Category Archives: Writing

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.

Learning CreateSpace

My self-publishing adventure continues!

Lately I’ve been learning how to do CreateSpace so that I can put out my own print books as well as ebooks. Almost two years ago now I put together my short story Cthulhu Unbound, a satirical Lovecraftian piece, and bundled it with the prelude to Arcana in an effort to boost my ebook sales. As you can see from those sales ranks, so far it hasn’t really worked, but obviously one short story a writing career does not make. I’m more tenacious than that.

Between working with my Moonfire Publishing editor on Ipswich and Written in Blood, which are still on track to come out this summer, I have another project that I think many of you will find amusing. A few of you have seen it already, and heard me read a bit here and there. That’s what I really need CreateSpace for, since I want to release both a print version and an ebook this time around. So I’ve been learning the ins and out of page layout, designing covers, and all that good stuff. It’s fun, though it helps if you’re (A) obsessive, (B) an IT person, or (C) both, like me.

So why CreateSpace? There are other options out there that don’t support Amazon’s evil empire, but unfortunately at this point none of them really provide the same level of exposure. Amazon is now something like 40% of the entire book market, which when you think about it is pretty nuts. But the bottom line is that they do appear to have the best publish-on-demand setup, and no surprise, it integrates into their online market better than anybody else’s does. You can make an argument for going with somebody else, but let’s face it – margins in book sales are so tight these days that every little bit makes a difference.

As for that new project – consider this a bit of a teaser. Right now I’m in the process of putting the book together, and I’m not going to be announcing what it is until that’s done and I’m a little further along. Suffice it to say, it’s a great, great classy book that I’m sure you all will love to read. And I’m going to leave it at that for now.

Switch Modalities

I’ve been doing a lot of work with my editor at Moonfire Publishing lately, finishing up the remaining work on my upcoming summer releases. So that’s where my mind has been. I thought that today I would share one of the best tricks that I’ve been able to come up with for editing your work when you don’t have an editor, and are trying to get a manuscript ready to self-publish – switching modalities.

Editing books is pretty much the bane of the self-published author’s existence. One of the biggest differences between traditionally published books and self-published books is the quality of the editing. You can hire a freelance editor to work on your manuscript, but that can cost thousands of dollars. If you don’t have that kind of money, here’s a handy trick that will help you edit manuscripts on your own.

Editing your own work is so difficult because of a phenomenon called “word blindness.” If you’ve ever tried to edit a story or a novel, you’ll know what I’m talking about. You’ll go over your manuscript again and again, and you won’t find anything wrong with it. But then your work is published, and you realize that some parts of it still have typos, errors, sentences that don’t make sense, and so forth. You were sure they weren’t there when you proofed the thing.

Much of that is a product of composing your work on a computer. Some authors write by hand and then transcribe, and that does work for catching a lot of errors. But it’s also a great big pain in the butt. If you’re a poor transcription typist like I am, it takes forever. Composing on a computer is also a lot faster than writing by hand. The problem is that when you compose on a computer and do all your editing on a computer, word blindness is hard to avoid.

The simple solution is to shift modalities. First, compose and edit your manuscript on the computer until you are happy with it. Then switch modalities – print the manuscript out and edit it again, with a pen on paper. This seems kind of silly, but it really does work. When your brain reads through text on paper, the words are processed slightly differently than they are on a computer. So much of your familiarity of your manuscript is short-circuited.

Once you have your on-paper changes, and you will have some, go back into your digital manuscript and update it to reflect those changes. Then print the whole thing out again, and read the printout out loud. Yes, read the whole thing. When you run into issues, and you probably will, mark it up with a pen once again. Then, when you’re through that, update your digital master copy to fix any issues that you found reading the text.

You probably will be surprised at how much better this process will make your manuscript. It’s no substitute for a professional editor, but it should take care of the vast majority of typos, errors, and awkward sentences. It’s time-consuming, especially the reading out loud part, but you can do it yourself and it’s free. With the amount of time it takes to write a story or novel in the first place, the results make it totally worthwhile.

Six Kinds of Stories

I missed this article from The Atlantic when it came out almost a year ago and only recently came across it. A group of researchers have used artificial intelligence software to determine the main arcs found in storytelling. Kurt Vonnegut famously lectured on this topic, mapping the story chronology on one axis and the experience of the protagonist on the other. This method can be employed to show the essential “shapes” of stories and compare them to one another.

Vonnegut had mapped stories by hand, but in 2016, with sophisticated computing power, natural language processing, and reams of digitized text, it’s possible to map the narrative patterns in a huge corpus of literature. It’s also possible to ask a computer to identify the shapes of stories for you.

That’s what a group of researchers, from the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide, set out to do. They collected computer-generated story arcs for nearly 2,000 works of fiction, classifying each into one of six core types of narratives (based on what happens to the protagonist):

1. Rags to Riches (rise)
2. Riches to Rags (fall)
3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
4. Icarus (rise then fall)
5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Their focus was on the emotional trajectory of a story, not merely its plot. They also analyzed which emotional structure writers used most, and how that contrasted with the ones readers liked best, then published a preprint paper of their findings on the scholarship website arXiv.org. More on that in a minute.

This is a fascinating area of research that may someday lead to computer-generated or at least computer-assisted fiction writing. For example, I can imagine a “shape tool” for writing that would take a story in progress and analyze it by chronology and character. This is necessary for longer works like novels, since for a novel to really be complete even the minor characters should have their own arc or “shape.” That’s one of the keys to deep world-building that feels real and natural.

As far as popularity goes, the team also worked on analyzing which stories were most liked by readers, which is helpful when you’re trying to decide what to write in the first place. And in fact, they may have identified a disconnect between the stories writers like to write and the stories readers like to read – though further research is probably required in order to reach anything like a definative conclusion.

“Rags to Riches” may be popular among writers, but it isn’t necessarily the emotional arc that readers reach for most. The categories that include the greatest total number of books are not the most popular, the researchers found. They examined total downloads for all books from Project Gutenberg, then divvied them up by mode. Measured this way, “Rags to Riches” is eclipsed by “Oedipus”, “Man in a Hole” and, perhaps not surprisingly, “Cinderella,” all of which were more popular.

What this suggests is that in general, while readers generally like happy endings, they also like to see the protagonist of a story overcome problems and obstacles in order to get there. And with tragedies, they like to see the protagonist succeed before he or she is eventually undone. That should be fairly obvious, as a story with a straight trajectory is relatively free of dramatic tension, but it’s still a good rule to keep in mind.

So which of these stories do you write, and why? Does the article make you think about ways you can improve the structures of your stories?

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.

The Truth About Writing

die_by_the_penWhile my efforts to post more articles about writing on this site have been less fruitful than I had originally hoped, I came across this article on Slate yesterday. To get to the letter I’m talking about you need to scroll down a bit. Seeing as that letter is directly relevant to the state of the writing industry today, and it seems to be alluding to misconceptions that a lot of writers and would-be writers have, I figured it was worth sharing with some comments.

While he has a full-time job, my boyfriend considers himself a writer first. He’s had shorter works published and just spent two years on his first novel. He sent the first chapter to numerous publishers only to get rejections or no response at all. He’s just gotten rejected by the one publisher who asked to read the whole novel. Each rejection is painful to him, and the whole thing has left him devastated and questioning his passion. I’m trying to be supportive but don’t know enough about the industry to offer helpful advice. Given the state of publishing nowadays, I always thought it may be a long shot even though he’s talented. He was just starting on a second novel but says he’s giving up if this first one doesn’t go anywhere — that it’s not worth the time and effort. What’s the best way for me to support him through this, and is there any advice you’d give to him?

First off, my advice is to read this from 2004, this from 2013, and this from 2015. The general trend of the industry should be evident – the money in writing has basically been going away for the last twenty or so years. These articles are all written by people more successful than I am in the writing industry, and even for those folks, it’s tough going.

My first book, Arcana, was published in 2009. It did what most new novels do – it produced a flurry of sales when it came out, and then the sales rank dropped like a stone. Mastering the Mystical Heptarchy and Mastering the Great Table have actually done better over the years, and continued to do better, despite their niche subject area. One of the things that I didn’t understand at the outset is that even though there is a much bigger market for fiction, essentially every fiction book has to compete against every other. The Enochian books do better because there aren’t many books on Enochian magick, especially compared to fiction.

Slate’s Dear Prudence recommended that the boyfriend in the letter should find an agent. I suppose that might help – if it works. The trouble with submitting work to agents is that it’s just like submitting work to publishers. Most of them will reject you, too, for frustrating but understandable reasons such as your work not really fitting market conditions at the time of submission. So there’s a good chance that submitting to agents rather than publishers will just lead to another round of rejections for this poor guy. I’ve submitted to agents myself and still don’t have one, after seven years and three published books in print.

Still, as the first article there from 2004 shows, the problem with agents, especially today, is that they take a cut of the already not-very-much-money that you make writing. Unless you’re sure that you have a real bestseller on your hands, it may not turn out to be worth it. No matter how sure you are, and – this is important – no matter how good a writer you are, that’s hard to predict. Most readers have trouble distinguishing good writing from great writing, and many even have trouble telling good writing from mediocre writing. A survey of popular books from the last ten years will show you that quality is really not the deciding factor. Market forces are.

So why write? You have to do it because you love it, full stop. And yes, you have to have a full-time job unless you are unbelievably lucky or independently wealthy. And luck is what sales are about – it’s very difficult to predict how the market will react to a book, if not impossible. Dan Brown’s first three novels didn’t even sell 10,000 copies, but then his fourth was The Da Vinci Code, which sold 81 million copies making it one of the most popular books of all time. Brown’s work is hacky, kind of cliche, and not particularly literary – but now that he’s hit the jackpot, everything he writes (of course) sells very well.

The big secret about publishers now is that they basically do no promotion for your work – besides some straightforward online stuff you can do yourself – unless you’ve proven yourself successful enough to warrant it. And that’s a big chicken-and-egg problem, because you essentially only get promotional resources once you no longer need them. That’s a big problem for authors who are just starting out, and it was already a big problem seven years ago. Sometimes I wish I would have gotten off my butt and finished Arcana sooner (it was a rewrite of a novel that I first completed in 1989) because at that time, publishers were more engaged with promotion. But still, all that depended on getting the book accepted in the first place.

I don’t know if this is where the boyfriend in the letter is coming from – it’s hard to say from a secondhand account, edited into an article. But if he is working on writing novels with the goal of “making it” as a writer and being able to do it full time, he probably is doing it for the wrong reasons – especially in this day and age. I can only think of a couple writers who are able to do it full time without holding another job, and none of them are rich or even that well-off. Once I realized this, I was very happy to have done as well as I have as a software developer. The writing helps too, since being a developer who can also write has opened a lot of doors.

My advice is pretty simple. You have to love what you write, because otherwise it’s usually not worth doing from a strictly financial point of view. Statistically speaking, you’re not going to be the next J. K. Rowling or Dan Brown regardless of how well you write. And unless you break into that upper upper tier, you are probably going to be able to make better money doing something else. It used to be that mid-list writers with established fan bases, coming out with a book a year, could make maybe $20,000 per year. These days, it’s more like $10,000 – not even minimum wage.

Second, look into small indie presses and consider self-publishing. Indie presses will give you a bigger royalty cut than the big publishers will, it’s easier to get your work accepted, and big publishers won’t do much promotion for you anyway. Self-publishing requires you to learn a few more skills like formatting ebooks and putting everything together for printing, but you get all the profits – and I will point out that popular self-published books do sometimes get picked up by big publishers if they do well.

Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfiction, then was self-published with “Edward” and “Bella” changed to “Christian” and “Anastasia,” and “vampire” changed to “billionaire,” and after that was picked up by a big publisher. Now there are movies. So it can happen, even with a book that by traditional writing standards is just plain awful. But it’s highly luck-based and very hit-or-miss. If the right people happen to get ahold of your book, and they happen to like it, even a self-published title can do very well.

Me, I’m still writing in the Indie-publishing space. Ipswich, the second novel in my Guild series, is going to be released by Moonfire Publishing, a new publishing startup here in the Twin Cities, sometime this next spring. We’ll see if it does better than Arcana. It’s always possible that it might go through the roof, and all of a sudden turn Arcana into the bestseller it never was when it was originally released – but I’m not holding my breath.

It does take longer to get books written when writing is essentially a second job, but these days it’s pretty much unavoidable unless you hit it big. The first draft of Ipswich was written back in 2011, five years ago. I’ve been tinkering with it ever since. Mastering the Thirty Aires, the final book in my Enochian trilogy, is still not finished, even though Pendraig would be happy to publish it as soon as it’s done. That’s kind of frustrating, I won’t lie, but it’s necessary. There are only so many hours in the day.

To some extent, I would say that my feelings about writing are like filmmaker Werner Herzog’s famous quote about the jungle – “I love it, but I love it against my better judgment.” At the same time, there are other hobbies I could be pursuing that would make me no money at all, and even incur significant expenses. Really, that’s what it usually has to be – more of a hobby than a vocation. And I don’t know what would have to happen in order to fix the industry and make it a place where you could earn a living by writing books. The current trend has been in place for a long time, and shows no signs of abating.

Write Every Day

writingAs I mentioned a while back, one of the things I am looking to do going forward is to make more posts on this site about writing and some of the techniques that I have found beneficial over the years.

A friend asked me today if I had any advice on how to start writing. The best advice I can give is to commit some time to it every day, like, say, ten minutes. One of the myths that people believe about writers is that we are just inspired to write all the time and let that inspiration motivate us. That might be true for a few rare talents, but not for the rest of us.

I wrote semi-compulsively all through elementary school and high school. I started two novels and finished a draft of one of them while I was still in college. But you know what got me to the point of actually publishing a novel? It wasn’t inspiration or compulsion. It was sitting down and writing for at least ten minutes a day, whether I felt like it or not. Inspiration is a trap, and waiting for it is a pretty reliable recipe for writer’s block.

When you do your daily writing, you don’t need to work on a particular project. You can spend that time writing anything. Poems, scenes, bits of dialogue – it’s all writing, and it all counts. It’s not unlikely that at some point you will settle on a project, but you should let that happen organically. The important thing is just to get your time in, writing something – writing anything.

Of course, you don’t need to limit yourself to ten minutes. If you find yourself on a roll, by all means keep going. Just make sure that you spend that ten minutes every day. Don’t tell yourself, “I did 30 minutes yesterday, so I can take a break for a couple days.” The regularity of it, not necessarily the time spent, is what’s most important. In that way it’s just like magical practice.

The key is that you need to build up habit energy. Some studies have suggested it takes something like sixty repetitions to ingrain a habit, so that suggests when starting out you should try to do your ten minutes of writing every day without fail for the first two months. After that, you can skip a day every so often. But you want to maintain a routine that helps you sit down and do the work.

That’s about where I’m at these days. I write most days, and when I do it I spend longer than ten minutes at it. Blogging is a big help in that department, especially when you have an audience who expects posting at a certain frequency. I try to put up a new post every other day or so on Augoeides, so I post fifteen or sixteen articles during a usual month. I’m adding posting here, so that will be at least a few more depending on how it goes and what I decide to do.

The key skill is in developing the ability to write when you don’t feel like it. On a longer project like a novel or non-fiction reference book, there are always going to be some parts that you find boring, but which are necessary to get to the next plot point or more interesting patch of exposition. That’s where writers get stuck a lot of the time. “I want to work on my novel, but where I’m at in it is really dull.”

Push through it and get it done. I’ve experimented with trying to jump around and start by writing the fun parts, but that leaves a bunch of boring stuff to do at the end and it starts to feel overwhelming. The only novels that I’ve finished were written from start to finish for the most part. It helps you keep the plot points straight, and it means that you don’t reach a point where there’s nothing left but scenes you will never get around to writing.

Now this article does offer a counterpoint. I do think that relying on word quotas is a problem – some days you’ll write more, some days you’ll write less – and I also agree that trying to set up an excessive routine is likely to fail. But ten minutes? Without a hard quota? I think just about anybody can stick to that. And that really is all it takes.

So those are few suggestions that I hope aspiring writers will find useful. If you give the ten minute practice a try, I think you will be surprised at how powerful the technique really is.