The New York Times weekly column “By the Book” interviews authors and famous people about what they read. Most have a bedside table threatening collapse from the mountain of books piled on it. They sprinkle their reading lists with obscure works, like that new translation of a 18TH century Latvian poet I’ve never heard of. I leave the column feeling less well read than the authors.

But that wouldn’t be hard. On my bedside table you’ll find a couple of dust covered paperbacks, a laptop and an iPad. I’ve got books on the devices, but the most book reading I do these days is in the ten minutes before I fall asleep.

I read my favorite blogs, newspapers, magazines and even the occasional long New Yorker article. But I feel guilty, because I’m a novelist. When I was a composer I knew an essential part of the job was listening to and studying music. And I know a writer must read.

The fault for my terrible reading habits isn’t entirely mine. What fascinates me, what at best can keep me up half the night in its grip, is not writing, not books, but stories. And right now the best stories are told in prestige TV series.

Even the most successful writers in my chosen genre of mystery/thrillers bore me. The exception is Lee Child. (He also happens to be the most successful.) It’s no coincidence that Child wrote TV for years before he published his first novel.

My favorite book in the mystery/thriller genre is Gone Girl. I’ve eagerly awaited another by its fine writer Gillian Flynn, but all she’s published in the six years since Gone Girl is one short story. What’s she been doing? Writing TV.

One of the better thrillers I read recently was Before the Fall by Noah Hawley. It sold well, but he’s probably better known for writing the fine TV series Fargo. What I like about his book is that it has the pacing and structural DNA of the best TV series.

It isn’t just that TV is becoming like novels‑some of the best novelists are writing it. David Simon’s latest series The Deuce alone has Richard Price, George Pelecanos, Megan Abbott and Lisa Lutz.

From the Hollywood side, screenwriters are flooding to series television.

None other than director Peter Jackson of LOTR fame confessed on a recent episode of the podcast ScriptNotes that while he’ll always be making movies— because that’s what he does— what he enjoys watching is….TV.

In this NYT article from 2014, two novelists work hard at defending the novel against the onslaught of great TV. What’s telling is one writer’s contention that, “Now that there are these impeccable serial dramas, writers of fiction should feel let off the hook more — not feel obliged to worry so much about plot or character….” 

Sorry. Plot and character are what I read (or used to read) for. I don’t mind a little description of place to set the stage or evoke a mood. But when I read reviews of literary fiction I often feel like those folks are in an entirely different business than me. One critic in the New Yorker went on for many sentences praising a book for its “perfect sentences.” That’s like talking up the perfect notes some guitarist plucks. I don’t give a hoot about how he makes his sound. I care about the music, the same way I care about stories.

Why am I wasting my days writing novels? Were I half (or better, a third) my age, I’d be busting down the doors at the writer’s rooms at  NetFlix and HBO. It’s too late to get in that game. Plus, it’s a collaborative business, never my strong suit. Composing was a good fit, because I got to choose all the notes myself,  not to speak of avoid the rathole of rock band politics.

But I’m watching a ton of TV, and not just watching. I’m studying it, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and why. When I feel that moment of delight that comes from a well-orchestrated reveal, a shocking twist or the satisfying completion of a character arc, I pick it apart. I inspect how that moment was set up, and what was essential to making it work.

I taught myself to compose,  arrange and orchestrate music much the same way—studying pop music on the radio, and later classical with CDs and scores.

All my TV watching has improved my writing. My pacing’s better. My dialog sounds truer. And it’s given me something else that’s hard to describe—call it the physics of storytelling, or maybe the mechanics. Whatever it is, it’s some kind of science, laws governing what makes for the best stories.

Even before the Golden Age of TV, back with what I call “bad old TV” —with insufferable laugh tracks, creaky jokes and plot surprises you could spot coming a mile away—the medium was influencing novels, at least popular ones. Descriptive passages have gotten shorter. Writers come into scenes later and leave earlier. They end chapters with cliffhangers getting you to read the next, just as TV writers set a hook before commercial breaks.

Though in that case it’s a matter of novels influencing TV: cliffhangers started with Scheherazade and were later popularized by Charles Dickens. Though I have no doubt that if he were alive today he’d be working alongside David Simon, Ann Biderman, Mathew Weiner and all the fine showrunners, making great TV.

 

My novel NEVER SPEAK is available at Amazon here.

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

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Comment by Anna Herrington on February 5, 2019 at 10:51am

I so relate to the part where you write, I’m studying it, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and why. When I feel that moment of delight that comes from a well-orchestrated reveal, a shocking twist or the satisfying completion of a character arc, I pick it apart. I inspect how that moment was set up, and what was essential to making it work.

...and many more books are using a scene form for chapters, little or no transition paragraphs, on and on. My favorite book read within the last couple years is All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and part of why is how he set up the book this way. Chapters are usually very short, scenes really.... and yeah, his word choices, sentences, seem perfect. That too. (and I do get so tired of literary fiction that seems preoccupied by perfect sentences, as if that is the only point... while nothing really happens and the characters are unpersonable. to the extreme.)

Last weekend I attended an all day workshop on storytelling. Oral storytelling. It was a fantastic exercise on writing, too, inadvertantly, using what you've written about here, shortening description, beginning closer to or in the middle of action/tension. At the end, several of us stood up and told our story in front of over 40 people. That also let the writer in me understand so much, while listening:  pacing, what grabs attention, what is extraneous, on and on.

A fascinating craft with endless opportunity to learn more, writing. You inspire with your persistence and tenacity to keep going - and get published!

Enjoyed this.

(and I plan to buy your book soon. Will review, maybe, although I tend to be a reluctant reviewer in general...but I get how it helps the writer. I've asked our excellent local library to buy a copy or more, too. )

Comment by John Manchester on February 5, 2019 at 11:24am

Anna, it is so great to have a fellow traveler, with a passion for writing craft! When I try to discuss this stuff with non-writers (and even some writers) they have no idea what I'm talking about. 

And thank you for telling your library about the book.

Comment by koshersalaami on February 5, 2019 at 8:22pm

My favorite writer these days is probably Aaron Sorkin. 

Comment by John Manchester on February 5, 2019 at 8:54pm

KS, thanks for reminding me of him. While I loved Social Network, I thought Jobs was weird. But I barely know his TV work. I should get to know it better. 

Comment by koshersalaami on February 5, 2019 at 9:20pm

It’s his TV work I really like most. I watched four series. The West Wing is the most famous. Sports Night was good, as was The Newsroom. 

Comment by John Manchester on February 6, 2019 at 9:34am

Thanks, KS. I will start with West Wing.

Comment by koshersalaami on February 6, 2019 at 1:56pm

There comes a point at which Sorkin left the series, about when John Goodman joined the cast. I’m not sure I’d bother continuing. The Newsroom is the shortest and the most recent. It also has the best theme music, in part because of orchestration. 

Comment by John Manchester on February 6, 2019 at 3:12pm

Then I'll do Newsroom. Thanks!

Comment by Tom Cordle on February 6, 2019 at 6:14pm

I spend so much time writing, I don't do much reading except on the computer, and that's not reading for enjoyment. The last book I remember reading was McCollugh's Truman bio, and even after a thousand pages, I hated to have it end.

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