In the mid-1990s, about the time when Nathan’s Run was first being published, AOL was pretty much synonymous with the internet for me. Those were the days of squealing telephone modems and pay-by-the-hour access. I remember jumping out of my skin the first time that AOL voice said, “Welcome” through the speakers that I didn’t even know my computer had.
There seemed to be no end to the rabbit holes of information diving. As a trivia junkie and a procrastinator, I’d stumbled upon the ultimate time suck. It was fabulous! But it wasn’t until I discovered the wonders of the chat room that I truly understood the addiction of internet rabbit holes. AOL chat rooms provided opportunities to “speak” real-time with real people all over the world.
My favorite of those chat rooms was the AOL Writers Club. Run by a husband-and-wife team out of their apartment in Arlington, Virginia, the Writers Club provided my first opportunity to interact with writers of all stripes. Since the chats were real-time, the topics we discussed were the kinds of things you’d discuss in a coffee shop with friends. We got to know each other as we talked not just about craft, but about our families and whatever came to mind. Tom Clancy was probably the most famous person to pop in from time to time, but other regulars included Harlan Coben, Tess Gerritsen, Dennis Lehane and others who were just starting their careers. More than a few of those Writers Club denizens became face-to-face friends and remain so to this day.
Then the trolls arrived.
I don’t know that we knew them as trolls at the time, but they charged into the otherwise friendly group and started swinging bats and throwing hand grenades. They were uncooperative, and just plain mean to people. One in particular went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, but he was one of the most sour individuals I have ever run across. The Writers Club did not survive. (I don’t know if the trolls were the cause of the collapse, but they are certainly the reason why I capped off that particular rabbit hole in my life.)
At conferences, I run into some the old members, and when the topic comes up, everyone agrees that no group has ever come close to the sense of community we shared in the early days of the AOL Writers Club. TKZ comes close on some levels, but the interaction here happens in slow motion, while the Writers Club was real time.
Fast forward to 2020. I have joined–but rarely participate in–several writer-oriented Facebook groups, and I’m dismayed by how many of them are pre-loaded with trolls, and how the trolls are the dominant presence. Even more frustrating is the fact that these moderated, members-only group leaders tolerate the internal festering that will ultimately kill the thing they’re trying to build.
Some of these groups have tens of thousands of members. If only 1% carry the troll gene, that’s still a lot of negativity. So, why do people who are obviously early in their writer-journey post their work into these ant hills and ask for comments? Do they not read other entries first? Are they masochists and merely want to reinforce the negative narrative that plagues so many artists? I cannot imagine doing such a thing.
Let’s add into this mix some egregiously awful advice, mostly doled out by people who clearly are parroting what they’ve heard from somebody who knows someone who attended a conference somewhere. A recent goodie was the echo chamber conclusion that prologues are essential in order to give the backstory necessary to understand why the main character does what he does in Chapter One.
Let’s pause for a moment to give Brother Bell a chance to settle his blood pressure.
I join these groups with the intent of helping but then I realize that by pushing against the group-think, I run the risk of playing the role of the perceived troll. So I sit silently, lurking through the bad advice about structure and the industry, waiting for that occasional opportunity to help out. And after I do, I weather the push-back from the people who heard differently from their cousin’s girlfriend’s brother.
Here’s what I want to scream in those groups: If you’re serious about selling your writing–whether by traditional or indie routes–move away from the easy echo-chamber research. Attend conferences. Read books by people who know what they’re talking about. Quit complaining about how stupid the world is to reject your 180,000-word dystopian romantic vampire political thriller and accept the reality that as a rookie, there are wise moves and unwise moves, and that your actions have consequences.
Understand that your zeal to self-publish that book that you know is under-cooked, merely for the bragging rights, can fundamentally damage your ability to sell future books as your skills improve.
Ah, the heck with it. I’ll write a blog post instead.