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text 2018-03-13 18:16
I have no clue what's going on in Romancelandia, but . . . it's not new

Most of yesterday the pain in my elbow was so bad I could neither read nor write.  I couldn't hold a book or my Kindle or the laptop.  I couldn't sit at the table even to write longhand.  Mostly I watched television -- not good, since I only watch news -- and made occasional posts here and on Twitter.  Even those occasional posts brought renewed pain, sometimes severe.


I tried to read through some of the posts regarding the latest shake-ups in romance publishing, but that, too, proved more than I could physically handle.  I posted a couple more or less generic tweets about it, and that was it.


Regardless what the shake-ups are, however, it's nothing new, and the writers will get the short end of the stick.  They always do.  (The readers will, too, but they will be blissfully ignorant of the majority of what goes on behind the pages.)


As I wrote in one tweet, this shit has been going on for more than 40 years.  It may be different shit and it may be affecting different authors, but it's still nothing new.  An account of the ways in which publishers and their evil minions the editors have tormented authors would be a book in itself: minuscule royalty rates, delayed royalty statements, incompetent editing, crappy covers, cancelled contracts, and the list goes on.


Does this behavior on the part of publishers affect only the romance genre?  I don't know for sure, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that it does. From personal experience, I remember the late George Alec Effinger exclaiming at a science fiction convention in 1987 that he had never received any royalties, even though he had sold ten or twelve or fifteen novels.  He was amazed that romance writers -- I was one of a couple in the room at the time -- actually earned out their advances and got royalty checks.  Of course it often took a romance novelist two or three or more years after publication to see those royalties.  And of course it also meant that an established science fiction novelist was being paid up front for anticipated earnings rather than having to, you know, actually earn them.


As I wrote in another post here, fantasy author Terry Goodkind came under fire a few weeks ago for publicly shaming the artist who did his cover, which he ended up not liking.  I'm not sure why Goodkind didn't like the cover, but at least he had input on it.  Many romance writers have little to no say in what goes on the cover of their books; sometimes we're horrified or embarrassed, but there's not much we can do about it.


During the fifteen or so years I was a member of Romance Writers of America, I saw agents rip off their romance novelist clients and never a word was officially whispered against them. Oh, you say, that's just rumors and gripes from disgruntled authors.  Um, no.  I was one of the clients of an unscrupulous agent that RWA refused to take any action against.  She lied to me about contract terms that she herself had negotiated, which was bad enough.  Delaying payment was worse still.  Sending me not one but TWO rubber checks was beyond professional.  Even so, the professional organization to which I paid dues flatly refused to take any action, and one of the many reasons put forth was that the unpublished writers needed agents, too, and one of the benefits they received from RWA was access to agents. 


"Even if they're bad agents?" I asked.


Yes, I was told, even if they're bad agents.


RWA was in the business of keeping the dream alive for the unpublished, even if it meant the published members got screwed.  RWA depended on the dues and other financial contributions of the unpublished and wasn't going to do anything that would discourage the unpublished.  At that time, they outnumbered the published membership by about eight to one.


RWA stood up for the editors and agents and publishers, until the published authors started to fight back.  Even then we ran into resistance.  First we formed PAN, the Published Authors Network, but that didn't solve many of the problems.  A few years later I established PASIC, the Published Authors' Special Interest Chapter, specifically to protect the writers from the depredations of publishers, editors, agents, and even of RWA.


Yes, you read that right.  I did it.


On the evening of 13 October 1993, in a discussion on the GEnie Romex online discussion board, I proposed the formation of a "special interest" chapter of RWA that, like other similar chapters, could limit its membership to those who met certain requirements.  The main desire at the time was to hold a conference where published authors could get the workshops they needed, addressing their professional needs, without the interference of the unpublished, the never-gonna-be-published, the I-wanna-write-a-book-someday fans who made up the majority of RWA.


I did the work.  I filed the paperwork.  I organized everything.  I was tired of the writers getting screwed over.  I was tired of the shitty royalties, the bad editing, the long delays, the . . . everything.


So of course I was the one who got screwed the most.  I was excoriated by former friends in RWA, including members of the board.  I was stabbed in the back by friends even within PASIC.  When my editor demanded the impossible of me, I was warned that part of the reason was because I had set up PASIC to challenge the publishers and she didn't like it.  No one stood up for me when that editor ruined the book of my dreams.


No one stood up for me when my career crashed.


Those writers who went along with it, who sacrificed their creative integrity on the altar of Traditional Publishing, they came out all right.  They got on the New York Times best-seller list.  They kept getting contract after contract, even though they were shitty contracts.  Harlequin's royalty rates became an effective one percent or less, based on the wholesale price rather than retail.  Mail order book club sales were even worse.


Over the years, we watched publishers come and go.  The early 1980s saw the proliferation of contemporary romance lines but by the end of the decade, most were gone.  Anyone besides me old enough to remember Candlelight, Candlelight Ecstasy, Rapture, Second Chance at Love, Loveswept?  Playboy Press and Pinnacle put out some great historicals, but when they folded what happened to the authors?  I knew several Pinnacle authors who had to fight to get their rights back to books that were under contract.


I left all that in 1998 when my last year of RWA membership lapsed.  I'd been personally stabbed in the back by too many so-called friends -- yeah, I'm lookin' at you Maureen, and Stephanie, and Laraine, and Dixie, and Betina, and Robin, and Janis, and Alison, among others -- to whom I had given help whenever asked but never got anything in return.  I watched my own career go down the drain because I dared to have faith in myself and my book.  So I walked away.  Or limped.  And I cried -- a lot -- privately.  Because I knew no one cared.  They told me they didn't and I believed them.


When I came back around 2011, there had been massive changes to the industry, mainly due to the explosion of digital publishing and print-on-demand production.  Both of those had been just peeking over the horizon in the late 1990s when I left the business.  Both were approaching full flower when I returned, and I was delighted.


Had all the problems gone way?  Of course not, and even I wasn't eager enough to think they had.  Within months of my becoming an active writer and hopeful self-publisher, I got to witness the implosion of Dorchester/Leisure, who held the rights to one of my novels.  Then it was the ugly demise of Ellora's Cave, which often left me gasping in horror as I  read the online accounts of how the authors were treated. 


And then there was the reliance on publicity and promotion . . . and reviews.


Back in the day (80s and 90s) romance writers had to depend on Romantic Times and a few other magazines for reviews.  No matter how many copies were sold, romance novels rarely made the NYT or other lists; that started to change so that by the time I was reading the news online, the lists were often dominated by romances.  But one thing hadn't changed: Publicity was still the responsibility of the author, and the more I've read and watched, the more discouraged I've become.


"Back then" it was bookmarks and other giveaway items that the authors spent most of their advance money on to boost visibility and (one hoped) sales.  And conferences, where you gave a workshop and signed some autographs and maybe got some of your expenses comped by the group holding the conference. RWA might give you a free hotel room and waive the conference fee for you, but transportation and meals and all the other costs were just part of your publicity budget, if you had one.


A local author here in Arizona told me she spent $5,000 on promotion for a book she got a $500 advance on in 1992.  Don't gasp and call her foolish until you compare that to all the freebies given away by hopeful self-publishing authors today, and all the time they spend on "blog tours" and the other activities required to keep a book in the public eye online.  The cost of a decent website isn't cheap; the time writing your own blog (or reviews on BookLikes!) is time you aren't writing your next book.


I was struck last night reading a tweet from an author who expressed an emotional reaction to his editor's firing because of all the grief she had given him.  No, not grief.  Abuse.  Abuse not dissimilar, apparently, to the abuse women suffer at the hands of more powerful men, whether it's discrimination and harassment at work or verbal/emotional/physical abuse in an intimate relationship.  Thinking back to what I had experienced at the hands of an editor who held the fate of my career in her hands, I knew exactly what that author was going through.


But my experience was over 20 years ago.  Had nothing changed?


No, nothing had changed.  Nothing at all.


Those of us who have dreams are the ones who get hurt.  If we have other resources, like $5,000 to promote a $500 book, maybe we can weather the storm.  Or maybe not.


The reactions of the badly behaved authors who lashed out at their critics sometimes surprised me in ways I didn't always make known.  Because I'd been in their shoes more often than most of my online friends suspected, I knew that they had dreams of being best-selling authors and were confident that This Book would do it for them.  They had all their little friends, who knew nothing about writing, who assured them it was the greatest book since Gone with the Wind or The Godfather or Lonesome Dove.  Great-aunt Maude loved it, and they had their high school English teacher proofread it.  They simply could not believe that random readers on Amazon thought differently.


And they had to take the criticism in public.  As aspiring authors thirty years or more ago, most of us romance writers took our criticism in small, private groups where no one knew we'd been ripped apart for our bad grammar and spelling, our insipid heroines and brutish heroes, our laughable lack of historical research, our nonsensical plots and contrived HEAs.  It hurts to have your dream destroyed.  It hurts even more to have it done in public.


Are you asking now why I wasn't more sympathetic to them, since I knew how they must feel?


I wasn't sympathetic because a.) I knew it wouldn't do them any good and b.) I knew it wouldn't do myself any good.


The problems in Romancelandia have changed, and yet they haven't.  They certainly haven't gone away.  Is it because, deep down at the very core, romance is still women's fiction and women don't get any respect?


We still have the bloggers who won't rate anything below four-stars, because they want to keep getting free books or at least keep getting readers.  We still have BBAs.  We still have shitty publishers and shitty agents and shitty editors -- and shitty books.


I seriously considered rejoining RWA a couple of years ago, but frankly the financial cost was more than I could justify.  And for what?  So I could belong to the same organization that had let down the writers time and time again, and that had stabbed me in the back when I tried to help . . . us?


I've paid the price for my honesty, and I've paid it more than once.  I lost the writing career that was all I'd ever dreamed of practically since I first held a pencil in my hand.  I lost friends.  I suffered the threats from the authors whose books I didn't like.  I spent more hours and effort than I really could afford on reading and reviewing books that gave me pretty much no pleasure at all.  I lost my membership on Goodreads.


Whatever happened at Riptide Publishing over the past few days, whatever happened with this "SH" author(s), whatever happens tomorrow or next week in romance publishing, it's not going to surprise me.  Few of the Big Name Authors will ever do anything to fix the problems, and most of the dreamers won't either. The problems are not going to disappear.  I feel sorry for the victims, because most of them are good, sincere people who believe in their work and just want to get the best deal they can.


But there are a whole lot of enablers out there.  There are a whole lot of enablers right here, too.


I'm not a good leader, which is why I've steered completely clear of anything resembling politics.  I won't even run for a position on the board of my local artists' group.  (They would never elect me, anyway.)  So if you want to stop following me now, feel free.  It won't hurt my feelings.  But at my age, I'm just plain tired of the bullshit.


Romancelandia never stood up to the bad guys.  Did some individual authors?  Did some readers?  Did some reviewers?  Yes.  But the industry has had plenty of warnings, and there are a lot of people still protecting their personal turf.


I love romance fiction. I will stand by it as an art form, as a shaper of thought via its influence in popular culture.  I will even support its authors.  But I will also call out those hyenas in kitteh disguise.


I've struggled through this writing, and the pain is getting pretty bad.  I've weighed it all against the notion that I should be writing something that might actually become a book.  Then I went back to Twitter to see what's going on in the world, and I got hit with the reminder over and over and over again that it's the silence of good folks that enables the worst behavior.




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review 2018-03-11 22:57
Gothic architecture, gothic archetypes
The Old English Baron: a Gothic Story - Clara Reeve

Books don't beget other books.  One of the things that bothers me about literary analysis of modern (1970 to present) romance novels is that it tends to assume that one novel gives rise to another without human intervention.


In her own preface to The Old English Baron, Clara Reeve clearly states that she wrote it because she wanted a story that fulfilled the promise Horace Walpole had made with The Castle of Otranto.


This Story is the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto, written upon the same plan, with a design to unite the most attractive and interesting circumstances of the ancient Romance and modern Novel . . .

Reeve, Clara. The Old English Baron: a Gothic Story (p. 1). Kindle Edition.


In the course of my observations upon this singular book, it seemed to me that it was possible to compose a work upon the same plan, wherein these defects might be avoided; and the keeping, as in painting, might be preserved.

Reeve, Clara. The Old English Baron: a Gothic Story (p. 3). Kindle Edition.


Instead of the silliness of the giant helmet and other absurdities in Walpole, Reeve concocted a story in which the ghosts are real and believable and neither explained away nor dismissed.  This is the true evolution of both the gothic romance and the modern (ca. 1970 to present) romance novel: that one writer writes, and a reader reads to become another writer who synthesizes and develops.


Published in 1777, The Old English Baron is a bit awkward for the 21st century reader.  The prose is stilted; even the punctuation is sufficiently different from our own to cause mild disorientation.  The characters are emotional beyond even melodramatic standards, and the plot affords little in the way of suspense or surprises.


The story is set in the early 15th century.  Sir Philip Harclay returns to England from the continental wars and sets out to visit a friend, Lord Lovel.  Lovel has died, and his heir Water has sold the estate to a brother in law, Lord Fitz-Owen.  Fitz-Owen has three sons and a daughter, as well as a couple of nephews as foster sons, and another sort of adopted son in the person of Edmund Twyford, son of a peasant family on the estate.


Edmund is beloved by the Fitz-Owen clan, until he proves to be better at just about everything than they are.  Machinations fail to dislodge him from the affections of the middle brother William, who is Edmund's devoted friend.  But the family takes a bit of an insult when military bravery leads to the almost-knighting of Edmund: protests are lodged that he dare not be knighted for he is only a peasant by birth.


Rather than be humiliated by this turn of events, the saintly Edmund accepts his fate, but that's not enough for those who now despise him.  He is set to the ordeal of spending three nights in the long-abandoned wing of Castle Lovel, where of course he is visited by the ghosts.


Ultimately this leads to Edmund learning more of his true background -- which is no surprise to modern readers but was probably highly entertaining 240 years ago -- and then being exiled from Castle Lovel.  He takes refuge with Sir Philip Harclay, who then embarks on a mission of revenge and restitution.  There are more ghostly happenings, Edmund is restored to the good graces and affection of Lord Fitz-Owen, the malefactor is punished, true love rules the day, and they all lived happily ever after (which was not how The Castle of Otranto ended).


As a story, it's not all that entertaining to the 21st century reader, but as a literary artifact, it was highly informative.  All through the reading, I kept applying Christopher Vogler's story analysis.  Sure enough, all the elements were there, from the Ordinary World to the Mentor and Shapeshifter and the Inmost Cave and Returning with the Elixir.  More than two centuries before Vogler defined his mythic structure, Clara Reeve was already using it.


Pamela Regis references Reeve in The Natural History of the Romance Novel, which is the main reason why I read it.  I haven't yet found a convenient edition of the other work by Reeve that I want, her 1785 foray into literary criticism The Progress of Romance.  There is a PDF available online, but not downloadable.  At least I haven't figure it out yet.  But I will.  One way or another, I will.


I can't really say I recommend The Old English Baron except as one of the (many) foundational texts for the modern romance novel.  The writing takes some getting used to, but the story was at least decent, which is actually a lot more than can be said for some of the dreck being published today!

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review 2018-03-10 17:35
Wacky, wacky, wacky
The Power of Myth - Joseph Campbell,Bill Moyers

Some of us are old enough to remember the trash bag commercial that referred to the bargain brand as "wimpy, wimpy, wimpy."



The cheap brand broke, and all the trash spilled out.


With Joseph Campbell, it's wacky, wacky, wacky, and all the pretentious bullshit is falling out.


In the interest of disclosure, I should add that I was raised nominally Protestant, though I didn't get much education in that faith until I chose to become specifically Presbyterian in my mid-teens.  Much of my maternal family is Jewish.  So I come from a mixed and very spiritually tolerant background.  Growing up, I had friends who were Irish Catholic and went to the Catholic schools, friends who were Italian Catholic and went to public schools, friends who were Missouri Synod Lutheran and went to the Lutheran school, as well as plenty of friends whose religion was completely unknown and totally irrelevant.


And as I mentioned in a previous status, I have just enough background in cultural anthropology -- Malinowski and his Trobriand Islanders! -- to come to The Power of Myth with an open and curious mind.


The first couple of chapters irritated me.  I couldn't discern a real theme, a real thesis of what is myth, what is its power, how is that power used, by whom is it used.  Because my objective was an analysis of romance novels as myths, this was important to me. 


What I found through the 33% of the Kindle edition that I read was gobbledygook.  Bullshit.  Horse crap.  Garbage.


But I was determined to continue reading.


At the 30% mark, page 74, I came to this:


MOYERS: What do you mean? What can you make of the watch you’re wearing? What kind of mystery does it reveal?


CAMPBELL: It is a thing, isn’t it?




CAMPBELL: Do you really know what a thing is? What supports it? It is something in time and space. Think how mysterious it is that anything should be. The watch becomes the center for a meditation, the center of the intelligible mystery of being, which is everywhere. This watch is now the center of the universe. It is the still point in the turning world.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (p. 75). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


At that point, the book became a wallbanger.  Campbell, whose face and mannerisms and even voice I knew from snippets of videos, had become in my mind a pompous old man demanding attention and reverence even though he was spouting obvious nonsense.


When I was a graduate student in about 2002, I had a seminar class of seven students with two professors.  One of them I had had before, so I was familiar with his teaching style and I had taken the class partly because of that.  The other, whom I shall call Arthur for the sake of this discussion, was unknown.  Sadly, Arthur did 95% of the teaching.  If you can call it that.


We had some very difficult texts by some very difficult authors: Georg Lukacz, Walter Benjamin, Michel Foucault, Terry Eagleton.  I dutifully read every assignment, even though I didn't always understand what I was reading.  I came to class prepared to ask questions, discuss ideas, listen to other interpretations.  But what happened was that Arthur took over from the moment the class started, and he never shut up.


Non-stop, he rambled, on and on and on and on and on and on.  If one of us raised a hand to ask a question, Arthur would say something like, "I'll get to you in a minute," and the minute became thirty.  The class was two hours long, and he frequently talked for the entire two hours, not even allowing us the customary ten-minute break in the middle.  One of the students, a full-time firefighter, occasionally fell sound asleep.  And snored.


Nothing fazed Arthur.  One evening I managed to demand his attention and asked, "You do all this talking, but we aren't discussing the material.  What does this stuff all mean?"


He laughed and replied, "Welcome to grad school."  Then he resumed his monologue on some unrelated topic.  I don't even remember the name of the course.


One evening Arthur opened the session with a declaration that he was not going to talk more than fifteen minutes and then would open it up for discussion.  All of us who had questions about this reading material were eager to have the chance to air our thoughts.  Arthur of course talked for the entire two hours, less maybe five minutes at the end.  By that time, no one cared.


I thought of him often while reading Campbell.


I struggled through the rest of that chapter with the watch, because I really wanted to read about "The First Storytellers" and "The Gift of the Goddess."  But I couldn't get past the absurdity of Campbell's thinking.  I felt as if I'd gone back into that seminar room in the Sands Building and Arthur was once again droning on about some stupid shit that mattered less than Rick, Ilsa, and Lazlo.


This morning, even though I had already DNFed The Power of Myth, I took it up again to write this review.  I skipped ahead, skimmed some of the text.


Campbell gives a nod to the divine feminine in the chapter "The Gift of the Goddess," and I began to have some faint hope.  Very faint.  And I was quickly relieved of even that.


Frequently, in the epics, when the hero is born, his father has died, or his father is in some other place, and then the hero has to go in quest of his father. In the story of the incarnation of Jesus, the father of Jesus was the father in heaven, at least in terms of the symbology. When Jesus goes to the cross, he is on the way to the father, leaving the mother behind. And the cross, which is symbolic of the earth, is the mother symbol. So on the cross, Jesus leaves his body on the mother, from whom he has acquired his body, and he goes to the father, who is the ultimate transcendent mystery source.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth (p. 208). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


I added the emphasis, because plainly Campbell still privileges the masculine over the feminine, no matter what he says in other places to the contrary.  And he still privileges the strict duality, despite dismissing it often enough . . . in theory.


There was a temptation to give this one or one-half or even no stars, but I went with one and a half because the negative lessons were somewhat worth it.  I still have some old anthro books that might give better insights into the value and true power of myth.  Campbell sure as hell didn't.

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text 2018-02-28 18:43
Reading progress update: I've read 68%.
Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character - David McKenna,Christopher Vogler

Previous updates and comments:






I began this re-read to refresh my memory of how Chris Vogler and -- though to a lesser extent -- David McKenna had analyzed Story. 


Both of them are primarily analysts of the already-written Story.  When applying their template to a familiar film, such as Casablanca or The Princess Bride, the student is readily able to see the various archetypes and details at work. 


For that reason, Memo from the Story Dept is an invaluable tool for the critic or even the teacher.  It's less useful, however, for the writer.


Until Chapter Fifteen, that is, when McKenna takes over with his Environmental Facts analytical technique.


For me, writing has always involved several distinct but integrated lenses through which a story is viewed.  It's like zooming in with a camera and having to change the lens or tighten the focus as the writing narrows in from overview to final draft.


First is the plot structure that moves the action from opening scene through various conflicts and obstacles to final resolution, in a kind of "this happens, then this happens, then this, then this, then this, and they all lived happily ever after" sequence.  This can be done in an outline or synopsis of anywhere from two to two hundred pages, but usually the shorter is better, even if it's no longer than the back cover blurb.  The skeleton, so to speak.  The long distance overview.


Second is the characters and their respective backstories that bring them to the point of what happens on page one.  This starts to flesh out the framework and is usually longer than the synopsis.  We're starting to focus in now on what's happening and to whom it's happening and why it's happening.


Fourth is the actual book, with all the nuances of style and dialogue and action and language and research and so on.  This is the final product, the intimate close-up lens that puts the reader in direct contact with what the writer envisioned.


McKenna's "Environmental Facts" chapters fill in the third lens.


At first, I barely remembered reading this section previously, but then various details resurfaced, and in the process reminded me why I had found this book so valuable.


If you're a reviewer just reading and writing reviews, you probably don't need to get quite as analytical as this information suggests.  It's enough to just like or not like a book.


On the other hand, if you want to better understand what makes a book click for you or not, McKenna's chapters could provide the needed insight.


And if you're a writer, at least give these chapters a careful read.  They gave me a better understanding of certain techniques I tend to take for granted.

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text 2018-02-28 17:19
A quote for readers as much as for writers
Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character - David McKenna,Christopher Vogler

The terms are these: They agree to give you something of value, their money, but also a much more valuable consideration, their time. As a screenwriter you are asking them to pay attention to you and you only for ninety minutes, and as a novelist for much longer. Think about that! Focused attention has always been one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the universe, and it's even truer today, when people have so many things fighting for their attention. So for them to give you even a few minutes of their focus is huge stakes to put on the table, worth much more than the ten bucks or so they shell out for a book or a movie ticket. Therefore, you'd better come up with something really good to fulfill your part of the bargain.

McKenna, David and Vogler, Christopher.  Memo from the Story Department: Secrets of Structure and Character (Kindle Locations 454-459). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.


Emphasis is mine.


Dear Readers:  If the author doesn't keep his or her "part of the bargain," you don't owe them anything further.  Not kindness, not praise, not consideration for the time they put in.  They are like any other purveyor of goods or services: If the product is bad, you have no obligation to lie to protect their feelings.

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