Working online as a freelance writer means you probably don’t have to deal with too many other arty types. Of course you will have clients, but most of them, by definition, are not arty, because if they were they would be doing the writing themselves.
Being a novelist or a screenwriter, on the other hand, plonks you slap-bang in the middle of La-La Land. Suddenly, although you may be awfully arty, you are the sanest person you know. Because there is a curious group of individuals in every division of The Arts that have little or no discernible artistic flair themselves but who make the key decisions that can make or break your endeavours.
I’m not sure how these people get to where they are. Black magic, probably. I’ve met quite a number in my time as a writer and an actor; people who have never written or acted but who are apparently able to consult their own private oracle on what is good and bad. Once they attain their positions, they are buoyed up by a self-perpetuating Emperor’s New Clothes kinda thing, so that they become virtual gurus whose decisions must be revered, even when they are plainly bollocks.
I wrote a screenplay once that made it to a production meeting at one of the biggest companies in the UK. It was then rejected – something about being “too ambitious”. Whether it deserved to make it is neither here nor there, but shortly before it was mailed back to me I’d watched a much-heralded drama on prime-time TV.
It was a two-parter starring an actress who had recently left a major British soap. The gist was this: a battered wife flees her husband, who escapes jail for his crimes. A few years later, she dyes her hair from blonde to brown and covers her blue eyes with brown contacts. Then she embarks on a new relationship with the guy with the aim of getting her own back. The man cannot recognise it’s his ex-wife, although she looks and sounds exactly like his ex-wife, only with brown hair and brown contacts.
It was simply impossible to suspend your disbelief. To do so, you’d also have to believe that if your spouse came home with a false moustache stuck to their top lip, you’d be so fooled that you’d call the police to have them removed from the property. The plot may have worked with Stevie Wonder playing the guy, but then he would have had trouble being physically abusive in the first place. Damn, bitch, stand still and say something so I can zone in.
This was a show that had been trumpeted on TV every day for a month before showing. It was on massive billboards. It was everywhere. It was pretty much the televisual event of the year. And it was crap as crap can be.
Back to my screenplay … I managed to speak to the main man at the production company (not the one responsible for the aforementioned drivel), and I asked him directly how on earth such garbage had made it to the screen. He groaned and agreed, adding that he couldn’t bring himself to watch the second part because he was so horrified by the first part. He had no idea why anyone could have thought it suitable for production.
The moral of this tale is that there is often no sense to what makes it or doesn’t in the world of freelance writing, or in any of the other Arts. The people making the decisions are sometimes pretty clueless.
Other times I am convinced they are quietly insane.
When I was searching for a London acting agent many years ago, I was summoned down south by a major agency. They had received my CV and – I naturally assumed – liked what they saw and wanted to meet me in person to discuss taking me on. I travelled from Manchester to London at my own expense and went into the West End for the meeting.
The agent sat me down and almost straight away told me that there was once a man who was in the business of trying to raise sunken ships. He had the idea of floating them to the surface using air-filled bags, but found that wasn’t very easy. He struggled and struggled for a solution before finally realising that he could take large amounts of ping-pong balls down and fill the bags with these instead. As many as were needed could be put wherever was desired until the ship began floating towards the surface. The man became rich and successful.
The agent then stood up and opened the door for me, told me not to give up, and showed me out onto the street. I was so dazed by the lunacy of it all that it wasn’t until I was on the train back to Manchester that I realised I should have asked him what the fuck he was talking about, then decked him for wasting my time and money.
The Art world is not a meritocracy. Freelance writing is not a meritocracy. And if the lunatics haven’t exactly taken over the asylum, many of them are certainly posing convincingly as doctors. Whether you are uplifted or dejected by this may be determined by your level of talent; or perhaps you’re sufficiently stoical about life to just think, ah, what the hell.
Any way you view it, all you can do is create your best work and put it out there.
Then steel yourself.