Monday, May 8, 2017

It's All About the Narrative

I have a confession to make. A deep, dark confession no author should ever have to make, but nonetheless, it is the truth.
I don't read books any more.

Okay, okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not completely untrue. In the past two years, I would be lucky if I've read more than fifteen books. I've started and DNF'ed probably twice that number. It seems that unless a book immediately catches me and pulls me in deep, I don't have the patience to finish it.

Interestingly enough, over the last few years, my consumption of TV series has increased exponentially. I've realized for some time now that I'm getting my regular dose of character, narrative and story line through TV in the same way I used to get it from books. And I wondered, what kind of author does that make me? I actually felt embarrassed to admit that I'm an author who hardly ever reads, because it seems like an oxymoron. An author who doesn't read? Then how am I meant to keep up with the trends in the market if I'm not exposing myself to them?
More on that in a minute.

So I was going along, trying to fit time to read into my hectic schedule -- working around my kids and everything that comes with family. Like many authors, I have a second job to help pay the bills because what I make from my books just isn't cutting it at the moment. And of course there are my own books to write and all the extras -- edits, website upkeep, social media stuff (which I am not good at sticking to on a regular basis anyway). This isn't my excuse for not reading, this is just a statement of fact.

My secondary problem to this is my internal editor. I long ago forgot how to turn it off, so unless a book is really written well and can seamlessly pull me into the story, those mistakes are like flashing neon lights that give me a headache. Also, I worked out that if I'm reading an e-book, I'm more likely to notice the mistakes, probably because the words are on a screen and my brain is now hardwired to see any words on a screen as "work" because of my own writing.
I'm not claiming to be perfect over here, I know some editing errors have slipped through in my own books, but I think if you connect with the writing and love the characters, then it's easier to overlook those minor errors. Which is why some people will love a book I don't, or I might love a book someone else can't stand.

That being said, when I watch a TV show, I'm never completely switched off. On some level I know I'm analyzing the dialogue and character actions, taking in the story in a way most people probably don't when they watch TV. Just as bad writing can make me put a book down, bad writing in a TV show can make me turn it off and look for something better.

My editor and agent have mentioned that I'm a very visual writer, and indeed, you'll find reviews of my books that say things like "I felt like I was watching a TV show or movie!" or "this book would make a great TV show!" Personally, when the whole "show, don't tell" thing finally clicked for me, I realized something startling. When a story comes to me, it's like I'm seeing that story play out on a screen in my head. I'm not inside my character's head, I'm watching them do their thing like I have my own personal cinema for one. And I recognized in my early writing, I was telling people the story happening inside my head, because that's what I thought an author was meant to do. However, I clearly remember having that light-bulb moment when I realized what I needed to do was show people the story happening in my head, and like a writer would in a screenplay, rely more on what the character wasn't saying -- in their posture, movements, physical reactions, etc -- to convey my narrative.From there, my writing took on a life of its own, Atrophy was written, I got my first book published and everything started falling into place.

For me, getting my fix of story, character, and everything that comes with it on the screen is a good thing -- obviously I'm a very visually stimulated person. And I think this could become true of my generation and generations coming up. Think about how many people communicate through visuals -- emojis, memes, gifs -- these days. The book should not get lost in this, to be purely taken over by TV shows and movies. There is nothing quite like being curled up on a couch, lost in an awesome book for a few peaceful hours. And one day when my kids have grown up and my life is less hectic, I know I'll get back to reading possibly a book, or two, or three a week like I used to.

For now, a TV show or two in the evening before I go to bed are serving me well. And in this way, with most TV shows, I'm getting a double dose of story arc. There's the episodic arc, confined into that single episode: the beginning, or inciting incident, the obstacles and confrontation of act two, then the climax and descending action of act three. Secondary to this will be seeds scattered of the season or series arc; the overall plot driving the characters and story to the culminated climax of the show's season.

In essence, this is the same three act structure most novels use as well. Novelists are story tellers. Screenwriters are story tellers. It's just that the medium is different. But does this mean we have to rigidly stick to one or the other if that's where we're producing our art? Obviously, a person is going to need some specific tools when producing the end product; a novel is not set out the same way a screenplay is. So yes, in that case, watching a TV show will not automatically mean a person can write a novel, or vice versa.

However, for those experienced in the format of their chosen profession (these days I could pretty much set out a novel with my eyes closed) I think as long as we're regularly taking in some form of story, be it novel, comic books, TV shows or movies, then the way we consume it shouldn't really matter.

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