Category Archives: Writing

Fun With Meter


I have never been much of a poet. Despite taking creative writing classes for years and all that, it turns out that I can write poems that follow specific forms and are technically correct – but still terrible, or at best not even rising to the level of mediocre.

I do enjoy playing around with meter, though. One of the interesting things about it is that there are really only so many ways you can write a rhyming poem with meter. So that means that many poems share the same meter and structure, and some of those are set to music. For example, Emily Dickinson was so enamored of the 7-6-7-6 meter that all of her poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Recently some clever folks on the Internet came up with a far more sinister example of meter overlap. They discovered that the H. P. Lovecraft poem Nemesis has the exact same meter as Billy Joel’s signature song Piano Man. How does that sound, you might ask? Well, have a listen above. You can find the text of Nemesis here. It’s way creepier than a straightforward tune about a guy playing music in a piano bar.

Back in 2009 Slate put up a piece arguing that Billy Joel’s music is somehow transcendentally awful. Personally I’m pretty neutral on Billy Joel – I don’t particularly like his music, but I don’t particularly hate it either. It’s cheesy pop that I can take or leave. The article makes me wonder if the author had some bad childhood experience that took place while Billy Joel was playing in the background – because, let’s face it, in the 1980’s you could barely turn on a radio without hearing one of his songs.

But if the core of Piano Man somehow resonates with creeping Lovecraftian horror, I may need to revise my opinion. What if Joel’s music is not merely bad or schlocky, but evil? What if it is the means by which the Elder Gods intend to return to the world from the dark recesses of human imagination? Maybe that’s why he’s been popular for so long – his songs tap into an eldritch reservoir of ancient power that helps to embed them within the foundation of human consciousness.

Granted, it may just be a coincidence. But isn’t it more fun to envision Joel as an emissary of the ancient ones, promulgating their message through his music, and in the process slowly being driven mad?

Publishing in 2017

publishing2017 might turn out to be the year in which declining book sales finally start to take a real toll on major publishing houses. Niche and independent writers like me have been talking about these trends for years, but for the longest time it seemed like big publishers who could position books were essentially immune. The democratization of publishing has meant that anybody can publish their work, but what that means in practice is that there are now millions and millions of books out there that hardly anybody will ever hear of, with all of them in competition with each other.

Marketing is an entirely separate skill from writing, and beyond that, the only organizations willing to put significant resources towards it are the big publishing houses – so their status as de facto gatekeepers has not really changed that much. But as this Slate article points out, 2017 was a little different. Even for the big publishers, it was a pretty bad year for book sales. At the end of 2016 sales were flat, and Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times opined that the publishing industry really needed a 2017 blockbuster. But it did not get one.

Only a handful of overtly political books broke through this tranquil surface in 2017. First and foremost—among political books, but also among pretty much all books—was Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, which sold 167,000 copies its first week according to BookScan and kept on trucking through the fall. This Fight Is Our Fight by Elizabeth Warren and Understanding Trump by Newt Gingrich made brief appearances on BookScan’s top 10. Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism by radio personality Mark R. Levin had a bit more staying power. But the sales of every non-Clinton political book were easily dwarfed by those of the latest John Grisham or, for that matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is one of those titles that never hits the No. 1 spot but ends up selling far more copies over time than the hot screed of the moment. A couple of perennial best-selling authors, however, performed considerably below their previous numbers this year. Dan Brown sold 144,759 copies of Origin in its first week out. That’s a staggering amount, but less than half of the first-week sales of his previous blockbuster, 2013’s Inferno, and Inferno’s first week was less than half as impressive as that of Brown’s 2009 novel, The Lost Symbol.

Brown isn’t the only franchise whose brand appears to be cooling. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have been raking it in for several years with their Killing series of page-turning popular histories. These books aren’t overtly polemical—unlike O’Reilly’s other titles, authored on his own—and the most popular volume in the series, Killing Patton, sold 163,208 copies during its first week of publication in 2014. Last year’s Killing the Rising Sun also did well—144,657 copies sold—in its first week. But the most recent installment, Killing England, moved only 64,723 copies during its first week in September. This is almost certainly due to O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News earlier this year, and with it his inability to hawk the new book on TV every weeknight. With O’Reilly out of commission, Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends is clearly hoping to don the mantle of Fox News personality lending his brand to ghostwritten potboilers that burnish all the annoying moral nuance out of American history. His Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny has loitered around the midsection of the list for the past few weeks.

Leveraging a massive publicity platform is one of the few proven methods of selling a lot of books, but the media has become so balkanized that many best-selling authors are “celebrities” invisible to most of the nation: YouTube stars, radio hosts, reality TV contestants. The Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has enjoyed a degree of popularity few poets would dare to hope for. Her work, by turns mawkishly sentimental and quotably confessional, makes her the Rod McKuen of her generation. Kaur’s success—her new book, The Sun and Her Flowers, sold more than 75,000 copies in its debut week last month and has racked up a total of 252,602 sales in the month or so since—isn’t entirely due to her ability to produce lines like “i do not want to have you/ to fill the empty parts of me/ i want to be full on my own.” She has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where her fame was initially spurred when a self-portrait in pajamas stained with period blood was banned by the platform. In a paradox worthy of our late, decadent stage of internet culture, Kaur’s career is dependent on Instagram both because it puts her on millions of teenagers’ cellphones and because she is seen as having defied it.

It’s not so much that those numbers are that small, but compare them to some numbers from the past. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code sold 81 million copies as recently as 2003. Nothing like that ever seems to happen these days, and that only happened fourteen years ago. Not hundreds of thousands, millions. A while back I published an article in Denver Witch Quarterly addressing the entirely wrongheaded idea that you can freely publish occult books because occult writers like me are swimming in money. The reality is that occult books make next to nothing in terms of real money, so every single sale counts.

Now that might be starting to happen for mainstream authors as well. Maybe that means we’ll see some changes in the industry at this point, but unfortunately I have no idea what would work. Business is not my strong suit and it never has been. Probably it will be something that takes us all totally by surprise. The next big hit might be just around the corner, ready to revitalize the industry, and 2017 might just be a fluke or an outlier. At least, for now we all can hope that something will emerge to turn things around.

Do Readers Dismiss Science Fiction?

science_fiction_quote_bradburyThe Guardian has an article up today discussing the results of a study that to my way of thinking plays right into the “literary versus genre” fiction debate. As I’ve mentioned a couple of time, I had an English teacher in high school who insisted that science fiction was automatically not literature, which to my way of thinking conveyed a lot of ignorance about the genre. Sure, there’s pulpy science fiction that isn’t written well enough to give it much value beyond passing entertainment, but there are also examples of the form that are written at least as well as most literary novels.

According to the study, readers were given 1000 word short stories to read. The stories were identical in terms of writing quality and content, except that a “literary” version was set in an ordinary cafe, and a “science fiction” version was set on board a space station at some point in the far future. The study found that readers tended to dismiss the science fiction version and not read it as carefully as they did the literary version.

Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the “literary” version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.

After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story”, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling. Gavaler and Johnson write that the texts are identical apart from “setting-creating” words such as “door” and “airlock”: they say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind.

This was not the case. “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character relationships,” they write. “In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

As the article goes on to explain, the study has a number of problems. The authors made no effort to sort their subjects according to what they actually liked to read, which is an enormous hole. It seems to me that the most obvious observation in the world from this is that once you identify a piece of writing as a genre you don’t really like, you tend to just skim over it. I like fantasy and science fiction and don’t read romance, for example, and I can certainly see if somebody handed me a “romance” piece and a “science fiction” piece, I would probably test a lot better on the science fiction one than the romance. I’m automatically not going to read something as closely once I identify that it’s in a genre I don’t particularly like.

This would require a new study that would group the participants into science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers, and compare their scores. I suspect that among the science fiction readers, the scores would be similar for the two pieces, and among the non-science fiction readers the scores would diverge dramatically. Since science fiction is not the most popular genre out there, my guess is that these two sets got averaged together to produce the final result. I would also predict that if a follow-up was done on genre preferences, it would find that there are far fewer science fiction readers in the sample than non-science fiction readers, just due to random selection.

So I think the answer to my question up there would be that yes, readers dismiss science fiction if they don’t like science fiction. But seriously, did we really need a study to work that out? My guess is that it holds across the board, with readers engaging with genre fiction that they like and dismissing the rest. And as for literary fiction, the primary characteristic of that version seems to be that there was nothing in the story that allowed a reader to classify it into a genre. There was no real difference in writing quality or content, just the setting. So to frame it as the headline does – suggesting that there is something in particular about science fiction that makes people “poorer readers” is just plain wrong.

So one takeaway – if you can write a piece that people can’t easily classify into a genre, you maybe have a larger potential audience. But it’s also challenging to get there, because people tend to look for writing in the genres they like, not pieces of writing that might or might not fall into their preferred categories. “Literary” readers tend to go for stuff in the “dysfunctional family” genre – which is totally a genre with a whole detailed set of tropes – and pieces that appear to be about “real life,” which basically just strike me as drop-dead boring. Maybe that means I would score better on the science fiction piece in the study – after all, at least in that version something is going on that has the potential of holding my attention.

Second-Guessing Doesn’t Help

martin_and_kingFor those of my writer friends currently doing NaNoWriMo, here’s a piece of advice from Stephen King himself. King is famous for writing books very quickly. For years and years he kept up a pace of writing 2,000 words per day, every day, no matter what. Basically, he did NaNoWriMo full-time, as his job, for all those years. So one could perhaps argue that King is the greatest NaNoWriMo-er of all time – and he certainly has a lot more experience with it at this point than any writer I know of.

His advice comes in the context of a conversation with Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, whose writing speed has become a bit of joke in the fan community over the years. Martin’s books are long, intricate, and well-written – but he produces them quite slowly. So when Martin got a chance to sit down with Stephen King, he asked how King managed to write books so quickly. King’s advice is pretty simple.

This entire nearly hour-long conversation between writing luminaries George R. R. Martin and Stephen King is well worth listening to in its entirety, but before that: skip to around 50:08 and hear Martin ask the one question he’s always wanted to put to King. It’s worth it.

The interview comes from a recent event in Albuquerque, New Mexico that’s been recently made available online, and Martin’s demand to know how King writes “so many books, so fast” isn’t just cute—especially considering Martin’s own infamous writing pace when it comes to A Song of Ice and Fire—but a really interesting insight into how the two writers approach their work ethic. King just writes and writes and writes, regardless of if it’ll end up being cut or not. Martin, on the other hand, prefers to take his time.

Bottom line? When you’re writing, don’t second-guess yourself. Just write, and worry about the editing later. In On Writing, King explains that he expects to edit out about ten percent of everything he writes and rework some of the rest. But that’s okay. Getting all the words on the page is important, even if not all of it winds up in the finished piece. If you try to basically edit as you go, like Martin does, your books will take a lot longer to finish. So just go for it, and trust that your writing can always be cleaned up when you go back to edit it.

After years of being an “edit-as-you-go” type, I think I finally am to the point where I can relax enough to edit later – and it’s kind of a liberating experience, to tell you the truth. I have thrown out some large sections, too – the original Pathless Void was going to be a longer piece, but I decided I didn’t like the direction I went in at about the 40,000 word mark. So I published the good part as a novella, and figure I’ll get back to doing a second section that is more to my liking later on.

So that’s my advice, which is the same as King’s – just go for it. A lot of the time when you edit later, you wind up realizing that some of the stuff you had doubts about really does work after all in context. And if it doesn’t, you can always fix in post so to speak.

Literary Writers on Stephen King

Stephen King is one of the most popular American writers of the modern era. For much of his career he was dogged by literary writers, who considered his work genre fiction that was not on the same level as literary works. As I’ve mentioned here before, the “literary” versus “non-literary” debate is ongoing and likely will never be resolved. As I see it, some people are just closed-minded about the whole thing, like one of my high school teachers who insisted that science fiction could never be literary, by definition.

I think that’s just silly. I certainly consider myself a Stephen King fan. I think his writing is great. I always like to remind people that “dysfunctional family,” the subject of many so-called literary works, is just as much of a genre as horror or fantasy or science fiction. The only difference is that it supposedly better represents “real life” – but as a reader, I already have one of those. Why would I want to bother reading about somebody else’s?

At any rate, in his groundbreaking work On Writing, which I am convinced that every aspiring writer should read, it’s clear that what King does is very deliberate. He models his work on the style of Ernest Hemingway, and frankly I like King’s work better. Hemingway is important in American literature because the popular writing style when he was getting started was florid and convoluted, and his sparse prose and short sentences cut through it all like a buzz-saw and felt like something truly new and different.

My dislike of Hemingway mostly has to do with his choice of material. The power of his style is that it allows a story to acquire speed. So instead of just sitting there on the page for the reader, the narrative basically comes right at you. But how many stories about subjects like “the manliness of bullfighting” do you really need? As I see it – and it may be an unpopular opinion – Hemingway came up with a real innovation in prose, but didn’t know what to do with it. At the very least, he chose subjects that did not take full advantage of it.

King’s big innovation was to take the sparse Hemingway style and apply it to the horror genre, where its power can be leveraged to great effect. A story about bullfighting coming right at you? So what? But a story that plays on existential fears and is already designed to provoke a strong emotional reaction becomes even more frightening as it acquires that speed. I’m convinced that this is why King became such a star in horror fiction. Speed makes his stories fundamentally scarier, and a more complex conventional literary style is going to fall short of that every time.

So that’s a long introduction to this article from LitHub, which I’m happy to see give King some of the credit he deserves for his influence on American literature. His work inspired a whole generation of writers, both literary and otherwise. As the article mentions, back in 2003 King won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, a prize that in my opinion he richly deserved.

Even though King’s work contains fantastical elements, you really can’t make the case that his work has nothing to do with real life. His work clearly fits how science fiction writers who objected to scorn from literary authors always explain that their stories really are not about new technology, but how people react to it. The same is true of horror. It’s an old truism that you see the truth of people when they are confronted with extreme situations, and King is a master at drawing that out of his characters. Really, how do you know who you are if you’ve never been stalked by a supernatural monster?

My natural writing style is not nearly as sparse as King’s but I have worked at making it more similar. I put a lot of work into simplifying the prose in Trump Card, since it’s written as a parody of Young Adult fiction. Maybe once I write a few more books that way and get good enough to write the kind of sped-up horror that King does so well, I’ll give it a shot. It certainly makes no sense to me to write horror any other way. As I see it florid prose, even skillfully employed, always slows down the story. Sometimes that can be appropriate. But with a horror story, fast is almost always better.

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.