Friday, May 30, 2014

FANTASY RACES

Very recently I got into a discussion with someone about fantasy races.  We all know the usual ones like elves and dwarves, and some are even aware of the more obscure or odd ones like Khajiit in Elder Scrolls, Draenei in World of Warcraft, or Kender in the D&D Dragonlance setting.

Alternate races are part of what makes fantasy feel more fantastic; like monsters and magic.  They aren't necessary, but they are a comfortable and common aspect to the genre.  Having a race other than humans allows the writer or game designer a chance to introduce different perspectives and abilities to the setting.

However, there are some who find these alternate races uncomfortably Caucasian.  Those elves look white, so do the gnomes, hobbits, dwarves, and other races.  Its terribly white out there!  Now, this isn't particularly a valid concern these days, with all kinds of shades and hues of races, but its still around in some settings.

Tolkien's elves were very pale and blonde in general, white in modern terminology.  Hobbits were, too.  Now, there's a good reason for that: he was writing an English epic, in the same lines as Beowulf or The Odyssey.  So the characters were all based on English types and mythology (along with some Norse themes).

But are fantasy races "too white?"  Does there need to be a change?

REACHING READERS
The person who I was discussing this with proposed that many women and minorities are turned off from fantasy and comic books because there aren't enough people that "look like them."  All those characters are white and I'm brown, I'll read something else, he claimed.

Now, in my experience, that's not the case.  I've met a lot of different sorts of gamers in several different states across the USA and not one of them brought this up.  In fact, I've only heard this complaint online and in specialty study classes at universities.  That doesn't make it untrue, its just not something I've run into.  If people have a problem with fantasy or comics, in my experience, its because they think the topics are childish and lame, not because they can't relate to the characters on a racial or ethnic level.

After all, I'm not able to lift a bus or fly through the air, I can't cast spells or slay dragons with a sword.  That sets me apart from these characters significantly more than their physical appearance.  And when it comes to physical appearance, I don't look like these guys:

Not like you or I
I'm a bit less pale than Legolas, but I'm not as pretty (nor do I have pointy ears), and I'm certainly not as ripped as Thor.  But somehow I'm able to see past that to the story, the characters, and the content and I'm confident that most other people are as well, unless ethnic appearance is the central concern of their lives.

But that's not to say there shouldn't be some thought along these lines.  Why should elves look like white people with pointy ears?

BUILDING THE PERFECT ELF
Creating or adopting a race for a fantasy realm should be more than just humans with different looks and abilities.  Dwarves ought to be more than simply short humans with the ability to see in the dark. When writing a fantasy race, the task is to create something different, a race that stands out and is distinct from ordinary humans.

woof.  There I said it.  Happy?
Physical appearance is the easy part; most typical fantasy races, and especially the unique ones, are quite distinct from humans.  Pointed ears, different stature and build, unique coloration, even fur, hooves, horns, or tails can play a part.  My Wolfen race in my fantasy setting is essentially wolf-people, like the movie monster (although not as scary looking).  Fur, ears, tail, wolf snout, and ditigigrade legs, they are an anthropomorphic race.  They don't look like white dudes.

In fact, none of my alternate races look like white people.  The humans in my world vary quite a bit in hue; the primary campaign and story setting so far (the kingdom of Morien) has humans that are more tanned in skin color with typically dark hair.  Other nations and areas have different typical coloration.  Elves aren't one brand either; some are tall and pale, some are shorter and very brown with even greenish hair.  Dwarves tend toward very dark and gray colors.  That's the easy part, as I said.

The hard part comes when you try to make them seem different.  Dwarves aren't just short humans with beards, their culture, worldview, and even their natures have to be distinct.  For my world, Dwarves are incredibly driven by work.  They long for work the way we long for a vacation; when they take time off from their primary job, they find other things to fix and improve.  For a dwarf, taking time off is shocking and even immoral, they would be ashamed to even consider it.  They sleep lightly and spend the rest of their day carving a bit more, improving a bit more, cleaning up a bit more.

Dwarven arts are influenced by their work and setting.  Dwarven voices are deep despite their small stature and resonate well with the rocks they tend to be around.  Their music is pitched to resonate off the surrounding land rather than for aesthetic pleasure; the result can be oddly atonal or dissonant, but

in its proper setting is moving and uplifting.  Dwarves do not dance, as they are heavy and squat, but they do have a sort of ritualized marching done in groups, like group folk dances.  The footfalls and movements are timed in rhythm and act as a sort of percussion effect which takes advantage again of echoes from the surroundings.

And then, there are other subgroups of Dwarves which are distinct from the main, familiar Mountain Dwarves of Morien - wild Dwarves in the Barbaric Wastes, Dvergar deep under the earth, and so on.  All are culturally shaped by their physical form, their surroundings, and their specific social and traditional values.

That's the kind of thing that starts to make the races become more distinct and unique.  Humans live short lives so they are affected by a need to act now.  Elves live centuries and are considerably more laid back and patient.  Wolven are very tribal and focused on survival as they tend to live in harsh, cold environments, but love song and poetry to the point of honoring a bard above a king.

By making the races more than just another group of humans with funny ears, you create a deeper, more 'immersive' world which pulls the reader in and helps them forget about the fact that they are reading and absorb the story.

DISTINCTION
This isn't easy; you have to seek ways to set these races apart.  Picking an aspect of human life and emphasizing it is one tool.  Looking at that races' work and surroundings is another.  Emphasizing some aspect of their physical appearance or form can help as well - wolves howl together in song, so Wolfen love music. Doing this takes time and thought, and while some find it a great deal of fun (such as myself) some find it very challenging.

And this task is made all the more challenging by the fact that you cannot make them too different, or they are so alien you have to spend too much of your story explaining the race. As a writer, the task is to create something somewhat familiar enough for readers to grasp quickly, but distinct enough to seem unique and set apart.

I can't find a decent optometrist
There was an old game system called Skyrealms of Jorune which took this concept very far.  They created a world filled with alien races and unique distinct cultures which was an amazing achievement.  The problem was it was so alien it didn't feel like fantasy any more but a very odd science fiction world.  The races and creatures were so different and so unique that players and customers had a hard time getting a handle on them.  There was nothing to grab on to, almost nothing familiar or comfortable to grasp and pull them in - no "hook" as some put it.

So you want your races to be unique enough that they seem different and interesting, but not so unique they are incomprehensible.  If you cannot get the interesting, unique parts of your fantasy races and creatures in a few paragraphs, you're probably going too far with the concept.  There's nothing wrong with having really bizarre and alien creatures, other than that you will be challenged to explain and show that to your readers without slouching into a biological or sociological textbook.

As for the human "racial" thing; you are probably better off not having ever race seem ethnically Caucasian just because it makes no sense; they are different races from human, why would they be just white people?  But at the same time, and for the same reason, why would they be Hispanic or African or Japanese people?

Elves aren't white Europeans, but they aren't Chinese, either.  They're elves.  And there's no need to force fantasy races into any human ethnic category, white or otherwise, no matter what some sociologist or racial theorist says about readers not finding someone that "looks like them."  I should expect none of your readers looks much like an elf to begin with.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

THE BLOODY PART OF WRITING

“Writing is easy, you simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”
-Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

Never eat PBJ while typing
That quote by Red Smith has been attributed to a lot of people such as Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, but the earliest reference I can find is from Smith.  He probably got it from someone else.  Its a great quote, it sounds terribly witty and dry.  And its patent nonsense.
The hard part of writing isn't writing at all, for most authors - for me so far, certainly - that's the easy part, relatively speaking.  Sitting down and typing or writing down the story either flows comfortably and easily or you have a tough time and have to work at it, or take time off and think.  Its not that writing is always easy, I've had times when I wrote my self into a corner and have to try to figure out where to go next (such as Erkenbrand on the ridge, captured and watching a sacrifice).
The easy part refers to everything else you have to do as a writer.  When I say the writing is relatively easy, I mean that it just gets harder from there.  Editing and rewrites are mildly annoying, but its from that point on that its downhill.  I'm an author, its what I do, and I am not shabby at it, most of the time.  Its not good enough to just be an author.  Once those words are on the paper, you then have to get them out to other people, or you're just wasting time.  If nobody reads what you've written, what was the point of the exercise?
You have to publicize and sell your book, you have to find someone to get it out to the public and get it printed.  I'm lousy  at this, not only do I hate to sell myself out of discomfort with the idea of it, it just seems improper to run about yelling about how great you are.  It smacks of arrogance and egotism.  Yet that's part of your job as a writer.
The typical system is to find an agent, which involves writing up a clever introduction and summary of your book - selling yourself to agents who are bombarded with submissions every day - so you can get one interested in your work.  I sent out scores of these to agents over two years, and got a few responses back.  One actually said she liked my writing and wanted to see more, but didn't like that particular book (she disliked first person perspective, something I wrote about before).  The best and most successful authors started out with hundreds of rejections from agents.
Once you get past that hurdle, your agent gets a publisher, then you work with the publisher to get it in print, and you typically have to work to sell the book as well with interview, appearances, signings, and so on.  Sell, sell, sell.  And each time you write a new book, the same selling takes place.
Now days, as I've written about several times before, its foolish to go the old route.  Chances are you won't get published anyway, as both publishers and agents are super skittish about anything they can't be absolutely certain they will get a sale.  Books just aren't selling well now, so they are trying to cut their losses, you can't blame them.
So these days the best way to go about it is to put your stuff online and hope for sales.  That's the easiest system: no gatekeepers, no agents, no publishers.  Yet you still have to do the hard part, because who's going to even know your book exists?  Its true that the internet is an essentially infinite shelf; its always there and never goes away.  In a store they only have so much space and they move slow sellers off the shelf while online they just sit until the sun wipes out electronics or some massive disaster takes place.
But since the shelf is infinite, and people probably don't know your name, you have to make them aware of your book somehow.  You're one drop of water in an ocean of materials out there - its the same problem with any internet endeavor.  You can have the best website in the universe but until it gets found, it will just sit there unnoticed.  Its largely a mystery how some stuff takes off and others do not.  Youtube was just another site people had videos on but for some reason it went nuts.  Cheezburger was just some guy's funny pictures of cats until people saw it and it went crazy.  Why some things work and others don't nobody really understands, although there are plenty of theories.
So you can't just upload your book and kick back as the cash rolls in.  You probably won't sell a single copy, no matter how good it is.  You have to make that book known.  And that means the hard part: sell, sell, sell.
Now, as I noted a little while ago, the old publicity systems don't really work.  Doing interviews for non fiction is fine, because people might be interested in the subject based on the expertise of the author but fiction is different.  Unless you're an established, beloved author, nobody cares who you are.  They want the content; they care about the story, not the writer.
So hiring a publicist to sell your fiction is a waste of money.  A crowdsource fundraiser might get some interest in the people donating money but all you do is get the money together to pay a publicist and again, that won't help much for fiction.
So you hope for reviews.  And while bombarding the top reviewers on Amazon was a great trick a few months ago when people didn't know much about it, these days they get dozens of books a day and haven't time or interest to review them all.  I would still do it - its free, after all - but its not as effective as it used to be.

Monday, May 26, 2014

ELECTRIFY YOUR WRITING!

Think of it this way: this is some independent writer you've never heard of and have no idea how good they are. You're probably not going to spend 5 bucks or more on a book. But 2 bucks? That's worth a shot.
Batteries included
While I'm not a very successful author in terms of sales, I have a fair amount of experience at it, especially in electronic book sales, so I thought I'd pass on some tips and thoughts on the process.  There are a lot of people writing books these days and they all want to put their stuff up online because it is so easy and cheap to do so.  Good for you, if you want to, I encourage you to do so!  But you want to do it right, and here are some things I've learned from having materials online for about five years.
  • First off, make sure your book looks as professional as possible: that means make it look like any average paperback book you own. Quote in the beginning, copyright page, dedication, everything. Just find one you like the look of and use it as a template. If you have more than one book out, think about excerpting the first chapter in the back of a different book, with a teaser: also from Joe Blow, The Magic Spoon!
  • Something else to do when you prep the book is to pick the best font for the job. Here is a link with good advice on fonts; don't pick anything too fancy and make sure its an established, quality font instead of some boutique one. A good font will have proper spacing and work in both italic and bold, and have a full range of alphanumeric characters. Many free and fancy home made ones will not do this or even space the characters very effectively, leaving awkward looking gaps. Garamond and Georgia are the fonts I used. 
  • Some people advise you use sans-sarif fonts on e-readers (like arial, for example) but I disagree. Readers expect to see those little bars at the top and bottom, even if they aren't aware of it.  They look like a proper publication and seem more professional.
  • Keep in mind that some sites won't accept every font as well. Amazon for example has a specific list of fonts that they will display on their readers. You will want to make sure you have that for use or the site might reject your book.
  • When you finish your document, you'll want to convert it into a format that readers can use. An up to date version of Windows can convert files into PDF, which a lot of readers can handle, but I highly recommend getting a program like Caliber that will convert files into ebook formats such as Epub and Mobi.  Many online printers such as Createspace and Lulu will also convert your books for you into specific formats.
  • I advise very strongly to keep your price very low. I know a low price feels like it makes you seem cheap or that you're being ripped off, but consider this: if you get a big publishing company to buy your book and sell it on the shelf with lots of publicity and so on, you still will only see about 1 buck per copy of book that sells. Sure, you get a bunch as an advance, but that's an advance on expected sales, its royalties up front. If you sell your book for 1.99 on Amazon you get 70 cents a book. On Nook you get 80 cents a book. Think of it this way: this is some independent writer you've never heard of and have no idea how good they are. You're probably not going to spend 5 bucks or more on a book. But 2 bucks? That's worth a shot. Its okay to raise the price once you get another book on the shelf (for the first book) but keep it low. I would advise nothing higher than 5 bucks.
  • Take a look at the existing sites for e-books and look at their "new releases" section. See how small the covers are? You need a cover that stands out and is distinguishable even at that size. Your book cover won't be bigger than a playing card on the screen at any time for shoppers, so you have to keep it distinct and clearly visible. The title should be very legible and easy to spot. Don't make your name bigger than the title (I know publishers do that all the time, but they're selling the name as a brand like Steven King. Nobody knows you, yet).
  • Also, keep in mind when you put your book up that it will be up there until an EMP wave wipes out the internet or you take it off the site. That means it never gets cycled off the shelf like a real book, and you don't have to compete for shelf space with the latest Dan Brown book.
  • However, you are lost in a sea of books. Everyone is writing a book these days and that means the market is an avalanche of which you're just one snowflake. So you have to stand out. Reviews help a lot, but bulk does as well. The more books you have out there, the more visible you are and the better your sales chances are. Even just having 2 books up helped my sales more than one.
  • So when you put your book up there, make sure its the best it can be. No weird grammar, no awkward sentences, no big mistakes. You are on probation for readers. There's a lot of lousy books with typos and nonsense in them in print from big publishing houses, but people are more tolerant of that from an established company than Marge Jones publishing a book about her cat. Most of the time you only get one shot. Make it count.
  • Payment schemes are always in flux.  Depending on the format you choose, you can get money right away (direct deposit) or you must make at least $100 if you choose other methods before they pay you.  Smashwords can pay you as soon as you make at least $10 if you let them dump it into PayPal, but a check requires earnings of at least $75.  Some book services take a while to reflect sales, either due to slow accounting or delays before confirmation and shipping.  These policies change regularly, so I've had to update this point a few times.
  • Smashwords is very challenging to format correctly, but if you get it right, they put your book on their "premium" catalog and sell it across a dozen platforms around the internet and the world.  So by going through Smashwords, you can get to Amazon, B&N, Scribd, Apple, and a bunch you might not even be aware existed.  You can get help formatting this by following the steps laid out in this incredibly helpful blog series and by using the analyzer at this link.
  • Oh one last thought: you're going to need an ISBN. They aren't terribly expensive, but you have to have one. I advise buying them in lots of like 10. Bowker sells them for about 30 bucks a piece and you must have one to publish online. Plus it feels more professional and impressive to have one.  That said, many online publishers will provide you with an ISBN when you go to publish your book through their site, for free.  The drawback is that you cannot use that ISBN or sell that copy anywhere else, only on their sites.
Just some thoughts to help you work on your book.  This is just for e-books, there's more to think about if you self-publish print books.  Take a look around the internet, there's a lot of help out there.  Just remember this: never ever pay to be published.  Ever.  Ever.  You're the talent.  They pay you for your content, not the other way around.
Its okay to pay an editor.  Its okay to pay a cover designer, in fact I recommend both if you can.  Its okay to pay a printer for a copy of your book.  But never pay anyone to publish your work.