Category Archives: News

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.

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.

Oxford Comma

If you’re familiar with my writing, you probably are well aware that I am a fan of the Oxford or serial comma. This can be a surprisingly contentious debate among writers. For anybody who doesn’t know, the Oxford comma precedes the “and” in a list of three or more items, like so.

“I write urban fantasy, science fiction, and nonfiction books on the Western Esoteric Tradition.”

The Oxford comma shows up there after “science fiction.” Without it, the sentence would be written like this:

“I write urban fantasy, science fiction and nonfiction books on the Western Esoteric Tradition.”

Opponents of the Oxford comma find it redundant because as they see it, the “and” already provides the necessary division between items. However, depending upon the sentence, it can be ambiguous with respect to the last two items on this list being part of a whole. Here’s another example that I found online:

“Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist and a pet detective.”

versus

“Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist, and a pet detective.”

Without the Oxford comma, the sentence is ambiguous. Is Amanda’s ex-boyfriend the herbalist and pet detective? Or, are there four people in the camper? This recent news article got me thinking about this today. In a court ruling from the state of Maine, the absence of a serial comma, intentional or otherwise, turned out to be crucial to the case.

The serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma for its endorsement by the Oxford University Press style rulebook, is a comma used just before the coordinating conjunction (“and,” or “or,” for example) when three or more terms are listed. You’ll see it in the first sentence of this story—it’s the comma after “milk”—but you won’t find it in the Maine overtime rule at issue in the Oakhurst Dairy case. According to state law, the following types of activities are among those that don’t qualify for overtime pay:

The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

There, in the comma-less space between the words “shipment” and “or,” the fate of Kevin O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy was argued. Is packing (for shipment or distribution) a single activity that is exempt from overtime pay? Or are packing and distributing two different activities, and both exempt?

If lawmakers had used a serial comma, it would have been clear that distribution was an overtime-exempt activity on its own. But without the comma, wrote US appeals judge David J. Barron, the law is ambiguous as to whether distribution is a separate activity, or whether the whole last clause—”packing for shipment or distribution”—is one activity, meaning only the people who pack the dairy products are exempt. The drivers do distribute, but do not pack, the perishable food.

Seeing as I don’t believe in depriving any hourly worker of overtime pay, this is a happy outcome as far as I’m concerned. But it also shows why the Oxford comma is necessary for clear communication. If it were in standard use, its absence would be meaningful and the statute would unambiguously read (packing) (for shipment or distribution) as opposed to (packing for shipment) (or distribution).

Some opponents argue that the use of the Oxford comma is somehow more ambiguous, but I just don’t see that. The point is not that you have to use it all the time regardless of context, but rather when the last two of your three or more items are distinct. You omit it when they are not. That’s how I use it when I write, and in my opinion everyone should do it that way.

Of course, there’s a lot of disagreement out there on that point, and it has somehow turned into the writing version of the “how to hang the toilet paper” argument that so many non-writers seem to get worked up about. This case shows that it is less trivial than you might think at first, and its ramifications can lead to real-world consequences.