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.

10 comments on “On Being A Professional Writer No. 2: Defining Who You Are”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    These are excellent pieces, although I would suspect that some people are able to move between a limited number of circles. Perhaps, it is based on prior exposure and age at start.
    And certainly early influence plays a major role, have you ever noticed how a great many first novels are big, while most of the follow-on novels are shorter, thinner? (Part of the reason being before being published there was less pressure to meet a deadline and a deeper stock of previously collected ingredents.) And lack of time can make a person put away the adverbs and adjectives; that and a desire to clear the narrative air.
    Looking forward to the next.

  2. Mary says:

    I do not believe that any script writer could do justice to Bryant and May. The charm and brilliance of your books is the detail and this would be lost in the conversion. Apart from that, your characters are ‘pictures in my mind’, which are too precious to be lost.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Not accepted as a non-fiction writer? Your columns on past writers isn’t exactly fiction and you have said yourself that you have worked in the film industry in a number of different roles. Is it just that at this particular moment there are things you want to do and which the powers that be refuse you? Times and attitudes change and what you have been you may yet be again— good grief, I’m channeling something weird! Anyway, carry on carrying on! (channeling again!)

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Oh, and I can’t see that Spanky cover too many times! I love the sweep of the wings into the heart shape and the curly horns which don’t show in smaller photos. Think I’ll look for it after I’ve cleared all the current stuff.

  5. Alan G says:

    Tell me about it.

    Or maybe Admin can tell me how to describe a two hour Housing Consultative Committee meeting in 500 words – ‘cos that’s what I have to do by Friday.

    My report was “Nothing new” but it seems I have to fill the space. Am tempted to shove in a sonnet to see if anybody actually reads the stuff…

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Alan, a sonnet on the topic of Housing consultation would be a gift “they” probably don’t deserve, but why not? Except that one of our meteorological men was given a reproof for doing forecasts in verse some years back.

  7. Steve says:

    What a horrifying thought….B&M turned into pap. I’d rather not see them on the screen at all than to see them become caricatures.

  8. Steve says:

    Oh…there’s a series over here called “Supernatural” which features demons and other assorted beasties. It’s actually filmed in Canada. Anyway on last night’s episode a demon named “Spanky” made a cameo appearance. I can’t help but wonder….

  9. glasgow1975 says:

    Supernatural is on ‘over here’ too, tho about a season behind

  10. Karyne says:

    I would rather Bryant and May forever remained glowing ideals in my head than to ever be carelessly trashed by the incompetent hands of TV writer. That’s not to say I don’t wonder how much fun it would be to see the books come alive onscreen, but only if you could write them. They are, after all, the infinitely beautiful creations of your amazing imagination. I am sorry I missed out on the forum here to explore the next avenue of plot for our beloved boys, but I am enormously grateful to know they will continue on. My mother, who passed this February, got me hooked onto your books and I know she’s up there enjoying every word I read. Memory of Blood was fabulous, can’t wait for the next one.

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