I Saw All the Harry Potter Movies

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Unless you’ve all been trapped in a mine in Chile for the last month, by now you’ve seen the charming video So You Want To Write A Novel.  On the wild chance you’ve somehow missed it, it stars two teddy bears, one of whom has decided to write a novel.  The trouble is that he’s doing it for all the wrong reasons.  For example,

Would-Be Writer Bear:I’m going to write a novel.

Incredulous Friend: For the love of all that is holy, why?  I’ve never seen you show even the slightest interest in books…Now that I think about it, I’ve never even seen you read a book.

Would-Be Writer Bear: That’s because all fiction novels suck.

Incredulous Friend: What’s the last book you read?

Would-Be Writer Bear: I saw all of the Harry Potter movies.

Have you ever had a conversation like this?  They usually occur with someone with stars in his eyes and not the first idea of how to write a novel.  I can’t imagine that I really need to tell our faithful readers why this rationale is insane.  But there might be a shiny new person peeking out from behind the lurker’s curtain, so I’ll say it anyway.  Books and scripts are not the same kind of writing.  If you want to write for the movies and television, watch movies and television.  If you want to write books, read them.  Eventually, once you’ve got a real handle on the mechanics of storytelling, the two can overlap a bit, but until you’ve read lots and lots of books, you’re just not ready.  But there’s another form of media that’s equally unhelpful, but insidiously tempting.  The audio book.

Audio books are wonderful inventions.  Generally they’re three hours long, a decent length for the trip to Grandma’s for the holidays or the drive to the beach every summer.  Listening to a story is way more pleasant than the hourly hunt for a radio station or the lonely echo of a car in which everyone’s asleep but me.  I love a good audio book.  But they are not usually good for the would-be writer who’s trying to learn his craft.  Yes, it’s a book, but not the right kind.

Right about now there are one or two folks crossing their arms and frowning at me through the computer screen.  “What does she know,” they’re thinking.  “It takes days to read a book, but I can listen to a book on CD on my way to and from work.  Anyway, a story is a story.  No one will ever know the difference.”  That’s the point…it will show.  Oh, how it will show.  You may not realize it, because you’re too close to the situation, but readers can feel it.

I had a friend a while back who was writing a novel, but claimed he didn’t have the time to read books.  Instead, he listened to books on CD.  Seems like a good compromise, until you realize that most books on CD are abridged.  The juicy details and subplots that make a novel wholly satisfying are cut from the abridged versions, so that the story can fit in a three-hour format.  It’s fine for listening in the car, although even then I’ve had times when I’d suddenly look at my husband and say, “Wait, what was that about the rhino?  Did I miss something?”  Yes, I did – the paragraph that led up to the mention of the rhino was cut out, leaving me, the listener, with no context as to why a rhinoceros was charging down the Champs Elysees.  It happens with abridged books.  Listening to an abridged audio book is just like reading the old Classic Comic book – you’ll get the gist of the story, but something’s missing.  Besides, reading a novel with all the delicious extra bits removed is plain boring.  I know this because that’s how my friend’s novel began to sound.  There was plenty of action, but no depth.  He didn’t seem to see it himself, but it was plain to me that he needed to read a few books the old-fashioned way.

So even though you think your life is already crazy busy, do your best to budget time for reading.   Your future readers will thank you.

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16 comments to I Saw All the Harry Potter Movies

  • Very true. I’d even suggest that listening to unabridged audio books still is fraught with problems for the learning writer. A big problem is that you can’t just stop and look at the text on the page. Understanding how a big block of text reads differently from short blocks, how a paragraph of one sentence can have an impact different than one with two sentences, how italics, skipped lines, and dialogue tags all change the flow and pacing of a story, is essential to growing as a writer. These are things not easily, maybe even impossibly, to be studied through audio books.

  • First of all, thanks for the link to the video. That was hilarious. “I wish I could kill you and get away with it.” Classic.

    You and Stuart both raise great points about the importance of actual reading. I’d add though that I find unabridged audio books very instructive. Nancy, the girls, and I listen to the Jim Dale readings of the Harry Potter series, and they’re wonderful. But they also reveal quirks in Rowling’s writing that I had never noticed before. I think it’s akin to reading one’s own writing aloud in order to hear things that don’t come through on a silent reading. I suppose my point is that as we work on our own writing, approaching our work in a number of different ways can be enormously helpful. Looking for the visual clues on the page is great. But so is hearing it read out loud.

  • Being able to see grammar and punctuation in the writing is another big one you’ll miss with an audio book. As Stuart said, you’ll miss the structure of the piece if you’re just listening to it.

    And when you said an audio book was three hours I went, wha…? It was because we don’t get audio books unless they say unabridged or don’t say abridged, as the case may be. 😀

    And yeah, there are things you can take from novel writing and script writing to help with both. I’ve come to learn that in the past few years as I’ve jumped headlong into screenplay writing. Still, you need to learn the basics of both before you can apply those little interchangeable gems.

  • Sarah Naumann

    This is so true! We so often do not realize how important it is to “see” the story/writing with our own eyes. Some people might want to say: “It’s just letters, dots and dashes!”, but it’s not. It’s so much more. Like Stuart already said, there are so many things being expressed by the “look” of a text.
    Listening to an audio book is like closing your eyes while watching a movie: You get the gist of what is going on but you will never get the whole picture – literally!
    I’ve also noticed that the stories I’ve only experienced through an audio book haven’t stayed with me as long as a book I’ve actually read. Furthermore it can be harder to understand a text that is being read out load to you but that you don’t have in front of you for yourself. I’ve come across this phenomenon more than once and especially in school, when people presented their essays to the class and half of what they wanted to say seemed to have never left the page in front of them: Lost in transition or what?! Consider that an essay written during class usually doesn’t exceed 2-3 pages. Now think of a whole novel with 300 some pages!
    I don’t know if there’s any more to say except that audio books are a fantastic invention but will never be able to really compete with the good ol’ books.

  • I’m with both David and Misty. Love (and learn from) unabridged audio books, hate the cut versions with a firey passion. I will have at least one new post related to audio books next year. That’s all I can say for now 🙂

  • I’ve listened to one, maybe two, audio books. Being one of those vision-oriented people, I find that I drift off when listening. I love books, the kind you hold in your hand, the texture of the paper, the smell of the ink, the slick feel of the cover. So I can’t really comment on audio books as a replacement for *the real thing*. But you are dead-on when you say that writers need to read. We really have to.

    I have friends who work predominantly with plays and screenplays–stage, TV, and big screen–and I can tell when they havn’t read a book recently, when they switch from screen writing to prose without a break. Their work suffers. A lot. And then they will read a few books and it’s as if a switch is flipped in their brain or something. Their work improves.

    Hear me chanting: Books! Books! Books! Books!

  • “Would-Be Writer Bear: I saw all of the Harry Potter movies.”

    This would be fantasy… except for the fact that I had a chat with a lad at a conference a few years back who thought the very same thing, only his franchise of choice was Lord of the Rings.. I had the distinct impression he thought LoTR a higher form of artistic expression that the ‘umble ‘Arry Potter movies

    I didn’t laugh at him until he walked away in high dudgeon that I would call his professional qualifications into question…. rather restrained of me I thought!

  • Sarah

    Oh the teddy bears. Reminds me of a student who said, in all seriousness, “I need to pick up some quick money for the summer so could you give me a list of good places to send short stories?” Mind you this was the same student who refused to revise anything on the theory that if it took that much work to produce it wasn’t a good story to start with and he should just abandon the project and move on. So many bad assumptions there.

    I like audio books for putting me to sleep – it’s soothing and passive to have someone read to me. But I miss so much of the text that way I don’t really learn anything about writing.

  • Bad bear. Bad bear!

    I like listening to audio books on long car rides, though I have to admit my mind tends to wander and I end up rewinding and trying to figure out what I heard last.

    There’s really only one thing to say to people with stupid assumptions like this: Good luck, and see you around.

  • “There’s really only one thing to say to people with stupid assumptions like this: Good luck, and see you around.”

    Ed, isn’t that what you said to me last time I saw you?

  • Young_Writer

    I have a friend like this. Itold he about my novel, and she decided she was going to write one. My little sister and her friend joined in. My friend gave up on page one. My sister… she brainstormed. That’ss all I can give her.

  • Daniel said Being able to see grammar and punctuation in the writing is another big one you’ll miss with an audio book. And Sarah Naumann said This is so true! We so often do not realize how important it is to “see” the story/writing with our own eyes.

    Exactly! The other day I was proofing a paper for my son, and I told him to rewrite a sentence and use a dash. He said, “Why do you put a dash there?” I was struck dumb. I couldn’t quote the rule, but I knew I was right, because I’d seen it enough times to know. 😀

  • Ooh. *cringes* We use both of those voices at work for our digital audio productions. I can even name the voices. The male is ScanSoft Tom and the female is AT&T Julia ;__;

    Of all of the situations like this, the one that keeps coming back to me is that episode of Blossom – the one where she wants to write a romance novel to make money. Of course, it doesn’t pan out, beyond her wild imaginings of being a helpless maiden on a pirate ship.

    I gave up on listening to audiobooks. I was working at a public library and thought it was a good way to multitask while transiting across town. But my focus was elsewhere; I only half-heard the book and it didn’t work. I wound up reading a hard copy. The book, the actual words and word structure root themselves in me. The audio? I tune it out.

    Plus I can’t stand the idea that a book has been abridged. What if I’m missing out on something awesome?

  • Misty> I loved the bears write novels video, and I agree about audio books. But on audio books… I’ve never been able to listen to them. I tried when I used to work out on the treadmill, but they talked too slowly, I guess, and my mind would wander. I can read faster than they can talk, or the talking just didn’t do it for me. Maybe I was listening to the wrong things…I listened to “The Picture of Dorian Grey” and “Wee Free Men” (both unabridged) and it just didn’t work.

  • When I was packing up to leave Starbucks this morning, I actually heard another regular say, “I think I’m going to quit my job and become a writer.”

    I knew he was poking fun at how frequently I’m at the cafe. I looked him dead in the eye and said, “Only if you don’t want a paycheck.”

    His eyebrow cocked and he nodded. “I’d better stay at AT&T.” (Obviously, so he can get paid for sitting at Starbucks.)

    Strangely enough, I thought about this video. Then I got home and check MW. Wammo! It’s funny how many people think they can just whip something off and become an instant Rowling or Meyer. Maybe the media needs to run a few more ‘realistic’ reports on how many writers slave all day without a paycheck. Anyways, thanks for the laugh.
    NGD

    “It’s science fiction crossed with chick lit crossed with literary fiction.”

  • mudepoz

    I do both. I read at home, listen to audio books at work and in the car. I’ve never listened to anything 3 hours or less. They tend to be at least 7. Longest are the Outlander series, although Ayn Rand came close, both were over 40 hours.

    I’ve read a lot of the audio books either recently or in school. The things I’ve missed, because I read quickly and obviously skim, are appalling. There is a place for audio books (though to hear Atlas Shrugged narrator do Urban Fantasy is a bit weird. Although, Atlas Shrugged was an early Urban Fantasy. A motor that requires no energy?)