‘Giving up TV kick-started my novel’

Thank you Witz

 

A perhaps-not-serious remark led this writer to a radical, positive change in his writing habits

It all started when Jonathan Moore, who juggles a full-time job with writing a modern-day adventure-magic-sci-fi novel (not to mention finding time to be an energetic commenter here), mentioned to me that he might give up TV for a month.

He had in mind a radical change, he said. ‘No TV, while I was in my own house. I normally watch six hours a night, so this is a major change. I don’t watch anything I particularly like, I just watch it.’

We all might make resolutions like this but he did it. And in not just any month, but World Cup month – when the rest of the globe probably watched more TV than ever. And he says it has really paid off. He has laced into his rough draft (scraps of dialogue and description) and is now a third of the way through a cohesive, readable manuscript.
 
It is hardly surprising that spending more time on writing means you get more work done. What is surprising is what Jonathan, who perhaps is the chap pictured below, learned about the way his writerly biorhythms work.

‘I’ve always believed I work best between 11pm and 2am. Now I know this is rubbish.  I can work at those times, but my mind is sharper the earlier I work. I can get out of bed and sit straight down at my desk if I want, especially if I’m picking up where I left off.  I had one day where I couldn’t stop writing, and went on till 3am because the ideas kept coming. That was because I’d been working since the afternoon and they’d had time to brew.’
 
There were other benefits too. ‘With the time I’ve freed up I’ve also read seven novels – a lot for me as I had literary burnout after doing a degree in English. When TV was a major factor I was lucky to read one a month, so it didn’t take hold enough to influence my writing style. On the TV-free month I was reading for two to four hours a day and it was far more pervasive.’

That reading soon filtered through to the page. ‘I realized my prose was essentially a screenplay – describing setting in functional way and then going into the dialogue.  I wonder how much of this was due to thinking in TV terms? I’m now more able to find alternative expression because I’m reading novels. You can see what I was reading from how my writing changes. Forster makes me introspective, verbose and loquacious. Raymond Carver makes me more terse.’

So now the experiment’s over, have the old habits crept back?

‘I have to keep this momentum going,’ he says. ‘I take nights off to watch TV episodes before they vanish from I-Player, but I have no desire to go back to watching programmes I have no interest in (which was often under the excuse that they’d be useful to me as a writer). I have to keep going to my desk as early as possible, laying the groundwork for the next step and keeping the story going. I have to keep reading. I have to keep putting the hours in to write something a bit crap so that the next day I can work out how to fix it. And I have to keep making time for this every day. Otherwise I’ll only ever be one of those people who had an idea for a novel once.’

Huge thanks to Jonathan for sharing his experiment here. Have you made a radical change to your lifestyle – permanent or not – to free up more writing time? And did you learn anything surprising, such as how you write best?
 
 
 

 

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  1. #1 by Kathryn Eastman on August 12, 2010 - 11:57 pm

    I haven’t given TV up completely because I think it’s useful to listen to dialogue and language being used (good or bad) and see what works and what doesn’t. However, I am watching very little of it at the moment and getting so much more done, as a result. I agree with Jonathan. I just don’t want to sit and watch programmes I’m not interested in for the sake of watching something. Now I tune in to particular shows I want to see and not much else.

    Interesting post and congratulations to Jonathan for seeing it through in what was a TV-intensive month for most households. He’s obviously taken the decision to commit to his writing and give that precedence.

  2. #2 by rozmorris on August 13, 2010 - 8:47 am

    Hi Kathryn – I agree some input is useful, and actually I prefer films. Our TV reception was cut off when a builder snipped the aerial cable. We found we never missed it, so signed up to LoveFilm instead. Now we just watch what we’ve asked to see.

    Come to think of it, I think I’m even further down the line than Jonathan. I gave up newspapers because I realised I was wading through a lot of rubbish I wasn’t interested in. And having worked in journalism I knew a lot of the material was written because there was space to fill, not because the story needed to be told. I listen to the radio and get my current affairs that way. If a news story grabs me, I can look up more on line. But instead I read books.

  3. #3 by Verdonk on August 13, 2010 - 8:58 am

    If you’re trying to write a novel, TV is definitely a bad influence. The tendency of prose to become a sort of teleplay or screenplay, with descriptive text taking the place of the camera, is the bane of modern novel writing. Good prose can do things TV and movies cannot, and that art is being lost.

    It’s not only a problem in the books that try to emulate TV and movies. Literary fiction, traumatized by the whole idea, retreats into plotlessness: the “fine art” equivalent of prose. Yet novels can be well written and tell a compelling story without simply being a poor man’s TV. It’s because writers are surrendering to the visual media that fewer people are reading books – because, if a novel is just a broken form of a teleplay, you might as well watch TV instead.

    • #4 by rozmorris on August 13, 2010 - 6:57 pm

      Novels have their own strengths. We can get ideas from other story forms, but need reminding of the best ways to use our own medium as well.

  4. #5 by Lua on August 13, 2010 - 9:07 am

    I gave up TV and newspapers a long time ago… I realized that I was actually forcing myself to read the paper- the more I read, the more I didn’t want to read it so I just stopped. With TV- I only watch couple of shows (like House and Lost) because I find the characterizations, the plots and the dialogues fascinating and feel like I can learn something from them.

    • #6 by rozmorris on August 13, 2010 - 6:58 pm

      Lua, I’m a fan of Lost too. Fortunately if I get it from Lovefilm I can gobble up four episodes in one go. It’s a great spur for good storytelling.

  5. #7 by Bluestocking on August 13, 2010 - 1:38 pm

    We cut our cable when my husband was working on his dissertation, and my writing went through the roof. Now we don’t pay for any television services — we just use an internet antenna with our fancy tv, so we still get basic broadcast and public access. I’m still hugely productive and we only turn on the tube to watch a handful of shows at night via broadcast or on hulu, so that we still get the benefits Kathryn and Lua mentioned but not the continual time suck/brain drain that resulted from our tv habits pre-cable.

    • #8 by rozmorris on August 13, 2010 - 6:59 pm

      Bluestocking, I’m amazed at the numbers of people who are admitting here they do without these staples of modern life. The non-writers I mix with can’t conceive how I manage without TV and newspapers.

  6. #9 by Dave Morris on August 13, 2010 - 5:06 pm

    Lua, I’m with you. You can learn a lot from US TV drama at its best: Lost, The Shield, Deadwood, etc.

    (I have to add: you won’t learn a damned thing about good writing from British TV – for which the UK government levies a tax of £145 per household per year. This means that the BBC has now had total investment from the British citizenry amounting to $160 billion – marginally more than the entire cost of the Apollo spaceflight program – and it hasn’t even generated better Teflon, much less a dividend for the fee-paying public!)

  7. #10 by Tom Hansen on August 13, 2010 - 6:13 pm

    Thanks for the post! I turned off Television in our house last year mostly for the cost savings, and have gotten so many more books read! I spend more time playing games with the kids, reading, and writing.

    I do have a couple shows I adore, so I’ve decided to buy them on itunes. Forcing myself to click “purchase” seems a lot harder to do that paying that cable bill each month, so I’ve very selective on what I get. Plus they download and I can watch them anytime so I’m not tied to a specific time I have to be in front of the TV.

    • #11 by rozmorris on August 13, 2010 - 7:00 pm

      Another choosy viewer – thanks for joining the party!

  8. #12 by DazyDayWriter on August 13, 2010 - 6:43 pm

    WISE words: “I have to keep putting the hours in to write something a bit crap so that the next day I can work out how to fix it. And I have to keep making time for this every day.”

    This is always better than facing a blank screen the next day … so even if the final paragraph seems really lame in the morning, well, at least, the edits get you moving again — draw you back into the project.

    Finding “quality time” to write is always tough. I’m reminded of the movie re Tolstoy’s final days (The Last Station, I believe) and how conflicted he was — how he only wanted some peace so he could work. I commend all writers who make progress without sacrificing too much, because then things tend to go in a negative direction.

    Enjoying the journey … a good background thought while pushing ahead each day. Roz, you are brilliant, thanks!

    • #13 by rozmorris on August 13, 2010 - 7:00 pm

      Hi Daisy! Yes, I really liked Jonathan’s line there…

  9. #14 by Terry Odell on August 13, 2010 - 7:30 pm

    I watch very little tv, and if I really want to watch a show, I record it. With the exception of my 4 PM break for Holmes on Homes. Giving up the day job (which was only part-time anyway, and out of my home) gave me more time to write, although I still create better new prose in the late afternoon through bedtime. Hubster’s the one who has to have the television on.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

    • #15 by rozmorris on August 13, 2010 - 11:39 pm

      Making a rule to record rather than watch sounds like a good move, Terry.

  10. #16 by erikamarks on August 13, 2010 - 8:07 pm

    Roz, My husband and I haven’t had a working TV for years–mostly because we have two little girls and don’t want the lure of cable (and this third girl, yours truly, would be the biggest offender of all!)–BUT I do find the internet is the biggest time sucker. To meet my deadline for my editor, I don’t boot up my internet while I work on my manuscript and not having that little bar at the bottom of my page means I don’t find my eye drifting south every few seconds to check email status…it genuinely scares me how much of a tic it had become!

  11. #17 by Verdonk on August 13, 2010 - 10:49 pm

    Erika, same here! If my internet connection is on, I find I’ll check emails and friends’ blogs after every few paragraphs I write. It’s more insidious than TV because it’s on all the time.

  12. #18 by rozmorris on August 13, 2010 - 11:41 pm

    Erika and Verdonk – I sometimes have to unplug. Checking email, blog stats, Twitter stats, book orders is just far too tempting.

  13. #19 by rozmorris on August 15, 2010 - 9:31 am

    I’ve just realised this was my 100th post! I’m waiting for my telegram from the Queen.

  14. #20 by Jonathan Moore on August 16, 2010 - 12:07 pm

    Fame at last!

    Cheers Roz. I’ve printed this post off and stuck it on the wall to reinforce my commitment to not watch rubbish TV. I’d stick it on the TV screen but the wife might object when Come Dine With Me Australia comes on.

    Re. Dave’s comment, I offer: Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Rome, The Thick of It, League of Gentlemen, Pride and Prejudice (for how to adapt), Paradox, Dr Who, Sherlock, The Office, Extras, Marion and Geoff, Alan Partridge, Yes Minister, Edge of Darkness, Our Friends in the North, Black Adder… not to mention the other BBC output of Newsnight, Life on Earth, BBC4’s documentary output, BBC funding for films, and University Challenge. Not to mention BBC Radio and internet pages.

    Yes, there’s a lot of rubbish getting made, and yes it’s more bad than good, but it’s not totally without merit.

    As you can see, it’s a love/hate relationship.

  15. #22 by Dominique on August 18, 2010 - 8:28 am

    I gave up TV a couple years ago. BEST CHOICE EVER. It’s a huge adjustment to make. I remember there would times when I’d glance at the clock and run through all the shows I could’ve been watching at that time. All the channels I could’ve been flipping through. Yeah, it definitely took some getting used to.

  16. #23 by K.M. Weiland on August 19, 2010 - 3:58 pm

    Six hours of TV a day?! Yipes. I’m a huge movie buff, but I rarely watch television except for (American) football once a week in the winter. It can be a time killer, no doubt about that!

  17. #24 by aoifetroxel on August 21, 2010 - 9:03 pm

    I’d grown up television-free until two years ago when we moved house and the house came with one. I would still like to stop watching it altogether, but if you have other people in your house who aren’t of the same mindset, it is extremely difficult.
    I can’t think of anything good that came from getting a television, but I can tell you I was more intelligent than almost everyone in my class, and got extremely high standardised test scores. I also love to read and write.
    That isn’t all because of not having a television, but I would call it a huge contributing factor.

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