Many people list reality TV as a “guilty pleasure” (or worse, a total waste of time). But I’ve watched a lot of reality shows over the years, and there are always lessons to be learned. Here are 6 Things Reality TV Taught Me About Writing.
This guest post is by Laura Heffernan. Heffernan is living proof that watching too much TV can pay off. When not watching total strangers participate in arranged marriages, drag racing queens, or cooking competitions, Laura enjoys travel, baking, board games, helping with writing contests, and seeking new experiences. She lives in the northeast with her amazing husband and two furry little beasts. You can find Laura tweeting far too much about reality TV, books, and Canadian chocolate at @lh_writes or like her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/lauraheffernanbooks.
1. How to Receive Feedback
Some of my favorite shows are cooking shows. I used to devour every episode of Top Chef, and I also love watching Chopped and Cutthroat Kitchen. In each show, there’s a point where the contestants present their dishes to the judges. And the judges do not hold back. The chefs stand there, arms folded, faces expressionless while the judges rip apart everything from their food to their very souls, and there's only ever one response. "Thank you, Chef."
Judge: This dish is so bad, I want to kill your mother, dig up her grave, and shove it up her nostrils.
Cheftestant: Thank you, Chef.
(Okay, so that's possibly not a direct quote. But you see what I mean.) A huge part of writing is feedback, and watching these shows week after week helped me to understand that there's only one appropriate response when someone offers feedback: thank them, then go off to scream and cry where they can't hear you.
2. You Can Always Develop New Skills
My favorite part of World’s Worst Cooks is the first episode, where the contestants make their “signature” dishes. These dishes could be everything from your fairly standard, albeit raw/burnt (yes, somehow both) chicken dinner to things like “ketchup sandwich on white bread.” It’s amazing how clueless these people are when they first enter the kitchen, but when they walk out, many of them are excellent cooks.
When I wrote my first manuscript, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought it was “done” at 50,000 words. I thought I just needed to proofread a couple of times, and it was ready go to off into the world of agents. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t). I made a lot of mistakes, because I didn’t know what I was doing. But I listened to others, I accepted feedback (See #1), I learned, and I improved. Are my first drafts now glittering literary masterpieces? Nope! But at least I know how to make them better.
3. There are no Guarantees
Every year, I watch approximately 25 men travel to Los Angeles to vie for the attention of one woman on The Bachelorette. Each is positive that he’s going to win. But it doesn’t matter if a guy is the best-looking, or the best kisser, or the most confident, or the smartest, because that might not be what that season’s Bachelorette is looking for. Getting eliminated didn’t (necessarily) mean that the men on the show were unworthy, or not as good as they thought they were. It meant they weren’t The One.
You can be the smartest person you know, or the best technical writer, or the best at writing emotional scenes/gore/love scenes. But in traditional publishing, much of success is based on being in the right place at the right time. At finding the agent/editor who falls in love with you and your work. When someone tells you it’s not a good fit, it’s not personal.
4. It’s Not as Easy as It Looks
I can’t count how many people I’ve seen strut onto Naked and Afraid, talking about how great they’ll be at living in a jungle for three weeks, and wind up exhausted or crying within just a few days (or sometimes hour).
Getting published seems like a snap, right? After all, [Author You Can’t Stand] did it, and he/she writes terrible books. But writing is about more than raw talent and nerve. You have to be willing to work hard.
5. A Little Time and Elbow Grease Can Make Anything Shine
In Love it or List It, couples who are frustrated with their homes talk to a realtor and a designer, who compete to give them their dream home – both in the old house and the new. No matter how run down the house is in the beginning, no matter what rot is found when they start construction, Hillary always makes the property beautiful in the end. And yet, sometimes, even with all that shiny paint, the owners still decide to move.
There’s a dual lesson here: One, your manuscript can always be improved if you put in the time and effort. But also, sometimes no matter how much you love something, it’s time to move on.
6. Worry About Yourself, Not Everyone Else
One of my all-time favorite reality shows is Paradise Hotel, which aired in 2003. A group of twentysomethings moved into a resort hotel. Every week, couples paired off. Uneven numbers meant that one person would be left out each week, and that person got eliminated. But the show constantly changed. The "cool kids" plotted and plotted to get loner Charla and the equally uncool Dave eliminated. Yet, no matter what they did, the constantly-changing rules favored the underdogs. Scheming led the original front-runner contestants to their downfall.
A few years ago, everyone wanted vampires. Then no one would touch them with a ten-foot pole. For ages, all agents seemed to want first person, present tense in Young Adult works, and now some are getting tired of it. When YA gets too crowded, publishers want Middle Grade. Keeping up with the trends is exhausting, and it seems like no matter what you do, the trends change. So don’t worry about writing the book agents want right now. Focus on writing the best book you can.
7. Never Give Up
There’s an episode of Sister Wives where several members of he Brown family accept a challenge to eat a 72-ounce steak in one hour. (They must be part puma.) Most of the participants start out strong, then taper off. But Dakota, one of the younger teenage boys, just keeps on going. Slow and steady, one bite after another, for the entire hour, even after it’s clear he won’t make it. He was the only Brown standing, at the one-hour mark, smiling at half a plate of steak in front of him. And it was inspiring.
Writing is tough. There will be times you want to give up. But just keep sawing away, one bite at a time. You can’t succeed unless you keep going.
Next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed out about writing, take a reality TV break to recharge. You might learn something unexpected.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.