Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
New year. New start. New story? Oh my.
If you are like me and 99 percent of the writers I know, a new story means once again confronting the existential crisis that can suck the joy out of our work: will this be the story that exposes me as a no-talent fraud, an imposter, a failure waiting to happen. (Yes, there is that one in a hundred who wake up, stare into the blank screen or page and think, the world awaits my prose. Yes, you can hate them; you have my permission.)
So many things can go wrong when we write, and it will do you no good to be reminded of them all, save for one: overthinking. Writing is, of course, all about thinking – about making decisions about words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters, scenes, digressions. Because there are so many decisions to be made, and because most writers bounce between arrogance (I’ve got this) and terror (I am lost) it is only natural to seek advice, the more, we assume, the better.
We ask friends, loved ones, fellow writers, agents, and editors. The good thing about advice is that people love to give it, which is also what makes it so dangerous. There is generally a direct correlation between the number of people you ask and the number of opinions you will hear and need to sort through. Was Sally right when she said she loved my story? Or was Bob right when he said it sucked? Let me ask Mel. Then mom.
Time and again students have come to me crestfallen because their roommate did not like a story that I thought was terrific.
Why did you ask? I say.
I wanted to get another opinion, they reply, as if they were questioning a diagnosis.
It is a good thing to have a wise editor and even if you do, it is also important to have a circle of trusted friends with whom you can share your work and whose feedback is as useful as that which you give them. The trick is to keep the circle small, so the advice is to the point, trusted, and taken in the spirit of mutually-assured support and assistance. Writing is complicated. Help should not be.
Help, I have come to believe, is best when it’s pared down to a few, key, essential points. I once had a colleague who believed it was possible to teach students the correct way to write, say, 6,732 different stories. The problem was story # 6,733. What were you supposed to do then?
Better to have no more than five guiding principles for your work. Too few risks oversimplifying the process to the point where all stories begin to feel and read the same. Too many and you are left with more points than you can reasonably balance.
I like five. Five you can see on one hand. Five minimizes the questions you need to ask yourself about your story. Five gives your writing a rhythm to work off. It’s akin to cooking; it’s all about technique; technique is all about repetition; and flavor, as a wise chef once said, is about technique. You do the same thing, or in the case of writing, ask yourself the same few questions – yes, questions, a checklist, not a hard and fast set of rules -- so often that they become second nature.
A writer friend who once taught swimming had a rule: never teach more than one skill at a time. If you were working on breathing you don’t also work on stroke. Too many moving parts; too much risk of confusion and failure.
With that in mind, I want to suggest one Essential Story Question; others will follow in subsequent newsletters. But today, just one: does my story commit the sin of using the two worst words in storytelling.
This one I learned from my son, who writes fiction. Which means I came to it late, and when he told me it was so obvious that I could not believe it had not occurred to me before. The advice, he explained, came from the creators of “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who insist that the two worst words in any story are: and and then. Their disquisition on the subject is here and I recommend it highly because it is very funny.
Essentially and convincingly, they argue that when a story is told as a series of ands and thens it is hopelessly, irreparably flat. Things just…proceed, without tension or drama and with nothing to compel the reader, or viewer to stay with you. It is the way very young children (and often people whose Facebook posts always end with See More…) tell stories. I went to the park and my mommy got me ice cream and then I saw a dog and then I petted the dog…
You know people who tell stories like this. And right now, you are thinking, Do I or have I done just that? Maybe. Okay, probably. But now it’s in your head and you will never do it again.
But Matt and Trey, bless them, provide an antidote: the two BEST words in storytelling. Which are: but and therefore.
Consider: I went to the park and my mommy got me ice cream but I saw a dog therefore I did not eat the ice cream but the dog saw the ice cream therefore it wanted the ice cream but my mommy said no but the dog was angry therefore…
So, what happened? What did the dog do? What did you do? Mommy?
My son suggested a terrific example of but/therefore that was also a useful test for identifying and honing that sensibility. I liked it so much I have since shown it to my students, and wanted to share it with you, too. It comes from Nick Park’s wonderful clay-mation short, “The Wrong Trousers,” and it is a chase scene featuring Park’s great creations, Wallace and Gromit. It also involves a penguin with a gun. The penguin is the bad guy.
Here’s what you do: watch it once, all the way through; it’s a bit over two delightful minutes. Now go back and watch it again, this time noting every but and therefore, every cause and effect. Pause if you like. Rewind. Watch again. Slow it down. And as you do buts and therefores will appear before your eyes, as if you were using a solution to reveal invisible ink.
Yes, you can have two therefores in a row. Yes you can have two buts followed by three therefores. But from now on it will be difficult, if not impossible to follow and with then. Your readers will thank you for this, even if they don’t necessarily know why it is they cannot put your story down.
More later. Including “the zetz.” But not today. One at a time.
We wanted to thank all of those who applied for the Review’s Diversity Grants. We received a slew of very strong applications and wanted to announce the names of the winners:
Zenique Gardner Perry is an MFA Fellow at Washington University and co-founder of Undo Bias Consulting. She lives in St. Louis, Mo.
Sheena Daree Miller was born in Ohio and now lives in Brooklyn. She’s an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at The New School.
Idza Luhumyo has training in screenwriting and a background in law. She is studying towards an MA in Comparative Literature at SOAS, University of London.
Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.