as Important as Your Books, but there's something that got lost in the messaging on that article. Because while it's true that people may choose to stop buying your books because of the positions you take and statements you make as a creator (Rowling, Card, and it's looking like Martin if things keep going the way they're going), what I didn't say is the reverse is also true. People may be drawn to you as a creator first, and then discover they like your books second.

I have found thee worthy of mine patronage, and skilled as well.

Part of this is about people being far more concerned with where their money is going, and what causes it's being used to support these days. However, another part of it is that when you establish a connection with your fans and readers they are more likely to want to invest in you. It sounds counterintuitive, and it goes against the grain for a lot of writers. We want to be rewarded because we wrote a good story, after all, and it feels somehow backwards if readers are supporting us because they like who we are and what we stand for instead of the thing we've created. We want to be paid for the art we made, not just because of who we are.

Something that's worth keeping in mind, though, is that the money is no less real or genuine because it came from someone who wants to support you as a creator. If someone hears about you in an interview and wants to sign up to your Patreon because they liked the vibes you were putting out, you still get that check at the end of the month.

At the end of the day the reason why people choose to support you is less important than the fact that they have chosen to support you in the first place.

Don't Be Shy

In a perfect world we could just write out books, put them on the market, and find our audience through the proper application of key words and hash tags. However, the idea that any author has ever actually gotten successful by just sitting back and letting their books do the talking is a fairy tale. As it's so often said, Dickens was constantly doing public readings to hustle his books. Shakespeare was a workaday pen monkey, rather than some brilliant mind setting the mold for centuries to come. And a majority of the well-known authors we see on the market today? Well, you should ask how large the apparatus is for getting them reviewed, interviewed, and out in front of the public, as well as how much effort goes into creating their social media persona.

Because writing good books is definitely important, but it is far from the only thing you have to do in order to be 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!

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Get Weird With Your Aesthetic (And Watch Your World Grow in Style and Uniqueness)

Before we get started, I wanted to let everyone know that this pandemic has been keeping me in the kitchen almost as much as it has at my work desk. I'm contemplating sharing some of my experiences/discoveries, if folks would like to see them. The first in the potential series is Creamy Yogurt Jello: An Ideal Dessert For Those Looking To Lose Weight.

Anyway, onto this week's topic!

How Weird is Your World?

Something I've realized the older I've gotten is that so many settings in sci-fi and fantasy feel like they're conforming to an invisible style guide. It is, quite honestly, one reason I stopped reading high fantasy almost entirely. There are only so many times I can pick up a book where the elves are patient and aloof, the dwarves are heavy-bearded Scotsmen, and everything is set in the same two miles of British countryside that Tolkien staked out so many decades ago. Mainstream science fiction fared better for me as a reader, but the trend still seemed to be to keep everything utilitarian and useful, which lent an air of accuracy to the space age, but which also tended to make everything look and feel... bland.

This might just be me getting old and griping, but I remember when I was first coming into genre fantasy as an eager consumer of stories everything was vibrant. Characters and settings were colorful, bizarre, and at times completely wild, and the sheer, full-throttled nonsense grabbed you by the hair and forced you to pay attention.

And now I'm going to talk about a kids' cartoon.

If you're not familiar with Thundercats as a property, let me sum it up for you. A spaceship full of alien cat people crashland on what is likely a far future, post-apocalyptic Earth, and try to make a new home. They transform their ship into a huge tower which is guarded by space-age weaponry. Their leader carries a magic sword and claw shield, and is counseled by the ghost of their dead patriarch. Their initial enemies are mutants from outer space, who fall under the influence of an undead mummified sorcerer who serves the ancient spirits of evil.

For those of you concerned I was ingesting illicit substances before I wrote that paragraph, I can assure you it is exactly as bat shit as it sounds. And this show was primarily written for children to sell action figures. Despite the occasionally cheesy dialogue, lessons about friendship, and the annoying nursemaid known as Snarf, the aesthetics (and occasionally grim undertones) of the show are absolutely fascinating from a world building perspective.

And it is far from the only example I can call to mind.

Strange Structures Built From Bizarre Blocks

In case you were wondering, Thundercats was not an exception by any stretch of the imagination when it came to unreal settings. Eternia, as a setting, is full of wizardry, laser rifles, beast men, ridable dinosaurs, villains with skulls for faces, and more! Dollar Store paperbacks with trashy sci-fi from the 70s gave us genetically-engineered super soldiers bodyguarding adventuring princesses while they tried to survive war zones on distant moons. The whole concept behind the Herculoids was a barbarian family and their bizarre pets fighting everything from mad scientists, to mutants, to invading robots.

Another example is the grim darkness of the far future, represented by the sprawling Warhammer 40,000 setting. It is filled with every kind of sci-fi and fantasy you could think to tell. It's got robot uprisings, techno-knights, alien empires, psychic wizards, war worlds, mech pilots, living machines from ancient days, giant space bugs, and the list goes on and on.

It only gets weirder the deeper you dig.

In fairness, there is more to the settings and stories I'm describing here than just their wacky worlds and unconventional aesthetics... but those are often the things that immediately arrest a viewer's attention long enough to get them to read the first few pages.

Because, to paraphrase what I once said to a client, "If your world has cyborg sky vikings dog fighting with frost dragons, that should be splashed across the cover instead of buried somewhere around page 298!"

Be Bold, Be Strange, Be Different

All of us reach back to the stories we read when we were younger when we first start writing. We paint in the patterns and colors we're familiar with as we learn the craft and figure out what makes our stories work (or not). But when it comes time to step out of the shadow, don't feel that you need to conform to the limits held by those who came before.

Tradition is just another word from the peer pressure of dead people. And while a lot of our favorite authors may still be among the living, don't let their works take the wheel out of your hands. It's your book, and you should feel to get as weird, wild, and strange with it as you want to!

Even better, if you find yourself asking, "But why would they do that?" then you can get some absolutely wild results that might end up being some of your favorite parts of your setting!

Why does the cowboy have a laser revolver? Perhaps the lens assemblies have a cool down time, so to provide multiple shots (and space out wear and tear) there are six of them in a weapon! Why is the sword the sidearm of choice for Korathan space pirates? Well, when you're taking a merchant ship that isn't built for battle, the last thing you want to do is blast a hole in the side of it and lose your precious cargo, so you've got to do things the old-fashioned way. If you think hard enough about it, you might be surprised at the answers you find.

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, August 5, 2020

Writing a Book is an Investment, as Well as a Gamble

For those who don't follow my social media feeds, I complain about being broke a lot. I'm not currently in debt to my landlord, and I'm managing to hold things together as best I can while the pandemic rages, but I'm still well below the threshold for a lot of public aid programs. And while I'd love to suddenly have the fickle finger of the zeitgeist make me an overnight bestseller, until that happens I just keep chugging away and putting out as much content as I can (books, articles, blogs, and more) in the hopes that something gets traction.

What a lot of folks (particularly aspiring writers) don't seem to get, though, is that books are an investment. Something you write today might not catch on by the end of the month. It might not get popular till next month, next year, or even ever. Worse, the bigger the project is, and the more time and energy that goes into it, the more of a risk it is as an investment.

Smut projections look good... if you've got steampunk, off load it yesterday!

I wanted to talk about that this week. Because I've been getting dozens of ideas for novels while I've been staying home and out of circulation, but I also know that a lot of them are a big risk for me as a creator when it comes to time versus profits. And I want my readers to understand the thought process that determines what comes out next from my work desk.

Writing a Book Isn't Free

When a lot of people think of books, they imagine creating something out of nothing. It's just words on a page, after all, and in today's digital world where ebooks are a huge part of the market it's possible to build a successful career for yourself by making and marketing an entirely ephemeral product. However, even if you do the writing, the editing, the book layout, the cover design, and the marketing on your own, that book still cost you something to produce. It took your time, your energy, and your creativity, along with parts of your sanity in many cases.

Speaking of, go get your copy of my book today!

In exchange for all of that time, that energy, and that sheer mental sweat, this thing you've created has the potential to give you money. That's the nature of work, after all; you perform the task, and in exchange you are given money so that you can cover your expenses while also indulging in the occasional bit of excess.

What a lot of folks don't seem to realize, though, is that the more return on investment you need to make a project break even, the harder it can be to actually justify the project in the first place.

Let's Talk Numbers

So, let's say I wanted to write a novel. For this scenario I'm possessed by the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson, and so I will be able to complete a manuscript in one month (for those wondering where I'm getting this number, it's the length of time it originally took him to pen The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). My average expenses throughout the month, for the bare minimum, include:

- $400 for my part of the rent
- $40 for Internet
- $80 for utilities

So discounting food, transportation, and other expenses that can go up and down depending on my household's status, I would need to make at least $520 from spending my month's energy writing that novel for it to really break even.

Yeah, that math checks out.

That is a tall order to ask for one project, working at the level I'm working at. The important thing to remember is that books can continue to sell over time, though. So if your monthly expenses remain relatively stable, and you continue making sales, you actually need less performance from future works to make sure you break even. And in an ideal world you have enough popular material on the market that your cushion will carry you from one month to another regardless of what else you put out.

Let's say I've been at my desk for a few months, and I've kicked out 5 novels in as many months. Now I just need each book to make about $104 every month in sales to cover the expenses I listed. That would be impressive, but far from unreasonable. And if I had 10 books on the market? Well, each one would need to make $50 and change in sales every month (on average) to maintain that cushion.

So on the one hand it's true that the more stuff you put out on the market, the better the chances you'll be able to keep your bills paid. On the other hand, nothing you do as a writer is guaranteed... and that's the rub.

It's All About Time, and Luck

Let's go back to that above scenario. That first book I wrote while I was harboring the spirit of a famous author had to sell a few hundred copies in order to pay my expenses for the month. If it manages to do that, great, I have essentially bought myself time to work on the sequel. And if it really captured the reading public's attention and sold gangbusters? Even better.

But what if it only sold 100 copies? Or a few dozen? What do I do then?

Well, I tried. Guess my luck wasn't good today.

If that happened in that first month, that would be devastating. Now I've got the power company wondering where their money is, a landlord threatening eviction, and on top of that I'm not eating. But what if it happened with the third book? Or the fourth one? It would still be inconvenient, but if the others were doing well enough that they could shoulder the weight then it wouldn't be as much of a problem, and I could probably muddle through to the next month where the next new release would be able to help boost my earnings.

You know the real issue, though? It doesn't take me a month to write a novel. That's an unrealistic turnaround time for most authors out there (for those of you citing Stephen King and other prolifics, the exceptions prove the rule on this one).

Maintaining a solid daily word count, I can write a first draft of a novel somewhere between 7 months and a year. If you want a cleaned up and edited version that I've gone over, and which the beta readers have seen, you're looking at a minimum of 10 months if I had a serious fire under me. If that novel is going to a traditional publishing house, it could be an additional 6 months to a year before it comes out, depending on their release schedule.

So that one novel would need to earn me more than $6,000 in sales just to make up for some of my bills in the time it took me to write it (to say nothing of additional time waiting for the publisher to put it on the market). And that's assuming there are no hiccups, no delays, no re-writes that add onto the time, and that I can immediately turn around to work on the next thing as soon as it's done.

Then, just to add insult to injury, even if the book does do well it's going to take more than a month for earnings to clear and be sent to me. Sometimes I'll only get a check during a particular quarter, depending on the publisher. So even if the book is clocking sales, I need to have the resources on-hand to wait for the money to actually get to me no matter how popular my work was.

If the game sounds rigged, that's a feature, not a flaw.

This is an even bleaker break down of what I talked about back in "You Can Only Be A Writer If You Can Afford It" Tells An Uncomfortable Truth. Because it takes time for you to get good at writing books, and it's unlikely the first one you write is going to get published. It's also unlikely the first book you publish is going to soar onto the bestseller lists. So you have to sink in even more time, more energy, more sweat, and more research to (as many Dark Souls players will say) git gud.

The Audience is What Really Makes The Difference

With all of this said, the important thing to remember is that writers aren't the ones with the power. You, the readers, are the kingmakers in this game. You are the ones with the power to help ensure that we can keep doing what we're doing.

Because it doesn't matter if we've written one book, a dozen, or a hundred... if no one reads them, our checks will all look the same.

Basically the opposite of this.

This is why I stress so much that if you know an author who's struggling, they need your help! And if you're not sure what to do, just follow the 10 Concrete Ways You Can Help The Authors You Like. If you have money, buy their books, contribute to their patron, buy their books as presents for your friends, and so on. If you don't have money, boost their signal, leave reviews, write blogs or make videos about them... spread the word so other people can find out about the creator you want to support.

Because there is only so much we can do from our side of this equation. And if you help open those floodgates, you're going to get a lot more books into your hands a lot faster.

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!