Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Writer as Superhero

A couple of years back, I wrote a blog about being commissioned to write a non-fiction book. As usual, it swayed back and forth between expressing gratitude for getting any sort of commission at all and moaning about deadlines and time scales. In the end, it led me to claim a sort of parity between writers and superheroes. It was written in a plane on the way home from London.

London’s not my favourite city (Paris is way ahead in that race) but, for a provincial like me, it’s still an exciting, fascinating place to be. The impression everywhere is that things are happening, people are on their way somewhere.  Even the Trafalgar Square tourists and the Regent Street shoppers seem purposeful. Actually, come to think of it, maybe that’s why I prefer Paris. Over there, they stop and sit sipping coffee and Pastis to watch others go by. I know it’s a cliché but they do linger over seemingly endless lunches and, rather than try to catch up with time, they’re savouring it as it passes. It  suits my preference for languor over action.

However, one of the reasons for my London trip was business-related. I was there to meet with a publisher to discuss writing the non-fiction book I mentioned, all 145,000 words of it. It was an interesting, challenging project and, unlike with fiction, there was a guarantee of publication. In the end, as a wee bonus, it turned out to be ‘only’ 110,000 words long but it still meant setting aside my preferred state of languor and working full time to meet the deadline.

It was as I was thinking ruefully about having to give up all my time to the project for the foreseeable future that the notion came to me that the business of writing fits into all the superhero stereotypes. People such as Billy Batson and Clark Kent live along their ordinary lives, lost in the crowd. Suddenly, duty calls and, with a quick detour to a phone box (harder and harder in these days of mobiles/cell phones) or a cry of ‘Shazam’, they’re transformed into an extraordinary being.

It’s the same with writers.

There they are tweeting, trying to remember the lead singer of some forgotten 70s group for a Facebook challenge and generally behaving like all the other feckless mortals around them when suddenly they get the tap on the shoulder from their muse, agent or publisher and Blat! they morph into creators of new universes, using their powers to help others escape the mediocre. Only when the job is done do they switch off their power source or put down their pen and disappear back into the humdrum.

The only trouble is that it takes Captain Marvel and Superman just a few minutes to stop Jupiter crashing into the McDonald’s where some 5 year old kids are celebrating a birthday party. The poor writers have to keep it up for months. At this point, I set aside the comparison because I realised that I was exhibiting symptoms you never see in Batman and the rest – self-pity. But then I got home, opened up the emails and was faced with a nice, polite message from the publisher saying it would be good if the book could be finished by the end of the year. (This was in June.) I resisted the temptation to ask which year he had in mind. But it did put the final nail in the coffin of my superhero comparison.

I must learn to resist the temptation to whinge. You never hear Superman begging Lex Luthor to take a time-out, do you?

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