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Monday 5 October 2020

On Writing What You Don't Want To Write - An Essay by Ross Klavan

Today novelist, screenwriter and voiceover artist  takes over our blog to share his thoughts "On Writing What You Don't Want To Write", a craft essay.

Today also sees the publication of Third Degree (, Down & Out Books, 274 pages), a Crime Collection, book three in the 3 Authors, 3 Novellas series, by Ross Klavan, Tim O'Mara, and Charles Salzberg.

Cut Loose All Those Who Drag You Down is Ross Klavan's offering: "A crooked reporter who fronts for the mob and who’s been married eight times gets a visit from his oldest friend, a disgraced and defrocked shrink. The man is in deep trouble and it’s clear somebody is going to pay with his life."

|| Synopsis || Teaser: KCR Preview || The Series || Author Guest Posts || About the Authors || Giveaway & Tour Stops ||

On Writing What You Don't Want To Write

an essay by Ross Klavan

I was young, I had my first agent, he’d gotten a project and they wanted me.  “But don’t take it,” he said.  “You won’t like doing it.  And there’s a particular torture for writers when they have to write something they don’t want to write.”

This is a special category of hurt and anguish (he explained to me) and although I didn’t know it then, I know it now.  It’s not the degree of pain and suffering we’re talking about, it’s more the style.  The manner.  And actually, the idea that you’re complaining about it while others might have to dig ditches in August only adds to the feeling of degradation. 

I once knew a writer who claimed that his high six figure take-home wasn’t enough to dull his hatred of writing CEO speeches for one of our overly large corporations.  What he really wanted, he told me, was to be like Ernest Hemingway [a.ka. 'Papa'].  Some of his massive disposable income was a nod in that direction, he used it for buying Papa’s first editions and financing trips to Key West and Cuba and Idaho and other Papa-esque locations.  But I never bought the anguish.  He may not have loved corporate speech writing but he seemed to hook into the challenge: Playing with the big-boys, interpreting their ideas and making them sound like princes all the while knowing they were mouthing his own words.  So, I’m not including that kind of work.

What about journalism?  As a reporter, you cover a little of everything at some point but the need to make a deadline or find your way into a story or determine what the story actually is or to get a particular interview, any of that can balance out your not really “wanting” to write the piece.  The only time I ever came close to this was working as a reporter for 1010WINS Radio and suddenly being called upon to fill-in for the reporter who covered the then crumbling New York City financial situation.  I hurtled into a meeting with the governor, the mayor, several deputy something-or-others with less than absolutely no idea what they were talking about.  About 15 minutes before I was due live on-air with a report, dripping flop sweat, almost in tears, I begged the New York Times reporter to tell me what I’d just seen.  “CHRIST!” he yelled.  “Why do they send guys who don’t know anything?!?” 

“I-don’t-know-I-don’t-know-I-don’t-know,” I stammered, then said “please” with six or seven “e’s” and pleaded for just two sentences which, out of pity, he spit across to me.  In some ways, this doesn’t totally qualify because the pain and humiliation were over fairly quickly and I had the satisfaction of having pulled my proverbial fat out of the proverbial fire.

Ross Klavan
Likewise, Hollywood.  For a screenplay, from time-to-time you’re asked—or politely ordered—to change a part of your original.  But the money is better than good.  And sometimes it’s actually a better idea.  And sometimes it doesn’t really mean much one way or the other.  And sometimes it’s where you very intelligently explain the incredible thinking and artistry that went along with your scene and the executive in charge explains back, “Let’s put it this way: If you don’t change it, the next writer will.”

Some writers don’t like the process but they like having written, which is a little different, closer to going through a workout to stay in shape.  Some writers have trouble starting, play a lot of computer solitaire or something but they’re fine once the words start to flow. 

What I’m really trying to get to is this…

One year I needed work.  I needed the money (which is often how trouble begins).  I begged my agent—a different agent from the one at the beginning of this piece—and she said, “I’ve got one project.  But don’t do it.  There’s very little money.  And you won’t like writing it.  Also, there’s a particular terribleness about writing what you don’t want to write.”

“Send it my way,” I said.

I can’t go into details because I had to sign an NDA, but let’s just hint that it was a nonfiction book and it involved extraterrestrials.  And she was dead-on about the money.  And the project involved interviews with ET’s, listening to hours and hours of tape recordings, reading piles of documents, going to lectures and talks and meeting the author’s parents who were worried about his state of mind.  For a day or two, I attempted to get into the writing in a manner similar to a decent actor doing a bad commercial—there are no small parts and there must be something to lock onto, a link to the character or situation.  This approach crumbled.  It wasn’t boredom that set in next, it was a strange quality of self-hatred, like someone pushing a hot spear of self-denigration in one ear and out the other while laughing.  Also, unlike a job that merely bores, with writing what you don’t want to write, there’s no possibility of daydreaming or blanking out.  You have to be there to form sentences, one of the more sophisticated actions of the mind.  There was one moment when I suspected my eyeballs would burst and I stopped in mid-sentence, got up from my keyboard and went out onto the street, walking in circles at the corner of 3rd Avenue while verbally slapping myself with, “I can’t do it” and “What did you get yourself into?” and “I’ll never do this again.”

Drinking didn’t help because I knew what awaited me “at work” when I sat down again in the morning.  Talking about it privately got a few laughs but ultimately, I knew, the laugh was on me.  The pay was rotten and it wasn’t a sacrifice for children or family.  And, of course, I knew that the finished product would offer no release.  This kind of work somehow underlined the brevity of all of our lives and the looming eternal darkness that awaited us in the end.  The clock was ticking away irreplaceable minutes.  It was a unique and piquant pain. 

So, take this as an unasked for warning and precautionary tale.  Sort of like the signs with photos that the military used to post to warn against an apt comparison: venereal disease.  Not a grim and deadly affliction, mind you: venereal disease.

“Don’t let this…happen to you.”

Ross Klavan is a contributor to the crime novella trilogy Third Degree.

Third Degree
Available NOW!

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CMash said...

Interesting post!!

bob s said...

And you realize you can never lose your sense of humor through all this.
Otherwise all is lost.

Unknown said...

Wonderful, Ross, and beautifully written as well. You describe exactly how I feel about much of the design and renovation work I've been consigned to do over the last 10 years. Writing is such a relief by comparison, however strenuous, as I don't do it to earn my keep, at least not yet.