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I'm writing a utopian novel

by Elle Griffin about a month ago in literature
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And a nonfiction book imagining a more beautiful future.

Becoming a journalist

In 2014, I launched Over The Moon Magazine on the side of my content marketing job.

I started the magazine because I was a marketing writer and I wanted to be a magazine writer and editor, and bridging that gap felt impossible. At the time, I was living in San Francisco, it was in the middle of the great recession, and there were no writing and editing jobs available - even if there were, I didn't have the experience to compete for them.

Originally, I thought I might need to go to journalism school but then, to check myself, I went through the Sunday edition of The New York Times and Googled every single writer with a byline in it - less than half of them had a journalism degree. I didn't need a degree, I realized, I just needed an opportunity. An in.

Around that time, I read an article in which the actress Nia Vardalos described the years she spent trying to get an acting part unsuccessfully. Unable to land a role, she decided to create one herself. She wrote and starred in a one-woman play based loosely on her Greek Orthodox family and she marketed it to Greek Orthodox churches in LA.

The play was a hit - it ran for six weeks and attracted big name Greek Orthodox folks like Rita Wilson, who later took her husband Tom Hanks to see it. After its run, Hanks' production company asked if they could produce it as a film. My Big Fat Greek Wedding became one of the highest grossing indie films of all time and was nominated for an academy award.

Inspired by her story, I decided to pull a My Big Fat Greek Wedding and make things happen for myself as a writer. So I launched an online magazine and invited 100 writers I loved to write for it (and bring their audiences to it) hoping that would give me somewhere to write and build my portfolio - to achieve my dream of becoming a magazine writer and editor.

It worked, Over The Moon drew an audience of 6,000 newsletter subscribers and 25,000 Instagram followers and, though it was never profitable, it gave me enough editorial clout to get in the door at publications like The Muse, which got me in the door at Forbes, which eventually landed me my job as editor-in-chief of Utah Business where I have spent the past four years working as a magazine writer and editor.

And then I wrote a book.

Becoming a novelist

After achieving some level of success as a magazine editor, I wanted to expand my craft beyond journalism, I wanted to write fiction. So I did. I spent three years writing a book on the side of my job - only once I had finished it, I couldn't find my way in.

Once again I was brand new, and once again I couldn't break into the industry. I pitched my book to hundreds of agents, received only one request for the manuscript - all of them passed. That's when I decided to My Big Fat Greek Wedding it once again. To make things happen for myself - this time as a fiction writer.

So I started my newsletter and I serialized my book there, documenting my process in real time. I thought I would make it happen for myself just as I did with my editing career, only this time I didn't just learn about the publishing industry and how to succeed in it, I learned that it was broken. That there wasn't really a path for me here because there isn't really a market for books (especially the sort I write).

As I have previously reported (here and here): A third of Americans don't read at all. The ones that do spend only 15 minutes per day reading - mostly on MSN and Facebook. Those who actually read books average just 2–4 books a year which means there are way more writers than there are readers - of the 2.7 million books added to the market each year, 96 percent of them sell less than 1,000 copies. In 2020, only 268 books sold more than 100,000 copies.

I realized it wasn't as simple as creating an opportunity for myself in the fiction industry because opportunity doesn't really exist here. It would be like if Vardalos created My Big Fat Greek Wedding only to discover no one watched movies anymore so instead she needed to find a new way to use her craft as an actress - perhaps on the stage, or as a character at Disney World.

In a way she did. Vardalos went on to achieve acting success, but also writing, producing, and directing success as well - expanding her craft beyond what she could have imagined for herself and pivoting where there was a market for her work - and that continues to inspire me. As I write this, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3 is on its way with a new story about Toula and Ian's daughter and another lesson for book authors: when you find what works, stick with it…

I don't want to leave my craft on the vine to die. I want to pivot my craft somewhere where it will be read. Like Vardalos before me, I did create opportunity for myself - if not in the way I intended. Because in the process of making a name for myself as a novelist, I created an opportunity for myself as a newsletter writer.

Being both as a newsletter writer

I've spent the last several months trying to determine what my next writing project would be and how it might fit into the modern ecosystem - I've even experimented with dozens of ideas. But, as they say, the simplest idea is the best one and there's one idea I just can't shake.

I have decided to write the utopian novel I have in my head - I can't help myself. I've written the first seven chapters, I think it's beautiful, it could be a masterpiece. I may be the only person who thinks so, but that's why I have also decided to write a nonfiction book that accompanies it.

There will be Oblivion: A Utopian Novel and its companion Oblivion: Essays Imagining a More Beautiful Future. The essays will be nonfiction and published for my newsletter subscribers. The novel chapters will be fantasy and published for my newsletter subscribers. At the end I'll have two books: all the research that went into imagining a more beautiful world. And that more beautiful world.

I'm beyond excited about this idea. It's a way to do all of the things that make writing a utopian novel enticing to me - researching what the ideal form of government might look like, whether humans might evolve further as a species, how the oceans and world might look if everything goes right - while writing about these things both as a journalist (grounded in reality) and as a novelist (exploring my wildest fantasies).

I'm also excited to publish both in one of the most widely read formats on the internet: as a Substack newsletter. Rather than spending years writing fiction in solitude, this time I'll be writing nonfiction alongside a community of literary peers who probably have a lot to contribute to discussions about what a more beautiful world might look like - while writing the novel of my dreams.

I started this year with one goal: to build the future of publishing and write for it. After a lot of experimentation, I've finally found what that means. I may not have made it in the industry, but I created a space for myself in the evolution of it, and a way to do all the things I love at once. And I am very excited about that.

To follow my Oblivion project, subscribe to The Novelleist. Every essay, chapter, and comment, will happen right here👇🏻



About the author

Elle Griffin

Designing the future of publishing—one novel at a time. ellegriffin.substack.com

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