Well, that was fun, I guess. Looking back on that takedown of the first episode of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD.
Fun but pointless when you get down to it. No value to it other than lancing a boil. Probably should bear my own admonition to do better in cases like this.
Been behind on posts here. Busy trying to get enough done so that I don’t feel bad about disappearing for five days back down to Los Angeles (yes, I did live there for a time, so I can say ‘back down to’). Looking forward to it. Just had to get enough done at the day job (mostly didn’t) and on my own work (kinda didn’t) so guilt wouldn’t have me working when I was supposed to be not working. Yes, I’ve taken vacations this summer, but they largely weren’t relaxing (for reasons discussed in that post entitled ‘Black Phase’). I won’t belabor them here.
I’ll be hitting up the Long Beach Comic Con when I’m there, trying to make professional contacts, in my wonderfully awkward and fumbling way. I’m fine when I have a keyboard in my hands. In person with folks I don’t know, not so very much. And then I’m supposed to pitch these people the projects that I’m working on and either want them to work with me or for them to publish it? Yeah, that’s a whole order of magnitude more slippery and daunting than I’m good with.
But since we live in a world of author as product it’s something I’d best get better at.
So let’s see. Finished up the story treatment and notes for the first arc of THE FUTURE AMERICA, a little story entitled “Benign Neglect” which is about fame, revenge and figuring out who your friends actually are in the face of the other two. I like the storyline well enough, and it’s got enough characters who aren’t the same old thing that it could really go somewhere. But it’s easy to say that when you don’t have to structure everything (which will be the next step.) I’m thinking six chapters, though I’ve been told that if I want to pitch it to publishers, it has to be five or fewer, which really isn’t a lot of room.
I’ll say it again. A hundred and ten script pages isn’t a lot of room. Especially when those are comic pages and time gets eaten up very very quickly. Honestly, comics writing is the most carefully structured work I’ve ever done because if the page doesn’t work, and you’ve got a sequence of pages that don’t work, well, you don’t have much. Prose you can get away with a lot, even scriptwriting you have a lot of flexibility, but comics have a rhythm that you can’t break. You can mess with it a little, but if you’re out of step, it just won’t work. So I never know what I’ve got until I start making page beats (and even then those are easy to goof up when you call for too much or too little of weight to happen and it will show.)
Just like sequential art is the most demanding art form, it’s the same for writing (even when that writing is submerged but for dialogue.)
Spent some time re-reading the first stories in the early 2000s relaunch of CATWOMAN and was reminded how they’re some great comics. Trying to get a sense of rhythm from those, but that’s also like trying to get basic tips on guitar technique from Billy Zoom. The bones of it are there, though you have to know enough about it to understand what to actually look for. Reminds me that way back when I was first writing about comics, I did an interview with Ed Brubaker which you can read right here. Some interesting stuff in retrospect.
Also been reading X-STATIX and I’m sad I didn’t read this back when it was an ongoing, but glad I waited for the giant collection (which I poached from a half-price sale, so yes, I’m killing the industry.) It was the kind of X-book that I’d liked to have read (and I’d burned out on them long before, though Grant Morrison’s take on the team was one of the things that got me reading superhero books again, if not comics in general.) Aside from that, INVISIBLE REPUBLIC is a favorite right now. Scary good, really, playing a different game than most science fiction comics, which is still a strangely under-represented genre. Never understood quite why. Sure. There’s lots of science fiction action out there, but precious little actual SF. INVISIBLE REPUBLIC breaks out of that form, though, and mixes in political thriller, mystery and even detective noir (if I am permitted to stretch that term some). It’s not flashy though, which probably works to its disadvantage, at least in the marketplace.
So, Los Angeles. Get to see folks who I only usually see online and get to go take a lot of pictures of settings that might show up in SMOKETOWN or LOCUSTS or even in another thing I’m tangentially involved with that isn’t comics at all but goes out under the tentative title of DEPARTMENT OF LIGHT AND SHADOW (though maybe BUREAU is a better first word in that — will work on it.)
Not sure I mentioned this here, but I did make a short story placement over the summer. “Chunked,” which is unusual in that it’s overtly Lovecraftian, is scheduled to appear in an anthology called TOMORROW’S CTHULHU which is weird and exciting. Weird, well, because it’s a story that is if anything an unsentimental take on things, certainly not reverent towards HPL or his creations that others have endlessly reworked. Should be interesting to see how its received (and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s been accepted for this anthology.) Trying to place a few more stories because I’m honestly really tired of working on things that will either not have my name on them (as was the case for the lion’s share of writing I did in the last five years) or won’t be seen by anyone.
To that end, I released “The Black Mass Variations,” which is also a Lovecraftian story, or at least has a Lovecraftian hook, though it’s not about squirming Elder Gods or anything like that, except in only the most tangential fashion. I’ll include a picture of the cover below because it’s one that I’m pretty proud of. Best of all, the whole thing is only .99 for your Kindle device (and Amazon exclusive for now, sorry.)
I will say that working on pitches gets draining because it’s like building the scaffolding for a play that maybe people will get to see one day (but they’ll never see the structure behind the sets). It would be nice to work on a thing that will be read in its entirety. Yes, I know, I can self-publish, but then there’s the whole howling void problem. Publishing is the easy part. Getting noticed is damn near impossible.
With any luck, though, I won’t have to think about that for the next few days. Just taking pictures and smog and eating Mexican food and maybe buying some cheap comics or hitting real actual bookstores (Barnes and Noble kinda doesn’t count). Oh, and there’s that Jack Kirby exhibit at Northridge. And Taschen is supposed to be having an exhibit of Mick Rock’s photographs of Ziggy-era David Bowie, so that should be fun. And just driving around poking at the exposed bones of history in LA. There’s still plenty of them around no matter the cliché about old LA being long gone and only half-dead homicide cops too burned out to have a family but still mean it man when they talk about how old LA is all that really matters and gimme another drink whaddya mean I can’t smoke in this bar?
There might be an update from the road, but don’t bet anything important on it.
Just slap this on while you read. Trust me.
I sat down with my son last night to watch the new WALKING DEAD spin-off show, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD which is really not a good title, but what are you going to do? You’ve got to invoke the mother franchise or people might not know that this is another show on AMC following THE WALKING DEAD which is also about zombies is really another WALKING DEAD show? I mean, come on. You gotta lead the horses to water, right?
My issues with THE WALKING DEAD are pretty numerous and insoluble. After a really outstanding first episode (right up until the time our hero met the other humans trapped in the department store and then Wang Chung) we got treated to sometimes zombies and an ever tenuous grasp of morality. Yes, I know. It’s the end of the world existential struggle and what would you do? Well, I’d try to look at the possibility of building something. But that’s not in the DNA of this show is it? We dance around the teased origin story of the zombies because that would be the key to stopping them but really the humans who are the walking dead are much more dangerous both to continued existence and the characters’ sense of humanity. Eat or be eaten, beat or be beaten. Hobbes would have loved this stuff, right? We play all kinds of music: nasty, mean, brutish *and* short.
So yeah, I don’t make time for it anymore (tried for a couple weeks this last season and I guess I’ll watch it when it hits Netflix because I’ll watch any damn zombie thing — well, most any) but I’m not waiting on pins and needles about it. Continue reading FULL BLEED: TOMBE DELLA CITTÁ
Ready to put summer well behind me. The last several months have been asphalt on the tongue rough, and seemingly unending. When you’re in a grim situation and it seems like it’s always been that way and like it will ever be this way? That’s exhausting in a way that’s tough to describe.
That said, the heat’s breaking and the angle of the sun has swung back around leading to Fall. Feels like that corner’s been turned. Kids are back in school, though it still takes deadly force to get them up in the morning, which is getting old.
So as the day job and dad life allows, it’s back to work on things. STRANGEWAYS still simmers, still need a cover artist for it, too. Would like to do something special given that’s this is likely to be the last STRANGEWAYS book, but I do need to accept reality. SMOKETOWN is still going, in theory, but very slowly.
Of course that means the best move I could possibly make is to start something else, right? Yup.
20XX: THE FUTURE AMERICA is another of those concepts that I’ve had floating around for awhile, just as a handful of notes and half-realized story ideas, bits of background and inspiration. You know, a mess. But let’s focus in on a bit of that mess and look at that word “inspiration.”
If I call out a movie as an inspiration point, say, 2001. What I’m looking for is that same sense of gracefulness and vastness and ultimately strangeness. I’m not asking for the space suits to be constructed exactly the same way or for there to be malicious computers (or cavemen and monoliths for that matter.) I’m looking for something that vibes the same way, or maybe not even the same way but gets to the same kind of place.
Only not by outright copying things. Sure, you can get a lot of traction in today’s marketplace by just filing off the serial numbers and offering someone else’s work as your own. Or if you’re really clever, mashing two things together and fitting the pieces into a kinda sorta new thing. Only the original parts usually show through (often by design so that you know you’re supposed to like this new thing because it’s like two other things you already like.)
THE FUTURE AMERICA comes out of a lot of different sources/inspirations. I won’t deny any of it. The trick is knowing that and using them as a starting point, not a destination. And, as the title suggests, it’s sort-of science fiction (though purists will call it ‘speculative fiction’ and dismiss it on that basis — but then the same thing happened with MAX HEADROOM and that show has proved to hold up a lot better than more celebrated SF from the same time period, so, nyah.) I also have to tackle the fact that a lot of the same themes are going to pop up, but can’t just lean on the stuff that’s been done before. If anything, it’s an opportunity because you know and I know that these stories have been told before, so I have to push past the expected.
Which actually makes things easier in a way. Yeah, it should be harder, but it’s not.
The hard part is stringing together a story out of all these disparate pieces. The world-building is good and all, but that’s just the maze for the critters to run around (and it’s not really a maze because the actions of the characters should change the walls around instead of just hem them in).
I’d talk more at this point, but think I’m about done. If you want to get a look at some of the source/inspiration for THE FUTURE AMERICA, head on over here:
Some of the roots will be pretty obvious, others less so. I mean if you could predict it all, it wouldn’t be any fun, right? Don’t answer that, because sometimes I look around and it’s like people want the same thing rewarmed. And sure, there are moments where only watching ROBOCOP again will scratch that itch, but that’s like the nice china. You can’t eat off that every day.
So yeah, it’s clear that THE FUTURE AMERICA, which starts in the year 20XX on what may as well be Earth-VHS comes from many sources. You can be sure that I’ll do my best to make sure it stands up as its own thing and not just as by-the-numbers anything else. And I’m pretty sure that Jok and the rest of the artists at Estudio Haus, who are working on series, wouldn’t be interested in working on anything generic.
Oh, and as for “Benign Neglect”? That’s the first story arc, which covers everything from the obligations of friendship to urban planning to reality television and the monetization of the other. Also revenge. Bloody revenge.
I’ll keep you all posted.
I didn’t come up with that phrase. Neko Case did. She’s a better writer than she’ll ever get credit for. At least I assume that. I don’t read record reviews or thinkpieces, though I’ve been known to read histories (oral and otherwise).
I mean, she wrote the line “I wanted so badly not to be me” and the first time I heard it, I got scared because I knew exactly what was meant by it because I was living in that feeling. I’d carved a little house in there, getting under the skin and hollowing it out so that I could hide. Of course, I wanted to hide from that self-alienation as much as I wanted to hide in it.
Some of the reason for that is probably evident from journals posted recently, no need to link back to them. If you’ve been reading along, you know what I’m talking about, if not, let’s just say that there’s some things that you wouldn’t wish on a person you hate and sometimes you wake up to find that that wish came true, only for you and your family.
And that’s not a thing you get to choose. So all you get to do is live with it.
Then continue on with the rest of your life because it’s still happening even if you want to go back and live in that hollowed-out place and make the rest of it go away. Maybe that’s what other folks call depression; I don’t know what name to give it but that one doesn’t seem right.
So I’m trying to get back into writing again. It’s been awhile. Yeah, that story I posted? That was written back in late 2013. I’ve written a couple of short stories since then. Then there was the novel which was best described as “tortured”, including a full draft, complete tear-down of that draft and re-writing and still not being satisfied with it, but having to turn in something. There’s more in there, but that’s enough to get the general feel of the rolling disaster.
Then there’s BLACK TRACE, which was re-written (after a not-cheap editing process), new chapters worked in and every page getting worked over. Of course, there’s not much to show for that, given the agenting process (no I don’t have one). So in a lot of ways it’s as if nothing happened with it, which is extremely frustrating given the amount of work that’s gone into it.
Everything else I’ve written has been pre-writing for a variety of pitches that I have to keep thinking will turn into something, though that optimism has begun to be in shorter and shorter supply. At some point, that drive turns into something else: a line of questions that demand answers. And sometimes the answers that are spelled out in those broken pieces and story notes and boxes of unsold books aren’t the ones you wanted to hear.
Mostly because it’s easy to read any kind of message into those spilled entrails. Without anything else to build on, though, those readings start to get pretty dark. I’ll be honest. I’ve been at this for awhile, and it’s not just in regards to BLACK TRACE that I don’t have much to show for it. I’ve written and put together two pretty good graphic novels, but (aside from a handful of positive readers, for which I’m more thankful than you’ll ever know) those mostly came and went without a trace. Even when posted on a pretty decently-trafficked comics website. If they were read by editors who I didn’t already know personally, I never heard about it.
The stack of rejection slips from science fiction outlets is pretty damning, too. Of course, I’m not submitting to non-paying outlets. Honestly if I’m going to do that, I’ll run off to the Howling Pit of self-publishing instead. Unfortunately, at least in prose, the dire predictions of self-publishing becoming a sea of slush are largely come to pass. Not only that, but we live in a world of text-scrapers and novelty erotica (sorry, but no raptor is going to be interested in pounding your virgin butt) and honestly stuff that just isn’t very good at all (but very earnest). But it’s all got an equal footing, right? Three cheers for the Long Tail!
So I’m working on a bunch of pitch ideas, primarily for comics. And I’m trying to be honest about what’s good and bad about them, but I have to wonder if there’s anything to them at all. Or any of the other writing. I’m grateful for the praise that my work has gotten in the past, but pride is tough and stringy and doesn’t get the kids fed. And I try to tell myself that the success isn’t an externally-granted condition, but my ability to continue to believe that is exhausted on a daily basis.
And when that fire gutters, you are well and truly cold.
I wish I had more wonderful writing advice for you, more incisive wit, more retweetable moments. But I really don’t, not when it comes to my work. I’m out. All I’m doing now is the stuff that I’m capable of. All I can do.
I’ll try for more positive news next week. Maybe something will break on THE FUTURE AMERICA. All I’ve done tonight is figure out that maybe the main character I thought I’d have at the center of things isn’t a good one which just makes me happy that I’m at outline stage instead of done with the first draft because I’ve thrown out the first fifty percent of a book before and it’s about the worst feeling there is. But then I’m used to a decent amount of outlining (at least on long prose — short prose I just form up the general idea and run with it) so the surprises aren’t major.
Of course, I used to think I was pretty good at this and then that fire lays down and disappears like the wind is blowing hard.
So awhile ago, I wrote this story for an anthology that had one of those open calls that you hear about, but never seem to quite work out. I don’t get it. I mean, they wanted stories about the Apocalypse, and boy is this one ever.
I know. They wanted some good ‘ol misery-wallowing, which is something I don’t do very well.
This may not stay up forever, so read it while it’s here.
This is just a preview, as the whole thing is going up on Amazon only Amazon is freaking out because the preview is available and if they don’t want it, maybe Smashwords does.
The world was perfectly deteriorated, every streak of weathering and wear placed with deliberation and thought. Stacks of emergency supplies were still wrapped in shiny plastic, red block lettering only half-visible underneath. Ross thought it was bags of rice and beans and maybe some clean water. It was stuff that someone else wanted, but they weren’t going to get. Not this time.
He cranked the safety off of the Armalite AR-15 and sighted along the scope. It wasn’t the best scope that he could get, but it would have to do. Not like he had a lot to choose from now. But at least he was going to keep all this food. He just had to hold these guys off a little bit longer. They didn’t have the guts for a sustained attack.
The sun was bright, too bright, the whole place feeling overexposed and washed out. Dust blew through the street leading up to the Chevroco station, and he was up on the roof now. The supplies were in plain sight below.
Yeah, not so funny picking on me anymore, is it?
Told you it wouldn’t stay around very long.
Don’t worry, you’ll be able to read it again sometime, just that you’ll have to buy it now. Watch this space.
No update this week. Meant to, but things got deep into the suck.
If I posted one, it’d be pretty foul, so maybe it’s better that I don’t.
Perhaps after I get back from vacation. Be gone for ten days. A number of things might’ve changed by then, since a big project launches on the 28th (not writing, nope) and I should be hearing back on some stuff so, maybe then. But to be honest, the underlying things that drag aren’t likely to change for the positive.
Been working up to this one for awhile. Been a hell of a last six weeks or so. Really been a pretty draining year up to this date. The turning of the solstice didn’t magically fix anything either (not that I expected it to — I’m a grownup.) See, there’s some things that don’t get fixed, no magic wand, no hand of God, no self-actualized inner Anima offering up the hidden wisdom until the right instant.
Some weights don’t get to be set aside so easily, no matter how much I’d like, we’d like, everyone would like. The last six months, and really several years previous to that have been rough going. So here’s the thing, which I’ve talked about with some folks in person, but not everyone and not publicly. Like I said, a weight.
There are some things that I really wouldn’t wish on anyone, but that doesn’t mean they still won’t happen to you. You don’t get to plan for them because you don’t want to even consider the possibility of them happening to you or your family. I don’t get that luxury, and believe me, it is just that.
Eleven years ago, not long after the birth of our daughter, my wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Yes, I’ve heard every single Michael J Fox joke: they’re all very funny, very clever, good work. There is not a day that has come and gone since then during which this condition has not played a part or ruled my thoughts. For some years, the external symptoms were not that visible, not that much of an impact on daily life.
That changed over time, continues to change. Medication only masks the symptoms (and in some cases creates its own side effects that are nearly as debilitating), but the disease continues unabated. The weight mounts. On everyone in the family, only I’m Mr. Mom, so I try to take it for the kids where I can. And I have to take it for my wife as well. Stubborn as she is, that only takes you so far.
So, a little more weight. I can take it. That’s my job. Pile some more on. I can take it.
Until I can’t.
Think I hit the wall several times this year. I know I did. Pretty sure I went right through it once. I don’t recommend that.
There isn’t a fix for this (though yes, I know about Deep Brain Stimulation procedures and it’s not applicable at this time). There isn’t a cure. There is only management through medication. And I’ll be honest when I say that this is the worst thing that I’ve had to go through or see anyone personally go through. I say this knowing that it’s worse for my wife and that my best efforts are momentary salves. She still works (and does a hell of a job at it) but not full-time. But it will not get better.
When you see the present, particularly a present that you’re having a hard time dealing with, and you map that onto a projected future, it makes for very grim going. Don’t do this. That said, it’s a hard thing not to do, sometimes impossible. Again, grim going. Particularly when you’re trying to transition to a new medication that works only half as well as advertised, perhaps to get better, perhaps requiring the medication be abandoned.
Needless to say, there hasn’t been much work done. Sure, I’ve been talking about pitches (for comics that may or may not ever see the light of day — that’s a subject for another time.) Pitches are easy, at least the messy and doughy pre-work before you wind it like steel cable taut and without an ounce of fat so that it rings with promise. That stuff is easy to do, almost fun. So what if nothing comes of them, they’re fun, right? Lots of people *pay* to have fun and I get to do it for free. The real work comes from shaping it up and actually writing it. And there hasn’t been the energy or focus to do that. Or the will, to be honest.
Sorry, is this a downer? That’s not the intention here. Nor is it it clumsily (or dexterously) fishing for sympathy. Sympathy I don’t need. Understanding is always welcome. So if perhaps my fuse is short (it is, and probably shortens on a daily basis since the world continues to delight in throwing inexhaustible supplies of bullshit around), then understand that I’m really very angry at things that I can’t hope to control. I can barely live with them.
Does it feel good to get this out? Don’t know. It feels necessary, somehow. Just like the alchemists knew the Black Phase, the nigredo, that’s something that’s got to be worked through. It’s an important, even critical part of the reaction (you know, the one that transforms the alchemist herself, not merely turning lead into gold).
So when I try too hard to make a joke, you know why. Yeah, I shouldn’t use social media as a way to vent (cue me mocking, well everything, on Twitter) but that’s how the cookie crumbles. We work with what we’re handed. We try to get by. Sometimes it even works. But you don’t get the option to punk out, even when you think you really want to.
I’ll try to talk about something more uplifting next week, I promise.
And some say he was never here at all.
That’s a line from a Tom Waits song. He might’ve even written it. But then he said a there was a woman who was harder than Chinese algebra and I guess Stephen King heralded that as a great noir line from an author this year, 2015. So maybe it’s one of those things that doesn’t have an origin at all. It’s just there, y’know?
I’ve been late on updates, yeah, I know. I also know exactly how many of you are dying for them (hint – you don’t need algebra to get to that figure), which is why they’re late. I mean, I already know about all the sludge I’m skating through. And nobody cares about the backstory, right? They only care about the product, not how its gotten to or what kind of process it took.
That’s one of the first things I learned in my time in a pretty awful for-profit-college design course. You’d do the project and before you got to make a presentation on it, everyone else in the class got their chance to say something on it. Granted, a lot of folks didn’t have much to say (sometimes smart, sometimes really abysmally stupid). But you know what? They got to say it before you could step in and explain your masterpiece.
That’s the thing. You don’t get to explain it. You get to make the thing and it gets to be the catalyst for someone else’s experience (even if it’s a humble mock up of a CD cover or a book cover or dummy of a coffee shop newsletter). You. Don’t. Get. To. Explain. It. First. Which inspired both good and terrible habits.
Good habit? Try and make the work as good as you possibly can. Granted, my idea of good and satisfying doesn’t seem to be shared by too many other people. This doesn’t make me special or superior. It does make me a hard sell.
Bad habit? I undersell the work at every chance, because I stupidly believe in my heart of hearts that the work should sell itself. This is, however, completely inimical to the media landscape that we both inhabit and try to shape. When I see people leaning on “My work is X meets Y,” I despair. And not just merely because it’s someone using other work to try and justify theirs. It’s because they’re worried about letting the work stand on its own.
Now we can argue about notions of originality and how much every work (particularly genre works) are beholden to those that came before etc etc. I’m not sure that has to be the first introduction to the work, though. It sure doesn’t have to be the one that leads the solicit or review or back cover copy, but that’s what we often get. I dunno, maybe it’s just so ingrained in us now that people don’t even think about it any longer. Gotta admit, it’s convenient.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST meets THE HOWLING – There. I just did it to the first STRANGEWAYS book. Doesn’t matter if it’s not the slightest damn thing like either of those (other than featuring cowboys and werewolves). But now the groundwork has been laid and you’re all excited to read the book now because it’s as good as these two good things smashed together, right? Yeah, not so much. I guess I’m old because I think it just cheapens everything involved.
All that said, I’ve got those mash-ups hovering around the back of my mind when it comes to describing pitches because the game has to be played. Doesn’t mean that I have to like it.
What does this have to do with yarn? Well, a yarn’s a story, right? And the stories we tell about the story/book/music/movie, those are all things we’re doing to sell that. That’s the branding. That’s the advertising. And those are yarns being spun, ones that don’t really matter all that much. Or shouldn’t. Should be the work doing the heavy lifting, then the class gets to pick it apart on its own merits, and not on what you say about it by way of introduction or end-notes or aphorisms that set it up. All that stuff’s window dressing.
I can get up and say “Well, I chose these typefaces and these elements to reflect the blah blah blah” and it doesn’t change a god damned thing about how the work was received. Would having that opportunity beforehand sway some of my classmates into thinking that the work was amazing and groundbreaking and worthy of full credit? Maybe.
But that’s not an opportunity we really get in real life. We try to influence things, sure. Try to make promises about the work, boost it, make it bigger. But not a word of it is true. The only truth to it is what it pulls out of the reader (which is dependent on what the reader puts into it, but that’s a whole ‘nuther subject, as is the whole matter of branding and expectation and hype)
So, yeah, nobody cares much about the how it’s made (except other artists, oftentimes) so ain’t nobody wants to hear about the struggle or the life outside that puts demands on your time and energy. Doesn’t matter. Not important. So why burden you with it here, right?
That yarn’s not crucial, even when it’s fraying.
No, really. That’s a song title. Right here.
I’m often asked for writing advice, and I try to be respectful in my answers, though I bet I’m not good at that part. The hellish thing of it is that… Well, there’s several.
1) Folks think I’m a potential source of good information regarding their writing careers.
Obviously nobody asking me this has looked at my track record. Because, let’s be honest. My most-read piece is either something that doesn’t have my name (or much of my thumbprint) or maybe “The Teacher” which I wrote for Blizzard Entertainment (that being a strict work-for-hire thing). But hey, I got paid for both, right?
2) Everyone’s got to have their own path. Mine is not one I’d wish on anyone else. And that’s professional life as in writing.
3) There’s a persona out there of writing expert doling out advice (go look up “how to write books” in this, the Kindle age of publishing) and while some of them are fine writers in their own right, many of them are selling self-help stuff. Ultimately there’s only been one of those that I had any respect for and that’s THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield.
And hell, even that one didn’t take in me completely. Still, it’s a good way to look at things. It looks down at the roots of creativity, ’cause everything else is just window dressing.
All that said, I’m still asked for advice. I’ll do some for comics as well if I don’t run out of patience with this.
Keep in mind, you can’t walk into a bookstore and find anything with my name on it. If that’s your yardstick for successful (and sometimes it is for me, I’ll admit it) then this will probably just make you mad. It might do that anyways.
“Where do your ideas come from?”
Any writer I know has gotten this question more times than they want to admit. And it’ll continue to be a lead question on interview packets.
The answer for me, and for just about every writer I know, is “How do you make them stop?”
So here’s a thing. The idea is probably the least valuable part of writing. Sorry. Everyone who comes up and says “Hey, I’ll give you the idea and you just write the book/story/comic/videogame/whatever” is full of crap. You probably know this instinctively. And if you’re one of those people and are somehow reading this? Well, sorry, you’re full of crap.
The idea is a start, maybe something to hang from, grow a crystal around, whatever your metaphor of choice is. But the idea without the hundreds of hours of work? Pretty goddamn useless, right. Sure, if you’re lucky, your idea comes in the form of an elevator-ready pitch and you already have your marketing campaign half-thought up. Great. But the pitch isn’t the movie. It’s not even the basic plot, much less the screenplay or novel.
Truth of it is I have more ideas than I can use. Of course, a lot of them are of interest only to me (but then that seems to be right in line with most of my work apparently, haha). But they’re there. Files and files and files filled with them. Some developed, some just three lines.
“How do you sell a book/comic/story/movie?”
Easy. Write something that someone in a position to publish/promote/create likes. It doesn’t have to be good. It does have to be something that they like. I’m sure there are many very brave editors out there who’d go out on a limb for a work they though personally distasteful if it would sell, but…
I mean, that’s the game, right? Gotta write something that’ll sell. Only lots of stuff that’s published simply doesn’t sell. And sometimes a lot of stuff that is seen as unmitigated crap does sell. But you know what, all those things that didn’t sell at all? Someone thought they were worth picking up and putting out there (sure, a lot of them were self-published, ahem, in this, the Kindle age.)
So yeah, write something that the editor likes. But that’s not a guarantee. Besides, my own work hasn’t paid for its printing costs much less anything else, so I’m really *not* the person to ask.
“What will the editors like, then?”
Damned if I can tell you that. And even if I did, by the time I told you and the work got finished, there’d be a new brightly-colored-object/genre in town.
“Well, what should I write?”
You have to do what makes sense to you. That falls into the whole “everyone’s got their own path” thing above. Sorry if that’s a little too Alan Watts/WAY OF ZEN for you.
Take, for instance, fan fiction. I’ve talked a little on this before, but not too much.
My personal take is that fan fiction is an indulgence (though sometimes a profitable one, just ask EL James and whoever else will have gotten a six-figure deal via filed-off-the-serial-numbers fan fiction.) There’s no story that requires access to previously-existing characters in order to be made to work. If your Superman fights Godzilla story (with Sherlock Holmes having turned to kaiju herpatology in the background) doesn’t work with original characters, then maybe it’s not that great a story? If the frisson of the work rests on the fact that it’s a beloved character (that someone else created or franchised) doing things against type, well maybe that’s not so great either.
For instance. Just watched HAMMETT on Netflix, which is a fictional story about real-life detective fiction author Dashiel Hammett getting himself into trouble in 1928 San Francisco. And while it was a fun little movie (occasionally punching above its weight class in a few ways), I couldn’t help but think that it didn’t need to lean on Dashiel Hammett being the main character. It could have stood on its own two legs (and sure, keep the detective a writer who also writes for the pulps, since that was intrinsic to the story) with an original creation.
But hey, the movie makers probably got some more attention with it starring Hammett, right? Just like fan fiction gets read because it’s about these characters (transformative or not) that everyone already loves. That’s borrowed power, folks. If it’s what you really want to do, then do it. But it’s not a path I’m interested in walking.
The story has got to make sense to you. And that’s everything in it. The setting, the tone, the characters, the plot if you must have one (note I didn’t say ‘genre’ because that’s an imaginary construct — even more so than these other things I just listed.) Even if it’s not a thing that you’d necessarily want to write on your own, if you’re taking the job, it’s got to be something that you can get some kind of hook into. Believe me, if that doesn’t happen, you’re just opening the door for misery. This isn’t “follow your bliss” ’cause that’s something that people who don’t have to live in the real world say all the time to the rest of us who do. But it is an admission that you’ve got to feel attached to what you’re doing beyond the pay.
If your muse tells you that it’s only Superman versus Godzilla, then great, do the best that you can with that. I won’t tell you otherwise.
You have to give a fuck about what you’re creating, because nobody can do that for you. If, like Mickey Spillane, giving a fuck is contingent on paying the rent, then go for it. I do say “giving no fucks” a lot, sometimes I even mean it. But where the rubber meets the road, you’ve got to be the first one who does, ’cause nobody else can do that for you.
I know. The above wasn’t so much advice as it was a diatribe on various subjects that have always bugged me. Psych.
Let’s get to the fundamentals.
1. You have to give a fuck. Just like it says above. Starts with you.
2. Pick a job you can complete. The idea? That’s great. Now you have to make it. Stick with a scale that you can work with. If you don’t get it out of your head (and out of notes stage) then it’s not of any use to anyone else.
3. It will probably be not very good. Don’t worry, but don’t be defensive either. This is not an easy one to get over.
4. Some people will not like your work. Some people will not ever like your work. You will not change their minds. Don’t go trying to.
5. Read the reviews if you must. I don’t. I’ve asked friends for reads of work. Sometimes that went well, sometimes it didn’t. I’ll take the heat for when it didn’t. That’s on me.
6. Work in a group if you must. I’m of the age that submitting work to a writing group for critique carries no appeal. That also might just be me.
7. Things work better when you have a plan, but be prepared to throw that plan out. Write a basic outline. Even better, write up your basic characters first and give them all goals and let them fight it all out to see who wins. I could’ve saved myself many headaches by not second-guessing myself or by letting go when a thing plainly didn’t work. That said, what works for you may indeed not work for other people, or you might need to raise your skill level. Or re-think things. Or decide it was one of those “not very good ones” and learn from it.
8. Don’t second-guess based on your audience. Yes, that’s the easiest thing in the world for me to say, since I don’t really have an audience. Well, that’s not quite true. But my audience is a handful (primarily other creators) at this point. However, this goes back to the being true to the work and yourself.
9. Story is character is setting is plot. All four feed into one another. Sure, any plot can be told in any place with any characters. The trick is to make all four disappear into one piece of work. Assumption is a tricky process.
10. Stop aspiring. If you’re going to write, then write (or draw, or create, or whatever). I’ll be the first to admit that real life steps all the hell over things sometimes, but that’s nothing that can’t be overcome.
11. These are probably out of order. Worrying about reviews is something that happens after you finish the work.
12. This advice may not work for you. I don’t pretend it will. I haven’t packaged it in a Kindle book with a kick ass title filled with optimism and hope that you too will be able to write a kick ass novel in thirty days. (Hint: that is a lie – when I was on all cylinders, I could do a first draft in three months but then I might just suck). But at least I’m not selling you a dream that you could dream yourself.
Want to know the real secret? It’s #1 up there. #2 is a stepping stone to get yourself into a framework where you can take steps and not try to run a marathon the first week. #3 is just simple personal growth. The rest is gravy.
I know. Not much to it. But when that one thing is in line, all other things will follow.
I was gonna go with “Six Act Play” but the other one sounds so much cooler (and is a nice callout to one of my favorite DEFENDERS runs from when I was a kid.)
So let’s talk a little about structure. It’s a thing that I’ve been thinking about, trying to figure out how to structure the first SMOKETOWN storyline. See, since I’m planning on pitching this to an actual publishing house, I’ve got to think about playing in a familiar structural space. Granted, in STRANGEWAYS, this wasn’t so much of an issue. I mostly kept to a 5-6 issue per arc structure.
You have to remember, this was back starting in 2003 when trade collections of monthly comics were only becoming something like the standard. Lots of stuff still wasn’t really written for easy collecting; it wasn’t a primary consideration. Unlike now, where things are still put together in relatively tidy bundles of six issues of material, even if that doesn’t really serve the story. Yes, of course there’s exceptions.
But it wasn’t too long before “writing for the trade” became a shorthand for a lot of fan/critic grousing. Stories were accused of being padded out to fit this formatting, whether they needed it or not. This was also in the time of decompression in comics storytelling (at least in the mainstream), where sequences were given room and space to air out some. There’s both good and bad sides to this. On the good, we got artwork that had room to breathe. On the bad, well, we got single issues of comics that didn’t feel so much like a single issue, but like something that was meant to be nothing more than a chunk of a larger whole. I complained about this quite a bit in the FULL BLEED days. And really, there’s nothing more disappointing than a four-dollar comic book (which was a development that took place at about the same time) that you read in five minutes to sour you on the experience.
So, around that time, the unit of consumption for the comic went from the single issue to the trade. That was how you got a complete storyline. Yes, other sub-plots weave in and out around those arcs to keep interest. But the story moved to a multi-issue format and single issues didn’t really stand on their own. There were creators who worked to make the single issue satisfy (Ed Brubaker on CATWOMAN and CRIMINAL come to mind) but even those creators recognized the limitations of the multi-issue arc as a story unit.
We’re all familiar with the three-act structure. Overfamiliar, really. It’s become the standard for mainstream movie storytelling (that and the Monomyth are really what drives what feels like 99% of Hollywood screenplays these days.) The structure can be a fine thing to work from, so long as it isn’t allowed to become a strait-jacket.
But when it’s shifted to comics, when you map a story onto a six-part serial, the easiest way to do that is to have an act turn at the end of every issue with a wrap-up in the sixth. So you get a six-act storyline. Which is fine, only the pacing gets weird because each act ends up being the same length, making a kind of monotone beat.
Now this is only an issue if you’re working on a comic for monthly serialization. If you’re writing an OGN, you can do whatever you want, so long as you end on page 120 or whatever. And once there was a time that doing an OGN seemed like a sensible thing to do as an independent. That time’s passed. At least for me. I’ve done the going-it-alone route as an OGN publisher.
So now I have to figure out how to structure a story so I can sell it to a publisher. Only trouble is, this isn’t a six-issue storyline. Not without stripping a lot out of it. Which I’d kinda rather not do. It’s a pretty big story. But I’m also looking at, y’know, the reality that I may not get twelve issues to do it. A frustrating prospect. Remember, I’ve already stared that reality down when the first company to publish STRANGEWAYS started melting down before the first issue hit the stands. The first issue wasn’t yet out and I talked to the owner of the company who couldn’t assure me that it would be around to publish the fourth issue. So I pulled it, publishing it myself finally.
We all know how that went.
That said, I’m not sure that a 12-issue miniseries is going to be an easy sell to a publisher. Or for that matter, an open-ended continuing series from an unknown quantity creative team. Maybe two six-issue mini-series would work.
But press in on this a bit and I wonder about the unit of storytelling in comics versus, say, television. We’re in the middle of a longform-drama golden age on television, right? That’s what I hear. The comic’s basic unit of consumption is the single issue, which comes together in an arc. For television, you’ve got the episode, which comes together into a season. Simple enough. Only if you compare the base unit, it’s kinda not fair. 22 pages of comic story versus 44 (or so) minutes of television. Even if you go on a 1:1 relationship of pages to minutes, comics come up pretty short (and I’m not convinced that’s a completely unfair comparison).
This is also where someone comes along and points out that a standard screenplay is 120 script pages or so and movies are a perfectly good way to tell a story. Sure. But movies aren’t comics. Time passes differently on the page. And we don’t watch them twenty minutes at a time, either.
Sure. Any good single issue will stand on its own and satisfy, but there’s a limit to how much can go into one. 22 pages. Just like 44 minutes of a show. Only so much time/plot/event fits into it. But I couldn’t help but think how much more weighty an episode of HANNIBAL or DAREDEVIL felt, compared to single issues of comics I like. Would I like ‘em better if they were able to cover more ground in the suggested serving size? Dunno. I still read a lot of stuff only in trades for the simple fact that I want a story, not a chapter. Changing that now on books that I don’t want to wait for (or want to support in the DM).
So maybe the metaphor doesn’t work one to one. Maybe expectations are different enough from one media to another that I’m just overthinking things. As usual. Still, trying to maintain the balance of structural needs versus storytelling is a puzzle that’s been chewing at me. Much less having to convince someone else to publish the thing.
And something that satisfies me, while we’re at it.