So for USNI’s General Essay Contest last year, I posited that maybe the United States Navy should develop purpose built vessels for disaster relief. While I did not place, they liked the article well enough to put it on the Naval Institute’s Blog.
Continuing the Blog Tour crossposting, here is the guest blog I did over at Long and Short Reviews. A lot of this should already be known to long-time readers of the blog, but I figured I’d share for those of you just coming by during and after Planet Comic Con.
Five Down and Glory
I’d like to thank the folks at Long and Short Reviews for letting me come in to guest blog. By way of introduction, I’m an award-winning author of both non-fiction and fiction. Since starting off in December 2012 with my short story “Ride of the Late Rain,” I have sold over 15,000 books and reached the top of Amazon’s alternative history genre list twice with my novels Acts of War and Collisions of the Damned. I was asked to share some advice for new authors. As a fan and author regarding aerial combat, I decided if five kills is good enough to be an ace, five things I’ve learned should be just about right to list out. So, with apologies to Stephen Gurney, here in no particular order are five things I’ve learned being an indie:
There is no substitute for time in chair—Almost everything else you do can be farmed out. However, unless you’ve got a team of ghost writers, the only person who can actually write the story is you. Be ruthless about carving out your time, as it’s amazing how suddenly everything else in your life will try to be a priority. If you’re not working on the next project in some form, you’re going to find yourself behind rather quickly.
Do not “own goal” yourself—In soccer, an “own goal” is where a team accidentally puts the ball past their own goalie. While there are several places this applies, I’ll cover the two most common to writers. First, it is often tempting, especially on the internet, to let the communications flow before the brain engages. Remember that you are now a brand, and once you’ve let that salvo fly it’s gone forever. A good friend of mind has a saying: “You do not have to attend every argument you’re invited to.” This goes double when your brand is at stake. To quote Seether, “Words are weapons…”, and we writers tend to traffic in rhetorical fissionable materials. Don’t let the momentary joy of going Nagasaki lead to months of regret from the fallout.
Second, try to avoid putting yourself in any situation that is going to make people question your integrity, work ethic or, at the furthest extreme, whether you’re even worth the trouble of associating with. Yes, I have seen the latter, and once an author crosses that particular Rubicon it becomes very hard to get back on the river’s safe side. There are going to be enough people who will actively work to hinder your progress out of jealousy and spite. One does not need to help them.
Customers say they don’t judge a book by its cover. Customers lie.—Yes, there are plenty of people who will tell you in guides, person, or via their blog that people “do not judge a book by its cover.” In this case, I will use a photo illustration. Below is the first cover to the Kraken Edition of my sci-fi novel, An Unproven Concept:
Guess what happened when I went to the ballroom cover? Sales spiked, and stayed spiked for about three months. I also had customers contact me or tell me in person that they were not so sure about the old cover, but decided to give the book a try once I switched. I personally thank Jon Holland did a good job on the one featuring the Titanic, but Justin Adams’ work seemed to attract the eye. You can call it shallow, curse at the unfairness of it, and grit your teeth about how Amazon’s thumbnails are ruining writing as we know it. Fact of the matter is, no matter how good your novel is, covers are the reason that people click on the book. I did a whole post on covers (and where to find cheap and good ones) over at my home blog.
Introversion is not a curse—Most writers, I’ve been told often and archly, are introverts. I am not one, much to Anita C. Young’s (wife and fellow author) annoyance. Well, I have some bad news and some good news. The former is that if you want to be successful, you’re going to have to put yourself out there. The good news is that social media makes that a lot easier than it used to be if personal interaction drains you. However, it’s my firm belief that unless you get insanely lucky (and there’s nothing wrong with skipping this paragraph in lieu of rolling the rhetorical D20) at some point you’re going to have to go “hand to hand” with the public. Things I’ve seen both Anita and other introverted authors do include developing a routine, practice their speech in front of a mirror, figure out their ‘wind down’ plan and, if at a major event, see if there’s a “vendor room” away from the press of people.
Network, network, network—The reason that I am such a staunch advocate of getting out there is networking has been so critical to my success. While you can make your own luck, like a holy relic in a role playing game, networking usually adds modifiers to that roll. I have heard of more events or received some of the best advice from folks who have been there, done that. Almost as important, most of my really big opportunities, be it anthologies, events, or guest blogs like this have come through word of mouth. This isn’t to say that you cannot succeed without “who you know.” Buuuuuuttt…it is saying that it’s a lot easy to make your “save against anonymity” with a bestselling author in your genre providing tips. Go to a literary con, join a writer’s guild, or participate in a podcast for starters, then figure out things from there.
So one problem about the blog tour that I exacerbated by doing two books at once is that it’s easy to get the wires crossed if careful. The Avid Reader was promoting On Seas So Crimson, and I managed to think it was doing An Unproven Concept. Didn’t catch the mistake until the post was up. In any case, here’s the interview:
1. What inspired you to write An Unproven Concept?
When I sell the book in person, I tell people it’s a mix of Battlestar Galactica, Robotech, and Halo. These are several of the influences and inspirations for my sci-fi works. Mainly I also wanted a military sci-fi series without “hero shields,” i.e., true peril for all characters involved.
2. Can you tell us a little bit about the next books in the Vergassy Series or what you have planned for the future?
The next book out will be Though Our Hulls Burn…, which is chronologically a prequel. One of the criticisms that I got the most from readers in response to An Unproven Concept was that a lot of “big picture” things were referenced by not fully explained. So going to go back 15 years to 3035 and explain what happened.
3. Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in An Unproven Concept?
Without giving away spoilers, I take a “large cast so I can whack some of them” approach to casting decisions. I also believe that characters, like real people, should come into a story with a past. For instance, Mr. Marcus Martin is a former Confederation Marine officer who lost his entire platoon in an incident prior to the start of An Unproven Concept. This has led to him having mental trauma and feelings of worthlessness that play a role in his decisions as the starliner Titanic’s chief security officer.
4. You know I think we all have a favorite author. Who is your favorite author and why?
My favorite author of all time is Jack McKinney (pseudonym), the author of the Robotech series. The two men who actually wrote under the singular name did an excellent job of taking the rather thin background of the anime series and expanding it into something deeper.
As to actual singular authors versus collaborations—I’m a fan of early Harold Coyle and David Drake. In both cases, it’s how visceral they make their combat scenes and characters.
5. If you could time-travel would you travel to the future or the past? Where would you like to go and why would you like to visit this particular time period?
I always think this one is a loaded question. I mean, the last thing someone wants to do is time travel to, say, “Up Then” in the Terminator universe. With regards to going backwards—well, let’s just say if I show up on an Antebellum Plantation things are not going to end well.
But…if I had a choice where I could just observe without being scene or interacted with? I’d like to go backwards to the Titanic, as I’ve always been a student of the wreck. Forward? I’d go forward 100 years to see if we actually get our flying cars.
6. Do you have any little fuzzy friends? Like a dog or a cat? Or any pets?
Yes. My wife, fellow author Anita C. Young, and I have five pets. Our two dogs are a Newfoundland-Labrador mix and a Blue Heeler / Shepherd of some sort. As to the three cats-we have one senior cat and two kittens. The kittens were what happened when we went to “pick up an older cat that was familiar with dogs.” Whoops!
As part of the blog tour, I was interviewed by blogger Lisa Haselton.
Please share a little bit about your current release:
An Unproven Concept is what would happen if you put Battlestar Galactica, Robotech, and Space Battleship Yamato into a cloning vat then had George R.R. Martin raise the baby. The book centers on three vessels, the battlecruiser Constitution, the destroyer Shigure, and the starliner Titanic, as they deal with Humanity’s first encounter with aliens. Without giving away too much, the Titanic is not where she’s supposed to be, and thus gets caught up in the conflict between the two naval vessels and the hostile craft.
If you like capital ship combat, it’s in here. Flawed characters without “hero shields?” If this was a list of ingredients, it’d be number two. Mecha and starfighters? In abundance. It has received positive reviews from Amazing Stories, Reader’s Choice, and Pop Cults, with a solid 4-star rating on Amazon.
What inspired you to write this book?
Back in 2006, I entered a short story contest with a novella entitled “On Their Behalf…” Several of the judges stated the original storyline was simply too broad to shoe horn into 15,000 pages, but that it sounded like a great concept for a novel. Six years later, I wrote another novella entitled “Ride of the Late Rain.” Again—great concept, but the judges felt I was trying to compress too much into one storyline. So, after I had success with “Ride of the Late Rain” as a novella via Kindle, I decided to go ahead and do An Unproven Concept as a full novel. The Kraken Edition combines both “Ride of the Late Rain” and An Unproven Concept. You can read an excerpt on my blog here.
What exciting story are you working on next?
In between trying to chop down my dissertation, I’m working on Though Our Hulls Burn…, the sequel to An Unproven Concept. It will basically explain some of the prior events referenced in Concept, specifically how the Spartans came to be part of the Confederation of Man.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When as a 14-year-old I tried to submit a bunch of long hand story parts to a New York publisher. I cannot remember how, but I’d acquired one of those “Writer’s Guide” that had every publisher listed and the address for their slush pile. I figured of course they had people to type things up—that’s why they were a publisher! I don’t think I tell many people that story—because I think my younger self was a wholly optimistic ignoramus knowing what I know now.
Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
On top of my day job, I have a commute that’s over an hour long each way, plus am finishing off a dissertation. How do I find time to write? I have a patient, understanding spouse who is also an author. I also belong to an active writing group that is really good about trying to get together to get some words down.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Friends and family point out that I really don’t have a “writing” versus “speaking” voice. I never really thought of the two of them necessarily needing to be separate.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I actually wanted to be a fighter pilot until my eyes went bad in the 5th grade. I was heartbroken, and it took a couple years for me to truly accept that dream was pretty much finished when I couldn’t read the blackboard from the front row.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
On my FB page is a sign up for my mailing newsletter. Also, my novellas Pandora’s Memories and A Midwinter’s Ski are available as “perma free” offerings from Amazon.
So I’m in the midst of doing a blog tour through Goddess Fish. I intend to do a rundown of things, but I thought I’d catch everyone up with what blogs I’ve been doing. This post was done for Rogue Angels in support of On Seas So Crimson:
- What or who inspired you to start writing?
I’ve always been an avid reader from when I was little. Growing up on a small farm that was miles to the nearest neighbor, I used to sometimes act out things that I read in books. (John Carter was a favorite…darn Earth gravity.) Eventually I also started writing things long hand, and the rest is history.
- What elements are necessary components for your genres?
I think the biggest components for any genre, not just sci-fi or alternate history, is that you have to have a compelling set of characters. In the case of the former, that is followed by some aspect of escapism that will allow readers to separate from their daily drudgery into a different universe. The reasons why Star Trek and Star Wars have been so successful is we’ve come to care about the individuals involved.
Alternate history is a bit different in that the main compulsion lies in the historical pivot. Most of the “characters” are already known to the readers, but the changing situations are not. For instance, in my Usurper’s War series, most World War II historians are familiar with Heinrich Himmler as the head of the SS. However, knock off Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, and suddenly he’s in a vastly different role as Fuhrer. That what if transitioning to what now is the genre’s foundation in my opinion.
- How did you come up with the ideas for your novels?
A lot of time it’s a combination of what I’ve read and random inspiration. For On Seas So Crimson, it was a discussion back in the ‘90s about how World War II could have been different. For An Unproven Concept, it was being a fan of the old Robotech novels, Star Wars, and the old school Battlestar Galactica.
- What expertise did you bring to your writing?
I’m actually getting my doctorate in U.S. History and majored in Military History from West Point. I’ve placed in historical essay contests and have been published in both Proceedings (the United States Navy and Coast Guard’s professional journal) and the Journal of Military History. So in the alternate history arena, it could be said that “I’m a professional.”
Alas, I have no experience with commanding a starship or flying mecha in real time. If any travelers from the future or distant galaxies want to change that…
- What would you want your readers to know about you that might not be in your bio?
I’m blessed to be part of a community of writers in Kansas. Everything from Star Trek to Sherlock Holmes through zombies, I’ve got people who can hook you up.
- As far as your writing goes, what are your future plans?
At the moment, I’m working on Though Our Hulls Burn…, the sequel to An Unproven Concept. I should have my dissertation done by the end of the year, so that will give me more time to work on the third book in the Usurper’s War as well.
- If you could be one of the characters from your books, who would it be and why?
This is the point I see a few of my local writer’s group chuckling, as I have a reputation for being a little brutal to my characters. I’d have to say Jason Owderkirk, the Commander Air Group (CAG) for the C.S.S. Constitution. Mainly because he has it relatively easy (so far) in the Vergassy Universe.
- Do you belong to a critique group? If so how does this help or hinder your writing?
Yes and no. My local library is incredibly supportive of local authors, with one of the librarians being the Municipal Liaison for Nanowrimo. This has created a strong community of writers, and we’ll help people out if asked. So yes, I’d say that finding a critique group is definitely a fruitful exercise.
- When did you first decide to submit your work? Please tell us what or who encouraged you to take this big step?
If we’re talking originally, I submitted my work to agents and publishers back when I was in high school. Looking back, I think the main impetus was that I had no idea how publishing worked, so I figured there was no harm, no foul in submitting.
- Do you outline your books or just start writing?
A little of both. I’ll often have a scene just come to me while I’m driving to work or doing something else. For example, the ballroom scene from An Unproven Concept just popped into my head. I was fortunate enough to find a great concept artist, Justin Adams, who was able to convert words to picture (see below).
There are certain milestones with every blog. First post. 100th post. That post that summons a scribe demon from an alternate dimension and leads to a 30 minute write off where you save humanity at the cost of truly epic carpal tunnel. Well, two out of three of those have happened on this site. So, while I’m waiting on that portal to finish coalescing and conducting my wrist exercises, I’ll turn the wheels over for another major happening: first guest blogger.
Amie Gibbons and I actually knew of each other through mutual friends before we met in person at Libertycon last year. “Though she be but little, she is fierce…” seems to get tossed around a lot with my friends, but I think Amie’s kilowattage / kilogram ratio is as high as her IQ. Without further ado, here is Part 2 of her discussion about author legal issues. (Go here for Part 1: Copyright Basics over on Cedar Sanderson’s blog, Cedar Writes.)
[Update] Welcome Mad Genius Club Readers! I have other posts on writing if you’re interested as well. Feel free to poke around.
Contracts for the Writer (Amie Gibbons):
As always, this is not legal advice, merely generalities and opinions by a lawyer that loves the sound of her keys clacking on the keyboard. I am a lawyer, I am not your lawyer. If you want legal advice, go hire a lawyer.
In the last post, I wrote about the generalities of copyright law for writers. This one is what comes after that. What comes when you have the finished piece and you know your copyright rights, and you are selling them to a publisher and you’re looking at a contract.
Well, first up, most publishers have a form contract they expect you to sign and if you don’t want to, they’ll tell you it’s standard across the industry and you can take it or leave it. If you leave it, don’t worry, there are a hundred authors behind you who will have no problem with it.
That is one of the big things to look at in contract negotiations. Does one side have more bargaining power than the other? Usually the answer is yes. Unfortunately for writers who are set on going trad pub, the answer is extremely yes. The publisher has all the power because they don’t really need you. Unless you have already made it huge like that Fifty Shades woman and they want to get on board the train, you’re replaceable.
Does that mean you can’t try to negotiate? Of course not. Hire an IP lawyer who specializes in author contracts to look at the contract, to explain it to you if need be, and to go to the table to negotiate on your behalf.
First rule of negotiations, you never send the person with the power to say yes to the table.
Why? Because if you as the author are at the table, they can pressure you right there to agree to something. If your representative is there, there is nothing they can say to get the rep to say anything but, I’ll take it to my client, because the rep legally cannot say yes, no matter how good the deal sounds. Even if you tell them they can say yes if the deal has XYZ terms, they’ll still most likely say they’ll take it back to you because they know how to negotiate and that no legit deal requires you to say yes in the room.
Again, will this help if the publisher says this is the form contract that is standard across the industry so you will take it or leave it? Probably not. But you never know. There might be a few things that are just egregious to the author that publishers have in there because they know they can get away with it, but really don’t mind dropping if you ask.
But lawyers cost money.
Yes, yes we do, especially IP attorneys.
And isn’t that what my agent is for?
Yeah, that’s what I thought starting out. From what I’ve heard (and keep in mind, this is what we lawyers call hearsay) somewhere in the past twenty years, agents stopped working like Bebe on Frasier to get their client the absolute best deal in whatever underhanded, manipulative way possible and you love them for it because they’re on your side, and they started working as a gatekeeper for the publishing houses that the authors have to pay for.
Now, they do stuff after they get you the deal, so I’m not saying agents are useless. And I’m sure big name authors love their agents and the agents really earn their fifteen percent by organizing stuff for the author and shopping around stuff like film rights.
What I am saying is from what I’ve heard, they no longer work to get you the best deal in publishing houses. Their job is to shift through the thousands of manuscripts, grab the good ones, offer to rep you for a percentage, and then to shop the manuscript around to the publishers to get the publishers to say yes, and you’ll take what they give you.
Agents are not advocates, they are salespeople. Again, I’ve never worked with an agent, I’m sure there are good ones out there that bust their butts to get you a good deal as well as get you in, but even if there are, they have the same problem you do, and your IP lawyer would. The publishing house can say that’s nice when they try to get you a better deal, and move on to the next agent, IP attorney and author who do want to play ball by their terms.
I can’t help with any of that, but I will say, no matter what, never sign anything you are not comfortable with, and never ever sign anything until you have read through the entire thing and understand the entire thing.
I swear legalese is not as daunting a language as TV makes it out to be. It’s a very precise language, and provisions will make references to other parts so you’ll have to jump to those and reread them to understand this one, but it’s not actually a different language from English.
Now, most of this is just me saying rights in general, but technically the copyright is split into a bunch of little ones, a bundle made out of sticks of rights, if you will.
So one thing you want to look at is what rights are they buying? This includes, but is not limited to: print, ebook, audio, international, and subsidiary rights (usually these will be listed out too, and these are the things like movie deals, merchandizing, translations, some people consider ebooks and audio books part of these, but it doesn’t really matter, what matters is exactly what is listed out in the contract. They aren’t going to just say subsidiary rights, at least they shouldn’t, they will list them out. If they don’t, ask for that change so they are all listed.)
So if you are able to negotiate around the publishing house and keep your ebook rights (not happening unless you’re already a huge indie hit, but hey, it’s an example), then they sell the paper ones and you get royalties off that, but you sell the ebooks and keep a hell of a lot more royalties off those. If you keep the rights around translations and/or to sell internationally, then you could go to publishers overseas and get deals with them separate from your deal with your American publisher, or just sell indie overseas.
You get the idea. Make sure you know what rights you are giving up specifically. Here, I’m talking about them in a bundle because it’s simpler, but in real life, they are separate. The publishing house could buy all or only some of them, and they could also have some of the rights have certain provisions with them, and different provisions for other rights. For example, they could say international, translations, and movie rights revert back after ten years, and print, ebook, and audio never do.
I’m not saying they would do this, or wouldn’t, I’m saying you need to know exactly what you’re giving up and for how long.
So then you ask, what’s egregious? What are terms I absolutely do not want in there? And what are terms I do want in there?
Wellllllll. A good resource for a lot of this is a blog called The Passive Voice. He’s a lawyer who goes into all of this in a lot my detail in many, many posts, and is where I got some of the horror stories and examples I based my opinion on.
One of the big ones is what I just used in my example. When do your rights revert back to you?
There absolutely must be something in there about reversion of rights. What does that mean? If there is not, there’s nothing in the law saying it automatically reverts back to you after so and so many years or some triggering event. No. Those need to be stated in the contract. The contract is the governing law on this.
You are selling your rights, and you want to make sure there is a set period of time for that sale. If you sell your house and the buyer dies, you don’t get the house back. That’s not a great example since IP is pretty much as far away from real property as you can get on the property spectrum, but you get the idea. If you sell them completely, they are gone completely. So, there should be something saying how many years the publisher gets the rights.
This could be something like ten years after publication or seven years after the book is no longer in print. Something like that. Make sure that is very specific, as in, no longer being printed out in physical books. Don’t just assume they mean once they stop printing physical books. Because “in print” means physical and ebook usually (as an aside, there’s almost always a definitions part in a contract, and they should specifically define what each term such as “in print” means in the contract). There’s no reason for them to take the ebook down, so in reality, it could stay up there forever and you never get your rights back.
Also, make sure there’s a reversion provision for if the company goes out of business. This is probably just a problem for the smaller publishers right now, but it could be a problem for big ones in the future, and you never know.
If the company goes belly up, you want to make sure there’s a clear path to getting your full rights back. Like if they go out of business, or go out of the publishing business, the rights revert back to you immediately, or something like that. If they go out of business, and you don’t automatically get your rights back, what happens to your rights get fuzzy. The business could sell off their catalogue so someone else has your contract, they could just go bye bye without addressing this, in which case you may have to go to court to either use your rights or to stop someone else from publishing your stuff.
And you want to make sure there is something in there about remedies for nonpayment. And a schedule for the payment so you can point and say the publishing house has breached by not paying by the promised date of every six months, or whatever it is.
Another provision to look out for is the publisher having the right of first refusal on your next book, or on your next book under that name (by this I mean whatever you publish under, your real or pen name). Now, this sounds perfectly reasonable up front. You have a book, of course you don’t want to have to find another publisher for the second one, so having them look at the next book is perfectly fine.
No. If the contract just says right of first refusal, then that means the publisher can look at it, and do nothing. They can hold it forever and they aren’t breaching the contract because there’s nothing in there saying they have right of first refusal that they have to use within a specific time frame. So they can kill your career, at least under that name if the contract specifies that, by sitting on everything you ever write because they can.
Yes, I’ve heard of this happening, and yes, it was because the editor didn’t like the author.
Here, you want to make sure anything like this has a time limit and genre limits if you can. Right of first refusal on the specific book for a year after you give them the next manuscript, and they only have right of first refusal over anything for a specific amount of time, like five years or ten. And the right only extends to books specifically in the genre this book is in, like if it’s an urban fantasy, they only get the right of first refusal on other urban fantasies.
If they have the blanket right of first refusal, it means they can sit on everything and you’re dead in the water. It means you can’t decide to do one series as an indie author unless they okay it. No, the contract doesn’t specifically say that, but in practice, they get your books, and if you want to go indie instead of even trying another publisher, too bad, the contract doesn’t say they get the right of first refusal of any new book you want to sell to publishers, it says right of first refusal on any new book you create.
The reversion of rights and the right of first refusal are the two big ones I’d look out for. There are others. Basically anything in there without a specific limit is suspect.
Also, anything saying you can’t talk about this contract with others, and you can’t show the provisions online, basically saying in the contract you’re signing that you are agreeing to a non-disclosure agreement, of that contract.
Very fishy! I’m not saying there can’t be a good reason for that. But ask a lawyer about it if you see that in your contract. Think about it, you are selling rights, there’s no trade secrets in the terms of the contract, you’re not even in a possible copyright violation. because you’re saying in general terms what’s in there, not posting the exact language. (Whether contracts can be copyrighted or not is a different subject, I’m just putting it here so no one comes back with that as an argument for not talking about the terms of your contract.) So why would the publishers have that in there, unless they wanted to hide what authors are agreeing to?
Now, what do you do if someone doesn’t follow the contract and screws you over? This doesn’t happen often with a reputable company because word does get around, but, as I said up front, the publishers have the power. So if word gets around, it’s not going to deter enough wannabes to really hurt the publishers, unless it’s a small house or the company screws over a large percentage of their authors, or both.
You sue for breach of contract. But there’s the rub. Remember, lawyers are expensive. An actual lawsuit is going to cost you a hell of a lot to litigate. Possibly more than what you’d get if you won. And the publishers know this, which is why they pull that crap in the first place. This is why you’ll see things about class action suits, because the way to pay for lawsuits like this is to have hundreds of people join forces, because the cost of that lawsuit isn’t much more than the cost of an individual one.
Again, this does not happen often in the grand scheme of contracts. The main point of a contract is to lay out whatever everyone expects of everyone else in a deal. The secondary point is to plan for if something goes wrong, like if the business goes under, which is another variation of making sure everyone knows where they stand, and the third one is to give you a basis to sue if the other side pulls something untoward.
So, always make sure to read and understand everything in the contract, and run scenarios in your head of if I do this, or they do this, under this contract, what would happen. Try to negotiate out the particularly bad clauses, the ones that would take your rights forever or trap you if the editor so wishes, either through your agent or IP attorney, and never sign anything you don’t thoroughly understand.
And now for my not so subtle push of my new book, Psychic Undercover (with the Undead): Psychic Ariana with the FBI has to go uncover as a singer at a club to catch a serial killer… but things get complicated when it turns out it’s a vamp club.
Sorry I’ve been a little behind in posting these. Had the great fun of being ill for a bit and got behind. I did two more Write Pack Radio Podcasts that have been published.
First off, “Online Writing Courses” .
Second, “Recovering From A Setback.”
Go ahead and give them a listen if you’re so inclined. There will be more to follow–we’re probably going to start doing distance participation. 😀
Also, tomorrow, there will be a guest blog on Contracts by fellow author and lawyer Amie Gibbons!
Lines of Departure
This blog post actually got started in a conversation about wasp spray. Yes, that’s right, my expressing dissatisfaction with the fact that the nerve foam was taking twelve hours to kill some of the wasps somehow led to my friend (and fellow blogger) Lisa (henceforth Prolific Trek) asking on FB “Hey James, weren’t you just talking about torturing characters?” Cedar, ever the opportunist, immediately asked for more explanation…which led to me revealing the illustrious Holly Messinger (author of The Curse of Jacob Tracy) had been asked the following question in her Writing 101 panel:
“Y’all talk about torturing your characters… are there any lines you won’t cross?”
Well…you’d have thought I’d been handing out briefcases of cash with complimentary free passes to Big Bob’s Gigolo Shack (“Big, Small, Bob Screws Them All”) from the way Cedar lit up. After a little back and forth, here I am…and I have a confession to make:
I am among the worst people to ask about this subject there is.
I’m not saying I go out of my way to torture my characters. But ever since Holly told me about that question getting asked, I have been quietly cataloguing things that I have done to main POV characters since I first started writing. In no particular order:
*A main character received a posthumous note from his fiancée…that he had basically sent to her death.
*In my first post-apocalyptic novel, the protagonist returned from a six month journey to find his hometown burned mostly to the ground and almost all the inhabitants murdered. The sole “survivors”? His tortured best friend and brutally raped significant other, both of whom he subsequently shoots in the head as they are beyond medical help.
*Said rather perturbed protagonist goes on what The Bride called “a roaring rampage of revenge.” First stop? Executing another POV character’s wife and twin kindergarteners in front of him, then dropping a thermite grenade in the man’s crotch ala The Crow.
*In my alternate history universe, there is a POV character that readers may get attached to. He gets shot down over the Pacific, but manages to bail out. Oh the ocean. I mean, it’s so full of life, so bright with sunlight, so utterly expansive that a single pilot can get lost in its rea…oh, sorry, I forgot myself there for a second.
The list could go on, but I think you get the point. Asking me “Is there anything you won’t do to your characters?” is like Simon de Montfort asking Genghis Khan if the sack of Beziers was a bit excessive. Is there any doubt what that response is going to be?
I received your letter with great humor and admiration for your pithy guidance. While a godless barbarian myself, I can acknowledge ‘Kill them all, for the Lord will know his own…’ is a pretty succinct set of instructions. The chroniclers tell me that you did not have many problems with towns after that. I’ll have to remember this when I go on my “From the Steppes to the Wall” tour of Jin next year. Please ask the minstrels accompanying my messenger to play our latest hit, “Your Son Ran Like Your Mother and Screams Like Your Wife”
I won’t keep you, but to quell any misgivings you might have: Were the townsfolk buried in accordance with your religious rites in consecrated ground? Putting them to the sword? Cool. Having them roam this plain as disembodied spirits wailing in the agony they died? A little harsh. I don’t know how this whole Christianity thing works, but I figure as long as your guys didn’t pack the women and children like cordwood, build a dance hall over them, then kill them by moshing the night away their souls still went to haven, hoven, heaven, whatever, right? (BTW, have you heard of this new minstrel, John Davis?) Ergo, you followed your instructions and it’s all good in the hood my friend.
Your Obedient Servant,
P.S. I’m having a bit of trouble with some guy named Sultan Muhammed. Do you have any tips?
All that being said, from beta readers and observation of issues other authors wrestle with, I can give ten general tips an author may want to consider with regards to character distress. Why ten? Because Clemenceau’s response to Wilson’s Fourteen Points (“The Lord God only expected us to remember ten!”) is a pretty good standard for everything. These aren’t so much “Don’t venture beyond these lines…” but “Before you cross the streams, erm, lines, have these things in the back of your head.” So…:
Whoops! Wrong list!
#1–No puppies, no kids
In the movie The Professional, Leon the Hitman observes the rule “No Women, No Kids” with regards to people he won’t kill. Well, given we are in the 21st Century, the first half of that rule is only followed by chauvinists and idiots. However, I can tell you first hand that people tend to get mad as hell when you kill an animal. This anger is followed closely by the rage you’ll get to suffer after putting Little Timmy to the sword. Pull the equivalent of having little Timmy and Lassie walking on the Aioi bridge around 8:13 on August 6, 1945? (“Look Lassie, a four-engined symbol of America’s massive industrial might! Oh, hey, a parachute! Man, I’m so glad that weird wizard neighbor sent us back in time…”) Well, let’s just say that people are going to have words with you. Four letter words, many of them involving unnatural acts of copulation and questions about your parentage.
Trust me when I speak of this. Not even the bonds of matrimony will redeem you if you cross this line. Indeed, the better half stopped reading my novel An Unproven Concept when I didn’t even downshift driving over it. She was totally okay with the fact I’d splattered, battered, and stirred a couple thousand innocent passengers. But the following passage?:
A great hound the size of a small adult whining piteously as it furiously licked its master’s face, the animal’s back as clearly broken as the dead human’s.
Yep, that was it, I was officially Satan incarnate and out my First Reader for that book. Similarly, one of my beta readers for the aforementioned post-apocalyptic novel basically bowed out after my protagonist went on his revenge spree. “I can see no purpose in shooting a 6-year old. Can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad guys at this point, I’m done.” Which leads to my next point…
#2—When you leave that way you can never go back
Confederate Railroad for the win. (“Um, James, we don’t talk about Confed…” “Shut it.”) Understand that if you want your main character to be sympathetic, you must take care not to have him or her do something that is beyond the pale. It will not matter if this is a reasonable response to their tribulations, readers will be pissed. To think of one example, I’m always struck of the people who are sympathetic to Jaime Lannister either as his toned down HBO version or the unrepentant asshat in the Game of Thrones books. I’m sorry, but even I lack sympathy for a man who shoves a 10-year-old out a window because the child saw him giving the business to his sister. Add in the fact that this set in motion a chain of events that results in half of a kingdom getting turned to wasteland, and I’m thinking the wrong POV character got his “pillar and stones” turned into a SNL skit.
I’m not being hypocritical on this one. In response to the negative feedback, I rewrote the post-apocalyptic revenge sequence. Instead of my MC wiping out the other POV character, he will instead have a serious crisis of conscience but not kill the family. I’ll admit, the adjustment was very grudging, but I stopped to consider that my MC was not a lone wolf. Indeed, he was surrounded by several other professionals…and it was very unlikely they were going to be down with the sweet genocidal cleansing called for. Which segues nicely into my next point…
#3—Secondary characters have a breaking point
Even if your MC is stoically taking the kicks to the groin and chairs to the back of the head, other characters won’t. The following is not intended to pick on David Weber, but I got to wonder at what point do people stop being friends with Honor Harrington? Seriously—ever notice “The Salamander” neglects to sprinkle some of her good luck fairy dust on those around her? Being one of her guards is deadlier than being Mack Bolan’s girlfriend (RIP April Rose). Yet, despite this, you never see anyone say “Eff this shit, I’m out…”. Unfortunately, if your secondary characters have their own desires, goals, plans that require them to still be breathing, they’re not going to keep hanging around a MC whose associates drop like flies. Or at least, not without very good reason. Just remember that your hero is called a hero for a reason. Short of Imperial Japanese Army or Waffen-SS levels of conditioning, secondary characters should start having to make morale checks when the fecal matter starts to hit the air circulator.
#4—Gratuitous evil is gratuitous
“The villain is the protagonist in his own version of the story.” I have heard various versions of this advice, and I try to take it to heart. Basically, unless your antagonist is a psychopath (which, there’s a place for that—see Heath Ledger’s Joker or Ramsay Bolton), they should be torturing the main character for a reason, not because they’re evil. Contrary to his caricature, Darth Vader doesn’t just run around choking people because that’s how Palpatine programmed the suit to stimulate his pleasure centers. No, generally if Darth Vader is doing the Trachea Tango with an unwitting partner, it’s either because they got mouthy or had it coming. (“What part of ‘don’t bring the fleet out of hyperspace so close the rebels have time to crap themselves’ was in Swahili?” = dialogue selections that should be available in all Lucasarts games.) Don’t cheapen your otherwise logical antagonists by having them drop Willie Pete all over that orphanage because they want to make some s’mores. (“But, but I like the way the singed formula gives a sweet aftertaste to the marshmallows.”ßBad example, as even this is logical. Twisted, but logical.)
Note that this also applies to extraterrestrial antagonists. While viewers don’t necessarily like the Queen in Aliens, in general Ripley Scott does a good job of explaining she’s in it for the procreation. Similarly, Timothy Zahn’s Conquerors and Cobra-series also explain why sentient beings might decide to go oops upside Humanity’s head.
(“Hey, wait a second, we’ve read your books! You’re a jerk who never explains the aliens’ motivations!” “Yeah, well, wait for the sequel.” “You mean the damn sequel you’ve been promising us for like 3 years, then told us is going to go backwards?!!” “Excuse me, writing a blog post here!”)
#5—Psychological trauma needs to be addressed
Ever had someone tie you up and beat the bejeebus out of you? Been helpless as your family was made to suffer before your very eyes? I know I haven’t (thank goodness), but I’ve talked to folks who have suffered through both. Despite what Hollywood would like you to believe, this is not something most people get over. PTSD is not trivial, and it is the kind of thing that can build with time. Before you decide to put a character through the wringer, might want to figure out the plan to make them functional on the far side. People don’t just watch their loved ones’ throats get slit, narrowly escape themselves, then make breakfast the next morning. No, your character doesn’t need to be a psychological wreck who is crying every other chapter. However, they should be sort of like Daniel Craig’s James Bond, i.e. you’re starting to see the accumulated toll of losing Vesper, friends, getting shot at M’s orders, etc. by the middle of Skyfall.
#6—Physical trauma also needs to be addressed
Raise your hand if you’ve ever had surgery, broken a bone, or had a concussion. Have that trick knee that decides to kick out at the most inopportune time. Can usually tell the weather is going to change thanks to that broken pelvis you got when the mechanical bull malfunctioned at your favorite watering hole. The point here is simple—if you’re going to have your characters get tortured physically, you better either have a doctor on site (yes, that’s another Hamilton reference), a magical way of healing, or budget recovery time into your larger story arc. If your environment is in any way austere, i.e. post-apocalyptic, you better not have someone getting willy nilly beat about the head and shoulders yet just shrugging things off. Lastly, the Joy of Beating is not a bestseller for a reason. Most people don’t enjoy seeing a major secondary character, nevermind a MC, slowly and laboriously pummeled. There better be a reason you subject your reader to the crunch, crunch, pop! of a favorite character’s skull getting beat in with a barbwire-wrapped baseball bat (some of you know what I’m talking about and are nodding sagely, some of you will find out soon enough). Oh, hey, look…speaking of which:
#7—Dead characters = angry fans
Who here remembers Jadzia Dax from Deep Space Nine? How about Andrea Harrison from The Walking Dead? Arthur Fonzarelli from Happy Days? *muttered whispering from off stage* “Well, yeah, but think how much better things would have been if Fonzie had gotten whacked by the shark?” See, the point of this is, both of the first two characters are usually remembered for their cheap deaths. Unlike producer actor feuds, the #1 killers of TV stars, often times authors go to whack a significant others to “shake things up” or in a cheap bid to cause emotion. This is a bad idea. Consider how mad everyone was after “The Red Wedding.” Now think about the fact that those deaths served a purpose. As I can tell you from dealing with Prolific Trek on a regular basis, kill a strong character like Jadzia for no good reason, you will earn your fans’ enmity for all eternity. Similarly, having a character like Andrea go out because you apparently don’t know what to do with her will similarly get your pilloried by reviewers.
“But wait, I totally had a reason for that character death, so my fans will forgive me, right?” Wrong. To go back to “The Red Wedding,” George R.R. Martin set it up beautifully and whacked Robb Stark for a good reason. I can tell you that there are people (First Reader included) who basically decided they were done with that franchise after that point. So, if you’re going to spend two or three books in a series doing character development, especially with major POV characters, understand you’re going to take a hit when said individual catches the Last Train West.
#8—Rape is not a gimmick
One of the standby things that would happen in old ‘70s and ‘80s men’s action adventure novels would be either someone close to the MC or the “damsel of the week” getting viciously violated by the main villain. Said woman would then be magically healed within the next 100 or so pages, and hop right in bed with the MC prior to said villain getting his just desserts.
The real world does not work this way. Let me quote from FM 22-102, the “official manual for wall-to-wall counseling”:
No offense is as damaging to the victim as rape. Murder does not come close, since the victim is dead and knows nothing. A raped soldier will have psychological scars for the rest of his or her life. A male soldier who is the victim of a homosexual rape is especially damaged, and many commit suicide rather than live with this burden.
Fake manual, real shit. Reach towards this line with caution, as the reason every freakin’ hair on your body is standing up is this is like playing Russian roulette with five rounds in the chamber and twenty million dollars on the table. In other words, this better be a “high risk, high reward” situation, not a “Oh, people will think this is edgy!” or “Hmm, I need to do something interesting to the main character’s significant other.” The character who was raped is going to be messed up, and before you open this can you better figure out how they’re going to react.
Also check out the above with regards to male rape. In most societies, this is a topic that is not dealt with. That’s not “dealt with well,” it’s not dealt with. If your society has high machismo coupled with patriarchy, there will likely be nowhere for a raped male character to turn for help. So, no, don’t go there unless you’re ready to do it right, lest you end up the “other guy” in a Rihanna song.
Bottom line: If you have someone getting raped, it should be written in a manner that’s going to make your skin crawl, as that’s what will be happening to your readers. One of the best rape scenes (*record skritches, bystanders gasp*), erm most well-written rape scenes I remember is from Laurell K. Hamilton’s Blue Moon. Suffice to say, Hamilton was sure to stress that the character who was raped needs, seeks, and gets therapy, along with his mother who was a near witness to the crime. It’s powerful, and some of the best writing in the series before Anita Blake became a…well, let’s just say the series sometimes ends up in the paranormal erotica section.
#9—The “Grandma Rule” is in effect
Remember that if you’re even semi-successful, you will have no control over who sees your work. The most chilling words an author can hear from someone important to them are, “So, I read your book.” I call this “The Grandma Rule,” i.e. always remember that your grandmother just might find your novel no matter how well you try to hide it. Say you tuckerized a good friend, and she’s the person you had the MC have to mercy kill? You’ll hear about it for decades. No really, decades. If you are in a community that frowns upon certain activities like a MC lovingly spending ten hours flaying the villain with a knife? Express ticket to social pariah status. I mean, sure this well-deserved comeuppance will have your readers needing the rhetorical cigarette and change of clothes, but is that payoff worth having to drive two hours for milk? Similarly, if your grandmother is going to have a heart attack when she reads what her favorite grandchild has written about a MC trading two innocent bystanders to a pack of cannibals in exchange for a couple crates of ammo, Thanksgiving is going to be a little awkward. (But hey, you’ll be able to afford one hell of a turkey with your chunk of the inheritance.) Last but not least, if your employer will look dimly on you raining nuclear hellfire down on certain nations, cities, or regions, don’t do it. Why yes, your helpful narrator can tell you exactly what a JAG looks like as his mental intel processor is trying to process the hypothetical of “So, say I published a story where ______________________ happens. Would that be a terminating offense?” While his answer wasn’t “FOR F___K’S SAKE, YES!”, it was close enough that story has only seen limited release to a few friends. I’m all about pressing the envelope for my art, but I’ve got a mortgage.
#10—Editors are interested in selling, not your “art”
Speaking of people with mortgages, editors are notoriously risk averse. I know, there’s probably a couple hundred examples of stuff that got greenlit where all manner of bad things happened. I’d go to Vegas with the odds for every example you can name, if we got an experienced editor drunk enough they could give me another dozen that got stamped “NO! GET THERAPY!” It is hard enough to break through with a major publishing house. No need to make things more difficult by opening the book with the main villain saying, “This youngling is dry. Pass the Worcestshire sauce…”. Save the crazy stuff for book two if you’re going traditional publishing, as your editor will almost always be thinking “Do I want to explain this on a special news segment?” Think of it like a relationship: If you just met someone off a dating service, you wouldn’t let them know “I crush civilizations beneath my heel and make people scream in anguish…” right off the bat, would you? No, of course not—that’s for after they’ve already moved in with you and signed a two year lease. (“Wait…wait…you’re that guy?!”ßFiled under “I’ll take conversations that are about to go horribly right or wrong in the next 30 seconds for $1000, Alex.”)
*takes deep breath* Okay then, that about covers it. I think Cedar has now officially taken me off the guest bloggers list, but dammit it was worth it.