Read Outside Your Genre, Eat Chocolate, and Other Writing Advice from Joss Whedon

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I’m a big Joss Whedon fan. Buffy started during my formative years and it definitely helped me figure out how to grow up and face the weirdness of middle and high school. What better person to get writing advice from than the man who makes TV shows/movies/videos that give me all the feelings?

My Whedon feelings.

This interview with Whedon has lots of fantastic advice about the writing and creating process. Even though Whedon mostly speaks to screenwriting and movie-making, I think it all still applies to writing fiction. We always hear “read a lot” as writerly advice, but I particularly like Whedon’s take on making sure to expose yourself to a lot of books/movies:

“Constantly watch things and things you don’t [normally watch]. Step outside your viewing zone, your reading zone. It’s all fodder but if you only take from one thing then it’ll show…I read The Killer Angels. It’s a very detailed, extraordinarily compelling account of the Battle of Gettysburg from the point of view of various people in it and it’s historical. It’s historically completely accurate, and the moment I put it down I created Firefly, because I was like, ‘I need to tell this story. I need to feel this immediacy. I so connect with that era, the Western and how tactile everything is and how every decision is life or death, and how hard it is and how just rich it is, and how all the characters are just so fascinating.’ But so I should be on the Millennium Falcon. Now, if I only watched sci-fi I would have just had the Millennium Falcon part, which has already been done, but finding that historical texture, it literally, I put the book down and started writing Firefly.”

How cool is that? And it makes so much sense–if you only read things within your category or genre, you’re not expanding your potential inspiration to anything that hasn’t already been written for your readers. Not that you should skip reading within your genre–I hope that if you write YA, you also enjoy YA–but it’s a great reminder to look outside of that sphere of influence. So often I feel like I have so many awesome YA titles on my to-read list that I don’t tend to as much adult fiction or non-fiction or poetry as I’d like. This seems like an excellent reason to dive into a few non-YA titles I always have on the back burner.

Make sure to click through for the rest of this excellent interview–if only because Joss also advocates the use of chocolate as writing fuel. Yeah. Dude’s a genius.

No One Is Safe in Your Book

Joss Whedon will hurt everyone you love.

The other day I was talking to Walt about the new draft I’m working on, and how I’m excited to get to a certain part, in which everything will go wrong for the main character. “No joy for anyone!” I exclaimed.

I don’t think this is an unusual cry for authors. We need to push our characters into tough situations and make them confront their own fears/judgments/faults. Otherwise we’d all be writing stories about happy puppies who take a nap and smell flowers. (Actually, that sounds pretty good…)

One author who understands the necessity of making bad things happen: Joss Whedon (aka, Light of My Life, Yoda, etc.). The First Novels Club has a fantastic post about “The Joss Whedon Effect” and how Whedon (and authors like him) don’t always give characters happy endings:

“…I love unpredictable authors.

In their books, no one is safe. Happy endings aren’t guaranteed, and there’s a good chance a book will break your heart, even if it cobbles the pieces back together…Life can be unfair to good people, and good people can make terrible, terrible choices (and suffer the consequences)… If you’re lucky, his characters get a happy-ish ending that’s entirely different from what you hoped for. But it’s totally right, because what happiness he gives them, they’ve earned.”

I love this sense of “no one is safe.” If you know a character is never going to lose anything, the story can feel flat and boring. But knowing that a character could put his loved ones in danger or jeopardize her morals makes the story way more compelling. You’re worried about the character; you understand just what’s at stake; you know that this could all work out really, really badly. For example, in Serenity a certain character is killed toward the end of the movie. It’s sudden and pretty unexpected, and after that I spent the rest of the movie thinking “Oh my lord, they are ALL GOING TO DIE.” Okay, so not everyone dies, but killing off this character really raised the stakes for the rest of the movie. It’s so freaking sad and I still get emotional thinking about it, but it had to happen. (Damn you, Whedon!)

And this isn’t just about vampires or the apocalypse. Even characters in quiet contemporary need to be pushed to their limits. Maybe they make bad choices or lose loved ones or fail miserably at something. Because that stuff happens in real life, too, and can push your character toward real growth and change.

I know this is something I need to work on, and it’s something I’ve seen in other writers’ drafts–we stop just shy of really pushing our characters and our books to those tough limits. To making our characters make the hard choices, to dragging them down to their worst levels, to putting them in tough situations without an easy (or even clear) way out. So try to push your characters a little further. Make them really suffer before they earn that happy ending (or not!). It may seem cruel or hard, but it’s worth it in your story. Dare to be an unpredictable author!

(image: Joss Whedon at the 2010 Comic Con in San Diego, by Gage Skidmore via Wiki Commons)