Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Of Bookies and Butterflies

Okay, so I know I promised you guys I wouldn’t write about writing while I was on vacation, but a recent post by Jody Hedlund got me a little fired up and I thought maybe I’d throw in my two cents.

The post was entitled, When You Feel Like a Nobody, and it was practical advice for writers facing the discouragement that comes from the realization that there are millions of other books out there, and what exactly do you think you’re doing adding to such a huge heap of fiction anyway? I’d encourage you to go an read her remarks because some of the things I’m going to say will be in direct response to that post.

Here are just a couple of somewhat scattered thoughts that came to my mind:

1. The Odds

In her blog post Jody posted numbers that said that a million new books are published each and every years.

A million.

That seems like a lot right? Well, yes and no. I’m not sure where Jody is sourcing her numbers from (not that I’m calling them into question), but the first thing you have to consider is that that number is going to include (I assume) non-fiction books, things like history books, cook books, and car repair manuals.

You also have to take into account the fact that since Jody’s stats include self-published eBooks that means that many of those are likely short stories or novellas for sale on Amazon.

But even if we assume that every singe one of those books is a full length novel of reasonable quality (which is a pretty big assumption) that still means that the ratio of writers to non-writers in the United States alone is over three hundred to one. Assuming that approximately half of non-writers don’t read brings those odds down to one-hundred-fifty to one. Now if we consider that most writers don’t have the clout to grab all those people’s attention and that most books sell less than a thousand copies, a whole range of potential opens up for us.

I’m not much of a betting man, but I’d say the odds aren’t nearly as bad as you think they are.

There is someone out there who wants to read your book. They just don’t know about it yet. It’s up to you to tell them.

2. The Truth

This may come as a shocker to you, but you are a nobody. What you are doing today, the words you write or don’t write will likely have minimal impact on the world at large.

Yes, I know about chaos theory and the butterfly flapping his wings causing hurricanes in Florida (thanks a lot you stupid butterflies), and I’m not saying your work won’t have any impact at all, but let’s be real here: your book isn’t that important. Neither is mine. Neither is Stephen King’s. Neither is Shakespeare’s.

Yes. I said it. Shakespeare wasn’t all that important in the larger scheme of things.

See, I was brought up to look at the long view of the universe. The odds of your work even still being around in a thousand years are slim at best. Even some of Shakespeare’s plays were lost. And the odds of your works becoming famous enough for people to care very long past your death are vanishing small.

On the bright side it won’t matter to you because you’ll be dead.

And when I say “you” here please understand that I’m talking to myself as well.

I think it’s important for all us to face the cold hard truth. Are we writing to leave some kind of legacy? Are we writing because we want people to know our names? I don’t know about the rest of you, but for a long time for me the answer to those questions was ‘yes.’

But I’m starting to think a little differently. I know I’m a nobody. I know the odds of my works rising above the madness to become paragons of literature are thin at best. But the reason I do what I do is love. A love of words, a love of stories. And even if my writing career never takes off, I’ll always have that.

I hope this doesn’t come off as an attack on Jody’s post. She’s got great information there, and it’s well worth your time if you’re a writer to follow her blog. I just wanted to try to put things in perspective. And to ask you this one simple question:

Is it okay to be a nobody?

One Hit Weirdos

Bram Stoker, present day.

Yesterday, I was wracking my brain trying to decide exactly what I wanted to write on for today.  It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of anything to say, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that I cared about.  Remember that discussion we had about how feelings try to trick you into not writing?  Yeah, they get in my way just as bad as anybody.

So instead of running over all the old and worn out ideas one more time, I decided it was time to call in the idea doctor.  It was time to talk to my sister.

I like to think of my sister as kind of a second brain.  Our tastes are so similar it’s scary. We can go for hours talking about weird linguistic tangents that would make most other people roll their eyes and walk away.  Bottom line, if anyone could rescue me from my idea overload it would be her.

So I went to her and said, “Hey Sarah.  Tell me what I should write about in my blog post.”

And she said, “Well, I’ve been reading in this book you gave me for Christmas about how that this one guy invented the rule about not ending sentences with prepositions.”

“Yes,” said I, “But I’ve already done a post about the Evil Prescriptivist Empire.”

“But, did you mention, that it was one guy that came up with this rule all by himself and he based it on basically nothing other than that fact that he thought it sounded good?”

“No.  Really?”

“Really.”

Of course we all know that, the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” thing is pure prescriptivist poppycock.  But I was struck by the idea that one man could single handedly (and before you ask, no, I don’t know what happened to his other hand) make such a shift in the collective view of language that even today overzealous editors, grammar nazis and pickled English teachers everywhere would be incorrectly quoting his rule.

And the fact that this is the thing he his most remembered for seems like a tragedy of epic proportions.  Because John Dryden was a writer.  In his day his work was very well respected.  He was following on the coattails* of literary giants like Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare.  So great was his prominence in his day, that he eventually worked up the balls to actually criticize the writing styles of both Johnson and Shakespeare.

Yet today he has been almost completely forgotten.  Almost.  Except you will still hear that old saw, “you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition”  until the day you die.

Now I have an interest in one hit wonders.  I’m talking about people who are wildly famous for one thing, while being forgotten for the rest of their work.  I can’t figure out whether I should be envious of them or sorry for them. On the one hand, Bram Stoker’s name will never die because of Dracula.  But how would you like to be Bram Stoker and travel forward in time.  You’d ask someone “Say, what did you think of my book, The Lair of the White Worm?”  and they would say, “Who are you and why are you on my front porch dressed like a guy from the 1800’s?  It’s not Halloween for another six months.  And is that a time machine in my yard?  Look what it’s done to my lawn!”

See?  Not a pretty picture.

But Dryden’s situation is ten times worse because out of all the writing he did, he is best remembered for making up one stupid rule.

I have very little respect for the man who was John Dryden, but still I feel a twinge of sympathy when I think of how he is remembered.  To spend your life and your best efforts trying to create something of enough worth to be passed down through future generations, and then end up being remembered for something so meaningless seems to me to be the worst kind of fate that could befall a writer or creator of any kind.

So let this be a lesson to you.  If you strive for literary immortality, be careful what you wish for.

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*Is it just me, or is it weird that “coattails” is correct as one word, but “thank you” isn’t?