Becoming an author overnight

While eating lunch on Tuesday, James Erwin noticed a question in the AskReddit section of, the popular social news site, that struck his fancy. Another user asked: “Could I destroy the entire Roman Empire during the reign of Augustus if I traveled back in time with a modern U.S. Marine infantry battalion?”

Drawing on a degree in History–he recently finished an encyclopedia of US military actions–he began writing this piece of fiction under his Reddit user name, Prufrock451:

The 35th MEU is on the ground at Kabul, preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan. Suddenly, it vanishes.

The section of Bagram where the 35th was gathered suddenly reappears in a field outside Rome, on the west bank of the Tiber River. Without substantially prepared ground under it, the concrete begins sinking into the marshy ground and cracking. Colonel Miles Nelson orders his men to regroup near the vehicle depot – nearly all of the MEU’s vehicles are still stripped for air transport. He orders all helicopters airborne, believing the MEU is trapped in an earthquake.

Erwin wrote 3000 words over the next two hours. They read like the first chapter of a novel, a kind of Romans vs. Marines companion piece to World War Z.

Reddit goes nuts. Reflecting the opinions of many, one Reddit user asked Erwin, “Do you have a job? Because this should be your job.”

Within hours of his first post, Erwin was the star of a ‘sub-Reddit’–a categorized section of–and now has nearly 7000 readers clamouring for the next installment of his work.

They’re also helping Erwin out. They’re debating historical minutiae, mocking up book covers and offering him authorial advice.

Erwin, a technical writer from Des Moines, Iowa, tells me that he’s overwhelmed by the response. “I’m astounded that something I churned out over my lunch hour turned into this,” he writes in an email interview. “I’m excited and very grateful and a little terrified.”

What’s most striking about Erwin’s story is the speed with which he accidentally assembled a readership that any writer would envy. However, as my publishing-savvy friend Monique Trottier points out, the trick is capitalizing on this burst of interest. “Really good publishers are looking for this exact sort of untapped talent–particular someone who is able to build an audience.”

Traditionally, publishers would rush to have the author write and produce the hardcopy book, a process that can take six months to a year. Instead, Trottier recommends that Erwin self-publish an ebook. “The period of time when you can make money off a book is shrinking. Ebooks obviously offer a much faster production cycle, and they work particularly well in the fantasy and science-fiction genres”.

Erwin plans on turning his instant fame into some kind of published work. “When people are literally demanding to give you money, that’s a no-brainer. But I’m carefully weighing my options on when and how. In the meantime, I appear to have a winning formula, so I’ll try to push it forward a bit and provide some meagre reward to my readers.”

Image by Reddit user JamieTeamCool. Used with his permission.


  1. Good god, that is one readership I would NOT want. Sorry to be prejudiced, but it sounds like a bunch of FPS-addled reality-evaders. The material sounds like A Connecticut Yankee takes over the History Channel. Next, in alternate world-war dream team matchup fight, Rommel vs. Spartaaaaaa!

    And the allegory is so thick: Marines as Vandals, sacking Rome (quite ironic given I just realized after 10 years that it was New York that got sacked, in a modern way, on 9-11). I like the Afghanistan to Rome thing, kinda prosaic how we like to think our boys can take over the world, if only the world doesn’t shoot back with RPGs. But in fact, they’re sadly being pinned down by 3rd-world fighters. No escapist dreams for us.

    I was just thinking the other day how brave our soldiers are in foreign lands, with unlimited weapons and fuel. I read the wiki for Dien Bien Phu and realized how much hubris there is and how quickly it can go bad.

    I must be in a bad mood tonight, because I don’t have much praise (read: I have only scorn) for reddit. Followed a link there the other day (I think it was the guy who “forecloses” on homes) and just noted how the discussion turned into pap. A big happy community of pap. Sorry.

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