Friday, June 16, 2006

Television and Your Future Self

I've done 15 signings in the last two weeks, and a lot of people have asked for advice on how to write a novel. I tell them, "Don't watch television."

There's a common misconception that novels get written in a mad rush over a month or two in an isolated cabin or on a mountain top. They don't. They get written an hour or two at a time, day by day, over the course of many years (eight years, in the case of my first novel, Rain Fall).

"An hour or two at a time, day by day, over the course of many years"... well, that's exactly how people watch television, isn't it?

There are only 24 hours in a day, and only so many days in our lives. If you use those daily hours doing one thing, you can't use them for something else. It's that simple.

Television is seductive in part because when you watch an hour-long show, it feels like you've finished something. By comparison, an hour spent on something that's going to take you years to finish feels like nothing at all -- certainly it feels like something that can be skipped without consequences.

But those hours add up, one way or the other.

Think of what you can do with an hour a day for, say, four years. Become a black belt in a martial art. Acquire a foreign language. Learn a musical instrument.

Write a novel.

Or you can have watched many award-winning prime time television shows, all of which are no doubt excellent entertainment and thoroughly enjoyable.

What you can't do is both. You have to choose. There's no right answer; it's a question of what's important to you. But you should choose knowingly. Don't delude yourself into thinking, as you plop down on the Barcolounger and fire up the remote, that one day you're going to rent that isolated cabin and write that novel you've always been thinking about. It won't happen. That one day is today. It's right now. It's every day to come, however many you have.

Having trouble deciding which to do? Here's something that might help.

Have you ever wished you could send a message back in time to your past self, warning yourself to do or not do something you did in the past? Wouldn't it be great if we could do that? Sad that we can't.

But we can do something just as good as sending messages to the past. We can receive messages from the future.

If your future self could send a message to her (or his) past self -- you, today -- what message would she send? Listen hard, and you can hear it.

Is she telling you to watch television for an hour a day? Or is she telling you something else?

Listen to her. She's smarter than you are because she's lived longer. You know she has your future interests at heart. If you listen, really listen, she'll show you the way.


John DuMond said...

Excellent advice. Great post, Barry.

angie said...

We killed our television about six years ago. Okay, technically we just cancelled the cable, but where we live you can't really get anything w/o cable. My husband and I do a lot of different creative things (radio theater, writing, etc.) and the t.v. was just eating our time. We still watch some t.v. shows, but now it's either on dvd or an iTunes download. We spend about a tenth of the time watching shows that we used to. I think it's the difference between streaming media and media on demand. No qualms about hitting the "stop" or "pause" buttons, and none of those pesky commercials. Gotta agree, life's more interesting without it!

Anonymous said...

You should hear the flak (not to mention strange looks) at work when people hear that I not only don’t have cable, but no outside antenna or satellite, only rabbit ears. Needless to say I don’t have much to discuss around the water cooler. I think I am better for it, as are my children.

Anonymous said...

Bravo -

Speaking of books and TV, there is a great book by the name of Four reasons for the Elimination of Television. A very well written and compelling book. It is worth the read even if you love TV and would never give it up.

I have not watched much TV for the last two years - 1 hr a week and it has greatly improved my life.

Richard Cooper said...

Consider me spanked, Barry.

Um, maybe I should rephrase that...

Dream[on] said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dream[on] said...

Excellent post, Barry.

JA Konrath said...

Barry, I have to say that I 100% agree with you on this. Television is a pox on...

hold up, the commercial break is over... I'll finish this later...

Anonymous said...

I stopped watching tv when I discovered that I couldn't find a single show I liked well enough to remember to watch, and the evening news became a litany of despression. I still get my news from the internet, but somehow it distresses me less. Perhaps because there is a bit more content than can be offered in sound bites in between commercials, and I can pick and choose which stories I read.

That said, I did pick up a Netflix subscription to catch up on a backlog of movies I'd never seen. Some writers point out that if you disconnect too much from the larger culture, it can be difficult to accurately reflect that culture in your writing. I can see their point, but I try to stay in tune through means other than tv (ain't the internet grand? ;-) )

In any case, if you really want to write, you absolutely must make the time to do it. As Barry and others have said, it doesn't have to be a lot of time, as long as you keep chipping away at it. There is nothing more satisfying (to me, at least) than the day when I print a draft and realize there is substantial thickness to the ms. Might not come fast or easy, but the end result is worth it.

Silver Surfer said...

Barry - No signings in the southwest part of the country?

Chris said...

I worry that the RSS is starting to become like TV on my PC...the temptation to read posts from my favorite feeds (like this one) consumes more and more time each day.

While it may not be as bad as television, anything which keeps you from your work...keeps you from your work.

Barry Eisler said...

Silver Surfer -- my only appearances in the southwest were in Phoenix and (pushing the SW envelope) four stops in Texas. Maybe more next year...

If anyone's interested, there is a terrific book on the nature and impact of TV as a medium. Not sure if it's still in print, but it's called "Amusing Ourselves to Death," by Neil Postman.

Lee said...

The message from the future is one of the sanest things I've heard for a long time. My first message: go and read a Barry Eisler book, which I've not done - and really had no intention of doing, quite honestly - till now!

Olen Steinhauer said...

Barry, I get your point, but I think like everything it's about moderation. Cutting TV so you can write is probably a good idea when you've got an 8-hour day job (I watched much less in those days), but to tell the truth, I really enjoy television, and watch *more* than an hour a day. Even the crappy shows inevitably give me narrative ideas (either because they did something well, or horribly), which I spend the next day considering.

It can be a matter of how you watch, or how you interact, with the visual medium. For me, films and even certain shows (as well as occasionally music and painting) help my writing about as much as books.

My issue with TV isn't that it cuts into my writing time--I won't let anything do that--but that it cuts into my reading time. Which of course is just as bad!

Don't know how to send a message from the future, but someone recommended a fine way to send one from the past:

Barry Eisler said...

I. Lee -- thanks for the kind words, and for giving the Rain books a try. I hope you enjoy them.

Olen, I don't disagree. If you get more value from TV than you would from doing something else, TV makes sense. To me, the point is to decide knowingly.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Olen about TV sometimes helping with narrative ideas. Television is just another story-telling medium. Overall, the principles are much the same as writing books.

I've noticed a funny thing though. Except for newspapers and magazines and the odd biography, most of my reading material consists of novels. But on the television side, except for Sunday night HBO and long-time favorites like the Simpsons, most of my sporadic TV watching skews toward non-fiction, for lack of a better term. Discovery and History Channel. Documentaries on IFC. (And anything on E! about washed-up stars from the 1980s who hit bottom only to climb their way out of the gutter and "get real" with themselves.) Not sure why that is, but I find it interesting.

Anonymous said...

Hmm Barry,

That was just lovely. Splendid!

I will take your words and "her" to heart.

Thank you,

Sandra Ruttan said...

I tend to agree with you, Barry. Although I'm so obsessive when I'm working, that sometimes, being pried away for an hour of TV is a really crucial mental break.

And we need to keep it so that my husband has something to do when I'm writing. Just got my signed The Last Assassin today, courtesy of Brett Battles, and I'm looking forward to reading it when I can really enjoy it.

Elizabeth Krecker said...

Whether our goal is to write, paint, collect stamps or spend more time with our family, the message from our future self reminds us of what is really important in life.

Much more tangible than the ol' "What do you want people to say at your funeral?" trick. Never could understand that one. Who wants to think about their funeral?

Great meeting you in Phoenix, Barry, and hearing your talk - I just settled in to read my first Rain novel and can't wait to finish it already!

Look forward to meeting you and the gang at Thrillerfest. Maybe one of you will give me an adequate answer as to why you are coming to Phoenix in July. Bring plenty of ice; it was 108 today and doomed to get warmer.

Anonymous said...

Hi Barry,
One thing I've noticed is that as I get older, I find less and less to like on the tube, even with cable. I have two programs I hate to miss, Without A Trace and Law & Order CI, but that's about it. I'd rather read or re-learn Tai Chi or keep plugging away at my writing. I'm trying to listen to my 'once-future (about 15 years ago) self' and start traveling and taking minor risks. I firmly believe we need to listen to that little inner voice even if just once in awhile.
Oh...and I think I learned how NOT to write by watching CSI and clones. Great TV but real?
Hope the tour is going well!

Barry Eisler said...

Harry, great seeing you and Alison in Dallas! Did you see the separated at birth photos at ?

I admit I'm a little biased against TV, but again, as I said to Olen, for me the point is to do things knowingly. Know the costs and benefits and act accordingly. Different people get different value out of different activities; there's no one-size-fits-all. Still, I have a feeling that most people who watch an hour of TV a day could get more value out of other activities.

I like watching TV, BTW. It's pleasurable. That's what makes it insidious.

Sandra, absolutely, for short vegetation breaks, nothing beats TV. Everything in moderation. I've been apalled at times, though, to see how with hundreds of channels and a remote control, those short breaks can last two hours...

Glad Brett handed over your copy of LA; thanks for buying it and I hope you enjoy it.

Great meeting you, too, Elizabeth, and I'm glad I've already received a brief heat inocculation from my recent visit to Phoenix. I plan on spending a lot of time at the pool, that's for sure...

Maryann, good for you, listen to that voice!

The tour is going well, thanks. A little twilight zone-ish at times, waking up in a different hotel room every morning and driving to the next city, but I think I'm getting a lot of value out of it. I'm taking notes as I go on what works, what doesn't, and how, and I'll probably write up some thoughts when it's over.

Okay, off to Louisville...


Barry Eisler said...

LD, like I said, it's a question of priorities...

I've just emerged from two days of profound depression and have barely forgiven you for not coming to Thrillerfest this year...


Sandra Ruttan said...

Actually, thank Brett! It was my birthday present from him - isn't he sweet?!

I don't often get sucked into the TV anymore. I find with hundreds of channels, there's still nothing worth watching on. And NBC cancelled the only new show of the season I even liked, so there goes another year without adding a new show to my watch list. I'm down to The Wire and The Shield, and occasionally SVU, and with TW and TS being half season shows, that isn't much TV.

Allison Brennan said...

I gave up most television to write, but that was largely because I have five kids and used to have a full-time job outside of the house, and the only time I COULD write was either early, early in the morning or after 8 at night when the kids went to bed.

I reward myself when I finish a book by buying a DVD season of a show I missed and then watching it all in a week or two. :)

And now when I'm on a writing binge, I can't unwind at night and end up watching old reruns of current television shows that I'd missed because I was, well, writing.

Loudernhel said...

Funny you should mention that....

I was having exactly this same conversation with a friend of mine who is, arguably, a better writer than me. But I've put together three drafts of one novel, and am plowing my way through the first draft of a second, in the time it's taken him to get "most" of the way done with the first draft of one novel.

I don't know if my stuff is any better, but there is much more of it.

I don't have cable and rarely watch television. When I do, I CONCIOUSLY watch television. I watch because there is a particular program that I feel is well crafted, or is telling me something I need to know. I usually wind up with about an hour a week.

I think when you do everything consciously; “time management” becomes easier. When you follow Musashi’s axiom to “do nothing that is not worthwhile,” you evaluate your choices differently.

I knock down things that keep me from writing. Like Barry said, it’s done an hour at a time, a word of a time. I know too many “writers” who don’t write. They are waiting for the stars and planets to line up.

But to steal a phrase: “The Way of the Writer is in writing…”



Anonymous said...

For me, TV is bad, but the internet can be worse. It's attached to the device I type on, and there's always something out there that's more amusing than the slog of writing. Granted, I'm doing scientific writing not fiction, but the principle is the same. I've had to set some strict limits on my internet time.


RomanceWriter said...

Thank you for posting this. I needed to hear it.

MJShetz said...

Regarding watching television, I have one word: Tivo

It amazes me to no end how many shows that I "think" I will watch end up deleted in the end. It also allows me to watch one episode of a specific show (and skip the onslaught of commercials) and then turn off the TV. But it allows me to do so on MY schedule.

Barry, it was great to see you in Houston again. And perhaps, by your next visit, fewer people will be using the word "like" when they have their books signed.


Anonymous said...

I can live without TV...done that before. But 8 years to write that first book...aghhhhh! Now THAT'S depressing.

Ruth :)

Anonymous said...

Just found this post via discovering your profile on myspace. No tv? With so many great shows?!

I'm with you, though. My tv, to the amusement of my friends, lived in my closet for nearly seven years, only to be taken out on special occasions.

Now DH watches it, and I don't mind toying with the Tivo in that last hour before I fall asleep. I'm still working full-time, trying to earn a black belt, and writing hours and hours a day, though!

But really, you're so right. I tell my students all the time, that they will never look back and think, "Darn! I didn't watch that last episode of Top Model ten years ago!" But they will regret not giving their dreams their all, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

I must say this is good advice, though it looks to me like my voice is one among the masses. *Looks around.* But a writers voice nonetheless. I am fifteen years of age right now, and recently weened myself from Star Trek, which was very hard, in order to multiply my time in writing. Instead, I am stuck with more and more distraction on the computer. Disastrous, I know, to a writer. Though I may be young, writing and creating worlds is already my life, passion, and soul. My imagination is good enough for the job. In fact your comment about sending messages back into time has already spawned a multitude of story possibilites within my labrynthine mind. You and Dean Koontz hav recently given some of the best advice I could hope for. I am going to go out and look for one of your books. . .

~TJ Evans~

P.S. I found your profile on myspace. :P

Anonymous said...

actually this is probably the single best piece of advice that there is for getting the job done, ALTHOUGH I do have to say that there are things that can be studied and learnt quickly and easily from some carefully directed TV watching - storylining, plot development, story arcs, all the kind of stuff. Please dont scorn me for saying this, but watching series like Prison Break or Heroes for instance is a great study in how to cut and sequence a plot to build dramatic tension. Just dont watch it every damn night!

Anonymous said...

"I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received."

Antonio Porchio
Italian Poet 1886-1968

More than a simple sentence expressing my gratitude to you for your insights would render this posting prattle since we do not know each other personally (loss mine).

Suffice it to say Barry, I can tell you what I received...

It clicked. I got it.
Warm Regards and Thanks,
Corky J Dehorty
Phoenix, AZ

Anonymous said...

Mr. Eisler,

Whew! I feel better for being a troglodyte now.

Recently, my neighbor dropped an extra TV on my doorstep -- feeling bad for me, because I did not have one. I felt bad to tell her that I did not beleive in TV's or even like them. She figured I needed a break from my writing and books. I felt bad for leaving it in the laundry room, next to the washer and dryer.

But now I don't so much. I guess, instead of TV -- I choose ME!

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I think probably it's come to a point where I, at least, now have the computer as the greater evil.

The hours spent reading random webpages instead of television are not something that my future self will thank me for.

The problem is that there is the occasional gem. :)

Anonymous said...

the irony of barry e's advice re 'not watch' tv is that he's written such excellent thriller mysteries that one day there may be tv series based on his books! well,...he's got a movie coming out next year!

but life is short and there's only so many seconds in a day.....use your time.... there's eternity in front of you to fritter away.



John O. from The List said...

Did you ever read "How to Live on 24 Hours a Day" by Arnold Bennett?