Alex Massie

Not Writing is the new Not Reading

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Jack Shafer explains why journalists are so keen on writing about the Hollywood wrtiers' strike and, more to the point, why we all root for the plucky scribblers in this fight. There's a natural hack-to-hack sympathy here that might, one would imagine, infuriate teachers or postmen or miners or train drivers whose industrial action tends not to be portrayed quite so sympathetically. But it is also true that, as Shafer says, many (perhaps even most) journalists would secretly rather be a Hollywood screenwriter than a beat reporter or pundit.

There's a fine New Yorker cartoon in which one journo wearliy says to his drinking partner - all such conversations must take place in bars you know - "I'm not writing my novel either". Indeed, scan a few hacks' profiles on Facebook and you'll find more than a few who list "Not Writing" as one of their interests or hobbies.

So, having covered the importance of Not Reading Books before, it is time to up the ante and consider the opportunities afforded by Not Writing Books. At first glance this might seem an unlikely proposition. After all, there is the embarrassment one experiences when asked "So, how's the book coming along?" to which the only possible response is a shuffling of feet, a shrugging of shoulders and a mumbling, well, you know... while furtively scanning the room for any unsuspecting stranger who may be used as an excuse to dive out of this ghastly reminder of one's congenital hoplessness. It's coming along, but  - by gum, is that really old Smith-Kennington from back... if you'll excuse me for a moment. Must, simply must have a word...

So many ideas. So much time. So little willpower.

What's needed, then, is a new kind of literary agency. Rather than the established model of matching authors with publishers, we need an agency that specialises in pairing the people plagued by a surfeit of ideas and  deficit of willpower with those afflicted with precisely the opposite condition.

Take Client A, for instance. He swims in ideas every morning. The poor fellow can scarcely read the newspaper without an idea for a short story or play or film or, in exceptionally hideous moments, a poem popping into his head. Why, he says to himself, that's capital material for a writer. Time, surely, that someone made something of it. Alas, Client A has so many notions that no sooner does he sit down to crack on with his latest wheeze than he is socked by another, shinier, better (or at least newer) idea that is, he is sure, this time, the one that will make his bloody name once and for all. Client A, it may not surprise you to learn, is an expert at writing acceptance speeches for prizes given to films and books that remain, alas, unwritten.

Client A desperately needs to be paired with Client B. This gloomy fish does not lack for perspiration. Far from it; he has a surfeit of the stuff. He sits at his laptop for hours on end, painstakingly crafting a paragraph or two. On good days he may make it to a second page before the wind slips from his sails. He is stuck. Becalmed in the doldrums for weeks. If only, he murmurs, I could find an idea or a framework, why Id be off again making fine progress under a full spread of canvas.

Happily there is a solution to this sorry state of affairs. The Distressed Writers Agency is here to help. We have created a number of finely cut packages designed to suit all needs. Plays, novels, short stories, screenplays, librettos, autobiographies an poems* are all covered by our comprehensive range of packages. Vanity publishing a specialty. So too impeccably sourced biographies of fictional historical characters.

For 17% of a hardback advance, 12% of paperback rights, 10% of film and television options and 5% of overseas royalties we will supply the writer who needs just the kernel of an idea to get started with the scenario he requires. All genres covered, though our Historical Division is particularly well-equipped to point the aspiring, but painfully stuck, scribe in the direction of a hitherto under-explored but fascinatingly relevant nugget from antiquity or the middle ages that will send the Blocked Writer to the library happy as he could ever be, now that he has a project to master. We set the hare running, you merely need to complete the course.

For 33% of initial rights, 20% of multimedia considerations and 10% of foreign language sales the Blocked Writer can, of course, receive our famed (and patented) Special Service. In addition to the Basic Service outlined above, the client will be presented with a story setting, a rudimentary plot outline and no fewer than three (but no more than five) detailed character sketches.

But the services offered by The Distressed Writers Agency do not end there. Not by a long shot. No, writers suffering from an acute blockage can make use of the Luxury Treatment. For no less than 51% of all future rights the writer in such desperate straits can call upon our army of creative consultants who will provide a tailor-made (not off the peg!) service that, frankly, beats anything our competitors can offer. We offer on the spot counseling in the coffee shop or cafe of your choice (expenses the client's repsonsibility, naturally). Whether you wish - and, if fact, whether you know you wish -  to write the Great Paraguayan Novel or a Winnipeg crime novel no challenge is beyond our means. You will receive a detailed narrative structure, no fewer than one dozen character sketches and a choice of cunning plot twists (an extra charge will be levied for using both).

As if this were not sufficient to unblock even the most blocked scribbler, The Distressed Writers Agency will also furnish you with a) a movie pitch and b) an outline of a storyboard for your project. Frankly the Luxury Treatment is so good and so comprehensive many satisfied clients ask our operatives why they don't publish their work under their own names. Ah, but ours not to question as who only seek to serve.

Rest assured that all our packages come with a confidentiality agreement**, ensuring that our lights remain hidden under our bushels. You can count on our discretion.

*Costs extra.

**An additional fee is levied should you wish this agreement to cover your posthumous reputation.

[With apologies to Myles na Gopaleen. And, yes, the time spent typing this could have been spent on paying work.]

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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