OK, I admit it. My secret vice is watching crap TV. You know the sort of thing – programmes that are evidently low-budget, involve supposedly real people in real situations, on during the day time, and that make the mind boggle that such people exist. The kind of programme you don’t admit to watching even to your best friends. The sort of programme some people pretend they’ve never even heard of. Programmes that leave a warm hug of schadenfreude behind. Addictive, enjoyable, totally veg out crap TV that is surprisingly good for writers. And if you’re still not sure which programmes I’m talking about, I mean Botched, Tattoo Fixers, Secret Eaters, any programmes about doing up or selling houses, Bridezillas, Don’t Tell the Bride, any programmes where angry brides/ dance instructors bitch-slap each other, Wanted Down Under, Escape to the Country, Bargain Hunt, Crap in the Attic (sorry, Cash in the Attic), TOWIE, Real Housewives of Nowhere You’ve Ever Heard of, Posh Pawn, and anything that involves people with no brains and too much money spoiling pets/ children/ cars/ property.
Now before you come over all ‘you’d never catch me watching rubbish like that’, one, I don’t believe you – we’ve all been caught watching Hoarders at some point - and two, crap TV has a lot to offer us writers. Here’s how:
1. It’s all about conflict
When I teach writing workshops and explain that the energy in a story comes from the conflict, often people think that conflict means fighting, and that characters should be squabbling all the way through. Conflict actually just means anything that stands in the character’s way, whether it’s missing the bus, a letter not being delivered, illness, lack of self-belief, or getting soaked in the rain.
Crap TV is full of conflict. Take Secret Eaters (known in my house as Secret Scoffers), one of my favourites. In it, people who are overweight keep a food diary in which they record everything they eat. The diary always shows that they eat nothing but carrot sticks and lettuce leaves. Unbeknownst to the participants, however, a team of private investigators has rigged up their home with CCTV, they follow them every step they go, and log every single mouthful. Low and behold those mouthfuls turn out to be cake, chips, pizza, beer and kebabs. Confronted by their own self-delusion, they instantly mend their ways and drop a stone in two months.
Here’s the conflict: wanting to lose weight but being unable to do so, and unable to see where you might be going wrong. Deluding yourself that you eat a healthy diet and ignoring the fact that biscuits still count even if you eat them in secret. Being confronted with your own bad habits. Being followed by a private detective.
Or how about those ‘My house is a tip but I can’t understand why no one wants to buy it’ shows? The people are desperate to move, have had the house up for sale for years, and no one has put in an offer. Along comes Mr or Ms Expert on Selling Houses, who instantly spots that they have Grandad stuffed and on display in an armchair in the sitting room. “Do you think the fact your dead grandfather is in the house might be putting people off?” the expert asks.
“But this is our house!” they cry. “This is how we like it.”
A painful amount of time later they are finally forced to concede that if they want to sell, their house has to be how other people want it to look, stuffed Grandpa is put into storage and magnolia is slapped on the walls. An offer comes in immediately.
Here’s a conflict that we’re all familiar with: wanting to move home but something’s in the way, whether it’s not being able to agree with our partners on what we want; not being able to afford a deposit; not being able to sell our current home. In a twist on the ‘not being able to sell’ theme, I once wrote a story based on my parents not wanting to sell their house. They'd put it up for sale but changed their minds, and persuaded the neighbours to behave objectionably every time someone came round for a viewing until they could take it off the market and not incur the estate agent’s fees. True. My reworking of this heart-warming tale appeared as ‘The Noisy Neighbours’ in That’s Life Fast Fiction Australia. My mother thinks I ought to give her the money I earned from it.
2. It shows you how other people live
Crap TV gives amazing insights into how other people live. Not just in a Jeremy Kyle ‘do such people really exist’ sort of way, but a ‘how much money have they got and why are they spending it on that’ sort of way. If you don’t know what it’s like to have an unfortunate tattoo, but have a character in your novel who is just that sort of person, watch Tattoo Fixers and you’ll get more than enough inspiration. If you don’t know what it’s like to have a gormless boyfriend, watch Don’t Tell the Bride.
Crap TV also shows you what people aspire to. Take Escape to the Country, possibly the best satire on the middle classes. In it, people with an astonishing amount of ready cash decide they’d like to swap city living for life in the country. They come up with a wish-list for their perfect property, and for every single one it goes like this: detached with character features; at least four large bedrooms; a large country kitchen (a kitchen the size of a football pitch will still not be large enough – how many friends do they have?); huge entertaining space; a cottagey feel; at least eight acres for bees/ chickens/ llamas/ vegetable plot.
And then there’s the glimpse into people’s homes, the stuff they have around them, and the way they live. If you need descriptions of interiors, head to crap TV to see how rooms are arranged, how ornaments are displayed, kitchens are used. Our friends tend to be similar to us, so when we have a character who’s totally different we can be at a loss to understand how they live. None of my friends are mega-rich housewives, but crap TV has plenty of them happy to show off their furniture, clothes, make-up and daily routine if I ever need to describe it in a story.
3. It gives you ideas for stories
Although a lot of crap TV is stage-managed, you can still find inspiration for stories there. I’ve already mentioned my story about selling houses, but I’ve also written and published a story based on Don’t Tell the Bride (it was called ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ and was published in the People’s Friend magazine). Watching the programme, I wondered what it would be like in real life (as opposed to TV life) if a girl couldn’t plan her own wedding and her fiancé had to do it. My story had the conflict of not knowing what he’d choose for the big day, the disappointment of seeing the dress he’d chosen, and the surprise ending, but steered clear of the money being spent on a lads’ week in Vegas, uncontrollable crying, and threatening to call it all off.
I have also written and published a story inspired by Antiques Road Trip, in which someone accidentally buys a very valuable antique at a car bootsale, and have drawn on the many programmes about people trying to eat healthily in a short story about how food and feeding people means different things to a mother and her daughter, published in Take a Break Fiction Feast as ‘Don’t Make Them Fat, Too’. That wasn’t my title, I hasten to add: the magazine made it up, changing it from my suggestion of ‘The Food of Love’.
The way I approach crap TV if I’m looking for inspiration is to imagine what the conflict/ problem would look like in a normal person i.e. not someone who’s been put into a set-up and had their lines scripted for them. Then I try a few reversals, so If the show is about twenty-somethings, I imagine a seventy year old in that situation. A grandad who gets an unfortunate tattoo? Then I think about telling it from a different perspective. What does the tattoo fixer think about the grandad? What does his granddaughter feel about it all?
Crap TV is a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and let’s face it, we all need some time when we switch off our brains and just wallow in other people’s problems and silliness. But if you get caught binge-watching Botched, you know what to say. “Oh this, it’s research. For my writing, don’t you know.”
Time for you to fess up. Let me know in the comments below which TV shows you’re strangely addicted to, and whether they’ve inspired a story.
Happy writing and watching,
It’s the start of a new year, a time to review the year gone by and to dream about the year ahead. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about writing a book for a while, and are wondering if this year it’s time to make it a reality.
To help you decide, here are 7 ways that writing a book can help your business:
1. Stand out from the crowd
Writing a book gives you instant kudos and authority, and shows you to be an expert in your field. Being able to add ‘author of …’ to your profile or CV differentiates you from other candidates pitching for work or tendering for projects. Imagine meeting a potential new client and being able to hand them a copy of your book along with your business card.
2. Part of your marketing tool kit
Your book not only demonstrates your expertise in a subject, it showcases your attitude and personality. There might be 1000s of people working in the same field as you, but no one will have the same approach, way of explaining things, or sense of humour. Your book speaks to your audience with your voice, helping potential clients to know, like and trust you. If they get what you’re saying and like the way you say it, they’ll check out your website, and maybe book a preliminary phone conversation with you to explore how you can work together. Best of all, your book does all this marketing for you, all over the world, 24 hours a day.
3. Reach more people than you can working 1-1
There are only so many hours in a week, and if you normally work face to face, that means there are a limited number of people whom you can help personally. Writing a book means you can help thousands more people than you can working 1-1, and those people can be anywhere in the world.
4. Help people who can’t afford your fees
However reasonable your fee structure, there will always be someone who wants to work with you but can’t afford your fees. Most of us offer some free places, but again the number of people we can help without getting paid is limited. Being able to direct people to your book, where they can get advice and information along similar lines to your packages, means you can help people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to access your services.
5. Explore a new niche
Every business grows and develops, and sometimes you have an idea for a new service or product but aren’t sure whether there’s a real demand for it. Writing a short e-book is a good way to test the waters. Say you’re a nutritionist, and have been wondering whether there’s any demand for meal plans and dietary advice for young people leaving home for the first time to go to university. Writing a book on the topic can help you judge demand, and feedback on your book can help you to shape your new product or service.
6. Part of your customer care package
Your book doesn’t have to function only as a means to gain new clients and spread the word about your services, it can also be a gift you give to existing clients as part of your customer care package, or simply as a thank you. Your book could reiterate advice and tips you’ve passed on to clients during the course of working with them, so they can refer to them easily in the future.
7. The basis for new products or services
The information you include in your book can be repackaged in new ways – as e-courses, podcasts, workbooks, talks and workshops. Different people learn in different ways: some people love to read, others prefer to watch videos, others like to attend workshops. You don’t have to create the information from scratch each time, just reshape it to suit your different audiences and different means of presenting the information. Finally, the book itself could be a new product for your business, bringing in a passive income stream.
I hope this blog has inspired you to think of all the ways that writing a book can help you to market, boost, develop and expand your business. I’d love to hear how writing a book could help your business. Let me know in the comments below, and tell me the one thing that’s holding you back.
Kim Fleet lives and works in Cheltenham. Her two cats help the creative process by standing on the delete key.