Musings & Bookish Things, Writing & Publishing Articles, Writing Craft & Tips

What Writers Can Learn from Mad Max: Fury Road

road warriorThis weekend, Daniel, my parents, and I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that we are pretty big Mad Max fans. Okay, let me clarify that: my mom enjoys them, Daniel and I really enjoy them, and my dad ranks Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior as the best movie ever (Joe Dirt and Mad Max are #2 and #3, in case you were wondering).

Anyway, the purpose of this article is not to gush about the films. Likewise, I do not intend to review Mad Max: Fury Road (5/5 popcorn bags!), nor will I bestow upon you any major spoilers. Instead, I want to discuss what I appreciated about the film on a storytelling level and share some takeaways for writers like myself.

1. Create the fictional world the “real” world needs

I’m not a psychologist, so I’m not going to hurt my brain trying to describe exactly why society loves the apocalypse so much — especially in the 2010s. Maybe it’s that some of us are feeling the effects of The Great Recession. Maybe it’s the pressures that go along with rising credentialism and changing gender structures. Maybe it’s how overstimulated, over-connected, over-shared social media has made us. Whatever the reason, and whatever the apocalypse — zombie, nuclear, economic, or pandemic — we eat it up.

We need the escape the apocalypse offers. We needed it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I know I love the romanticism of it — the freedom from modern worries, the lack of rules, the return-to-basics survivalism. Mad Max: Fury Road gives us the batshit insane apocalypse we need to release some of that tension and feel just a little bit better about what’s going on in the real world.

2. Include relevant themes

My favorite aspect of Fury Road is that it stayed true to the original trilogy, especially thematically. Several themes from the originals carried over into Fury Road; including, the divide between the “haves” and “have-nots,” putting the good of the community before your own needs, and perseverance for the sake of perseverance (and maybe the hope of something better).

furiosaHowever, Fury Road also introduced a few new themes that are particularly relevant to 2015. First, as many critics have espoused, the film contains a strong, feminist message. On an obvious level, it condemns sexual violence against women and the treatment of women as objects. On a more subtle level, the film showcases women as men’s (mainly Max’s) equals, capable of saving themselves with Max in more of a supporting role than “hero” role. The film’s feminist message is particularly relevant today — throw a virtual rock on Buzzfeed and you’ll hit an article on gender. By tapping into this theme, Fury Road is conveying a necessary, relevant message in its totally wacked-out world and opening itself up to a whole new demographic.

Second, in Fury Road, Max has visions of people he could not save, which ring of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. In a time when a war on terror continues and society is growing more aware of and educated about psychological conditions, I think Max’s PTSD is well-placed. Not only does it function as character development, but it incorporates a relevant theme from the real world and helps its audience explore it in a new way.

3. Push boundaries within the world

This tip is short and sweet. Like any other fictional world, the Mad Max apocalypse has rules. It’s in the Australia desert, resources like water, food, and fuel (aka “juice”) are scarce, creativity (in outfit and car design) is crucial, and pretty much everyone is crazy. Just when you think you’ve seen it all with this world, it gives you an electric guitar player strapped to a war machine in the middle of battle. If you have yet to see the movie, trust me, it looks ridiculous — AND YET, it works. And you know what? Fans of the series love it.

The point is: create a world that the “real” world needs, make it relevant, and then push the boundaries to the point that it becomes insane, but epic.

4. Give the audience what it wants

fury roadAlong these same lines, as a writer, you need to know who your audience is and give it what it wants. Fury Road is full of car chases and crashes, nail-biting fight scenes, and punchy one-liners. There’s more action than speaking, and you barely get a minute to breathe. But that is exactly what the audience wants. Whether you write apocalyptic fiction or romance, the best thing you can do is give your readers what they want (and a little bit of what they need from points 1, 2 and 3).

Honestly, I don’t care whether or not you like any of the Mad Max movies. Regardless of your opinion, there is storytelling wisdom to glean from them. The original trilogy became cult classics, and even three decades later, the world and themes within them are still engrossing viewers. The Mad Max series has created a vibrant world and episodic stories that hook its target audience and keep it coming back for more. If you can do the same in your own writing — delivering your audience, whoever they may be, what they need and what they want — you just may have a hit on your hands.

What themes emerge in your own writing? Why do you think the apocalypse appeals to so many viewers and readers? Share your thoughts below!

Writing & Publishing Articles, Writing Craft & Tips

12 Ways to Improve Your Writing (Right Now, For Free)

We all want to be better writers and find ways to improve our writing craft. Some of us have been fortunate enough to study creative writing in university or hire writing coaches and editors to help us become better writers. Then again, some of us have not had these opportunities, or simply are not sure if we want to invest so much of our money and time in our writing at this point.

Often, we get caught up in these “professional” ways to improve our writing. We forget that, at its core, writing is a creative task. Yes, writing skills absolutely can be taught, but they don’t have to be. There are dozens of ways to become a better writer on your own or with informal help without spending a dime.

Here is one dozen:

reading1. Read

Reading fiction is not just entertainment. For a writer, reading is observing and studying the craft. It’s a time-tested principle by which most writers stand – the more you read, the better you will write.

While you’re at it, don’t just read fiction. Read nonfiction books on writing craft. Read memoirs or biographies of your favorite authors and artists. Read books about publishing and business and all the “boring” legal aspects of writing. The more you know about the writer’s life, the more confident you will become in your writing skills.

2. Blog

Blogging is an easy way to practice basic writing skills. Depending on your blogging style, it allows you to practice researching, description, sentence structure, brevity, clarity, and writing for a specific audience. Plus, blogs are also a great resource for networking with other writers and finding their writing tips and tricks.

3. Write

The best way to improve your writing (or any task) is to practice it. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it takes 10,000 hours to “master” a craft. While this may be an inexact number, it makes the point: to be great, you must practice.

4. Share

While reading and practicing will definitely improve your writing, you can only do so much by yourself. At some point, you will be too close to your work, and it will be beneficial to get the opinions (and constructive criticism) of others. A few easy and free ways to do this are: posting your work on a blog or writing site (like Wattpad), asking for beta readers, seeking a critique partner, joining a writing group, or simply asking a friend or family member to read your work.

eavesdropping5. Eavesdrop

What better way to learn how to construct dialogue for your characters than by studying the dialogue of real people? Catch snippets of conversation from other people and listen to the way they frame the conversation. More importantly, listen to what they aren’t saying. Real conversation is full of subtext and body language that are difficult to replicate in fiction. The more you pick up, the more you realistic your writing will be.

6. People-watch

People-watching is one of the most helpful exercises for writers. By observing others, you can gather inspiration for characters’ relationships, body language, dress, mannerisms, appearances, and so much more. The more diverse and complex individuals you can get into your artistic scope, the more interesting your characters will become. It can also be really fun to put words and thoughts into the mouths and brains of people around you to practice dialogue and storytelling.

7. Day Dream

Allow yourself to get lost in your creative ideas. The longer you ruminate on a project, the more your inspiration will grow. Dream big and be bold with your concepts. Then, dream out your plot like a movie behind your eyelids. The more you can visualize your plot, the easier it will be to write.

8. Be mindful

At the same time, don’t get too caught up in day dreaming. The best description comes from experience. Be mindful of your surroundings and pay attention to the beauty and tragedy you see in the world around you. The more present you are, the more precise your descriptions will be. After all, how can you accurately describe the feel of a snowflake on your tongue if you have never taken time to pay attention to how it feels?

9. Absorb other art

artCreativity feeds off creativity. Paintings and sculptures can inspire poetry, characters, whole stories. Music can boost concentration while writing, as well as spawn creative ideas. Movies demonstrate the art of storytelling in a visual form and, like people-watching and eavesdropping, serve as great examples of dialogue and character. The more art you absorb (and create), the more creativity you will generate for your writing.

10. Sign up for other authors’ newsletters

Time for the “practical” advice. Most professional authors (especially indie authors) have newsletters and websites filled with writing and business advice. And most of these newsletters come with free books or guides for improving your writing, too!

11. Attend webinars

I have recently discovered the world of webinars, and they have been incredibly informative for my writing and business skills. Some of them are paid, but many are free. You can find these through author newsletters and social media sites like Twitter. Joseph Michael, @ScrivenerCoach, hosts roughly one free webinar a month, and I really enjoy them.

12. Listen to podcasts

The best thing I have done for my writing (and writing business) thus far has been listening to writing podcasts. The ones I follow are packed with advice from successful authors on writing craft, the business of writing, and juggling writing and “real” life responsibilities. You can see the ones I most recommend on my Writer Resources page.

If you want to improve your writing, there are no excuses and no reasons to wait. There are several actions you can take in your daily life, right this very second, for free, that will help you improve your writing. Yes, this is daunting and can feel overwhelming. However, you should also feel empowered. The ability to become a better writer is entirely in your hands. All you have to do is pick a strategy and dive in! Good luck!

What do you do to improve your writing skills? What tips would you add to this list?

Book Reviews, Writing & Publishing Articles

Feedback Friday, Review: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is full of fantastic writing craft tips, but the “life” instructions are unhelpful, and in many cases, toxic.

For years, I have heard the praises of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life sung by my fellow writers. Therefore, I will admit that I began reading the book with exceedingly high expectations. While this likely biased my reading of the book, even after a few weeks of reflection, I still have mixed feelings about it.

On the whole, Bird by Bird is packed with useful writing advice. Reading it felt like being back in my university creative writing classes, with an eccentric and slightly hair-brained professor. Most of the wisdom Lamott shares is evergreen and can be extremely helpful to writers. In fact, the piece of advice from which the book gleans its title, to take writing one small bit at a time (“bird by bird”) is incredibly helpful. Likewise, Lamott’s insistence that it is okay to write “shitty first drafts” is reassuring to writers and no doubt helps many get over their writer’s block.

Where Bird by Bird loses traction for me is in its advice on publishing, interacting with other writers, and living the writer lifestyle. I realize that the book was published in the mid-1990s, before the onset of professional independent publishing and the modern technological era. Therefore, I can forgive the obvious bias toward traditional publishing as the “only” form of publishing and the ultimate measure of a writer’s success.

However, what I cannot forgive is the way Lamott describes her relationships with other writers and her daily life as a writer. Lamott over-exaggerates the stereotype of writers as competitive and jealous, and if her references to mean-spirited daydreams and therapy are meant to be humorous, they fell on deaf ears here. Just because many writers are competitive and jealous does not mean that a writer needs to advocate this thinking (or encourage writers to stop being friends with another writer rather than work on their jealousy issues).

Likewise, Lamott relies heavily on the stereotype of the “suffering artist.” She describes her life as a writer as one filled with self-loathing, procrastination, and writer’s block. While it may be true that artistic professions are difficult, both creatively and financially, romanticizing the struggle only furthers these antiquated writing stereotypes and does not accurately reflect the experience of most writers.

If you are looking for time-tested writing tips and the reassurance that your writing, even if “shitty” at first is worthwhile, Bird by Bird will deliver. My advice is to soak up the craft tips and take the memoir-style musings on the writing life and how to interact with other writers with a dump trunk full of road salt.

View all my reviews

Bird-by-Bird-image1If you are interested in reading Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and would like to help sponsor my writing and research, you can purchase it at my Amazon Associates Store. By doing this, you will not pay a cent extra, but I will receive a small commission on the sale. Simply click the book’s title or the book’s image.