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.