Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Eye of Argon: Scholar's EBook Edition by Jim Theis

I wasn't sure exactly how to begin this venture.  Even though I knew what I wanted to do, and why, the choice of starting point proved more difficult than anticipated.  Ultimately, of course, the choice was rather a "Duh!" moment:

My review of this on Goodreads was quite short, so I'll reproduce it in full here:

Purchased the Kindle edition for the three essays.  I have a photocopy of TEoA. 
The background information was interesting, especially on the nature of fan fiction in the days long before KDP, Wattpad, and Smashwords. 
Editor Allen, however, could have done a much better job of proofreading this.  It's one thing to leave all the errors in the original text of TEoA, but there were damn near as many typos in the transcription of the three accompanying essays. It really didn't look very professional.

And the full disclosure:  I purchased the Kindle edition of this book for full retail price on 9 June 2014.  I do not know any of the authors nor have I ever had any communication with any of them on any subject whatsoever.  I have no financial interest in the book or its publisher.  I am an author of historical romances.

The Eye of Argon is a classic of self-published fiction, even though technically it wasn't self-published.  It provides a perfect introduction, however, to an exploration of what happens when there are no controls whatsoever between the rank amateur writer and The Reading Public.

For those who don't know the background:  The Eye of Argon  was written ~1970 by then 16-year-old Jim Theis and printed in a local science fiction/fantasy fanzine.  Copyright law being what it was at the time, the novel fell almost instantly into public domain status.  This makes it one of the relatively rare raw, unedited but published examples of truly amateur fiction writing from the days before Wattpad, Smashwords, and Kindle Direct Publishing.

During my active years in Romance Writers of America, I saw many manuscripts of similar quality -- indeed, some were even worse than The Eye of Argon -- but by then they were protected by revised copyright statutes, so I couldn't legally make or keep copies, plus in some cases I was bound by various confidentiality agreements, to say nothing of just ordinary professional ethics.  If there is a romance novel equivalent to The Eye of Argon, and from the same era with the same copyright status, I don't know of it. For the most part, these unedited, uncritiqued, and unpublished manuscripts remained in dresser drawers or on closet shelves, if the writers didn't destroy them entirely.  They never reached the public. 

SF/F and romance, however, are the two genres that had established cultures for unpublished writers and their fiction.  SF/F's culture is older than romance's, but the nature of RWA created a more formal, institutionalized culture, so that it's easy to find strong similarities between the two, especially in reference to The Eye of Argon.

These connections and similarities between SF/F and romance are important.

Since the mid-1970s, the romance genre has dominated popular fiction, with SF/F a rather distant second.  Both genres have benefited from their nurturing of amateur writers, whether through the fanzines sponsored by various SF/F groups or the RWA chapters and contests.  Both of those traditions continue to flourish, offering the aspiring writer a multitude of opportunities to learn the craft and business of professional fiction writing.

For whatever reasons, and most of them may have had more to do with his young age at the time than anything else, Jim Theis published his story before taking advantage of the opportunities that were available even then.  What he suffered as a result -- seeing his work not only harshly criticized but mocked and insulted -- was in many ways far worse than what writers today endure when they publish their work and get negative reviews.  As far as is known, Theis never wrote or published any fiction after The Eye of Argon.

And he had lost all legal ownership of the story; he had no recourse, no way to fix it, no way to repair any of the damage done to it or to himself.

Whatever aspirations Jim Theis had are beyond knowing now; he died in 2002.

One significant difference between Theis's effort and some of what's being published today is that he came from a prose fiction tradition, not a video one.  For all its faults, and they are many, The Eye of Argon conforms to most of the conventions of its genre.  It's clear that Theis was familiar with the sword and sorcery genre, and that he had both an affection for it and a respect for it.

What's also clear is that his effort to write it fell woefully short of professional standards.

What happened to Theis's story was that it fell into the hands of knowledgeable critics.  The fans, readers, writers, editors, and publishers who "discovered" The Eye of Argon were experts in the field.  In the 1970s and 1980s, writers still knew how to write.  Editors were still looking for good stories.  The people who mocked The Eye of Argon were not enemies of Jim Theis, nor were they jealous competitors.  They were people who genuinely cared about the art, craft, and business of writing and publishing sword-and-sorcery heroic fantasy.

They were professionals.

Had they encountered The Eye of Argon and Jim Theis in another environment, the whole story might have had a very different ending.  Someone might have seen the potential in the story, helped Theis polish his writing, given him some guidance and mentoring, and The Eye of Argon might today be a classic of the genre, the first in a whole series of thrilling adventures featuring Grignr the Barbarian.

The fact remains, however, that The Eye of Argon was published long before it should have been, and the damage could not be undone.

Forty-odd years later, with the technological as well as legal advances, writers like Jim Theis have all the opportunities he had plus so many more.  There were and still are writers' clubs and critique groups, just like in the 70s and 80s.  There are still dozens, hundreds of books on how to write, how to publish.  That poor mimeographed manuscript of The Eye of Argon could have been improved just with the spell checker on Microsoft Word.  Copyright now applies the instant a work is fixed in tangible form, so Theis would never have lost ownership of his story.

One thing that hasn't changed, however:

Now, isn’t it a tad cruel for all of us to be ridiculing some poor would-be scrivner’s magnum opus and making a public, ongoing spectacle out of it?
No. Life ain’t a bed of roses. You are responsible for what you write. 
(from One Fine Day in the Stygian Haunts of Hell: Being the Lore and Legend of the Fabled “Eye of Argon” (c) 1987, 1997 by Darrell Schweitzer, being reprinted in and part of 
Theis, Jim (2011-03-16). The Eye of Argon: Scholars' Ebook Edition (Kindle Locations 610-612). FoxAcre Press. Kindle Edition.

Schweitzer goes on to write later in the same essay:

I believe he [Theis] wrote “The Eye of Argon” in all seriousness.  
But what else is new? I wrote some stories nearly as bad when I was that age. So did a lot of people who are now widely-published, professional authors. On the plus side, this kid had a certain sense of structure, and an important writerly virtue--he persisted. He wrote a story in the neighborhood of 12,000 words. Before you completely dismiss him as being beyond the pale, stop and think how many people who say they “have wonderful ideas but no time to write them” will ever accomplish as much as Jim Theis did. 
Darrell Schweitzer in Theis, Jim (2011-03-16). The Eye of Argon: Scholars' Ebook Edition (Kindle Locations 661-666). FoxAcre Press. Kindle Edition.
Does acknowledging Theis's accomplishment mean Schweitzer gives him a pass on the quality of the writing?  No, not at all.

He took chances—and, sad to say, failed catastrophically, failed beyond his wildest dreams, failed his way into a peculiar and unwanted sort of immortality. He failed so completely that forty-plus years later, his failure still inspires an eccentric sort of scholarship as science fiction and fantasy fandoms seeks to know more about what has become almost a founding legend of the field. But, failure or not—he tried. Many don’t. 
Theis, Jim (2011-03-16). The Eye of Argon: Scholars' Ebook Edition (Kindle Locations 1031-1034). FoxAcre Press. Kindle Edition.
It is possible, therefore, to acknowledge, even tacitly, that the writer has accomplished something, and yet still observe that the accomplishment is . . . terrible.  And further, that this can be done by professionals who are well aware of what it takes to achieve the accomplishment as well as by amateurs.  And by amateurs, I mean those who are not writers, who are not editors, who are not publishers, but are, ahem, merely readers.  For it was readers at those cons who made up most of the audience for the readings of The Eye of Argon.

More than likely, no other book will ever again be subjected to the public ridicule and mockery and criticism that The Eye of Argon enjoyed.  For that, most writers should be thankful.  They can also be thankful that changes in copyright law afford them much more protection against copying of their work.  In the event that someone does write an even worse book, such that public readings are given as drunken entertainment at cons, at least that author will be able to demand royalties on the copies from which readings are done or even issue a cease and desist order for unauthorized performances.

But not every book that is not The Eye of Argon is wonderfully written.  Some are, quite frankly, very nearly as bad.  Others obviously are wonderful and attract massive audiences of adoring fans.  Regardless of genre, most fall somewhere in between.

In the old days -- such as when Jim Theis gave his story to a fanzine to be published -- there was a veritable gantlet of gatekeepers to protect the unwitting reader from paying good money for bad books.  A manuscript had to pass the scrutiny of agents and then editors before it was accepted for publication.  After acceptance, it was processed by additional editors and proofreaders as well as groomed by an art department, a marketing department, and so on.  The book might then be read and reviewed in a few print publications, to which some few readers might subscribe.  Ultimately, the reader would decide for herself if she wished to purchase (or check out of the library) an individual book, and then she could make up her mind if she enjoyed it or not.

She was almost certainly guaranteed that the physical product she purchased (or borrowed from the library) would meet basic standards of readability: Spelling, grammar, print quality, etc.  She might not end up liking the story, but she would probably not consider the book badly produced.

She would probably also not consider that the publisher was primarily motivated by a bottom line of profit to make sure she was a satisfied customer. 

But in fact that is what publishing became:  A profit-oriented business, which churned out book after book after book, in all genres, that was reasonably expected to provide as comfortable a return on investment as possible.  And the gatekeepers were, of course, not really protecting the expectations of the readers as much as they were protecting their control of the market.  Their market.

Had Jim Theis published The Eye of Argon on Wattpad or some similar online writers' community, it might have been ridiculed every bit as harshly as he was by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and George Scithers.  Or he might have found a congenial circle of colleagues who helped him clean up his writing and turn his story into something that generated so much chatter that a major publisher picked it up.  Or he might have published it himself on Amazon and sold 100,000 copies the first week.

Or he might have rejected any and all criticism, even those who said "No lie, Jim, this really sucks," and published it himself as he had originally written it, fractured syntax and wrong words and screwed up punctuation, only to see it sell a couple of copies, collect no positive reviews on Amazon, and net him $2.71 in royalties.

The book is still bad.  Nothing can change that assessment.

And that's why I think this book, which contains the original text of the "book" as well as the three accompanying essays, is a must-read for any writer considering the self-publishing options available today.  And it's an absolute must-read for any writer who has encountered harsh criticism of a book they've self-published.  Read The Eye of Argon to understand what bad writing is and perhaps understand why professionals can rip a story to shreds without knowing or caring about the author.  It it always first and foremost about the writing.  It has to be.

I obtained one of those photocopied copies of The Eye of Argon sometime around 1988.  I laughed hysterically reading it, and I'm not even sure I made it all the way through.  I still have that copy.

I also have copies of monumentally bad romance novel manuscripts from a variety of sources:  RWA contests in which I was a judge, critique groups, personal requests for evaluation.  I admit to having two very short excerpts from two books, by unknown authors, that were shared quite unethically with me more than 20 years ago, one by a friend who was a "reader" for a New York publisher, the other by another friend who was an agent.  Even the worst of them is not as bad as The Eye of Argon, though there are passages that come close.

Those books never made their way into print because the traditional gatekeepers wouldn't let them in, with decisions based on that ROI calculation.   At least two of them, however, have turned up in digital editions published by the authors.  In the new publishing paradigm, the old gatekeepers no longer operate.

But that doesn't mean there are no gatekeepers at all between the writer and the reader in this new model.  Nor does it mean that decisions by the new gatekeepers are necessarily not based on a projected return on investment.

Today's self-publishing author has certain legal protections Jim Theis didn't have in 1970, but today's self-publishing author has also entered an industry and a marketplace that in some ways bears little resemblance to the one that catapulted romance fiction to its 50%-plus market share in the early 1970s or the one that took SF/F from the blockbuster novel status of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in the 1990s to the multi-media blockbusters of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones.

How successful today's self-publishing author will be will depend as much on how well she writes as on how well she understands the visible and invisible machinations of the new publishing paradigm.

Most book reviews are written for readers.  The book is done, it is published, and now the writer backs graciously away and allows the audience of readers to pass sentence.  This blog is different: This is a book review blog directed at writers as well as readers.This doesn't mean the reviews will be critiques of the type the author should have received before publishing; I'm not giving free editorial advice here.  But I am one of the few reasonably fearless reviewers who will confront a book on its massive shortcomings, and thereby put myself in the position of gatekeeper, at least for those readers who choose to take shelter behind my particular gate.

It is now, whether they like it or not, the readers' responsibility to do the gatekeeping.  Some will abdicate that responsibility to the traditional gatekeepers who continue to manage the traditional publishing operations.  These readers will avoid almost all contact with books from self-publishing writers, and they have that right.  Many of them have been repeatedly burned by badly written books, and many of them have been victimized by ill-mannered authors who have not been able to accept criticism of their product.

I have the added advantage of being a published author who passed the traditional gatekeepers and who knows therefore at least something of how that process operated and how much of it continues to operate.  I've written the books, rewritten them, been through the critique process and the contest experience.  I've face-palmed at my own dumb mistakes, and I've questioned my own confidence that I chose the right path in plotting a character arc.

I've dealt with good editors and bad.  (Mostly bad.)

When I took my books to self-publishing, I handled virtually every aspect myself, with the sole exception of designing cover art.  I'm not a visual artist, and I know my limitations there.  Formatting, proofreading, converting, and publishing:  I've done it.

None of it matters, however, if the fundamental product -- the writing -- is a failure.  Jim Theis failed at that, and failed spectacularly.  We'll never really know for sure how it happened that someone picked up that fanzine and recognized The Eye of Argon for the gem it was, but we do know that its failure was at the stage when the writer has the most control over it.

By the time a book reaches digital publication, the writer has voluntarily relinquished that control.  Oh, she can choose to unpublish and revise, change the title and cover and  even her own name to republish, but the copy she released is the copy someone, somewhere has read, and she has no control over their reaction.

Whether that reaction is the same as that which still greets The Eye of Argon is what I intend to find out.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Callin' 'Em Like I Sees 'Em

At what point do we completely lose touch with reality, objective reality, and opt into a karma-based existence composed only of feelings and the lies necessary to prevent any hurt to those feelings?

At what point do we completely forget -- or just willfully ignore -- that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction?

There has been some -- not much, but some -- discussion elsewhere about the crapification of self-publishing.  A lot of blame has been tossed around, a lot of excuses made.  It's the readers' fault for liking crap.  It's the culture's fault for promoting crap.  It's the writers' fault for writing crap, for not knowing the business.  It's Amazon's fault or Goodreads' fault or fiverr's fault.

Regardless whose fault it is, it's our business.  We, the writers who publish our own writing, are the only ones who can really effect change in our business.

I've made the analogy to tending a garden, and I have to be the first to admit I do not have a particularly green thumb.  Mine's more brown and wilted.  But that doesn't mean I don't have at least some idea what needs to be done.  And the dear goddess knows I don't lack for courage to get out there and do it.

As I've stated elsewhere, I believe the two issues crippling the author-publishing industry are quality and ethics.  Lack of quality in crafting the product coupled with lack of knowledge of the market and the business of publishing has been fueled with overblown expectations of financial returns, all of which leads to unethical practices to foist the inferior product on paying customers in order to achieve those totally unrealistic financial gains.  We have to deal with the ethical issues, which I've tried to address through some of my posts on Booklikes  as well as my Be Still, My Heart official (more or less) writing blog.  But we also have to deal with the quality issues.

There's a huge difference between a consumer-directed book review and a pre-publication manuscript critique.  Reviews are for readers, and they're from readers.  Once the book is published, the author needs to step back out of the conversation.  Anything that's written or said about the book from that point on is not (theoretically) for the author's benefit.

Theoretically.  Keep that in mind.

In reality, the self-publishing author's involvement in the post-publication conversation has become more and more prominent.  Self-publishing authors are directing their post-publication publicity efforts with advertising, blog tours, author interviews, Facebook and Twitter campaigns because that is part of what publishers do.  Because the SPA wears both hats, she has to switch into publisher/publicist mode once the book becomes a product in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, many SPAs are unable and/or unwilling to separate their writing selves from their publishing selves.  They don't -- or can't -- distinguish between a pre-publication critique and a post-publication review.  They forget -- or never knew -- that reviews are for readers and the writer needs to back off and out.  They forget -- or ignore -- that reviewers are not obligated to provide editorial services along with criticisms.

I've stated many times in my "official" blog that I won't post reviews there.  Most of my Booklikes blog is reserved for the kind of ranting that's not allowed on Goodreads.  It's on Booklikes that I've outed the buyers and sellers of fiverr reviews, for example.  And I have shown them no mercy.

What's needed, I believe, is a kind of intra-industry conversation about the bad books that are choking the business.  When one reviewer after another refuses to read any books at all by SPAs out of a.) disgust at the lack of quality and b.) the risk of retaliation for telling the truth about the lack of quality, someone has to do something.

I've tried.  Via the Booklikes blog I've not hesitated to call out the authors who resort to lying and cheating in an effort to get readers to buy their poorly written books.  On Goodreads, reviewers are constrained by Terms of Service; the reviewer can't include significant (mis)behavior by the author in the body of the review, regardless how much evidence there is and regardless how much impact that behavior might have on the ultimate reader's experience with the book.

My intent with this blog, therefore, is to take the reviewing process one step further in each direction.  Not only forward to the reader with any additional information about the author, such as challenges to critics, campaigns of rating manipulation, sock puppeting and review buying; but also backward to the writing itself. 

So many of the SPAs lament that they're not getting enough reviews.  They wail that they want feedback.  Some of them even demand proofreading and editorial services from readers without taking into consideration that those readers may not be any more qualified to do so than the authors themselves.

Of course, those same writers shriek even louder when they get negative reviews.  When it's pointed out to them that they are getting exactly the kind of analytical feedback they say they want, they complain that the criticism isn't couched in nice enough, constructive enough terms.  This has been going on at least since the Dear Author blog post of July 2012.  Some of us realize that behind this cry for kinder, gentler reviews is really a whine for no criticism at all.  It's an entitled demand for praise.  The trophy presented for showing up, the medal for effort, the blue ribbon for participation.

Changing, or even challenging, that culture is an enormous and perhaps impossible task.  I'm not sure, even with a background of sorts in sociology, such a change can be effected.  But Margaret Mead said it could, and I'm going to try.

So, Callin' 'Em Like I Sees 'Em, or CELISE Reviews will follow in this space.  Not nice, not kind, but honest and complete.  Analyses of writing first and foremost, and if I can't get through enough of it to evaluate the plot, well, that's the author's tough luck.  No holds barred, except that I won't include personally identifying information.  But if an author has sock puppet accounts, I won't hesitate to let you know.  If I've seen an author attack readers, I won't keep it a secret.

Donations are welcome.  ;-)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Dark Moon, by Corey McFadden

Dark of the Moon
by Corey McFadden

Leisure Books/Dorchester Publishing, Mass Market Paperback 1994
BMI (Book Margins Inc.) "Gloria Diehl Book Club" Mass Market edition 1995
Digital republication 2012

Stars -- 2.5/5
Eyerolls -- 3/5

Disclaimer: I read the "Gloria Diehl Book Club" BMI paperback edition of this book, though I'm not exactly sure how or when I acquired it. I do not know the author nor have I ever had any communication with her about this book or any other subject. I am an author of historical romances.

It took me months to finish this book because I only read it at night in bed when I had a few minutes before exhaustion demanded sleep.  Often I had no more than ten or fifteen minutes, and frequently weeks went by between opportunities to read.  That has to be a testament to how uninteresting, uncompelling, and undemanding the book was.

Dark Moon wasn't a bad story, but the plot was very predictable:  Poverty-stricken but genteelly raised young woman takes only available employment as governess in a slightly mysterious and remote manor.  The heroine, Joanna Carpenter, is of course just too-perfect-to-be-true.  Stunningly beautiful despite her poverty, educated beyond the norm by her vicar father, she is also unfailingly gentle and instinctively understanding of the special needs of the two children entrusted to her care. 

After finishing the book I thought -- because I'm a writer and I tend to look for ways to inject drama in an otherwise bland story -- it might have been more interesting if Joanna had come to Queen's Hall and been both slightly afraid and slightly repulsed by the child with what we now know as Down Syndrome, and then learned to understand and see beyond his difference so that she could develop a genuine affection for him.

The hero Sir Giles Chapman is supposedly bitter after his disastrous first marriage, but he falls for the beautiful, innocent Joanna almost immediately.  Their relationship develops rapidly and with little self-reflection or hesitation.  Joanna's "vicar's daughter" purity seems to be all that's needed to melt Giles's frozen heart, though I thought there were all kinds of opportunities for exploration of both internal and external conflicts with much more drama and angst.

The villains, likewise, were caricatures of unrelenting evil and stupidity, unable to do anything right.   They were, in fact, so evil and stupid and incompetent, that I wondered why the hero's failure to recognize their evil and stupidity wasn't explained a little more.  He came across as a bit dense on that issue.

McFadden's writing style is reasonably competent, if not sparkling.  She relies on a lot of narrative -- those page-long paragraphs did put me to sleep on more than one occasion -- and some of her dialogue bordered on info-dumpy, but there wasn't anything worthy of comment.  It was just kind of blah. 

However, the lack of period detail was much more noticeable.  Joanna finds the countryside of Cumberland beautiful, but the reader doesn't get a whole lot of description of what makes Cumberland special and distinct.  Nor is there much of historical setting, other than Lady Eleanor's reliance on lead-based make-up and rancid goose-grease hair care products.

Some of the events seemed contrived, such as Joanna's miraculously being able to drive the carriage without previous experience when attacked by a highwayman, but not outrageously so.  The ending involved a lot of lucky coincidences and contributed much more to the level of eyerolling.

Love scenes were few and vanilla, and all occurred after the principals were safely and legally wed.  Sensitive readers could easily skip them without missing much.

I didn't really understand the Dark Moon title, as it had nothing to do with the book.  Nor was there much about the book that was particularly gothic, despite the title and the back cover blurb.  Written in third-person rather than the traditional first-person for a gothic romance, Dark Moon featured no spirits or suspected supernatural issues, nor was there a secondary "hero" vying for the heroine's affection.

A pleasant enough read if fluffy historical romance is your genre, but not a stellar example.