What We Can Learn From
Movies About Failed Writers

By PJ Parrish

So I’m trying to start a new short story the other day. I am determined to open with the weather. Well, the story takes place in the aftermath of a hurricane, so Elmore Leonard be damned.

But nothing is coming, man. I am as dry as…

…the Sahara Desert.

…as a half-gnawed Milk Bone discarded by a toothless chihuahua.

…as a lasagna that’s been sitting in the back of the fridge for a month and the foil has come off and now it has a brown miasmic crust as dry as…

{{{Argh!}}}}

I gave up and turned on the tube. I swear I am not making this up, but guess what movie was just coming on? Throw Mama From the Train.  Where Billy Crystal has a bad case of writer’s block trying to open his novel with weather. “The night was…”

You’ve been there. I know you have. You stare at the screen, your brain turning to sludge. And you get stuck with one bad opening line that, like a terrible earwig, won’t let go. The night was…humid. The night was hot and sticky. No, that’s humid!

I love this movie because it has so much to teach us about how not to write. There are dozens of great movies like this. And each, in its own way, communicates the agony and yeah, the ecstasy of this crazy little thing called fiction. Let’s review. Roll that beautiful bean footage!

Wonder Boys. This is my favorite writer’s movie. Michael Douglas is a one-hit wonder writer/creative writer professor who’s mired in his 2,500-page second novel. He copes by toking up and bedding his students. But then one of his ladies reads his manuscript and tells him: “Grady, you know how you tell us in class that writers make choices? And even though your book is beautiful, at times it’s very…detailed. With the genealogy of everyone’s horses and the dental records and so on. It sort of reads like you didn’t make any choices.”

The Lesson: Good fiction comes from making a very long series of good decisions. About your plot, your characters’ motivations, what tone you’re going for, what your theme might be. Every sentence is a choice; every verb is a choice. One of the hardest decisions, as Grady discovers, is what to leave out. I often, in our First Page Critiques here, ask writers for more description or mood. But sometimes, you have to trust the reader and leave stuff out. Like leave out adjectives that over-amplify mood and let it emerge through action and dialogue (Show don’t tell).

Finding Forrester. Not my favorite writer flick but it has one good scene. Sean Connery is mentoring a prodigy who can’t get started for fear of failure. The young man sits staring at his computer until Connery hands him one of his own stories and says “Start typing this. Sometimes the simple rhythm of typing gets us from page one to page two. And when you begin to feel your own words, start typing them.”

The Lesson: Don’t just sit there paralyzed. Write something. Write anything. Just get started. Perfection is your enemy. A complete first draft is your goal. It won’t be great. But it will be the raw material out of which you will find your way toward the true story. To paraphrase Woody Allen, a writer is like a shark. If it doesn’t keep moving, it dies.

The Swimming Pool. Charlotte Rampling is memorable as a burned-out sexually repressed mystery novelist who retreats to a house in France and…psycho-sexual mischief ensues. And she finishes her book.

The Lesson: Sarah tells her editor she is “fed up with murders and investigations.” Her editor says, “Well, why don’t you confront your critics and write something completely different?” The idea of turning to something new helped get me out of my doldrums years ago when I felt the juice going out of my series. I wrote my first stand-alone, set in Europe, The Killing Song. It re-energized my need to tell stories again. If you are in a similar dark spot, switch gears. Try a short story. Change genres.

Misery. James Caan, sick and tired of churning out his series, gets trapped in fan-girl hell by Kathy Bates and is forced to resurrect the character he killed off. “You…you dirty bird. How could you? She can’t be dead. Misery Chastain cannot be dead!”

The Lesson: Changing genres can be good. Or it can get your legs broken. Also, be careful who you decide to kill off in your books, especially if the character is sympathetic. Yeah, sometimes you have to kill your darlings but don’t be rash.

The Royal Tennenbaums. About a depressed family of former child geniuses with a great parody of writer-ego-writ-large by Owen Wilson as Eli Cash, who poses for photos holding snakes, wears a cowboy hat and turns out dreck like:  “The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. ‘Vámonos, amigos,” he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.”

The Lesson: If you do find success, don’t take yourself seriously. Your work, yeah. But when you show up at Bouchercon, leave the cowboy hat at home, Bucky.

Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s portrait of down and soon dead screenwriter Joe Gillis is one for the ages. Courtesy of Billy Wilder’s whip-snap dialogue like “Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be.”

The Lesson: Be wary of collaborations. And if another writer asks you to read their stuff, be kind. Or you might find yourself face down in a swimming pool, and not a nice sexy one in Provence.

Honorable Mentions:

Kill Your Darlings. Only because it stars Harry Potter as Allen Ginsberg.

Julia. Only because Jane Fonda, playing Lillian Hellman, gets so mad while writing she throws her typewriter out the window. Have so wanted to do that.

Adaptation. Only because Nicolas Cage gives me the creeps with his pitch-perfect personification of the neurotic writer.

Postscript: After you all offered your faves, I have gone back in and added one more. I can’t believe I forgot this one. Talk about neurotic sad writers….how can we forget Miles from Sideways?  He calls his agent to find out what’s up with his novel and well, the publisher has decided to “take a pass.”  Miles doesn’t do rejection well.

Okay, time for you all to weigh in. What movies about writers have moved you? And fora fun, here’s a very clever mash-up video about our favorite writing tool — the good old typewriter!

Watch a supercut of typewriters being used on screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About PJ Parrish

PJ Parrish is the New York Times and USAToday bestseller author of the Louis Kincaid thrillers. Her books have won the Shamus, Anthony, International Thriller Award and been nominated for the Edgar. Visit her at PJParrish.com

42 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From
Movies About Failed Writers

  1. I have two. One is Misery. The book more than the movie, but still. The movie

    The other is The Affair which is a television series so I don’t know if it counts. It’s actually about two authors (among many other things), one being a successful author looking for another hit and the other being his fabulously successful father-in-law.

    Thanks for a very entertaining post, Kris.

  2. “Funny Farm” (the underrated ’80’s flick with Chevy Chase, not the recent TV show I never watched). It’s not a great movie by any means (tonally it’s all over the place), but it does teach a very good lesson about not falling in love with the idea of the novelist’s life before actually…you know…writing the novel. It also cracks me up that Chase’s character, Andy Farmer, is able to quit his job as a sports reporter and buy a gorgeous home in the country on what looks like several acres of land, all on a $10,000 advance from his publisher without his wife working either. Even for 1988, that’s a pretty big suspension of disbelief!

    • Oh, I forgot about Funny Farm! It’s a good one. I love the scene where Andy takes his wife to a romantic night at a hotel and makes her sit there and read his completed MS. He eagerly asks her what she thinks of it.

      She starts to cry. “Burn it!”

  3. That bit about the genealogy of everyone’s horses cracked me up. Good way to start the day! LOL!

  4. I’d add Midnight in Paris. The protag is a Hollywood screenwriter who desperately wants to become a novelist. While vacationing in modern-day Paris, he inexplicably travels to 1920s Paris and meets Hemingway, both Fitzgeralds, and other legendary figures. The scene where Hemingway barks at the protag that he needs to assert himself as a writer is priceless.

    https://youtu.be/3wM06z5lA74

  5. Yup…it’s a gem of a movie, filled with great writerly — and true — moments. That line reminds me of my first encounter with a PJ James novel. It was a good story but man, she gives you the genealogy of every upstairs and downstairs maid.

  6. Romancing the Stone. It moved me to laugh.

    As to that short story: I find nothing more inspiring (about weather) than waking up early and watching the most beautiful explosion of sunrise appearing over the eastern horizon. That moves me to get out the camera.

  7. “Stand By Me” isn’t really about a writer–except it sort of is. Richard Dreyfus plays the grown-up Gordy LeChance writing about the kind of friends you can only have when you’re twelve years old. The final scene–the one that is just the cursor on the green CRT of a new-technology word processor–inspired me to go back the keyboard after a long break.

  8. “Throw Momma from a Train” is such a wonderful writer’s movie.

    My addition to your terrific list is “Whisper of the Heart,” a 1994 anime film from Studio Ghibli, with a great voice cast for the English dub. It’s about a teenage student, Shizuku, a book worm who dreams of being a writer. Her struggles to write her first novel perfectly captures the dilemma of having so much to learn, and having your reach and imagination far exceed your writing skill’s grasp at the beginning of your writing journey.

  9. I’m not a fan of these movies because it’s all whiny self-destructive “writers.” Most may have dumb-lucked themselves into one decent piece of writing like that monkey eventually typing “Hamlet” but fail dramatically after that because they don’t get that writing is a craft and a job.

    A writer’s life hint. Don’t use writing as an excuse to stay drunk, drugged, or over-sexed. That doesn’t make you a writer, it makes you a loser.

    • The exception to your example is the young writer in Wonder Boys, played by Tobey McGuire. He is a young unvarnished talent (The Michael Douglas blocked writer Grady tries to steal his manuscript) who personifies the ideal of hard work and craft. Grady learns from this pup, finally, that there are no shortcuts.

  10. Here’s an interesting duo: Hemingway ‘s A Moveable Feast about his years as a struggling writer in Paris and Paula McLain’sThe Paris Wife written from Hadley’s perspective. Whoa, talk about POV! Reading these back to back was a fun ride.

    • Have read Moveable Feast but not Hadley’s tale. Thanks for the recommendation. Can’t imagine living with that man was easy.

  11. I haven’t see a lot of these movies, so I’m bookmarking this page. I envision lots of hours on the treadmill coming up.

    The only movie I could think of that I didn’t see mentioned was Deathtrap. Maybe not realistic, but very entertaining.

  12. Old Acquaintance is an entertaining Bette Davis film about two friends, one of whom writes trashy novels that make a bundle (Miriam Hopkins) but is extremely jealous of (Bette Davis) who is critically acclaimed but makes no dough. Only a writer would really get this movie.

    There was a famous feud between these two stars, and it came out in this scene:

    • Am not familiar with this one! Thanks…will definitely look it up. I wonder if this was the inspiration for very similar movie from 1981 called “Rich And Famous” directed by Cukor. It starred Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bissett as college friends whose writing paths diverge. Bissett struggles to succeed as a literary novelist while Bergen hits it big writing trashy romances. It has a very similar cat fight scene set in the Algonquin! Had forgotten about this movie til you brought up the Davis one.
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97dXS98TAGw

  13. We just saw a good one not long ago. The Truth About Harry Quebert starring Patrick Dempsey. A young writer heads to Harry Quebert’s home for some inspiration. Instead, he finds Harry’s been accused of murdering a 15-year-old, who went missing years earlier.

    Loved your post, Kris. It’s filled with top-notch advice.

  14. Two of my favorite movies about writers are My Brilliant Career (novel written by Miles Franklin) and Cross Creek, which is about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. They are both set in the early 1900s, like Z is for Zelda, which I just finished streaming.
    Blue Car is a movie about a ‘failed’ poet (David Strathairn) and a student (Agnes Bruckner) who is just getting started.

    • More good suggestions! I love My Brilliant Career. This reminds me to rent it again…haven’t seen it in a long time. Is the Z movie about Fitzgerald’s Zelda? Never heard of Blue Car. 🙂

  15. I can’t believe no one has mentioned The Shining. Maybe you don’t want to be too isolated to write that Great American Novel.

    I would have picked Sunset Boulevard if you hadn’t.

    • In addition to being scary, The Shining is a comedy about writer’s block. Speaking of Sunset Boulevard (gets my vote for funniest movie without a laugh line), don’t forget Barton Fink by the Coen brothers, a horror flic/comedy about a Hollywood screenwriter.

  16. I so enjoyed reading this and have seen many of these, some I’ll be watching later.

    I have to admit that Romancing the Stone was the movie that made me think I could be a writer too. : )

    Stand By Me was hugely influential as well, possibly because it’s all about the storytelling in the end.

  17. Dodie Smith’s “I capture the castle” comes to mind. Bill Nighy’s character is ekeing out a living for his wife and two daughters on the dwindling royalties from is first book, published many years ago. He has writer’s block and cannot start the second book. His teenaged daughter is a would-be writer and at one point locks him in an abandoned tower on their crumbling estate. She tells him to write anything, put words on the page, write ” the cat sat on the mat” if you have too.

    Many other things happen in the movie: love , wants, compromise.

  18. Two more to add: Something’s Gotta Give, where Diane Keaton uses her fling with Jack Nicholson to write a smash Broadway play AND get her revenge; and Death at a Funeral, where one brother who is unpublished finds himself compared to the other brother, who is published. Things to be learned in each and very funny movies.

  19. I love the ending sequence in Little women, where the writer’s book is typeset, printed and bound, and she ends op with her first copy in her arms.

    I remember a movie with Robert Redford where he takes a vacation from writing a book to teach creative Writing, helps a student get a contract with a publisher. I don’t remember the title.

    The girl in the book is about a daughter of a famous writer, who is traumatised by how her father wrote about her.

    How about the movie where a young writer finds manuscript in an old bag and types it out and his friend sends it to a publisher and it become a hit. Then the original writer confronts him with his plagiarism.

    Write what you know. So many movies about writers.

    • That Redford movie sound vaguely familiar but I can’t place the title. Ditto the one about the manuscript in a bag. Darn…now I’m going to be thinking about this for the rest of the day.

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