Writing Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’ (II)

Of all the characters on the show, Lisa Simpson should be the one most capable of writing a book. Even though she’s only eight, she’s smart, academically gifted and she has a good command of language. When the time comes, though, and she has her opportunity, things don’t go as expected.

In the episode The Book Job (season twenty-three, episode six), Lisa and her father, Homer, discover that publishing agencies use ghost writers to churn out best-selling books, mostly in the young-adult genre.

Homer immediately sees dollar signs and he puts together a team, promising them a cut of the money. Lisa is appalled at both the manipulation of the readers and Homer’s mercenary attitude. She decides to write her own book, believing that a person should write for the love of the story, not money. While Homer’s team is busy writing, however, Lisa does the following:

• Puts on music for inspiration;
• Organises her CD collection;
• Plays game after game of online Boggle;
• Goes to write in a coffee shop, but instead spends her time setting up the wi-fi and buying coffee;
• Builds an intricate structure from wooden pencils;
• Watches cat videos;
• Obsesses over a smudge on the window before cleaning the entire pane, inside and out;
• Watches all five seasons of Friday Night Lights.

I love this episode and laugh every single time because I very much see myself in Lisa. How many excuses and distractions did I come up with to avoid writing? How many pointless activities did I pursue instead of sitting down and writing? Too many, I’m afraid. My all-time favourite is abandoning work to try and find out what dust was made of. The runner-up is writing my name on the underside of my stapler with white correction fluid…because then if someone broke into the house and stole my stapler, they wouldn’t be able to sell it? I don’t know, it seemed important at the time.

The lesson of this episode is two-fold. First, the only way to write is to sit down and write. Homer’s team did just that. Yes, they were purely motivated by profit. Yes, their story was basically a by-the-numbers supernatural mystery. But they did the work. They created their characters, put together a plot, and then sat down and wrote.

Second, we need support, especially if we’re writing on our own. Homer’s team did have it a little easier, and not just because Neil Gaiman brought them food. They worked as a group, and were able to keep each other focused and on track. I do wonder whether Lisa would have written her story if she’d had just one sympathetic person to support her.

You might write on your own but you’re not alone. Turn to someone if you need help or a sympathetic ear. You can even write to me if you want. I’ll help if I can and be honest if I can’t. And remember that if there’s one constant in this world, it’s that there will always be distractions. They’re not going anywhere. If you ignore them and write, you’re a success, whether you make money or not.


This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one, or to just have fun with words:

1. A wooden stake…
2. “What’s that on your head?” said…
3. The staircase spiralled…
4. Colourful cushions galore!
5. The pond wasn’t filled with water but…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.

Writing Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’ (I)

I’ve found DVD commentaries to be an excellent source of reassurance and comfort. Every time the writers talk about their process, I’m reminded that I really don’t have to worry so much. Whether you like The Simpsons or not, the insight and advice offered by the people who create the show is of immense value to anyone who writes.

Writing Lessons from The Simpsons

If you’ve ever watched The Simpsons, you’ll know the show contains a large number background jokes. Each episode, particularly the earlier ones, contains funny signs, clever book and movie titles, and bizarre product names. In addition to being humorous, they often contain a sly and accurate observation on the subject they are parodying.

I used to envy the writers so much for their talent and insight. There was no way I could be as clever and witty. I told myself they must be extra smart or have special comedy training to do what they do, and that I would never measure up. When DVD’s became widely available and I was able to listen to the commentaries, I found out that I was wrong.

During the commentary for the season one episode ‘There’s No Disgrace Like Home’, one of the writers, Mike Reiss, said this:

“The funny signs you see in the background on The Simpsons are come up with by the writers and again, often an hour or two is spent to come up with a two-second sign joke.”

It took a while for the importance of this line to sink in. Once it did, it changed my thinking completely. The deciding factor wasn’t talent or training. It was time. It took an hour or two for an entire team of writers – not just one person, but a team – to create those background jokes I loved so much. This is a sentiment that is repeated throughout the commentaries from seasons one to ten (which is as far as I’ve got).

It’s true that many of the writers do have formal training or many years of experience in their field, or both. That doesn’t negate the reality that what they do takes time. That was the secret of their success. Instead of worrying so much about how I wasn’t as good as other people, I needed to spend more time revising my work.

This is not to say that funny or clever lines can’t come to you quite quickly, because they can and do. For the times they don’t, though, remember to be patient with yourself. If it takes a team of writers an hour or two to perfect a two-second sign joke, then it’s logical that it’ll take you just as long to craft something special. And that’s okay.


This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing one, or to just have fun with words.

1. The fish broke through the surface…
2. The heavily-laden branch…
3. Hasty scribbles on the…
4. Bricks flew in every direction…
5. “I always add glitter to my magic spells,” said…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line any time at zee@twomarshmallows.net. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.