Why You Should Write For Nothing

Reading & Writing


We’ve just had the Frankfurt Book Fair, where rights are sold, and new trends emerge. I am now a long way into my career, with dozens of published books and an uncountable number of unmade film scripts, and selling each novel is a new challenge.

Writers complain that the market is hard, genre is disrespected, good books fail to be published while trash sells millions (the books of some popular writers are more badly written than boiler manuals), working males have all but ceased to read, and selling scripts is impossible. But things do change.

The best thing a writer can do now is show some grace and write some stories for nothing in order to drum up business, but it’s amazing how many writers tell me they won’t pen a single word without being paid. These days such an attitude is indefensible. There’s a reason why market stalls offer little trays of cake when selling their wares; without getting a taste for the product, the public continue to walk past.

There’s one area, however, where I stopped writing for nothing, and that’s screenplays. In the last thirty years I’ve written and rewritten about a hundred versions of books or original scripts and hardly any have been filmed. The complex financial set-up of British productions are almost impossible to control.

(For new readers, a potted history of my early adaptation career; Paramount produced about 15 screenplays of my novel ‘Rune’ before binning it. ‘Roofworld’ passed through the hands of a dozen different directors and exists in scores of script versions. ‘Psychoville’ collapsed at the start of production. ‘Spanky’ folded when director Guillermo Del Toro pulled out.)

That was just the start; specific commissions failed across the years as production teams were fired and replaced, over and over. When it comes to a film version, each novel has its own peculiar history of mishap and heartbreak.

Film is a magpie arrangement whereby groups of executives cherry-pick what’s hot, what’s cool, what looks nice, what things kids like, who’s currently attractive, what technology can do, and puts the whole lot in a blender to produce a confection that will please an audience. Movies are now greatest-hits compilations, satisfying in bites, like a box of chocolates.  TV series are the way forward, but that’s an entirely different discipline from novel writing.

The sad truth is that the British film industry withered away in the late 1960s, with only a tiny handful of companies hanging in across the years (Icon being one of them). These days our strength is in providing creative talent to the US industry and making heritage films, which we do superbly. After Hammer, we could have continued a homegrown horror industry that was uniquely British, but we let that slip away too. This Hallowe’en I’ll be discussing the problem in a lighthearted way at the Authors’ Club, looking at what was and what might have been.

So if you’re serious about writing, don’t spend years writing a film script you then can’t sell – write a short story, give it away for nothing and keep an eye on the response. It will help you get an agent and get started. Concentrate on one or two pieces, not rafts at once. Check out the paying market too, but try to check out the size of the exposure your published story will get – for years I wrote for a magazine that turned out to have almost no readership. And remember, all published short stories automatically become eligible for awards.

You may be happily surprised.

4 comments on “Why You Should Write For Nothing”

  1. Jackie Hayles says:

    Recently I was rather disappointed to see that a famous writer of teenage fiction, usually featuring less advantaged members of society, was charging quite a hefty fee for people to hear her talking in a local bookshop. I live in an area generally regarded as “deprived” in socio-economic terms! People could then buy her books, discounted for the amount of the fee – but it left a bad taste in the mouth all the same. I didn’t attend nor did I accept the sweets which were handed out to those queuing – and they were legion, so it must work! The books and TV rights certainly sell.

  2. snowy says:

    I think I might be able to guess who that is, you might share the same first three letters?

    But if we spin the maths around a bit.

    “Buy a full price book, meet the author for free!”

    Assuming people were going to buy the book anyway. This puts them in a bookshop at least, rather than picking it up at the supermarket.

    There are intangible benefits as well perhaps, famous person comes to the area, children have their excitement about reading confirmed, bookshop becomes a fun place to visit, it’s a day out! All rounded off with a McDogsArse Miserable Meal consisting of an hour old fried mince sandwich, some extruded potato starch dipped in tallow and a plastic toy made in a sweatshop…… Oh! Just forget that last bit.

    [The economics of publicity things can get very convoluted, because there are all sorts of hangers-on involved, agents, publicists, marketing departments, the list goes on and they all want their percentage. By the time they have all been paid off, some authors don’t even cover their busfare.]

  3. Vivienne says:

    If you intend to support yourself as a writer, may I suggest you don’t read Jack London’s Martin Eden first?

  4. Roger says:

    “the books of some popular writers are more badly written than boiler manuals”
    Well. the results could be much more serious – as in lethal – if people misread a boiler manual.

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