Is That a Jackass Writing Your Book?

by Taffy Cannon

We’re all familiar with Very Famous Writers whose books are actually written by others. James Patterson’s franchise pumps out a new book approximately every fifteen minutes, for instance, with a co-author generally credited in smaller type on the bottom of the glossy, embossed cover.

Patterson’s writers work from his outlines and at his pleasure, and millions of readers don’t seem to mind at all. Some of his cowriters spin off into solo careers and others, like my seventh grade boyfriend, already have highly respected literary reputations that don’t always translate into a living wage.

Yes, my seventh grade boyfriend. You can’t make this stuff up.

The idea of farming out the writing of popular fiction is nothing new. Those of us who grew up on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys were shocked as adults to learn that Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon were pseudonyms. Those books came to be through Edward Stratemeyer and the Stratemeyer Syndicate, whose stable of writers also brought us Tom Swift, Cherry Ames, the Happy Hollisters and the Bobbsey Twins. Stratemeyer would submit outlines to his writers and they’d write the books.  I know a number of people who have written Nancy Drews in recent years, and nothing pleased me more than the outing of my favorite Carolyn Keene, Mildred Wirt Benson.

So I get the concept. And while it’s nothing I’d ever want to do, I was taken aback by a recent BBC article on the concept which included this mind-boggling quote: “The notion of having others to produce books has been going on for centuries,” says Anna Davis, a literary agent with Curtis Brown. “The Three Musketeers author Alexander Dumas did it—he had a whole team of authors writing for him all the time. He’d plot things out and have other people do the donkey work.”

Donkey work? Excuse me?

I’ve heard writing called many things, but “donkey work” makes it sound not just demeaning, but also unskilled and boring. Something that can be done by—you know—jackasses.

People write for many different reasons, of course, and since writing is highly individual and personalized, that’s as it should be. However, I’ve always been puzzled by those who say they write so they will have written. In many instances, this goal is wrapped in the gold foil of a half-million copy first printing and tied with a bow subtly printed “New York Times Bestseller List.”

Though come to think of it, this is not really a objective with any subtle elements.

For these folks, the apparent idea is simply to be published and be done with it, and then to get on with the important part: cashing those gargantuan royalty checks and picking out the next sports car. But for me, writing has always been about the process, the conscious and deliberate act of putting words on paper. And yes, decades after I retired my last IBM Selectric and booted up my first PC, I still think of it that way.

Words on paper.

Because to me it is the words that matter, and the process of finding precisely the right ones to tell the story or convey information in the best possible way. Sometimes that involves complexity of imagery and language, and sometimes it requires the utmost simplicity.  Where dialogue is concerned, voice and tone are critical. Sufficient description to bring a character or scene to life in the reader’s eye is necessary, but not so much that the story line is swallowed.

In any case, what it requires at heart is that the writer, in this case me, is making the selection of the right words for the job at hand.

Nor is this limited to finding just the right words. It’s also having them in the right order, paragraphed for maximum impact. Chapters need to be an appropriate length and everything needs to fit together into what I hope will be a wonderful piece of writing with seamless components.

In the process of pulling all those elements together, magic sometimes happens. And when it doesn’t, I still have experienced the joy of process, making those words work together in just the right way.

Process. It’s not just for any jackass.

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3 Responses

  1. Maybe there’s a difference between reading for diversion and taking a writing gig to pay the rent, and writing and appreciating writing for the art that it can be. For hundreds (thousands?) of years the ateliers of master painters and sculptors produced works by the same process that you describe in the writing “workshops” of Patterson and his ilk. Frequently, the master sketched a painting’s outlines, did the face, and left the grunt work of clothing and backdrops to the hired hands.

    In the process you describe, I wonder which is the jackass, the writer or the reader?

  2. Wendy, I mostly agree with what you’re saying here, and while we are not supposed to bite the hands that (occasionally) feed, I do think that (a) it’s the reader who’s the jackass, and (b) so long as she is reading something, I don’t particularly mind. I wanted to hit my head on the wall one time when a writing student explained she liked Patterson because the chapters were short. But I kind of got over it.

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