How to Write For Any Medium (From a Guy Who's Written For "The New Yorker," "Saturday Night Live," and Pixar)

Simon Rich writes novels, essays, screenplays, and sketches—and he’s written them for some of the most respected arbiters of quality in their respective fields. Here, the prolific writer talks to Co.Create about the differences between each medium, and how to choose where an idea belongs.

Aside from the fact that his name is right there at the top of the page, it’s always fairly obvious when a "Shouts and Murmurs" piece in The New Yorker is the product of Simon Rich. Telltale signs include the elegant skewering of adult human behavior, as glimpsed through the eyes of children, animals, spectral beings, or inanimate objects—and the fact that the reader is hunched over laughing. These short essays comprise just one of the many textual weapons at the writer’s disposal, however, and only one of the fields on which he regularly deploys them.

Rich’s recently-completed second novel, What in God’s Name? occupies shelf space right next to his previous effort, Elliot Allagash (for which Jason Reitman bought the movie rights), and two short story collections. You may have also seen some of the sketches Rich wrote during his four-year tenure at Saturday Night Live, or perhaps you’ll plan on checking out whatever top-secret movie he’s working on as a writer for Pixar. If there’s a respected forum where words can go, odds are that Rich has already deposited a few there.

Rarely is such range achieved in any writing career, let alone by the ripe old age of 28, but that’s what happens when prodigious talent meets ceaseless work ethic, and is fortified by some admitted neuroses. Rich says he’s accomplished all of this, though, on the strength of a pure love of writing. “I’m continually amazed that, as a professional writer, I get to do this every day,” he says. Below, the prolific author offers advice from his own experience on how to write for each specific medium he’s worked in, and how to decide which one is right for which idea.

When Creating For TV, Think Visually

At SNL, you produce your own sketches, so you have to really think about them as visual pieces, and I had no experience with that when I started. My earliest sketches at SNL were pretty much just people sitting around the room talking to each other. I didn’t know anything about how to visually tell a story. I’d done some writing for radio and magazines, and published a book of short pieces, but I’d never written for actors and for cameras and it was a real learning experience.


I learned so much from everyone there, and not just writers, but producers and crew and the people in props and sets and design—about how to actually put on a show. Writing a sketch is way more collaborative because you’re dealing with a director and actors and a bunch of other creative people, which is also a good thing at a place like SNL. I had a lot of sketches that were mediocre and made passable by talented actors bailing me out.

The key is to think visually. So many times I’d write a sketch set at, say, a marriage counselor’s office and I was so naïve and unsophisticated working in television that I would literally have the opening line of dialogue be, “Well, here we are at the marriage counseling center.” When you’re coming from the world of print, it’s not obvious that the characters can just walk by a sign that says “marriage counseling center.”

There Are Many Ways to Free Up Premises in a Novel

Every book is a little different. You’re always learning on the job. You’re always trying to tackle things you never have before. Every novel brings its own challenges. I sort of have been moving into this more surreal place for a couple of years now. I don’t know exactly why, but I started to write stranger pieces. It’s just a lot of fun and a lot more freeing.

With [first novel] Elliot Allagash, I tried to pick a character that was powerful enough to allow me to come up with as many fun premises as I could, so I made him limitlessly wealthy--that way he’d have the resources to go anywhere and do anything, which was freeing to me as a premise writer. For What In God’s Name?, I actually take it a step further by setting it in heaven, where there’s angels and God and magic. It really opened things up and really liberated me to throw in as much fun stuff as I could dream up.

Writing a Screenplay Is a Lesson In Word Economics

You have to be a lot more economical with your storytelling in screenplay writing. You can’t digress really at all, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino. There’s a certain formula you have to stick to and it’s a formula I love working within, but it forces you to be incredibly concise and clean and elegant with your storytelling in a way you don’t have to be with novels. In a lot of ways, it’s a lot more challenging from a storytelling aspect. But there are similarities. At the end of the day, it’s still just coming up with interesting premises and interesting characters. And it’s a lot of dialogue writing, which I love.

Look for Patterns In Your Writing. There Might Be a Book Somewhere

I hadn’t intended to write [first short fiction collection] Ant Farm. A lot of those pieces had been for The Harvard Lampoon, and some had been in The New Yorker. One day I realized that all the pieces I’d written had been basically the same thing over and over again, so I might as well collect them into a single entity. The same thing happened with my next book, this collection of love stories called The Last Girlfriend on Earth [out in January]. I sort of found myself writing these bizarre high-premise love stories, like the one where the guy gets “traded” by his girlfriend or the one where God is distracted by his needy girlfriend. I’d just started writing these love stories and when I had enough of them, I saw the same rationale for collecting them together.

The Random Article Button on Wikipedia Is the Anti-Slump

I find in general that if I don’t have any ideas on what to write about, I just research whatever at the moment I’m extremely interested in. I read a lot of nonfiction on subjects I’m interested in, and that usually knocks something loose. A few months ago, I was stuck and I wasn’t really sure which of my projects to work on, and I was kind of bored with some of the stuff I was doing, so I just spent a few days reading books about monkeys and sign language and teaching them how to talk. Nothing came of it really, but by the time I was finished reading about monkeys, I was ready to jump back into my novel. Reading a lot of nonfiction helps. Wikipedia is also a big help. There’s always something interesting on Wikipedia--the random article button is great. When I was writing Free Range Chickens, I had just discovered Wikipedia and one of the ways I came up with ideas was to just keep refreshing, and keep clicking the random article until a premise occurred to me.

Breaking Down an Idea Helps You Figure Out Where It Belongs

Sometimes it’s really clear what to do with an idea, but usually it’s not. So I’ll just start writing it down. No matter what it is, I’ll start it as a Microsoft Word document, and just break down the most exciting aspects of whatever the idea is--the best jokes I can think of, the most interesting plot twists I can think of. Then I’ll stare at it and think about “Where does this belong?” And I’m often wrong. I’m usually wrong. Sometimes I’ll write a story and think, “This whole story can be told without any words and just 30 seconds of stage directions in a movie--why did I just waste a whole week on this horrible piece of short fiction?” I’m often completely wrong.

Sometimes there are multiple right answers. Sometimes you’ll start a novel and thinks to yourself “Oh, there’s a way for that to be a movie as well if you change certain things, and add certain things.” It’s really difficult to know, though. It’s something I’m trying to get better at as I get older, but it’s tough. I have a list of premises which I keep on my computer that’s like 50-100 pages long of just ideas and most of them I have no idea where they belong. Also, the larger issue is I have no idea if they’re any good.

I think all mediums have their pluses and minuses, and I feel really lucky I get to work in so many of them. The big advantage of a novel is you can do anything you want and not have to worry about budget costs. You can explode the Earth and all you have to do is type a few words and it’s done in the reader’s head. You don’t have to hire Jerry Bruckheimer to blow up the Earth in a novel. So that’s a big advantage. But sometimes I’ll write something and think this needs to be performed by actors in order for it to make any sense and be any good. I’m really lucky that I get to use all those other weapons too then.

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7 Comments

  • Stage32.com - RB

    Terrific insight into the fertile mind of a successful writer.  There's nothing like that process of taking pages of fragmented ideas, notes, and jokes, all jotted down on scraps of paper, cocktail napkins, and valet tickets, and turning it all into a (hopefully) cohesive piece of work.

  • Mandy Kilinskis

    Absolutely love this interview. Simon, if you're looking for an idea for your next book, I'd love to read a full-length about your thoughts on the different mediums!

  • dkjoller

    Wow! Did I think I would be back so soon?  No, certainly not.  Seeing my comment displayed prompts this response.  When I write something, its organized in paragraphs and lines in a certain order.

    Unlike some venues which duplicate in dimension what you've written, you have this enlarged version that looks almost cartoonish in font-size. All of a sudden my paragraphs have taken on a warped appearance.

    Not good, not good. Are you trying to accommodate those who want to read these comments from 10 feet away?

  • dkjoller

    This is a comment you won't like.  Its not about the article.  That's great.
    Its about the page itself. Having done web development for more than five years, I notice things.  Its about my experience and the proclivity to deliver
    criticism where I think its due.

    Its not a big thing. But it is important. To be sure, overall, this is first class graphic design - beautiful layout, colors, typography, etc.  Everything except some links in those beginning paragraphs.  I knew they were links. The visual clues told me.

    But I couldn't tell what they said.  Why? The colors don't have enough contrast.  Years ago, I came across a website that would tell you when two colors had insufficient contrast (if you had doubt).  Most of the time its common sense that tells you.

    Specifically, that yellow - which leans towards gold - is much too weak.  Of course, there are many elements on a web page that can lead to reader aggravation.  They, researchers that is, say you have about 7 seconds to convince the visitor to stick around.  Patience is very short on the web.

    Will readers leave your site for this reason alone?  I doubt it. But it doesn't negate the validity of what I submit.

    Will you change it?  I doubt it.  Rarely, will a shortcoming be acknowledged and acted on.  Its human nature.

    So, as a hypothetical graduate of Christopher Hitchens School of Mordant Comment, I continue on......

    Je suis fini

      

  • Gl

    Good luck, Simon, but get a day job while you're still this hot. The article thinks you're a young man at 28, but in your field, it's like being a 28 year old baseball player. I recognize the skit pictured above, and if you wrote it, you're really good.  

  • Oneminutegalactica

    Get a day job.  Love it.  I just finished Elliot Allagash yesterday (and also a really funny caveman piece by Rich in The New Yorker), and I've been googling to find out about his other books.  In doing this I stumbled across a web page where it says Rich recently bought a house for, like, 1.2 million bucks.  Yeah, get a day job, just in case.  Good advice there.

  • Jorge Monteiro Jr.

    I have a Moleskine with a bunch of ideas, and it's interesting how each of them seems to have kind of a 'personality': some I feel it will only fit into a comic book, while others would fit in a book, and yet others would have to be a movie or a TV series. Great article.