Columns > Published on September 11th, 2015

How to Be a Writer (According to Hollywood)

Image from the film Ruby Sparks

Sometimes I think movies about writers made me want to be a writer more than an actual love for literature. When I was a kid, I probably watched Misery more than a hundred times. I was obsessed. This was before I even realized the film was adapted from a novel—hell, I didn’t even know who Stephen King was. I just knew there was a movie called Misery and it rocked my world.

I’m not sure why I felt so connected to a movie about a writer who’s been kidnapped and tortured by a psychopath. Up until then, I’d never written anything—yet, the concept of being a writer had never felt more cool. Here was a movie telling me that if I wrote something powerful enough, and it connected with enough people, my words could be strong enough to influence others to kidnap me out of love for what I do. Perhaps somewhere deep within me exists a masochistic desire to have my feet destroyed with a sledgehammer. Maybe I romanticized the idea of being held prisoner and having to hide drugs and knives inside my mattress. This strange obsession haunted me until I finally wrote a book about kidnapping and got it out of my system.

When I think about Misery now, though, the most appealing aspect is the concept of being forced to stay in one room every day and write. No family, no work, no alarm clocks, no TV, no Internet, no distractions.

Legally, as a writer, you could just declare the murder as “research," and there’s nothing the law can do about it. Don’t you love loopholes?

Just me and a typewriter going to war.

Of course, once in a while I’d have to deal with a maniac threatening to murder me, but hell, I already deal with that kind of stuff on a daily basis, anyway.

Misery sparked a love for “writer movies” that has been with me to this day. I’ve seen them all—many, many times: Barton Fink, Adaptation, Duplex, Ruby Sparks, The Royal Tenenbaums, Midnight in Paris, Stranger than Fiction, Permanent Midnight, The Shining, Reprise, Young Adult, The Squid and the Whale, Leaving Las Vegas, even television shows like Californication and Bored to Death. And I’ll keep watching them until I either die or literally become a writer in a movie. Because writers in movies aren’t like writers in real life—no, they’re this whole new mythological creature that easily rivals any Greek god.

Although movie writers exist on the silver screen, it is not impossible to become one yourself. All you have to do is pay attention to the homework and study your ass off. It is a true art, being a writer inside of a movie. Not many can pull it off—but those who do usually die from alcohol poisoning.

Which brings us to the first lesson on how to become a writer inside of a movie:

You must be an addict.

If movies have taught me anything, it’s that you aren’t a real writer until you develop a serious drug and alcohol addiction. Instead of being a slave to the written word, you become more of a slave to scotch abuse. Pills and cocaine are also pretty popular. There is no such thing as a straight-edge writer. You’re either a hardcore motherfucker deepthroating Jack Daniel's or you’re nothing. And if you aren’t abusing drugs or alcohol, then you’re a recovering addict on the verge of relapsing—and some point soon, you will definitely fall off the wagon. Most likely as a result of being dumped by your significant other.

Yes, you must be terrible at relationships.

Writers are destined to live life alone. Maybe they were once with their true loves, but thanks to either too much boozing or some other pathetic excuse, they are now alone and depressed. It is this failure at relationships that fuels a writer’s vocabulary. Writers are basically blues musicians: if they aren’t suffering from a lost love, then they have no will to write. In fact, the only reason anybody in a movie writes is because of another man or woman. Forget about the possibility that the writer just might feel compelled to create another world using the complicated labyrinths of the mind—no, the writer must only use writing as a reaction to their own lack of relationship skills.

There is one exception to this rule: the writer is currently in a relationship, and they are so obsessed with their current work-in-progress, they completely drive their significant other away. That, or the writer becomes insane and murders their significant other. This happens more than you think, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Legally, as a writer, you could just declare the murder as “research," and there’s nothing the law can do about it. Don’t you love loopholes?

You will always be living off “the last few dollars” of your advance, although those last few dollars will never actually run out.

And speaking of loopholes…

Once you decide to become a writer, you no longer need a day job.

The cool thing about trying to be a writer while existing in a movie is bills and rent cease to be a priority. Either you’re shacked up with someone with lots of cash, or you’re able to repeatedly sidestep your landlord via hilarious shenanigans, or the concept of responsibility just doesn’t exist—either way, your only concern in life is the work-in-progress. Sometimes you’re lucky and you already have one book out, in which case the convenient excuse here is you’re living off the infinite advance from your debut. Because if we’ve learned anything from movie writers, it’s this:

The first book you write will be accepted almost immediately and earn you a huge advance.

Gone are the struggles of rejection and the frustrations of small-to-nonexistent advances. You are a writer living in a motherfuckin’ movie. The rules don’t apply to you! You decide “hey, maybe I could write a book”, then in a five minute montage the book is complete and you’ve already received an acceptance letter and beautiful check with your name on it. Becoming a successful writer is as easy as a how-to video on YouTube. There are Miley Cyrus songs more complicated than this shit.

So you cash the check and the book comes out, and it’s an instant success. Every review circuit in the universe has something to say and you’re invited to many cocktail parties hosted by other pretentious writers who all look vaguely like Jonathan Franzen. But then your neurotic agent begins bugging you about a follow-up novel, and true horror kicks in.

Because to be a proper writer, you must suffer writer’s block for at least one year.

It’s true. Check any guidebook on writing. Everybody goes through a severe stretch of writer’s block. You won’t be able to write a single word for a minimum of twelve months. You will drink more than you already do and have sex with strangers and slap the sides of your head and throw things off your desk. You will always be living off “the last few dollars” of your advance, although those last few dollars will never actually run out. You will allow writer’s block to deconstruct you, because writers are precious creatures who must be constantly pampered. Nothing reinforces this idea more than movies about writers.

And when that writer’s block finally breaks, this time it will only take a three-minute montage to complete the new book. It just gets easier and easier!

At least, until you inevitably commit murder.

About the author

Max Booth III is the CEO of Ghoulish Books, the host of the GHOULISH and Dog Ears podcasts, the co-founder of the Ghoulish Book Festival, and the author of several spooky books, including Abnormal Statistics, Maggots Screaming!, Touch the Night, and others. He wrote both the novella and film versions of We Need to Do Something, which was released by IFC Midnight in 2021 and can currently be streamed on Hulu. He was raised in Northwest Indiana and now lives in San Antonio.

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