Five Lessons Learned From Maria Semple in Five Minutes

Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria SempleDear Reader,

I must tell you about a book I recently read. The book is called Where’d You Go, Bernadette and the author is Maria Semple. You might have seen this book’s cover in various newspapers and online journals. It is the one with the mysterious redhead (brunette on the U.K. cover) wearing a hat and large-framed sunglasses that look similar to binoculars, the woman’s mouth open and alive. You might also recognize it as the book that is being called “a fantastic, funny novel” (Los Angeles Times), “laugh-out-loud funny” (Newsweek/The Daily Beast), “extraordinarily power and intelligent” (Time Magazine), “perfectly timed” (Seattle Times), “a comic caper” (NPR Books), “hilarious” (Jonathan Franzen), “brilliantly executed” (Garth Stein), and now has a movie deal with the writers of 500 Days of Summer (Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter) and producer Nina Jacobson.

Is the book worth all of the hype? In my opinion, yes. I won’t tell you what it is about, because it is best to go into it knowing very little (that’s how I went into it, anyway). But I will say that it is worth your time, even if you are not a particular fan of humorous things. The book may have comedic moments, but it is far from being a genre novel. There is a lot to explore.

This wasn’t really the point of my post, though. I just needed to explain a bit of back-story as to why I was recently looking up Maria Semple on YouTube. I have a thing about researching authors after I have read their work, and Ms. Semple was someone that I really wanted to know more about. Thankfully, YouTube had videos that I could watch. Just like her books, her videos offer a lot of lessons that writers can learn from.

Take the first video I watched, for example. It seems to be an interview in which the questions were edited out and only the responses remain, leaving Semple free to talk for five minutes. I was just expecting the normal round of questions to be answered (“Where do you get your ideas from?”, “Is this autobiographical?”, “Do you have a favorite character?”, “Are you working on a new project?”), but this was not the case. As soon as Ms. Semple comes on, she begins talking about her experiences as a television writer (which is notable and includes credits in Beverly Hills, 90210, Ellen, Mad About You, Suddenly Susan, and Arrested Development, among others). She discusses how, in television, everything is related to the story, because the story of the script will influence the settings, and the settings will influence the budget of the episode. And here the lessons begin.

Lesson One: Think like a television writer when planning and writing your scenes. Pretend that you are on a tight budget. The producers cannot afford to go over-budget, and so each scene must serve a distinct purpose. In addition to this, each location must serve a purpose. An action fight sequence in the middle of the desert may be “cool” to some, but if it does not move the plot forward or tie back to an earlier part of the story in an essential way, cut it. If it does have some essential meaning, though, then make sure that all angles are being explored and that you are using all of your “props” to the greatest effect.

Lesson Two: Maria says, “I come across so many people who write first drafts, or write the first half of novels, and they are kind of a mess, and I give them notes, and they just give up…They don’t know how to roll up their sleeves and dig down and make it better.” In other words, don’t be afraid of hard work. In fact, expect hard work. Writing a novel takes a lot of time and patience and many messy drafts before it starts to come together. When you hit the point (and you will, many times) of realization that your work is not progressing as you would have hoped, don’t give up. It isn’t a death sentence for your novel. It just means that you are not there yet in getting to your novel’s full potential. But with dedication, you can achieve that potential.

Lesson Three: Maria admits that she “didn’t know anything” about writing novels when she first started out, and that she “came to it as a fan of fiction” more than anything else. I don’t think that Ms. Semple is encouraging writers to throw away all of the writing textbooks and never engage in classes that could improve your writing. However, you do not have to let excuses get in your way of pursuing your fiction projects. You are allowed to start writing even if you don’t really think of yourself as a writer or your work has never been shown to anyone else or you didn’t pick the “right” college degree or you have been in another field for too long. No, it is not likely that your first book written will become a published New York Times bestseller (even Maria Semple didn’t have a best-seller with her first book), but if you love immersing yourself in other writer’s fiction and you want to try creating your own, why not?

Lesson Four: Connected to the previous lesson, putting too much pressure on yourself is not going to help anything. Maria says in the video that her main rule when she began her debut novel was to “not have bad writing in it.” Note that this is different from trying to achieve greatness. The only thing this rule requires is to try to eliminate any writing that is unnecessary and does not add to the book. You don’t have to build a mansion; you just have to make sure the house you build doesn’t have any leaks in it.

Lesson Five: As Maria points out, “It takes so long to write a book.” And it really does. There is the initial idea, the plotting out of story lines and characters, the private writings of character biographies, revising those biographies and plot points, any and all research notes (if required), the first draft, the second/third/fourth/etc. draft, the spelling and grammar check, the edits from family/friends/professional editors, the revisions based on those edits, another round of spell-checks, any copy edits, final proofs, last-minute fact checks, and then the very final look at the book before it gets published/released/put in a drawer and never shown to the world again. When writing a novel, the one question to really ask yourself is, “Is this going to sustain me?” Of course it is great if you have an idea for a novel and you are excited about writing it. That makes sense. But are you going to still be excited to write that novel after two, three, five years have gone by? Are you willing to dedicate that significant of a time period to your idea? If so, go right ahead. But really think about what it will take to produce your book and whether or not that journey is going to fulfill you. When searching for ideas, find the one that shines the brightest for you and hold on. It will be a long, and rewarding, ride.

Thank you, Miss Semple, for providing so many lessons (at least for me) in these five short minutes. To see the full video that I am referring to, click here.

Reader, what do you think about Miss Semple’s ideas? Do you agree with her views? Feel free to leave comments down below.


Jumbled Writer

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6 Responses to Five Lessons Learned From Maria Semple in Five Minutes

  1. JW,
    Thanks for the wonderful article. I can see where the applications of these “rules” go beyond just writing. Have shared this on twitter and facebook. Hope September is blessing you with an array of colorful foliage.

    • Thanks for liking and sharing. I hope that it helps the people it reaches and am glad you got something out of it. Yes, September has begun to blossom. Just one day away from the beginning of autumn!

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