Friday, September 14, 2007

How Hollywood Gets It Wrong

I’m always baffled (not to mention irritated) by portrayals of authors in movies and television. Authors are stereotyped in the most absurd ways—romance authors in particular--which explains why so many non-writers think we’re either too glamorous to be real or too stupid to live

Here are some myths I’ve seen in movies and on television:

All authors live in New York City and carry their finished mss. personally to their publishers.

Authors published in New York live all over the United States and in England, Canada, Germany, India, Australia, New Zealand, and all points in between. Authors mail mss to their publishers via USPS, Fedex, etc, or through email. Very rarely do they deliver it in person, unless they happen to be in Manhattan with said ms. under their arm and happen to be passing their publisher’s building that day.

Manuscripts are 4-inch thick tomes bound in brown or blue vinyl or whatever.

Manuscripts should not be bound. Mss. are sent to editors loose in a box (priority mail or fedex boxes are perfect with a little bubble wrap to fill in the gaps). Put a rubber band or two around the ms. to hold it steady--that's it. These days, full mss. can be emailed (with prior editor approval!). Maybe this bound ms. myth comes from the fact that movie and TV scripts get bound? Or it's easier for the actor to carry it around the set? This is nitpicky, but it bugs me to no end.

Romance editors loathe their work and would rather be nurturing the next Ernest Hemingway.

Most romance editors are voracious genre readers and love the best authors in romance, mystery, scifi/fantasy, horror. Go on, ask any romance editor what she likes to read for pleasure. I write for editors who love J.R. Ward, Karen Marie Monig, Janet Evanovich, Charlaine Harris, and many more.

The author’s agent or editor flies to author’s house to nurse him/her through their bout of writers block. Editor/agent may stay for the entire movie.

Most publishers have large lists of authors and never enough editors. Editors work from early morning to late at night, often carrying mss. from the slush pile to read on their commute and on vacation. Agents take care of a dozen to fifty clients, and they have the same slush pile issue. These people barely have time to chat on the phone let alone fly to an author’s house to live with him for a couple weeks. Author must get over writer’s block on his/her own.

Editor meets author at coffee house or restaurant and reads ms., usually weeping and raving, while author watches.

This could happen if you and your editor both live in Manhattan. And you’re very good friends. And the editor doesn’t have anything else to do. What mostly happens is you send your finished ms. to your agent, who then passes it to your editor. The editor might send author a brief email saying “got it, thanks!” Depending on the editor’s schedule, you might not hear anything about that manuscript again for another few weeks to months.

All authors live in penthouse apartments in Manhattan, or mansions on the west coast, or both. They attend lavish cocktail parties and rub elbows with celebrities.

Maybe the top, top, top authors do. The household name ones. Cocktail parties with celebrities? Most authors get excited about meeting friends at Starbucks. Many keep on living in the communities in which they were living before they got published. If they’re very successful, they might buy a bigger house, take nice vacations, or have a second home.

An author who doesn’t make the NY Times Top 10 is considered a failure.

I saw this on Veronica Mars once. Veronica’s poor dad only made the extended list. Means his print run was pretty damn good, and he’ll probably make a nice little amount on it, especially if it was a hardback. It’s very, very, very, very, very, very, very difficult to make the top 10. Many authors never will make it, because much of making the big lists depends on print run, genre, and what the publisher and booksellers do with the book.

Addendum: Making a list doesn’t mean the book is a success either. Only the sell-through (the percentage of the print run that sold) determines success. If you make NYT top 10 and sell 30% of your print run, you’re screwed. Sell 70% and never touch a list, you’re cool. I know a couple authors who rarely appear on the lists and make a nice six-figure income every year.

Real authors won’t consider writing genre fiction, and if they do, they invent a pseudonym and hire an actor/actress to personify them so no one will know.

I saw this recently on a British murder mystery (who seem to be the worst culprits in stereotyping genre writers). This scenerio could happen, of course, and I think I remember reading about it happening once. However, most genre writers consider themselves “real” writers and live without shame. If not for genre (horror, romance, mystery, thrillers, westerns, etc.), the book industry would have died long ago.

Authors don’t write their own books. They hire ghost writers and sit back and collect the bucks.

All right, so a couple authors have come forward to say they hire a ghost writer to write while they do the marketing. But by and large, most of us type our butts off, revise our own mss., and spend a lot of our own time and money on promo. Of the writers I’ve met, and I’ve met many, all write their own books.

Plus, the author does have to pay the ghost writer himself, which comes out of his advance and /or royalties. Ghost writers don’t work for free, and the publishers don't pay them. Even if a publisher hires another writer to "clean up" someone's ms., it comes out of the original author's royalties. So it’s not a matter of having someone else work while you collect. You pay your dues one way or another.

If an author isn’t a bestseller right off the bat he/she is a failure and should shuffle back to his/her day job in shame.

Sometimes it takes several books to build an audience. Remember, it’s sell-through that determines a book’s success or failure, not lists. And many authors who weren’t hits at first changed names or genres (or both), started again, and moved on to huge success. They didn't give up. You’re a failure only if you decide to fail.

A broke author who hasn’t turned in a book in years calls his publisher to beg them for money—calling it an early advance on his next work (which he/she hasn’t written).

An author does not get paid until he/she signs a contract (whereupon he/she gets a portion of the advance), and turns in the book (getting the second half of the advance). He’s not going to get a contract unless he has at least a synopsis to show the editor. If no royalties are coming in from his previous book (because it’s out of print or off the shelves), he doesn’t get more money for that, either.

A book is written, edited, proofed, printed, shipped, and on the lists in a couple of months.

Books can be rush-printed if they’re on a timely subject, but most books take nine to eighteen months at the publisher, and that doesn’t include the time for the writer to write it. So the book you’re starting today may not see print for two years. Even the larger e-book houses now have a long lag time between sale and print. I spit my iced tea when I saw this on one of my favorite television shows.

The romance author: She is a woman in her 50s or 60s, wears flowing pastel or flowered garments and heavy make-up, calls everyone dahling and chases every man in the room (to their consternation). Sometimes accessorizes with a long cigarette holder and (horrors) a feather boa. She tells everyone to “feel the passion,” is terminally stupid, and has no clue how she’s made so much money (except, of course, her readers “feel the passion,” too).

If you meet a romance author, chances are you’ll never realize she is one unless she tells you. At conferences most authors dress business or business casual. They look like businesswomen and also grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, and friends, because that’s what they are (and of course some grandfathers, fathers, husbands, brothers). And I’ve never met a romance author who called me “dahling” (for real).

The “has-been” romance author. (Oh, she’s so sad.) She is anywhere from 40 to 60 and rather faded. She used to be a (naïve) bestselling romance author, but then her husband cheated on her or left her (or both), which made her realize that romance wasn’t reality. She can no longer write, because she no longer believes in the romance. She obviously can’t do anything else either, because she sits around in her shabby house and sadly wonders if anyone remembers her.

Most romance authors are very savvy about the real world and the world of publishing. Many are happily married or in long-term relationships—and I guarantee you, marriage will put you in touch with reality (hello?). Some authors have gone through divorce or have had more than one marriage. They understand that not all matches are perfect. And you know what? Most of them still believe in their stories, most continue to write. Even if some are turned off by romance, they might turn to another genre and keep going. Writing is their job, and they continue to do their job—or if they truly can’t write any more, they go find other employment. Romance authors do understand the difference between their own lives and their books.

The cynical romance author: She is the businesswoman who hates writing romance and loathes her audience (coldly calling them nasty names). But her books sell like hotcakes and she’s trapped. She can’t stop. Of course, she longs to write “real” books.

If you don’t buy into what you’re writing, it’s damn hard to write it. You won’t sell like hotcakes for long if you despise your audience and your genre. The cynical romance author could be true, but most romance authors love romance novels. That’s why they wanted to write them in the first place.

The author who has had writer’s block for ten or more years. This one is usually a man who writes literary fiction. He had one brilliant book or two, but he’s run dry. His publisher “understands” and will be there for him when he’s ready. (And his family understands that he won’t be bringing in any income. For ten years.)

Of course the publisher understands. There are plenty of authors to step into this guy’s slot while he’s wrestling with his demons. Sure, he might have been a big seller, but I imagine that within a year or two, the publisher will find someone else who's just as good a seller for them.. There are a lot of authors out there.

Our blocked writer has a breakthrough, produces his brilliant work (in a montage of feverish productivity), and the publisher welcomes him back with open arms.

In ten years the publisher could have been sold, merged, or closed completely. The beloved editor could move, quit, die, be fired, retire. If you don’t write anything for ten years, unless you were mega-famous (a household name) before, you’ll likely start all over again at a new house. If you can sell the book at all.

That wraps up my pet peeves of author portrayls in movies and on TV (and even in novels themselves). If you have any more, feel free to list them in the comments.


charleneteglia said...

Snort. If I ever called my husband "dahling" he'd wonder when my body was stolen by aliens. And the only thing we feel the passion for around here is finding the coffee beans before the pot runs empty. *g*

Jennifer Ashley said...

LOL, Charlene! Keeping a steady flow of coffee is important.

Bonnie Vanak said...

LOL. Add to this list: The Oversexed Romance Author. She does nothing all day long but perform kinky experiments on her lover/husband/willing victim to determine exactly how to write her love scenes. Known for harboring handcuffs and velvet ropes in her bedside table. If you come over to her house for dinner, you'll see the fridge stocked with whipped cream, chocolate and cherries. Her bedroom features a round bed with mirrored ceilings and purple velvet tapestries she got on sale from a honeymoon suite in Nicaragua Falls. ;-)

Patti O'Shea said...

Great list! The movie that immediately popped into my mind was Stranger Than Fiction. The author has been writing her next book for ten years, but hasn't turned it in. The publisher sends her a personal assistant--at their expense--to live with her and babysit her until she turns the book in. Despite not publishing in ten years, said author still lives in a very large apartment and doesn't have another job. I enjoyed the movie, but that portrayal of the writing life made me nuts.


Jennifer Ashley said...

Bonnie: I forgot about that romance author, LOL!! You don't see her as much, but she's out there.

Patti: I hadn't seen this movie, but it illustrates exactly what I'm talking about. Being contract-less for ten years as an author is the same as being laid off and unemployed from any other job, except you don't get a severence package. Unless your previous book was a huge, huge success and stays in print and still produces enormous royalties (a rarity in this day and age--and anyway you only get royalties once a year that long after publication), you can't afford a big apartment. :-)

Thanks Patti and Bonnie!