In my capacity as President of SFFANZ (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand), I constantly receive requests to review self-published novels. Indeed, some people even want to send me their unpublished manuscripts under the delusion that SFFANZ can arrange to have the things published for them. Considering that these people think of themselves as writers, they show a disturbing lack of comprehension of the written word. I would have thought that the descriptions of SFFANZ on our website would have made it abundantly clear to the meanest intellect that we are not publishers and we are not affiliated with any publishers and we have no influence on any decisions made by publishers. It even says, in big bold letters on the front page of our site:
Please do NOT send us your manuscripts. SFFANZ is not a publisher.
But that makes no difference. The information just zooms past the eyeballs of these cretins without sinking in at all.
I consistently refuse to accept or review unpublished material. But my SFFANZ book reviewing colleagues and I do feel that we have some obligation, albeit a small one, to at least look at the self-published material. We refer to this as "...eating a live toad" and we take it in turn to consume these sometimes less than savoury meals...
Just occasionally the meal actually is truly tasty. One of the nominations for this year's Sir Julius Vogel Award for best novel slithered in, hopping and croaking at us. Rather to our surprise, that particular toad turned out to be a well-disguised handsome prince. But this is the exception - almost always the books are dire.
The less tasty toads all have several things in common. Invariably the books are the first volume of a trilogy or greater (nobody EVER writes stand alone novels any more) and the books are always very, very fat. In other words they look and feel exactly the same as the majority of books from commercial publishers. So why, you may ask, haven't the toads been published commercially?
I think there are several reasons. One very obvious one is that the books are often extremely derivative. They consist of page after turgid page of what some critics have called extruded fantasy product (or EFP for short) and show little or no trace of originality at all. When nothing distinguishes one book from another, when nothing leaps from the page to grab you, when characters, plot and sometimes even geography can be moved unchanged from book to book and author to author then whether or not you win the lottery and get a professional publishing contract becomes simply a matter of chance. And the chances of success are vanishingly small. Publishers spend all day sliding between tottering stacks of slush pile paper - well actually these days the piles are probably made of electrons rather than paper, but the same image applies. If nothing makes your book stand out from the rest, if your characters and your plots simply make the reader's eyes glaze over with boredom, then you are unlikely ever to be noticed by the wheelers and the dealers, the movers and the shakers of the publishing world.
And the very best way to not get noticed is to write what everybody else is writing.
Another reason why the toads taste so foul is that many of their authors can't write a simple declarative sentence to save their lives. Often the books are so large because every noun is qualified by six mutually exclusive adjectives and every verb is pinned quiveringly in place with endless adverbial lists. Metaphor and simile are strained to breaking point with grotesque images that add nothing whatsoever to the sense. One author described a lady attending a formal dance like this:
In the sea of dancing, she glided like a bird inches from the waves...
Since when was a formal dance like the sea? And what's the lady doing hovering just above the dance floor? Do the other dancers push her to one side if she gets in the way? Is she a frictionless bearing or does her mass impart too much inertia to make her easily moveable? If we assume a perfectly spherical dancer of uniform density could we derive some useful equations of motion...
Another very common besetting sin in toad after toad is that whenever a new character appears on stage the action stops and we get a six page potted biography of the character from the moment of his birth to the present. If we are really unlucky we'll also get ten pages on his ancestry, his family's social position, his hobbies and interests, the clubs he belongs to and the names of his pets. Then, once every backstory I is dotted and every backstory T is crossed, the action of the novel resumes, a door opens, another spear carrier walks in and... lather, rinse, repeat.
It is also quite clear that many of the toad authors have a tin ear for language and simply don't realise how strange and silly some of their sentences appear. One sure way to test out the language of the story and to zero in on the more egregious stupidities is to read it out loud. It is sometimes quite obvious that the toad writers have never, ever let a word of their stories slip past their lips into the real world.
One of our toads had two characters, brothers I believe, who were called OHRL and FAERL. If you say those words out loud, no matter where the emphasis in your voice falls, it soon becomes clear that the two names are homonyms for ALL FAIL. Somehow I don't think that these two brothers are going to succeed in their quest, do you?
Another toad of my acquaintance managed the incredible feat of giving every single character in the book exactly the same tone of voice and speech pattern. Elf, dwarf, troll or hideous, ravening fire-breathing monster, it made no difference - all of them spoke in the same way, with the same cadences and word choices. The dialogue was quite impossible to follow.
Furthermore, every single character in the book, no matter what their race, had the same moral imperatives, the same ethical view of the world, and the same political opinions. The only way you could tell the characters apart was when they went to a bar - they all liked different things to eat and drink. Aha! Could this be a character trait at long last? Well, no not exactly. The comestibles all had weird, made up alien names. So who knows what was slithering down which gullet? Not me...
Urban legend claims that you can get high by licking toads. Not with these toads you can't. With these you can only get very, very low.