Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Selling out, and writing for yourself

There's an interesting article about writing for money versus "selling out" over on io9, by Charlie Jane Anders - and a follow up post by John Scalzi at his blog - which got me thinking about my own process.

Writing is my job, but I enjoy it and treat it with respect. It's an odd mix of two seemingly incompatible things - I'm doing a creative, arty thing, in exchange for money. Sometimes bringing money into the equation can be a scary thing for a writer. And sometimes it makes people think that you're not as creatively pure as people doing it "just for the love". Thing is, I do it for the love - but I need to feed myself and pay bills, so I'm very glad it happens to be my job. It's all I'm good at. I've been writing since I could hold a pen, since I was 3 or 4, and never thought I'd ever get paid for it.

But thankfully, I *do* get paid for it. I like seeing my stories get made into films and TV shows, because then I get to entertain other people. Stories are meant to be told, after all. And I like to think that my stories are ones that only I could tell in that particular way. That's what I advise new writers to do - write something only *you* could tell, something you'd love to see on screen, something nobody else is doing. Write from the heart, not what you think the "market" might want.

A while ago, I got some angry feedback about a TV show, and tried to explain how I write. I said that it's not a democracy, the audience don't get to vote on the plot, the only person I need to please is myself, and the only thing I need to serve is the story. Now, in my youthful naïveté, I foolishly thought that people would react to what I said, not what they thought I said. But some of them decided I'd said something like this: "I hate you! I don't care if you all hate my work, as long as *I* like it, that's what matters! HAHAHAHA! Suckers!" Which is a bit of a distortion, but I can see how they got there. I probably could have phrased it better (I was quite angry at the time...)

What it meant - and still means - is that I am the only audience member whose mind I can read. I have *no* idea what you like, what you want, what you need. None. You all want different things, so if I figured out what some of you like, and wrote to please you specifically, then the rest of the audience would feel left out, and probably stop watching. If I ask 100 people what they want from a TV show, a movie, a story, I'll hear 100 different things. If I try to please all of them, I'll fail, obviously, and end up with a terrible mishmash.

And even if I could write something that pleases everyone, why would I do that?! Why give you something that's exactly what you want, something that holds no surprises or tension? You may as well write it yourself, I'd just be transcribing what's in your brain. I want to give you *some* of what you want, but I want to surprise you, to scare you, to make you laugh, to make you gasp. Because I love it.

All I can really do, is try to write something that *I* like, because then I'll know if I'm doing it properly. If I'm happy with the story, if I feel I've done my best, then I can release it into the world, and hopefully other people will like it. Not everybody will, but that's just how it works. Nobody likes everything. Obviously I have an eye on the potential audience for each particular story, and there's usually a producer, script editor, etc, I don't just write in a vacuum - so I'm very mindful of who might end up watching, and write for them. But that's only in a general sense, as I can never predict what people will like. And I want people to like it! Of course I do. But I'd rather try something different and interesting, than just go for the easy option. Even if that means risking failure.

As for being creatively pure, have I done projects just for the money? Sure. I need to eat, after all. Sometimes I have to take jobs for the money. I try to pick ones that will be creatively satisfying as well, and always do the best I can. Am I a sellout because of that? I don't think so, any more than a plumber is a sellout for charging more at the weekend - we all need to pay our bills. I've always joked that if I ever got offered a high paying sellout job, I'd take it - but it's not really a joke, I would take it. That job would mean financial security for a while, and I could take some time to work on my own stuff afterwards.

But I've also declined to work on things that didn't feel right, that would have made me uncomfortable. I've detached myself from people I didn't trust. And I'm sure I'll do it again. I love everything I work on - I have to, otherwise I can't do my job properly. So even if/when I do sellout (if I haven't already), I'll still write it with integrity, with passion, and tell the best story that I possibly can. I'll still be trying to please my harshest critic - me. Hopefully I'll surprise him, and you at the same time.

By the way, in completely unrelated news, look out for my new film, Zombie Cheerleaders On Drugs Who Are Also Nuns With Machine Guns Or Something. In 3D! Don't worry, it's all done in the best possible taste.