Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Strange Excitement of Forced Success

For those who don't know me, I basically decided that I was going to be an author around the age of 13. Since I was still at that age where adults were constantly asking me what I was going to do when I grew up, I remember being told time and time again, "That's a great goal, sweetheart, but you need to do something other than write novels. After all, what if that doesn't work out for you?"

I'm sure most creative professionals have heard the same spiel in one form or another.

Some adults calmly explained to me that it takes a long time to write a book, and I'll have bills to pay in the mean time. Others talked about how famous authors like Stephen King were teachers while they worked on novels in their spare time (telling me both that they liked these creative works enough to pay for them, and that they sort of missed how condescending it was to relegate the writing itself to a back room hobby, but I digress). While this didn't dissuade me, exactly, it did underline that I was going to have to really pour on the energy if I expected to be able to do this without also pulling a 9 to 5 the rest of the week.

And I realized something earlier this month... I've done it! Well, sort of.

And a big thanks for all the folks who helped me get here!

Also, for those who haven't seen it yet, I've got a newsletter! Sign up now to get weekly updates, and don't miss a single trick while I keep bringing you fresh content.

When The Eggs Weight-Test Your Basket

Folks who check my updates know that I'm a pretty busy bee. Ring of Fire recently released my cat noir novel Marked Territory, I manage two blogs, I'm constantly expanding my Vocal article archive (which is sitting pretty at 178 articles at time of writing), and I've released 46 separate RPG supplements such as 100 Sights to See in a Steampunk City and 100 Fantasy Tattoos (and The Meaning Behind Them) that earn me royalties.

Of course while working on all of that, along with probably a half dozen other projects that I haven't mentioned, I was also writing content as a freelance blogger. I wasn't writing as much content as I had in the past, but it was still the first thing I did everyday when I logged on before I got to the "fun" work.

Come on baby... go viral! I believe in you!

About halfway through the summer, though, I started noticing that my "day job" writing just wasn't paying me anymore. As with so many things, writers get paid when the articles get approved, and more and more clients were scaling back their publications, or just sitting on content for months. Sometimes a batch would squeak through, but it went from triple digit checks every week, to $50 a week, to about $20-$30 a week.

I have a small mountain of content still waiting for approval (enough to equal a second stimulus check if the clients would just approve it), but that income stream has shrunk to a trickle.

And you know what? The past few months I've actually managed to survive. I'm not thriving by any stretch of the imagination, but thanks to sales events like Drive Thru RPG's "Rogue-Tober," as well as the generosity of a handful of new patrons (you can always sign up at The Literary Mercenary's Patreon if you'd like to help keep things going, as well), and the semi-viral success of my article Partners and Polycules: Polyamorous Designations Based Off Dungeons and Dragons Dice, I've managed to break even without tightening my belt too much.

I don't feel secure where I'm at by any stretch of the imagination. I've got a dozen more projects I'm working on as we speak to expand my archives, and to make sure my readers have even more stuff to check out. But it's an odd feeling realizing that I sort of got where I want to be (or at least I'm a lot closer than I thought) when I wasn't even looking.

Missing The Forest For The Trees

The best comparison I have was when I was working two rather strenuous jobs in my early 20s. During the day I walked roughly 10 miles or so delivering newspapers, and then I drove a bakery truck overnight. The bakery was across town, and roughly a three mile walk where I left my place at 1 in the morning, and got there around 2ish. I needed both jobs to cover my part of the rent, and no matter what I tried to do nowhere else in town was hiring. So for roughly two months my schedule was get up, deliver the afternoon papers, come home, eat dinner, and relax. I'd either watch TV, read a book, or nap, then walk across town, deliver donuts till 5:30 or 6, take the bus home, and do it all again the next day.

I wasn't in bad shape when I started these jobs. But as they said in Fight Club after a month or so of this routine I was carved out of wood.
Artist's Rendering
The sudden realization that without going to the gym, making big changes to my diet, or really noticing it that I'd gotten extremely fit sort of threw me when I looked in the mirror. I was still tired a lot of the time, my feet hurt, and I'd worn the heels of my boots at an odd angle, but I hadn't really noticed just how far I'd come in adding lean muscle and peeling away extra pounds.

A similar thing happened with regards to my current body of work. I'd just been plugging away at it over the past couple of years, making sure that I put up articles as fast as I could, didn't miss deadlines, and generally tried to build that cushion. While I'm knocking on wood as I write these words, even in the midst of a pandemic my archive was still expansive enough that I was able to pay most of my bills between sales and patronage, with my leftover Vocal reads used to fill in the cracks.

Since about August, I've thrown myself into writing entirely new gaming projects, my current novel manuscript has rounded 56k words (coming into the home stretch), and I've got a whole list of Vocal articles I plan to add. While it feels like the devil is nipping at my heels a little bit, there's also a certain invigorating feeling of climbing without a harness; of being on the trapeze without a net.

Something could go wrong. I could lose my patrons, websites I use for hosting could shut down, projects could get terminated, contracts revoked... but for the time being I'm flying. It's a stumbling flight, and I can see the jagged rocks from where I am, but goddammit I'm in the air and I will stay there through sheer force of spite if that's what it takes!

I hope, my friends, that someday you also get to feel this feeling. Though preferably not in the midst of a global pandemic.

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 noir thriller Marked Territory, 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, October 21, 2020

3 Common Horror Mistakes That Can Really Ruin Your Story

It's October, and that means there are a lot of people penning horror stories right now. Maybe you're taking up a seasonal challenge, or perhaps you're trying to land some work in the anthologies that always seem to rise from the grave around this time of year. Whatever the reason, though, if you're not an old genre ghoul there are a lot of traps just waiting for you to step in them out there. That's why this Halloween season I'd like to offer you all a seat by the fire so I can give you a warning or two about the dos and do-nots of horror stories.

Don't mind that noise. It's just the wind.

And for those who are wondering about what my bona fides are (or if you'd just like to check out some fun horror stories this spooky season), this genre has sort of been my comfy place for much of my career. From having short stories in collections like SNAFU: A Collection of Military Horror and American Nightmare, to the cosmic horror elements of my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, to the stinking alleys and backwoods copses laden with monsters in my collections The Rejects and New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam, I like to think I know at least a little bit about this particular subject.
Also, if you want to stay on top of all my updates, releases, news, etc. then please consider signing up for my weekly newsletter!

Now then, without further ado...

#1: Rushing To Get To The Good Part

Don't rush to the climax... you've got word count to fill.

Pacing and presentation are two of the most important parts of a horror story. If you've ever seen someone tell a ghost story around a campfire, then you already know this. You need to draw the audience in, and ratchet up the tension gradually so that when you deliver the scare it sticks the landing instead of making the listeners sigh and roll their eyes.

In its way, horror is sort of like that third date. You know what you're in for, but you don't just show up on the doorstep ready to go. You take your time along the evening, testing boundaries, and getting little glimpses of what's to come. That excitement builds, and you may have a couple of close calls, but you don't get to the proper reveal until you're finally back in the house, with the candlelight dancing on the walls. Then you hear that zipper come down, and you see her run her fingers through her hair, peeling off that skin suit and dropping it to the ground, those intense blue eyes staring at you from her lipless, lidless face as the blood pounds and the muscles twitch.

As for presentation, think of the xenomorph in the Alien franchise. The movie gives you little glimpses here and there. It lets your mind do the work, and it gets more and more tense, until you're practically jumping at shadows. There is a deleted scene where we got to see the creature just standing there under the light, though. And you know what? It's not scary. When it just stands there with no shadows, no creepy echoes, no blur of movement, it creates no tension. It still looks weird, and clearly inhuman, but it's the difference between seeing a lion in an enclosure at the zoo, and knowing there's one stalking through the shadows just beyond the reach of your flashlight.

#2: Your Entire Cast is Made of Assholes

Jesus... these kids just get worse and worse every film...

This is a trick a lot of people use to try to have their cake and eat it, too. We want to have people get beaten, tortured, or killed in brutal ways, but to make sure the audience doesn't feel too bad about it we make sure it's abundantly clear these are bad people. Maybe it's the homophobic guy at the truck stop who beat up the gay server, or the woman berating the barista because her coffee wasn't just how she liked it. It might even be the schoolyard bullies that we see making other kids' lives miserable. Whoever it is, we give the audience an out. We let them know it's okay not to feel too bad for these characters... after all, they probably had this coming.

You can get away with that once, or maybe even twice in a horror story. Perhaps for the establishing kill to tease there's something wrong, and then a last, satisfying death before the conclusion (like the businessman who keeps trying to sell out the other, non-wealthy passengers in any survival horror movie where cooperation is literally the only way to get past the danger). All the other injuries, wounds, and deaths in the story, though? Don't shy away from those! Let them happen to people who seem to be nice, or good, or honest. Let the audience's guts clench, and their mouths drop open. It isn't horrifying to see someone you're invested in hating get torn apart by a werewolf... it's satisfying!

Don't be afraid to have bad things happen to good people. And don't stuff your story to the gills with people so actively terrible you can practically read the order they're going to die in like some kind of bizarre Hollywood tarot.

#3: Mistaking Cruelty For Horror

Go on... just put your foot in it!

Horror can be cruel, but cruelty is not inherently horrific. This is like that thing they taught you in math class about squares and rectangles. The problem is that a lot of people write stories that are nihilistic and empty in an attempt to be scary, but if the cruelty isn't reinforcing a message of some kind then it just results in an audience that went through an unpleasant experience without any kind of catharsis or purpose. Like eating spoiled devil's eggs just because you could, rather than to make a statement on gluttony, or the human condition, or about how we will go to lengths of astonishing self-harm under capitalism if that's what it takes to survive.

To take that last example and run with it, there's a beautifully grotesque short story in Clive Barker's The Books of Blood Volume 2 titled "Dread." If you haven't read the story or seen the film based on it, the short version is that a psychology graduate student is kidnapping people and subjecting them to the things they fear most to torture them. The reason is to try to understand the origin of fear, how it can be overcome, and where people's minds will break. Ironically these very acts end up creating the antagonist's worst fear, which was that he would be hacked to death by an insane clown with an ax. There is a scene early on in the story where the antagonist forces a vegetarian woman into a room, and locks her in with a perfectly-cooked steak. It is the only thing she will get to eat, but she fears the meat. The longer she waits, though, the more disgusting and spoiled the meal becomes, and the more she will need to eat it to survive.

Hunger eventually wins, and though the meat has gone rancid, she eats it out of desperation, too far gone for the fear to affect her any longer.

This scene is witnessed quickly in both text and film, but it isn't just pointless cruelty for the sake of cruelty. The experience shows that the villain of the story is willing to go to horrifying lengths because of his obsession, and that once someone becomes a subject they are no longer a person to him. Then, in a microcosm, the vegetarian's struggle with her own fear, and her de-evolution into a baser animal who does things to survive that her upper brain would never have allowed. It acts as foreshadowing for what's going to happen to our protagonist once he finds himself face-to-face with his own inner demons.

Yes, torture porn, I'm getting to you.

For those clearing their throat about to cite the many examples of stories where pointless cruelty is the thrust of the whole endeavor (the Hostel series comes to mind, for those seeking examples), I'd like to point out that even bleak horror stories that seem to have no rhyme or reason to their violence and brutality are often using that lack of reason to make a point.

Take the film Seven. It's a detective story about tracking down a killer who is obsessed with a deeper meaning, with purity, and with object lessons. In a very real sense the film is about the fragile nature of security, and how those who cannot or will not look at the bigger picture will be shattered when tragedy arrives on their doorstep, blood dripping off the hem of its overcoat. While at a glance it looks like nothing but a grotesque murder spree with allusions to faith, as Ryan Hollinger points out, its subject matter challenges our definitions of "realism," and what we expect from a narrative.

We see this in a lot of films. Hostel is about the drives of those with power to seek forbidden experiences, and how they never expect to be taken to task for the things they do. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has allusions to the lost generation who died in a pointless war in Vietnam, as well as criticisms of the meat industry and the cruelties it's responsible for. Even the outlandish A Serbian Film is making a political statement on how a particular ethnic group is portrayed in fiction, using the brutality and grotesque actions to create a parody of these stereotypes.

There is cruelty in all of these examples. That cruelty is in service of the narrative, however, and it's used to drive home what the stories are about, in addition to their actual plots. But just throwing cruelty into your story doesn't make it any more compelling, or any more inherently frightening. In fact, handled poorly, it can be the final nail that makes your audience walk away.

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 cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my most recent short story collection The Rejects!
And to stay on top of all my latest news and releases, collected once a week, make sure you subscribe to The Literary Mercenary's mailing list.

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 14, 2020

Want To Sell More Books? Get Some Pictures of Your Pets!

One of the things I miss most about conventions due to this global pandemic we're all surviving is sitting down with other authors and finding out what their odd little tricks are for selling books and boosting their signals. I shared one earlier this year that I picked up at Capricon in If You're Going To Cons as an Author, Wear a Hat, and I recently came across another trick that seemed silly, but I had to give it a try to see if it really worked after all.

That simple sales trick? Put pictures of your pets on social media, and let the Internet's natural reaction to share images of cute cats and darling dogs sell the book for you!

So what's my cut of this again? 

For those who don't know that adorable little face, that's my cat Jager. In addition to being my sensitivity reader for my novel Marked Territory, which is a noir thriller about an alley cat named Leo who gets embroiled in a bit of nastiness on the Bronx's south side involving the raccoons, a pack of mutts, and a curious little mystery, Jager also agreed to help market the book. In return for posing for a couple of pics, I agreed that he would get a portion of all the proceeds from books that he sold.

And you know something? The image shares of this pic, along with a little story like, "I promised my sensitivity editor that I'd give him a cut in new toys and fresh nip, so help me spoil my cat a little and get a copy of my new book!" actually got people to boost the signal pretty effectively. The post got two to three times the amount of attention from my standard FB feed and author page, and it managed to generate interest even from groups where I usually get relatively small feedback, if any.

In addition to getting likes, hearts, and shares, though, the posts also sold books. Not gangbuster sales, of course, but far more than I'd honestly expected when I first set out to make the posts.

And Alice Liddell, which is the fellow author who shared the trick with me (incidentally, go follow her author page on Facebook for some quality storytelling), basically responded with, "Told you so."

Whatever Stops Them Scrolling

An old piece of advice I once received was that you need to be sure your posts always have an arresting image to stop people from scrolling. It's the first step of engagement, after all. Once you've managed to halt them, you can try to drag them in and get them to boost the signal, buy a book, or both.

And the Internet has basically programmed us to love cute animals.

When you share an image and a story about one of your pets, though, it does something else for you; it gives the viewer some insight into who you are. They might know you're an author, but if you share pictures of your pet with them, that's a bonding moment. It shows them you're a person behind the cool job and flashy book cover, and it lets them know that at least some of the money you make is going to take care of that precious fur baby you keep in the office to help second-guess your plot twists.

Lastly, if you put your link in a picture, then no matter if someone shares with the original post or not, it's going to be embedded whenever someone takes a look at it. Which means your buy link is going to travel a lot further than it otherwise would.

Also, while I have your attention here, please consider signing up for my newsletter so you can stay on top of all my news, releases, and what Jager's up to!

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 noir thriller Marked Territory, 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, October 7, 2020

The Challenge of Writing About Real Places That You've Never Been

One of the conveniences of writing fantasy or science fiction that takes place on a distant world, or in another realm is that you don't have to check to make sure you have your facts right. The city of Danaerish Falls isn't a real place, after all, so you can input whatever rules, laws, people, and taverns you want into it. The Astronomer's Navy is based on Gallius IV, and it's your moon, so you can basically do what you want with its ecosystem, its settlements, and its animal life.

When your story is set in a real place, though, you need to double-check what you're including. Because from street names and addresses to demographics, laws, and history, there will be people who will know you made a mistake. And if you think dealing with a typo that survived four rounds of edits is embarrassing, just wait until you find out that you screwed up something that a local is going to call you on.

Trust me, it's something I've been dealing with a lot.

For those who haven't read Marked Territory yet (though you really should!) it follows Leo as he sticks his whiskers into some happenings on the south side of the Bronx. The novel is a back-alley noir mystery, and while our cast is made up entirely of NYC's street beasts, the city itself is still a character. And it was one that I tried really hard to get right.

Since I've never been to New York City, I figured I'd share a few of the strategies I used to try to minimize my mistakes in this endeavor.
Also, if you want to stay on top of all my current releases, don't forget to subscribe to my mailing list!

First Things First, Do Your Research

Not everyone is within a short drive of a major city, after all.

It seems obvious, but I don't just mean just look up the basics. Instead, allow yourself to go full tourist! Print out maps, read about history, make note of important times and dates, and if it's applicable to your story, look up laws that will or won't come into play. If you happen to know people who've been to the location you're trying to capture, grill them about the experience. If they've got home movies they shot, dig through them if they'll let you.

Google street view is going to be your best friend on this one if you need to know what a particular location looks like. Also, make sure you clock a few hours on YouTube. Seeing a place in motion, and taking in what people are wearing, what the weather is, what sort of colors are on-display, and even something as basic as what sort of vendors you see on the street can add organic details to the background. In particular take note of regional franchises, local slang, and other things that can give away that you're not from around here.

Ever seen Inglorious Basterds? That scene where the undercover British operative gives himself away by holding up the wrong three fingers while pretending to be German is exactly the sort of thing you don't want to do with your book.

Second, Keep Things Vague Whenever You Can

The more lies you tell, the better the chance you'll get caught.

All storytellers lie, but the more complicated the lie you're telling the more difficult it can be to keep everything straight. So when you're telling your story try to keep things short, sweet, and to the point. Don't focus on trying to mention specific times and locations as if you're reciting off a list to convince a jury that you were in a particular place on a particular night. Instead, keep things vague when you can, and only give specifics when you have to.

For example, if a scene in your story takes place in a section of Central Park, you're going to have to talk about the specifics of that location. Look at pictures, figure out the name of that corner, and try to get the clearest possible view so that it's almost like you're capturing it on film. But if your characters are walking down the street, or driving to meet a contact? That's not the time for excessive detail. Mention cardinal directions, a highway name if you really need to (you usually don't), and how long something is taking, but don't break up your narrative flow to put a list of directions in your novel just to prove you looked it up. Your readers will trust that the characters took the proper turns to arrive at their destination.

Authenticity in location isn't just names and locations... it's a feeling. It's the smell, the taste, the texture, and the sounds of a place. Imagining a feeling for a place you've never been is tough, but when you're researching pay attention to those background details. If you're on the ocean, mention the tang of salt in the air, or a constant breeze from the water. Talk about the chatter of the crowd, or the heat baking off the concrete. If there's an iconic aspect, such as carriage rides or bell ringers in Santa costumes, mention those details. Those background things are going to flavor a scene much more convincingly than telling your readers it takes place on Clark Street, or in the upstairs ballroom of the Ritz Carlton.

Third, Don't Be Afraid To Make Stuff Up

Just pull it out of thin air... they can't stop you!

At a glance, this one seems to go against the first step. After all, isn't the whole purpose of doing your research so that you know what's going on in a given location, and to allow you to describe it accurately without needing to make stuff up?

Yes. But sometimes it just makes your story more interesting (or less problematic) to invent new facets of a real location. And if you followed the second step, then you should have fewer issues with this one.

We see this all the time in cop dramas and private detective stories. Writers invent a criminal syndicate, a motorcycle gang, a security firm, a high-priced investment firm, a favorite corner bar, and a hundred other details for these stories, and readers never bat an eye. Sometimes writers do this because there is no real-world organization, group, or location that can fill the role they need for a story to work. Sometimes it's because it lets writers skate around problematic depictions of real people. Sometimes it's because they don't want to risk tying scenes or stories to particular real-world businesses. And sometimes it's just for convenience sake.

All of these are valid reasons you should occasionally just go with your gut, and make it up.

People asked Chuck Palahniuk for years where they could find their local fight club... there were none, he made them up. It was one of the important building blocks of his story, but he didn't track down real world basement cage matches, because there was no such thing. He created the bars they took place in, and invented the dilapidated old house so much of the plot revolved around. There was no real Project Mayhem, either. So the next time you find yourself researching brands of sidewalk hot dog vendors in a particular town, or trying to find an exact restaurant that serves French cuisine in the neighborhood you're setting your third chapter in, you can probably make it up as long as you keep the details vague about where it's exactly located... particularly if your setting is in a big city where it's easy to lose track of all the little details.

And if you spin these particular lies well enough, you'll have readers desperate to know what place you based them off of, because they want to go check it out for themselves.

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 cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife, or my most recent short story collection The Rejects!
And to stay on top of all my latest news and releases, collected once a week, make sure you subscribe to The Literary Mercenary's mailing list.

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!