Writing Lessons from The Simpsons (V)

Necessity is the mother of invention. It’s also the mother of comedy.

In the episode A Streetcar Named Marge, Marge Simpson is cast as Blanche DuBois in a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

This storyline was not originally conceived as a musical. In fact, a complete script was written with Marge and other characters performing the stage version. But then the network’s lawyer informed the writers that Tennessee William’s estate would only allow them to quote two lines from the play.

The same lawyer, however, saved the day:

Mike Reiss: One of the unsung heroes of The Simpsons is Anatole Klebanow…he always was in our corner, always pushing for us to get stuff that was marginally legal on the show

Al Jean: …So the lawyer said, ‘If you write original songs based on those characters, that you can do’. But actually, it made the show better because the songs are funnier than the play

The writers followed the lawyer’s advice and A Streetcar Named Marge is now consistently named as one of the top episodes of the series. (They have 26 seasons, so that’s pretty good.) As writer Jeff Martin said, “When we got that and we decided to make it a musical, I remember thinking, ‘Well, this will be a lot of work but I bet it’ll be funnier.'”²

He was right.

The lesson here is not just to listen to your lawyer. It’s to be tenacious. There’s an obstacle in front of you? Find a way around it. That way is blocked? Find another way.

When it comes to writing, tenacity is everything. Tenacity is allows you to finish a piece and start a new one. Being tenacious is how you hone your skills; how you revise and edit and get your words just the way you want them.

Tenacity is how you make your work better.

In this particular instance, being told ‘no’ allowed the writers of The Simpsons to go deeper into their work and produce something with real emotional resonance. If they’d simply followed the original play, they would not have been able to write clever and catchy songs that also supported the emotional arc of the show.

Where are you hearing ‘no’ when it comes to writing? Who’s telling you that you can’t do it? How can you work around the blocks and obstacles? Where can you go deeper into your work and explore what it’s truly about?

I’m not suggesting you break copyright law to achieve your goals. I am saying to be your own lawyer; be the person who’s always in your corner and pushing for you to write.

1. DVD Commentary from A Streetcar Named Marge, Season Four, Episode Two.
2. Ibid.


This week’s prompts

Use the following prompts to start a new piece, continue an existing piece or to just have fun with words.
1. A semi-melted plastic bottle…
2. The cutlery clattered into the draw and…
3. “I don’t believe you,” said…
4. Slats of wood lined the…
5. A very tiny pumpkin rolled…

Please note that this newsletter is changing form. This is the final article I will send and next week’s email will be the final Mini Marshmallow.

Goodbye, Terry Pratchett

I was nineteen when I first read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Maybe twenty. I don’t remember now. But I do remember how I instantly fell in love with the book. I remember reading it and thinking, “Someone else feels the same way as me! I’m not the only one!”

Good Omens was funny, clever and witty. It took a familiar subject and gave it such a twist that you wondered whether this was the original and everything else was a copy. But it was also much more than that.

Woven into the prose was good dose of social commentary, frustration with humanity and the strong desire to create a better world. I lost myself in the story because I saw myself in their writing. I felt less alone, as if I’d found kindred spirits, and wanted to shout to the world that these guys Got It; that they understood what was wrong with people, and what was right and beautiful about them. I became an immediate fan of both writers, especially of Pratchett and his Discworld series (although I loved his other works as well).

Terry Pratchett passed away on the 12th of March.

I am grateful for every single word he gave us. He wrote fiction, but it was filled with truth. Even when I didn’t agree with him, I still felt that he was a genuine, warm and good person. He wrote what he believed in, what he saw so clearly and what he felt so deeply. I bonded with so many people over his work. I will miss him and his authenticity so much.

So goodbye for now, Terry Pratchett. I hope we can meet up one day, on a flat world filled with magic, and I can tell you in person how much you meant to me.


No prompts this weeks; I hope that’s okay.

Have Montages Ruined Your Life?

Starting a new project is so invigorating. It’s exciting to open to a fresh page and uncap that new pen, or open a new document. It could be writing something for yourself, for school or or work. You always see the final result so clearly in your mind. It will be such a triumph! A masterpiece of epic proportions! You will get all the gold stars and the praise, and maybe even frame your project and hang it on the wall.

Then you start working. After about fifteen minutes, you begin to despair. Why is this taking so long? Why is it so difficult? You know what you want and you’re willing to work for it. So where are the results?

I blame montages. You know that scene in a movie or TV show where the main character refines her skill to the tune of an inspirational song? It’s usually something like a combination of hitting a punching bag, studying, running up and down stairs, practising her dancing and martial arts, then a sequence of winning minor competitions in anticipation of the main one. Montages are short yet powerful, and I think they’ve had a strong subliminal effect on many of us (most definitely including me).

We may know logically that purpose of the montage is to move the story forward. We want to see the main character achieve her goals and defeat the bad guys, not watch hours and hours of her studying or training. We may know that, but what if you have nothing to replace that image? What if you were never taught how to learn? Or you were taught that studying and learning meant sitting in one spot for hours on end? Of course you’d be frustrated and disillusioned.

The antidote is small steps. Write a small amount every day. If you can write more, great! Go for it. But if you can’t, that’s fine as well. Small steps add up to so much. It’s been proven, for example, that you’ll get a better result on an exam if you study for short periods of time each day. Cramming the night before only leaves you stressed, tired and unlikely to retain information. In the same way, writing for short periods each day will result in you feeling much happier with yourself, proud of your work and your progress, and the ability to experience the joy of writing.

Replace the image of the montage with something that represents consistency. I use a calendar and tick off the completed tasks at the end of the day. It might be something different for you: a vision board, a list of your accomplishments, little rewards for finishing your work, or a combination. All that matters is that it helps you have fun with your work and be consistent in your writing.

We can still get frustrated, don’t get me wrong. We’d all like to write even faster, produce more work and get recognition. But that’s usually just the montage effect, trying to ruin our lives, and we’re not going to let it win. Small steps, every day. We can do it.

Buffy: I thought it was gonna be like in the movies. You know, inspirational music, a montage: me sharpening my pencils, me reading, writing, falling asleep on a big pile of books with my glasses all crooked, ’cause in my montage I have glasses. But real life is slow and it’s starting to hurt my occipital lobe.
Out of My Mind, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five Episode Four.

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 tea bag catapulted through the air…
2. This new hand cream moisturises as well as…
3. Which superpower would you rather have and why: shooting lightning bolts from your hands, super speed or telepathy?
4. The glittery, green, gallivanting gargoyle…
5. I logged into my email and saw the most amazing thing…

Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net. Use the sign up box to receive the newsletter (and future offers) directly. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.

Why Yes, I Am Overthinking My Work, Why Do You Ask?

Why Yes, I Am Overthinking My Work, Why Do You Ask?

When it comes to my personal writing, I’m usually working on several pieces of fiction at once. All of my writing is important to me, of course, but some stories are more important than others. It doesn’t mean I value the others any less. It just means that I feel a stronger sense of urgency about these stories, or I have a deeper connection to them. You know how it is.

I’ve been working on one of these extra-important stories for over a year now. A dear friend of mine has patiently listened to me talk about it and answered many of my questions. The other day, I told her that I’d finally got one of the characters and several scenes figured out.

“That’s really great,” she said, “but you’ve been spending a long time getting this story right instead of writing something new.”

Now, taken out of context, it might sound like my friend was being dismissive, but I can assure you that she wasn’t. She’s always been helpful and supportive, and she was also absolutely correct. I had been obsessing over getting this story right and worrying about every little detail. And here’s the kicker – hardly anyone was going to read it! This story will be shared with maybe five friends. Maybe. And that’s it. Yet here I am, fussing over every single aspect.

If you’re also an overthinker, then you know exactly why I was worrying about every little detail. We have to get things right. We insist on the words exactly matching the images in our heads and the emotions in our hearts. Our writing means something to us. We can’t simply dash something off and call it a day. No, it needs to be high quality or nothing.

The way I see it, overthinking is the flip side of our commitment to quality. We care about what we write and we want to do our best. This is pretty admirable! We simply get caught up in thinking rather than taking action. That’s all.

So here is a gentle reminder for both you and me: let’s loosen our hold, just a little bit. This might involve taking a short break or working on something new for a while. Or it could mean taking a step back, reviewing what we’ve done and being completely honest about our progress.

Then let’s go and do some writing. No overthinking, just writing. Allow the words to flow instead of forcing them into a pre-determined shape. Trust that the words know what they’re doing, and that they’ll get themselves just right, without too much fussing from us.


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 air conditioner flew further than any air conditioner had flown before.
2. A delicate petal floated…
3. If you could be a cloud for just one day, upon whom would you target your rainfall and why?
4. The bell jingled, signalling the…
5. The fluffy ball shot over the fence and…


Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net. Use the sign up box to receive the newsletter (and future offers) directly. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.

You Want to Write What?

Last September, I was reading through a list of upcoming TV shows when one title made me do a double-take: Jane the Virgin. I read the summary and thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ The premise sounded ridiculous, even for television (and I’m a fan of some pretty ridiculous television).

Not long after it started, a dear friend of mine said to me, “You have to watch this show, it’s great.” I was sceptical but my friend has really good taste, so I gave it a try.

She was right. Jane the Virgin was nothing like what I expected. It’s funny, clever and well written, with many intriguing plot twists. At the heart of the show is a daughter-mother-grandmother relationship that is genuine and full of love. The show everyone mocked now has legions of fans, has been renewed for a second season and Gina Rodriguez, the lead, won a Golden Globe for her performance.

Why am I telling you this? Because we’ve all had ideas that made us say, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” At first, you’re energised by your idea. “That sounds amazing!” you think. “I’m going to write that down right now!”

Then doubt overpowers you and you don’t write a word. “My idea is just too weird,” you say to yourself. “No one will like it. People won’t be interested. They’ll make fun of it.” So you scrap the idea before even giving it a chance.

Don’t do that. Follow through on your amazing idea. An idea is only the starting point for a piece of writing. It’s where you take it that counts.

Write down your idea and then keep on writing. Elaborate, expand and follow through. Bring your idea to life with the passion you put into your words. Stand behind your writing. Do your research. Edit, revise and throw yourself into your work. Commit to showing the reader exactly what you see so clearly in your mind. Show them why your idea is a great one.

An idea is merely the vehicle for what you truly want to say. Jane the Virgin is more than a US remake of the Venezuelan telenovela, Juana la Virgen. It’s a story about family, love and struggle, told with authenticity and humour. So, what do you truly want to say? How do you want to tell your story?

Take the ‘you want to write what?’ response as a challenge. If your idea generates that much incredulity, then it probably means there’s something there worth exploring.

For this week’s prompt, I’d like you write about at least one of your ideas that you thought wasn’t worth pursuing. I know you have one – we all do. It’s that little niggling thought in the back of your head that won’t go away. Maybe you think your idea is boring, common, weird, extreme, overly sentimental or absurd. Whatever the reason, take that idea and write about it. Pursue it. Elaborate on it. Expand it. See where it takes you.

I have faith in you. I really do. I think your ideas are great and, more than that, I think you can bring them to life in a way that will enthral us all.

Happy writing,


Questions? Suggestions? Feel free to drop me a line at zee@twomarshmallows.net. Use the sign up box to receive the newsletter (and future offers) directly. You can also follow or contact me via Facebook, Linked In, YouTube or Tumblr.

Jump Into Writing with Ray Bradbury

EDIT 26 January: The correct link to the comic has been added. The name of the artist is Emm Roy and her Tumblr can be found here: http://emmisnotshortforemma.tumblr.com/

Hello everyone,

Thank you for being here with me in 2015. I’m offering something a little different for my first newsletter of the year. It’s a short video of Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, talking about his love of books, libraries and writing. Bradbury’s passion is soothing yet invigorating, and is guaranteed to make you smile. The video is appropriate for all ages and also includes a fluffy cat:

A Conversation with Ray Bradbury

Your prompt for this week will be the video. Select a word, phrase or sentence (or several – however many you need) that catches your ear, and write. I’ve included my favourite quotes below, in case you’re not able to watch the video but would still like to get started.

My absolute favourite quote is this one, partly because of the strength with which he says it:

“Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it! You do what you want, what you love.”

Now, every time you start doubting yourself, just remember these words and think, “Do I really want to disappoint Ray Bradbury?” and then you will think, “Of course not, I’m not a monster, I’d better get to writing,” and then you will write.

Merely being inspired isn’t always enough, though. Our brains can still get in the way. For the times when your mind simply won’t allow you to focus, I find that we need inspiration of a different kind. This comic should help:


And as a bonus, you can also use the comic as a prompt!

After today, newsletters will be published every two weeks on a Monday. (I was so excited to share this video that I decided to ignore my schedule and write to you now.) Some newsletters will also contain links to videos, articles or comics. Please know that everything I link will be appropriate for all ages. While it’s possible to embed videos and images in emails, I’m really not a fan of that.

Thank you again for being here. I’m grateful for every one of you. Hope you enjoy the newsletter and happy writing!


Selected quotes from A Conversation with Ray Bradbury

• “Clarisse McClellan is Ray Bradbury.”
• “You see, all my characters write the book. I don’t write the book.”
• “At the centre of my books is the gift of life.”
• “I’m going to have a t-shirt made. It says, ‘Stand at the top of the cliff and jump off and build your wings on the way down.'” (Where can I get this shirt?)
• “You find the author who can lead you through the dark.”
• “I spent nine dollars and eighty cents and I wrote Fahrenheit 451.”