Wednesday, August 25, 2021

History is Full of Ridiculous Exploits Committed by Overpowered Characters

Whether it's in writing groups or RPG forums, a discussion that I come across time and time again is the discussion of whether a particular character is too "unbelievable" or too "overpowered" for the story they're in. Generally speaking this criticism is vague (often deliberately so), and may often be used in conjunction with a claim that a character simply isn't "realistic" enough for this story to be believable for them.

I submit that truth is far stranger than fiction in this case, and that if you just look at a handful of examples of real people and the actual feats they've accomplished throughout history that it might add a little perspective as to what "realistic" might actually mean.

As always, before we get into the meat of things, remember to sign up for my weekly newsletter if you want to stay on top of all my projects and releases. And if you want to help keep my blogs running smoothly, consider becoming a Patreon patron so I can devote the necessary time and energy to them!

History is Often an Undiscovered Country

And it is full of bizarre facts.

Most people think of Dolph Lundgren as merely an actor. However, as I pointed out in this old article he's also a Fullbright Scholar with two masters degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering, a world-champion martial artist, and a rock star who once put a fellow actor in the ICU for a week because of a single blow to his chest (if you've seen his performance in Rocky, it was the one that lifted Stallone off his feet).

If you tried to write a novel about a character who was a movie star, martial arts champion, and a genius, people would say it was totally unrealistic... despite a real person with those qualifications doing his thing in the world as I write this.

And that's far from the only example I could cite. Joe Greenstein was a Jewish strongman who beat 20 American Nazis to a pulp with only a bat and his martial arts expertise in the 1930s. Harriet Tubman was a black woman that was born a slave who conducted daring nighttime raids on plantations, and who was a scout for the Union army who led the biggest raid in American history against slave holders, freeing over 700 people in a single swoop. Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, and the president, but he was also a freakishly strong man who was known for bodily flinging hecklers through the air earlier in his career. He's also the only president in the wrestling hall of fame. Most of the unreal exploits we assign to James Bond as a character were inspired by the operations of real-life secret agents, including author Ian Fleming and his cousin Sir Christopher Lee (not shitting you, those two shared a distant relation, and a close friendship).

These are just a handful of real people who possessed bizarre sets of skills, accomplished amazing feats, and who might seem larger-than-life. People who, if the things they did showed up in a movie, or in a novel, would make the audience scoff at how far-fetched this all is.

Ability is Only One Measure of a Character

While our actual history is full of amazing figures, it's not a one-to-one comparison if you're creating stories in worlds that have angry gods, bizarre monsters, fantastic creatures, magic, super science, and more. However, there is another, equally important point that's worth keeping in mind.

It's not how powerful a character is that makes them good or bad. It's whether we can empathize with them, whether there are stakes in their stories, and whether we want to follow them to the end of their journey.


Morpheus. Dr. Who. Superman. These are all characters who have large followings of fans. Characters who, when viewed at arm's length, are obscenely powerful. And they're far from the only examples I could name. But despite all these many abilities and skills, we still love them, and we still enjoy their stories.


Well, in some cases it's because these characters are facing off against odds that are on their level, and battling against foes and threats who are equally powerful. These stories can feel more like mythology, with gods and monsters far beyond mere humans. However, other times it's because these characters are trying to deal with situations that they can't just wave away. Problems that need to be handled delicately, or which cannot be solved with the flash of a sci-fi screwdriver, or a beam of heat vision.

But a lot of the time it is the actual character themselves that wins an audience's heart. The connection we feel to them, the way they touch us, and the relationship we form with them over a journey. It's the way they hook our attention and draw us in, not because of their rippling thews or infinite knowledge, but because they're interesting  in ways that other characters aren't.

Those are the two things I wanted to talk about this week. That "realistic" is often nowhere near what people think it is in terms of the sort of people who've lived in our world and the things they've actually done. And even if you're creating characters in an impossible world, you don't need to boil them down in order to make them digestible... readers are fully capable of latching on and loving them as long as you hook their interest, and take them on a ride they want to be part of.

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, its sequel Painted Cats, 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, August 18, 2021

Authors, Be Realistic About Your Book's Return on Investment

When you're writing a book it's all too easy to fantasize about being the next Stephen King or George R. R. Martin. To imagine your book is so great that it's going to develop a cult following, and that people are going to line up down the hall at conventions and book stores just to get your signature on their copy. Just like every other writer out there I've had my share of daydreams about what it would be like to get big, fat royalty checks in the mail that allow me to just relax, enjoy my coffee, and focus on the next novel without worrying about bills, or car repairs, or any of that boring, real life stuff.

There's a hard truth that a lot of writers out there (particularly the indie and self-publishing folks) need to hear, though. Because unless you already have a huge, receptive, eager audience in place, you're probably not going to make any real money from your books for a while.

Hell, you might not even make pretend money.

Before I get into more details, wanted to remind folks to subscribe to my weekly newsletter if you want to stay on top of all my latest releases! And if you like the work I'm doing and want to help me keep my blogs going, consider becoming a Patreon patron. It really does help!

Can You Make Money? Yes...

First, let's talk numbers. Because as I mentioned in Unfortunate Facts: Without Sponsorship, Most Writers Can't Eat, the average number of sales for a self-published book will amount to less than $500 a year. While it's certainly possible you could make above average sales with your book, it's equally possible you will earn below $500 a year, especially as your initial audience peters off as your friends, family, etc. get and read their copies and you need to reach out to a fresh audience.

From what I've seen, these numbers aren't that inaccurate. I know plenty of successful indie authors, like K.M. Herkes and Lauren Jankowski, who earn well above this number. My own novel, Crier's Knife, did slightly better than estimated... but not all that much better. I've also met a lot of writers who put out their first novel, and then just stopped writing when the audience didn't spontaneously manifest.

Trust me, you have to go find your readers, not the other way around.

If you take nothing else away from this post, understand this. The quality of your book, and how many copies it sells, are only in a vague, tangential relationship a lot of the time. If a tree falls in a forest, and no one's around to see it or hear it, then no one knows about it. By the same token, you could have written the most amazing novel ever... but if you don't go out and build your audience (attending cons, being active on social media, getting a large mailing list, etc.) you're never going to sell any copies because nobody knows about it.

And if you don't have a legion of fans ready and eager to hand over greenbacks for your next release, then don't dig yourself into debt putting the book together. Because I promise you that, barring a miracle, you're never going to break even much less make a profit.

Don't Shell Out For Things You Don't Need

Self-publishing a book can, theoretically, be done for free. You can write your novel on a free word processor, design your own cover free of charge using royalty free public domain images, and even publish it through a free service like Amazon. However, most writers out there are going to have to put in at least a little money in order to cover the skills they don't have when it comes to making their book the best it can be.

And you should do that. But you need to keep a realistic eye on what your earnings are going to be, and how much of this starting investment you're going to recoup.

Like this fine piece, for example.

One of the biggest things I've seen authors waste money on is super-expensive cover design. Now, to be clear, artists should be paid for their work... but if your book is going to make maybe $300, and you pay an artist $800 to $1,000 for a unique, one-of-a-kind cover, you're coming out on the short end of this deal however you look at it.

That's why a lot of indie authors and small publishers will actually use stock art for their books, rather than commissioning fresh art every time they have a new release. I talked about this in detail in Looking For Cover Art For Your Book? Try Drive Thru RPG!, but it bears repeating. The art for Crier's Knife up there? I paid $5 for the right to use it. Because that is an investment I knew I'd be able to recoup.

Another place I see writers throwing money into a hole is when it comes to editing. Again, you should have an editor look over your manuscript before it goes up for sale. However, it is important to make sure that is the last step of the process, and that you can actually afford the services in question. Because there are some writers who give the manuscript to an editor as soon as they finish it, rather than after they do all their own editing, give it to beta readers, etc. And if you pay to have the book edited, then your beta readers point out an alternative direction that would be better, and you re-write a big chunk of the book, now you have to pay to have it edited again... and that's just poor use of resources. Lastly, be real with yourself. If you're an independent writer who is making a first foray into the market, you don't require an editor who used to work for Tor, or with 30 years industry experience... nobody cares who your editor was. You just need somebody who can do the job, and make sure your book is presentable. That's it.

This same kind of logic can be extended out to your advertising and promotion. Because while you can probably get a dealer's booth at a big convention like Gen Con, it's less expensive to get a spot in author's alley (something you should always ask about for convention prices). You could pay for a full page spread in a local newspaper, or for a slot on the radio, but those kinds of ads might not be the best way to reach people who are looking for a book... especially if you can get those outlets to review your book, or interview you as the creator, free of charge as a local interest story.

Don't Just Throw Money at Your Challenges

If you're self-publishing your book, you do need to polish up as many aspects of it as you can. You need to go over your document, ensure your headers are smooth, and that your pages aren't crowded. You need to find good cover art, choose the right finish, get a compelling back cover blurb, and do everything you can to get that book in front of as many readers as possible.

But as they say, the best way to make a small fortune as an author is to start with a large fortune, and wait.

There are very few of us who get rich doing this job. So hedge your bets, and any time you have an expense, shop around to see what your options are. Evaluate your budget, and look at what you can realistically expect to make. Ask other authors how they did it, and if they have recommendations. Lastly, and this one might sting a bit, take your ego out of the equation. This book you're writing isn't a baby. It's not a beautiful extension of your mind and heart. Or, at least, it's not only that. Because it's also a product you are trying to sell.

A product that can't make a profit is how businesses go bankrupt, and whatever else you are as an author you need to remember that you're a cottage industry unto yourself.

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, its sequel Painted Cats, 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 11, 2021

When Building a New World, Follow The Ripples

For those who don't know, I've been actively working on a fantasy RPG setting since the start of 2021. I'll have more details on Sundara: Dawn of a New Age below for those who are curious, but there's something important that I've learned throughout this process that I think fellow writers (whether you're a novelist, a games creator, or somewhere in between) need to keep firmly in their sights.

Namely that whenever you're designing a world you need to take every element not just at its face value, but to ask how this element could change or alter the setting going forward. Or, phrased another way, if you're throwing a rock into a pond, watch the ripples and see how far they go.

But what if we made magic super common?

Before we get into the details, you all know the drill by now. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter to stay on top of all my updates, and if you've got any dosh to spare consider tossing it my way by becoming a Patreon patron! Every little bit helps.

Every Change Can Have Implications

The fun of world building is that you get to put settings together in different configurations to see what happens. You can tinker with everything from the climate, to the social structures of your people, to what strange and fantastical species exist in your world. You decide how magic works, what technological innovations exist, what gods are or aren't in this world, everything!

However, there is a flip side to this astonishing amount of power, and it's one that occasionally gets overlooked. Because if something exists in a setting, you have to ask what the implications of that thing's presence are, and how it can alter your world as a whole.

Let's take dragons... as an example.

So, let's say your world has dragons. Awesome! Dragons are cool, and they always grab people's attention. However, every element of dragons in your setting will shape the way the world functions, and you need to ask what that means to your setting, and the stories you tell within it.

For example, are dragons sapient creatures, or are they merely large and dangerous animals? If the latter, then are dragonslayers a required profession to help deal with these territorial beasts the way you'd have game wardens or animal control officers? If dragons are intelligent creatures capable of thought and reason, though, then are there accords for negotiating with them? Do they form agreements with surrounding nations, or do they merely take what they want using their power? In either case, are dragons prized for their body parts once they're slain? Because if their blood enchants swords that are quenched in it, or their scales are impenetrable to normal steel, or their teeth can cure disease when powdered, that will make them highly prized assets to poachers looking to make a profit off a dragon's corpse.

You can keep asking questions like this (Are dragons used as mounts by elite warriors? Incorporated into armies? Do they bond with particular species?) all day long. And there's no wrong answer to these questions... but you do need to have answers, and those answers could lead to more questions as the ripples spread outward.

And you need those answers in order for your setting to have verisimilitude.

As an example, say that your setting has a kind of quartz in it that can hold a charge from magic to act as a power or light source. If such an item exists, why are people still lighting their streets and homes with candles and torches? Is it because the mineral is rare, and thus wouldn't be used for that sort of thing? Perhaps. Because if it were common then it's likely it would be used at least in towns and cities near where wizards train their apprentices, or where sorcerers tend to be born. Even if it's not universal, its presence could be a sign of a town moving up in status, showing that they can afford to have a lamp-lighter's guild made up of apprentices and journeymen wizards.

This Applies To Damn Near Everything

Almost every aspect of a world is going to have implications like this. They won't always be center stage and of import to your current plot and story, but it's important to think about them and to consider what aspects of your world might mean if extrapolated on. From whether your kingdoms use paper money, to whether they have a banking system, to whether elves and orcs can have children with partners outside their species, it's important to think through all aspects of a setting in order to make sure your world has internal consistency for the reader.

And because sometimes you'll find that an idea gets way wilder than you expected it to... and it turns out to be a far bigger and more interesting addition to your story than you expected it to be!

Incidentally, if you haven't seen it yet, you might want to check out 5 Tips For Creating Fantasy Towns and Cities. It's something I put together that has helped solidify my process, and I figured it would be of use to other creators!

As For The World I'm Building... Well...

I've been hard at work on Sundara: Dawn of a New Age for months now, and every time a new release for it drops the setting gets just a little bit stranger! So whether you want to see cities atop mountains ruled by a cooperation of dragons, massive volcanic forges making crucible steel, metropolises cared for by armies of the living dead, and more, check out some of the Cities of Sundara installments below!

Seriously, give them a look for yourself!

- Ironfire: The City of Steel (Pathfinder and 5E): Built around the Dragon Forge, Ironfire is where the secret to dragon steel was first cracked. The center of the mercenary trade in the region, as well as boasting some of the finest schools for teaching practical sciences, Ironfire is a place where discovery and danger walk hand in hand!

- Moüd: The City of Bones (Pathfinder and 5E): An ancient center of trade and magic, Moüd was lost to a cataclysm, and then buried in myth. Reclaimed by the necromantic arts of the Silver Wraiths guild, this city has once again become a place teeming with life. Despite the burgeoning population, though, it is the continued presence of the undead that helps keep the city running, ensuring that Moüd is not swallowed up once more.

- Silkgift: The City of Sails (Pathfinder and 5E): Built on the cottage industry of Archer cloth (an extremely durable material used for sails, windmills, etc.), Silkgift is a place that prizes invention and discovery. From gravity batteries that store the potential of the wind, to unique irrigation systems, to aether weapons, the city positively churns out discoveries... and then there's the canal they cut through the mountains that makes them a major center of trade across the region.

- Hoardreach: The City of Wyrms (Pathfinder and 5E): A center of power across an entire region, Hoardreach is ruled over by a Cooperation of five different dragons. A place for refugees and outcasts of all sorts, Hoardreach boasts some of the most unusual citizens and creations from across Sundara. Infamous for their sky ships, which require the cast-off scales and unique arcane sciences of the Dragon Works to take to the air, one never knows just what they'll find in this city built atop a mountain.

- Archbliss: The City of The Sorcerers (Pathfinder and 5E): A floating city in the sky, Archbliss has been a refuge for sorcerers for thousands of years. It's only in relatively recent years that the city has allowed those from the ground below who lack the power of a bloodline to join them in the clouds. However, while there are certainly amazing wonders to behold, there is a darkness in Archbliss. Something rotting away at its heart that could, if not healed, bring the city crashing to the ground once more.

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, its sequel Painted Cats, 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!

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Unknown Authors Need The Help, But Famous Authors Get The Help

There is an old story told by a celebrity (I want to say it was Michael Jordan, but I couldn't track down quotes to say for sure) that I'd like to paraphrase. When they first started their career, and they didn't have a lot of money or connections, nobody wanted to give them anything. They had to pay for everything out-of-pocket, they didn't get invitations to big events, none of that. When they were at the top of their game, and they had more money than they could ever spend, that was when everyone wanted to give them free stuff. Free seats in first class, front-row tickets to big events, VIP treatment for coming to gatherings, and more merch than they knew what to do with.

Hey, I know you've got a lot of this already, but have some more, huh?

Said celebrity remarked on this irony. Because when they were just starting out, that was when they could really have used someone paying for their drinks, comping a meal, or slipping them some tickets to something they couldn't normally go out to do. Once they were rich they had people tripping over themselves to give them presents, but this was all stuff they could actually afford for themselves now, if they so chose.

If you're an author, this is something you're going to see whichever level of the profession you're at. And it's probably going to make you mad. So let's talk about why it happens, and how we could start changing the game if we so choose.

As I say every week, to stay on top of all my latest releases, subscribe to my weekly newsletter. And if you want to help me keep the skids greased, then consider becoming a Patreon patron as well... even a small pledge is a serious boon!

The Catch-22 of Being a Lesser-Known Author

In the interest of full and fair examinations, there is a very good reason that famous authors, famous athletes, famous movie stars, etc., get all the red carpet treatment. It is, simply put, because they have a high profile. They have fans who want to send them gifts, they have potential sponsors who want to get on their good side to make money, and they have a well-known name that's going to draw people to an event. Big names get this kind of treatment in the hopes that it will grant access, favor, or lead to a partnership where those giving them screen time, gifts, etc., can make more money. It's about talk show hosts and radio shows trying to get more viewers, podcasts to get a bigger audience, and so on, and so forth.

As a concrete example, most people have no idea who the hell I am. So if a convention were to make me the author guest of honor, I wouldn't be a draw for them. No one is going to hear that I'm showing up somewhere and think to themselves, "Shit, I got to get tickets to that!" But if it was Neil Gaiman instead of Neal Litherland as the head author? Tickets would be sold out in the snap of one's fingers, and the event would be packed.

That's the dream... by the by, check out The Rejects if you haven't yet.

The frustrating part of this scenario, of course, is that if you were to give a lesser-known author that kind of platform, they would have a chance at actually building their audience in a big way. They may not explode overnight, but if they got an interview slot on a YouTube channel with millions of followers, or their book was featured by a TikTok personality, or they were interviewed by a popular host, that spotlight might be all it takes to get people to pick up their books and become fans.

But the reason that doesn't happen is, of course, lesser-known authors aren't bringing a wake of fans with them to see their appearances. We aren't jackhammering a show's numbers by appearing as a guest, and our presence isn't selling tickets for events we show up to. So because we aren't well-known, we can't get the spotlight to actually let people know who we are and what we do so we can become well-known.

It is extraordinarily frustrating.

It's Why We Need Your Help

In the digital age the old kingmakers aren't gone, but they aren't as powerful as they used to be. It is entirely possible for authors to build a grassroots community and following through social media, smaller appearances in their local area, and through networking without ever once appearing on a mainstream show, getting on TV, or having a review of their work posted on a news site.

But possible isn't the same thing as easy.

If it was, Painted Cats would have WAY more than 6 ratings.

If enough individuals band together, they can send up a flare to get people to pay attention to the authors they love. 50 reviews on Amazon gets the algorithm turning, and starts broadcasting our signal to other people. I've been told the 10k follower mark on both Facebook and Twitter is when the sites start spitting your posts out to other people who might be interested in you. We cannot make those wheels turn on our own... but you can lend your voice to make them move for us.

Because you know something? I'm pretty sure that if I picked up 50k Twitter followers overnight (@nlitherl for those who are curious) that I'd have a lot of book sales that followed. Enough that I might go from that indie author nobody's heard of, to the guy who writes those cat mysteries everyone on social media won't shut up about.

Incidentally, grab a copy of Marked Territory and Painted Cats if you haven't done so yet. And if you're more of a military sci-fi kind of reader, then consider snatching up my post-apocalyptic noir thriller Old Soldiers about a small squad of defunct alien/human hybrid bio-weapons tracking down a conspiracy to wipe them out once and for all.

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, its sequel Painted Cats, 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!