Category Archives: Books

“Blade Runner” Was a Totally Different Story

Back in October I saw the new Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think that they did justice to the original – which is a pretty tall order. I will say that the reviews were mixed in part because you need to be familiar with the original film in order to fully appreciate it, and some of the perpetual fan questions like “Is Deckard really a replicant?” go unanswered – but I found it a nice counterpoint to the big, kind of dumb sci-fi action films that seem to be taking over the genre of late.

At any rate, no matter what you think of the original or the new film, here’s a question for you – what the heck is a “Blade Runner?” We know what it means in the context of the films – blade runners are essentially bounty hunters who track down rogue replicants, synthetic humans originally created as a slave labor force. The original Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is no help at all – the term “blade runner” is nowhere to be found in the text.

I recently came across this Slate article up explaining where the title came from, and it’s actually kind of bizarre and amusing. It just goes to show the in world of movie adaptations, nothing is anywhere near as straightforward as it appears. The story of the term “Blade Runner” starts with a doctor named Alan E. Nourse who also happened to be a science-fiction writer.

Whatever Nourse’s skills as a doctor may have been, they were outweighed in the scales of history by his other passion: writing about the medical profession and fantastical worlds of the future. Before he was even done with medical school, he was publishing sci-fi on the side: first came short pieces in anthology magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, then he started publishing novels with titles like Trouble on Titan (1954), Rocket to Limbo (1957), and Scavengers in Space (1959). In 1963, he retired from medicine to focus on his writing, but wrote about learning the healing arts in a 1965 nonfiction book called Intern, published under the intimidating pseudonym “Dr. X.” Sci-fi author-editor Robert Silverberg, who knew Nourse, tells me the latter book “brought him much repute and fortune,” but in general, he just “wrote a lot of very good science fiction that no one seemed to notice.”

That changed on October 28, 1974. Sort of. On that day, publishing house David McKay released a Nourse novel that combined the author’s two areas of expertise into a single magnum opus: The Bladerunner. It follows the adventures of a young man known as Billy Gimp and his partner in crime, Doc, as they navigate a health-care dystopia. It’s the near future, and eugenics has become a guiding American philosophy. Universal health care has been enacted, but in order to cull the herd of the weak, the “Health Control laws” — enforced by the office of a draconian “Secretary of Health Control” — dictate that anyone who wants medical care must undergo sterilization first. As a result, a system of black-market health care has emerged in which suppliers obtain medical equipment, doctors use it to illegally heal those who don’t want to be sterilized, and there are people who covertly transport the equipment to the doctors. Since that equipment often includes scalpels and other instruments of incision, the transporters are known as “bladerunners.” Et voilà, the origin of a term that went on to change sci-fi.

The Bladerunner had nothing to do with Philip K. Dick or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Nonetheless, it would become the title of the film that would make Dick and his work famous in popular culture. The story of how that happened was strange and serendipitous, to say the least.

But fortune smiled on Nourse, as did one of the finest writers of the past 100 years: the obscene eccentric William S. Burroughs. According to literary scholar Paul Ardoin, Burroughs somehow obtained a copy of the second printing of The Bladerunner around the end of 1976. Burroughs was in a transitional stage in his life, having kicked heroin only a few years before and having moved back to New York after a self-imposed exile in Europe. He was rebooting his career with the help of a new assistant named James Grauerholz, turning in columns for pop-culture mag Crawdaddy and soaking up the nascent downtown punk scene. On December 5, 1976, Grauerholz wrote a letter to Burroughs’s agent, Peter Matson, saying the scribe had “liked the book very much, and in fact has begun to consider a film treatment for it.” As far as I can tell, writing a film treatment was something new, or at least quite rare, for Burroughs, but he dove into it with fervent passion. Matson negotiated the rights with Nourse, got the go-ahead, and Burroughs wrote the treatment in less than four months, delivering it to Matson by March 1977. He called it The Blade Runner, adding a fateful space to the titular noun.

Burroughs’s take on Nourse is, to put it mildly, a wild ride. Indeed, it barely has anything to do with The Bladerunner and is as over-the-top as the original was buttoned-down. It’s written not as a screenplay, but rather as a novella-length explanation of the movie to someone named “B.J.” (Burroughs periodically included this mysterious figure as the recipient of his words in other works, as well.) Like many Burroughs texts, the adaptation is highly inscrutable, which is what makes it so entertaining. He doesn’t even get to the main plot of the movie until nearly halfway through, having spent the first portion just setting the scene with the difficult-to-follow backstory of how the world of the film got to be so screwed-up: Overpopulation led to government intrusion into the lives of private citizens, the state’s attempts to control the population begat multiple Health Acts that were received poorly by the populace and led to a bloody civil war in greater New York in which the white middle class battled the poor and people of color, and from the ashes rose a new America where “the unfit” have to undergo sterilization in order to receive health care.

The Blade Runner was patently unfilmable. Grauerholz reported in July 1977 that nobody they took it to was interested, and an alternative arrangement was made with Nourse, whereby the treatment would be published in book form and all film rights would be forfeited. In order to distinguish it from Nourse’s book, a title change was necessary, and although the adaptation would never be a movie, Burroughs and Grauerholz confusingly chose to call it Blade Runner: A Movie. It was first published in 1979 by Blue Wind Press and was never considered a major Burroughs work.

However, a copy of Blade Runner: A Movie found its way into the library of a struggling actor and writer named Hampton Fancher. In the early 1980s, he, producer Michael Deely, and director Ridley Scott were working on an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and stumbled on a question. “Ridley, after a few months of us working on a draft, when he first came into the project, asked me a question that was so obvious I hadn’t really addressed it before,” Fancher tells me. “What is it that Deckard is, professionally? ‘He’s a detective,’ I said. ‘Well, that was obvious, but what kind of detective exactly, what should he be called?’ I didn’t have an answer, but I’d better get one fast.”

He turned to his collection of tomes. Per Fancher: “That night, I was looking through my books and came across a thin little volume by William Burroughs called Blade Runner. Bingo! Everybody liked it, then later, we needed a new title other than the ones we’d been considering and Michael Deeley, the producer, said, ‘It’s staring us right in the face.’” According to Scott, they approached Burroughs, he said yes, they bought the title of his book for “a nominal fee,” and Blade Runner — a work that otherwise had nothing to do with The Bladerunner or Blade Runner: A Movie — was released on June 25, 1982.

I don’t know if there’s any real takeaway from this, except that it shows if you come up with a really cool title for your story, somebody might decide to license it for a completely unrelated film. This isn’t the only case of that, either. The producers of the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man licensed the title of the Stephen King story of the same name not long after King became a household name, but the movie was actually based on an original screenplay with a working title of CyberGod.

The only similarity with the King story is that there’s one scene where a guy is killed with a lawnmower. King wound up suing the production company when they advertised that the film was based on his story – when all that the company had licensed was the title and the movie was entirely written by someone else. And by the way, before you tell me how terrible The Lawnmower Man was, make sure you’ve watched the director’s cut first. Compared to the theatrical release, which was awful, it’s like night and day.

So maybe that means if you come up with a really cool title, you should keep it to yourself until you know what the people licensing it are going to do with it. Then again, if your name isn’t Stephen King, I don’t know how likely it is that a film production is going to try and exploit your fame in order to drum up publicity.

Check It Out! I’m Rich!

arcana_screenshotWell no, not really. But this listing on Amazon was too good not to share. You can click on the image to enlarge.

Now to be clear, that’s a real listing, not something I whipped up with my mad MS Paint skills. You can check it out right here. Somebody has a used copy of my novel Arcana on sale for $713.52. Besides being an oddly specific number, that’s way more than it costs anywhere else. If one copy is worth $713.52, and I’ve got twenty of them in a box right here plus a few more on my bookshelf, that’s like fifteen thousand bucks. I’m sitting on a small fortune, right?

Amazon will even give you five dollars off your order. What a deal!

In fact, this listing highlights one of the more dubious practices I see on Amazon whenever a new book comes out. Somebody will put up a listing for a used copy – you know, before any copies have been sold and when I know that for sure – for some ridiculous price. Then, the listing just sits there for years. My working hypothesis is that it takes very little effort to list a book, and there are a few collectors out there dumb enough to pay those silly prices on the assumption that the book must be worth something if it’s priced so high and they’ve never heard of it. Then, on the off chance the vendor does make a sale, they buy the book at the regular price, ship it to the buyer, and pocket the difference.

It’s sure nice work if you can get it.

Is Trump Card Non-Fiction?

At one point, a friend of mine commented that with the way things were going, I should be marketing Trump Card as non-fiction. I conceded that perhaps what was really needed was some version of the opening to the film The Men Who Stare At Goats – “More of this is true than you would believe.” But as this article from Slate points out, because of an oddity in how books are classified, a parody Donald Trump memoir by Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen is listed under non-fiction. Even though it’s a parody, and obviously not a real memoir by Donald Trump.

This is not to say that Times readers are likely to be confused by the memoir (though who really knows anymore). The book doesn’t conceal the fact that it is a parody, but there are fictional moments within it that could almost be true, knowing Trump. The book is even written to read like him, with ridiculous lines like “Mitt looks like he could be a winner, but he just doesn’t smell like one” actually being painfully plausible.

Andersen, who sees his book as a work of fiction, said he finds the whole situation “hilariously and delightfully meta.” (Anderson’s radio show, Studio 360, is part of the Slate podcast fold.) When asked why the book was on the Nonfiction list, staff members at the Times said that the book fell under parody or humor (though Jason Zinoman, who reviewed it for Slate, might disagree) and that humor falls under nonfiction. Other parodies to have been categorized as nonfiction include The Onion Book Of Known Knowledge, Earth (The Book), America Again, and I Am America (And So Can You!), though “determinations are made on a case by case basis.”

This is relevant for Trump Card because when I was self-publishing it I had to pick a single category, and settled on Humor/Topical/Political. Even though the book is also a parody of the Young Adult Dystopia genre, the book constructed around a satirical look at Donald Trump and his administration. So it’s humor. Does that make it non-fiction? Some of the material in the book about “David Godfrey” and his “Golden Dawn” group supporting Trump turned out to be weirdly accurate if you substitute some names in there from the real occult community. But otherwise? Of course it’s fiction, regardless of how the classifications fall.

Shouting Trump Card

TrumpCard_Front_250wOne of the things I really did not understand about writing when I finally managed to get a book published back in 2009 is that writing the book is the easy part. Marketing the book is the real challenge. I recently read an interview with an author who was asked for tips on marketing books, and not one of their responses was even marginally useful. The recommendations were all basically “make the story as good as you can,” which doesn’t help you at all if you can’t get your book in front of people in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, whenever you write you do want to make the story as good as you possibly can. But aren’t we already working on this? Maybe the author interviewed was talking about a strategy that I’ve seen some ebook authors use of cranking out as many books as possible without much editing or revision on the grounds that it gives them that many more chances for readers to happen upon their work. I will grant, that strategy can produce some really bad writing, and when people do come upon it they are less likely to be captivated by it – even if the bad stuff does get popular sometimes.

But still, all of that is on the writing side. I’m convinced there has to be some sort of trick to cracking book marketing – some people seem to be good at it and others not so much. Part of it seems to be surprisingly old-school, as I wrote about awhile back – you need to get your book mentioned on the largest media platform possible for it to get traction. That’s old-school in that it’s less of a change to the market than a lot of people think. Twenty or thirty years ago publishers were the gatekeepers, and now it seems that media companies serve the same role.

Over the next couple of months I’m going to be experimenting with some of the book marketing services out there, and I’ll let you know what my results are. The first one I’m trying out is free promotion from Shout My Book. They have paid plans that are not that expensive, and if the free promotion gets results I’ll go ahead a likely do one of those as well. I just submitted Trump Card for promotion, and it should go out sometime in the next week.

Instead of linking directly to Amazon or any other retailer, I’ve retooled the links here and over on Augoeides to point to my book landing pages so I can analyze the traffic more easily. One of my first takeaways is that I get basically zero click-throughs on my fiction from my magick blog, even though it racks up something like twenty thousands hits a month. I do get some click-throughs on my non-fiction magick books, but it seems that Augoeides is totally the wrong market for fiction. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to do more blogging about writing over here.

But I don’t really know if that’s the answer, either. This author site gets nowhere near the traffic that Augoeides does, and it has to become more popular before I get a good sense of all that. That’s another reason I used the landing page link for my Shout My Book submission rather than Amazon. Hopefully some of the folks who click on Trump Card – which, by the way, is just terrific, will find themselves on this site and like more of what they see.

So the whole point is to find out. If I keep getting a good sense of the traffic from my various promotional efforts, I can focus on keeping what works and not wasting my time on stuff that doesn’t. Not only that, I hope that by sharing those results I can help other authors understand the game of marketing better as I learn about it myself.

Twin Cities Book Festival This Saturday!

tc_book_festivalThis Saturday, October 14th, I will be appearing with Moonfire Publishing at the Twin Cities Book Festival brought to you by Rain Taxi. Click the link for more information about the festival, including directions, maps of the site, and the event’s programming schedule.

The festival will be held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and runs from 10 AM to 5 PM. Moonfire Publishing will be at table #205, with information about upcoming titles, current titles, submission guidelines, and more. If you are local to the Twin Cities area, or for that matter just passing through, I hope to see you there!

Blurb-Tuning is a Thing

Stop-Writing-a-Synopsis-SmallWhenever you write a book, you need a book blurb if you want to sell it. Blurbs are short, but word-for-word a lot more work has to go into them than into any other part of your story, except maybe the title. Your title, your blurb, and your cover are often the only things your readers have to go on, especially before you’ve managed to rack up a bunch of reviews.

Ipswich, my long-awaited sequel to Arcana, is just about ready to go. We need to finish proofing the interior and proof the final version of the cover, and I’ll be ready to order copies. One of the last sticking points on the cover has been the blurb, which I have been working on with the folks at Moonfire, and I think we finally have it. Here it is:

Wealthy heiress and party girl Sara Winchester’s eyes are opened to a hidden world of spirits and paranormal occult forces when an experimental psychoactive drug unlocks her dormant mystical powers and senses. With the help of the centuries-old order of magicians known as the Guild, she uses her new abilities to solve the mystery of her mother’s untimely death.

Sara’s investigation leads her to the little town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There she must face a ruthless killer who can control the spirits of the dead — and the remnants of an order of dark magicians who seek to destroy both her and the Guild. Will her fledgling powers prove equal to the task, or will her soul be trapped forever along with the restless dead of Ipswich?

I’ll be updating the Ipswich page here on the blog with the new version, but I thought it might helpful to share the old one for comparison since it will no longer be posted here. This is what I started with:

Party girl Sara Winchester becomes one of the world’s wealthiest people following her mother’s untimely passing. When an experimental psychoactive drug unlocks her family’s long-dormant mystical powers and senses, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of spirits and paranormal forces. With the help of the magical order known as the Guild, she employs her newfound abilities to investigate the mystery of her mother’s death.

Her investigation leads her to the little town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There she must confront a killer who can control the spirits of the dead, and the remnants of a rival order that seeks to destroy both her family and the Guild. Will her fledgling powers prove equal to the task, or will her soul be trapped in Ipswich along with the spirits of the town?

I’m not a big “word guy.” I don’t naturally think in language, so to me those two paragraphs basically say the same thing. However, my editor is a published poet who is much better at paying attention to those details than I am. Even if you’re not working with a publisher, it’s very helpful to find somebody who can do this for you. Another pair of eyes is good, and another pair of eyes who is good with the language is priceless.

Taking apart the original blurb: The first sentence is awkward for a couple of reasons. First off, I used “mother’s untimely passing” there because I use “mother’s death” at the end of the paragraph and it would be too repetitive to use “death” in that first sentence. Second, it doesn’t actually communicate that much information. In the new blurb, I just say “wealthy heiress and party girl” which tells you what you need to know without a whole sentence dedicated to it.

I need to keep “psychoactive” because I want it to be clear that we’re talking about some sort of party drug and not a structured medical experiment. But in the new blurb, I turn the sentence around to make it a more active construction. There still is a bit of passive voice in “eyes are opened” but that’s deliberate – I want to make it clear that this is something that happens to Sara, not something that she actively does. Which, by the way, is one of the few correct usages of passive voice.

“Hidden world” and “paranormal occult forces” are mostly used to provide additional clarity and subvert the “whole new world” cliche which is not needed here. And yes, “hidden” and “occult” do literally mean the same thing – but the connotation is dramatically different. Using “paranormal” and “occult” together clearly identifies for the reader what kind of book Ipswich is. It’s paranormal in the general sense, but more “occult” than, say, a paranormal romance.

The new blurb makes it clearer that these are Sara’s dormant mystical powers and senses, not “her family’s.” The point about her family is significant in the story, but it’s not that relevant here. All the reader really needs to know is that her mystical powers and senses used to be dormant, and now they aren’t. The new blurb also changes “magical order” to “order of magicians,” on the grounds that not everyone knows what a magical order is. Adding “centuries-old” reinforces that the Guild is a magical tradition with a long history, which does become relevant in the story.

At the end of the first paragraph, the new blurb changes “investigate” to “solve.” This simplifies the language and prevents “investigate” and “investigation” from being used together. And at the end of the sentence, I can mention “her mother’s untimely death” without it being repetitive.

The second paragraph doesn’t change as much. I replaced “Her” with “Sara” on the grounds that this is a new paragraph, but otherwise the first sentence is unchanged. In the second sentence, I added “ruthless” to “killer” for emphasizing the danger of the situation, and changed “confront” to “face” to simplify the language. The em-dash in the new blurb is also for emphasis.

For the second half of the sentence, I got rid of “rival” because it was confusing (rival to whom?) and put in “order of dark magicians.” “Order of magicians” goes in place of “order” for clarity, and “dark” once more emphasizes the danger. I also have made it clearer that the dark magicians are seeking to destroy Sara herself rather than the blander “her family.”

The first half of the last sentence is unchanged. The second half is revised a bit for clarity. “Trapped forever” emphasizes the danger one more time, and finally, “spirits of the town” are replaced with “restless dead of Ipswich.” That makes it clear that we’re talking about spirits of the dead, not land-spirits or something else, and naming Ipswich once more is good because that’s the title of the book. “Restless dead” also alludes to my back cover tagline, “These Restless Dead.”

So there you have it. If you write book blurbs yourself, I hope that you find this breakdown useful. Clarity is good, short and direct prose is good, and enough buzzwords to identify the genre of what you are writing is good. The more direct and informative you can make your blurb, the better.

Mortals, Immortals, and an Internet Mystery

ebony_my_immortal_handbookThis month an enduring Internet mystery has finally been solved. For many years now, a piece of Harry Potter fanfiction called My Immortal has been circulating on the Internet. My Immortal is considered the worst piece of fanfiction ever, and many have wondered whether it was an intentional parody or just plain awful. Up until now, all attempts to track down the author had proved fruitless.

But Vox reports that as revealed in a new memoir Under the Same Stars, Rose Christo, the author of many serious young adult novels, was the author of this notorious tale. And yes, it turns out that My Immortal was an entirely intentional parody by a skilled writer trying to produce the worst possible thing that she could imagine.

Out of an endless sea of bad fanfiction typically found on FF.net in the mid-aughts — there’s a reason fans refer to the site as “the pit of voles” — My Immortal stood out because it contained every hallmark of terrible fanfic, but ratcheted up to 11: a main character who was a blatant Mary Sue, a hilariously defensive author who liked to alternately explain things and argue with readers in author notes, amusing misspellings, and, as the owner of the current My Immortal archive puts it, “extreme gothic attitude.” (“I ate some Count Chocula cereal with blood instead of milk.”)

When the story first appeared, many readers thought it was an intentional parody, but no one was quite certain. This essential question — was My Immortal trolling fanfiction or not? — would come to define the story’s cultural reception.

At 22,000 words, it offered what Harry Potter fans instantly recognized as the typical Mary Sue Goes to Hogwarts trope. Ebony, often spelled Enoby in the story, instantly wins friends and enemies thanks to her unapologetically goth — or “goff” in My Immortal speak — lifestyle and innate sex appeal. Clad in her signature black corset bra and Hot Topic fishnet leggings, she has romantic flings with all the wizard hotties. (The fic also features a past relationship between Draco Malfoy, who has sexy red eyes, and Harry, who’s a vampire.) She ultimately fights Voldemort using the power of sex appeal — with a constant background soundtrack of her favorite goff bands: Good Charlotte, My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park, and so on.

Having only heard of My Immortal in passing as the worst fanfiction ever, I finally read the opening excerpt in the Vox article – and to me, it looks like it has to be a parody. Just the main character’s name alone – “Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way” – is so over the top that I find it hard to believe anybody took it seriously. A bad fanfiction character might have one or two of those in their name, but five in a row? That had to be a joke.

Christo was outed by a scandal that came to light this last August. The scandal itself had nothing to do with her, but in the ensuing discussion the existence of Under the Same Stars was revealed. Christo would be outing herself as the author of My Immortal in her memoir anyway, but because of the scandal, her book’s contents were leaked ahead of its publication.

On August 27, 2017, the publishing industry’s online community began whispering about a book that had sprung out of nowhere to overtake the long-dominant No. 1 best-selling young-adult novel The Hate U Give at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The Times is notoriously secretive about its methodology for calculating its list, so it’s possible for a book to come out of nowhere and debut at No. 1. The problem was that this particular book, a YA fantasy called Handbook for Mortals, was by an author no one had ever heard of. And while normally books are marketed for months leading up to their release, with advance copies circulated to generate buzz, no one had seen any previews for this one.

My Immortal and Handbook for Mortals have nothing to do with each other, but they converged online in an astonishing way. Speculation ensued that Handbook for Mortals and its mysterious author, Lani Sarem, had bought their way onto the Times best-seller list. (The book was ultimately pulled from the list.) In the middle of the intense scrutiny of Handbook for Mortals, Bookriot writer Preeti Chhibber offered up a wild guess: What if Lani Sarem was the author of My Immortal?

I covered the Handbook for Mortals scandal back in August, noting that if I had over three hundred thousand dollars available to promote one of my books, I probably could have come up with something better than calling up a bunch of bookstores, asking if they reported sales to the New York Times, and then if they did, ordering hundreds of copies at a time. The methodology was so transparent it amazed me that it took as long as it did for anyone to notice.

Basically, what was going on here is that there was some speculation, based on similarities in the writing, that Handbook for Mortals might have been written by the author of one of the worst pieces of fanfiction of all time. Ouch. No wonder they had to buy their way onto the New York Times bestseller list in order to scam investors on a movie deal. My novels may not sell that well, but nobody’s ever told me that they read like monumentally terrible fanfiction.

At the same time, an editorial assistant at Macmillan Publishers, attempting to interject amid the speculation over Handbook for Mortals, blurted out the news no one was expecting, in a pair of since-deleted tweets: that Sarem couldn’t be the author of My Immortal because the real author of My Immortal was publishing a memoir with Macmillan.

UPDATE: SHE IS NOT THE AUTHOR OF MY IMMORTAL BC THE AUTHOR ALREADY HAS A BOOK OUT??? IT’S NONFICTION??? pic.twitter.com/3gERmLLT8f
— tori (2017) (@grinchhands) August 25, 2017

Christo, as it turns out, has already self-published numerous young adult novels. But her memoir, Under the Same Stars, forthcoming from the Macmillan imprint Wednesday Books, is all about her secret identity and her most famous creation.

So, in fact, the mystery of My Immortal is now solved. It was an intentional parody by an author with some actual writing talent deliberately trying to write something terrible. For those folks who made fun of the story on the grounds that it was serious and the author was really that terrible, this has to be a pretty big letdown. Also – this means that there are enough similarities in Handbook for Mortals to suggest the serious author of that book writes like a parody by another author trying to write the most awful thing she could come up with. Double ouch.

Stephen King complained in On Writing that he finds it pretty annoying that so many people tell him that The Stand is the best thing he’s ever written, because he wrote it back in the late 1970’s and had written a lot more books by the time On Writing came out in 1999. One of the odd things about writing is that with your early books, you use your best ideas but your writing has yet to mature. As you write more and more, your ideas tend to get repetitive. So there’s a sort of “sweet spot” where your writing has gotten good enough and your ideas are still fresh. That might explain why The Stand turned out the way it did.

For Christo, though, it seems like she finally has embraced what will likely remain her most famous creation in her new memoir. I can only imagine what it must have been like seeing the thing become an Internet sensation, and then feeling ambivalent enough about being known for it that she hid her identity for so many years. I suppose I’ll have to read Under the Same Stars if I want to find out what she went through for myself.

Postmodern Novel Bingo

postmodern_novel_bingoThe “literary versus genre” debate rages on. This article from Current Affairs discusses the universal acclaim received by Nathan Hill’s 2016 debut novel The Nix. It’s a postmodern novel about… well, what are postmodern novels about, anyway? To me, that’s part of the problem, and that always makes them a hard sell in my world. I may never be a great prose stylist just because I seem to lack the “love of language” that characterizes the best of them, and that means I always have been much more interested in what an author is saying than in how he or she is saying it.

Critics from major publications were united in their praise. They agreed not merely that The Nix was good, but that it was breathtakingly good. Said The Independent: “Reading The Nix—all 620 pages of it—is an experience of complete unadulterated pleasure.” Said The New York Times: “Hill has so much talent to burn that he can pull off just about any style, imagine himself into any person and convincingly portray any place or time… the author seems incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence or spinning a boring story.” Said The Guardian: “Hill is an assiduous selector of words whose artistic concentration seldom lapses. He is also a very musical stylist—the book is full of long, beautifully counterweighted sentences and subtle cadences that change from voice to voice as different characters take up the narrative.” Booklist compared Nathan Hill to John Irving. John Irving compared Nathan Hill to Charles Dickens.

So what I can get out of that is according to critics, Hill is a very good writer. There’s not much at all in there telling you what the novel is actually about, so I suppose the point is that if you’re the sort of person who values prose styling over the actual story, this is the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re actually looking for a good story, the article points out that this might not be the book for you at all.

In the interests of sparing you the trouble of reading the whole thing yourself, I’ll summarize the plot briefly for you here. The Nix is the story of a sexually frustrated academic who despises his students. Most of the first part of the book is an extended flashback to the time in his childhood when his mother abandoned him. Cut to his mother. She has an extended flashback to the time in her college days when she was peripherally involved in some anti-Vietnam protesting. There is a longish interlude about a kinky affair between a police officer and the mother’s college roommate, who enjoys being choked. The mom and the son have some cursory present-day interactions for the purposes of linking the two storylines together. There is a shocking twist at the end where you find out that one minor character is actually a different minor character. The end.

Oh, wait, there was also another plotline where the academic is in love with a violinist but her soldier brother sends the academic a deathbed letter from Iraq telling him not to have sex with his sister, so he doesn’t. Also a malnourished recluse named Pwnage nearly dies of a blood clot after playing a video game for too long. This is described at considerable length and has more or less nothing to do with any other part of the plot. The end.

Wow, that sure sounds like a story I want to read – NOT. Seriously, though, I haven’t read this novel and I have no idea whether it’s really any good. A lot of critics loved it, and Brianna Rennix, the author of the linked article, hated it. From the description here what I can say is that no matter how well-written it is, it’s not something I’m ever likely to read. To me, the story sounds boring and pointless, and no amount of prose styling, no matter how skillful, can fix that.

So why has this dreary novel received so much adulatory attention from the critical establishment? Well, aside from the possibility of a highly concerted behind-the-scenes wining-and-dining campaign by Nathan Hill’s agent, my only explanation is that literary critics are trained to respond to certain cues that signal to the reader that a given book is A Serious Work Of Postmodern Literature. Over recent decades there has been a hiving-off of books into lowbrow “genre novels”—mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance, and the like—and “literary novels,” which are all self-consciously vying for an immortal place in the Great Books canon.

But just as mystery novels have their locked rooms and romance novels their kilted Scotsmen, the literary novel is a genre like any other, with predictable tropes and a predetermined range of narrative possibilities. Postmodern writing has a very strong focus on literary style: it prioritizes conveying a mood rather than telling a story, and writing a “striking” descriptive sentence over presenting a fully-realized three-dimensional character. The art of the short story, being easier to read and grade, is more highly-prized by MFA instructors, and consequently the novels produced by MFA-trained writers have a cobbled-together feel of multiple short stories mashed into something of a novel-length. So-called experimental elements, such as unusual text formatting, have long since ceased to be experimental: they are now well-established formulas.

Here Rennix absolutely nails it. When people go about how the genres I write in, science fiction and fantasy, are not “literary,” I just roll my eyes. While it’s true that much genre fiction is not well-written enough to qualify, the subject matter itself should not be disqualifying. After all, “dysfunctional family” is a genre too, and we all know how much “literary” writing employs the same old tropes of abusive parenting and the like.

Now I’m not trying to argue that I’m necessarily a good enough writer for my fantasy or science fiction to be considered literary, I just think the idea of dismissing entire classes of subject matter out of hand is profoundly misguided. If you think fantasy can’t be literary, read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Anybody who tells me that’s not a literary-quality novel is absolutely full of it. Prose in science fiction tends to be more sparse and minimalistic, but what about pieces with massive and intricate world-building, like Frank Herbert’s Dune?

My point is this – evaluating novels as “literary” or “not literary” should depend not on their genre, which might be “dysfunctional family” or “post-modern” or “science fiction” or “fantasy.” It should be based on their overall quality as novels, regardless of their subject matter. Personally, I read very little of the “literary” stuff under the current definition just because I’m not that interested in reading about regular life. I already have one of those.

And as I see it, magical powers and advanced technology are interesting. A bunch of characters who waste their time agonizing about a bunch of stupid crap, or whining about what assholes their parents were, are not. Likewise, all too often “experimental” is just another word for “garbage.” I know there are people out there who feel completely differently, which is good. I find it particularly sad when authors can’t find an audience. I’m just not going start reading this stuff myself any time soon.

Now is it just me, or does that “postmodern novel bingo” card up there look like a writing prompt? Maybe I can figure out a way to work every single one of those into a novel that is simultaneously postmodern, dysfunctional family, science fiction, and fantasy. That would show them!

This Explains a Lot

BookMarketingI came across this point in an article about marketing movies, but it seems to me that it probably applies to marketing books as well. For all people talk about the possibility of books “going viral” on the Internet, from what I’ve seen it hardly ever happens. A lot of author discussion groups talk about cultivating word of mouth and so forth, but in the real world even getting somebody who already likes your book to write an Amazon review is tough. So what’s going on here?

There is a chapter in Derek Thompson’s book, “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction,” published in February, about how things go viral in the age of the internet. Basically, they don’t. Rather than spreading from individual to individual, Thompson, working from research done by Yahoo, argues that “Popularity on the Internet is ‘driven by the size of the largest broadcast.’” Things that spread on the internet are generally shared by one large host source (a celebrity’s Twitter account, a big media outlet, etc.) to many smaller sources with diminishing and discreet (in-person) shares from the infected pool. “Digital blockbusters are not about a million one-to-one moments as much as they are about a few one-to-one-million moments,” Thompson writes.

This potentially has huge implications for marketing books. It suggests that the most efficient path to success is to focus your resources on getting the attention of the largest possible media outlet and letting the rest of the marketing take care of itself. I don’t know that it’s necessarily true, but I will say that it fits my experience better than what is usually considered the “conventional” viral model. It might just be that viral popularity is more suited to things like YouTube videos that require little investment in terms of time. Books certainly don’t fall into that category. Go big or go home, indeed.

So I’m going to think about this, and see if there’s any good way that I can test it out to see if Thompson is right. Getting the attention of large media outlets was always difficult, so in a lot of ways this statement makes it sound like the old “gatekeeper” system is still in place – it just now operates at the level of media exposure rather than book acquisitions. In some ways it’s a little disheartening, but at the same time there’s no way to effectively hack a system if you don’t know where the levers are that make it run. It’s axiomatic that everything can be hacked – you just have to figure out how do it.

Buying Your Way to the Top

new_york_times_bestseller_jpgThis week, a story came out of a small publisher who tried to buy their way onto the New York Times Bestseller List – and got caught. They issued their first title, a young adult novel, that mysteriously and immediately shot to the top of the list. This was despite any real buzz online, or even many copies available on Amazon. Also, according to many reviews, the novel is flat-out terrible. Apparently, what happened was that the publisher attempted to game the system by putting in large orders for the book only at bookstores that reported sales to The New York Times.

Handbook For Mortals by Lani Sarem is the debut novel from the publishing arm of website GeekNation. The site announced this news only last week, through a press release that can be read on places like The Hollywood Reporter, not a site known for extensive YA coverage. Sarem has an IMDb page with some very minor acting roles, several of which are uncredited, but details on the book are scanter to find. Googling it leads to several other books with the same title, but most of the coverage for it is press release based. There’s little real excitement or details on it coming from the YA blogging world, which is a mighty community who are not quiet about the things they’re passionate about (believe me, first hand experience here).

YA writer and publisher Phil Stamper raised the alarm bells on this novel’s sudden success through a series of tweets, noting GeekNation’s own low traffic, the inability to even buy it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and its out-of-nowhere relevance. Another user, writer Erik. J Brown, noted the questionable quality of the book’s Amazon reviews, which Fakespot deems of unreliable and low quality. The book currently has 9 Goodreads reviews, all of which are 5 stars and some of which are duplicates. If you know anything about Goodreads, you’ll already hear the bullshit alarm.

Jeremy West, manager of OnBroadwayish, pointed to the book’s sales, which according to Nielsen Bookscan, are 18k for the past week alone. That’s weird. Very weird. Buying your way onto the bestseller list is not technically illegal, nor is it that hard if you know how. Many conservative publishers have found success through bulk-buying books then giving them away as, say, subscriber gifts if you sign up to Newsmax or the like. The thing is, usually the New York Times make note of this and include this as a footnote of sorts to the list. Here, there’s nothing. Pulling this kind of trick is hard to conceal, but here it’s especially glaring.

18,000 copies of this book would run you upwards of $360,000. It’s a way to go if you have that much cash, though I have to admit if I had that much to promote a book I probably could come up with better ways to spend it. More ethical ones, too. The problem is that the publishing world has become something of a vicious circle. If you’re a small publisher, it’s hard to rack up significant sales numbers without pulling almost-scams like this. The more people do it, the more everybody else has to do it to get noticed. And you need to get noticed because nowadays, you just can’t make it as a writer if nobody hears about your stuff.

I’m not writing this article to present a solution. I honestly don’t have one. I do know that people need to value the work of writers they like. At the very least, fans should be willing to write the occasional review of books they like, and mention them on social media once in a while. And people who justify book piracy on the grounds that we writers are making all this money should just knock it off – nowadays there are a handful of writers getting rich out there and the rest of us are struggling to get noticed by enough people to make a dent in the market.

About all I can suggest is that you take a look at this post from awhile back, and click on the image to enlarge. It shows a whole list of things you can do to help authors promote their books on Amazon, which like it or not, is where everybody goes looking for reviews, sales ranks, and so forth. Even if you didn’t buy the book there, your review still matters (a number of people I’ve spoken with over the years have been unclear on that). People seem to pay about as much attention to “unverified” reviews as they do to “verified” ones, according to current market research.

For those of you who have been willing to review my books and help with my promotional efforts, I thank you all very much. It’s always appreciated. The better my books do, the more of them I can write and you can read, which is a win-win all around.