Monday, August 18, 2008

Writing Somebody Else's Books, Part II

Okay, be honest now. Have you read the first post? No? Well, go there first, and all of this will make more sense. Really.

At the risk of being tiresomely familiar, there's a tale that George Bernard Shaw once asked a woman at a party if she'd have sex with him for a million pounds. "Yes," she said, after some reflection, "I suppose I would."

"Then how about twenty pounds?" he asked.

"Of course not!" she replied. "What kind of woman do you think I am?"

"Madam," he supposedly said, "we've already established what sort of woman you are. What we're quibbling about is price."

His point is taken. But so is hers; there are a lot of numbers between between £20 and £1,000,000. Anybody who thinks everything is a matter of quantity rather than quality should compare a swallow of vodka with quaffing a quart.

Still: is what we're quibbling about here a matter of principle...or price?

I can't quite make up my mind about this topic. I think that the matter comes down to one of the "artist" versus the "professional," but even then I'm not so sure.

I'm morally certain (a phrase I stole from Patrick O'Brian, since I've never been morally certain in my life) that there's no right or wrong answer. Everything is fuzzy, and even fuzzier once we get off into the realm of hypotheticals.

But, just to check, and to get utterly ridiculous, let's look at a, umm, specific hypothetical:

"Give us a day of your writing time, and we'll give you enough cash, and cachet, that the other 364 days of your year will be generously paid for. Do what you like with the rest."

That would be hard for me to turn down. (Yeah, yeah, the road to hell, et cetera, ad nauseum, and other late Latinates.)

Would you trade in six weeks of paid writing labor for a year to do as you like? (That's what Faulks did.)

Well, I confess: I would, readily.

But we already know what kind of woman I am.

[nb. I won't even start to remark on the whole sexist, gender-laden, who-is-taking-what-from-whom-sex-for-pay issue here. So why did I use that analogy in the first place? Well, largely because it is freighted with bushels of the same kinds of concealed, value-laden goodies that we confront when we ask how a writer "ought" to spend their time.]

How about two months of your year, for ten to do with a you want? Three, leaving you nine?

Six months? Half of your year?

For most of us, that would still leave us more time for our own work than we have right now...

I find this to be a fascinating question, and even more fascinating if we push it to extremes. Suppose, for example, that you could make a good living, for yourself and your family, by spending six months of the year as a writer on some stupid soap opera...and then had the other six months to work on whatever you chose.

Good trade-off? Horrifying sell-out?

And is what's bothersome is that this hypothetical, a) it pushes everything down to a real matter of character, or, b) it proposes something that is far more clear-cut than anything life offers us?

I don't know. I guess that for a real artist, the answer would lie in whether the six months of hackwork benefitted--or at least didn't harm--the six months of other work.

I could make an argument that fictioneering of any sort is a benefit, and allows the writer to hone their storytelling skills. If you get paid for it, so much the better, and if you get paid enough that it allows you to follow your passion, you're nearing nirvana.

Yet I could make an argument that any storytelling that isn't your main passion is a diversion.

Still, suppose I offered you 364 days of pay for one day of work for hire?

Hmm. Howabout two months, with ten months off?

Well, howsabout...oh. Sorry. We've been here before, haven't we?


Janet said...

I would quite cheerfully write for hire, providing it was something I could write. I am quite sure I could not write anything soap-operish, because those things nauseate me.

Mind you, the list of things I could not write because of personal aversion is probably so long as to void the question.

And I write really, really slowly.

But in theory, I'm open. The world of tech writing, in particular, could still do with more people fluent in non-geek-speak.

Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

When it comes down to it, if I was offered a writer-for-hire job for six weeks out of the year to do what I wanted for the rest, then yeah, I'd consider it.


(And you know, there's always a but)

...What if that "writer for hire" job becomes too comfortable? If Faulks begins writing more Bond books or perhaps crosses into another shared universe, then readers could associate him with these books more than his earlier works. Alan Dean Foster - a fine writer - is probably better known for his Alien/The Thing/Star Wars adaptations. But he's done his own stuff too - not that you'd notice. I'm sure he was paid very, very well for them but he would probably prefer to be defined by his own original work. I know I would.

But (yep, another one), putting it in perspective, we've all got to eat and drink and be merry to have a fulfilled life. Most of us do shit jobs that we can't stand to get by - some of us don't even have that. I suppose if there's a half-way house between being a writer of leisure and working a crap day-job shuffling paper for someone else's benefit, then doing adaptations/shared universe-books etc. is far from a lesser evil (he says, beating a path to the door of Pocket Books).

Bugger. Don't you just hate it when you lose your own argument?

Sam Taylor said...

There's a fallacy you're not really considering here -- that ghostwriting work has to be "hack" work, and thus has to be less reputable than original fiction. I would say that it would be completely possible to do something wonderful with a ghost-written work.

For me, it would definitely depend on the money. I've got bills to pay. But I would most likely take any decent-paying gig.

But this is all hypothetical, as no one is offering me contracts. There's a huge difference between theory and what happens when the rubber hits the road :)

Alis said...

I'm with Sam here - I think it would be possible to do something which both reader and writer would find satisfying with a ghostwriting project. I'd certainly to a project like this if it was offered - I'd enjoy tailoring the story to the voice of the stated author. But then I've discovered I quite like playing with voice so it would be a productive thing for me to do. Mind you (aka 'but') there's alawys the risk that I'd want to interfere with the plot and not being able to do so might be an issue.

Creative A said...

Dangit, David, why did you have to get so specific? ;)

I think this all has to do with how strong a person's needs, wants, and morals are weighted against each other. Before, I said I couldn't write for hire unless I could find a passion that would make the story mine. I don't need to write for hire, I don't want to write for hire, and I morally don't feel right about writing for hire. But, (hyperoble warning,) if the economy crashed and we went into a depression, my need would outweigh my wants and morals.

So I'm going to be very specific here and say "I think it all depends."


Jen Ster said...

During one of the innumerable scandals in the Arizona governor's mansion, it turned out that the secretary of education, a very attractive young woman, didn't even have a high school diploma. Of course, speculation ran rife that the governor was sleeping with her, so that became a joke: "Would you sleep with Fife Symington for $80,000 a year?" (Her salary at the time.) I recollect I had to think about it: "Just once or multiple times? Does this have to happen in the Governor's mansion or can it be at my place? How much again?"

On the other hand: Last season on "Torchwood," Gwen opened a door to find "Captain" Jack Harkness smooching with his boyfriend Ianto. Terribly embarrassed, she said, "Oh, excuse me." Captain Jack said, "Always room for one more," which, come to think of it, is a rather Captain Jack-y thing to say. So the question ran around my office, "Would you have gone back in?" My unofficial poll says 90% of the women and at least half the men would have charged right back in there (sexual orientation notwithstanding). So maybe it's not a question of how much, but how good looking (or, in Jack's case, how flat-out good--he's had several thousand years to perfect his technique, you know.)

Sorry, what was the question?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah, that's the problem with hypotheticals--you can answer hem in principle, but it might not have anything to do with reality.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Yeah, the point you raise is entirely valid--your career could get it it's own way...but, then, most of us have to have jobs...

I'm pretty sure I'd at least use a pen name so I wasn't trampling all over my original work.

In the case of Alan Dean Foster, I wonder if his original work is standing in the shadow of his hired work, or if his publishers wouldn't be as willing to publish his originals if he weren't writing the more lucrative novelizations and spinoffs?

Boy, am I getting off into angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin territory here, or what?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Sam--

Interesting point. And I suppose you might say that taking on someone else's book or persona is in many ways just a form of acting. Indeed, it might not be that much different from when we write from different POVs.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Well, if I ever need anything ghosted, you and Sam will be the first people I'd ask.

I gather that how much you are allowed to invent plot varies a great deal depending on the kind of work you're hired for. Obviously in a straight-out novelization of a movie, you can't change the plot too much, though you may be allowed to expand it. I think in the case of sahred-universe novels, you may have a good deal of freedom. (Of course, I guess you still can't kill anyone important...)

One of the most interesting "novelizations" is probably Arthur C Clarke's "2001". In that case, he wrote the novel at the same time he was co-writing the screenplay with Kubrick. That must have been quite an unusual process.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

{ So I'm going to be very specific here and say "I think it all depends." }

I think you are absolutely right about that!

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jen Ster--

Ah-yup. Any time money and art are discussed together, it seems to morph into a discussion of sex.

I guess sex is just an extended metaphor for art. Or vice-versa.

But you're right about the core issues: as all writers know, details matter!