Friday, April 17, 2009

Writers on Television

I had a spectacularly unproductive day yesterday -- just couldn't seem to focus on any thought for longer than five seconds. I couldn't even manage to read. I ended up dusting my office, taking apart a fan to dust the blades and washing dishes. But it's raining today, which is always good, and on the way home from ballet last night I figured out the next scene I have to write, which will help me get a running start.

I did a post last year on "TV Laws," on the way things work in the television universe that aren't like real life. I was thinking of some new TV laws and realized there are a whole set of laws applying to writers. Some of these may be part of what leads to the major misperceptions about life as a writer. Where applicable, I'll add the reality check.

1) If a regular character on a television series writes a book, it will be an instant, huge bestseller that immediately makes the author rich and famous. A TV character would never get an average advance and midlist publication, like most authors in the real world. And the book is published (and the money starts rolling in) almost as soon as the character writes it.

Reality: See my post on publishing realities.

2) The writer characters on TV series aren't very creative. The main characters in their books are usually not-so-loosely based on themselves, and all the other characters are based so closely on the other people in their lives that these people recognize themselves and each other in the books. Even total strangers who've read the books will immediately recognize the real people as their characters' counterparts when they meet them. These writers seem incapable of just creating a character out of thin air. Every character has to be based on a real person, and if the writer is blocked on creating a character, all it takes to become unblocked is meeting someone who makes a good basis for a character, and then the writer will have to spend a lot of time with that person to develop the character. If the writer characters work in law enforcement, the cases in their books will all be based on real cases they've worked on. The exception is the rare situation where the cases are made up, but then some deranged fan starts acting them out in reality (and the deranged fan can manage to kill the "characters" since they all have real-life counterparts).

Reality: This does happen, to some extent -- look at all those "assistant to a famous person" books that came out during the chick lit craze, where someone who'd worked for someone famous wrote a novel about someone working for someone very much like the real famous person. But those are special circumstances based on the fame of the people involved. Not knowing the real people involved, I can't say how closely the rest of the characters in those books were based on real people, but my guess is that the non-famous ones were composites or entirely fictional (libel standards are different for people who have "thrust themselves into the public spotlight" so it takes more to prove you've libeled someone who's trying to be famous and living a public life than it does to prove that you've libeled ordinary people who didn't do anything to bring themselves attention). Most novels are entirely fictional, and while authors do sometimes loosely base characters on real people or are inspired by real people, you have to be careful so that the real people can't be readily identified. If you libel a real person who can be readily identified in your work by the general community, that "this is a work of fiction" disclaimer won't be much help. Plus, if you're so creatively barren that you can't make up characters, your book isn't going to be that good.

There are a couple of characters in my books who are loosely based on or inspired by real people. Mimi is a composite of two real people (who utterly loathed each other, which I suppose is ironic in its own way) with a lot of other stuff added in, and a couple of people who worked closely with those people have recognized certain traits in Mimi, but I doubt that anyone who wasn't working with me at the time I worked with those people and who didn't know I worked with those people would ever meet those people and think they inspired Mimi. Her physical description is entirely unrelated to the real people. Mostly, I took some behaviors from real life and put them into a character. They must be pretty common behaviors because I get a lot of e-mail from people who've said they worked with a Mimi. Katie is definitely not that much like me. I certainly didn't intentionally base her on myself, and if I were to talk about her, I wouldn't get my pronouns mixed up.

3) Writer characters on TV have deranged fans who take their books far too seriously, think the characters are real (okay, given the above law, maybe that's not so crazy) and who stalk the writers or the people the characters are based on.

Reality: This does happen, as well, but it's very rare and generally limited to specific genres. I hear about it more in paranormal romance and books of that ilk. It does seem like steamy stuff involving vampires brings out the freaks. I don't know enough mystery writers to know if they get the fans trying to act out their cases. I've yet to have a fan make me really uncomfortable, aside from the men at conventions who come onto me, but I suspect that has little to do with my writing or the content of my books and might even happen if I weren't a writer, given that I'm female, single, reasonably attractive and speak conversational geek.

4) Writer characters on TV are probably writing either a mystery novel or a literary coming-of-age story. A sitcom character may be allowed to try to write a romance novel, but only if it's played for laughs, with the other characters trying to figure out who the hero is (since TV characters are incapable of making up characters) or reading the love scenes out loud.

Reality: the majority of novels published are romance novels. Mystery is actually a fairly small slice of the publishing pie. But I suspect this TV law has something to do with most TV series having something to do with crime.

5) On television, novelists are major celebrities who can get into exclusive nightclubs or who can get impossible restaurant reservations just by dropping their names. And when they give their names, everyone knows who they are. Everyone they run into is a fan.

Reality: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! There are maybe five authors in the world who are that famous -- and even there, I bet you could still run into people who wouldn't know who they were. I have friends who are national bestsellers, and still most of the people I know outside the writing or fandom world have never heard of them. I know people who have had movies made from their books, and I've run into people who saw the movie but still don't recognize the author's name. Sadly, I've yet to be in a non-book-related situation where someone heard my name and recognized me as an author or asked if I was the one who wrote those books. I haven't even had my name recognized at a bookstore when I was paying by credit card and using one of those loyalty cards with a coupon where my name came up. I'm lucky if people in the store know who I am when I show up to do a booksigning. The closest I've come to being "recognized" is at WorldCon, where the occasional random passer-by saw my name badge and said something about my books.

6) Television publishing companies all seem to be based in the city where the TV series is set. They have spacious, plush offices.

Reality: There are publishers outside of New York, but not many, and most of them wouldn't be considered major publishers. There are more agents outside New York, especially since more of them are realizing they can work just as effectively at a lower cost away from New York. I've been in the offices of two major publishing companies, and even the fairly high-up editors have tiny, cramped offices, with just about every surface covered with paper and piles of manuscripts everywhere. A lot of people work in cubicles. In one editor's cube, the "guest chair" was a filing cabinet on wheels with a padded top. It shoved under the desk and then could be pulled out to use as a seat when she had a visitor. I could probably fit three or more New York publishing offices into my office. My agent's office is fairly spacious, but she's not based in New York.

7) Editors and agents on TV shows take a deep, personal interest in their authors' lives and work. They have time to come up with elaborate publicity stunts (like fake crazy fan letters or fake stalker fans), to give relationship advice, to have lunch with their authors all the time (since they all live in the same city), and to provide lots of personal hand-holding if the writer is blocked or struggling. Book publicists sometimes do crazy things like staging crime scenes out of the books to generate publicity. Deranged editors, agents and publicists have even been known to go overboard and commit crimes to publicize books.

Reality: I've generally had friendly relationships with my agent and editors, and we do sometimes talk about our personal lives. I've met my agent's husband. But editors and agents don't have the time to devote all that much attention to any one author, and they're certainly not going to take illegal or unethical steps to promote an author's work. Though perhaps it's different if you're an instant, huge bestseller. I have known a major author who did get the hand-holding and intense attention when she was blocked and on deadline. My agent, editors and publicists have all been total slackers because they haven't staged elaborate murder or crime scenes that are right out of my books in order to get media attention (though that's probably difficult since I don't write a lot of crime or murder scenes), and none of them have killed anyone in a misguided attempt to publicize my books.

(Please note: I was being sarcastic about calling my agent, editors and publicists slackers. I was not implying that they really are because they have not killed on my behalf.)

1 comment:

Brock Atkinson said...

Looking at Television Law #2, look at nearly any work of Stephen King.

I often wonder how many of Stephen King's protagonists are either authors or artists or graphic designers, all living in Maine.

And my favourite author, David Gemmell, based and named some of the villains from his novel after co-workers that he didn't like. When it was found out, he was promptly fired from his job as a journalist or columnist (some job in a newspaper).