Friday, May 2, 2014

Writing Advice from Don Draper

Hello, readers! It's Kate today.

I am a huge fan of AMC's Mad Men. If you haven't seen the show yet, watch it. The show has masterful character development, a great cast, and a lot of subtle, complicated layers. The characters are some of my favorite in all of television, and I have a love-hate relationship with Don Draper. But love him or hate him, he has some excellent advice for writers. 

 The querying/writing/publishing world is one with a lot of hierarchies and ways to judge each other and what some call gatekeepers and false measurements of how successful a writer you are. Good writing requires a lot of vulnerability, which makes it that much harder to have the confidence and ambition and persistence it takes to get our work out there. But don't forget that you are the biggest factor in your own career. Respect your own work, and respect your potential and ability as a writer. What I think Don is missing here is that racism, sexism, homophobia, and prejudice of other kinds can put real and toxic limits on our progress and success. Some of us have to fight harder than others for less. Don't let that damage your self-respect, and reach out to others who are also dealing with this for strength in numbers.

 This is one of my chief writing strategies, and I'm thrilled Don agrees. When I'm stuck on a character's motivation or a plot twist or how to end a scene, I force myself to articulate the problem, come up with a list of ten reasons/options/factors involved, and then walk away and let my subconscious make connections and churn it around while I do something else. Sometimes it takes ten minutes, sometimes a few days, but that almost always works for me, and those ideas normally turn out to be my best ones. Articulating the problem and turning it over from as many angles as possible first is key, though-- I have to feed my subconscious before it can do the work for me.

It's jaded, it's harsh, but it's often true. If you got this far, if you're persisting and hooked into the community and having your work beta read by good writers and reading good books and reading agent blogs and publishing blogs, you're probably a good writer. The people who do those things are usually the ones who care enough to become good. But being a part of the community and seeing others succeed sometimes makes it hard to handle what feels like a lack of progress in our own careers. When I queried my first MS, I sent about 150 queries, and a lot of the people around me signed with agents and were getting book deals. I was working hard, and thought my manuscript was pretty darn good, and even though I was super happy for them, it didn't seem fair, because I was working as hard as they were. But that doesn't help, and it's discouraging and unhealthy to keep asking "why not me?" Put in the time, keep at it, focus on quality, stay connected, and stay positive.

There's a difference, though, in asking for what you've earned or asking for an opportunity, and in asking for someone else's time, attention, skills, etc because you believe you're a special genius and things should just be handed to you. Most writers aren't that way, though, and have to be encouraged to ask for an opportunity they're qualified to have.


This is my writing motto. For character motivations, subplots, revealed secrets, metaphors, even the prose itself, make it simple but significant. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a guideline, this is a pretty great one. Don't let yourself get hung up on adding subplots that don't make the story deeper, or let yourself overwrite in an effort to really capture the moment. Make what you have more significant. Instead of adding flowery phrases, pick more significant words. Instead of making the story wider, make it deeper.

 This image is  particular moment of the show that struck me as genius. I won't say what it is, to avoid spoilers for those of you who haven't seen it, but I think this is a pretty descriptive shot. It's simple, it's stark, and it foreshadows so much opportunity. But what I really love about this moment is that each of the characters brings his/her story on stage with them. It's in their posture, the order they're lined up in (who's centered?!), they way they're grouped by the beams. That's a great way to build impact and get storylines to connect, and it's simple realism: people don't leave their baggage behind. They bring it onstage and it affects the people around them. It makes the moment richer and the story deeper. Don't pull your characters out of their subplot to drop them into the main conflict; make them take their stories with them, and make their baggage and their journeys affect the moment.

So, keep it it. Keep going, stay positive, be good, get better, make it significant, respect yourself, and respect the work.

I'm going to leave you with something that is definitely not advice, but hey, we're writers, and it happens: 


  1. This is brilliant on so many levels. I love Mad Men and never thought of taking Don's advice and applying it to writing. Thank you!!