Interview: Wil Wheaton on Storytelling, Technology and the Internet (Part 3)
Previously on ComicMix, I brought you the first and second parts of my interview with writer, actor, publisher, tech guru and all-around nice guy Wil Wheaton. In the two previous installments, we discussed a variety of topics from writing and acting, to technology and comics.
In this third and final installment, we cover still more topics, including politics, what piece of tech Wheaton feels is the most important of the last ten years and to him, what makes a good story.
COMICMIX: Okay, Wil, as a writer and reader of comics, what makes a good story to you?
WIL WHEATON: Comics are a visual medium, so the artwork is extremely important to me. There are tremendously talented writers who occasionally get paired up with artists whose art I don’t like. And I won’t read those books.
There are artists and writers who collaborate together. Matt [Fraction] gives Casanova artist Gabriel Ba as much credit for Casanova being awesome as people give Matt for making Casanova awesome. Ed [Brubaker] does the same thing with Criminal. And I think that says a lot about the importance of a good team-up. I’m lucky.
I’ve gotten to work with some great artists when I’ve done manga for TokyoPop.I don’t know if the stories I’ve written would have the same emotional impact with the reader with different art. That really, really important combination of peanut butter and chocolate is really important to making comic books great.
A lot of it also has to do with pacing. When I write comic scripts I just write them as I would write a film script and I just know that instead of putting the camera on the dolly or whatever, that’s what I’m going to ask the artist to draw… what the reader is seeing, you know? So I think pacing is really important.
What makes a book — just a standard book — very good, is the story and the dialogue and the interaction of the characters. So what makes a comic book great is those ingredients all put together, matched up with good pacing and really good artwork. A lot of the Alan Moore comics have all these wonderful elements that make reading comics fun, too. Top Ten is like playing "Where’s Waldo," because after you’ve read the story you can go back through and read it again. Or if you read Watchmen and see the issues, there’s the Rorschach issue that’s in the middle where it mirrors itself — that kind of stuff. A book like Sin City that uses positive and negative space really creatively, that’s a great book, too.
Of course, I should disclaim all this stuff. I recently wrote that I was worried about the new Star Trek movie being good, and I was vilified by Star Trek fans for having the temerity for expressing an opinion about this. Like I don’t deserve to have an opinion about this.
It was like I farted in church. It was just like the very few times I wrote anything political. It’s as if, because I was a celebrity at one time, I’m not allowed to have these opinions as a voter and as an American.
[At this point, the conversation paused when a waitress brought over a free slice of cake. -CU]
CMix: I’ve heard people say that one of the advantages to being a writer instead of an actor is that writers can get fat, but actors can’t.
WW: Totally. One bite of dessert is all I ever eat.
I want to make it really clear to people who read this interview that I’m not operating under the delusion that my opinion is any more or less valid than anyone else’s. It’s just what I think. It’s just sort of by virtue of the work that I do that we’re sitting down here having this conversation. I do not come from this assumed position of importance that a lot of people ascribe to me when they want to disagree with me. I’m really just another lifelong geek who really cares about this stuff. It really matters to me.
I just happen to be a high-profile geek with the good fortune of having been involved in the creation side of this stuff, too.
CMix: When you start to write a story, do you worry about the characters first and then the story, or the other way around?
WW: Recently I’ve tried to describe the story in one sentence. Kind of like I’m pitching it to myself. Let’s see, if I was to pitch my first Star Trek manga, it was "Kirk tries to stop a civil war before it becomes a generations-long conflict."
Obviously, there’s more to it than that, but in that kind of situation I don’t have to worry about the characters because I know who they are. I don’t have to make them up.
There’s another story that I’m working on right now and I’m still figuring out the characters. I know what’s going to happen to the guy who is the main character, but that’s just like putting gas in the tank and stepping on the pedal. The subsequent journey is about how this guy reacts to and shapes the events around him and how he changes. Once I get that one-sentence thing down, then I start thinking about the characters and who they’re going to be.
CMix: Do you make a lot of notes?
WW: Tons of notes. I take long walks and listen to old-time science-fiction radio programs. I don’t really pay attention to them. I don’t know why, but this just works for me.
When the planning process is complete and I’ve moved on to the writing process, I tend to have four or five things I listen to. Frequently it’s a stream for SOMA FM or a station I’ve created on Jengo or something like that. But by the time I’m down to the final draft, I’m listening to the same three or four albums over and over and over again.
Any deviation from that throws my rhythm off. I think that it’s a Pavlovian kind of thing where it says to my brain, "We’re working now. Everything else is off. We’re working."
The real challenge for me as a writer is sustaining interest through what I call "the doldrums." There’s this patch of the Atlantic Ocean where the wind just stops. And clipper ships would try real hard to build up a lot of steam to cruise through the doldrums and they would slow down and put their sails to full and there was just a little breeze and they’d have to make oar to get through there.
For me, I’m doing great when I’m in the middle of a hurricane and I’m doing pretty good even when I’m sailing into the wind but when I hit those doldrums I just lose interest in the story and I have to power through it. A lot of the stuff I write during that period, I end up throwing away. … Well, I don’t throw it away, I cut it out and I have a text file filled with ideas and scenes and dialogue and hooks and characters and stuff like that.
I never throw anything away, because you never know when it’s going to show up. There’s stuff in my second Star Trek manga that I wanted to put in the first one, but I cut it out because it didn’t fit. I’m working on two stories right now and I’ve taken some stuff out of one of them and put it into the other because I realized these two characters got conflated and I had to separate them again.
CMix: You said you have a text file when you’re writing. Do you use a particular writing software? What’s your tool of the trade?
WW: Text Edit and Open Office. Open Office is fantastic. I really, really like it a lot. I’ve laid out all of my books in Open Office. My editor and I use its version tracker to send our drafts back and forth to each other, and I use Text Edit for just about everything else.
It reminds me of when I was a little kid and I would be writing something in MacWrite and I would end up with this text that was bold and italicized, shaded and outlined because I could. It’s kind of like early, early, early web pages where a lot of things were underlined and a lot of things were blinking.
CMix: Speaking of that, you’ve been online a long time now. Where do you see this "Internet" thing going? Think it’s going to catch on?
WW: [Laughs] I don’t know. We’re still waiting to see if the technology is going to pan out or not. I’m actually writing an article about this right now. I think that the future of the Internet is really in peril — the way that we know it, it’s really in peril.
There’s a generation coming of age right now that has never known a time without the Internet the way it is and completely takes for granted and does not understand the battles we have fought to make the internet what it is. And without knowing how hard it was to fight for things like network neutrality and how hard it was to defeat things like tracking cookies.
We have treated censorship as a network error to be routed around. It’s a generation coming of age right now who don’t know what those battles were about and don’t understand those fights. If we do not do a good job of educating them about how important it is, the forces of evil are going to roll back and undermine everything and eventually take back all of the things that we did to make the internet what it is.
And then the Internet is going to suck. It’s going to be just like TV. And as the difference between the internet and television eventually is blurred until there is really no distinction, it’s going to be really important that there are still old-line guardians training up-and-comers to appreciate what it’s like.
I’m writing a column about that right now.
CMix: You’ve thought about it quite a bit, obviously. You’re a big supporter of Electronic Frontier Foundation?
WW: Huge supporter. I’m a big believer in anonymity and security and privacy online and I could rant on and on about this forever and ever and ever. This idea that if you don’t have anything to hide then you shouldn’t worry about any privacy is ridiculous. I’m reading Cory Doctrow’s book Little Brother right now. His protagonist makes a great point. "There’s nothing wrong with taking a shit but you wouldn’t want to do it in a glass box in the middle of Times Square."
It’s like, everybody shits — ans it’s nothing to be ashamed of or anything like that, but all people are entitled to privacy. All people are entitled to private moments. As we become increasingly reliant on the Internet for communication and commerce and entertainment, we have to stay vigilant about protecting the privacy the we’ve worked so hard to have.
I worry that we stand to lose a lot.
One of the reasons I support Obama is he’s one of the few candidates ever who has advisors from the technology community board. And I’m not talking about Laurence Lessig, who I don’t think advises him directly.
CMix: What do you think is the greatest technology invention of the last ten years?
WW: The last ten years? We’d be looking back to ’98? Probably dual-core microprocessors. If you want the super geek answer, that’s really what I think it is.
CMix: That is super geeky. What about the one piece of technology you can’t live without?
WW: The technology I can’t live without? Does encryption count as technology? It would have to be encryption. Think about the Internet without encryption. Absolutely no shopping online at all. None. Ever.
Not a single financial transaction would be possible without encryption.
Sure, there are things that I like that are fun. But can’t live without? I could not live without encryption — and to make it clear, I’m talking about open source public encryption. R.S.A. standards.
CMix: I noticed on your blog that, when people send you an email, you prefer it to be digitally signed…
WW: People apologize all the time for not doing it. It doesn’t matter, though.
I get these apologies from people saying they didn’t know how to do this. But I don’t have to know how the spark plugs work in my car or to understand how this translates into a digital signal to use it, it’s just a neat extra bit of information to have.
Well, I have to go now. I have to pick up my son and I pick up some food for my dog.
CMix: I’m sure the dog will appreciate that. Thanks for all your time, Wil.
WW: No problem. This was fun.