(Small SPOILER WARNING if you haven’t read/watched Game of Thrones Episode One yet)
If you’re a writer and you’re tired of feeling guilty every time you switch the TV on then by the time you’ve finished reading this I hope you never apologise for it again. To yourself or anyone else. If you’ve stumbled upon this because your a fan, or found this on one of my feeds or just plain wandered in, welcome. This is for you too. Especially if someone in your life has any kind of creative past-times but also has that nasty habit of binging out on Netflix. I implore you: let them keep it!
I think it’s fair to say that when Stephen King urged us to blow up our TV sets in ‘On Writing,’ it was all a little tongue-in-cheek. I’d bet money on the horror maestro owning a fine quality plasma screen, if only because the same book is littered with references to films that inspired him. Plus he can afford one.
For the record, I do agree with anyone who says that channel hopping through Sky’s 100+ channels of repeats is one of the most useless ways for someone to spend their time, even if they don’t prefer books. The listings might as well be filled with the names of adverts, because occasionally you see a TV show in amongst them. When the analogue signal was turned off in the UK, I didn’t buy a digital box or renew my TV licence, because even the channels without commercial adds were starting to ask me why I wasn’t writing.
But before anyone thinks I’ve converted to the gospel according to The White Dot Society, I still have my TV.
Film and interactive media can help you be a better writer. If you find it refreshing to hear a writer say that, sorry to spoil it for you, but what I’m talking about is not a new or unspoken idea. I’m not breaking a taboo here. Bibliophiles worldwide are not going to die of shock because a writer admitted to having spent whole days playing the Bioshock trilogy, or to watching Hot Fuzz yet again, notebook in hand, hoping to spot yet another in-joke or movie reference. There’s this article on Litreactor about what writers can learn from Breaking Bad. Seriously, it’s a good one. Check it out. Just beware spoilers (I still haven’t seen the final episodes myself yet). Better still, get hold of the Breaking Bad boxset. If you know me, I’ll even lend you mine sometime.
The last time I read The White Dot Society’s website, one of the things they suggested someone might do instead of watching TV was write a novel. Thanks guys, I was already doing that. I completed it, published it, started a sequel, and all the while I still ate dinner in front of re-runs of The Simpsons. But I won’t stick my tongue out at them: they’d only suggest that I could have done more. So….I play guitar too. I’ve been told I’m quite good. By day I’m a countryside ranger – I make my living from going for scenic walks while carrying a variety of power tools. I sometimes go bug hunting with kids. I cook with fresh ingredients most nights. I also went for a 5k run just before I sat down to write this, and that was a little lazy of me for a Saturday afternoon. (Quick edit: it’s now Sunday, and my home wi-fi isn’t working, so this blog post is brought to you by J.D Weatherspoons free wifi and a pint of Not-Sure-But-It’s-Working…. the good old English pub, another White Dot TV alternative.) I have the kind of life that ought to make me a prime candidate for any anti-TV campaign.
I’m happy to disappoint them all, because without consuming other people’s creative efforts my own would not exist. Sorry guys, but having an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as my office, noshing down on fancy food and then cranking my amp’s volume up and pretending I’m Steve Vai in front of my bedroom mirror just isn’t quite enough to inspire me to write stuff. (Neither’s reading for four hours a day. Sorry Mr King!)
I was already writing about people who could play with dreams and memories when I went to see Inception. The guy who sold me my ticket told me it was a candidate for the greatest film ever made. I smiled and nodded and said ‘Can I get a coffee as well please?’ There was no such thing as ‘greatest movie,’ but the guy probably knew that; he was just searching for the highest means of praise he could because the wow effect got him.
It got me too, within minutes of me taking my seat. What I left the cinema with, two hours later, wasn’t a feeling of ‘greatest movie ever’ but a reminder of how something outstanding that someone else has created can both inspire me and really piss me off. Trying to write my own version would be pointless. So would comparing my own work so far with what I’d just seen, despite a few similarities in subject matter and approach. What I did was the same thing so many people who write have done before me: carried on, despite that feeling that I might never match the force of something that had just blown me away. Rather than seeing that great film as untouchable, I saw it as an example of something that a creative director could achieve when he applied himself to the project he believed in. If movies are a quick fix high, then this is the kind of quick fix people like me need to make them do things, even if it’s write a novel rather than a screenplay.
Inception is also a visually stunning film. One of many that’s helped me visualise things that are neither real nor even possible. I may have learned most of my descriptive prose skills from reading, but my brain has limits. Before this descends into the picture being worth a thousand words idea, the prose vs film debate is one I find irrelevant as soon as I remember that they can compliment each other so brilliantly. Watching a film after a whole day spent reading and writing, or even on a day when I’m taking time off from both, is sometimes like taking a break and being on the job at the same time.
For a long time, I avoided watching Game of Thrones because I decided I was going to try the books first. Then I wondered if it might actually be an interesting exercise to approach the series the other way around. My father came to it on the TV first, and in the end I asked him to tell me which he thought I should start with. All he said was ‘They work together pretty well.’ The day after I published Shadow’s Talent, I rewarded myself by just caving in to the lure of the TV. I sat down with my celebratory bottle of JD still going and put the Series One DVD on. I’m surprised I slept for the rest of that week.
The irony wasn’t lost on me that in the first episode, one character has an ‘accident’ while climbing. Bran Stark even looked a bit like Shadow. I just shrugged, poured another drink, and thought about how I sometimes do imagine what the cast would be like if anything I wrote ever did make it to the screen. Then I got to the episode with tomboy Aiya having her first sword lesson. ‘What do we say to Death? “Not today!” ’ Except my tomboy character said: ‘Shadow, I am not planting a fucking memorial tree!’ Bottom line: the same ideas get used by different writers all the time, but the creativity comes in that there’s always a different angle. Sometimes it’s nice to see it from an actual camera instead of the one in my head.
‘Imagine your book is a film and you’re casting it’ is a popular writer’s exercise. Honestly, I’d do Shadow’s Talent with a cast of unknowns, because I can fit very few characters perfectly with A-list names, even when someone at my last reading asked who I’d cast as Shadow I said Asa Butterfield might be interesting, if only because during the writing process I’d paused certain scenes while watching Hugo, because there was the exact stare I wanted Shadow to have. Watching the same actor tackle Ender Wigin last October, when he got to fighting with the other boys it did put me in mind of when…oh hang on, I haven’t written that scene yet…
I could write plenty more about the effect Scorsese’s films have had on my own efforts, and I fully intend to as this section on influences progresses. For now though, take your character to a movie. Or just turn your TV on and sit them on the couch next to you (imaginary friends are fine. Honest.) Look for the angles. Good or bad, what’s on your box will teach you something.