By Eddie Whitlock
Some of you may feel insulted by this column. I assure you that the only person I intend to insult is me. Well. There may be a few stray wordbullets in here. Sorry about that.
I always wanted to be a writer. I should say that I wanted to be a famous writer. I wanted to be the writer who was known for his witty personality as much as for his books.
As a kid, I saw myself someday sitting on the sofa to Johnny Carson’s right, telling him about the upcoming novel. I would make a joke and Charro would laugh. Johnny would laugh and wipe away tears and ask me what it was like to work with Steven Spielberg.
I was a storyteller, I thought. That seemed like what a writer was. I loved telling stories, but I wasn’t very good at the seat-of-the-pants part that Ernest Hemingway warned would-be writers about.
My sixth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Johnson, let me write a play that was performed on the stage at Fourth Ward Elementary in Griffin, Georgia. It was titled “Swamp Rats” and was a World War II drama about a rag-tag bunch of Allied soldiers going after Hitler. Sadly, I do not have a copy of the script, which was the twelve-year-old’s variation on “Inglourious Basterds.”
A story I wrote was published in the student literary magazine at Gordon Junior College in 1978. It was pretty much the sad true story of my love-life at that point. It was a heart-rending tale, but it was no “Swamp Rats.”
For the next thirty years, I wrote, but I never finished writing a book. I was always working on one but never finishing any of them. I carried notebooks around, full of blank notebook paper, writing whenever time permitted. My friend Kathy Fulton talked about the joy of looking at a blank page and knowing what it could become. Generally – for me, anyhow – the blank pages became filled with words in meandering tales that never ended.
I tended to write my stories chronologically. I had lots of great openings: shocking violent scenes that kicked off mysteries, complex dialogue that preceded character studies, and Faulkneresque run-on sentences that introduced epic Southern Gothic backdrops. Unfortunately, these great openings didn’t lead to meaningful conclusions. They just meandered.
Life kept me busy in the meantime. Writing was never a serious focus.
In 1998, another opportunity to write a script fell in my lap. Jim Middleton came to Griffin, Georgia, and started the Camelot Theatre Company. He asked me to write a play for the troupe to perform. I wound up writing several over the next six years. It was a lot of fun.
My friend Mike Dyche wrote hilarious songs for those shows. He’s a professional singer/songwriter with real credentials, by the way. My part was referenced as being “the book” for the show. I had written a book!
But it wasn’t a published book.
Here I will pause to reference the input I received from the people who raised me: television producers. In this case, it was Earl Hamner and his semi-autobiographical show “The Waltons.”
John-Boy Walton, the show’s protagonist, wanted to be a writer. After finishing his first novel, he submits it to a publisher and pays a fee. Poor John-Boy has been duped. He is sent a box of copies of the printed novel. These are not being distributed unless he chooses to distribute them himself.
Mr. Hamner introduced me to the term “vanity press.”
Vanity press was something that wannabe writers used because they weren’t good enough to get a publisher. The vanity press folks currently use the phrase “self-publishing.” I was on a panel a couple of years ago, talking about being self-published. My equating it with vanity press did not go over well with the vanity publisher who was on the panel with me.
Around the time I was writing plays for Camelot, I was approached by a Griffin man who was writing his first novel, which he was planning to self-publish. He asked me to read it. I did. It was awful. The main character was sometimes 35 and sometimes 65 years old. The climax of the story happened outside the narrative. It was vaguely introduced and then its aftermath was sketched. Golf was also involved.
That man inspired me. He inspired me to say to myself, “If this guy can ‘publish’ a book, so can I!”
I used the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) structure to force me to sit down and write. It worked. In 2011, I finished a short novel. I worked with editor Vally Sharpe of United Writers Press. Val gave me great guidance. That first book was published in 2012.
People who read it told me they liked it. Friends are required to say that, but I got some good reviews by strangers, too. One famous Georgia author read it. When he was later asked about the best book written about sharecroppers, he cited mine. I was very flattered.
I’m a lousy capitalist. This is why I should probably hire a bloodthirsty agent to represent my finances. That first book had a second and third printing, which means a total of about six hundred copies, I think. I probably gave away as many as I sold.
I was contacted a few months later by a company that publishes American books in China. They were interested in my book! I sent the text and never heard from them again. If you are ever in China, and you stumble across a book about a poor southern family in 1912, let me know. I don’t expect royalties; I’m just curious what cover they went with.
In 2014, I self-published a collection of short stories. These were all alternate history tales of what a zombie apocalypse would have been like under various US Presidents.
Here’s the main takeaway about that second book: I loved writing it!
The second takeaway is that few people loved reading it. So. It was one printing and done on that one.
There are successful self-published authors. I don’t deny that and don’t begrudge them their success. I’m just telling my tale here.
There are far more writers than there are book-buying audiences. I didn’t say readers; I said audiences. My daughter suggested a Twitter account to market my book. Pretty quickly, I felt like I was shouting into the abyss and getting back echoes from other self-published authors, encouraging me to buy their books.
I grew to be willing to give away my writing just to have an audience. There are platforms for this. Most of them are attempting to monetize the writing, but I would be surprised if the writers benefit much. The sites I joined were hungrier for added readers than for added writers. I could relate.
These sites are the evolution of John Boy’s vanity press. No longer does one have to pay for the exposure. No longer does one get “hard copies” to validate their creation in a tangible way.
As if the situation were not grim enough, Artificial Intelligence can now use algorithms to write novels. It’s not far-fetched to see a publishing industry that churns out hard copies of nothing but books written by James Patterson’s AI matrix.
So, I reflect. That first book of mine got some respect. That second one was a lot of fun.
In my twilight years, I still have my dream of becoming a celebrity author.
If someone manages to get a copy of that first one into James Franco’s hands, I’m sure he will love it and will ask for my advice in casting. I want D. J. Qualls to play the father; otherwise, Mr. Franco is welcome to put his friends in it.
That second book – which includes an introduction by local moviemaker Andrew Shearer – needs to be picked up as a ten-episode series for Netflix. Maybe James will put in a good word for me with the folks there.
Ultimately, this will lead to my appearing on Jimmie Kimmel Live! to discuss behind-the-scenes gossip about the stars.
Jimmie isn’t Johnny, but at this point, a wannabe writer takes what he can get.
Eddie Whitlock is a Georgia native, a graduate of UGA, and a wannabe writer. He retired in 2021 from the Athens-Clarke County Library, where he worked as coordinator of volunteers, community service supervisor, and vending machine scapegoat.