One of the cardinal rules of writing is read, read, read. Read broadly and deeply. Read everything you can get your hands on. And there’s this sense that, unless you’re writing scripts, you should really turn off the teevee, avoid the theater, and just read.
But you know something? This is weird, maybe, but I didn’t really start improving as a writer until I started watching. I hit a plateau and stayed there for a bit. Yeah, friends and family thought I was some shit, but they’re my friends and family – of course they liked my stuff. Or at least were kind enough to say they did.
I think my problem was that I had a hard time visualizing things. I’d have a few visual images, but a lot of what happened in my scenes was abstract to me. But then I stopped watching movies and teevee as entertainment and started viewing it as work. Really fun work, but work nevertheless.
A perfect storm of things came together when I was writing the novel inspired by C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy. I wanted to write an anti-hero. Not a hero in tarnished armor, but a really truly true anti-hero. Didn’t have any idea where to find one in my story world. Then my best friend came out for an impromptu visit caused by his girlfriend’s parents breaking up with him. He brought the best of Highlander. He introduced me to Methos. Something went bing! in my mind. I watched a few episodes in a sort of stupor and then, while Garrett slept, went out for a walk in the dark. And a voice started speaking to me, telling me the story of his life in a cultured British accent. I’d found my anti-hero. He’s got Peter Wingfield’s voice, Methos’s survival instinct, and no real morals to speak of. Readers loved to hate him and, by the end, hated to love him. Perfect.
Don’t ask me why, but Mission; Impossible II ended up being a huge goad to creativity while I was writing that book. I had a routine established while I was finishing the book: get off work, go to the theater to see MI2, go home and write my heart out. None of the characters are anything like my anti-hero. None of the situations were even close. But there was something about it that made the words flow. The Muse is an odd duck.
But it really all began with…
Buffy and Angel. A friend of mine moved in, bringing his collection with him. I hadn’t had cable for years at that point, had barely watched a movie, much less a television show, and didn’t intend to watch this. When he asked if I minded if he put it in, I humored him. Yeah, sure, why not, if it’ll make you happy? Well, he knows me too well. He put in that episode where Spike’s up on a rooftop making fun of Angel, and it was all over from there. Totally hooked. I watched all available seasons for both series start to finish in the course of a couple of months. I bought all of the DVDs. I barely slept. Because it wasn’t just a couple of shows to me, it was a seminar. Joss Whedon’s a brilliant man. He knows how to tell stories. And if you listen to the commentary, he’ll tell you how to tell stories, too.
I wrote his words o’ wisdom down on notecards. I took what I’d learned and applied it to my own writing. Scene-blocking came much more easily. The romantic bits that had to be there for the plot stopped feeling so awfully stilted. The Big Bad (yes, I ripped that term from him) started looking a little less cliche. I can point to that period in my life as one where everything changed. My writing took off in a new and necessary direction.
Then came Firefly. I’d needed some science fiction. Sure, it’s space cowboy stuff, but it’s outstanding space cowboy stuff, and it’s Joss Whedon. That is all I need to say.
Even with Buffy and Angel’s influence, though, I still sucked at the passionate stuff. Until Alias. Watching the way J.J. Abrams worked the romantic angles in to very face-paced storytelling helped immensely. And another thing I learned from him that’s proven hugely valuable: don’t be afraid to reference off-camera events. Do it. Let your characters talk about things the viewer (or reader) will never directly see and won’t really figure out. It gives the sense of a whole huge world that exists when the viewer isn’t viewing. It makes the whole thing feel more real. As long as you don’t make a big deal over it, it’s a great trick for fleshing out the world, and telling the audience your characters have lives that go on out of their sight.
I don’t watch Alias anymore unless I’ve got a few months free, because I know what happens: I’ll be working on the later books in the series. There’s just something about it that really unleashes the Muse on that time period.
But even Alias didn’t do half as much for me as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I knew Tolkien had inspired very nearly every fantasy writer out there, but I had no use for him. Too wordy, too archaic, and I really didn’t like Hobbits. I went to see Fellowship because a coworker had no one to go with, and I’d heard it was good. Came out of it hyperventilating. That. That. That was it. The sum total of everything I’d ever hoped to accomplish: the drama, the richness of the detail, the compelling characters and tough decisions and impossible odds, the beauty, the darkness…. I went out and got my hands on every book on Tolkien I could find, finally read The Lord of the Rings for myself, and tore down my world in order to rebuild from the ground up (a project still ongoing). Seeing the differences between the books and the movies showed me a thing or two about revision. There’s no part of my writing that those movies, books and all the rest hasn’t affected. And yes, when you see pictures of me and see that ring around my neck, that is indeed the One Ring. I wear it because I made a promise, and because it reminds me of what’s most important in my life: the stories. Always the stories.
Yes, I know. I’m a tremendous geek. Well, you would be, too, if your whole life had got changed like that.
Believe it or not, Batman Begins is the real driving force behind one of the most important characters in the series. I’d loved Batman for a long time, mind you. The idea of a fully-human superhero definitely informs my main character, who’s got all of these amazing powers not by virtue of being born that way, but because, like Bruce Wayne, she works her ass off. They’re quite a lot alike, those two, and I’ve always known it. But that was comic book Batman. When I saw Batman Begins, it felt like looking at Sovaal in a mirror. When you see the trajectory of his life and what he is now, you might catch an echo of it, too. Their lives have been very, very different, but that melancholy intensity Christian Bale brought to the character of Batman is Sovaal to a T. And, considering the series is, at core, all about Sovaal, that’s important. The movie gets him talking. Considering how rarely he talks, that’s an extraordinary gift.
I want to state something for the record right now: I wasn’t watching House when I wrote up some of my main character’s habits, like her propensity for scribbling on markerboards and hounding people for ideas. I’d already written that scene when, one night, ill with labyrinthitis, I collapsed on the couch and decided to see what my roommate had on the DVR. It turned out to be an episode of House, and I watched in slack-jawed amazement as Dr. House did the things Dusty does. I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised. Both of them are somewhat isolated geniuses and Sherlock Holmes fans.
Later, House inspired the psychiatrist character who occasionally pops in for a bit of perspective and random comic relief. And the show has validated my markerboard scenes. I shall let them stand, even though I’ll be accused of imitation.
Finally, we come to the reason why I’ve spent a week pre-loading a month of blog posts in an effort to clear my calendar: Doctor Who. And I would, once again, like to state for the record that I was not a Doctor Who fan and had never seen a single episode of the show when I was writing many of the scenes in which my main character displays a smart-ass sense of humor whilst leaping into chaos with manic delight. Yes, she sounds very much like the Doctor, so much so that when I read out a few bits to my best friend a few weeks ago, he gasped in shock and then started howling with delighted laughter. As he says, she is the Doctor for her universe. That wasn’t intentional. It just happened.
That said, I’m finding enormous inspiration in this show. The storytelling is so compelling that it feels simultaneously like an addiction and like falling in love at first sight. And the reason it compels me so is that it’s prompted me to look at my universe with new eyes. The Doctor’s eyes, even so. Which has forced me to question long-held assumptions. There are many bits I knew were weak, many places where there was a lot of hand-waving and a hearty, “That’s just the way it is!” in place of a valid explanation. There were assumptions I didn’t even know needed questioning until I started viewing things through the Doctor’s eyes. It’s poured new life into the stories I want to tell. It’s given me a new passion for storytelling, for figuring things out, for doing the hard thinking. And I can no longer claim to be an atheist, as I am busy worshiping Steven Moffat.
There are other shows and movies that have inspired bits and pieces, but the above are the main drivers. They’re the ones I can point to and say, “They made me a far better writer.” They keep me writing. They allow me to experience my story worlds with all my senses. And that, my dear flummoxed friends, is why I’ll sit here obsessively watching them dozens of times over. It’s not entertainment so much as education.
Not to mention the most important thing: inspiration.