The peculiar business of writing

I paint, as some of you may know, which has caused me to reflect on the very strange business of writing for profit. My art is sort of commercial, too. I had a show here in Ottawa, sold some paintings. Even now I use one of my drawings as the cover art on a ‘Thank you’ card in my real estate business.

(Well, the one below isn’t actually the one I use, but you get the idea. And it’s not a painting, exactly but a tiny little ink and water colour drawing of Scout and Phoebe, who are best pals. In fact, that’s pretty close to actual size.  But I digress….)

Painting is easy. You decide what you want to paint, set it up, get your materials ready, and away you go. The people who view your art, once you are brave enough to put it out there for showing, either like it or they don’t. The ones who like it a lot buy it.

No-one says, can you go back in and touch up that house, or change the blue to a shade I like better?

A painting  is done when the artist is finished with it. Although I have heard stories about the famous artist who kept sneaking his paintbrushes into the Louvre so that he could tweak his work.

That said, since few artists achieve the level of fame that leads to the big bucks, at least not immediately, they’re left pretty much alone. (Even after that kind of fame, I doubt that there would be a committee formed to tell the artist what they should paint. I can see an agent saying, look, ‘the landscapes are going well, the abstracts, not so much.’ But I can’t see an artist’s agent or dealer saying, ‘more pine trees and lose the birches.’) 

Then again, there’s a fairly direct line of distribution. Artist to consumer, artist to dealer, sometimes artist to agent to dealer. The art moves or it doesn’t.

And then we have books.

Fiction, I’m referring to, of course. (Non-fiction has its own nightmares, particularly the academic side of publication where the battles are just as vicious as they are elsewhere in academia, given that the stakes are so small.)

In the world of fiction, real money is put up front. An editor has to convince his or her publishing house to make an investment that may or may not pay off. An author has to be contracted; advances calculated. And then the book has to deliver, not in ten years or after the author’s death, but from the moment of publication.

Films, I imagine, are  more like books than art. A lot of hands have to touch that product enroute from creative concept to screen. They cost millions, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, and the people investing that kind of money don’t like surprises.

I’ve read many news stories of frustrated screen writers who’ve had to do re-writes to the point where the narrative was no longer recognizable; of directors who’ve had to cut to please producers; of endings changed to placate focus groups, of novelists who hated what all of that did to their stories.

I’m starting to grasp the beauty of self-publishing. Like painting, it’s clean and direct. I think the reason that Stieg Larsson’s books have done so well is that there wasn’t any writing by committee. He wrote the books and then he died. No-one edited them. And they’ve turned out to be just what the public wanted.

I remember, years ago, running for federal office in Edmonton, Alberta. My handlers thought it would be a great idea to videotape me answering questions in a mock session, and then shred my answers to pieces. It was supposed to prepare me.

Instead, it almost destroyed me. I was no longer sure what I thought, by the time they were finished with me. When I look at the actual televised question and answer period that ensued, I look like an automaton, so careful not to offend that I came off as if I didn’t believe myself. And I didn’t. There was nothing authentic about me anymore.

I’m not sure yet, on this journey to publication, where things will shake out. If I start to lose myself in this process, I’m not sure where I’ll land. 

But I know I wouldn’t be very comfortable selling something I’m not happy with. (I’d probably be the person sneaking in with the brushes if that was my painting hanging in the Louvre.)

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