Full disclosure: I haven’t read 50 Shades Of Grey. I’ve tried – not very hard – but even the free Kindle preview I read was dreadful, and entry-level sunk cost theory suggests that when something is dreadful, even if you’ve invested some time in it, just ditching it is the most sensible response. From what I understand, it’s shittily written, sketchy in its portrayal of BDSM relationships, normalises borderline abusive behaviour and is entirely too full of overdone similes and dreadful sentences. I can believe all that. I won’t be going to see the film.
You know why EL James is a better writer than you, though? Because she got that awful book done.
Writing books is hard. 50 Shades is about 105,000 words – even if all you did was bang the typewriter like one of an infinite number of chimps, hitting a respectable-for-a-professional-typist 50 WPM, that would take you 35 hours. If you went at pace that allowed to think about what you were writing – say, as fast as Anthony Trollope, who wrote for three hours a day and knocked out 2,500 words a morning before his job at the post office – it’d take you 42 days.
So here’s a test, people who claim that you could write a better book than 50 Shades: have you spent that long trying? Because EL James did. Whatever you think about her dreadful, dreadful writing – all that time you spent reading articles about its lazy characterisation and weak narrative, chuckling over those easy-to-write clickbait pieces cherry-picking the worst bits of dialogue, hugging yourself with schadenfreude because the cast apparently can’t stand each other, telling people you could do better – or maybe while you were just in the pub, or having a lie in, or binge-watching Netflix…you weren’t doing better. Did you click on that last hyperlink? That’s another two minutes of your life you spent not pursuing a project of your own. You know what EL James was doing while you were chortling over her comparing orgasms to the spin cycle on a washing machine? If it was anything other swimming around in a big pool of money like Scrooge McDuck, I’d be incredibly surprised.
It has never been easier to get a book published: you can do it in a day, and make it available to anyone who has access to the internet in exactly the same timeframe. Traditional publishing models are broken, and there’s a dude out there making money from Gay Billionaire Triceratops erotica. If you’ve written a book, then whether or not to self-publish is a thing that it might be worth devoting some worrying-time to. If you haven’t written a book, then it isn’t.
So start. Write something, or do whatever your project is. Fail fast, and learn from your mistakes. As Steve Pressfield has it: ‘The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.’ If you’re not doing that? It doesn’t matter how good you think you could be – you’re a much, much worse writer than EL James.
HOMEWORK: Every time you want to read some clickbait or write a snarky tweet this week, write some words on a project you care about instead.