Writerland, Chapter 28: Forget Form; Think “Zetz”

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

Writers, like nature, abhor a vacuum.

Much as our work necessitates the embrace, or at least acceptance, of uncertainty – will I get the story; can I write the story? – most writers gravitate to some semblance of order. We might admire and early on even dabble in the free-form-break-the-rules-stream-of-consciousness-how-in-heaven’s-name-did-he/she-write-such-prose of, say, James Joyce or David Foster Wallace. But admiration does not always lead to emulation.

Better to draw between the lines, even as we try to push back, to test the limits, to see what we can get away with. There are reasons why editors sometimes – okay, more than sometimes – regard writers as children and I believe I have just explained why. But then again, even the most rebellious and tantrum-prone children seek order, because chaos is just too frightening.

Every semester I know I am disappointing my students when I tell them I will not teach them storytelling forms. Instead, I tell them, If I give you a form – say, the classic anecdotal lede, followed by nut graf, followed by summing-up-the-big-idea quote from Harvard/Yale/Stanford “expert” – you will find it all but impossible to resist adhering to that form, again and again.

You won’t be able to help yourselves, I say. Why? Because you have spent your lives figuring out how to please the teacher and unless you are extraordinarily brave or arrogant or blessed with an imperviousness to rejection, you will want to please this teacher (or editor) and in doing so you will end up looking at your prose thinking: Where am I in this?

The answer: you aren’t. Not as you want to be.

I remind them that, in fact, they have been thinking about storytelling for twenty years – from the time they were told stories, then read to, to reading those cardboard-page books they could not tear, to writing their own stories with invented language and on and on and on. They’re old pros and when I ask them to write profiles of one another without any instruction as to how, they deliver the next day, without having a clue as to how they did it. They just knew.

But rejecting the rigidity of form does not mean that some aids, scaffolding, or parameters are not useful. The trick, I have come to believe, is to keep them to a minimum and make them so simple that they can give writers considerable latitude in how to interpret them.

I have three, and they are:

A)   The First 100 words

B)   The Floating House

C)   The Zetz

A) People read at the average rate of 200 words a minute. Which translates into 3.3 words per second, or 33 words every 10 seconds. Think of the last time you were in an art museum and how long you spent in front of a painting you liked. Imagine that moment and count to 10. If the painting moved you, you might stay longer. But there are all these other paintings crying out to be looked at. So 10 seconds. But will it extend to 15? 20? For that to occur something has to happen for and to you – a connection. It is the same with stories. That artist may have spent years creating that single painting. Do you know that? Do you care? No and no. It is just about the painting and the moment. Yes or no? Walk or stay?

That is what a reader is doing with your story. They do not care a bit how hard you worked. They do not know you. They are interested only in seeing if something happens when they start to read what you wrote.

Which means you have 10 seconds. 33 words. 34 tops.

If you spend too much time throat clearing, if you are hesitant, if you open with a quote in which we have no idea who is speaking and therefore no context for that quote, if you lard things up with a long anecdote that kinda sorta maybe advances the narrative, if you fail to commit and take readers by the hand – in the first 33 to 34 words – you risk having that reader not stick around for the next 33, let alone 15.

I am not a big fan of workshopping stories – you are paying for me to edit your stories, right? – except in one regard: audience testing. If you read the first 100 words of your story out loud and people react with anything short of “yep. That’s it. Keep going” and nothing else, if they offer no comments or suggestions or I-might-have-opened-with and maybe-you-might-try, then you have it. They’re hooked. If they hem and haw and try to help, bless their hearts, your first 100 words are not quite right.

Maybe changing or adding a word or two here or there can make the difference. Maybe if you consider how search works and think which “key words” will trigger associations or connections for readers, that will do it.

Every semester, at the end of the reporting but before the writing begins in earnest, I have my students come to class not with a first draft but with their first 100 words. I do not say lede or nut graf because that will make them think, form. Just the first 100 words which I then ask them to read out loud to their classmates.

When they’re done I ask them to look and listen. Do you see nodding heads and hear only silence? If so, those 100 words have worked.

One hundred words, written in increments of 10 or 20 or 33 – reading measured in seconds in a reader’s life, seconds spent evaluating whether to stay or go.

B) When you ask young children to draw pictures of home they will, typically, place everyone and everything at the bottom of the page, in as straight a line as they can draw: people, pets, the house. But, as I learned years ago when reporting a book on the child welfare system, if you ask the same of children who have sadly come of age in the chaos of repeated foster care placements, their drawing will show people and a house floating randomly across the page. There is no frame.

It is the same with stories. If we do not sense the writer’s belief in what he or she is saying, if we do not feel that the story is anchored – like a child’s drawing – to the bottom of the page, if the story lacks a frame, we as readers are left feeling unsettled and lost.

C) So how to ensure your first 100 words sing and your story does not float?

Consider “the zetz.”

Zetz, for those who did not grow up in a home where Yiddish was spoken by parents and/or grandparents, translates roughly (because ALL Yiddish translations are by their nature rough) as a smack, a blow. Literal or figurative. (I love these examples, in that I can hear my grandparents’ voices from a long time ago: from the Urban Dictionary: "Don't make me give you a zetz!" and better still, from the Dictionary of Jewish Words, "Breaking her hip was a zetz she didn't need."

My introduction to the concept of a zetz – one that would one day find its way to my writing and teaching -- came as a child when, over the summers my parents rented a bungalow in a colony in the Adirondacks where the adults took turns running an informal day camp. The man who taught us to fish spoke with a thick Eastern European accent, a familiar one in the Brooklyn where I grew up.

One day he led us to the nearby river, where he showed us how to bait a hook, drop the line into the water, and wait for “a nibble.”

When we felt the nibble, he explained, we were to wait and wait and then…

“You give da fish ah zetz.”

Or, in its American Maritime Translation: hook it, typically with a sharp flick of the wrist.

And that, fellow writers, is what you need to do for your readers. You need to give them a zetz. You need to hook them. And you cannot do this tentatively, or passively or without conviction. They are nibbling. They are at, say, word, 65 and now, before they swim away lured by other stories, you need to give them a zetz.

But how? A word, a phrase. A twist. A “But.” Or a “just when Joe thought it was okay to step out the door, he looked up and saw just how wrong he was.” Or as “he looked into the mirror and saw that he had been transformed into…”

You know exactly what I mean. You have read and felt a zetz maybe five thousand times and each time you have smiled to yourself and thought, bless you dear writer for hooking me.

And now you have three ideas stuck in your head. If the experience of students is any guide you will be unable to get rid of them. 

You will, I’m afraid, start thinking in 6 and 33-word increments.

You will ask yourself if the picture you have drawn in your story is framed or floating.

And in not very much time at all, you will think, have I given my readers a zetz, as if you had been a Yiddish speaker all your life.

Or as we say in Yiddish: Form? Feh!!

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