Friday, 27 September 2013

Writers vs. Writers Who Write

I've often wondered if there was a certain, defining 'thing' that separates the wannabe writers from the real writers.

In this modern era of self-publishing, e-publishing and reality TV shows making 'stars' of the kind of people you wouldn't normally even want to sit next to on the bus (who then go on to 'write' their autobiographies) it seems like just about everybody in the world these days has 'a book in them,' just screaming to get out in all its chest-bursting-Alien-esque glory.

And the e-publishing revolution that's kicking off now potentially brings that birthing process even closer to reality; all those people who can't get past or don't want to deal with 'The Gatekeepers' (otherwise known as publishers and agents) have another way to crash the party. In some ways this is a good thing; they might turn out to be the greatest party animal ever, the one who should've been invited all along. Or they might just be the one who cries for no reason and throws up everywhere before passing out in the flower bed. Either way, the point is that when it comes to getting your work published, it no longer matters if your name's not down - you can still come in.

So now your nan could publish a book if she wanted to - along with your next-door neighbour, your boss or even that weird kid you knew in school who pulled the legs off spiders and ate them. On the whole though, most of them don't. Even if they talk the talk, the majority of them will not walk the walk - or, if they start to, they end up doing the literary equivalent of giving up about halfway through, nipping into the shop for a Mars bar and calling for a taxi to take them back home.

But what is the difference between the people that are really, truly writers at heart - and the ones who just like the idea of being a writer every now and then, when the mood feels right? Is there a difference - I mean, a real difference, like a variation at DNA-level or something? Until some scientist somewhere actually finds it, there's no way of knowing for sure. But I think this article on the i09 site shines a little light on the debate.

It showcases an 'open letter to J.J. Abrams' video, made by one Prescott Harvey who was previously a production assistant on Abram's Mission Impossible III movie. The renowned director has just landed the job of directing George Lucas'/Disney's next Star Wars movie, and Harvey's video basically offers four golden rules on exactly how Abrams should go about the whole thing to make it great.

(I could of course take a minute to laugh myself silly at the breathtaking chutzpah of an ex-production assistant issuing a set of  How To Make A Movie Properly Instructions to a highly experienced and successful director of blockbuster movies. Okay then, I'll admit it - I did.)

And then I read all the comments below the article, from other Star Wars superfans. Loads of comments, all debating the finer points of The Rules as laid out in Harvey's videos; whether they were right or wrong, what other rules should've been added, what they would tell J.J. Abrams to do if they had the chance...

Again, I couldn't help marvelling at the - well, okay, I'll stick to the nice word 'chutzpah*' - of all these hordes of Star Wars fanboys (and girls) essentially telling a famous and highly successful director "do this movie this way, asshole - and try not to mess it up or we'll have your balls on a silver platter." I think I'm probably right in assuming that a fair number of them aren't famous and highly successful directors themselves, yeah?

If I hired a builder to do some work on my house, I'd probably tell him what it was I wanted him to build (well, that would certainly help...) and make sure we were both on the same page regarding what it would look like when it was finished.

What I wouldn't do is give him a giant list of Must Haves, like what cement he should use to stick the bricks together, the best and most efficient way to do all the wiring and where he should go to get all his building supplies to obtain the best quality for the right price. Why? Two reasons:

1 - Because I'm not a builder, and I have no experience or training to be one. He is and has, because that's his job.

2 - If I was a builder, with the aforementioned experience and training, I wouldn't have hired him to do the job. I'd have done it myself.

And I think that, in a nutshell, is the 'thing' that separates the real writers from the ones that are only in love with the idea of being a writer.

Real writers write real, actual stuff, not essays on how other writers aren't doing it the way The Public wants. They don't waste precious time telling the world how they would've written the Harry Potter books, or what Stephen King should do if he wants to make his novels more cerebral; they see a gap, they hunker down and fill it themselves.

I'm not saying there isn't a place for those who tell others how to write rather than do it themselves; some do it for a living and do it very well. I just think it's a good idea to determine which category you really belong in - if only to rid yourself of a lot of unnecessary pain and struggle in the long run. If you are a real, writing writer you can free yourself from the tyranny of keeping one eye on what everyone else is writing and just write what you want to read - because if that's what's in your heart, being compared to what's already out there isn't important.

Alternatively, if you're the back-seat driver writer, who prefers to analyse what others have written and suggest ways to fix it... well, recognising that means the pressure's finally off you completing that novel/screenplay you've been slogging at for years (and years and years...) just so you can hang out with the writing writers. Don't worry - it doesn't mean you'll get disowned, or that your membership to the writing club automatically expires; if nothing else, you could have a fine career as a beta reader, and they're like gold dust in the writing world. You'll just need to accept that, while other writers will be happy to listen to and respect your opinions about their work, they may still prefer to ultimately do things their way in the end. And if they do, it doesn't necessarily make them an idiot/arrogant/stubborn.

So, for the purpose of discovering which of the two flavours you are, I offer the following litmus test:

Imagine you've been given a glimpse into the future - and discovered that everything you write will sink without trace. Even if you do get anything published you will make no money from it and remain a complete unknown - even if you self-publish it. Forever. Everything you write. Knowing all of this to be true, an absolute certainty - do you still keep writing the stuff anyway?

If you answered 'yes' - you're a real, writing writer. Pull up a chair and get cosy.

*Best definition of 'chutzpah' I ever heard, courtesy of comedy actress Maureen Lipman: little boy pees through the letterbox of a house and then knocks on the door to ask the occupants how far it went.

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