The tales of an unapologetic nerd
A few months ago, I published a blog post over at Random Encounter Productions about the art of storytelling, and how it relates to roleplaying in Dungeons & Dragons. I have always believed in the power of storytelling. It is so much more than simply words on a page or on a screen. The art of storytelling celebrates such a grand and ever-shifting piece of magic within all of us. Even as children, we want to tell our parents EVERYTHING that happened to us each day, as if it were some grand adventure. I have often said, if I could create my own major in school, I would absolutely try and earn a Masters in Storytelling. After all, I've spent my life checking all the boxes:
That last one is what I'm most eager to discuss, as my aforementioned post on the REP blog made me realize just how much of Dungeons and Dragons has seeped into the way I tell my own stories today.
BUILDING REAL CHARACTERS
Let's start with the most basic building block of any story, OR any good D&D campaign: the CHARACTERS. Without good, interesting characters, even the most epic stories would fall flat. Without characters we care about in our fiction, we have no real reason to continue caring about the world. Without Frodo's worry over The Shire, he has no reason to take the ring to Mordor. Evil may continue to roam the countryside in the form of the Nazgul, but why would we ever become involved? The same holds true with any good D&D game: without our heroes, the world would not matter. We choose to play as these rangers and rogues and barbarians, in order to see the world through their eyes.
But the glorious thing about D&D character creation (if you're doing it right ... power players need not apply) is that all of the classes are inherently flawed. By nature, a Warlock has made a pact for their soul. Backstory is written in, because what sort of person would sell themselves for power? Clerics and Paladins are often torn between doing what is right and doing what is best. Rogues cannot be sneaky AND heavily-armored. Now, there are ways around every rule, and there will always be players who stat their characters in such a way that they have NO WEAKNESSES. That is perfectly fine, and I do not fault those players. Sometimes, you just want to be a demigod in your escapist tabletop fantasy. More power to you! However, I would argue that there's power in a "dump stat." There is built-in creativity and roleplay in embracing something your character is NOT good at!
Too often in our own stories, we forget to give our main characters flaws. And, whether at the table or on the page, those flaws are usually the thing that has the chance to make them the most interesting. The most relate-able. The most real. The moment I started thinking of my book characters as playable D&D classes, they became much easier to write, and so much better to read. They were no longer epic warriors who could just do anything, they were Human Fighters, with a low Charisma stat: getting the job done, but maybe a little harsh with people. Because when you play D&D for long enough, you stop being afraid of the flaws. So stop being afraid to give your book characters real flaws and weaknesses! They don't always need to have flawless skin, perfect teeth, or thick and flowing hair. The princes don't always need to be charming, and not every damsel in distress is a golden-haired, corset-waisted goddess. Your hunters can be bad at simple household tasks. Your roguish charmers can be terrible at actual fighting, just really sweet talkers. Give us reasons to care, and reasons to relate.
OUR PLACE IN THE WORLD
In a D&D campaign, it's easy to feel like your actions don't have consequences. This often leads to the "murder hobo" mentality of "HEY I can do anything I want! LET'S KILL PEOPLE AND TAKE THEIR STUFF!" I don't know about the other players out there, but for me? That's the LAZIEST approach to a campaign ever. And a lot of Dungeon Masters agree. So, a GOOD one will take those instincts and fold in real consequences in-game. Very quickly, players learn that yes, they CAN burn down the village and rob everybody, but they'll spend several game sessions after that running from the law, breaking out of prison, or being executed and having to roll up a new character.
It's an idea we need to remember for our writing as well: YOUR CHARACTERS ARE NOT ALONE! Nobody exists entirely in a vacuum, or if they do it's VERY difficult to make an interesting story about them. For those of you planning on bringing up classics such as I Am Legend or famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, sit down and be quiet. There are exceptions to EVERY rule, and it is your choice if you wish to pursue them in your own art. Clearly, I'm discussing other things, so let's just let those go for now :)
Layering the world around your characters is vital for keeping any long-running tabletop campaign going. Who is in charge? Who do you shop from? Do they turn you away or raise the prices on you if you're a troublemaker? If your adventuring party become criminals instead of heroes, how much does it change how townsfolk react to your presence? Are they excited to see you, or terrified? All of these things can be applied to our fiction in much the same way. Take time to think about every action your characters take. Every choice, every possible consequence. Maybe while they're saving the world, they are fairly destructive. Yes, they are doing a good thing, but how will the people react?
This example is perfectly executed in Disney's The Incredibles: superheroes being pushed into hiding because their exploits are, while good, very dangerous. In fact, many of the best superhero stories center around the main character having to hide because of society. Whether they think it will make them a target, endanger the people they love, or they simply aren't allowed to reveal themselves because of some social or political reason, that external influence from the rest of the world is crucial to the survival of their story.
Remember the people as you write your own. Stop and think how your main character's actions are going to ripple out and change the lives of citizens they may never even meet. This mentality allows the world to grow into something much larger, more complicated, and more engaging to read about.
For those of you who aren't familiar, there is a moment in any D&D game that can make or break your character: rolling a Natural 1. Natural 1, at most tables, is a critical failure. You have made a mistake. Your blade misses. You fall. You lose a body part. All of these things can help shape your character's story from then on, in a way you couldn't have possibly imagined because these things aren't planned. The great thing about rolling the dice and letting them decide your fate is reacting to it. Will my character learn how to go on without a leg? Will they still adventure? Or is it time to retire them into a life of barkeeping somewhere, and roll up somebody new?
While our books are generally not as chaotic and unplanned as a D&D campaign (I say "generally" because many of us out here are writers of pure improvisation) there's still something lovely to be gleaned from this: my character doesn't always have to succeed. In fact, it is often so much more interesting if they don't. It may feel catastrophic to lose the person you were trying to save. To be scarred. To fail. But here's the beautiful thing about in-game failures: we get to build new quests around them. Lost a leg? Let's find a wizard who can make me a new one of wood. Castle burned down in the midst of war? The King is now a refugee, and we have to find a new home for an entire ruling family. Not to mention, there's that whole war thing going on ...
Our books are allowed to follow failures. Sure, we usually want the hero to win in the end, at least in my genre. But how they get there can be twisted and unclear. They may lose the love of their life to somebody else, and that love story may not untangle itself for several books. They might fail to save one of their companions, and deal with the loss. Heroes are not only heroes because they win. Their heroism is bigger than that, or it should be. They are heroes because they keep trying. They get back up. They learn to walk again. They fight when the odds are against them. So, set something against them! Even if they are eventually meant to come out on top, reminding the readers that there's a chance they could fail is never a bad thing. The failures make the successes that much richer.
EXHAUSTION, ILLNESS, AND THE RULES OF MAGIC
Fantasy authors have heard for YEARS about finding a "price" or "rules" of magic. It is a topic I could attempt to tackle in an entire SERIES of posts, and I'm sure I will someday, but today is not THAT day. There are plenty of other people who have explained it better, and discussing the exact nuances of the prices of magic is a complicated topic. However, the great news is that D&D has already BUILT IN rules of magic! Not only that, but the rules shift and change depending on what type of magic you studied. Which, if you think about it, is so much better than just one set rule for all magic everywhere.
In Dungeons & Dragons, if I play a Wizard, I have studied from books. I am a normal person, who simply went to school to learn. As a Sorcerer, however, something inside me simply has that spark of magical power and potential. There are different flavors of magic, just like there are different flavors of art, music, woodworking, and writing in the real world. Why should magic be confined to one set of rules, if people are using it differently? Not only that, but each class has a built-in chart explaining how much magic they can use in a day, and how strong of a spell they would be capable of.
This tabletop way of looking at not just magic, but all talents, opened my eyes as a writer. For instance: my hunter, learning to shoot his weapon in the woods to feed his family, is going to learn to handle a bow and arrow differently than a soldier learning to shoot target practice in combat training. Same ultimate end, but very different ways of getting there.
The rules in D&D don't only address magic and skills, but sleep. Eating. Sickness. The day-to-day routine things we often don't stop to think about when we write. We want our characters to run off into the sunset with their bags packed and adventure in their hearts.
But has your character ever had to run off with such a bag hanging off their shoulders? Camping equipment is very heavy. Swords are heavy. Food, bedding, clothes ... if your main character isn't a seasoned adventurer, all of these things may be more exhausting than you think about. And that's where D&D comes back into the picture: they also have rules for ALL OF IT. Any condition that might befall someone on a quest, and the repercussions associated with it.
There is something almost Homeric about sitting down with your friends and telling an epic, improvised story. I like to imagine Homer sat his friends around a fire while he spun tales of Odysseus and his quest. But you can circle yourselves around a tabletop, some paper, and a set of dice with much the same end in mind. And, if you don't have a group of fellow storytellers right now? Don't fret. The art of storytelling is bigger than all of us, and the rules of roleplay are adaptable even by yourself. It's time to start looking at your book like a game. So pick up a die, and roll.
This past week, I celebrated my FIRST WHOLE YEAR as a published author! And, as you can see from the numbers, I ACTUALLY MADE MONEY OFF OF THIS?! Yes, internet, I did. And I continue to do so. With just two published works so far, I'm feeling remarkably confident about my future as a writer and creator, and I'd love to share with you now some of the tips and tricks that have worked for ME in my journey. They may just be little things, and simple ways to make it in this world, but they've kept me going for a year now, and helped me find relative success. Indie authors out there, take note! Everything may not work for you, but I give you these tools in your own journey, that you may be better armed to face your own path and fight your own dragons.
1) Invest in good cover art
Someone once told me that your cover is your greatest asset as an indie author, and oftentimes your only billboard. Having been around the convention block a few times now, and seen what other indie authors are putting out there, I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH: PAY FOR A COVER ARTIST. In all honesty, the MS Paint "I want to write but can't afford an artist" look does not usually pay off. It will not matter that your writing is great, and it will not matter that your story is spectacular. If your cover does not grab people right as they walk away, 9 times out of 10 they won't be buying a copy of your book.
In fact, my cover art is what got me and my book into my local Barnes and Noble branch. The visuals are so professional, that the saleswoman who initially started carrying my work didn't even realize I was indie. And neither do the readers. At the end of the day, people will always judge a book by its cover. So turn that to your advantage! Make your work pop off the shelves and stand out in a crowded convention center! Make sure when people are scrolling through Amazon, they have a reason to stop on your book. I wouldn't be doing half as well as I am without my cover artist, Fiona Jayde. I owe so much of my success to her artistry.
2) Find your market
I myself have had a remarkable amount of success at conventions. In fact, there's several hundred more dollars unaccounted for in the Book Report graphic above, simply because they were all cash sales at cons and events. Just a week after my first book was published, I hit the road and set up a booth at Ancient City Con. There, not only did I make back my booth cost (plus a little extra) but I learned some valuable lessons about myself as a salesperson. My theatre background and naturally-bubbly personality both grant me the skills necessary to thrive in a person-to-person marketing setting. While the internet is a great place to network and sell your product, I have done the best in the past year face-to-face with the readers. People get excited to talk to me about my work, and they enjoy spending time at my booth and getting to know me as a person.
That isn't to say the convention approach will work for everyone. There's a fine line between being an engaging vendor and harassing people, and I've seen it go very very badly. On the other hand, just sitting silently and waiting for people to notice your work can be just as off-putting. A little tip from a professional performer: talk to people about other things. Compliment their shirt. Ask them how their day at the con has been. Gush over their hair color. If they want to know more about your books or your merch, they will take the next step. You just have to make yourself a safe, friendly person to talk to. It comes naturally to me, but I hope that little bit of direction can help you have a more successful time at your next event.
In addition to finding what market works best for you, don't try and torture yourself to learn a marketing tactic or technique that just isn't your speed. Yes, there are tried-and-true methods of marketing on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. But, just like with writing styles or habits, not every approach will work for every author. Try them all, and learn what you can, but at the end of the day you'll have more success if you feel comfortable with what you're doing.
3) Find Your Tribe
Whether in-person or online, there is always a support group to be found for aspiring artists. We creators need a specific type of love and care to make the magic happen, and finding those people who know how to take care of your unique brand of creativity-induced crazy is remarkably important. Without mine, I could never have made it through this first year, or published to begin with. Sometimes, it's something simple, like finding friends who will come to your signings and buy your books, just to support you as a person. Other times, it's people lending their own talent to your project, like my dad did when he painted my map, or my sister still does when she proofreads my pages for free. And then, there's another kind of support. A daily, never-ending journey. Here, we find the partners. The best friends. The boyfriends or girlfriends. The Twitter families. The coworkers. Those who know what you're going through, and pick up the slack while you push through your next chapter or a particularly bad writer's block. For me, I had an entire team willing to make sure I was fed and watered. To manage my business while I was deep in writing mode at night. To reach out whenever they found an event they thought my books would do well at. To be there, when I needed to scream into the void about the bad days.
Find your tribe. You'd be amazed how helpful people who are already in your life can be when you just reach out. And if not? Make a new group. Find an online family, or an ally at a local bookstore or coffee shop. Build a community around yourself. After all, it's dangerous to go alone.
4) Don't be afraid to ask
Waltzing into my local Barnes and Noble and casually asking for a book signing was absolutely terrifying. But guess what? It paid off big time. Not only did they say YES, but they are still carrying both of my books to this day! And displayed front-facing, people. IF YOU ARE IN THE BOOK BUSINESS YOU KNOW WHAT A BIG DEAL THAT IS! *ahem* Again, please refer to Tip #1: cover art.
What started out as a dream has turned into a recurring signing event every few months (in fact, I have one tonight), a monthly gig hosting their YA Book Club, and an incredible relationship with the men and women who work there. For a little indie gal like me, this is the greatest achievement of my career so far. I glow with pride and joy every time I see that my books are still in stock, or being re-stocked because the original batch sold out. And it never would have happened if I hadn't just asked. Will everyone always say yes? Absolutely not. But if you don't even try, you might miss out on something amazing.
5) Never stop learning
It's painful to hear, and painful to say to another creator, but sometimes the reason your project isn't as successful as you'd like is because it's simply not up to the caliber it should be. And that's okay! The good news is, you took the first step! You finished your book, and put it out into the world! That's further than a lot of people ever get in their lives, and you should be proud of yourself. Celebrate that achievement, first and foremost, before you read any further!
Celebration done? Okay, now for the hard part.
Your work may not be as good as you think it is. And while it is important to have a supportive tribe, you also need critics who are comfortable telling you what is wrong with your book. If you're not willing to take constructive criticism, or you refuse to continue honing your craft, you're selling yourself short. You're doing your self a disservice by not continuing to grow and learn as a writer, and artist, and a storyteller. You deserve to have your story told, and to have people want to read it. Sometimes, that means going back to the basics, and re-learning some things you may have forgotten. Take a writing class. Pick up a novel in a genre you may nave never considered reading before. Find someone willing to tell you the truth. In those moments, when we are faced with our own weaknesses as creators, something magical happens: we learn what we are truly made of.
I have been told, time and time again, things I need to fix. And, with a lot of them, the critic was right. But by the time I published, I knew what was good about my work, and what wasn't. Not only did I put forward the strongest piece I could at the time, but my heart has not been broken by the handful of bad, potentially hurtful reviews I have received. Being sure of myself and my style has given me great confidence to face the internet trolls. When someone says "this character didn't behave like a strong woman should," I know that their definition of strength is different than mine. And that's okay. I know my character is who she is meant to be.
I never would have gotten there if I hadn't been ironing out the problems in my own writing over the past twenty years. In fact, I am still ironing to this day. Finding the weakest points of my own craft and stamping them out, so when I am confronted with an enemy I know I can hold my chin high and say, "that is your opinion." Think of it like learning to cook: it doesn't always come easily, and you could spend a lifetime discovering new tricks and new recipes.
This is just the beginning of my personal Indie Author Survival Kit. And, as I mentioned, the advice may not be for everyone. But please, don't hesitate to reach out if you need a friend in the business. I'm going through all of this one day at a time, just like many of you. I learn something new every day, and I'm grateful for it. Now, it's your turn. What are some things YOU have learned on your Indie Journey? How can you help better the writing world with your knowledge? Feel free to share! And, in the meantime, keep writing! Someone out there needs your book. I'm just giving you the tools to try and help make sure they find it.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.