Saturday, November 13, 2010

Writers In Real Life :: Cue the writing montage!

It sounds so easy.  Think up some characters, give them something to do and when they're done, write "The End" and then pack it up, send it off to the publishers and wait for your royalty cheque.  I think there's supposed to be a couple of bottles of scotch consumed in there somewhere, but really, hi diddly's Castle's life for me. 

If only it could be like that.

Writing is hard work.  It's a job.  And like any other job, there are moments when the clock ticks perceptibly slower and you take as many coffee breaks as you can manage without getting fired.  Only because you work for yourself, you'd have to let yourself go... and if you do, you end up playing video games in your pajamas.

That's when those two bottles of scotch I mentioned appear and then disappear, I think.

Let's blame Hollywood.  They're always a good go-to when blame must be levied.  There are simply too many TV shows and movies where - when it comes time to write a story - the actual writing is a montage of quick cuts of typing like the wind or otherwise looking like you've not a care in the world between the moment the paper is rolled under the platent and the moment you rip it out and throw it aside.  Too much Castle and Murder She Wrote, not enough... actually I can't think of any television shows that display writers as just trying to get through the day

Movies are a bit better, but there's still far too many uplifting tales about writers almost flippantly turning out reams of amazing stories with the flick of a pen and the stern but loving teacher spouting writer's aphorisms.  "Write what you know!"  they cry and off the students gallumphing go to become bestsellers.  There's too many Finding Forresters and not enough Wonder Boys where Grady Trip stumbles through the movie in a drugged stupor because he can't think of an ending.

These movies and television shows are written by writers... you'd think they'd know better. Face it, there's not nearly enough Misery in these stories.

Not that I'm advocating that we all get kidnapped by rabid fans, nor that we all become become dissolute wordsmiths, wandering drunkenly from our bottle of scotch to our typewriter.  Nor do I think that all television shows should join Stephen King's seemingly bottomless oeuvre of  "Writers have a hard enough lot that I can write endless reams of horror novels about it."  But I do wonder where this meme of writer-as-wealthy gad about comes from.

Maybe we should be blaming Fitzgerald and his lot instead.

Honestly, I like most of these movies and television shows that I'm griping about.  Castle is mental popcorn and a heckuva lot of fun to watch.  And while I'm sure that there are authors out there like Castle and the rest, I'm equally certain that they are few and very very far between.

The problem with those depictions of writers is that it makes me feel a little odd sometimes to be sitting in front of the keyboard when I should be out there "whooping it up" (as my grandmother would say).  But books are the damndest things.  In order for them to come into existence, some poor schmuck has to sit down and write them.

As Peter DeVries famously said, the worst part about being a writer is the paperwork.

Books don't happen accidentally, scribbled on napkins while being chauffeured from one posh shindig to the next.  At least not novels worth the reading.  Writing a novel-length story is an act of will.  It takes an almost fanatical devotion to the language and the ability to ignore distractions like video games, the internet, books you'd rather be reading, other things you'd rather be writing, and also the aforementioned scotch.

So... in a sort anti-NaNoWriMo pep talk I say this: If you want a life of swanky parties and adulation from the masses, become a musician or an actor.  Good luck to you.  Break a leg and all that.   (Or you can do what I do and maintain friendships with actors and musicians so you'll get invited to their parties... but I digress.)

Writing is about telling your friends and family to leave you alone for extended periods so you can swill coffee and put words on a page.  On the bright side, rarely does it require you to hire a band or a DJ or a caterer and the cleanup usually amounts to washing a few coffee cups.

In this time of writers making YouTube videos and keeping blogs and Facebook pages and whatnot, it's amazing that anyone doesn't know this already, but writing is a job. You have to show up every day and sit down and write actual words on an actual page.

Either it's your profession (and you treat it that way) or it's not and never will be.

This, I think is the great value of NaNoWriMo for the working novelist and the publishing industry in general. Hundreds of thousands of people are learning each and every November that novels don't occur randomly in nature.  It's not a swirl of cocktail parties and gala openings, it's a lonely, difficult slog through the dictionary in hopes that you'll reach the other end and look back to see a coherent story behind you.  And looking back at what you've accomplished makes the effort worth the journey.

So this is my NaNoWriMo pep talk for the publishing industry and all the naysayers out there among the professional novelists. I think that this event which celebrates the act of writing also serves the purpose of reinvigorating in the minds of all the people who participate, an appreciation for the novel as an art form.  Especially those who drop out halfway through.

So take heart professionals and amateurs alike.  Monday marks the halfway point.  And when the novel is done - or at least the first draft - that is when you get to party.  Don't forget to put out a bucket of pens and those all-important cocktail napkins in case inspiration should strike your guests.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).