Joss Whedon’s Top 10 Writing Tips

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NaNoWriMo ends today and while I didn’t have time this month to compete, those of you who did might appreciate Joss Whedon’s writing rules.  While his skew more towards writers of visual stories, novelists will no doubt appreciate what he has to say.

Joss Whedon is the writer and creator of such cult TV shows as Buffy, Angel, Firefly and the acclaimed writer/director  of box-office smash The Avengers.

Joss Whedon 10 Writing Tips

Whedon also included some explanations for his above tips, and you can find them below:


Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.


Structure means knowing where you’re going ; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes ? The thrills ? The romance ? Who knows what, and when ? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around : the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.


This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys ?’


Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue : you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny ; not everybody has to be cute ; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.


Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.


When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.


You have one goal : to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.


Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly ; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie ; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet ?’


Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s f***ed the system ; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction ; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up : they’d started talking about a different show.


The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie : if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skilful you are : that’s called whoring.


NaNoWriMo Follow Up

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If you were paying any attention in the month of November, you’re probably wondering what happened to NaNoWriMo.  I had been doing very well, a little ahead of target for the first week and a half.  I knew that it was going to be harder to write once my fiance came for Thanksgiving, but I planned to be ahead so I could write a little less.  I missed a day because of other activities, but didn’t think it would get me behind.

And then, the tease by the immigration people came.

You see, our first half of the process took five months to get approved.  Long story short, my little brother decided to join the Air Force (yay!), but his basic training date is in January, a whole lot earlier than we really expected.  So we made some appeals to get the process moving faster.  About the second week, it did.  The first half got approved.  We were now hoping that we could work with the embassy where Paul is so that he could get the necessary interview quickly and in the country to be married before January.  And honestly it would have been possible, but the two and a half week delay from them killed all hope.  The temporary euphoria and idea that we needed to plan a wedding by December 30th-ish killed NaNoWriMo.  Oh well.

GinnyI also got a cute cat.  Her name is Ginny and she is adorable.  And if you know Harry Potter, you understand the name.  Good thing the fiance didn’t realize where the name came from when he agreed to it. Ha Ha.

The more space I get from NaNo, the more I wish I had planned out better anyway.  I like the book I was going to write, but I’m not sure if it’s one I want to finish right now.  I have other ideas floating in my head that are begging for words and pages, and I have to figure out how to give voices to all of them.  In a way, I guess it’s ok that I couldn’t finish this year.  Maybe I’ll have my own NaNo in January or something.  Or just a plan to write more often than I am doing now.

I want to apologize that the blog kind of died there for awhile.  Even without a December wedding, we have been deciphering immigration legalese and trying to plan my brother’s wedding next week (that is another story all together).  Also, I switched to a new iPod Touch and for the longest time could not figure out how to get audiobooks on it.  I swear that it was the dumbest thing that stumped me the longest.

Here’s to more time to devote to reading great (and sometimes mediocre) novels.


Oh the Joy of Reading

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Joy of ReadingA few days ago, I was frustrated.  I was frustrated that I was so busy that I barely had time to write for NaNoWriMo.  I was frustrated that I had so little time to read.  I was worried that neglecting my reading, and in turn, this blog, would cause me to be apathetic towards reading.  If I only were to push myself, I would read and learn and grow.  Somewhere in that thought, I realized that I could never become disillusioned to reading.

I might not be able to spend every spare hour of my day with a nose in my book, but I have always found time.  For instance, Ally Condie’s Crossed was released ten days ago.  Ten days.  How ridiculous that I am not yet finished, and I even started it the day it was delivered to my Kindle.  But I have only had time to read during my lunch hours at work, and even those are not always available to me.  Sometimes I have lunch with my mother, other times with coworkers, friends, or I must run errands in that hour.  And so my reading gets neglected.

As I opened my Kindle and began to read Crossed the other day (edging towards 60% finished), I realized that I do not care how fast I read.  I do not care how many books I am reading in a month, or if I sometimes take longer to finish one.  I care only that I am reading.  Every day I drive to work, I listen to an audiobook.  A story that will make that 25 minutes in the car to work a little less dull.  When I am not lucky enough to socialize during my lunch, I can sit at my desk and be whisked away to another world where worries cannot touch me.

Have you ever noticed that?  That with a good book you suddenly forget all about the stresses in your life?  For me, books have led me on countless adventures, allowing my imagination to take control, if only for that hour a day.  How sad is life without a book to fill those empty gaps that nothing else could satisfy.

I probably thought more of this because of Crossed.  The sequel to Matched, we are now outside of the Society and its control, but Cassia still marvels in others’ ability to create something beautiful.  The freedom to create has given us the freedom of imagination.  We will not all be best-selling authors.  While some of us may want to be an author some day, we can all delight in the written word.  We can all be affected, moved, and changed because of words someone had the courage to record.

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage.  ~Charles de Secondat

NaNoWriMo – Week 1

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I had no idea this month would be that crazy.

I am still trying, and I am slowly but surely adding words, but I am afraid I will not “win” this NaNoWriMo.

First, my older brother got engaged.  This is very happy, and I have little to do with the planning, but it is planning.

Then, my own engagement has finally gotten a light at the end of the tunnel.

My fiance is Scottish, so we need permission from the US government to get married and for him to live here.  It’s a two-step process, and we finally got the first bit of approval last Friday.  We are now planning to get married by the end of the year.

This is all happy, happy news.  But it is taking a toll on NaNo.  Not to mention that I am working on PhD applications, the Scottish fiance will be here next week for a visit, and Thanksgiving/Christmas season is starting.  Needless to say, I am lucky to be chipping away at the count at all.

Word Count: 8,823

Technically, I should be sleeping.

NaNoWriMo – Day 2

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Today was easy to start out with, and then the writing got a little harder.  This of course was partially because I was impeded by a mid-session phone call with my fiancee, but it was also because I just hit a harder point in my novel.  I have two narrators, a brother and sister, and so far I have just written from the one narrator. I haven’t figured out what the opening line is going to be for David, my second narrator, so right now Emma is in full charge of the novel.

I’m using Scrivener to write the novel (did I mention that already? I can’t remember.)  I really like Scrivener.  I can jump around, reorder scenes, and work on something that might be later in the book.  With Word, you don’t get that kind of flexibility.  It’s very linear.  This, however, is so flexible that I don’t have to worry about the order of anything that I’m writing.  I can see that later in the novel, this might be confusing, but hey, I like it right now.

My word count today keeps me ahead of the goal (1,809).

These posts may not be daily, but we’ll see how I get on.

Word Count: 4,138


NaNoWriMo – Day 1

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For those that don’t remember, today marks the first day of National Novel Writing Month.  Participants aim to write a 50,000 word novel within the next 30 days.  We forgo sleep, human contact, bathing, and other sacrifices in order to make it work.  I will finish this year.

NaNoWriMo BadgeThough I put off the start of the writing session tonight to watch the first two episodes of “Castle” with my mom, things are going well.  I’m at 2,329 words so far for my novel.  Which puts me slightly ahead for the month.  In order to stay on track, you need about 1,667 words per day.  When you think about it, that’s not that many.  I mean, as long as you’re prepped with what you’re going to write when you sit down, you can knock it out pretty fast.

That’s my advice, really.  Don’t just sit down at the keyboard unless you have a plan.  If you’re like me, writing doesn’t pay your bills.  I will constantly be thinking about what I want to write that night.  To make sure I don’t forget, I will often keep a notebook handing to jot something down in a moment of inspiration.  I would also use lunch breaks to write, but right now Crossed (sequel to Matched) is stealing those hours.  At least until I finish the book.  But then I plan on using my lunch hours to sketch out that evening’s writing.

This means I will be getting behind on some television shows.  Honestly, I watch too many and this will help me weed through those I no longer care about.  Very few shows (“Psych”, “Castle”, “Once Upon a Time”, and “Chuck”) will be watched live or on DVR during November.

The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that it forces you to prioritize writing.  It makes you think about your story, care about your characters, and really understand where your novel is going.  It is about getting rid of those statements of “tomorrow, tomorrow” and instead sit down and write today.

The only thing that will make this month hard is that the Scottish fiance is coming in TWO WEEKS AND TWO DAYS (not that anyone is counting) and my older brother got engaged.  So now there are two weddings to plan.  And a fiance to spend time with for 11 days.  And a lot going on at work, so some overtime will be involved.  But I will merely have to push ahead, write a little extra, lose a bit of sleep around Thanksgiving, and type away while the fiance plays with the new laptop that is waiting for him.

As with most years, optimism level is high on the first day.

Word Count: 2,329 (Too bad I can’t count blog posts!)

#WhyIWrite and NaNoWriMo

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Ah Fall.  The time of year when the weather turns cold, Starbucks has Caramel Apple Cider, and jumpers get aired out and worn.  (For my US readers, jumpers = sweater.  I know I’m American, but I type that first all the time, and well, I have a mixed vocabulary.)  Fall for me also means National Novel Writing Month, which starts on November 1st.  It’s the time of year when I try my hardest to write 50,000 words, even if that goal hasn’t been met.

So far, I’m 0-3, but I’m not in school this year (which led to 0-2) and I’m not terribly depressed because I was kicked out of the UK/separated from my fiance for the first time (last year).  I might be working full-time, but lunch hours, evenings, and weekends will get devoted to my novel.  I hope to make the 50,000 words with ease.  Or at least at all.  Instead of my normal programming (reviewing books), I will be doing a month of NaNoWriMo.  Not just me, but others I know who are doing it as well, past winners, etc.  If you read my blog and are planning to participate in this year’s festivities, please let me know.  It counts as a break if you write a blog post for me on the ups and downs of 50,000 words in 30 days.  But seriously, I would love to get some input from both writers and readers on this blog.  After all, it’s basically devoted to the world of fiction – all sides of it.

Also in writing news, yesterday was the National Day on Writing.  A day to celebrate creativity and imagination through the written word.  The New York Times ran a great piece on it yesterday, and celebrities such as Neil Gaiman were Tweeting with the hashtag #whyIwrite.  Gaiman tweeted: “Because I can lie beautiful true things into existence, & let people escape from inside their own heads & see through other eyes. #whyIwrite.”  Man, even his tweets are gorgeous sometimes.  But seriously, I love movements like these because they encourage creativity.  There are a lot of cynics in the world who don’t believe in donating money to the arts (or that their children should waste any time on them), but what kind of a world would this be without the embellishments that make it beautiful?

I have always been more artistic and creative.  My parents like to tell people how I would make the carrots talk.  I remember writing scribbles down (before I could even write) and telling people they were my novel.  I was always wanting to write, to create, to breathe life into something that had existed entirely in my head.  I played piano, flute, oboe, and sang, but while all of these brought some form of expression, nothing has given me greater joy than to have time to sit and write.  There are all kinds of writing, and some are more laborious than others, but no matter what words come out, I am happy.  Sure, as every writer will tell you, we are never really happy with what we have put on the page.  Look at George Lucas.  We give him flak for changing Star Wars with each release, but no creator will ever feel he has created perfection.  The fans might, but the world was yours to mold, and so you continue to want to shape it, to better it, to improve it.

To have a hand in creating has always been my goal.  Even in web design and development, you are bringing to life something that once was only a vision.  Whatever your vision is, whether it is writing, music, paint, film, or something else entirely, I hope you take the time to enjoy what you do and to thrive on your creative spirit.  And now I sound like a hippie.