Monday, August 18, 2008

Writing Somebody Else's Books

I have reached the end of my recent programming nightmare. Or, rather, I have finished the program and have it ready for distribution. With software, the nightmare never really ends. There is always the bug that gets reported to you on an urgent basis when you are busy doing something else, usually when you’ve had your head out of the program for so long that it looks like Linear B rather than something you once wrote and understood. But for the moment, RefMod LP seems as though it's ready to charge out there and attack the project we’ve been working on.

To a lot of writers, I might seem to have the ideal day job. After all, I have big chunks of time when I can delve deeply into my stories. To others, the drawbacks might seem more apparent: when we have a crisis, it’s all-consuming, and there’s no way to “squeeze in” any writing at all.

This question of balancing the day job with the writing is one most writers face, and I’ve known few who were entirely happy with the balance. At least one writer I know is trying to figure out a way to move from a standard day job to a more writing-oriented career, trading in her current work for freelance editing and other wordsmithing.

I wonder about this. I’ve heard from too many writers who found that careers in editing or script-reading or writing advertising copy tended to use up a big portion of their writing juices—or, in the words of one, left them so self-conscious that they felt constipated.

Teaching creative writing has always been a favored option, at least in the US, but many writers—including John Gardner himself—report that they seldom get much done during the school year, and that the only advantage of the job is the long school breaks. (That said, some others seem to balance teaching and writing quite happily.)

Back in the Golden Age of paperback originals, many authors supported their writing with even more writing. Well-known writers like Lawrence Block, Dean Koontz, Brian Garfield, and Elmore Leonard learned their chops and earned their bread while writing “their own” books and also cranking out series novels, novelizations, work-for-hire, ghosting, or other secondary fictioneering.

The market for this sort of thing is far smaller than it once was—though I saw recently that Sebastian Faulks was happy to pick up the James Bond torch—but I wonder what it would be like, supporting your fiction with fiction.

Faulks apparently wrote the new Bond, Devil May Care, in six weeks, a far shorter time than his “own” novels. If you don’t have to invent protagonists, characters, style, or milieu, this whole job might be easier. Far less satisfying, I would imagine, but easier.

So, Dear Readers: in the unlikely event that such a job were offered you, would you take it? If it would let you quit your day job, would you write the novelization of Tropic Thunder, or Finnegan Wakes Again, or The Return of the Return of the King, or Pride and Judiciary: The Divorce? Would you ghostwrite/co-write Tony Blair's debut bodice-ripper or Jessica Alba's striking new novel of ideas?

(You'd be welcome to use a pseudonym, of course.)


Creative A said...

I think I could deal with a second job, but a second writing job I could not do. The only reason I write is because there's a passion behind an idea. If someone just threw an idea at me and told me to write about it, and I wasn't passionate about it myself, I don't think I could write the thing. Even if I liked the previous books, say in the James Bond example, the story wouldn't be mine. I couldn't write about it unless it was mine.


Matt Curran said...

Hi, David

I recently read an article in SFX magazine about the whole deal on franchise books. Farah Mendlesohn is quoted as saying "You can make a living writing SF; you can't make a living writing literary novels." Shared universes pay writers pretty well - just look at the endless Star Trek, Buffy, Star Wars novels, spin-offs, hack-jobs etc. that cram the bookshelves or on-line. Churning out made to measure adventures based on established universes sounds a bit like grunt-work, but there are exceptions and some of the writing quality is quite high. But where’s the real world-building imagination?

I guess there's bit of difference with shared universes like those and returning to old masters. From the top of my head, there's Simon Clark who did a capable follow up to Wyndham's Day of the Triffids, and then there's our very own Roger who followed Crime and Punishment with A Gentle Axe. Worthy successors, some might say of classic books. In that respect, I would consider doing something like that - if it was my idea to do so and I had the story that was worth telling. I guess I wouldn't do it if I was approached - then it would feel like "writer for hire".

Like Creative A above, I would always plump for my own stories first before I even consider doing someone else’s. And judging by the doorstop that is "Future Plots" on my shelf, I won't be doing this in my life time.

Nope, it just looks like the hum-drum of the day-job for me. Reckon, I’ll have to work on cutting down those hours…

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

So you don't have to deal with a non-writing job already? Sweet.

I'm of two minds about the topic. Certainly if someone asked me to pick up the Bond mantle, the lure would be irresistable, but that's a special case (and Fleming's novels were a keynote of my pre-adolescence. How could I say no?) And it's not as though anyone is offering...

There's a part of me that says it's all about passion. On the other hand, there's a part of me that is with Somerset Maugham, who said, "I only write when inspired. Therefore I make it a practice to be inspired at 9 am sharp."

I'm not disputing your point of view, mind you, and thanks for sharing it.

A lot of times on this blog, I'm just mulling things over, and have no clear idea what I think.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Matt--

Ah, you've put your finger on it--it's "writer for hire" that I'm wondering about. And so many great writers have done it (I really ought to have mentioned Jack Vance's spell as Ellery Queen, too.)

Is it a matter of principle, or price, or practicality, or what?

I'm certainly not quarreling with you. What you say makes a lot of sense.

But still...well, your response has driven me on to another post. (It's your fault I'm clogging up the blogosphere, MFW.)

Jake said...
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Jake Jesson said...

Well, I don't have a day job at this time per se... ah, the joys of being newly graduated. However, were I offered such a job, I would most likely take it.

Heck, I've done something like it already. I started writing in the first place on Star Wars forums, one of many co-writing stories set in the "Expanded Universe". I shied away from using actual Star Wars characters, unlike many of my fellow fan-writers, but I found it easy to use the universe as a playground.

(Notable downside to this, as a side note: All my baby steps in the world of writing are a matter of public domain, though I can't picture someone being bored enough to dig those up.)

Speaking of Star Wars, there are actually some books (the Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn) and video games (Bioware's Knights of the Old Republic) which are of higher quality than (at least some of) the actual movies themselves. Though the Star Wars franchise tends to be kinder to authors working within it, so there's a little less of the "grunt work" element Matt mentioned.

Creative A said...

I'm a journalist on the side >.< Actually, I'm unemployed, but don't tell anyone that.

I have to agree with Matt where he said he would consider doing something if it was his idea, and if it was a story worth telling. But there is some truth to what you said, David...

"On the other hand, there's a part of me that is with Somerset Maugham, who said, 'I only write when inspired. Therefore I make it a practice to be inspired at 9 am sharp.'"

I guess the difference for me is that when you're writing something, you can only survive so long on either inspiration or dedication. You need both, right? So if I was dedicated to a project, but I hated it, I don't think I could end up finishing the thing.


Creative A said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Isaak said...

Hi, Jake--

I can't say I've ever prowled the halls (caves? avenues? where does it live?) of fanfiction, but that's interesting--it reminds me that a lot of people are already writing this sort of thing for free.

As to being out of college and not yet gainfully employed, that's why God in his wisdom gave us grad school. Or maybe it wasn't God, but that other guy. Either way, it's a supernatural manifestation.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Creative--

Yeah, I'm not sure what it would be like to have to write something you really disliked. (Wait, what am I saying? I've worked on dozens of projects I hated and still had to write up. It isn't pleasant, is it?)

Actually, I've never really understood how the storylines, etc, are generated in work-for-hire, so I'm not sure how much the story is "your idea" within a pre-existing framework, and how much it's dictated to you. So I guess I'm pretty much standing outside a big building and speculating on what it would be like to work inside it!

Anonymous said...

I've always assumed that paying the rent with formula fiction, or whatever, was a bit like being a professional photographer or other kind of artist-craftsman: you use your craft skills to do the work the world wants, and thereby fund your personal project, which will eventually get you an exhibition in the Tate. Whether you write category fiction or advertising copy or reviews/journalism, it's much the same deal, or is it? I can imagine doing the latter, but I would worry that having to re-train my writerly sense and sensitivities to a different kind of fiction would make it increasingly difficult for them to answer the call of my 'real' writing. It must be different for Faulks, where his six week job (plus own fiction) is presumably well-enough paid to be a one off. If you had to write four or six Harlequin M&B a year to pay the bills, would your own writing ever emerge from under?

The other possibility I guess is teaching, which is more stimulating but also more draining, as John Gardner says.

By way of bridging the eternal gap between 'real' writing and the cost of living, I do editorial reports for one of the big editorial services, which involves reading a whole novel (of absolutely any level, from the barely literate to the really exciting) and writing a report. It's work I enjoy, especially when it comes to actually talking to the writers, and flexible though in theory insecure. But there's no denying, while I'm doing it, my writing-brain is wholly absorbed, and can't think about my own work. The advantage is that it takes a day-and-a-bit to do, and then it's done. If I had to do more than one every three weeks or so, though, I think my brain might have trouble re-finding my own writerly self in between.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

As always, you raise provoking questions. Some of how other jobs support or interfere with one's writing seems to be a matter of personality. I know editors who claim that too much editing has crippled their writing, and others who insist it has made them better writers, and you (as usual) are making a more nuanced point, which is that it may not be a matter of "whether," but rather one of "how often?"

This has made me think of Robert Graves. I think I'll post about it.