8 Writing Tips: What We Learned from Watching ‘Mad Men’

Once in a while, we are lucky enough to come across a TV show that grabs us from the moment we watch the first scenes unfold, until the last scene fades to black.

Mad Men is one of those shows.

When Matthew Weiner wrote the pilot for Mad Men, he created a masterpiece.

(Warning: If you haven’t seen ‘Mad Men’, there are a few spoilers ahead.)

The first episode was unlike anything we had ever seen before. It gave the viewers a raw introduction to a time and place that some of us were unfamiliar with, and some of us were familiar with, but had long forgotten. It showed us a different life and gave us colorful characters that were complex and flawed—extremely flawed, but yet, we couldn’t help but root for them. It gave us scenes that shocked us, like at the end of the pilot episode, when Don Draper takes the train to the suburbs and goes home to his wife and kids.

It was an unforgettable episode, armed with the perfect script and a talented cast that seduced us. Our jaws dropped, and after that, we were curious. We were hooked.

As each character unraveled with every new episode, we latched on tighter and craved for more. With the perfect mix of career life, individual life, and family life, Mad Men’s writers surprised us, intrigued us, and inspired us. We laughed, and we cried. And like a good book that we couldn’t put down, we kept flipping the pages as we sat on the edge of our seats, eager to know what would happen next to Don, to Peggy, to Joan, to Pete, to Roger, and the rest of the amazing cast. Then, we turned the last page, and the book ended. But in our heads, the story continues. Because here we are, still talking about it.

That’s damn good writing.

8 Writing Tips: What We Learned from Watching ‘Mad Men’

1. Flawed Characters are perfect.
Yes, they’re perfect for stories. Why? Because they’re interesting. Who wants to watch or read about someone who has it all together? Flawed characters are constantly searching, trying, failing, and changing, making them interesting and relatable.

2. Create the unexpected.
The element of surprise can spice up a story. Twists are good. But don’t create one just to have one. Make sure it fits your story. Let unexpected things happen to your characters and make your audience think. A good example is from the pilot episode, when Pete shows up at Peggy’s apartment. That scene intrigued us, and it made us eager to know what would happen next to these characters.

3. Make your audience feel something.
Evoke an emotion. Any emotion. Make them think, laugh, cry, gasp, wonder, or even make them angry.

Here’s a tip: If you’re moved by your own story, chances are, your audience will be too.

4. Pick an interesting time and place to set your story.
The more uncommon, the better. People want an escape when they read a book, or a watch a movie or a TV show. Give it to them. Mad Men picked the ’50s to start their show, and it was a great idea. The heavy drinking and heavy smoking inside office buildings, are only a few examples of the things that we saw that amazed us, because they were so different from what we’re used to. These were important elements that enhanced the show, and it was yet another reason why we were drawn to watching it.

5. Character Development is important. 
Let’s take a look at Peggy Olson. She was Don Draper’s new secretary when the show started. She was young and naïve, but showed a lot of promise and determination. After her talents were discovered and tried, she was promoted to junior copywriter. As she continued to work hard and persevere, she landed the title of Copy Chief.

Although her career climbed at a steady pace, her personal life was a whole other story. For starters, she had a baby with Pete—a secret she had kept from everyone, except Don (Pete does find out eventually). She gave up the baby and struggled with that decision for years.

Peggy had affairs and had her heart broken many times. She was weak in other aspects of her life and strong in others, and we empathized with her.

How can we forget that scene from the Lost Horizon episode, when Peggy walks into McCann-Erickson carrying a box of her belongings, wearing a pair of sunglasses, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, and the old painting of the octopus under her arm? There’s a reason why we could not stop talking about it. It was a powerful scene. It showed us how much Peggy had evolved from the first time we had met her. And we liked this new Peggy. She’s strong and driven, and she knows exactly what she wants.

The more layers a character has, the better.

6. Write good dialogue.
Have you ever quoted a line or a dialogue from a movie, a TV show, or a book? If you have, it was probably because that line or that dialogue was memorable to you.

Sally: I’m sorry I broke your suitcase.
Don: Find out how much it is to repair and it will come out of your allowance.
Sally: I don’t have an allowance.
Don: Then don’t break things.

“Am I the only one who can work and drink at the same time?”—Peggy

“The reason you haven’t felt is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons.”—Don Draper

If you’re writing a book, let your audience get to know your characters through inner dialogue by revealing their feelings and thoughts. Create outer dialogue that help your characters tell your story.

Keep in mind that dialogue has to have a purpose. Don’t just write dialogue to fill a page. Let your characters interact and start a conflict, or solve a problem. Dialogue is there because there’s a reason why it’s there.

7. Do your research.
If you’re going to create a story set in the ’50s, make sure to do your research. Mad Men did. From the magazines on display, to the outfits and the cars , they were all carefully picked for a reason—to tell their story accurately. The same goes for when you write books. If you’re going to write a novel about a boy growing up in the ’70s, do your research. Paint that picture for your readers and make them see it, feel it, and believe it.

8. Don’t be afraid to try something different.
Experiment and take risks. Matthew Weiner took a risk when he wrote the pilot for Mad Men and then pitched his idea to different networks. AMC took a risk as well. They had no idea how the show was going to be received. We all know their risks paid off.

Any successful TV show, movie, or book begins with good writing. So before you write your first story or your next story, think of these 8 Writing Tips. Or think of any of your favorite TV shows, movies, and/or books. Then ask yourself why you like these stories and these characters.

And then remember these reasons, gain inspiration from them, and start writing.

Writing

IMG_3604“Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself.”

—Truman Capote

7 Writing Quotes That Will Inspire You

Paris Notebook“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
—Elmore Leonard

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.
—Ray Bradbury, WD

“Anyone who is going to be a writer knows enough at 15 to write several novels.”
—May Sarton

“You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.”
—George Singleton

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.”
—Ernest Hemingway

“Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.”
—Henry David Thoreau

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”
—Ray Bradbury

12 Ways to Get Inspired When You’re Feeling Uninspired

12WaystoGetInspiredI recently went through a writer’s lull. I was trying to work on my second novel but for some reason, I couldn’t focus. I knew how I wanted to rewrite and edit the story, I just couldn’t get myself to sit in front of the computer and do it. This went on for weeks and it was beginning to frustrate me. The ideas were all there, but somehow I wasn’t motivated.

Determined to get back on track, I changed my routines and tried new things. It worked.

If you’ve been feeling uninspired to write lately, here are 12 ways to get you back on track:

  1. Take a break. Working on the same manuscript for days or months can be daunting. Give it time to rest and go back to it a few days, a few weeks, or a few months later.
  2. Take a walk. Writing is sedentary. Get some fresh air and go for a nice long stroll to get your creative juices flowing again. Check out this article: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/walking-helps-us-think
  3. Change where you write. If you usually write in the living room, try writing in the kitchen, or in the bedroom. If that doesn’t work, leave the house and try writing at a coffee shop, at a library, or at a park. A change of venue could do the trick.
  4. Change when you write. If you usually write in the mornings, try writing at night. And if you usually have a set time for writing, don’t have one. Instead of writing for three hours straight, try writing for just an hour and then take a break.
  5. Switch it up. If you find yourself staring blankly at the computer screen, try writing on a piece of paper. Get a notebook and a pen and start free writing. This always works for me.
  6. Listen to Music. And not just the same music you normally listen to. Change it up and try new genres.
  7. Watch a Movie. Pick your favorite blockbuster flick, or check out a new movie. Take advantage of your Netflix membership and explore old films, new films, foreign films, and independent films. Movies always help inspire me.
  8. Pack a bag and go somewhere. If you’re on a tight budget, taking a day off, or a little weekend getaway somewhere close by could be all you need. A nice vacation—short or long—will help you recharge.
  9. Write something else. Put the current manuscript aside and try writing a poem, a short story, or start a new novel. Then go back to the previous manuscript when you’re ready.
  10. Read a book or a magazine. You don’t have to read an entire book, unless you want to. Even reading a few pages could be enough to get you back on track. I’ve done this many times. Whenever I feel stuck, I flip through different books and read a few pages. Reading a beautifully written paragraph or dialogue is sometimes enough to inspire me to write again.
  11. Go back to your old notes. Remember the notes you wrote down on that napkin, or that notebook, or the one you typed up on your phone months ago? This is the time to read them over. There might be something there that could inspire you.
  12. Write. Sometimes the cure to feeling uninspired to write is to simply keep writing. Write anything. That anything could turn into something. It doesn’t have to be good…yet. Just write it. The whole idea is for you to start writing again. You can always edit later.

Happy writing!

The Invitation by Oriah

A dear friend of mine introduced me to this beautiful poem. Thought I’d share it with you.

flower
Image by cmbanerjee

The Invitation by Oriah

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,
“Yes.”

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

By Oriah © Mountain Dreaming,
from the book The Invitation
published by HarperONE, San Francisco,
1999 All rights reserved

Inspiration

Sometimes all it takes is that one perfect song to get you going—to get you writing that short story, or that novel. Other times it takes a good long stroll, or maybe a vacation, or last night’s dream to inspire you to write. But as writers, we must write even when we aren’t inspired to. Even on days when we think we don’t have time to write—we make time to write…anything. A sentence, a paragraph, a page, or a chapter. Because it is from writing every day that we are able to start a story and finish it.

I came across this short, but inspiring clip of authors sharing some invaluable advice on writing. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the video:

“Write a story for yourself.”
“Investigate on what your truths are and have faith in it.”
“Let the audience that’s meant to find it, find it.”
—Wally Lamb

“Write every day.”
—Diane Hammond

“When you have writer’s block—write. That’s how you unblock.”
“No book is written. Every book is re-written.”
—Ridley Pearson 

“Read. The more you read, the better you write. Write. Keep writing because the more you write, the better you write.”
—Anthony Horowitz

“Trust yourself. Write exactly what you think you want to write.”
—Lee Child

“If all else fails, just keep trying.”
—Graeme Base

“There’s one thing that all writers have, that you have…your voice.”
—Dennis Lehane

“Write what you know. Write what you believe in.”
—Robert Crais

Here is the link to the video:

Happy writing!

5 Inspiring Quotes on Writing

Happy Friday, folks!

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!”
—Ray Bradbury

“If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”
—Somerset Maugham

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”
—William Faulkner

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
—E. L. Doctorow

“I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.”
—Edgar Rice Burroughs

Tips on Writing

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While going through some of my old books in our back room, I came across a book called, “Writer’s Little Book of Wisdom” by John Long. I have a feeling I bought it years ago, back when I used to only dream of becoming a writer.

After wiping the dust off the book, I decided to flip through it. As I read the first few pages, I wondered if my younger self actually read the book. And then I saw this dog-eared page. 

IMG_1664 

Here are a few writing tips from this little book:

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This is one of those books that you can pull out any day and randomly pick a page to read. And that particular page on that particular day could inspire you to write. Or it could simply remind you of what to do, or of what not to do as a writer.