With the National Novel Writing Month on at the same time as FXX’s 600-episode Simpsons marathon, I figure now was a good time to writing down the “Simpsons Writing Theory” that I’ve been thinking about for a while now.
It really goes back to the pulp writers of old and the teachings of modern-day writing guru Dean Wesley Smith. The pulp mag writers had to crank out stories too fast to pay attention to whether they were great or not.
No, really. I mean it.
It didn’t matter if they were great or not, something had to fill those pages. And whether the writer thought it was their best work ever or not, they got paid for it. Then the story was read by thousands, if not millions, of dedicated fans. And it all happened again the next day, the next week, the next year.
So, similarly, my “Simpsons Writing Theory” goes something like this.
If you’ve been an avid Simpsons fan over the decades, as I have been since I was a kid (it’s been on that long!), then you’ve probably noticed that not every episode is a golden nugget of raw television success.
If you think about it, it’d be pretty much impossible for every 22-minute Simpsons adventure to be the best possible half-hour of entertainment imaginable. The writers, actors, and animators have to produce how many episodes per season? Thirteen or more, right? And for what, almost 30 years? And they have to do it on a deadline. The writers have to turn out a completed script, send it to the actors to perform and perfect in the recording studio, and then send that on to the animators, which is probably the longest stage of the whole process. And they have to do this 13+ times a year in a given time limit. If you divide that out, more than one per month. That’s a lot of work in under a month. Some of us aren’t satisfied with one simple short story in that time! And there are millions—maybe billions—of fans and dollars riding on that process.
So do you think they scrap a lot of the scripts halfway through? Do you think the animators come back late in the game and say, “You know, this just isn’t going to work out. Why don’t you start over again?”
Hell, no, they don’t! They have to get this shit done!
What if the writers can only come up with eight zingers in a season, only eight story ideas they really think will be great? Do they just not produce the other episodes that year?
Hell, no! They need a full season. So if a couple of scripts aren’t pure magic, so what, the others will make up for it. The show must go on, after all, even if the team doesn’t think that every single minute of the season is their best ever.
And will the fans stop watching the show just because this latest episode wasn’t all they’d hoped it would be? No, I’m pretty sure they’ll just say, “Hmm, not my favorite ever. Hope next week is better.” And then they’ll tune in next week and decide that their funny bone has been satisfied. And then the next week. Or they’ll binge on hours of reruns in a row, deciding that this one was one of their favorite, that one was not, and that other one was pretty much a stinker. And then they’ll be back tomorrow to watch some more.
What’s my point?
My point is, that as writers we should not scrutinize every single thing we write as either being the best thing ever, meeting some imagined 96% or better standard, or, failing that, not being worth jack squat. Don’t say, “This isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, so I’m trashing it.”
Write EVERYTHING. Finish your story and put it out there, either to editors or simply publish it yourself. DO NOT get hung up judging your own stuff as worthy or not worthy. That’s not your job. And you might be surprised that the one you struggled to squeeze out, or the story you never thought would work, turned out to be someone else’s favorite. Or millions of people’s favorite.
So in conclusion, when you write 13+ stories a year for 30 freakin’ years, some of them simply won’t be great. Some will even be stinkers. But in such a huge body of work, your readers won’t notice the ones that might have missed the mark. They’ll just shrug and move on to the hits that they enjoy. You can’t write pure gold every time. No one can. And yet, they succeed.
I hope everyone who dedicated themselves to writing this month met their goals. And even if you didn’t finish as much as you wanted, typing one word is a net gain!
I personally had a December 1st deadline to meet for a novella that will go into an anthology slated for next summer. And I didn’t make it. But I did get over 16,000 new words poured into it, which is probably a record for me, despite the hectic holiday season and brutal day job hours. And I will finish the story and get it to the editor by mid-month, which will make the fallback deadline just fine. So a big Homer “Whoo-hoo!” for all of us!