“It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy. Nobody wants to read your shit.”
I posted this innocuous photo of our living room bookshelves the other day and people started asking me all kinds of questions, like, “How do you organize your books?” (I don’t) and “What’s the book you gift the most?”
Sacrilegious for someone of my profession to say, maybe, but I don’t like giving people books unless they’re 1) books they’ve asked for 2) really nice editions of books they already love. Otherwise, it feels like giving someone work. “Did you read that book I gave you yet?!?” (You, though, you should buy lots of my books and gift them indiscriminately. Ha!)
Reading a book requires, by today’s dismal standards, an enormous investment of time and attention, and the writer either honors that investment or suffers the consequences. (As Vonnegut told us, a writer has to be “a good date.”)
In the first major interview with legendary comedy writer John Swartzwelder, “sage of The Simpsons,” he says:
Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.
But if you know you have to honor the reader’s time and attention with “good” work, how do you ever get the guts to sit down and write?
You have to be willing to be bad, first, and write a shitty first draft.
That is the whole trouble.
Swartzwelder suggests working with time, and the overnight magic of put it in the drawer, and walk out the door:
I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.
As the interviewer, Mike Sacks, summarized the method: “Create an imperfect world and then improve it.”
(Sacks has published two collections of interviews with comedy writers worth your time: Poking a Dead Frog and And Here’s The Kicker. And Swartzwelder’s novels are here.)
Okay, now I’m off to make something bad that I will fix later!