Writing Tips, by John Ostrander
I was at the FallCon in St. Paul, Minnesota, a few weekends back. Nice little to medium sized Con, the sort I really enjoy these days. You get a chance to talk to the fans and see a few other friends and old pros. I spent some nice time with Pete Tomasi and sat across from Howard Chaykin at a wedding reception/dinner that was held at the Con.
One of the things I did at the Con was teach a writing class. It was comics based, but I felt a lot of it was pertinent to writing in general so this week I’ll share some of the points I made with all of you as well.
What does a writer do? I start every class off with this question. It’s not really a trick question unless you overthink it. The answer is simple: a writer writes. Every day. We don’t just think about writing or talk about writing although, ghods know, we do that as well because it’s a lot easier than actually doing the work, doing the writing. The action defines what you are. If you write, then you’re a writer. If you don’t write, then you’re something else. A dreamer, a procrastinator, a … something, but not a writer. A writer writes.
Many people say they don’t have time but they really want to be a writer. The solution – write. Find a time. It can be as little as five minutes a day to begin with but it needs to be five minutes every day and it should be at the same time and the same place. Why? Because what you want is to get into a habit of writing. It’s not the length of time but the repetition. It’s like learning to throw free throws in basketball; you have to do it a lot until it becomes second nature. At the start, it will be the same for your writing. It’s not going to be the quality of what you write that matters but the number of reps you do. As I said here a few weeks back, you’re going to start by writing crap. Everyone does. You keep writing and, if you have any talent and learn some skill, you’ll improve but only if you keep writing.
Incarnation. This is what all artists do. We take a thought, a feeling, an insight – something that has no physical form and we incarnate it. We give it a physical form. Artists do it with pencil, ink, paint, and sculpture; composers do it with notes. Writers do it with words. The problem with incarnation is that it is always physically imperfect. What you create will never capture exactly what you had in your mind or heart or soul. I know people who have a real problem with that. They’re almost afraid to incarnate the idea because incarnation is messy and imperfect by its very nature. That’s especially true if you create something that has a life of its own. If you do your job as an artist very well, what you create will take you in places you didn’t think you were going. Let it. Just accept that it’s messy. Life is messy.
Write it down. New rule for your writing life. When you have a great new idea for a character or a concept or a story, you’re not allowed to tell anyone until you firstwrite it down. What does a writer do? A writer writes. If you tell someone your great fabulous outstanding idea, it’s like letting all the steam out of a locomotive. You won’t go anywhere. You’ve expended your creative energy and have gotten nothing for it. You have to incarnate the idea.
You don’t know what you have until you’ve written it down. Then you can do something with it – expand, delete, change – and make something of it. At the very least, you’ll get a good clear look at it and perhaps decide it’s not really all that good. Be a miser with your ideas; don’t just give them away with your voice. Write them down and then you have something.
When in doubt, cut it out. One of the prime Ostrander laws and especially important in comics. If you’re not sure if a line of dialogue or an action or a character or a scene is helping drive your story forward, then cut it. Ruthlessly. Look very hard at your exposition. How much is absolutely necessary for the reader to know and how much is the writer blathering on?
I remember an issue of Amazing Spider-Man that Stan Lee wrote that started in the middle of a fight. It wasn’t the continuation from a previous issue; it’s how he started this new story. In a caption, Stan wrote directly to the reader and said, “Don’t worry, effendi. We’ll catch you up as we go.” And he did. We soon knew all the particulars of the fight that were necessary to understand what was going on during the fight itself. That’s economy, folks.
In comics, economy is important. There’s a very hard math at work in comics. Let’s say you’ve been given a single issue to do with the story to be complete in that issue. In its current published incarnation, this means you have 22 pages. One of them, the first page, will be a splash page – one big panel, title and credits. So you have 21 pages. You’re going to average five panels per page – more (about up to seven) on a dialogue/character scene, less (two or three) on an action page. That gives you about 105 panels plus splash page.
In each panel, you will have at most a combination of three balloons – speech or thought or burst – and narrative captions. At the most you will b able to get 2-3 lines of text in each mentioned balloon or caption at about 12 point font. You’re not going to be able to do that in every panel, either; otherwise, you just create a wall of text and your reader will do what you probably do when encountering a wall of text on a comic’s page – you don’t really read it. Your eye slips over it and goes on to the purty pikchurs on the next page.
Someone smarter than me described writing dialogue in comics as doing characterization through newspaper headlines. It’s about that brief.
Side note: each panel has room for one single clearly defined action and/or reaction. You cannot write to the artist that “hero leaps through the skylight, goes into a crouch, unleashes like a coiled spring and socks Badguy in the jaw.” Those are four separate actions and thus four panels. If you tell the artist to do it all in one panel, they have grounds to shoot you. In Texas, I believe it’s considered justifiable homicide; some writers just need killin’. It’s artistic self defense. You been warned.
Write what you know. Classic advice for writers. So – what do you know? Answer: maybe more than you think. The classic sense of the advice is rather literal. Our friend Joe the Plumber must therefore write about plumbing, right? That’s what he knows.
Joe is more than his profession. We all are. We are complex people and we are expected to write complex characters. “Write what you know” can mean what do youknow to be trueas opposed to what you have been taught. What have you learned from your experiences? What can you extrapolate from them?
For example – do you actually have had to kill someone to know how a killer might feel? Of course not. It depends on your character. Have you ever killed a fly? Perhaps that’s exactly how your character feels about killing someone. Nothing more than killing a fly. On the other hand, have you ever said or done something that broke or killed a relationship, something that you desperately wish you could take back and can’t. Done something that you can’t fix. Your killer may feel like that.
“Write what you know” means being aware of what experiences you’ve had (and we are all of us a wealth of experiences) and how they have impacted you and then applying it to the character you’ve created.
That includes the bad characters as well as the good. You are called upon to find something with which you can identify with every character that you write. If you have no sympathy, no empathy, for your characters, why should the reader? Present the characters to us with judging them. Let the reader make up his or her mind. Find the good in the bad and the bad in the good. That’s real life. And that needs to be in your writing.
In the long run, that’s what our writing is all about. The reader is the flip side of the writer. We ask, “Have you ever felt something like this? Have you ever known something like this? Has this thought ever struck you? How did you respond?” It completes a connection that is like an electrical current between writer and reader. Writer and reader share a story together. That’s magic.
So – last time. What does a writer do?
A writer writes.
Go start writing.