Sunday, September 23, 2012

Playing the Role of Writer: Fact vs. Fiction

A couple of weeks ago I went to an early showing of a film currently out in theaters — The Words. It was kind of an early birthday present from my hubby and he'd really been wanting to take me to see it because of the storyline and the fact that it was about a struggling writer who makes some rather unethical choices.

I, on the other hand, was a bit skeptical.

Now, I'm not going to get into the whole plot, which, in my honest assessment, was full of holes, didn't have an enjoyable resolution, and had a couple of pointless characters thrown in the mix. (Yes, Olivia Wilde, I'm talkin' to you!) No, my plan is to take a look at how the main character, Rory Jansen, was depicted as an up and coming writer.

We've all seen the many toiling writers on the screen, from the glamorous Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City, to the grown-up Gordie writing short stories in Stand By Me, to the hellacious twist of Shakespeare's true identity in Anonymous. Or maybe you're one of those who loves the witty repartee found on Castle. But just how true to real life writing do any of these characters come close to emulating?

And that my friends is where The Words really shines!

In all the movies or television shows I've watched, this is the one film that captures a writer's struggles and how hard it is to really break into the industry. Hey, if they have to get the medical lingo right on shows like Grey's Anatomy and ER, then why is there an exception when it comes to the writing world?

Does Rory even come close to doing
the right thing?
Who cares?
At least he acts like a writer!
Multiple Rejections

When I heard Rory say that he had his manuscript out to an agent a friend recommended, I groaned. No, no, no, I thought. No knowledgeable writer would send out a full manuscript to one agent and one agent only! At this point in the film, it was obvious that Rory wasn't even actively querying agents. But then later we see Rory's rejection. And then another rejection. And they keep coming until Rory ends up in that hopeless frustrated spot all aspiring writers hit at some point in the querying process. Yes, yes, yes, I thought. Hollywood finally got it right! 

Keeping a Schedule

When I saw Rory on the screen spending every evening pounding out his manuscript on the computer without a whimsical thought passing through his mind and onto the viewers, I couldn't have been more delighted. One reason shows like Sex in the City and Men in Trees annoy me is the fact that the viewer has to have a running commentary on everything the female characters write. What I wanted to see when it came to Rory's rabid pursuit of a writing career was the fact that he took time at a specific part of each day to work diligently on his novel. No out of the blue strokes of genius here! Nope, he had a schedule every day -- snow, rain, wind, even on lovely summer evenings -- to dedicate his time to getting that rough draft finished.

Agents Don't Fawn

Going back to Men in Trees as an example, Anne Heche's character Marin Frist had agents from all over New York City fawning over her, sending her wine, chocolates, fruit baskets, weekend getaways, just so she would sign with one of them. I find this to be incredibly unrealistic. This day and age of the publishing industry I'd like to know of one agent who has sent anything to any writer just so he/she would sign with them. It just doesn't happen. In Rory's case, it never happened. When he finally submitted a manuscript to the already harried publisher he delivered mail to on a daily basis, the agent was less than happy to see yet another novel cross his desk, and from a nobody writer, no less. 
An agent might like your work,
but don't expect her to faint
from joy!
Agents Do Get Excited About Your Work

That same publisher finally told Rory he read his book and wanted to know if anyone else had read it. Rory said no and the publisher was ecstatic. He loved Rory's novel! Yes, an agent can love your work too!

Writing Can Be a Lonely Profession

If not for Rory's wife, I don't think he would've ever got out much. He was practically glued to his computer. He wasn't letting anyone read his work, and perhaps that's why he suffered so much rejection (actually, I think that's exactly why he got so many of those dreaded form letters). It's hard to let outsiders in, even if it is your spouse, because most times they don't get what you're trying to do. That or they just don't care about reading any novel, not just yours. That's why it's important to have a community of writers that one can tap into. I think Rory's life may have turned out differently if he'd been more open in what he was trying to achieve. Maybe he wouldn't have ended up in such a bind in the end.

Being a Writer Isn't a Glamorous Profession

I say this one from experience. All my writer friends have kids, perhaps a job, late nights doing homework and early mornings shoving kids out the door and running off to work. That time we do get to write is precious. I've met grandmotherly romance writers who prefer writing erotica. I've met sci-fi writers who look like they haven't bathed or slept in more than a week. I've met magazine authors who look like they wouldn't know one thing about the topics they discuss until they open their mouths and wow me. I've met Western writers who love a comfortable pair of boots and some fringe. We don't all teeter around in Manolo Blahniks or shadow police officers for our next story. Every writer is different. There is no mold we all fit into. And Rory's character was no exception. He looked like an Average Joe (okay, with Bradley Cooper playing the role, he was a very nice-looking Average Joe!) who was bumming money from a father who just wanted to see him get a real job. Yeah, we've all been there!

Be Persistent

Even with all the rejection, Rory continued on in his quest. At one point in the film, Rory tossed his manuscript into the trash. That's understandable. Sometimes we feel like we've hit a wall and that no self-respecting agent will ever take our work. But we have to be persistent. I wouldn't suggest following Rory's example in this department (Please, make sure it's your own work you're submitting!), but if you know you create good work and you have faith that there is a market, then keep at it.

I'm curious to know if any of you have seen The Words. Would you agree that it has one of the more realistic takes on being a writer? Are there any other films or television shows that you can think of that properly portray authors? Or ones that really get under your skin?


  1. Dear Sister Mary, Mary,
    I haven´t seen The Words but I also resent the clichéd images of writers in films. It´s all glamour, excitement, they have money to throw away from rooftops, lead jet set lives, etc. Oh, and I forgot. They all look like movie stars.
    It´s why I enjoyed Stephen King´s Misery and Secret Window because they showed famous authors in danger, not leading charmed lives.
    My favorite portrait of a writer as struggling artist is Colin Farrell in Ask the Dust which is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by John Fante. At some point, Bandini, the protagonist is living in a seedy boarding house in Depression-L. He is destitute and still a virgin, so he writes to H.L. Mencken asking for advice. Should an author lead an adventurous life so he has plenty to write about? Mencken writes back telling him that there are two sorts of people: those who live, and those who watch them live and then write about it.
    Finally, my favorite image of a well-established author is in Romancing the Stone. Kathleen Turner is a well know romance novelist, but she is so lonely that when her new novel comes out, has only one person to celebrate with... her cat!

    1. I remember Secret Window, and yes, I found it a fascinating take on an author's mind. I like the craziness that goes on in the MC's head. I also like Misery. But like you stated, both films show authors who are already established in their careers. The only thing I cared for with The Words is that it shows the struggle a writer goes through to get published. Not many stories or films hinge on that one aspect.

      I've not seen Ask the Dust, but I think I might like it. And yes, Kathleen Turner is that wonderfully quirky romance writer, but again, not overly true to the real writing life.

  2. What a great post, Sister Mary!

    I really enjoyed your take on this film. I haven't seen it yet (I've been a little nervous about it) and you're right, Hollywood's depictions of writers are not always realistic.

    I remember Bradley Cooper's other role in Limitless, where he was a struggling writer who hadn't even finished his first draft (maybe not even started it?) but he already had an EDITOR waiting for his ms and calling him (WHAT?) I find it hard to believe that the screenwriter of this film didn't know how the process works, but that was just one of my many problems with this film.

    Some writers in fiction that come to mind are: Meryl Streep in She Devil, Jack Nicholson in As Good As it Gets, James Gardner in Mysery and Nicholas Cage in Adaptation. Streep was a successful romance writer who behaved like a glamorous, self centered and fragile diva. (And a homewrecker!) But since this was comedy/parody, I don't think the accuracy of the profession really mattered, so I prefer this character over Cooper's in Limitless because at least she was funny.

    Jack Nicholson's character was rich and full of contradictions. Who would imagine this obsessive compulsive jerk to write romance? Love it! Like Malena says, some claim that if you're a writer, then you're more of an observer than an adventurer, but in Mysery, the writer becomes the hero. A similar thing happens in Inkheart, where the writer enters his imaginary world (and loves it so much he chooses to stay there.)

    Although I liked Midnight in Paris, I didn't care much for Owen Wilson's character (too Woody Allen-esque with that constant self examination and neurotic New Yorker monologues). I also hated his one-dimensional girlfriend and her parents, BUT I LOVED the plot and the other characters.

    I recently read a very interesting novel about a writer, The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The character is actually very dark, but the process of writing, getting ideas, the torment of writing under a deadline, the loneliness, the self-doubt/failure, and the short success is all there. The best part of the book, aside from the mystery, is when they talk about writing, books and the power of fiction over people's ideas. It's very compelling (but mind you, it has a slow start).

    1. Okay, let me see . . . I've not seen Limitless, so I can't really compare Cooper's two roles. I will say, from your take on the storyline, that no, it doesn't sound believable at all. I often wonder if screenwriters get it wrong because getting a screenplay published is a whole different story when compared to getting a book published. It's a meaner, leaner market out in Hollywood, so maybe the guy or gal who wrote Limitless didn't have much to compare Cooper's character's experience with other than his own. Plus, when a screenplay is bought, it can have the heck rewritten out of it, so maybe the final thought was to get in that one part of the MC getting published right away. I don't know. But, yeah, I can't stand a story that's that unbelievable. Now I'll have to go watch Limitless...

      I was never a big fan of As Good as It Gets, I think mainly because I'm not a Jack Nicholson fan. His character was jerkish and annoying, but I never really took to him. I, also, enjoyed Midnight in Paris, but I'll agree that Owen Wilson's character had the same ticks as Woody Allen. That's why I don't care for many Woody Allen movies -- all the male leads are just like him, and he's kind of an annoying guy to begin with.

    2. I just wanted to add that I finally saw Limitless and, yeah, what a crock! There is no way the MC would have an editor waiting on pages that he can't even seem to write. How'd he snag her anyway without anything written for her to look at? I can just imagine that conversation!

  3. Double typo: James "Caan" was in "Misery", not James Gardner.

  4. I really enjoyed The Angel's Game by Zafon . I got a clearer picture about the torment of writing and the power the reader has in interpreting the writing. It sounds like writers must go through a grueling process of rejection and struggle, but is that not true of all professions ?

    1. I think the process can be grueling, but it's all part of the discipline, at least for me it is. If I can discipline myself to sit down and write X number of words each day, then I know I'm in it for the long haul. The difference, I think anyway, between something like writing or choosing another career is that writers put a ton of work into what they do without little to no rewards for the beginning of their careers. It could be years before they finally publish that first novel. So, yeah, you kind of have to love it to keep doing it!

  5. I haven't seen The Words and am not that excited to see it now, based on your review, Mary Mary, but I'm glad that it's a realistic depiction of the writing life. I am having trouble thinking of almost any other big screen depictions (of any kind) of writers ... didn't Colin Firth play a writer in Love Actually? That's all I got. I seem to remember his character being isolated and depressed, which is another writing-life stereotype (erm, occasionally true!). I do come across a lot of writer-characters in written fiction, though. One that springs to mind is Carol Shield's novel "Unless," which focuses quite a lot on the writing, publishing, agenting, editing process. But the character is an established writer (of "light summertime fiction") at the beginning, so she is not in the endless-query mode. Still, she has real challenges. She wants to break out of her genre and faces a lot of opposition from her controlling editor. Worth a read.

    I haven't seen any of the above movies except Limitless, upon Lorena's suggestion, which was exactly as she described it. :) I guess I did see Misery, but I don't remember a thing about it except the foot-smashing scene. =:0

    1. Yeah, I can see that "writing-life stereotype" quite often in films. But then you get the flipside with all the glamour and high-living lifestyle that is just as stereotypical. There's no good middle ground most of the time.

      Oh, and that foot-smashing scene is so gruesome! It gets me every time!

  6. Malena and Lorena, you've given me some good ideas for other movies about writers actually writing to check out. Thank you!

    Mary, coincidentally, I just saw "The Words" this past weekend and reviewed it. I'm not trying to plug that, but I do want to plug "Stranger than Fiction" with Emma Thompson and (yes) Will Ferrell--or at least add it to the list. It's a comedy, true, but it's my all-time favorite movie about a writer.

    Keep up the great work!

    1. I've seen "Stranger than Fiction" and find it cute and quirky in its own way. As to Emma Thompson's character, I'm not sure I see her role as an author as overly believable. I could, though, see myself sitting around thinking up ways to best kill off my characters!

    2. Yes, but you're probably not nearly as over-the-top neurotic as Emma Thompson's character. At least I'm assuming so. :)


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