Most books about writing encourage you to believe that success is easily achieved - all you have to do is just follow three simple rules. Or whatever. The truth is quite different. Writing a book or play is mighty difficult, and it can seriously damage your health - not to mention your relationships, your bank account, and your career prospects. But here at last is a book which tells writers how to survive and prosper while struggling to make sense of the mad worlds of publishing, theatre, television, and film.
"Michael Allen pulls no punches... He tells it like it is... You should buy this book!'
Michael Wilson in Link, the magazine for the National Association of Writers Groups (UK).
WRITING IS AN activity which can seriously damage your health. It can consume huge amounts of time and energy, and it can lead to frustration, rage, and bitterness. The overall purpose of this book is therefore to protect and preserve the sanity of anyone who is unfortunate enough to be afflicted with the ambition to write.
As the title implies, I shall tell you the truth about writing – the truth about your chances of success when you bang your head against the brick wall of publishers’ indifference. As is often the case, the truth does not make for comfortable reading, but the fact that this book does not pull any punches is what makes it valuable to you, the Reader, because most books about writing don’t tell you the truth at all.
Instead, they lead you to believe that success – in the form of money, fame and literary prizes – lies just down the road, and that all you have to do is pay a tuppenny bus fare and you will arrive there almost at once.
Unfortunately, life is not like that, and I have no intention of painting a misleading picture. The authors of other books for writers may be encouraging, cheerful, and full of hope and optimism; I, on the other hand, will be gloomy, pessimistic, and cynical. But I will, at least, be telling you the truth.
The book is aimed principally at those who intend to write novels, but there is much in it which will be useful to those working in the theatre, television, film, or radio.
With any luck, once you understand what an unreward-ing and frustrating business writing is, you may abandon all thought of continuing, and take up something sensible, such as making quilts, or breeding budgerigars. But I doubt it, because most writers are, more or less by definition, completely crackers. They are people who are congenitally incapable of looking a fact in the face and recognising it for what it is. And I speak as someone who has been at it for nearly fifty years, so I should know.
The structure of the book
The book is arranged in nine main chapters.
The first chapter considers the possible rewards of writing – money, fame, literary reputation, and the freedom to ‘express yourself’; and the second chapter explains how likely it is that you will obtain any of these rewards. (Not very likely at all, actually.) These first two chapters are, in short, a crash course in a skill which writers find hard to master: clear thinking.
If, after reading these introductory chapters, you are still suffused by the ill-advised ambition to write, Chapter 3 explains how to decide what it is that you personally hope to achieve through writing. It helps you to determine your own set of aims and ambitions; these, in turn, ought to determine what sort of books or scripts you write.
Chapter 4 describes how the modern publishing industry works, if ‘works’ is not too grandiose a term to use. ‘Staggers along’ might be a more appropriate descrip-tion of how the publishing industry actually operates. Of all the UK media, the book world is the one I know best, and hence I use publishing as an example of the way in which writers are generally regarded and treated. The situation in other media, such as television, the theatre, radio, and film, is not much different.
The fifth chapter is provided for those who are gluttons for punishment. If, in defiance of common sense, you are still determined to write a novel or a play, this chapter is designed to make sure that you have a clear concept of precisely what you are trying to do – or rather, what you should be trying to do. The thrust of the chapter is to argue that what writers are selling is emotion. To this end I provide a summary of what little scientific knowledge there is on the subject of emotion, and I explain how this information can be put to practical use.
Chapters 6 and 7 are thoroughly down to earth, and focus on the practical problems of finding sufficient time and energy to complete your project. You will often come across people who would definitely write a book if only they had the time and energy, and after reading these two chapters they will no longer have any excuses.
The penultimate chapter provides some valuable advice on how to sell your work, or at least on how to get it before the public. The problem of selling your work is normally glossed over by those who write about writing. They tend to imply that it is simply a matter of putting a typescript into an envelope and sending it off to a publisher or producer, who will open it, read it at once, and weep tears of gratitude that you should have chosen her as the recipient of your wonderful, fabulous, incomparable masterpiece. However, since the whole point of this book is to get across to you that such is not likely to be the reaction to your work, this chapter attempts to suggest a few ways forward after you have, inevitably, exhausted all the orthodox avenues.
Finally, Chapter 9 provides what every purchaser of a book on writing is looking for: the secret of success. In this case the secret of success is expressed in mathematical terms! Wow! I give you a scientific formula, no less, one which explains exactly what it is that makes a writer a success overnight! Hot damn. If that isn’t worth the price of the book, all on its own, then I don’t know what would be. And I am assuming of course that you did buy the book with your own money, and not do something sneaky such as borrowing it from a library. In any event, even if you did borrow the book, you will certainly want to buy a copy after reading this chapter, so that you can refer to it from time to time.
Following the last proper chapter, there is a brief envoi, followed by a list of axioms which you would do well to bear in mind.