I wrote that title as much for you as for me. Rejection letters, especially those form letters that really don’t tell us why, are probably one of the hardest parts of this gig. It’s hard not to take it personally. It’s not easy to remind yourself, we just have to get our story in front of the right person, at the right time, with just what they’re looking for. How do we know what that is, though, when all they say is “It’s not right for us at this time.” Not the right what?
Anyway, I recently submitted to three big fantasy magazines. And I mean big, like the names of huge authors in the title of the magazine, and got three rejections in a weekend. Yah, you read that right. Magazines that typically take weeks, or months, to respond got back to me in hours. One I could understand, they were closing submissions very soon and going through all the slush pile. They got back to me in 12 hours. The next one, took about 12 hours too. Then I submitted one more time and had a response in less than 4! How bad must this story be? Can’t we give my ego (such as it is) a little break, maybe hold onto that email for a week?
So I gave myself a break from submissions and finished a piece I was working on for an artist. A rough character sketch and intro, not even edited, just roughed together to get his thoughts, and sent it off last night. This morning…he loved it! Literally, his words. No edits, barely first draft material, and he loved it. I’m not ashamed to admit, that brought a little mistiness to the eyes. I don’t have a huge ego, and I really don’t let rejections get to me that much, but it’s impossible not to dwell on it a little. That boost was huge.
The point, right, get to the point. One important thing that a lot of writers do, and I definitely do, is keep those rejections. No matter how sterile, or short they are, keep them. I remember hearing Vince Flynn talk about how many times he was rejected. Something like 60 rejections for his first book, and he didn’t get a publishing deal for his first book, he self-published. Later he got a deal, and the publisher went back and re-printed his first book. That’s a perfect example, his first book just wasn’t right for 60 different places, agents, and publishers, but one of his later books was. Even with his short career, he published eighteen books. Who knows how many more he would have put out.
Keep at it, keep submitting. Keep sending those queries, and manuscripts, short stories and cover letters. Those rejections are tough, but they don’t have to be the end of your story.
About two years ago, while planning my current project, I had to accept the idea that my fantasy setting wasn’t very unique. Of course I had a unique map, names, cultures, deities, and so on but there wasn’t much to separate it from countless other cookie-cutter, Tolkienesque worlds already in the market. I’d just finished one of the writer’s classes at Gen Con, and realized I needed something more, something to set it apart.
So, I got to thinking. I liked steampunk, and it is becoming more popular in fantasy literature. But, everyone was starting to do it. Then I thought, why would a world full of magic develop steam technology or gunpowder anyway? Technology is developed when people wonder how to do something no one else can do, but in a world full of people who can manipulate energy, matter, and time, why would anyone look anywhere else. So the idea of magic-powered technology took hold and I thought magepunk would be a great name for it.
I remember thinking, there’s no way I came up with this first, so I headed to Google. I didn’t find anything at the time, but recently I have. Magepunk is mentioned on a couple of websites out there, but it’s poorly defined, and usually linked to steampunk as an alternative theme of the same genre. So, what does magepunk mean to me, my writing, and the world of Thelos? I figured I should answer that question before I put out many more stories related to it. Currently, the only one of my stories that I can say is fully magepunk would be the last tale in When Heroes Rise called Relic Hunter: A Wasteland Tale.
In it, Jules is a relic hunter, someone who searches the Wasteland for ancient magical artifacts once used as power sources before the world ended. For her they are a source of income for her family’s business, used to power small devices like lanterns, weapons, and even her small skiff. Before the world ended in the great cataclysm the entire power grid was fed by magic, while smaller devices and remote locations were run by items imbued with magic. That’s magepunk to me, a world that has harnessed the most powerful natural resource, magic, to advance technology.
In my current project, tentatively titled The Moondancer Saga, the world of Thelos is just beginning to explore the possibilities of this new technology. A typical fantasy world of elves, magic, and dragons is starting to see firearms, sky ships, and small machines, all powered by magic. While it appears I did not coin the term, or create the genre, I do look forward to adding to this underrepresented theme in fantasy, and I hope you enjoy what’s coming.
I recently did Cogs and Corsets, a steampunk themed convention in Bloomington, IL, and there was one other author there. I watched all day as people stopped at her booth, bought books, and didn’t give mine a second glance. There could have been a dozen factors that caused that, including the fact that I was at my wife’s booth and my books were included in the overall jewelry display she had going on. I didn’t have my own separate table featuring just me. Part of me was a little bitter about how little attention my work was getting, while that author across the hall was getting sales. That’s normal, human. But, I reminded myself, we aren’t competitors.
That may seem like an odd thing to say, but, while we are all selling books we aren’t all selling the same book. Amazon and Barnes and Noble are competitors, but authors are not. We are selling different stories, that will appeal to different markets. There’s a chance the other author at that con was selling stories with steampunk themes, and that’s not something my books have. We aren’t trying to sell better hamburgers, stories aren’t measured on the same scale.
It’s not always easy, but this is something we authors should remember. We want to sell our books, but we have to avoid the idea that someone else selling theirs is a missed sale for you. That person may not be your audience. They may like the other book better to start with, and pick yours up when they’re done with it. There could be a thousand different reasons one author is selling better than you at a show. Next time you may be the one getting all the attention. It’s normal to feel something about that, but try not to let that feeling turn into bitterness or hostility toward another author. In the end, we’re all just trying to tell our stories to people who will listen.
You can’t please everyone. Repeat that and memorize that, if you intend to be a creative. Any sort of artistic endeavor will eventually run up against some sort of backlash, outrage, or hostility. Accept that immediately if you intend to walk this path, and prepare yourself for it. That’s especially true for the written word, because we write so many of them. If you write a novel you have 75-100K words or more in which to somehow offend someone. Sure, you can hire sensitivity readers and editors but honestly they will be applying their own viewpoint to the read and offering advise based on their own subjective opinion. What offends your sensitivity reader may not offend someone who actually buys the book. It’s a guessing game really, and at the end of the day if you change something all you may end up doing is offending someone else.
Consider Amelie Wen Zhoa’s recent run-in with this. Her book caught some flack from a few people taking offense to how the author portrayed her characters in her fantasy world based in an alternate Asia. Amelie told her story from her own cultural background and heritage, but some people didn’t like it. She actually pulled her book from publication, re-read it, hired sensitivity readers, and ultimately made changes and is going to publication. She allowed other people to tell her how to write her story. Will her changes be enough to appease the mob? Reading through the comments on social media it’s a safe bet there will still be people offended by this. How dare this Asian woman address issues in Asia without first consulting American readers about how it makes them feel.
Bottom line, there are people out there who live for this. They wake up every day looking for something to be offended about. In this age of instant communication through social media they can spread their complaint around the world in no time. It makes them feel powerful, popular, and like they are making a difference. There will always be people like that, from all walks of life, all political sides, and from every demographic. No one target audience is free of this so you will not be able to avoid it. Don’t let it get to you. Tell your story. If it doesn’t sell, that’s your clue that you have work to do. If it gets nothing but bad reviews, then you know something needs to change. Don’t cut the wings off your work before it has a chance to even fly though. It’s your story, not theirs.
Welcome readers, friends, and awesome people who came by the page. I want to start giving updates on progress for all the projects I’m working on and what to expect in the future.
I still have a lot of shows coming up this year, and a few more I’m looking into. If you have a book you want signed, or want to pick up a copy in person check out the appearances page on this site to see where I’m going to be next.
I just released the first of an ongoing short story series that will be available through SubscribeStar. The first episode of Shadows of Barden is available for free on Medium. I also recently finished a short story of a darker nature that I hope to start submitting soon and include in a darker collection of shorts in the future.
Finally, I’m almost done with the eighth chapter of my next book, which is still untitled. It is set in the same world as my short stories and will follow the adventure of a young woman who sets out to save her people from a dark corruption.
Stay tuned for more.
I wrote an article covering untouchable characters in general and why they are damaging to the medium, and diversity, but here I wanted to talk more specifically about the problem of main characters whose stories have no risk. No stakes. We’ve all see them. The characters that are so powerful, that have no weaknesses, we just know they’ll win no matter what. How many times have you watched a show or movie and said, “They won’t kill that character, they’re too important to the story.” Let me use a couple of comic book examples, since I’m fairly fond of them.
Marvel has this issue in spades. So does DC, but I never really read DC. Anyway, due to the nature of Marvel’s business model their characters are more like assets than characters. There’s a financial reason no one ever really dies in Marvel comics. Unfortunately it creates a storytelling problem. Take Wolverine, personally my favorite Marvel character. The guy heals from anything, including being launched into the sun (yes, that happened). He comes back from anything, and even when he dies, he isn’t dead. When you read a Wolverine comic (and really any Marvel comic) you know that no matter what, that character can’t die. At the end of the day there’s no stakes. No risk. No real reason to care about whatever danger our hero is in. Ultimately it’s one of the things that drove me to other comic companies with smaller print runs.
That’s just one problem that I want to look at here. Another is a character with no weaknesses. Take a couple of recent examples, Superman and Captain Marvel (the Marvel movie version). These two have been compared a lot after the recent Captain Marvel movie. One of the big critiques is Carol Danvers is too powerful, and has no weaknesses. “But that’s no different than Superman…” Wrong. Superman has two distinct weaknesses; humanity and kryptonite. Now that’s not to say those are great weaknesses, and they get used too often because that’s all you can really do with him, but they are there. For the movie version of Captain Marvel there are none. It begs the question again, why care? Once she pummels her enemies into submission, what’s next? She flew through an armored spacecraft, killing countless people (most of whom were probably just doing their jobs like mopping the latrines and cataloging spare parts), what’s next? What could really pose a threat to Captain Marvel? Those aren’t questions you want your readers asking.
So how to handle this? Should you really kill off your main character? Well…maybe not but if you accept it as a possibility it becomes easier to make the audience believe you will. Look at Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. At this point doesn’t anyone really believe any character is safe on either show (or in either book)? When did we stop saying “Oh, they won’t kill that character,” and start saying “Oh crap, they better not kill this character?” In both cases the writers have shown us that no one is safe. Even if they have a plan on who lives, it’s not an obvious one. In my first work, Wastelander, I maimed my hero right out of the gate. First scene, cut his arm right off. I didn’t have it that way to start, or threaten to do it and take it back. Our big bad warrior hero starts his journey almost losing a fight, and definitely losing a limb. I did that so that I knew, and the reader would know, that I wasn’t pulling any punches. I wanted to make sure that my readers would feel like Dez was in real danger the entire time.
This goes hand in hand with making sure your hero isn’t too powerful. The warrior who never loses a fight doesn’t make a good story. We all know the end, in most cases the hero eventually wins, but it’s the journey that matters. No one cares if the hero walks right to the main villain and knocks him out in one punch. This is especially true when dealing with magic and powers. You have to give your characters a weakness. There has to be a way for them to lose, even if they don’t. But, be prepared to make them lose. Make them lose a battle or two, stumble and fall along their path. Let the reader know that you’re willing to throw everything out the window and grind your protag into the dirt if that’s what it takes. It’s not just about throwing obstacles in their path, make some of those obstacles failure itself. The way a person overcomes failure tells a lot more about their character than how they deal with success.
Call me a cynic, but my immediate reaction to anyone charging independent authors for reviews is not positive. It comes off as distinctively predatory. There’s practical and possibly legal concerns here, as well as simply how it looks to readers when they find out (and eventually they will find out) that the review they just read was paid for. Why do I mean by all that? Is this the norm in the industry?
First off, it may be the norm. Big publishing houses, with giant marketing budgets, may be paying for reviews. There’s a reason that may be a problem; we’ll talk about that in a few. From the perspective of an independent author though, that’s highly predatory. What do we, as indie authors, want more than anything else? To feel like we have succeeded as real authors right? We all measure that in different ways, but a couple of the biggest factors is sales, and positive commentary. Think about it, how good does it feel to get a glowing review on Amazon? You’ve probably submitted your book to a hundred agents, got rejected, decided to self publish and you get that first positive reinforcement. It’s like a drug, isn’t it? And here, these guys, these reviewers are selling that drug. One of the most recent offers I got through a Twitter DM…$1,000 for lifetime membership to Booktasters. That’s by far the most expensive offer I’ve seen.
Let’s take one of the more ‘reasonable’ ones and look at it from a financial perspective. I could have had my book, Embers of Liberty, reviewed for $50.00. That’s a lot cheaper than the one above, but honestly is it worth it? Most of us have a profit margin of about $3-5 for sales on Amazon. That review would have to generate at least ten sales to pay for itself, before it even started making me any money. That $50.00 is a table at a show, where I could sell ten or more books. I could use that money to buy almost ten more author copies to sell at those shows. Now, I don’t think that these reviewers are being intentionally predatory, not all of them at least. But they are neglecting to consider the financial burden of those of us who jump into these waters on our own. There’s more than just financial concerns here, however.
One site I bumped into had a free review policy, but you could pay to get to the front of the line. No disclosure there either, and when I asked they told me that their reviews are always fair and honest. I’m easy to give people the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they are going into it with a mind to be fair, and a lot of times they probably are, but if an author with money can pay to guarantee a review you’ve left fair behind. Even then, the reader has to take it on faith that the review is fair and honest and that’s hard to do when some very important information is left out of the equation.
In the U.S. we have laws concerning truth in advertising to protect consumers. The FTC is responsible for monitoring and possibly investigating misleading practices by advertisers. This includes bloggers, and does cover things like whether you have a personal connection to the company or individual you are reviewing, or if you’re being paid by them. A lot of these reviewers say, “Well, you’re not paying for the review, you’re paying for membership to our service.” That’s clever, but it’s also shady. This is one of the reasons I don’t do long form reviews of books anymore. While I can claim that there’s no bias to my review, the reader has to put a lot of faith in someone doing reviews of their competition. Are they a friend I’m trying to help out, or a competitor that spurned me at a show and I’m trying to throw them under the bus? Even when I do quick reviews on Amazon or social media I will point out if I know the author, and i keep it pretty much just to whether I liked it or not and briefly why.
What does this mean for authors? Well, as far as I can tell the person being reviewed, or company whose product is being reviewed, has no ethical obligation under the Truth in Advertising Act. But, if consumers catch wind that a reviewer isn’t being ethical it could blow back on you if you aren’t careful. I do reviews for video games, and when that whole mess blew up a few years ago around the ethical (or not) practices of the games media some developers were caught in the crossfire for participating, and encouraging the behavior. Do you want your brand associated with a media outlet that looks like they may be deceiving consumers, intentionally or unintentionally?
So, what can we do?
Authors, look at the site that you’re submitting your work to review. Are there any disclaimers on the site or on the articles? The FTC requires the disclosure to be prominent and easy to find. Preferably at the top of the article that has the disclosure. Are they wanting money, but no disclosure in sight? You may want to ask is they disclose the payment, and if they don’t, I wouldn’t submit to them. Again, you are under no legal or ethical obligation that I can find, but how does that image sit with you?
Readers, yes, anyone who is reading reviews should be educated in this too. Are you reading reviews from a site that may be giving preferential treatment to authors? Like the one I mentioned above there are some that do free reviews, but if you want a guaranteed review you have to pay, and no disclosure. Are you getting fair information to make your buying decisions? They tell us they do fair, unbiased reviews even when they’re paid, but is it fair and unbiased if you can pay to get to the front of the line?
Reviewers and journalists, because yes, you are journalists. Legally speaking, if you use a platform to disseminate information regularly, like a blog, vlog, newspaper, etc. you are a journalist and subject to the same laws and ethical standards. Also the same protections. You need to disclose anything that could have an impact on your review, even if it doesn’t. Do you know the author outside of the basic networking contact? If you’ve spent time with them outside of a professional setting, or have known them personally for years you need to disclose that. Did you get paid by the author to do that review? Yup, disclose that too. Even something as trivial as whether you bought the book, or were given a review copy, should be in there. Disclose it right at the top. Does it hurt the flow of your review? Maybe, but it will garner you respect from your readers.
Finally, reviewers, remember you are there to review the book, not the person. If you are unable to separate the two I would advise giving it a pass. Review bombing and trolling is a huge problem, especially in the indie scene. People who dislike a person’s politics, ethnicity, lifestyle, or sexual orientation will go to Amazon or Goodreads and, without having even read the work, will give it a scathing review based entirely on their opinion of the author. If you’ve had a public disagreement with an author, or made negative statements about them on social media, you may also want to pass on that review. Even if you do your best to be honest, your readers may have a hard time accepting that.
I was reading a conversation on social media about people who complain about problematic (Gods I hate that word) characters and why those people need to move along. Basically, villains, bad people, awful people, exist in entertainment media for a reason. That guy’s a jerk because it’s necessary for the story, not because the writer wants to be a jerk to people. It’s true. When people complain about, say the awful relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn, they’re right to find that to be a problem. There’s a reason it is, and there’s a reason it exists. But, you have people that find that sort of thing interesting, even appealing. There are memes out there showing those two characters with the caption: “Relationship goals”. No idea why anyone would want to be in that sort of relationship, but it’s out there.
The point of the original conversation was that this is not the writer’s fault. It’s not. If you have an issue with seeing evil characters in entertainment, you may need to reexamine your hobbies. But, this did make me think about why we are fascinated by villains, or often find them more interesting than the heroes. It’s often true, but why? And, I don’t think it has to do with a failure to make the hero interesting.
Take Star Wars as an example. The hero, Luke, is definitely a popular character, if the reaction to his story in The Last Jedi is any indication. But, in the entire trilogy who seems to be the most popular characters overall? Darth Vader and Boba Fett. Boba Fett, a throw away character with hardly any lines is arguably the most popular character from the original trilogy. Why? This guy looked cool, sure, but we know nothing about him. I think that’s part of the draw though. This guy we knew nothing about spawned some of the most valuable action figures, popular cosplay, and interesting mythology in the entire saga.
I think part of it has to do with how we are as people. It’s easy to relate to a hero. I think, in general, when faced with a choice between good and bad we’d go with good. It’s normal, expected, and frankly not that interesting. We are drawn to things we don’t understand, scared by them, intrigued by them and we find them interesting. Look how popular true crime shows, and documentaries about serial killers are. We don’t get why they do it, so it intrigues us. Why does an evil guy or gal do what they do? What drives them? We can’t wrap our brains around what would cause someone to do it, so it fascinates us. Oh, that guy over there saved some kids from a burning bus? Sure, that makes total sense. Who wouldn’t try to save some kids. That jedi there took his light saber and murdered a whole class of kids? What? How the hell? I can’t even imagine how someone would be capable. So we want to know more.
So, I guess the point is, for the sake of being a writer don’t get discouraged if your readers like your bad guy more than your hero. As long as they don’t hate your hero, you’re probably doing something right. If you make an intriguing villain, that just means you’ve written a character with more depth than, “Hey look at me, I’m the evil bad dude put here so the hero had something to do.”
I saw a meme about this topic this past weekend, which doesn’t really deserve more attention to be shared here. Like a lot of memes it takes a complex issue and boils it down to a very simple-minded ‘gotcha’ statement that’s supposed to be humorous. It dealt with the premise that male authors think that strong female characters have to suffer some sort of trauma to be strong. There’s this pervasive belief in some circles that female characters, or even underrepresented characters in general should be protected from negative experiences in literature. That if a male writer puts his female characters through any sort of traumatic experience that we do it for some nefarious reason, or because we are bad writers.
First and foremost, this is not everyone. I don’t believe it’s even remotely a large portion of the reading community that feels this way, but it is a loud part of the community. They’re the people who won’t bat an eye if thousands of male throw-away characters are killed in a war as part of the story, but touch one hair on a female character’s head and suddenly we have an issue. There are creators and writers that feel this way, so it can influence others. I firmly believe this will kill diversity in stories because many authors will just stop trying. At the end of the day some people just won’t be happy, no matter what you do. For example, the developer of the game Rimworld had several trans folk help write the backstories for trans characters in the game, but even that wasn’t good enough.
So, the point. As a new author myself this leaves me with a lot of conflicting feelings when I see that. I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. I get the sense that, no matter what I do, it won’t be right with some people. It’s a truth we have to accept as creators. No matter what, some people will dislike our work. Some people are even likely to hate it, and take it as far as accusing us of all sorts of social crimes for it. It’s unavoidable, but we can’t let that stop us from doing what we do. We have stories to tell, stories that will work for some people. Learn as best we can to make those stories great for the people that will appreciate them. Don’t get discouraged, and don’t let the loudest few deprive everyone else of good stories.
There are good ways and bad ways to handle trauma with characters. The idea that trauma, suffering, grief, and all sorts of negative experience makes strong characters is based in reality, no matter what some silly meme says. No one gets strong skipping through life without struggling or facing any sort of adversity. Strong people are built by how they handle the hard parts of life. Losing a loved one, being assaulted, terrified for one’s life, being bullied are all aspects of life that will make or break a person. No one is ever reminiscing about the tough time they had binging Netflix on the couch and how it shaped their perspective on life. No real person anyway.
Before we get to the good and the bad, I want to talk about the ugly. The idea that we authors hurt our characters ‘just because’ and that it’s easy for some of us is ridiculous in my opinion. Because I’m a man doesn’t give me some callous perspective on my female characters that makes it easy to put them through hardship. That’s what some people actually think and it’s beyond false. Out of necessity, we learn everything we can about our characters. We find out their dreams, hopes, loves, and hates. We learn what makes they get out of bed in the morning and why they cry at night. We know some of them better than we know ourselves. For most authors our characters become just as real as the people around us. When I know that a hard part is coming up for one of my characters I dread the writing of it. I love writing, but that part of it sucks. We know it has to happen, that we have to do it, and there’s nothing pleasant about it at all. The idea that it’s easy for me to make one of my female characters suffer, because I’m a guy, is insulting really. That’s the ugly part of writing. The knowledge that these people we create, that come from our own hearts and minds, will have to go through terrible things sometimes and we’ll be the ones doing it to them.
The bad ways to handle trauma all boil down to one thing. Pointlessness. Without a doubt, if your stories involve suffering, danger, and hardship you should never have a character that is immune to that. Your reader won’t care about a character if they know they’ll never be in any danger. If all your characters are hurting, scared, or suffering, and you keep one character ‘safe’ the whole time they’ll notice. But, on the flip side it has to mean something. Their pain should not be without meaning. If a character gets hurt it should have an impact on their development and the story. It should lead to their own growth as much as the progression of the plot. If they suffer a serious trauma and it doesn’t affect their personality or development then it was pointless and your readers will notice. Bad things happen to people for no reason, it’s just a fact of life. Fiction must include hardship to feel real to the reader, but it doesn’t make a good story when bad things happen to your characters for no reason.
Handling trauma and suffering well depends entirely on your genre and target audience. You don’t want a graphic description of sexual assault in a young adult novel. When handled well the event will be sympathetic to readers that may have experience with similar trauma. I’m not saying use trigger warnings, unless that’s your thing, but recognize that some readers may have trouble with the scene. Don’t make it unnecessarily long or detailed in its description. Less is definitely more in some cases. Also remember that this will change your character, for good or ill, but it should shape them going forward through the story. Victims of crimes, people who have lost family members, and those who have gone through war are not the same when they come out of it. Their view of the world has changed, as does their view of other people. The type of character you are building will determine what that change is.
Bottom line, the world is a dark place. It has a lot of good but we can’t ignore the bad. It won’t go away if we never explore it in our writing. A book where nothing but good things happen to people isn’t a very interesting book to read. Your readers will expect a realistic world and that will involve, at some point, hurting your characters. As a reader, know that this isn’t easy for us. As a writer, don’t avoid it because some people out there say it shouldn’t happen. We have to be honest to the story, our characters, and up front with the reader. Don’t coddle any of them because it’s difficult or you’ll come off as fake and people sniff out fake from a long way off.
When Heroes Rise is my second book, a collection of short stories I’ve written over the years mostly set in the world of Thelos. The setting is one that will be used in a future fantasy series that’s currently in the works. It is available now on Amazon in paperback with a Kindle version coming soon.
Paperback price: $9.99
Experience tales of sacrifice, bravery, and honor throughout the ages of the mystical world of Thelos. From primitive elven clans to savage wasteland wanderers, When Heroes Rise will take you on new adventures across a world unlike any you’ve seen before. You’ll explore this world through the eyes of those who struggle every day to survive it, and protect those they love. Heroes from all walks of life, and some who are not even people, will show how far one can go for loyalty, love, and honor. Their pain and sacrifice lay the groundwork for future tales yet untold, but coming soon.
This collection of shorts features stories from the early life of Snowdove, an elven woman who will face adversity and trauma before leaving her people to find her place in the world. You will witness pure love in the only story set on Earth, as an old man bargains with death for the chance to say goodbye. And five tales of Thelos’ distant future after the world is destroyed by the folly of man, and people must scrape out a life in the Wasteland left behind.