Let’s start by saying that if you’re here, there’s a good chance you’ve spent some time already in the online writing community. Authors have been congregating online for a couple of decades by now, and sites like this one are ideal places to hob-nob (whilst gorging on the canapés, taking notes on the room, and ogling your man’s cufflinks, obviously).
However, the more time we spend online with other writers, the more it feels like everyone in the whole damn world is writing a damned book. And that can feel a bit scary, can’t it?
Until you look into it further, that is. How about this quote from Cicero, who supposedly wrote this in Something B.C.:
“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
Now, here’s the catch. There is no evidence that this quote ever originated from any lofty Ancient Roman philosopher more than 2,000 years ago. In fact, there is no evidence that this quote originated from any period greater than 100 years ago.
And yet, at least since the early 1900s, this quote has been bandied about in some form or other, always attributed to the ancient world. Most early attributions quote the literary portion reading something like “and every man wants to write a book”. Others attribute a more egalitarian version of “and everyone is writing a book” to some point between the 1980s and 2001.
The one thing we can be certain about is that right from at least the beginning of the last century, all the way up to the year 2001, which was still before the great self-publishing revolution, this quote was consistently, well, quotable, because enough people thought that too many people were writing books of one sort or another. The only difference with today is that there are more forms of media to feed the paranoia about it.
The Writer Who Knew Too Much
Of course, more people are self-publishing nowadays. Digital transmission and cheaper routes to publication have made that possible. But this now means that we can be aware of some wholly unconnected author, thousands of miles away, who is writing in the same genre as us.
We may even read their blog, banter with them, make snap judgements about them and their work, and start a massive argument in their comments section. Hurrah!
Picture the scene. Only, picture it twice. One author has just finished his book in the late 1990s; the other in 2018.
The late 1990s. Dublin. Writer’s Garret (damp).
The emphysemic printer wheezed to a stop, cranking out the last fuzzy, bubble-jet pages, their author overwhelmed by non-fictional emotion. Paul felt as drained as an overused simile. He lit a cigarette and examined the callouses on his fingertips, roughened by the clunky beige keys of his stained keyboard, exhaling audibly.
“That’s it,” he sighed. “It’s finally finished. Four years and 552 pages of blood, sweat and tears.”
He stacked the leaves together, sliding them into the battered envelope which once contained the last will and testament of his father.
“And he said I’d never amount to anything,” he snarled. He stared, nonplussed, at the stuttering printer, as if surprised that he was addressing anything at all, let alone his closest companion on a solitary writing journey, the sole instrument as yet to bear witness to Paul’s triumph of will over talent.
“But look at me now, old man,” he said triumphantly, as he stubbed out his cigarette on the steel toecap of his Doc Marten. “As soon as publishers see my guaranteed-bestseller thriller about a male serial killer of women, I’ll be paying other people to dance on your grave.”
Paul smiled. He was the only person he knew who had ever written a book. He was going to be beating the birds off with a stick.
Dublin, 2018. Pretentious artisan Café with more Wi-Fi than sense.
It all looked so real when she saw it in PDF. Just for the hell of it, Cassava uploaded her unpublished manuscript to her Kindle, and there it was. 65,000 words; the product of four months of hair-wrenching toil and bitten fingernails. Her opus maximus. Her life on a page.
“It’s done,” she breathed into her charcoal-activated chai latte, with the same sense of wonder as she’d felt when she’d got her first Instagram like.
It was time to research her self-publishing marketing plan online.
Oh, Christ. Some guy was writing a very similar-sounding conspiracy thriller about a next-door neighbour with a latent hatred of female marketing assistants who also happened to be unreliable narrators. And he had 20,000 blog followers and 7,403 Facebook Likes. She checked his Amazon ranking.
She stared gloomily at the phone, tablet and laptop in front of her. They all told her the same thing. There were already 8,380 entries in the “Unreliable Narrator Thrillers: Handsome Next-Door Neighbours Who Secretly Hate Women” category. And she’d bet that every single one of them had more followers than she had.
She glowered at her three screens. There were just too many people writing books. She was never going to be able to kill all of them.
Writers can’t deny that there’s a lot to be said for writing communities online. They give us oodles of inspiration, encouragement, mettle, and support.
But don’t be like Paul. Paul is not your role model. And don’t be like Cassava, either. There’s no use approaching the online community thinking that we’re all original and sure to become an overnight success.
The trick is to learn from our neighbours, not compare ourselves to them (or indeed get killed by them…)