Once upon a time, a motley crew of knights, hobbits, and assorted elves–all members of the Fellowship of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America–set out to prank a certain publisher of ill repute. This publisher, you see, was an author mill–it accepted pretty much any manuscript that came its way. Yet it held itself out as being selective, just like a “real” publisher, the better to lure unwary authors into its Mordor-like embrace. And the motley crew thought that wasn’t proper.
A kindly wizard was the project’s mastermind, and he decreed the parameters of the quest: create a manuscript so wretched, so mind-numbingly awful, that no sane publisher–not even a slightly selective author mill–could possibly accept it. Calling his unlikely band of adventurers into conclave, he conferred upon each a solemn task: create a chapter based on three characters, their one-sentence descriptions, and a single writing prompt. The adventurers weren’t to worry about plot; they weren’t to concern themselves with continuity. “Into the fray, brave champions!” the wizard cried. “You know the rules of writing. Break them. Break them all!”
Thus was born the immortal manuscript known as Atlanta Nights. Through tumbled wastes of fractured grammar, across stinking swamps of purple prose, through forests of confusing metaphor swept by hurricanes of dreadful dialog, where said bookisms swung like rotting fruit, our heroes fought to fulfill their quest. And each in the end did deliver to the wizard one horrifyingly bad chapter. And the kindly wizard dubbed the band of heroes Travis Tea (say it fast), and molded the chapters into a digital file (wearing a wizardly hazmat suit, lest the bad writing prove contagious), and with a wave of his staff, sent the file winging through the digisphere. And the publisher, which hadn’t yet reached its acceptance quota for the day, and often never bothered to look at the manuscripts it accepted anyway, sent back this clarion call:
“I am happy to inform you that PublishAmerica has decided to give ‘Atlanta Nights’ the chance it deserves….Welcome to PublishAmerica, and congratulations on what promises to be an exciting time ahead.”
The hoax was revealed on January 23, 2007, and PublishAmerica withdrew its offer the next day. But Atlanta Nights lives on at Lulu, in trade paperback and as a downloadable file. Its fabled awfulness has become an urban legend of sorts. It’s been featured with live readings at writers’ conventions, and there’s also a dramatic reading on YouTube. Some have gone so far to use it as a teaching tool–because no one knows how to break the rules like professional writers. The hoax even made the Los Angeles Times.
Helmed by filmmaker Rachael Saltzman, the film is “[b]ased on the story surrounding the creation of the Worst Book Ever Written, combining interviews with the writers and some over the top dramatizations of the chapters to bring this story to life.” Why would anyone undertake such a daunting task? Rachael explains on Kickstarter, where she’s raising money for the project:
The story spread from the SFWA, through agents and editors, and has become a cult classic in its own small way.
It needs to be bigger. Literary scams are more profitable than ever, because new writers just don’t know what to watch out for.
(Full disclosure: I wrote Chapter 12a.)