John Ostrander: Writing 101
What does a writer do?
I did an interview recently and I was asked what advice I could give to someone who also wanted to be a writer. I get asked that at classes, lectures or seminars and I always answer by asking that question.
It’s not a trick question, although some people seem to think it is. Generally, I get answers like:
a) writers create stories
b) writers make up characters
c) writers make up things
It’s actually a lot simpler, more basic, and far tougher than all of the above.
What does a writer do? A writer writes. We don’t simply think about writing or talk about writing or imagine ourselves writing, although every writer I know does that and, in many cases, prefers to do that. It’s a hell of a lot easier than actually doing the work. However, if that’s all you do, then you’re not a writer. You’re a wannabee.
A writer writes. Every day. If you’re just starting, find a time and place that you can do it even if it’s only for five minutes. It’s like when you’re starting to exercise; you’re not – or shouldn’t – go from 0 exercise to trying to running the Boston Marathon. You need first to get into shape; with writing you need to get into the habit of writing. At first you’re looking for consistency – five to seven days a week.
I don’t care where or how you do it – in a diary, a journal, with pen and paper, on a computer or what. Text messaging is not the same thing, and you know it. It’s preferable to write in something so you can see what you’ve done, where you can refer back to earlier entries. Date the entries.
What should you write? Look around – describe the room. Look out the window. Describe what you see. Look at the people. Describe them. Look in the mirror. Describe yourself. Describe what you SEE, what you HEAR, what you SMELL. Touch something – how does it FEEL. Eat or drink something – describe the smell, the feel, the taste. Use words to describe what STRIKES you. Don’t filter it, don’t second guess it – what words for you describe things? What is the FIRST thing that strikes you? Don’t worry if it’s the right word – go with the first words that come to mind.
Do you have an idea for a character, a story, a concept? Write it down. Don’t go off and blab it to your friends or your family. Write it down first. If you let the steam out of the train, it’s not going to run. If your idea gets you excited then that will create an energy; if you run off and just blab it to someone, you’ve released all that energy. It’s a lot easier than writing, too. Release the energy by blabbing and you’re not going to have it for writing. I guarantee it.
Until you write something down you don’t really have anything. You may have an idea but everyone has ideas. The difference between them and writers is that writers write. We put them into words. We incarnate them. Something that was an idea or a feeling is given a physical form. Writers use words; musicians use notes, artists use pencil or paint or stone or metal or what-have-you. It’s all the same thing; the only difference is the medium that is used.
I’ve had plenty of people who have wanted to come up and tell me their ideas; the thought is that I could write them up for them using my skill and we could split the profits. Usually their idea of fair is 50/50 though I would do most of he hard work (which writing is) and then the money only comes if the thing is actually sold. I usually explain to people that I really don’t have enough time to develop all of my own ideas (which is true) and I encourage them to try and write their ideas themselves.
Incarnation is always imperfect. I’ve known this to paralyze people. So long as the concept is just in their heads and hearts, it’s still perfect. Incarnation is messy. That’s why we write our ideas down – to take a look at them, to start playing with them, to see if they’re really as interesting as we thought they were. One of the great things about a computer is that it’s easier to rewrite with one of them than when something is etched in stone. Yet it’s amazing how many writers seem to think the lines are carved rather than written. Write something; it doesn’t have to be perfect. Odds aren’t that it won’t be.
If anyone asks you if you’re a good writer, the answer is yes. That doesn’t mean you are the best writer in the world or even the best writer you can be – I am not, I hope, the best writer yet that I can be. There can’t be any equivocating on this – not, “Well, I’m trying to be”. . .or “I don’t know, maybe. . .” or crap like that. You have to lay claim to it. If you don’t believe it, why should any one else? You’re up on the tightrope wire; if you have any doubts that you can walk on it, don’t set foot on it. Don’t look down. Assume you are a good writer – the best you can be at the moment. Work at being better.
Likewise, you’re not aspiring to be a comic book writer or a Spider-Man writer or an X-Man writer or a Star Wars comics writer (that’s MY job) – you want to be a writer. Period.
The other thing that a writer should do is read.
They say a writer should write what they know. What does that mean?
If your idea is a dead horse, don’t keep flogging it. Give it up and go on to the next. If all you have is one idea, you’re in big trouble.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman.