If you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up, you might hear “fireman” or “teacher” or “zookeeper”, but rarely “writer”. Most writers I know never planned on being a writer. They were lawyers, artists, mathematicians, programmers, to name a few, and that doesn’t make them any less successful than those who have degrees in English, communications, or creative writing. In fact, it gives their writing a unique edge.
An important piece of advice a professor once told me was, “Don’t only make writing friends, because stories about writing do not fuel writing. Make friends that have adventures or work in fields unknown to you. They’re a gold mine of experiences.” Experiences are definitely helpful when coloring writing, but there’s something else incredibly valuable about them. A little something I like to call “mindsets”. I have minor backgrounds in music performance, culinary arts, fencing, and more. From every skill I learn or experience I have, I try to apply that to my writing. Here are some ways you can do it too:
I’ve never been able to completely devote myself to music like most professionals, so I’ve kept it as a hobby. One thing I took away from it was my practicing habits. I would always try to have two or three pieces of music to play and rotate around because if I kept playing one piece for too long, I’d lose interest. This is also helpful to know and apply to my writing style. I burn out easily if I try to write for too long, therefore I break up my writing schedule with simple things. Write for two hours then read for twenty minutes then write for a half an hour and then break for a half an hour lunch. My bigger chunks of writing are at the beginning and when I know I’m burning out, I rotate to a different task with equal productivity or importance. One of my professors mentioned how he wrote best when he did some writing sprints for an hour or two and then took a twenty-minute nap with his rabbits. This cycle would repeat and he found it to have the best results.
It’s a little clichéd, but I like to think of my stories as recipes. For an example, let’s use a cake recipe. You mix dry and then wet ingredients together to make the batter. Try taking any ingredient out. You can’t. It’s all mixed together. This is how a story should be. Every part put into it should further the plot in a way that is imperative to the story. Every ingredient in cake batter is necessary (especially chocolate) and the decoration, while it makes the cake pretty, can also easily be overdone, so garnish with care. However, unlike culinary, writing doesn’t have formulas, because there really isn’t a hard and fast mirepoix of storytelling or recipe for film. You could always think of Aristotle’s Poetics as a guideline, but following it to the letter won’t guarantee a great story. Think of all the fun and interesting cuisines we have and how dull it would be if no one ever deviated from the recipe. You wouldn’t know that ground ginger in mac and cheese is life changing just like you wouldn’t know how interesting a found footage film could be if The Blair Witch Project hadn’t experimented.
Two years ago, I joined the fencing club because I wanted to gain a skill and trick my body into exercising. Also, swords. I did learn something new: the art of discipline. Fencing is a precision sport between you and an opponent. Think of it as you against writer’s block. You have to understand your opponent in order to defeat them. Sometimes, you lose, but it’s not really losing unless you learn nothing from it. A loss should be able to tell you something about your opponent and how it works. Did you get distracted by the internet? Were you sitting somewhere that had easy access to distractions? Each time you lose motivation or fail to reach a goal, take time to analyze the problem and adjust accordingly. I also find this helpful when opposing my story. Is pacing slowing down? Is it intentional? If not, then something needs to happen because slow pace is a vulnerability. Every action in fencing is intentional. If you swing your blade around to “confuse” your opponent, but aren’t using it to prepare to complete an action, it will be counterproductive. You have to mean what you do and what you write. It isn’t very helpful to say, “well this needs action” and throw in a car chase. It has to somehow further the plot.
I’ve found it incredibly helpful to dip my toes into different writing styles as well. From writing in different mediums, you gain a new outlook on writing. From video games, comic books, playwriting, and novels, you can use these new mindsets to improve your screenwriting. If you can’t take a class on it, there are books and youtube videos out there with more information than I can give. Don’t be afraid of the different styles, they can only help. It gives you a different perspective on anything from characters to design to world building.
Of course, everyone is different and has different experiences. Perhaps you gleaned different ideas or outlooks from activities listed above or maybe you have some experiences that have inspired and furthered your career. Please comment and share.
Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.