Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Editorial: Cassandra Complex - Writers & Wringers

Writing comics; it's the best and easiest job in the world. Right? Antony Johnston's been doing it for a couple of years now, and he's ready to explode a few myths. Especially the one about the hot groupies.
26 March 2004


So, how's the writing going? Busy?

Oh, you know, rolling along. Yeah, pretty busy.

It must be really exciting, being a writer. Gosh, I'd love to write something one day...

So goes the average conversation between a writer and, well, pretty much anyone else who isn't involved in the business of producing fiction. I've often considered turning it around to amuse myself and make a point, but "Gosh, I'd love to repair cars one day" doesn't quite have the same ring to it. Not to mention being, in my case, an outright lie.

It's true that making stuff up and being paid for it is a very enjoyable way to earn a living. You'll certainly never hear me complain about it. But the fact remains that outside of other professions in the industry (in the case of comics, mainly editors and artists) there's a whole world of misconceptions and glamourous fantasies about writing.

(The saddest thing is that some of the most deluded assumptions come from people who actually want to be writers. And not just people who wistfully say, "Ooh, I'd love to write a novel some day," before returning to their cheese and wine, but people who are actually trying to do something about it.)

Now, I'm not one to deny people their fantasies, and there are far worse things to be associated with than leading a glamourous, fun-filled lifestyle. But they are fantasies, and in the case of those people who want to make a living from it, they're potentially enough to drive them away once they realise the extent of the fallacy.

So in the name of public service - and because I find this stuff quite funny - I'm going to try and dispel some of them with my Merciless Wand Of Truth. Or something.

THE MYTH: You can sleep in till two in the afternoon, while away the day scribbling your divinely-inspired ideas on a notepad in the local coffee shop, then spend an hour typing at the computer - during which time the words flow from you like an untamed river of genius - before settling down to watch LAW & ORDER re-runs for the rest of the evening.

THE TRUTH: Maybe... if you're Shane Black. As with so many other myths, this is a cliché projected onto writers by people who might have watched a day-in-the-life documentary about one. But it's a tainted and heavily edited view, because a genuinely "average day" in the life of most writers would send any audience to sleep.

You want to know what writers do for most of their working day? They write. They sit in front of their computer, and they write. Any time they're not sitting in front of the computer is generally spent sitting somewhere else in their study, reading a book they're using for research. Very occasionally, they might spend a few minutes chatting on the phone to their editor about what they're writing.

Just like everything else in life that earns you money, writing is work. Ask any full-time writer what their average day is like, and you'll get broadly the same answer: I sit, and I write, and when I'm not writing I'm either thinking about writing or reading something to do with what I'm writing. It's the only way the work gets done.

THE MYTH: You are friends with every other writer in the business, and regularly pop round to Frank Miller's house for tea.

THE TRUTH: This may be surprising to some of you, but writers (even comic writers) are still ordinary people. Whether or not you become fast friends with Frank Miller has less to do with whether or not you write a Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius, and much more to do with how nice a person you are.

The world of comics is small enough that getting to meet, and even know, someone really isn't that difficult. But would our hypothetical auto mechanic immediately become friends with every other mechanic in town? Of course not. To assume any different of writers (or any artistic profession, for that matter) is folly.

Besides, writers are misanthropic creatures at the best of times. Which brings me to...

THE MYTH: You are a witty and debonair raconteur down the pub and at dinner parties, and your non-writer friends are intensely interested in everything you have to say. After all, you're an Intellectual.

THE TRUTH: Ha ha ha. If you weren't a raconteur before - and frankly, writers are much more likely to be introverted, quiet types who listen more than talk - you're certainly not going to be dazzling people with your amazing tales of how you once spent three hours wrestling with a line of dialogue, until you finally realised you could just cut it and no-one would notice.

Additionally, most writers are generally quite reluctant to talk about the details of their work to non-writers. Sometimes this is down to insecurity; more often, it's because they know how astonishingly uninteresting the truth about writing is to sane people. And most writers would rather listen to someone else talk, frankly. Because it's all research.

THE MYTH: Because you've written a couple of comics, editors from Marvel and DC must be fighting in the streets for the honour of hiring you to write SUPERMAN or WOLVERINE. You just send your ideas to any of these 'publisher' people and they not only read it immediately, but offer you great gobs of money for it, surely?

THE TRUTH: Along with the eternal, "Do you draw them as well?" this is probably the most frequently assumed fallacy most comic writers face when telling people what they do for a living. There's not a lot you can do to disavow 'normal people' of the notion, but among would-be writers it's a terrible delusion to labour under.

If there's one thing in this world of which there's no shortage, it's writers. The people responsible for hiring and firing probably have more choice now than at any time in the last thirty years (because a lot of writers who were around thirty years ago are still going), and the chances of them turning a flagship book over to someone with two or three stories under their belt are minimal, to say the least. In short, don't kid yourself.

(And for comics hopefuls, the correct response to, "But Peter David was unknown when he started HULK! And Alan Moore was nobody when they gave him SWAMP THING!" is, "Yes, and those books were about to be cancelled, too. Do you really think DC is likely to cancel SUPERMAN any day soon? Didn't think so.")

THE MYTH: You have the perfect excuse to read loads of books, because you can look at it as "researching your field". Wow, I wish I had all that free time to read my big pile of unread stuff.

THE TRUTH: Again, ha ha ha. To most writers, "free time" is about as tangible as the Loch Ness monster. And even supposing you're organised and prolific enough to lay your hands on some free time, show me a writer who doesn't have a "to read for reference" pile that would fill your average library, and I'll show you... well, nothing, because you won't find one.

Writers rarely, if ever, have enough time to read all the research they want to get through, let alone reading something just for entertainment. Sure, writers love reading, and comic writers particularly love reading comics - they wouldn't be writing them otherwise - but if you're looking for a job that lets you read everything on that growing "to read" pile, you're better served getting work as a night security guard. Because writing ain't it.

THE MYTH: All you need is a great idea. Writing the story is the easy part; it practically writes itself.

THE TRUTH: If this were so, you'd see a lot more happy writers - not to mention a thousand times as many books, comics, films, plays, etc as there already are.

Ideas are easy. Taking that idea and hammering it into something other people just might want to read, that's the hard part. And there's no other way to do it than by sitting down and writing, on your own, for long periods of time.

As Richard Bach once said, "A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit."

THE MYTH: You get hot groupies.

THE TRUTH: No. Artists get all the chicks.


No new albums this month. In a fit of nostalgia, I've been digging out a few albums from my older collection, and seemed to mainly end up replaying a few classics from flour-choked old goths Fields Of The Nephilim for the last few weeks. If, like me, you've been wondering what growling nutter Carl McCoy's been up to since the frankly disastrous NEFILIM project, there's enough to keep you reading for a week at the man's own website.

Antony Johnston is the author of JULIUS, SPOOKED and THE LONG HAUL. His new ongoing series WASTELAND begins in July 2006.

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