Writers in Movies and TV Shows

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.

Advertisements

That Day short story

This 3000-word story about how secrets and tragedy can combine to tear families apart was an experiment to see if I could handle an emotionally complex plot in the short story form. Rather than simply focusing on a single event from one point of view, I wanted to explore the long term effects of something over time. I think it’s fairly successful, though various attempts to get it published were unsuccessful. Let me know what you think in the comments.

That Day by Gillan Drew

Like a wound that needed protecting they had covered it up, hidden it, and let it fester. Over the years it had become infected, started to smell, but still they refused to acknowledge it. It had eventually scabbed over – itchy and sensitive to the touch, but bearable. Just so long as nobody mentioned it.

It was Ben that decided to rip it open once and for all.

They sat around the table, John, his father, to the left, Mary, his mother, to the right, and Ben, the son, at the head. A fourth chair stood empty across from him. The windows in his father’s kitchen were tall, a pale autumn sky doing nothing to counter the dimness of the room.

To an outsider, it would have been surprising to see them there, ready to discuss what had happened that day. But Ben had given them little choice.

‘I really don’t think this is necessary,’ said his mother.

‘Nor me,’ his father echoed. ‘So much time.’

‘Water under the bridge,’ said his mother. Her hair was immaculate, the years buried beneath foundation and blusher.

‘It’s necessary and it’s not forgotten,’ said Ben. He placed his hands flat on the table to show he meant business.

‘I never said it was forgotten,’ said his father, shifting in his chair. His nose was red, his cheeks a rat-run of broken purple capillaries. ‘But why dig it up now? It’s all in the past.’

‘That’s the problem,’ said Ben. ‘It was never in the past. We never talked about it, like it never happened.’

‘We didn’t need to talk about it,’ said his mother.

‘Oh yes we did,’ said Ben. ‘This is long overdue, and neither of you are leaving until we get this thing out in the open. No matter how much it might hurt.’

‘Are you sure this is really necessary?’ asked his mother again. But she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to avoid it any longer.

*          *          *          *          *

So nice. So nice to just sit and relax for a change. To close her eyes and feel the sun roaming over her skin like a lover, touching, savouring, loving. The gentle caress of the breeze, the sighing waves that lapped at the shore. Even the raucous cries of the seagulls couldn’t take this moment from her, the lapse into pure, sensual relaxation.

Too soon it would be over. Too soon, she would have to return to the world she had created – husband, kids, noise and stress. Put some more sun cream on, don’t get sand in the sandwiches, where are the spades, how many times have I told you, come on, stop bickering. But here, now, this was her time. What she wouldn’t give to leave it all behind, to live for herself and no one else.

She pushed thoughts of others away, sank deeper into that comfort and embraced it with all her soul.

She didn’t notice the screams at first. They didn’t pierce the barrier she had erected to block out the noises of the beach. She only gradually became aware of them, only gradually realised that she had heard them all along and filtered them out. Only now did she notice that it sounded like Ben, amidst a multitude of shouts, cries, splashing.

It took several moments for the idea to form that she really ought to sit up and see what the matter was. It took several more for the idea to resolve into an intention, and another few to finally summon the gumption to lift her head.

A bustle of people, craning to catch a glimpse. A lifeguard in the shallows. And –

Bolting upright, Mary watched the man dragging the boy from the water. Time seemed to stand still, her heart stopping in her chest – David, eyes closed, body limp; the lifeguard, the sun glistening off the droplets on his skin; Ben close behind them, his face contorted and barely recognisable.

The next few minutes were a blur, a whirlwind of images, sounds. The lifeguard pounding on little David’s chest, Ben screaming as he clutched at her, burying his face into her shoulder, the expressions on the faces of the crowd who watched the pantomime unfold. Even at the time she knew that for them, it would be a story, an anecdote; for her, it was brutal reality.

And the last vignette, John, his face white, bloodless, his eyes so dark and raw. Spittle on his lip, his mouth twisted unnaturally to the side. The words that echoed down to her over all those years: ‘You were supposed to be watching them!’

*          *          *          *          *

‘There was nothing I could have done,’ said Ben’s mother, and stared across at her ex-husband. ‘Even if I had seen what was going on, I couldn’t have stopped it. I couldn’t have made it out there in time.’

‘Nobody blamed you, Mary, least of all me,’ said his father, though his refusal to meet her eyes gave the truth to his lie.

Sniffing loudly, his mother raised a tissue to dab at her eye. The mascara was untainted, the makeup smooth and unruffled. ‘There was nothing I could have done,’ she repeated and looked imploringly at Ben. ‘What else do you want to hear?’

‘I’d really like to know why you left,’ he replied.

‘Oh Ben,’ she said, and shook her head to straighten her hair. ‘Marriages end, you know that.’

He leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on the table. ‘I came home from school and you were gone, without a word to explain it.’

‘I lost my son,’ she said stiffly. ‘I had my reasons for leaving and I won’t have you judging me.’

Searching her eyes for any sign of affection, any hint of love, Ben could find none. ‘I’m not judging you,’ he said. ‘I just want to know why.’

‘You should ask your father,’ said his mother, casting her eyes at the ruddy-faced old man across from her.

‘Don’t bring me into this,’ he grunted. ‘It was as much a mystery to me.’

‘As if you’re blameless,’ she snapped. ‘Still the same, trying to pass responsibility for what happened that day.’

‘I wasn’t even there,’ he said.

‘We were all there,’ said Ben and his father turned his eyes on him.

*          *          *          *          *

‘I don’t care, I told her that if they’re going to offer us that little then they’ll have to go back to their RCC because we’ll be renegotiating our contract.’

‘Was that a seagull?’ asked the voice, tinny over the phone’s speaker.

‘Yep,’ said John, watching the bird hopping across the sand. ‘I’m currently standing on a beach and topping up my tan.’

‘You on holiday?’

‘Uh-huh, with the missus and the boys.’

‘Then why the hell are you answering your phone?’

John laughed. ‘Couldn’t leave you all on your lonesome now, could I?’

‘I know where I’d rather be,’ said the voice.

Whereas John didn’t. He’d always wanted a wife and kids, to give them the life his own father had failed to provide. It was as if he could erase his own crappy childhood if he made theirs the best a child ever had. Which, of course, entailed long hours of work and only the briefest glimpses of his boys. But that was acceptable – no child of his would wear hand-me-downs.

In truth, he preferred it this way. Deep down, he didn’t feel he was cut out for this fatherhood thing. He’d seen first-hand what bad parenting could do, and he was reluctant to get too close, in case of what might happen. Mary could take care of it.

And he liked his job. It fulfilled him, more than the love of his wife and the smiles of his sons. Anyone could breed – it took a special kind of person to provide for his family. That was the role he had created for himself, and the role he thrived in.

He was caught off-guard by the sight of the ambulance pulling onto the sand, blue lights flashing. It was so incongruous in a place surrounded by children eating ice-creams and teenagers throwing Frisbees.

‘You still there, John?’ asked the voice, but he wasn’t listening. He was staring towards the shore, to where the crowd gathered at the edge of the water. Staring down. He’d seen a drowning before, the way that people converged on the scene like mourners at a graveside – he’d been one of them, aching to get a morbid glimpse of the body.

Scanning the beach, he picked out the windbreak he’d put up, the towels and bags, but couldn’t see his family.

‘John?’

He had the self-possession to say, ‘I’ll call you back,’ before he slipped the phone into his pocket and ran towards the sea.

*          *          *          *          *

‘I wasn’t even there,’ said his father, his fingers drumming on the table top.

‘And that’s the point,’ said his mother. ‘You were never there.’

‘I was trying to keep a roof over your heads, that’s what I was trying to do. Can’t you understand that?’

‘You should have been in the water with them, playing with them, like fathers do.’

‘You were supposed to be watching them,’ said his father, rising from his chair.

‘Oh that’s rich.’

‘I want you out of my house.’

‘Dad,’ Ben cautioned, his hand in the air between them. He noticed his father’s fists trembling at his sides, his rheumy eyes searching the sideboards for a bottle. ‘Come on.’

‘I’m not having this, you two picking me apart.’ He looked at his son. ‘That’s what you want, isn’t it? Someone to blame?’

‘No,’ said Ben. ‘No blame. Just –’ He took a deep breath, puffed out his chest. ‘You were my hero. Before. And then – what happened to you, dad? Why did it all go so wrong?’

‘Hero?’ said his father, lowering himself back into his chair and stroking his arms. ‘I was never a hero. And who are you to talk of heroes?’

*          *          *          *          *

They were getting further out, out of their depth. Ben liked it. It made him feel brave and naughty at the same time, his toes floating free of the sand as the waves lifted him up in the water. David splashed alongside him, eager to stay with his older brother, and still they went further. Ben was the stronger swimmer and taller, a thought that never occurred to his ten-year-old self, but fifteen years later, he watched the scene in his memory and screamed at him to turn back.

There was no other word to describe the day than glorious. As the years unfolded, Ben had been back there a million times in his mind, but he didn’t think he was embellishing. The sun sparkled on the sea like a scattering of diamonds, and the water, such a rich blue, stretched out before them to meet the cloudless sky. The only sounds were laughter, shouts of exhilaration. It was, he thought later, the last moment of innocence before the fall.

‘We’re too far out,’ said David as he treaded water, his blonde hair matted to his scalp. ‘We should go back.’

‘Chicken,’ said Ben, rolling onto his back and staring up at the sun. He loved his brother, wanted to share this with him, this feeling of daring the world to come and take them on. Together, they could do anything.

He lifted his head, saw David was struggling but keeping up with him as he gently kicked his legs, heading for the horizon. He was so proud of his little brother. What a team. It was glorious.

‘I’m going back,’ David spluttered. ‘We’re too far out.’

‘No, don’t,’ said Ben. ‘Don’t be a spoilsport.’

‘We’re too deep –’

‘Chicken,’ said Ben, puckering his lips and making farmyard noises. ‘Bock, bock, bock.’

‘Don’t.’

‘You’re such a little chicken.’

‘I’m getting out,’ said David.

‘Wait, don’t get out,’ said Ben. ‘I didn’t mean –’

‘No, you’ve ruined it now,’ David snapped.

The words cut into Ben because he knew they were true. He’d gone too far, as usual, ruined the fun, had turned something beautiful into something ugly. Remorse swamped him. If only he could get things back the way they were.

He grabbed his brother’s arm, was about to apologise, was about to make things right – that’s how he rationalised it in hindsight – but David screamed at him to get off, and swinging his arm he struck Ben across the nose with the back of his wrist.

Anger, white hot, at himself, at his brother, at the fact the perfect day had been tarnished, flashed like lightning through his brain – he pushed his brother’s head under the water. Just to scare him, to keep him out deep, to keep him with him. Only until David calmed down, only until Ben could make it right. Only that long.

The first thought when David stopped struggling was to hold him under another five seconds, just to show him he could. It had only been thirty seconds, all in – he’d only wanted to calm him down. So he let David back up to the surface, ready to make up, ready for the two of them to swim back to the shallows in laughter, throw the ball to one another and make the most of the rest of the day.

Seeing David’s face – blue, blank, empty – Ben froze. Stared. Shook his brother. Cried out to him. Tried to wake him. His body limp, a dead weight.

That was when Ben started screaming. And he never stopped.

*          *          *          *          *

‘I told you. I told you both. I told you what I did. You didn’t want to talk about it.’

‘What was there to say?’ asked his mother. ‘It happened. We couldn’t change that by talking.’

‘I thought I was evil. My whole life I thought I was evil. I thought I was possessed and we never talked about it.’

‘Look –’ his father started, but Ben interrupted.

‘It’s okay, dad, I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just talking. I’m just saying how I felt.’ He looked from one to the other. ‘I felt like you both hated me. Mum, you didn’t even look at me after that. You didn’t hug me and tell me it was all going to be okay. You just walked out. And dad, you went off to work every day and you left me alone in that big empty house. I was ten.’

‘I was keeping a roof over your head.’

‘Of course,’ said Ben. ‘I’m not disputing that. But –’ He hung his head, staring at the table top. He had no idea what else to say. All these years wanting to talk about it, there was nothing to say.

‘What did you want us to do?’ asked his mother.

‘Punish me!’ Ben cried, lifting his head. ‘Hit me, scream at me, tell me I was a bad boy. Act like I actually did something. That it mattered. And let me tell you how sorry I am. I killed David. I ruined everything and I’m so, so sorry.’

‘Did you do it on purpose?’

He looked at his father. ‘That’s not the point, dad, that’s not what I’m saying. You’re not –’

‘If you didn’t do it on purpose, then what would have been the use of punishing you?’ asked his mother.

‘It would’ve – we would’ve – we would’ve acknowledged it, that it actually happened and – that I – do you get what I’m saying?’

But they didn’t. And in fact, nor did Ben. All the years, stretching behind him to that day, he didn’t know how to articulate all he thought and all he felt. So they sat in silence.

If David had been there, he would have told them that they were all to blame, and none of them were. These things happened. It was nobody’s fault. He bore them no ill will at all. He loved them and forgave them.

He would have told Ben that the pain of losing her boy had hurt Mary so much that she had steeled herself never again to love anything she could lose, even her firstborn, and that she pampered and pleasured herself on the outside to cover the emptiness within. He would have told him that losing David had broken John’s faith in himself, in his role as mentor and father, and so he ran from all responsibility and smothered his sorrows with alcohol. He would have told Ben that people so wrapped up in their own grief could never provide the solace he sought, that he had to be able to forgive himself and be accountable to himself and no one else.

But David wasn’t there. And all of this was left unsaid.

‘I wish I could go back to that day, change things. Everything, our whole lives, you two, me, it all comes down to that day, those stupid, reckless thirty seconds.’ He looked down at his hands. ‘Can’t we – can’t we somehow, in some way, get back any of what we lost? Even if it’s just pretence, can’t we pretend, just today, that we’re a family?’

His parents said nothing. After a few minutes his mother slowly rose from her seat and slipped out of the room, her perfume lingering a moment before it too dissipated into the ether as though it had never been there. And then his father, not sure of the right thing to say, said nothing and left.

Three years later, Ben died. Yet his dying had begun that day at the seaside, just as surely as it had been finalised by another day in November, around a table with his parents. He was killed by the silence as much as by the train he jumped in front of.

THE END

Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2016

That Day

Literary vs. Commercial Fiction

‘An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmaster of ever afterwards.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The distinction between high-brow and low-brow – between obscure and popular, or unprofitable and lucrative – is a source of tension and insecurity in all fields of the arts. Among writers, however – people who tend to be sensitive and pretentious at the best of times – thinking too much about this distinction can cripple your creative output and tie your mind in knots. The impact it’s had on my writing career has been profound.

When I was eighteen, I proclaimed to all and sundry that I would not be going to university, as expected, and instead would become a writer.

‘You won’t be able to support yourself,’ snapped my A-level English Literature teacher in front of the whole class. ‘I know many writers – they all have other jobs. The only way to make money is to write pulp.

She practically spat the last word, the implication being that dusty high-brow literature is somehow more worthy and honourable than low-brow, yet popular, commercial fiction. It is better to be Marcel Proust, writing a ginormous book that next to no one has ever read, than churn out formulaic hit after formulaic hit like Clive Cussler.

‘Well I’m going to write quality fiction,’ I replied, in my arrogance believing myself to be the next Ian McEwan or Sebastian Faulks. To my teenage self, that was the compromise, the dividing line, between my literary pretensions and my pecuniary ambitions – something that would keep my English teacher happy but would be successful enough to buy me a little apartment in Richmond.

And so I spent years trying to write ‘quality’ fiction. I fell in love with the idea of the sophisticated literary intellectual, and started wearing trendy scarves and sewing elbow patches onto my suit jackets. I was adamant that writing was an art form, an expression of the intangible essence of the heart. And that was why everything I wrote was plotless, navel-gazing, self-indulgent pap that was so boring, even I didn’t want to read it.

When people suggested that I study the craft of writing, I scoffed – art can’t be taught, I said. I saw the distinction between literary and commercial fiction the way a sculptor sees that between a statue and a chair. One is created by an act of will, the artist wrestling an image from out the marble as he pours himself into a work that will stand before others as a testament to the divine in man; the other is created by a craftsman in a workshop for people to sit on. And fart on. And use for firewood if he gets cold.

In truth, I wanted to be special. Our society has elevated the artist to the position of mythical genius, and denigrated the craftsman to a manual labourer. Learning the craft of writing seemed to imply that anyone could do it, and if that was the case, there was nothing special about me at all.

I gradually came to realise that such a view of writing – dividing fiction between literary and commercial, worthy and worthless – between art and craft – is not only the result of ego and insecurity, it’s also utterly wrong.

Writing is both an art and a craft. In the same way that painters, no matter how ‘artistic’, have to learn the basic techniques of holding a brush, applying paint with different strokes, understanding perspective and creating balance, so writers have to learn the fundamentals of the craft. Character, setting, structure, pace – inciting incidents, pinch points, climaxes – these are not things that block our intuitive connection with the Muse, they are the fundamental building blocks of writing. And how you use these tools is down to you as an individual.

I also realised that the literary/commercial distinction is pretty arbitrary anyway. Whenever I go into a bookshop that has a literature section separate from the general fiction section, I’m always amazed by the titles the staff have deemed to be ‘literature’. And who is to say that literature has the monopoly on big ideas? I’ve found profound, life-changing notions in books of all genres, from horror and science-fiction to fantasy and crime. It doesn’t matter what you write, so long as you write it well.

My advice to all aspiring writers out there is to forget about whether you’re writing literary fiction or commercial fiction and just write what feels right for you. I spent far too long writing as somebody else instead of writing as me. I like writing stories with a high body count, lots of explosions, and enough guns to start World War Three. It took me forever to realise that there’s nothing wrong with that.

A Moment of History short story

I wrote this 1500-word piece in a single sitting for a sci-fi short story competition. While this was unplaced, one of the other stories I entered, Out of Time, won. I much prefer this story, with its military-SF setting and desperate, apocalyptic theme. Let me know what you think in the comments.

A Moment of History by Gillan Drew

He stared out the window at the grey sky, urging the clouds to coalesce into rain. The vapid high-altitude mist mocked those in the city below, teasing them with the promise of a salvation that never came.

‘Come in,’ he said in response to a knock at the door and his Executive Officer walked into the room, saluting as she stood to attention. ‘At ease, XO. Take a seat.’

‘Sir,’ she replied as Commander Collard lowered himself into his chair, trying to hide his weakness. Her uniform was crisp and neatly pressed, as usual. He wondered how she managed to get it laundered given their problems. In fact, he didn’t want to know.

‘Have my latest orders been broadcast?’ he asked.

‘That’s what I wanted to see you about,’ she said, her face betraying nothing.

Sighing, Collard rubbed his forehead and leaned back. He knew he wasn’t going to like this one bit.

‘What’s on your mind, Pullin?’

She hesitated just a second before she said the single word he knew had to come sooner or later. ‘Mutiny.’

‘The outlying forces?’ he asked, and fixed her with a pointed stare. ‘Or everyone?’

Pullin let the words hang in the air a few moments before replying. ‘You can’t decrease the ration any further, sir.’

‘Can’t?’ said Collard, trying to project anger through his weariness. ‘The last time I checked, Commander Collard gave the orders, Lieutenant-Commander.’

‘We’re dying of thirst, sir. I can barely see straight as it is. You can’t reduce the ration any further. We’re at the limit of what the human body can handle.’

‘Do you think I don’t know that?’ Collard cried.

His executive officer leaned forward almost conspiratorially. ‘If you give the order, sir, I don’t believe it will be followed. And I think it would place you in danger.’

‘Bring them on,’ Collard snapped. Standing in annoyance, he turned to stare out over the city. ‘I’d rather have an enemy to face, a thousand enemies, than this. I wasn’t prepared for this.’

‘Nobody was,’ said Pullin.

The settlement was on a small moon in the Plantari System, a two year transit from the nearest inhabited world. The topography was principally a rocky, dry tundra, suitable for mining operations and agricultural transformation, for those prepared to work hard at it. And plenty had – there were more than a million people in the city and the satellite towns, and all were looking to him for leadership now.

The problem had been caused by the civil administration. They had been warned, after excessive irrigation work, that they were draining the aquifer faster than it could be refilled. But it was an election year, and votes were more important than introducing unpopular measures that might have averted the drought. So they made speeches and downplayed the problems and banked on rain refilling the wells before disaster. Nature wasn’t obliging.

When the scale of the problem leaked out, the council folded and Collard’s small military force imposed martial law. A million people planetside and help two years distant. Collard had dragged them on for several months by halting mining, reducing farming to subsistence levels and rationing drinking water, but the figures were inescapable – there was only enough water for a fifth of the population. The rest would die.

‘Sir?’ said Pullin, recalling him to the present.

‘Mutiny,’ said Collard. ‘It’s an ugly word.’

‘It’s an ugly situation. We’ve already had a number of incidents.’

‘I’m well aware of the incidents,’ said Collard. There were reports that troops had been stealing water rations, but all attempts to get to the bottom of them had failed – his soldiers had closed ranks, a clear sign that their sense of duty was failing. And the reports had been coming in for weeks.

He looked at the Lieutenant-Commander. ‘What would you advise I do?’

She shifted in her chair. ‘We’re the only ones with weapons,’ she said. ‘And we control the rations, sir. If we took enough water for ourselves, we could try and suppress the worst of the disorder until rescue came.’

‘You mean we should look after ourselves and watch as the rest of them fight it out.’

‘The strong would survive. And nobody could blame us. There are just too many of them.’

Collard shook his head. ‘And how would history judge us?’

‘The people who’ll read that history aren’t here dying, sir. We all respect what you’ve tried to do, but you’ve taken it as far as it can go. You can’t save them all.’ She cleared her throat. ‘What are your orders, sir?’

She put special emphasis on the final word. It was his decision and his alone.

He knew she was right. If he kept going as he was, if his troops stopped following orders, then the planet would tear itself apart. Even if his troops didn’t mutiny, none of them could survive on so low a ration. There were too many people, too few resources – whatever decision he made, hundreds of thousands would die.

‘Okay,’ said Collard. He spoke slowly, trying his best to avoid the horrible conclusion he’d come to – once he’d said it, there would be no turning back. ‘The best prediction is that we can only save two-hundred thousand. If we allow the planet to fall into anarchy, a lot fewer than two-hundred thousand will be here when the rescue ships arrive.’

‘So what are you proposing?’ his executive officer pressed.

Gazing out over the city again under the tantalising grey clouds, Collard prayed for more time, a distraction, something – but nothing came. ‘We pick a section of the city. Two-hundred thousand people. We barricade it, we reinforce it, and we save it. The rest won’t last more than a few weeks. We save the maximum number of people possible.’

Pullin thought on it a moment before she nodded. ‘It’s the right decision.’

‘Don’t patronise me,’ Collard snapped. ‘I’m condemning eight-hundred thousand people to a horrible death. Do you have any idea what they’ll do to each other before the end?’

The officer swallowed and looked away. ‘Which section of the city?’ she asked.

Shaking his head, Collard pressed a button on his desk and a holographic representation of the city was projected into the air between them. ‘Here,’ he said, indicating where the city tapered along a ridge, creating a natural bottleneck at either end. ‘We’re outnumbered but we can hold this position. Barricades across these roads here, here and here, a company of men on each. Make sure there are two-hundred thousand inside. No more, no less. And nobody through until it’s over.’

Now the decision was made, it seemed so much easier giving orders. Collard hated himself for that.

‘I don’t want any of the politicians who got us into this mess inside the safe zone,’ he added. ‘If they’re in there, relocate them.’

‘What about their families?’ Pullin asked. ‘Shall we relocate them too?’

Relocate – as good a euphemism as any for condemning them to die. Collard closed his eyes. ‘Forget that last order. Someone has to be held accountable. Not just us.’

‘We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances, sir.’

‘I’m not sure everyone will see it that way,’ Collard replied. He turned away, not wanting to look at her. ‘Get it done, XO.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Pullin replied.

He heard her chair scrape across the floor as she stood, saluted and made to leave. But she stopped before the door.

‘Something I’ve missed?’ he asked, with equal dread and hope.

‘The troops on the barricades, sir,’ Pullin replied. ‘Once the population figures out what we’re doing, it’ll erupt. If warning shots don’t keep them back…’

She trailed off as she didn’t need to complete the sentence.

‘They are authorised to open fire on unarmed civilians, should the need arise,’ said Collard.

‘And we’ll have that order in writing?’ Pullin asked.

Collard’s stomach knotted. ‘You’ll have the order within the hour,’ he replied. An order that would remain in the records till the end of human civilisation. An order with his name on it authorising a breach of every rule and regulation he believed in. How would future historians regard it? A crime against humanity? Or a necessary expedient?

But as Pullin had said, they weren’t here.

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said and left.

Collard turned to look out over the city again, his legs weak. The sky continued to taunt him with its unfulfilled promise of rain. And down below, the people had no idea of the storm he was about to unleash upon them.

Sinking into his chair, he put his head in his hands. He hoped that future generations would take what happened here in Plantari as a lesson: too many people, too few resources. But there was little hope of that. It was the reason humanity had taken to the stars in the first place. It was a shame they hadn’t learned from their history.

The End

Copyright, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew, 2015

A Moment of History

Real writers write

I am a writer. If you’ve seen Wonder Boys, you might groan in response to such a statement, filled as it is with a mixture of pretension and self-aggrandizement, but it is undoubtedly and unashamedly true. I am a writer.

Granted, I’m not a particularly successful one, but I write, and therefore, I’m a writer. In my life I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds, of wannabe writers, and I’m often asked how to become a writer, as though there is some secret formula to making all your dreams come true. There isn’t. It’s startlingly easy to be a writer.

The only thing that separates a wannabe writer from a real writer is that real writers write.

So many times I’ve seen people in cafes with their laptops on the table in front of them, chatting away as the cursor flashes unnoticed on the screen; so many times I’ve been drawn into conversations about three-act structure and character arcs and pivot points and the hero’s journey; so many times I’ve heard people introduce themselves as writers, as though they’re James Joyce or Graham Greene; and so rarely have I ever met anybody who actually writes.

It seems so simple to me. From the age of four, when my favourite programme was The Littlest Hobo, I started telling people that when I was older, I was going to write books. Then, when I was eight, I started typing out stories on my mother’s old typewriter, telling people that when I was older, I was going to write books. And then when I was twelve, I had an epiphany – I was already older, so what was I waiting for?

The Case of the Samurai Kidnapper was the first ‘book’ I wrote, a 32-page abomination about a ninja assassin and the husband-and-wife FBI agents hunting him down. I followed this with a novella about a platoon commander in the Union Army during Sherman’s march through Dixieland, and then an adventure story about an archaeologist discovering an ancient conspiracy to hide advanced technology from the world at large. It didn’t matter that they were awful – they were the first tentative steps towards my goal and they taught me a truth that has served me well all my life:

Wannabe writers talk about writing; real writers write.

The fact is, it’s easy to talk about writing. It’s easy to sit around and think about writing, to work out the details of character and plot, research your setting, establish your theme. What’s really difficult, and what so few wannabe writers actually do, is sit down and write.

Because writing is hard. It takes discipline and commitment. It’s thankless and it’s lonely. You get stuck inside your head and the white screen mocks you. Everyone else is heading out to parties or lying asleep in bed while you’re sitting at your desk hammering out the finer points of something nobody might ever read. You take jobs that aren’t too taxing so you can write in your spare time. You put the kids to bed then write into the wee small hours, knowing each moment of lost sleep will make tomorrow that much harder. But you do it anyway, because you are a writer, and that’s what it takes.

I worked out a few years ago that in the fifteen years since leaving school I’d written over two-million words of creative writing. I’ve written eight full-length novels and half-written countless others, completed two non-fiction books, hundreds of short stories and several screenplays. This amounts to tens of thousands of hours of effort and sacrifice, practice and false starts, improvement and editing, success and failure.

If you want to be a writer, the only thing you have to do is write.

A lot of wannabe writers make excuses about their lack of output. Everyone knows someone who says they’re going to write a book some day – well why not today? Many people claim they lose interest and can’t finish anything they start – well if you want to be a writer, you have to keep working on it. And the worst thing of all, so many people say they don’t have the time to write – but there is always time to write, if you truly want to.

I read a great line somewhere that I think is very true, something like: ‘If you don’t write when you don’t have the time, you won’t write when you do.’ Who cares if there are dishes in the sink? Go and write. Who cares if the lawn needs mowing? Go and write. You need to motivate yourself to write whenever and wherever you can squeeze it in, or else you never will.

You have to be committed, disciplined, obsessive, sometimes selfish and maybe even a little mad to be a writer, but that’s the lesson for all wannabe writers out there: how do you stop wishing and turn your dreams of being a writer into reality? In one easy step.

Real writers write.

The Passive Protagonist

A few years ago I wrote a novel about the Nazis, told from the German perspective. The main character was a Gestapo bureaucrat intimately involved with the administration of the Holocaust. Instead of countering or resisting the horrors unfolding around him, he acquiesced, following his orders and dutifully going about his work, even as he struggled to justify it. I depicted his increasing brutalization, his attempts to remain human as those around him turned into monsters, and his devastation at ultimately confronting the results of his involvement with the regime.

The novel was meant as an exploration of the ordinary Germans who found themselves caught up in an ideological war that set patriotism and duty at direct odds with morality. It was about the propensity of individuals to absolve themselves of responsibility by claiming to be a small cog in a big machine, culminating in the realisation that it is only by the work of the small cogs that the big machine can operate. All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing, and all that. Heavy stuff indeed.

I researched it to within an inch of its life, polished it to a sheen, and when I sent it out into the world, I had the best response I’ve had for one of my novels. The consensus, however, was that while it was well-written, challenging and thought-provoking, I had fallen into the trap of many would-be novelists: I had written a passive protagonist, and as a result, despite many interesting scenes, the novel didn’t work as a whole.

My question, then, for all the readers and writers out there is this: Can a passive protagonist ever work? And can you think of any famous examples?

In its simplest, general sense, a protagonist is the work’s main character – the person we follow because it is their story. Elizabeth Bennet, Horatio Hornblower and Kurt Wallander are obvious and indisputable examples. But in the more specific, literary sense of the term, the protagonist is the character that drives the action by making choices. Their estate might be entailed away; they might sight overwhelming numbers of French warships sailing over the horizon or discover a prominent Swedish politician has been scalped; but how they choose to respond to these situations is what makes the story. They have goals and they work towards achieving them, and the protagonist is therefore always active. They don’t simply allow things to happen to them: they make things happen and shape how they happen.

Imagine if the main character of Pride and Prejudice was a cook who simply watched what unfolded without having any power to influence events. If she was simply an observer instead of a participant, and if removed would not affect the outcome of the story, it would be legitimate to ask why we are following the cook when the novel is about the growing love between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. But what if the novel wasn’t about the love affair between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the impact of that love affair upon the cook? Would a passive protagonist, in that context, be okay?

I can think of several instances of passive protagonists in works of fiction. The unnamed narrator in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, seems entirely reactive, simply running from the alien threat until eventually (SPOILER ALERT) the aliens die anticlimactically from earthbound pathogens. While I don’t find the ending at all satisfying as a reader, the passive protagonist fulfils his purpose since he exists merely as the means for the author to suggest a scientifically-realistic outcome to an alien invasion. The human aspect of the story, and characterisation, is incidental and unimportant.

In the opposite way, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast effectively utilises a passive protagonist in the form of the book’s narrator, Charlie Fox, who is swept along through events that he cannot control or influence by his father Allie. It is clearly Allie Fox’s story since he drives the plot, but what is key is that the novel is not so much about his increasing madness but the effect of that madness on his family and in particular his son’s opinion of him.* Indeed, telling a story with a passive protagonist is an effective means of conveying the emotional and psychological impact of adult behaviour upon children.

This is especially evident in LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, in which the story of an illicit love affair is told from the viewpoint of Leo, the boy who delivers their love notes. As an innocent, naive and easily-influenced child, he is in no way in charge of events, and the novel is as much about the destructive effect of Ted and Marian’s manipulation on his development as it is their secret romps. Passive protagonists can therefore tell the engaging stories of the people around them as well as explore the wider ramifications of those stories.

What is important to stress, however, is that neither Leo nor Charlie Fox (nor my Gestapo bureaucrat, for that matter) remain passive throughout. While they are caught up in events beyond their control for most of their respective novels, the decisions they finally make bring about the climaxes of their plots. Is it fair, then, to call them passive protagonists, even if they spend 90% of the time simply reacting in the stories of other people?

Here’s what I think overall. Passive protagonists might be a big no-no when writing straightforward, plot-driven narratives, but when exploring ideas and delving deeply into the emotions of situations, they can provide context, texture, interest and insight. I remember loving Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but afterwards struggling to understand why it was Richard’s story when all the main events of the plot would have happened anyway, irrespective of whether he was there or not. I reasoned that he was there because it wasn’t about the events of the story – it was about the perspective on those events that he provided – and his lack of influence on the narrative as a whole did not bother me.

So, what do you think? Depending on the story you want to tell, do passive protagonists have a place in fiction? Let me know in the comments below.

* As a side note, in the book of The Mosquito Coast, Allie Fox is quite clearly mad; in the movie, he is a genius with a thoroughly unsupportive family!