Documentary madness

So the thing right now, in the endless state of convalescence –

Yes, I know, it’s getting a little better everyday, but I didn’t finish the books or the other house before getting the surgery, mostly due to pre-op stuff and my younger son trying to destroy his foot (he’s better now), which means I’m champing at the bit and very impatient with the slow rate at which I’m becoming more capable of doing things. Among the things that annoy me are the need for naps, because I get extremely tired, but I still suffer insomnia.

So, as I was saying in the endlessly gradual convalescence, I need something to rest when I can’t sleep and can’t write. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries.

Watching is, of course, sort of true. What I normally do is watch the first ten minutes, then start laughing and turn it off, and put another one on. Sometimes, once in a long time, I actually watch the whole documentary.

Why documentaries? You say. Well, I figure it’s because of mental illness. Unless you have a better explanation for why watching something with plot right now makes me physical nauseated. I think, honestly, though I am reducing the pain killers, it’s because the opiates turn my brain into mush and trying to concentrate makes me ill.

But what kind of documentaries, you say.

Well, mostly stuff on animals and history. The kind of stuff that Animal Planet and History Channel used to show, when the kids were little and I let them watch something with me for a treat. (Dan had a traveling job and Marsh had trouble sleeping, so we’d cuddle on the sofa and watch stuff like Al the alosaurus.)

The other restriction is that I’m watching the free ones on Amazon prime, because honestly … well, why not.

Now I realize these are not the crème de la crème, but a lot of them are produced by names like the bbc.

And documentaries would seem to me to be a fairly easy genre. In the end, what are you looking at but a kind of lecture, on a subject?

So, you show whatever the subject is, then you show the drawing/cgi – whichever – of how it got that way, then you show the subject doing interesting things.


Except that… most of these documentaries fail. Take the one on the petrified forest. I expected at least some drawings and explanation of what happened in visuals. No. I mean, they told us how minerals replaced the wood, and all, but what they showed us was random panning over petrified trees while this reassuringly paternal voice droned on.

Next came – it said – a documentary on the natural history of chickens. This interested me, since chickens are either descended from or a relative of the T-rex. I expected long explanations of how the bone became this bone, and how… etc. Etc.

Only… only the people making the documentary had other ideas.

I’ll admit the beginning, showing this woman living alone on a farm with her chickens and her dog was interesting. And by interesting I mean that in my early fifties I have twenty years to get that completely mad. It culminated in a scene in which the chicken freezes during a Nor’ester, so she brings the chicken inside and thaws her out, and gives her mouth to mou– er, mouth to beak ressusciation.

But then it devolved into this screed on the inequities of factory farming chicken and how we should all be vegetarians. Look, guys, whatever you think of factory farming, I grew up with chickens. First, with rare exceptions, they are the closest walking thing to plants. Second, most small farm operations are actually crueler than a well run factory farm. In fact, a lot of what they were going on about was based on the idea that chickens were the same as kids. Or something.

I don’t disagree with their right to say this (duh) but they were having a grand bathos orgy that would only convince those who already agreed with them (And who’d never seen a significant number of chickens raised.)

So… I tried one about this guy and whales. Oy. That one didn’t last long. It was about the inequities of the whaling industry.

Again, nothing against it, except you can’t start your argument by treating it as though the whales were human. The only people you’re going to convince are those who already agree with you. Also, you have your hook baited wrong, sir. The major whale harvesting right now is not in the US and I failed to see Japanese subtitles on your screeds and mini-fits.

Then I found a quite nice documentary on the Galapagos. Oh, it talked about tourists destroying it, but in the end it said “but of course, it is always changing, so…”

And then I tried to find a documentary on sea turtles. Uh… guys… yeah. The voice was this weird droning, and it took the same approach as the petrified forest one.

Anyway, we ended up watching one on the Terracotta army, but on the way there (and has anyone checked their heads for chems, or would they have rotted? Also Apropos nothing, if you haven’t read Barry Hughart’s delightful China trilogy, find it and read it now) my husband did the bad voice simulation on computer and I realized half of these “documentaries” are stock photos with voice over of “mechanical reading.”

So, why am I inflicting this on you?

Because it occurred to me how much this experience is like when I try to read indie books. Now, I read a lot of indie books and like them (duh) but I also have a high percentage of discards. Higher than in traditional? Well, not really but for different reasons.

The traditional discards tend to “impress” me a lot like the natural history of chickens or the rants about whale hunting (Btw, all whales are gentle creatures and the tales of its being dangerous to hunt them were made up to appear macho. No, seriously, he said that. Head>desk.) They are great if what you’re looking for is affirmation for some “correct” belief you already have. I.e. the belief your friends, your teachers and all your gatekeepers told you was true.

Look, you don’t even have to show any beliefs. The chicken thing could have made its case more effectively by being all about her crazy lady and her love of her chickens. At least I’d have hesitated before diving in to fried chicken because I’d think how important these silly muggings were to that old woman.

Likewise most traditional books could capture me by giving me people to care about and a story to follow. They might not convince me, but I’d be interested enough to read. However, when it turns to reciting the rosary of politically correct woes, I’m both bored and annoyed, and discard either documentary or book. (One of the indies that did this was pride and prejudice from an Evangelical pov. I’m sorry, the religion they depicted the Bennets having didn’t even exist in that time, in that place, and for people who didn’t already share your precise set of beliefs both characters and plot were risible. So, I suppose the political correctness of NYC gatekeepers is very much an evangelical religion.)

However, when it comes to Indie, though there is always some number I discard because the author assumed the world outside his head is exactly the same as inside his head, be that in politics, religion or just the way people act, most of what I discard is due to carelessness.

I have infinite tolerance with the cover, but if your character is Joe in the second chapter make sure he’s not Bob in the first. Also, try to make sure your style doesn’t read like voice-emulating programs. Also, plot – you should have one.

My second most likely reason to discard a book, is the strong feeling it’s not aimed at me, though it claims to be aimed at me. What I mean, is, particularly with science fiction, if you don’t read the genre, please, dear bog, don’t say you write it. If what you’re writing is hot girl gets it on with aliens, tag it as erotica and futuristic and romance, but DO NOT tag it as science fiction. Because when all your aliens are star treck aliens, enrolled in the forehead of the month and when it turns out that not only does Mars need women but so does every other planet, I’m going to return your book mostly unread.

On the other hand I will read things I shouldn’t have any interest in, and forgive a multitude of sins if you do two things: entertain me, and treat me as an equal.

When you’re writing, keep in mind the person in your head, the person you aim the book at, and treat that person with respect. Think of them as your equals in intelligence. Try to do your best for them.

Then if you have something interesting to say or an interesting story to tell, you’ll be all right.

73 thoughts on “Documentary madness

  1. *quietly stuffs manuscript of novel about Communist poultry revolution “Freeeee Biriiird!!” featuring dispassionate third-person narration style back into drawer, shuts drawer*

        1. I’ve a right to censor myself.

          I’ve a right to say, that Romance series set in the early nineteenth century United States? I don’t read the genre much, am not very interested in writing the genre, and pastiche of ‘modern feminist in history romance’ using an insane version of late 19th century politics is not a plot and characters.

    1. Having conquered my laughing fit (DANG that was funny), I will say that working on a poultry farm (I was in poultry husbandry until they caught me at it) gave me a great appreciation for chicken on a plate but NOT for one on the hoof.

  2. Don’t bother with the “History Channel”. It isn’t about History anymore. It’s Lefty propaganda now.

    As for “stock photos/films”, I “love” the images of Roman troops fighting only on horseback. Especially when the images don’t show Romans “acting” like soldiers just guys on horses fighting as a mob.

      1. Yay for Asterix and Obelix – my daughter’s very favorite comic books, and about the first thing she learned to read herself!
        And the drawings of buildings in ancient Rome were also pretty accurate. (Says she who lived through a graduate-level course in Roman art and architecture, which final exam featured having to draw a map of historical Rome, placing and labeling the seven hills accurately, and placing about twenty notable Roman landmark buildings and fora.)

    1. Speaking of Roman troops on so many documentaries/History channel type shows, I always get tickled when they show late Roman troops wearing the lorica segmentata armor that people always associate with the Roman army, but that existed much, much earlier in history.

      I’m an armor buff, and it’s always annoyed me.

      1. LOL. You need to talk to Robert. His ex’s church had a passion play where they put the Romans in what he called “Crazy armor” culled from different periods. He ranted about it for hours.

        1. To be fair, they probably were limited in what costuming they could do. Movies have less excuse. I saw part of some crappy low-budget fantasy movie once where every single character had a totally different style of armor, despite all hailing from the same part of the world.

            1. You aren’t the only one. I’ve had “discussions” with actual history students/profs back in my college days… *shakes head*

              “Roman shields weren’t made of plywood!” My arse. From folks that wouldn’t know a hoplon from a scutum if it bashed them in the head.

              1. People who know the geo-political ramifications of a certain emperor farting aren’t necessarily qualified to discuss the various styles of ridge helms employed in the late Empire.

                I learned this the same time a history professor commented on the gladius being the primary sword in the fifth century Empire.

                Um…nope. It wasn’t, but thanks for playing.

              2. To be fair, I wouldn’t make a shield out of the plywood I can get at my local Home Depot. OTOH, I wouldn’t sheathe my roof with the Roman Legion kind.

                I do watch some documentaries, but they are usually the ones where people are trying to reproduce the old technologies. Roman shield making, siege engines, Damascus steel, etc. They also seem to be the only ones, these days, that don’t end with a pitch for man-caused disaster after the last commercial.

                1. This all reminds me about a youtube video i was watching where some assistant curator at a museum was talking about how the samurai armor they had on display was ‘ceremonial’ because Japan was ‘at peace’ from 1600 on. I even commented on the video that Miyamoto Musashi and the other samurai at the Battle of Osaka would be tickled to know they were ‘at peace’.

  3. My son watched some documentary on PBS about Wooly Mammoths with all kinds of computer animation and authoritative sounding scientists being interviewed. At the end I asked him what it was about and he said, “The show was about how the Mammoths are extinct because people hunted them too much…”. Then he added, “but I don’t believe them.” When TV can’t even convince a 5 year old anymore, they need to hang it up.

      1. Yes, my son loves those. I also recommend “Chased by Sea Monsters” which is the same sort of thing by the same culprits but set on the ocean. I love that the time-travelling research ship in the series is named “The Ancient Mariner”.

    1. I “love” scientists telling us that such-and-such” large predator were “never a threat” to humans.

      How in the Heck do they know that?

      Especially when we know of large predators that did and do attack humans.

      There was a documentary on the Komodo dragon where the narrator was concerned with being attacked by one.

      Later he whined about the Komodo dragon being endangered and the people who lived near them wanted to kill the Komodo dragons.

      Right, it’s OK for you to fear being attacked by a Komodo but the “natives” are to leave the Komodo dragons alone. Idiots.

      1. I’m still tickled by the guy who swore up and down that grizzly bears weren’t a threat to him. Said it for years.

        Then he got turned into Winnie’s pooh and I laughed and laughed and laughed.

        Felt bad about his girlfriend that he also got killed though.

        1. True, but it’s also annoying in discussions of people traveling back in time to the age of dinosaurs when it’s “of course, the predators won’t attack humans, we’re not their natural prey”.

          Predators don’t have a “rule book” that tells them what to eat or not eat. [Wink]

            1. Curiosity isn’t just for cats. Any predator, especially ones on the top of the chain of their area (aka nothing to fear), can exhibit that. End result can be the same as it is for mice when a cat decides to play with them (there may be long periods of just observing, but sooner or later there will be an individual critter which does decide to do a little test), even if they will decide not to eat you. Worse if they are hungry.

              Which is why I heartily approve of hunting quotas for big predators even though I quite admire them. They should keep a healthy fear of humans, or they become a problem for humans.

              1. Interesting thing (though my statistics are old). Documentary whines that there are less than 3,000 (or 1,000 if you ask another one) Siberian tigers left in Siberia and that they never get to the 650 size. Yet there are 20 mauling deaths a year and not the Siberian natives (who say yes, the tigers DO get that big). They’re all poachers and people with tag guns. Siberia’s huge so my guess is ‘we have only successfully tagged 1000’ is more accurate. And apparently the tigers have learned what a gun looks like and know “if that points at me dodge and kill it with extreme prejudice.”

                1. Part of why the bald eagle population was “low” for so long is because they were taking away folks’ property if a nest was found on their land– so people made damn sure that nobody who’d officially see a nest had a chance, and occasional things like the retired couple where the veteran husband simply couldn’t bring himself to drive the nesting birds off, and they lost the only property they owned because of it, just drove the message home.
                  (and folks wonder why I foam at the mouth when some idiot starts on how Clinton was “not that bad;” maybe he didn’t hurt anybody they knew, but his henchmen sure as heck did a lot of damage)

                  1. The reason there are no jaguars in Texas, was because if you saw one and reported it, you lost your ranch. So instead the ranchers practiced the ‘Three S’s’: Shoot, Shovel, Shutup.
                    The Endangered Species act has done far more harm than good.

                    1. Best wisdom for protection of any species seems to be “make sure the people who live there profit from them as well as possible when the animals are alive and living there so that having them there is better than not having them”. Whether it’s photograph tourism or trophy hunting or whatever, if the locals profit they protect the animals. If the locals suffer, like in those see one lose your land cases, or when a predator kills their livestock and maybe them but they are allowed to do nothing about it legally, then there is a pretty good chance that protected species will disappear from the area sooner or later, or at least they will not thrive there as well as they might.

                      Was like that here in Lapland thirty years ago. I’m not sure if it still is, I think now the reindeer owners do get paid for reindeer provably killed by a predator reasonably well so maybe not, but when I worked there both wolves and bears were starting to make a comeback to the rest of the country, but not there. Lots of land impossible to watch, and locals who knew to keep their mouths shut. It was one of those everybody knew – I talked with locals a few times about it, and they did tell, but it was usually some variation of “Oh, there is talk that…but I don’t, and don’t know anybody who has… but certainly some people do that, and that’s why there are no wolves and bears here” – but never enough proof for the authorities so nobody to prosecute situations. (And no, I don’t know the rules of hiking in bear country well at all because I haven’t done it apart from the 3 months I worked in northern Ontario, and then I was always with a co-worker who was armed so didn’t pay THAT much attention, just did what they told me to do)

          1. As I told my then fiance as he got out of the car at the lion park to take pictures. He said “the guide book says they’re not aggressive after eating.” So, he got out. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he heard the door lock behind him. I figured if he got eaten, that was one thing. If he tried to get back in while getting eaten, then I’d die too.
            That relationship was doomed after that 😉

            1. Good thinking about “locking the door”. There was a recent report of a lioness opening a car door. (She didn’t attack but still….)

          2. Conversely, I get annoyed at passages where the native insects bite humans and promptly die. After (by context) about a million insect generations…

            1. Talking about insects native to another planet?

              Mind you, I’ve read stories where the seasoned explorer on an alien planet will tell the tenderfoots “Now the animals here can’t live on meat from us (or other Earth animals) but they don’t know that so keep a sharp eye out”. [Very Big Evil Grin]

              1. Rada Ni Drako discovered the hard way that the biting insects of Drakon IV tend to sample first and die later. She’s paid for her own lodging out of her own pocket after an especially memorable night.

                1. I have no problem with that – in the early stages of colonization.

                  Insects don’t “learn” – but evolution teaches. Consider mosquitoes – whose generations can be as short as a week or less. Alien insects that always die before they breed are taken out of the gene pool. In not all that long, your alien biters have either evolved to those that can sense and avoid humans – or (more likely) have changed so that humans are perfectly suitable as mobile larders.

      2. There was an even funnier example of that in the ‘reality show’ Colonial House where a group of people had to live as the American colonists from the early 1600s did. They were barely eking out a subsistence living, where every bit of resources counted. Then they had the episode where the Indians come visit them. They got real Native Americans to come dressed in period attire and interact with them. The Native leader is a woman and the audience is treated to the usual Noble Savage browbeating of how 1. The Native Americans were feminists and shared and were one with nature and awesome! 2. The colonists must have sure been a bunch of racists because of the horrible way the treated the Native Peoples.

        So what is the first thing the ‘Indians’ do? Well naturally they sneak into town and steal their chickens! LOL! I kid you not.

        Only thing funnier? What’s the next thing out of the chicken thieves’ mouth? “We are not thieves”

      3. I always want to know what definition of “being a threat” they’re using– kind of like how there were no document wolf attacks in the Americas until very recently* or how cows are more dangerous than sharks**.

        *(their definition required essentially that a certified wolf biologist witness the attack, acquire the wolf before it has left his sight after the attack to examine make sure it wasn’t rabid and make a report to an agency of which they approved– finally, one of their experts got attacked and the wolf wasn’t shot in the head and didn’t escape)

        ** by defining “danger” as “how frequently people are injured, regardless of time in direct contact with the animals.” That’s not danger, that’s frequency of reported injury.

  4. Documentary film-making was colonized by the Left long ago. I see them coming into the library all the time: Michael Moore wannabees. In fact, Moore is one of the people I blame the most. But I also blame the media for not subjecting his films (I refuse to call them documentaries) to any critical scrutiny whatsoever.

  5. “First, with rare exceptions, they are the closest walking thing to plants.”

    Congratulations, you have won the Internets. You get the gold-ish trophy for today.

    We used to get two eggs a day from some of our chickens. If you took the eggs away soon enough after they were laid, the chickens forgot they had already laid an egg that day.

    The only thing I can say in defense of chickens, is that at least they’re not domesticated turkeys. Those things are so dumb they will eat until their stomachs burst, and we have actually seen them drown in the rain. Most chickens know enough to get out of a downpour, and hide from hawks.

    1. Well then, it would seem that after enough generations of selective breeding for large meaty breasts there appears to be a concurrent reduction in intelligence.
      In poultry! Get your minds out of the gutter.

    2. I tried to watch that same documentary.

      I was expecting the actual natural history of the chicken, starting with the jungle fowl it was domesticated from, and exploring how the various modern breeds were developed, and possibly including mention of modern feral chicken in cities (…I really need to watch that Dirty Jobs segment again…), but I guess that would have required too much research on the filmmakers’ part.

      Crazy chicken lady would have been a good fit for the end of the film in a “how chickens are used in modern times” segment.

      1. Really is amazing how common the Rural Legend is, no? If I had a dime for each time I was informed that something I or a relative had seen happen was a myth, I’d be able to get an extra large mocha. 😀

  6. “First, with rare exceptions, they are the closest walking thing to plants.”
    Domestic Turkeys are worse.
    A Lot Worse. They make chickens look like rocket scientists.

    1. Wild turkeys on the other hand are a whole different animal. Very clever, capable of flight, and essentially no white meat, but still capable of interbreeding with their domestic cousins.

    2. Y’all got to it before I could say it. And yes, domesticated turkeys *are* that bad- drown looking up in the rain bad. Chickens are tasty, but I am very, very glad I don’t have any as of now (and hopefully forever more).

  7. As for your comments on Indy’s, those are the things I worry about the most. I have a handful of readers I use to go over a story before I publish, and honestly I want to get a few more. My first goal is to entertain, and I worry about that a lot.
    Then comes telling a good story.
    The rest is a distant third.

  8. Ooh, I know! You can watch the Korean historical romance drama Shine or Go Crazy, about the young life of the early medieval Korean king who freed the slaves! There are Korean ninjas and starcrossed loves and handsome villains and a merchant princess and prophecies and everything else they could throw in. Also, the always amusing problem of how to write love stories for the current monogamous Korean culture when their historical culture was super-polygamous.

    They don’t come right out and say it because the viewers know, but the guy who is king at the beginning was from a merchant family and then did well in the military. The previous king went nuts and said he was the Buddha and started killing people or something, so several military guys teamed up for a coup and put merchant military guy on the throne. But they wanted to be the real powers, so the series shows the royal family and the coup guys hating each other’s guts and plotting against each other.

    So this is why trade is treated so positively in the show, besides just Koreans being different.

  9. “If what you’re writing is hot girl gets it on with aliens, tag it as erotica and futuristic and romance, but DO NOT tag it as science fiction. Because when all your aliens are star treck aliens, enrolled in the forehead of the month and when it turns out that not only does Mars need women but so does every other planet, I’m going to return your book mostly unread.”

    Jesus, don’t stop there! How am I supposed to finish writing the book without the ending? I was writing all this down, and you stopped right in the middle of the plot! You could have at least taken us through to the >cough< climax!


    1. “They have sex, the girl gets pregnant, the baby eats itself out of the girl, the girl dies.”

      How’s that? [Very Big Evil Grin]

      1. They have sex, he gets pregnant? And she has to do the whole breadwinner etc thing from then on because the aliens have that 50’s as imagined by feminists culture, except with reversed roles after procreating? And she hates it… 😀

      2. I’m told that was pretty much the plot of the last Twilight book, except vampires are involved so the girl lives. And maybe the baby didn’t eat its way out, but something gross and similar.

        1. Pretty much, yes. In my defense, I didn’t have a Kindle, yet, and I was in an airport without a real bookstore. I read them all on that trip.

  10. Late to the party…
    “Look, guys, whatever you think of factory farming, I grew up with chickens. First, with rare exceptions, they are the closest walking thing to plants.”

    Anything that doesn’t know it’s dead when you cut it’s head off counts as a vegetable. Fish count for this, too.

    1. Memo to self: Vegetarian sect for whom flesh is pretty much mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and intelligent birds. Maybe some bugs.

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