Being an Author in Hollywood

Trying to make a living writing books is difficult, so a word of advice to anyone who’s planning a move to Los Angeles: Stay right where you are. by Marc Weingarten
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Trying to make a living writing books is difficult, so a word of advice to anyone who’s planning a move to Los Angeles: Stay right where you are.

Sure, there are some good things about L.A. I’ve lived here for 25 years and I have no intention of leaving. The weather is nice—you can write al fresco all year long if you want to.

But this a movie town, plain and simple. There are probably more writers per capita in L.A. than in any other city on the planet, but most of them are screenwriters, and they look at books only as raw material for script adaptations. Authors, journalists, poets and playwrights live in L.A., too, but no one bothers to write up our latest deals or interview us about our creative struggles.

I don’t know what it’s like in New York, but given that the city is lousy with print writers, I often imagine that novelist support groups and journalist bitch sessions are taking place in coffee shops from Chelsea to Williamsburg even as I write this sentence.

It’s harder in L.A. to find other book writers to toss around ideas and angst with. The book publishing business is vestigial, at best. In L.A., there are no expensed lunches with your editor, no lattes with your agent. All of my writer friends are churning out scripts for movies and TV, and many of them are quite successful at it. That grinds on your nerves after awhile.

When a book deal does come through for me, my elation is always tempered by the fact that it’s a small pebble in the pond compared to the massive deals my friends at the studios are cutting. Book contracts don’t include back-end DVD royalties, unfortunately.

I suppose it’s no fault of their own, but trying to explain to script people how the publishing business works is a fool’s errand. They just don’t get it. The gestation period of a script is relatively short compared to that of a book, and every time someone asks me, “Have you finished the book?” I want to scream, “It takes years, not months, you imbecile!” Instead I just smile through gritted teeth and tell them it’s progressing.

Here’s another question I get: “Have you ever thought about writing scripts?” In L.A., it seems foolhardy to consider book writing as a vocation. For movie folk, a book is a writing sample for episodic TV, a dry run for the big movie project, a lark. Certainly not an end in itself. You have to have a strong sense of your own personal mission to write serious books in L.A.

And the money. Oy vey. So you think you’re a hot shot because you snagged a $50,000 advance? Not when your old college chum just signed a $4 million deal with Fox to write the final draft of some horror film.

But perhaps I’m overly critical. L.A. is a hard-working town and it doesn’t tolerate slackers—popular myths to the contrary. That ethic may stem from a profound fear of failure. Nonetheless writers are extremely disciplined and work hard to produce. Living in L.A., I’ve learned how to be committed to my craft—to keep at it even when all hope seems lost.

But there’s something to be said about doing something that few others around you are doing. You’re not looking over your shoulder to see if the next guy got a bigger advance or is producing more books. You’re free to work in anonymity in L.A., and that has been salutary for me.

And who knows? Maybe my next book will be optioned for a movie.