On Being A Professional Writer No. 2: Defining Who You Are
There’s a strange mystique attached to professional writing that comes from the idea of creating something from nothing. But it’s not something from nothing at all – every writer I know shows his or her influences quite clearly, and much of our early work can be traced back to those who inspired us. This is as it should be. You can’t take something forward without first learning from your heroes.
My earliest work shows a painfully strong mix of influences from JG Ballard to William and Tanya Rose. You step onto these and then try to step sideways onto a platform of your own, and it often takes years. At some point it then becomes a job like any other, so when interviewers ask me; ‘Do you carry plots and characters around in your head?’ I always say; ‘No, I start work at a desk like everyone else and turn my attention to it. And I leave it all behind when I stand up and walk away from the desk.’
The idea of the writer as a tortured artist is now a distant memory. We think of bedridden Proust and half-crazed Poe, and a mystical reverence descends over them because we want to believe in the roman a clef. But if ‘Write What You Know’ was really all there was too it, we’d just have Hemingway instead of Dickens, who melded what he knew into fantastical forms, or Terry Pratchett, who writes by leaping into a world of imagination.
Still the idea persists that we create something from nothing. Everything I write can be traced back to some inspirational source, which is why I rarely take commissions. Writing for hire involves producing the requisite number of words, making them attractive and readable, and acting enthusiastic. It’s an amazing skill, but one which I lack. And here’s the next thing they don’t tell you about professional writers. We’re primarily known for the circle in which we work, and it’s very hard to step out of the circle. For instance, I’m known as a novelist, not a TV writer or a film scriptwriter or a commercial writer or a non-fiction writer or a ghost writer or an adapter or a journalist or an academic writer.
A friend of mine, the brilliant Hugh Whitemore, who adapted ’84 Charing Cross Road’ as a play and a film, and who created ‘Breaking The Code’ as a play about the life of Alan Turing among many other fine works, once said he envied me for being a novelist. I was staggered, because I look up to Hugh as a dazzling craftsman. He in turn wanted to be a novelist, and so the circles fail to overlap. That’s not to say I can’t adapt and he can’t produce a novel, but those who pay for our work fail to see that we can.
The worst example I can give is this.
A few years ago I wrote an original screenplay called ‘Breathe’. When my film deal fell through I adapted it into a novel. Pathe Films bought it to make as a movie, and hired their own scriptwriter to turn it into a screenplay, so, in a bizarre series of Chinese whispers it went from an original screenplay to a book to another different screenplay which Pathe didn’t like. They never even saw the original script it all came from. But in their eyes, I had no track record as a scriptwriter.
This is why I’m never allowed to write the Bryant & May books as scripts for television. The TV companies want to use writers on their own rosters. Next we’ll come onto another form of definition; what exactly one chooses to write.