Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Craft vs. The Money

Recently I read and heard a lot about money in writing, business and all the discussions around it. Last week I read a blog post from Michael Hyatt about "Why you should do it for the Money (and Stop Feeling Guilty About It)" which he had re-published on Facebook, and I remembered an earlier one from K.M Weiland about "3 Reasons You Shouldn't Be Writing for Money" and guess what; both are right in their own way. 

I don't know when this discussion started to take off, maybe with the increasing indie movement. Although I'm pretty sure it was already cooking before that. The following blog posts addresses writers that want to make money in one or the other way. If you write for fun, please go on - write and publish for free. There is nothing wrong with that, but this blog post isn't for you then.

The Seeming Conflict
At the first glance, this strikes me as a simple conflict of targets. Either you focus on the craft (e.g. more research, longer writing cycles, more reviews and edits equals less books produced) or you focus on making money (e.g. more books produced in the same time equals more money). This conflict of target is similar to one most companies face: Quality vs. earnings.

But is this really a conflict? I can already tell you, no it's not; neither in business nor in writing. In business you can reduce you quality to a certain point in order to increase quarterly profits, but usually you damage long term profits much more. In writing it is the same, but before we get there let's look at the industry.

The Industry and the Changes
Let me get this very clear at the beginning: Writing is a Business. The moment a writer wants to earn a single cent from his books it is a business. Even when he simply wants to get break even and have a payout for his investments. It is a business. Hence, lets look at the value chain. 

The Traditional Model
In a very simplified view, the writer is responsible for writing the story and does rewrites and edits to some degree on his own, to some degree requested by the publisher. At a certain point the product is handed over to a publisher, who improves the work together with the writer in order to make it publishable (i.E. sellable). The publisher also takes care about the physical production as a book or e-book as well as the marketing and sells the product together with a bunch of other products to the book stores who act as distributors (including Amazon). At the very end, the distributors sell the books to the consumer. 

In addition to the real cost the publisher also takes some risk with regards to the unknown trends in the market. Nobody can predict, which book will be picked up by the marked generating enough profit for the whole value chain. The distributors only take limited risks as they don't really invest in a certain book. The writing also takes only a limited risk as he usually received an advance. The publisher on the other side pays an advance and invests into the product as well as marketing and sales. He copes with this risk by spreading the efforts over a high variety of books.  This approach is similar to Private Equity firms investing in different start-up companies, hoping the next Twitter or Facebook is among them.

In this model the author gets about 9% of the book price (after 1% goes to the Agent). Lets assume the book is priced for $20. In order to have a monthly net pay of $2,000 for his work, physical book sales must be at 1,111 per month. With e-book prices it is worse, as e-book prices are usually lower around $6.99 to $9.99. As an example, at $7.99 book sales would have to be at 2,781 books per month. In reality this would probably be a hybrid calculation - with a 20% share of e-books, the number of monthly book sales would have to be 1,263.

The Indie Model
In the same simplified view, the indie model cuts out the publisher and goes directly to the distributors. All cost related to the additional review, marketing and sales, but also non physical cost like networks, risk taking and know-how, have to be taken over by the writer. 
In order to keep it simple, let's do the above calculation for e-books sold via Amazon KDP with a book price of $1.99. In order to have the same $2,000 per month with a royalty rate of 70%, an author has to sell 1,436 books. But with this amount none of the fixed cost is covered. Most of the additional work will stay with the author, especially the cost for the additional reviews and edits, but also the efforts for networking, marketing and last but not least the risk. 

For the sake of the calculation let's assume a non specified writer needs 6 months to produce a book. For review, editing and book cover cost end up to be between $3,600 and $5,000 I've taken the lower end examples out of a blog post from Miral Sattar "The Real Cost of Self Publishing a Book". With these additional monthly cost of $600 to $800, the number of books sold increases to 1,866 and 2,010 respectively.

Impact on the Writer
Don't misunderstand me, I am not arguing in favor or against one or the other model. Additionally, there are other aspects to be considered, such as the rights to your book etc. However, every writer has to answer the question which model he selects for himself. Each of the models has advantages or disadvantages. 

From a monetary view point, the traditional model means less work and risk, but also less upside potential and the indie model means more work, more risk and more upside potential. Now here's the clue. Basically, the author has four options to increase income:

Increase Sales of One Book
The author can try to increase the sales of one particular book by increasing marketing cost and efforts. However, sell more of one book means usually sell to new customers. This is always more difficult than selling new products to existing readers, given that they enjoyed the previous books with their quality. Additionally, marketing studies show that there is a limitation in efficiency and effectiveness with marketing activities.

Increase the Book Production
Increasing the production of books is probably the easiest way to make more money. One one side every new book has a tickle-down effect on new books and on the other side new books with new covers and new stories mean attracting different readers.

Ask for a Higher Price per Book
Simple, isn't it? Well it's not, because there is something like price elasticity. In simple terms; the lower the price the more you sell. The degree of how much more depends on the product. Gas usually has a steep price elasticity as past price increases have shown. For e-books there is probably not enough data yet to plot a reliable curve, but looking at the feedback of various indie authors prices between $0.99 to $2.99 seem to result in reasonable books sales whereas higher price points significantly reduce number of sold books. Hence, there are limitations for higher prices as they are counterproductive and result in less revenues.

Reduce Production Cost
You can reduce the production cost to almost zero; no editing, do your own cover designs and do the formatting and digital conversion yourself. You even don't need an ISBN. 

Out of above options, there are two low-hanging fruits: 

  • Produce more books (i.e. less effort for plotting, reviewing, editing, proofreading)
  • Reduce external cost for editing, proofreading, formatting
There is a built-in incentive to reduce the quality of the product, if there wouldn't be...

The Importance of the Craft
And that is where the craft comes into play. The will, the poise and the integrity towards what it means to write a good book. The craft needs to be the holy grail, basic motivation to write. Because if it isn't, the money will not follow. Readers might buy one book from you, but if the craft isn't the foundation of it all, they probably won't buy another one. It's the same as in companies with the quality. You might buy it ones, but the second time you will switch to a better product if you weren't satisfied. 

The craft is the soil, to grow the tree of money. But there is more to it, even a tree needs water, nourishment, some cut downs and a lot of care. More about this in next week's blog post.

Happy crafting
Your writer in a foreign land

Monday, September 22, 2014

Humor in Writing (4 of 4) - How to Apply it in your Writing

Now it's time to get some real work done. We had some theory, we looked at some excellent examples of humor in writing and now it's time to look at your writing.

In the first blog post I mentioned that everybody's humor is different and your humor should come out of yourself. Therefore, this last episode of my humor series I focus on guidance and rules as well as pointing out potential pitfalls.

Use of Humor in Characters
The easiest character is the cynical one, because he can be cynical all the time. Did I say can? To be quite honest, he must be cynical. This is nothing he can choose, it is part of the personality and a sign of a deeper scar. You would not expect a cynical character to suddenly be hopeful or simply nice.

However, for every rule there are exceptions. They suit very well for character arks. Being cynical at the beginning, the character's scar is revealed over time and after they experienced new hope or love the wound starts to heal.

Introducing a cynical character leaves a question in the reader. He wants to know the why, the history behind the characters cynicism. If you don't provide it, the character will appear flat.

Sarcastic characters are more ambivalent. Sarcasm usually acts as a outlet for them, for example for fear or pressure. In order to need an outlet, the sarcastic character needs to be committed to something or someone, otherwise they would not need an outlet and simply walk away. As sarcasm is only a facet of this character, it is not the main focus in a character ark.

However, a sarcastic character can very well turn cynical when e looses his faith. It is even possible that a character with a sarcastic note has a cynical moment at a plot point,  when he looses faith and later looses his cynicism again when he picks up his path again.

Irony fits very well with mentors. Usually they show the right kind of distance in order to make the irony work. It can also work with other character types, but they need to have a certain distance or grace. An ironic character can turn sarcastic when he looses distance, but I haven't seen an ironic character turning cynical yet as he would need to loose distance and faith at the same time. It is not impossible, but I think it is very hard to write it in a way a reader doesn't get thrown out of the story.

Cynical, Sarcastic or Ironic Narrator
To let the narrator bring the humor into a story is another powerful option. When talking about a humorous narrator we first have to keep it apart from placing funny comments every here and there in the story. Humorous narrators are that way throughout the whole story - they should not act out of character.

For cynical, sarcastic or ironic characters, basically the same rules apply as for characters - cynical narrators need a scar, sarcastic commitment and ironic distance.

However, when using the narrator POV multiplies the options and pitfalls. Let's take the cynical character as an example. In first person, the author can has to reveal the scar as part of the story. A cynical romance with a happy end in first person doesn't work. It leaves the reader without explanation, kind of "What's wrong with this person? He got everything at the end. Why is he not happy?" 
In third person, the scar is the story, but the connection of the narrator and the story has to be revealed.

Looking at the same romance with a happy end, the cynical tone of the narrator implies that the happiness of the couple is his scar. A reader would probably assume because he wanted to be with the woman. Still, I wouldn't let the opportunity pass to interlace some background story reveal the rival in love as narrator at the end.

A sarcastic narrator in first person gives an interesting tone. It implies that the narrator has to cope with something, e.g. his own fear or tension, and gives the author the opportunity for a later plot point. On the other side it requires to reveal the reason for the sarcasm to a certain extent. Why? Well, a sarcastic narrator will be already sarcastic at the beginning, when the story hasn't taken off yet. This per se creates a tension as well as a promise and this promise to the reader has to be fulfilled. A thriller with a sarcastic narrator in first person creates the promise that the author will throw something at the narrator that will be far out of his capabilities and comfort zone, but gives him also the opportunity to grow.

An ironic narrator immediately creates distance, in first person to the narrators own live and in third person to the story as a whole. I try to stay away from ironic narrators, as they take away tension from a story. For example a thriller with an ironic narrator tells us actually that whatever happens in the story isn't as bad as it sounds, at least when looking from a distance. Same with a love story - if you have an ironic narrator, the love wasn't as absolute or existential as it was felt during the story. Ironic narrators take reduce tension and that is definitively not something you want as an author.

Humor used for Pacing
The variety of options where and how to use humor for pacing are almost infinite. In most cases, humor relieves tension, but in rarer cases it can increase tension. 

Usually, after an action scene or a scene with high tension, a joke works as outlet in order to give the reader time to breath before starting to increase tension again. However, using this technique the writer has to be careful not to release all tension otherwise he is risking to lose momentum. If done incorrectly, these are the moments a reader puts the book away to go to bed. But how do it correctly? Humor after a high-tension scene should include foreshadowing. With this simple technique the tension is kept up. In the movie "Die Hard" (the original) there was this scene, where one of the terrorists was really angry and Holly Genaro McClane says to one of her colleagues "Only John can drive somebody that crazy." Funny line, but it implies that there is coming more.

On the other side, humor increases tension, when it is obvious to the reader, that the scene is not over yet. When the resolution was too easy readers usually get suspicious and a joke at this particular moment increases the tension. Even though it's actually funny, you don't dare to laugh because you expect the hammer to come down any moment. This split between expectation and relieve creates tension.

With regards to the how, the following options are most commonly used:

You should introduce them early and give the an additional role outside of being funny. Also, give them a character ark - something to grow. By doing that, you are not bound to use the sidekick solely when you need their humor for pacing.

When you make funny comments as the narrator, the reason for it should be visible to the reader. Also a narrator has to act within character.

Main Character
The biggest pitfall for using the main character for pacing is the same as for the narrator - he can not act out of character. Keep this in mind. 

The easiest and probably mostly used way is situational humor. The variety has no boundaries, you can use slapstick, ironic or cynical situations. 

Humorous Story 
Writing a humorous story is the showcase. It's fairly easy to use humor for pacing. It's much more difficult to write humor in a character or in the narrator, but to be funny and witty through a whole story on a consistent level is very difficult. 

If you decide to engage in a humorous story there are some guidelines that make live easier. First, you need a topic or a theme. Additionally, if you have a message, it easier that just trying to be funny. Then I highly suggest to plot the story rather than discovery write it. And last but not least you need to decide the tone - is it cynical, sarcastic or ironic and when decided you have to stick to it.

Humor in writing is an art itself. Incorrectly or sloppy applied it is an axe, but correctly applied is a scalpel.

Happy writing,
Your writer in a foreign land

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Humor in Writing (3 of 4) - Learn from the Masters

In the last two blog posts we went through a bit of theory on humor in writing. Let's look at some good examples, before we talk about how to apply humor in your writing. 

1. Humorous story

1.1. Don Camillo
After WWII, Giovanni Guareschi created a series of short stories combined in several books with Don Camillo, a priest sent to a small Italian town in the Po valley, as main character. The stories largely paint the rural live of the area and they mainly live on the rivalry between Don Camillo and the communist mayor of the town, Peppone. They had gained a mutual trust for each other as they had fought the fascists together during the war, but find themselves on opposite side of politics after the war. The stories are ironic, sarcastic, sometimes affectionate, sometimes biting, but the connecting facet is humor.

For example the part, where Peppone wins the lottery, but as communist mayor he can't admit that he had played. So he uses an anagram of his name to cash it, but Don Camillo finds it out and forces him to split the lottery win with him - half of it for the communist community center and half of it for the catholic play school.

Another beautiful example reveals the rivalry-friendship when Don Camillo has to leave town in order to serve in another parish. Peppone threatens everybody so nobody would appear at the train station to say goodbye to Don Camillo. However, Don Camillo's supporters would wait at the next train station and at the train station afterwards, his adversary Peppone and the communist party would wait to say goodbye.

The whole series is a declaration of love to his home country reflecting its struggles to grow together after the war.

1.2. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adam's five novels already have reached cult status. Although it plays in the vast space of the universe and even in distant times, for example when they have dinner in the restaurant at the end of the universe, it holds up a mirror to ourselves nowadays.

It already starts in the introduction, when it describes that most people on earth were unhappy an they tried to solve it by moving around small green papers. The author is using a metaphor to show us, money does not make you happy. I don't want to enter the philosophical discussion, whether this is true or not, but the humor he is using gets the point across.

In an other part, he shows us three spaceships that have been sent away from a distant planet with the useless third of the population on board, consisting of tired TV producers, insurance salesmen, personnel officers, security guards, management consultants, telephone sanitisers and the like. The joke strikes, when one of these ships is landing on prehistoric earth implying that all problems we have on earth are caused by tired TV producers, insurance salesmen etc. but this one is a double dip, as the people on said planet are extinct afterwards by a decease caused by an unsanitized phone, implying that society needs a "useless" third. In this case, the technique used is a farce.

Last but not least my favorite one;  the build-up of a gigantic computer to find the answer to "life, the universe and everything". 7 1/2 million years later, the computer finally got an answer "42", which might have been the perfectly correct answer, but absolutely useless. The author makes the point clear, how important it is to have the question right in order to receive a valuable answer.

1.3. Animal Farm
The whole story is a satire, set up as a kind of a long fable, and uses a variety of methods, especially metaphors and farce. By using humor, George Orwell tried (and achieves) to reveal the route the Russian revolution took as a warning sign to beware of false promises.

Every animal reflects a different role or person, Old Major is a mix between Karl Marx an Lenin, Napoleon is Stalin, boxer is the working majority of the people and the puppies are the security police.
One of the centerpieces are the commandments for animals on the farm after the humans have been banned, including "All animals are equal". The original commandments were more and more bent by add-ons, but the most important one  is the change to "All animals are equal, but some are more equal."

1.4. The Innocent Abroad
Mark Twain's book is another wonderful example of this category. Sometimes with a pinch of irony, sometimes with a tablespoon of sarcasm, he reports the journey of a ship of American pilgrims that want to visit the Holy Land. He uses humor in order to lighten up a basically boring travel report - with success.

I especially love the moment when he realizes that the kingdoms he was always imagining himself as large were actually quite small and the distances Jesus travelled were not that far at all. Obviously if you think about it, but to be honest I found myself in the same spot, when I was at bible class as a kid.

2. Humor Used for Pacing

2.1. A Short Stay in Hell
A Short Stay in Hell starts with a hilarious scene at entry desk of hell, which seems more to be like a first day on he job in a large corporation. Hell continues to be a fairly nice place, except for some violent extremists that built up their little kingdom. The horror comes slowly to the reader when he starts realizing how long he will have to stay there and what eternity actually means. 

In this story, humor serves as pacing instrument. With the funny start, the author keeps the reader in a light mood, so the horror hits him even harder at the end. 

2.2. La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful)
In know, this is a film, but when I thought about the how humor is used in "A Short Stay in Hell" I realized, that I've seen this before. La Vita E Bella (Life is Beautiful) is a tragic story about a family that got into a concentration camp in  the Third Reich. The father tries to hide the tragic reality from his son, by telling him it was all a game and making fun out of everything. Despite the tragic story you are actually laughing a lot watching it. But there is this one scene, that pulls you down, when the protagonist turns around the corner and stands in front of this mountain of dead bodies.

After the end of the movie and mainly while discussing it with friends I realized that this scene would not have been as powerful without the funny scenes before.

2.3. Funny Side-Kicks as Pacing Instrument
A lot of stories have funny side kicks in order to be able take tension out when necessary. They can be full of jokes and a little sarcastic like the Weasley twins or innocent like Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck. However, there are also bad examples of silly unnecessary side-kicks like Jar Jar Binks. The list of these side kicks can probably extended to infinity. Every Disney movie needs a funny sidekick, some we love some we hate.

3. Humor in Characters

3.1. The Cynical Character
The cynical character is maybe the most one seen in stories. It seems to be easier to write as he can be blunt and straight forward. But he is usually also the most interesting one, because behind cynicism there is a backstory - more than behind a sarcastic or ironic character. To get cynical somewhere something broke within a character, a dream, a heart, a hope.

3.1.1. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye
He hides the pain of loss behind a cheeky cynicism. The whole book is filled with sentences like the following.

"Anyway, I'm sort of glad they've got the atomic bomb invented. If there's ever another war, I'm going to sit right the hell on top of it. I'll volunteer for it, I swear to God I will."

"Who wants flowers when you'r dead."

3.1.2. Rick in Casablanca
Rick hides his broken heart behind dry cynicism. 

"Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine..."

"I'm a drunkard." (When asked for his nationality).

3.1.3. Nick in The Great Gatsby
Nick's cynicism is more difficult to catch because it doesn't come up when he speaks, but through the narrator's voice. His cynicism sources out of the disappointment of the class he dreamed or hoped to be part of. The best example for the following:

"I couldn't forgive or like him (Tom), but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They are careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made..."

3.2. The Sarcastic Character
The sarcastic character is much more difficult to draw then the cynical. You have find the fine line between biting humor and a positive view on the world. As with cynical characters, there are much more books with a sarcastic narrator than a purely sarcastic character. As a narrator you can add much more comments than a character can speak. Imagine how many sarcastic dialogs you would need in order to shape a character and how difficult it would be to let them say anything else that is not sarcastic.

A very good example for a sarcastic character is Ron Weasley in Harry Potter. He also shows a very crucial difference between the cynical and the sarcastic character; while the sarcastic character doesn't have to be sarcastic all the time, the cynical character is cynical to the bone. Ron Weasley uses sarcasm to cope with fear, for example when they were trapped in devil's snare and Hermione tells them to relax otherwise they will only get killed faster, he replies, "Kill us faster? oh, now I can relax!" Or his all famous sentence, "Why spiders? Why couldn't it be follow the butterflies?"

3.3. The Ironic Character
The ironic character needs a certain distance from the subject in order to look at it with mildness. Usually age gives a good distance. Good examples of ironic characters are,

3.3.1. Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter
He is a very good example of an ironic character. Here are some quotes:

"What happened down in the dungeons between you and Professor Quirrell is a complete secret, so, naturally the whole school knows."

"Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?"

"Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light."

However, even an ironic character can turn sarcastic, when he loses the distance. Dumbledore realizes that he has to sacrifice Harry and it hurts him. He buries it inside him, but when Snape questions him, it breaks out as sarcasm. "But this is touching, Severus... have you grown to care for the boy, after all?"

3.3.2. Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars
His irony is more difficult to get, but he always talks with a scent of a smile on his lips, which let every of his quotes appear ironic. However, some examples:

"If you spent as much time practicing your saber techniques as you did your wit, you'd rival Master Yoda as a swordsman."

"Why do I get the feeling, you're going to be the death of me."

3.3.3. Andy Dufresne in Stephen Kings' short story Rite Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
Before he escapes, Andy writes in the bible he got from Warden Norton,"Dear Warden, You were right. Salvation lies within." and leaves behind for the warden.

Andy's distance is not based on age, but on the knowledge of his innocence.

3.4 Character development
In the same short story, Stephen King shows us an interesting character development from a cynical to a ironic character. Red turns from being a cynical character in the beginning to a be ironic in the end, infused by Andy's hope.

He went from comments like "I hope he dies of intestinal cancer in a part of the world where morphine is as of yet undiscovered." to "I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged..." at the end of the book.

The author even names the spell at the very end, "I hope."

4 Other Uses of Humor
Besides the mentioned instances there are many other reasons or ways to use humor in a story, be it to underline foreshadowing, as a cliffhanger or as simple as an easter egg.

In The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez introduces a simple sentence at the end of a chapter, "...that was, when he [the dictator] sold the sea." This obviously farce-like sentence is used a cliffhanger to keep the reader in the story.

Easter Eggs are hidden jokes or insider jokes in stories. If you look for examples,  J.K. Rowlings is a master in placing easter eggs. Just enter easter eggs and Harry Potter in Google search and you will find tons of examples.

Well, so much from the masters. Next week, I'll talk about how to use humor in your story and the pitfalls to avoid. 

Until then, happy writing
Your writer in a foreign land