They say to write what you know, and since writers tend to know about writing, it’s no surprise that many of them write about writers. Stephen King, for example, made the main character of his second book, ‘Salem’s Lot, a writer, and was so taken by the idea he repeated it in The Shining. And It. And Misery. And The Tommyknockers. And The Dark Half. And Desperation. And The Regulators. And Bag of Bones.*
So it seems strange, given that writers know about writing, how often their fictional counterparts in movies and TV shows seem to bear little resemblance to real writers. Below are the ten worst myths about writers promoted by writers themselves.
1. Writers write about their own lives under a thin veil of fictionality. As seen in Castle, Her Alibi, Shakespeare In Love, Secret Window, Wonder Boys, Sideways, The Night Listener, Back to the Future.
What’s that? You can’t come up with a story? You have writer’s block, you say? Well then, shamelessly plumb your life and relationships for whatever dramatic payoffs they can provide. Because there’s no such thing as fiction: there is only real life with the names changed.
The grain of truth: If the roman-a-clef or autobiographical novel wasn’t an accepted form of literature, Armistead Maupin wouldn’t have a career – Gabriel Noone in The Night Listener is the author in all but name (Noone – no one – mind blown!).
The reality: All writers plunder their lives for ideas – a mannerism here, a turn-of-phrase there – but writers of fiction tend to write, well, fiction. If they didn’t, there’d be no Animal Farm, no Harry Potter, no Lord of the Rings, unless I missed the class at school that dealt with Middle Earth, Hogwarts and talking pigs. I once heard someone say that if your first novel is autobiographical, you’re probably going to struggle writing a second, and I tend to agree. You can’t make a successful career writing about writers all the time. You can? Oh. My bad.
2. Writers do one draft, and then they’re done. As seen in Murder, She Wrote, Romancing the Stone, Misery.
How do you write a novel? Straight through, of course. You start at the first page and keep going until you reach the last. That’s all it takes. As soon as you’ve typed The End, you hand it to your publisher and bang! Another bestseller.
The grain of truth: Anne Rice, the author of those vampire novels your girlfriend loved as a teenager (joke), once said that the worst advice she ever received was that writers should expect to write and rewrite and change every sentence between the first draft and the finished product. I guess sometimes, for some people, it just clicks.
The reality: Expect to write and rewrite and change every sentence between the first draft and the finished product. Even if you edit as you go, the first draft is never a fait accompli. Your agent might suggest revisions. Your editor definitely will. The proofreader will undermine all your assumptions about your grammatical abilities. And then you’ll have to change the ending. A lot of the time, you’ll want to change it yourself. I have no idea how people used to write out novels by hand – I can’t write for thirty seconds without hacking up all my sentences and reorganising my chapters. I would be utterly lost without a computer. Speaking of which…
3. Writers use typewriters, even after WordStar 4.0 made them obsolete in the late 80s (that’s a George RR Martin reference, y’all). As seen in Wonder Boys, Love Actually, Stranger Than Fiction, Ruby Sparks, the ‘Crazy Train’ episode of Modern Family.
You want to be a writer? Then you’d better bust out an old typewriter that takes non-standard sized paper and ink-ribbons they don’t make anymore. It’s not writing unless you’re clacking away like the guy in the studio logo at the end of The A-Team. (The pipe, sideburns and roll-neck are optional.)
The grain of truth: Writers can be a superstitious lot who cling to the past. They can also be pretentious as hell. I’m not saying writers like Tom Wolfe and Danielle Steele, who use typewriters, and Neil Gaiman and Amy Tam, who write by hand, are in that category. But in the words of the latter, ‘Writing by hand helps me remain open to all those particular circumstances, all those little details that add up to the truth.’ Draw your own conclusions.
The reality: Even Jessica Fletcher upgraded from a typewriter to a computer during Murder, She Wrote, and Cabot Cove was hardly a forward-looking place. Computers are just easier to use and provide greater functionality for authors – you can’t run spellchecker on a typewriter, or Find and Replace, and how are you going to email it to your agent? Sure, there’s something romantic about typewriters, but it’s the story, not what you write it on, that’s important. EL James wrote Fifty Shades on a Blackberry, for crying out loud. Hmm. Maybe that’s not such a great example. But if you write hard copy, you’re setting yourself up for so many unnecessary difficulties. Like…
4. Writers keep losing their work. As seen in Wonder Boys, Misery, Love Actually, Little Women, DOA.
Oh no, the maid moved my paperweight/my agent crashed the car/that psycho woman has brought me a barbecue and a match, and now my novel has blown into the lake/blown into the river/burnt to a crisp! Why didn’t I make a copy? Oh woe is me.
The grain of truth: None. At least, not these days when we all have access to computers, scanners, photocopiers. Seriously, who does this?
The reality: Any writer with half an ounce of sense makes multiple copies of their work. It was 1922 when Ernest Hemingway lost a suitcase containing all his Juvenalia, and if people haven’t learned their lesson from that example, maybe they should rethink whether they have the brainpower for writing. Or walking. Or breathing. Jees.
5. Writers are rich and famous. As seen in Castle, Murder, She Wrote, Basic Instinct, Her Alibi, The Royal Tenenbaums, Californication, Romancing the Stone.
Want a quiet life of anonymity? Don’t become a writer. Once you hit the big time, you won’t be able to travel to the local shops without being recognised, mobbed by fans, and/or accosted by adoring members of the opposite sex, even if they’re not the kind of people who read your genre, or books in general, or in fact anything. But it has its up sides, what with all the groupies, Ferraris, gala events, society parties, award shows and second homes in the Hamptons. Oh, and it can even help you out of a sticky situation when your sister gets kidnapped in South America (looking at you, Jean Wilder).
The grain of truth: Stephen King gets his face about, and Terry Pratchett was hardly low-key in that hat. And James Patterson, the highest-paid author today, makes around £90 million a year, which buys shedloads of Ferraris, I imagine.
The reality: I have read dozens of books by Jeffery Deaver. Dozens by Simon Scarrow. Dozens by Douglas Reeman and his alter ego, Alexander Kent. But you could put those authors in a line-up and I wouldn’t be able to pick them out. And I’m actually into books. The reality is that unless you’re a TV personality in addition to being a writer, the only place you’ll get mobbed by adoring fans is a pre-arranged book signing. And the various estimates of average fiction author earnings are around $60,000/£45,000 a year, which, considering the top authors are pulling in tens of millions each year, means most authors don’t earn enough to buy a new sofa, let alone give up their day jobs and go to exotic locations to write their novels. On that note…
6. Writers go to exotic locations to write their novels. As seen in Misery, Secret Window, The Shining, Love Actually, The Jewel of the Nile.
Do you write at home? Do you have a desk? Well, you’re doing it wrong. Writers don’t write at home – they go off to some picturesque log cabin or abandoned hotel or expensive yacht and they write their novel in a burst of isolated activity. Because writing is an adventure, right? And it is always, always glamorous.
The grain of truth: Some writers probably do this. Libby Page quit her job and moved to Paris for six months to write her debut novel, The Lido. And some people convert their sheds into writing studios, which are kind of like cabins, though less likely to have their own jetty.
The reality: Writing is a hard, laborious, and often thankless job, but it is a job. Most full-time writers treat it as a job, working office hours in the home study. Those who aren’t yet able to give up the day job (see Point 5, above) have to squeeze it in wherever they can, JK Rowling famously working on Harry Potter in a cafe while her kids were at school. I mean, this post has been written over the space of a week on a Kindle, mostly late at night in bed after the kids have gone to sleep, but also in a doctor’s waiting room, in the bath, and on the toilet. It’s not glamorous, it just is. Next.
7. Writers write heavy-going purple prose. As seen in Wonder Boys, The Night Listener, Stranger Than Fiction, Atonement, Ruby Sparks, Finding Forrester.
(In James Earl Jones’s voice): Fiction writing is never light. Fiction writing is dark, heavy; painfully self-aware and profoundly intellectual. It is read in a deep, solemn tone in a room with too little lighting, a fitting backdrop to the seriousness of its subject and the gravitas of the author’s literary pretensions. It always tells, never shows, as it grapples with the tortured soul of the artist, delving into the inner reaches of man’s psyche until, without so much as a ‘how’s ya father’, it disappears up its own arse quicker than a Saturn V leaves the launch pad.
The grain of truth: Yeah. We’ve all read books written in an overly ponderous style that screams ‘I’m important!’ from the very first page. They tend to win awards, appear on Top 50 lists, and I normally only manage about 100 pages before throwing them into the corner because I’m sick of waiting for the story to start.
The reality: There are as many types of writers as there are colours on a sunny autumn afternoon in the country. Writing isn’t all about probing the nature of the human condition – it’s about whatever people like to write and what others like to read. My wife’s favourite books are about women who open cupcake shops or bed and breakfasts; I like books about giant space ships getting torn apart by hell-lances and null-field projectors (Jack Campbell, sir, I salute you). The movie writers might think that privileging literary over commercial fiction makes them look clever and sophisticated, but it actually makes their characters seem really pretentious and boring, whereas if they were science-fiction writers…
8. Writers straddle the line between genius and insanity. As seen in Stranger Than Fiction, Finding Forrester, The Shining, Secret Window, Wonder Boys.
If you want to be an amazing writer, you had better hope that you’re also amazingly crazy. Great works of literature are not written, they are forged in the fires of psychosis, substance abuse, mental illness and emotional breakdown. Strangers will think you a little bit odd, but the true believers will understand – you are at your most creative when your hold on reality is crumbling like a rather dry fruitcake.
The grain of truth: Some writers are nuttier than a nut in a nut roast, and their literary genius is inseparable from their insanity. Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and Philip K. Dick are names that spring to mind.
The reality: For every Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson, there’s a workaday wordsmith churning out reliable romantic action adventure thrillers. And your level of sanity has no bearing on the success or otherwise of your creative endeavours. You can be insanely good like John Steinbeck, without being actually insane – as far as I’m aware – or you can be insanely bad like Barbara Cartland while being…well, let’s just say the wrong side of normal, shall we? I mean, writing 723 novels is pretty darned special, but when you consider that’s one book a month, every month, for sixty freaking years, you have to wonder where that kind of drive comes from.
9. Writers don’t actually write. As seen in everything featuring a writer ever.
Damn, writing is an easy gig. You hang out with friends, police officers, celebrities, criminals; go to parties, award ceremonies, cruises, holidays; solve crimes, fall in love, reconnect with your kids, murder your family. You have so much free time, you don’t know what to do with it. In fact, the only time you ever sit down to write is when you’re just finishing something, or when you’re completely blocked and staring at a blank sheet of paper with a wistful expression on your face. You never actually have to write.
The grain of truth: None, unless you’re rich and successful enough to contract out your writing to ghost writers who do all the hard work for you. And if you suffer from writer’s block, get over it, there’s no such thing.
The reality: I wrote a post called Real writers write because, well, real writers write. If a movie is about a firefighter, I expect to see him fight a fire; if it’s about a serial killer, I expect to see him kill serially. Is it too much to ask to see a writer actually write? Now, I know what you’re going to say – in a visual medium it’d be boring seeing someone sitting at a desk writing for half an hour – but can they at least acknowledge that writing takes place? There’s never a ‘Hey, do you want to come for a drink?’/’No, I’m busy writing,’ or, ‘Haven’t seen you for a few days.’/’No, I’ve been chained to my desk trying to hammer out my Act Two climax.’ They could even do it in one of those turgid voiceovers: ‘I’d been writing for weeks, ten hours a day, and hadn’t seen a soul in all that time. I’d started to doubt my story, doubt myself. I wondered if I would ever finish, or if the novel would consume me.’ But no – writing is either a party or you’re blocked. That’s it.
10. Wannabe writers are just awful. As seen in Wonder Boys, Sideways, Sliding Doors, Henry Fool, Atonement, Becoming Jane, Ten Things I Hate About You, Family Guy.
I’m a writer, don’t you know, yes, a writer. Do you want to read my novel? Read my novel! Have you read my novel? What did you think? What did you think!? How about the new ending? Did you really read it? Why does nobody read my stuff? My work is genius. Genius! You just don’t understand it. The world isn’t ready to appreciate my greatness. God I’m terrible. I’m a complete loser; a fraud; nobody understands me. Get a job? No, you keep paying the bills, I’m far too special to get my hands dirty. I’m a writer, damn it, a writer! I’m as good as James Joyce if you’d only give me a chance. Oh why won’t you give me a chance? I’m a writer! Love me! Love me!
The grain of truth: Actually, this one’s pretty accurate.
The reality: Yep. We really are that awful.
* * *
So, what do you think? Are there any realistic writers in movies and TV shows?
All joking aside, I think Wonder Boys has a lot of good things to say and I can definitely see some of myself in the struggling protagonists of Sideways and Henry Fool (excepting the alcoholism and sexual deviance). I just hope I’m not too much like Brian Griffin.
See you in the comments. (Read me! Validate me! Tell me I matter!)
*And Lisey’s Story. And Secret Window, Secret Garden. And The Body. And The Breathing Method. And 1408. And The Road Virus Heads North. And Word Processor of the Gods. And Umney’s Last Case. Did I miss any? Probably.