I regularly get messages in my inbox from people offering to sell me the secrets of success. Today one of them offered access to a free training session on how to become a published author in ninety days.
I see this kind of thing and I think: how strange it is that in a cultural environment resting on the foundations of Gutenberg and grammarians, we should see a situation prevail which reminds me of antiquity: in order to publish a book, why, all you have to do is hack out your ideas and release them to the world! - Except now we don't have an environment of scarcity: modern societies aspire to universal literacy and publishing doesn't require a staff of slave scribes or even a contract with a printing press.
Let me tell you why I'm skeptical. As someone who has been writing for 20 years, I know how much work it takes to write well. I estimate that I'm about three-quarters of the way to the million words that it takes to gain mastery of the craft - and I have deliberately underestimated. People tell me I write well. Sometimes I let myself believe it. Sometimes I say so myself on a cover letter, because I have to admit that compared with many other people, I do.
But that's because I have worked at it so much. And I know that good writing entails rewriting. This is especially true for creative writing, but anything that seeks to be of real use is going to have to go through a critical eye and get rearranged. I've written my share of relatively dry and utilitarian stuff but even for that I didn't publish first drafts.
Thousands of people write 50,000 words in 30 days every November. But that doesn't mean their drafts are ready to be published. Reputable advice about NaNoWriMo will reassure you that when you're "finished," your book will suck. And that's ok, because now you can take the time to edit, revise and rewrite, to get it ready to publish. Some NaNo-ers like to try to get this done within the year following the completion of their first draft. To do that in two months?
When I was a faculty member at a certain university, I took part in a semester-long writing workshop. Right off the bat I was disappointed by the message that the presenter gave: don't worry about trying to say something original, she said, just join the conversation. I thought: well, isn't that what the Internet is for - for people to just sound off and repeat the same conversations over and over until at some point hopefully they get off and graduate?
I've since come around to her way of thinking to a point: "ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering" and all that. But here's the thing: even operating on such a premise, the article that I wrote - and published - through that program went through peer reviews. It got rejected twice before I got it into shape fit for publishing.
I look at these people who say they've gotten rich publishing ebooks that they wrote in no time and I think, what on earth can they be writing? If it's fiction or poetry or even personal essay I would rest easier: creative writing thrives on the endless permutation of themes, characters and questions. For current events there's journalism.
But from what I see, I strongly suspect that what many of these people are writing is "content" that you could have from other books already published, if you simply took some time and care at the library. That would mean that the fortunes of these few depend on the hurried laziness of the many who would rather pay a few bucks for convenience than do any serious investigation.
Blogging is to blame for this in great degree, I'm sure. I might also be inclined to point a finger at NaNoWriMo, but I think it's more than bias born of affection that gives me pause there. For although I have read the success stories about the people whose NaNo novels get published - and read - the emphasis I see in NaNoWriMo's promotions is far more weighted on the personal fulfillment of accomplishing the writing for yourself, and honoring your creativity. I don't see the same mentality of "look how easy it is to make loads of money!" Because - well, imagine this! - people who have a story to tell aren't always in it for the money. And maybe the people who care about quality of prose and rigor of thought aren't out to get rich either.
Much of the blame for this I would also lay at the feet of the Prussian-derived public school systems, but I think that might be another story. And I'm sure someone could lead an informative discussion about the nature of newspaper journalism in relation to all this.
I don't know if I should be disturbed at this or not: I'm charitable enough, I suppose, that I look at these cheerleaders for the drop-out-and-travel-the-world-by-publishing-ebooks (or an affiliate marketing blog) lifestyle and I think: is there a possibility this might not be just another variant of the Get Rich Quick Scheme? To their credit, I do read from affiliate marketers who say that it took months to see results from their efforts. There are even some like this guy who project a gruff persona to try to drive away the lazy people who just want to plug into the system and get paid without making an effort.
Again and again I find myself reflecting on the curious case of Nehor, as recorded in the Book of Alma: a guru of positive thinking and a gospel of prosperity, he got so angry when an old man argued against his ideas that he killed him. And his followers perpetrated some of the most ruthless atrocities of their time.
So I see these smiling guys who can't seem to put together a sentence without using the word "awesome" or "amazing" and I think, what would they be like when cornered? What claws and fangs would come out if they found that someone was putting their ebooks to their natural use and copying them for free?
There's more that I can and want to write about this, but it might take several more posts and/or a dissertation.