Why Writers Are Full of S*** (And Why We Have To Be)
Image is key to success for writers today. But is the drive to fictionalise ourselves a good thing or a toxic necessity? What does it say to incoming talent?
A few years ago, I took a stab at telling the truth.
I’d just been commissioned to write a novella for a grimdark sci-fi triptych called The Book of Martyrs. I considered myself an old pro when it came to comics, but still felt like a noob when it came to prose, and this was my longest word count for the publisher to date. I’d only written audios and short stories for them until now and most of those had ended up way longer and taken twice as long to complete than anticipated.
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I knew I had a solid story, a turbo-charged thriller about a medic and her robotic sidekick who must survive an alien invasion long enough to warn a neighbouring space-station before those inhabitants are slaughtered too. I also knew that I could do this, though it certainly didn’t feel like it while I was writing.
The only thing stopping me getting the job done was my worrying about getting the job done.
So I decided to keep a journal. Just ten minutes at the end of each working day and I’d barf out everything with which I’d been struggling during that session. No holding back. No uplifting lesson at the end. Just a bite-sized stream of consciousness. You’d be lucky if you got punctuation! I’d worry about scenes not working, too-subtle character arcs, over-description, the persistent possibility that the whole thing might be running away from me, soaring over the word count and demanding several extra weeks I didn’t have in order to cut it all back.
Bloody Dan Abnett (my stable-mate over at 2000 AD) made this look so easy in First and Only. What was I doing wrong? Why was this so hard? What the hell was wrong with me?
Who knew? Just get it down and get it out there.
I figured I’d wait until Book of Martyrs had been out for a while, then publish a few spoiler-free journal entries on my blog every week. I’d gotten a surprisingly good bit of traction on the craft essays I’d posted, so reckoned there might be a few young writers hooked into my RSS feed who might appreciate the honesty. After all, this was exactly the sort of equalising confessional that I craved back when I was making my first steps into the business of writing. Here was my chance to maybe let a few rookies coming after me know that they probably weren’t doing things quite as ‘wrong’ as they thought.
I managed about two entries in that journal before realising I could never publish it.
My nervous candour, my all-too-evident lack of confidence in my own abilities just made me sound like an amateur, and I didn’t have the safety net of a string of bestsellers to prove otherwise.
The story turned out great in the end and I got it in on time, but putting the truth of its making out there would have put a serious dent in my ‘brand’.
Prospective agents and editors do not want to hear that you’re worried about hitting that deadline – any more than you want to hear an airline pilot tell you he’s not sure he can fly you to Portugal without crashing into a mountain. Publishers have budgets and schedules and license-holders and a dozen other flaky freelancers to deal with. They can’t afford to take the chance on anyone other than a very safe pair of hands. A good freelance writer is a good soldier, someone who can stay on-brief and take that hill ahead of the deadline, and do it with as little introspection and drama as possible.
But it’s not only editors who find it hard to trust writers who don’t trust themselves.
As readers, we’ll follow writers over a lifetime, because their words and stories enrich our thinking and furnish our imaginations. Our favourite writers are more than just grafters who sit behind a desk and type all day. They’re pioneers, whistle-blowers, visionaries, swashbucklers. They speak truths we’ve always felt but could never articulate until now. They tell the stories of entire generations, of forgotten cultures, neglected peoples, or maybe just whoever you were at that point in time.
Writers can be self-effacing all they want if they’re a bestselling superstar. Their track records assure us those authors have got the goods even if they say they don’t. Even writers who are journeymen can be revered as gods. The Fighting Fantasy gamebooks were a shrewdly calibrated franchise, but when I read those adventures as a kid they turned my brains to pure starlight. Every one of those books – from Warlock of Firetop Mountain to Legend of the Shadow Warriors – was like a gift from Prometheus.
Our favourite writers are like conjurers, producing miracles out of thin air. ‘How do they come up with this stuff?’ we ask.
“People don't want to see the guy next door on stage; they want to see a being from another planet.”
Today’s writers need to be rock stars, to carefully promote a stand-out brand. Agents and editors favour those with big social media followings, the greatest potential customer-base.
You don’t have to be the next Dostoyevsky; you just have to be able to sell books.
The writer has become as much a product as the stories they write, a carefully cultivated image that transforms the writer into their own fiction. And it’s a fiction that can overshadow their actual output. Certainly, in the Wild West world of comic books, I seem to know plenty about the endless dramas and shenanigans surrounding various creators and next to nothing about the comics they actually write.
So many celebrity writers feel otherworldly to me, like angels or androids. They gaze down from their author photos immaculate, brooding over deep thoughts on our behalf. Their talent unquestioned, their status Olympian.
But what effect does this have on writers coming into the industry? On those either writing for themselves or hoping to go freelance? What about those seeking models against which to measure their own trajectory, their own worth, even?
I grew up hearing rumours about how Michael Moorcock could write an Elric novel in three days. Coming into the writing business, I knew I could never measure up to that, but I still wanted to give it a shot.
My first paid writing gigs were movie journalism (which I naively believed might lead me onto paid fiction work). Novelist and critic Kim Newman was my Pauline Kael. (And still is. His uncanny mastery of context makes him more of a cultural historian than a movie journalist. An incredible writer, but anyway…) My reviews, by comparison, were okay and I took pains to study and get better. But my best was still drivel compared to Newman, whom editors told me could knock out the most penetrating essay in an afternoon.
A graphic designer is hired to create a logo.
She completes the job in an hour.
But the client balks at the invoice.
‘How can you charge that much for one hour’s work?’ he says.
She tells him, ‘Because it took me 20 years to learn how to do it that quickly.’
(Story I read on the internet somewhere.)
Forever determined to do things ‘properly’, my attempts to get my ideas on the page – and on time – were soul-mangling torture. Freelance movie journalism in the early ‘00s was its own special circle of hell, a boiling quagmire into which I was rapidly sinking.
I had no education to fall back on. No mentor. No industry contacts. I was drowning in chaos and felt like the only way I could keep my head above water was to get those words down fast and easy. If I couldn’t do that then I not only wasn’t a writer, I wasn’t much of a person either.
“Resistance wants us to cede sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can.”
Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
I gradually phased out of movie journalism and into comics for 2000 AD, trudging on the only way I could without losing my mind.
I stayed focused on the craft of writing to the exclusion of all else, told myself that I’d never be perfect, understood that the paragons I looked up to weren’t perfect either.
Everyone is learning, always, even the greats.
I’ve always focused on the nuts and bolts. I’d already learned sentence structure from Constance Hale’s dynamite book Sin and Syntax. Now I learned sequential storytelling from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. I figured out drama and storytelling from every screenwriting book I could lay my hands on, from Syd Field’s Screenplay to John Yorke’s Into the Woods. When I wrote projects, I made notes on what I’d done and flagged mistakes in hindsight. I listened to editorial feedback and always strove to do better next time.
Sticking to your craft is like cleaving to the Tao. For me, it’s the only way to stay sane. To accept that you’ll never be perfect, to realise that no writer is perfect, that letting go of your craving for perfection is perfection in itself!
Being alive and alert to getting better with everything you write will give you your best chance of hitting your intended target.
THE NEED TO WIN (from The Way of Chuang Tzu, translated by Thomas Merton)
When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets –
He is out of his mind!
His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting –
And the need to win
Drains him of power.
Unfortunately, the tectonics of writing have not only changed, but seem intent on tipping us into Crazy Town. The onus now is on writers to spend as much time cultivating a fictional image as they do on cultivating their craft.
I resisted this truth for years, pretty much until I made the decision to start this newsletter. I resented being told that I had to be a salesman on top of being a storyteller. I didn’t have time. It wasn’t my job! I never understood how so many of my peers in comic books got any work done when they were arguing on Twitter all day long.
But the fact is social media and funding platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter have changed the writing game completely. The traditional business model for a freelance writer was generally ‘Business-to-Business’ (you’re a freelance business hawking your services to a bigger business, the publisher). But this has shifted to incorporate an increasingly ‘Business-to-Consumer’ approach, one that threatens to bypass the publisher entirely. In short, writers need some kind of direct-to-readership channel if they’re going to survive in the current market.
You can be the next Reina Telgemeier or Alan Moore; it means nothing if no one knows you exist.
So the writer is forced to surrender a few days a month, dust off their tux and practise their stage act.
Just don’t neglect the craft.
The craft is how you connect with readers for real. It’s why you’re here. It’s how you get your readers to stick around for your next project.
There’s a wonderful moment in Steve Coogan and Sarah Solemani's Hollywood satire Chivalry. Coogan plays a furtively sleazy producer who tries to brush off the impact of director Solemani’s arthouse debut, to which she retorts. ‘But I put that woman in your head, didn’t I?’
That’s what a writer should do: put characters in peoples’ heads and make them feel like they’re still living there long after the show’s over.
And if you’re a writer looking to become a freelance creative, then please – for the love of Zeus – maintain a ruthless clarity about the business into which you’re heading. The path to commercial comic books and fiction is a not-so-funhouse of smoke and mirrors. The online sphere will often imply that there’s gold in them thar hills, and you won’t see there’s nothing there until you’ve spent time and money in getting there.
There are so many things I wish someone had just told me when I was starting out. Things it took me several years to realise and yet seem stupidly obvious to me now. I guess I was blinkered by stubbornness and naivety, as well as being a working-class gobshite trespassing where I didn’t belong. All the same, a bit of well-timed practical advice would have saved me a world of pain.
Here's one example…
Back when I was writing movie journalism, I thought of myself as a ‘freelance film journalist’. That’s what everyone else called themselves and they seemed to be making a living just fine. But how could they be when every outlet was paying pennies for movie reviews? What was I missing here?
I was missing that it’s impossible to make a living from writing a speciality when you’re starting out.
Try to earn a living from writing nothing but comic books and you’ll die starving in a gutter. Certainly when you’re starting out.
Beware what other writers call themselves.
Terms like ‘graphic novelist’ or ‘screenwriter’ may well be flim-flam, labels employed for the benefit of editors and readers, not younger writers looking for someone upon which to model their career. Don’t assume those people make a living purely from that one revenue stream. Sure, you can market yourself along those exclusive lines, but behind the scenes you need to have several irons in the fire.
Diversifying is a necessity. I’m a bona fide ‘comic book writer’, but I’m also a ‘marketing copywriter’, a ‘subeditor’, a ‘narrative consultant’, and a bunch of other dull and deeply unsexy things that I’ll keep quiet about during my next interview for Bleeding Cool.
Those corporate copywriting gigs are what will sustain you while you’re writing your next script or waiting for your next royalty check. You can call yourself whatever you need to when trying to attract gigs, but know that what you really are is a ‘freelance writer’, the banner under which you’ll be juggling several projects, some creative, some pure drudgery, some you’ll want to shout about, some you’ll keep under wraps.
Now that’s pretty drab, boring, tediously nuanced advice. Not the sort of thing you’ll find framed on Pinterest, and I doubt you could crunch it down to fit on a Tweet. But that wisdom was hard-won and I hope it’s useful for someone reading this right now.
Writing is magic.
It’s spiritual, cathartic, theatrical, but it’s underpinned by the brute carpentry of grammar, by the subtle geometry of storytelling, by the physics of character interaction.
So I guess Agent of Weird will be my attempt to tell the truth, as much as whatever paperwork I’ve signed will permit me. I love telling stories and creating characters that feel alive. I love sword and sorcery adventures and space battles and dank crypts that harbour unnameable things. I love finding new ways to play with those toys and find fresh meaning in them. And I want to share that love with my readers, along with lessons learned.
So let’s see where this goes…
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