Tagged: how to write

John Ostrander: Talking The Talk

So you had a story idea and you’ve worked it up into a plot. The characters are defined, you know who is doing what, the twists and turns and even the theme.

Now you have to put words into everyone’s mouths or, more precisely, into their word balloons. For some would-be writers, that’s where the wheels come off. How do you write dialogue? More importantly, how do you write good dialogue?

Let’s start with a basic: all dialogue is action. No one just speaks: they cajole, they explain, they confirm, they deny, they confront, they exalt, they exult, they attack, they defend, they lie and so on.  It is an active transitive verb. When a character speaks, they are doing something or attempting to do something. What’s important is not what the character is saying but what the character is doing or trying to do when they speak.  What does the character want, what goals are they trying to achieve? In short, what drives them? What is their motivation? What do they need? Not just want – need.

Dialogue has two main purposes: to move the plot along and/or to reveal character. Even exposition falls under the “move the plot along” rule.

Keep in mind that in comics, you have very little room for dialogue. Each panel has room for maybe two word balloons – three, if they’re small. Each word balloon has room for two to three lines tops. And you can’t do that in every panel; the reader will just see too many words and skip the page.

I’ve heard it said that comic book scripting is revealing character via newspaper headlines. So you have to be succinct with your verbiage.

Major Ostrander rule: when in doubt, cut it out. If they can (and do) cut Shakespeare, they can (and should) cut some of your lines. You should do it first. I’ve heard a story that legendary writer and editor Robert Kanigher, when he was writing Sgt. Rock, would stand on his desk and shout out the dialogue; if it sounded okay doing it that way, he figured it was right.

Once I delivered a GrimJack script to First Comics and, while editor Rick Oliver was going through it, I was schmoozing the rest of the office as I usually did. Rick came out to me with a page of script in his hand and the matching page of art. He looked at them, looked at me, and asked how much I was paid per page. I told him and then Rick noted “So on this page we’re paying you one hundred dollars for six words.”

“No,” I replied easily; “You’re paying me for knowing which words to leave off.” I offered to add more if Rick really felt it was necessary but he smiled, said he was just curious, and went back into his office.

When writing dialogue, you need to differentiate between characters. They are not all the same characters (even though all of them are you) and so should speak differently. Some people speak brusquely, some like the sound of their own voices. Some people try to over explain their reasons why they are doing what they’re doing; they feel that if you understood, really understood, you’d do things their way. I was told once by one such person that I wasn’t listening, to which I replied, “Just because I don’t agree with you doesn’t mean I’m not listening.”

There is a cadence to how people speak and that’s especially useful if you’re trying to indicate a person has a foreign accent; there is a way of speaking, a certain order. Some movies can give you a wealth of accents to hear; Casablanca is a very good one. Listen and learn.

There’s a simple short-cut that can help you; cast your characters as if they were in an animated feature. Who would you cast as their voice? The nice part of this is that it doesn’t have to be an actor; it can be anyone whose voice you can hear in your mind – a friend, a relative, a co-worker, a politician and so on. They don’t have to be currently living, either; past or present will do.

Listen to your characters as well once you have their voices in your mind; they will not only tell you what to write but may take the plot off in a direction you hadn’t considered. Listen to them and go with them if they do that. There was a GrimJack story once where I refused to do that; I stubbornly stuck to the lines and the plot that I had already decided on. That s.o.b. Gaunt stopped talking to me for the rest of the issue; it was the hardest GrimJack script I ever attempted. I learned my lesson and haven’t done it since.

Listen to people all around you; what do they say and how do they say it? What do they not say? What is left unsaid? In art, negative space can help define the figure. In writing, the silences can define the character. When do they happen, why, and what happens as a result?

Don’t be “clever.” Dialogue should be entertaining, yes; that’s part of storytelling. However, when I encounter “clever” dialogue, it means the author is really trying to draw attention to him/herself. “See how clever I am? Isn’t that a great turn of phrase?” It draws the reader right out of the story and that’s a failure to communicate. There are many writers whose dialogue is clever but that’s not their purpose. Brian Michael Bendis is an example of someone who writes very clever dialogue but he is also a very very good writer because his first focus is story and characterization. He just happens to be clever as well.

Your dialogue can be contemporaneous; it can be elevated. Poetic or streetwise. What it has to do is serve the story and reveal the character.

That’s the job.

Dennis O’Neil: Let There Be White!

All right now, settle down. Here it is, already the new year and we haven’t even started yet. Started what? That’s just about the kind of question I’d expect from you, mister smarty pants!

We can begin with a gripe, follow with a premature digression and then maybe segue into a topic. Ready for the gripe? Here goes: Geez, a lot of stuff sucks!

But let me tell you about my early days in the writing dodge. When I was groping through the universe, certain of very little, a person or persons whose identity I’ve forgotten told me that clarity was of high importance. Or maybe even crucial. I believed him/her/them and conducted my professional life accordingly, and it seemed to me that the perpetrators of the novels and comic books and films and plays and short stories I was absorbing mostly did the same. (Poems? Maybe not so much. That Ezra Pound can be pretty rough going.) Murkiness was, by and large, not considered a virtue.

But murkiness – lack of clarity – comes in diverse forms. There’s plain old bad sentences and bad plotting and bad acting and unfocused photography and bad editing and inconsistency and showing off at the audience’s expense – for example, sticking in obscure allusions or foreign phrases. And let’s not forget the obvious, bad printing. We’ll end our incomplete catalogue with this: not giving the audience what it needs to understand the action.

Let’s glance, sideways, at some items that really scorch my grits.

  • Credits, titles and production info – words on the screen – that use white or light colored lettering against white or light background.
  • Credits and so forth that don’t remain visible long enough to be read.
  • Actors who mumble lines
  • Credits shrunk so small, usually to accommodate some kind of advertising, that they can’t be read.

Credits that don’t stop running until the show’s a quarter over. Okay, maybe that one’s more mine than yours. I want the damn things shown and then I want to forget about them instead of perching on the edge of my seat waiting to find out who directed the thing

The assumption on the part of the creative folk that everyone in the audience knows the backstory and the characters as well as they do and so that info doesn’t need to be established on later appearances. (A novelist friend once said that every important element of a novel should be established three times in three different contexts. Sound advice. I wish I followed it.) This is especially pertinent these days when here’s a lot of long-form drama happening on television. And by the way: the sins I’ve just mentioned aren’t are seldom committed by the creators of these shows, though maybe they could work on the credits a bit.)

Okay, does that end the griping? Not likely. But it does end the griping for now. Stay braced for further bitchery in the future. We can assume there will be some.

John Ostrander: Writing Rules


Recently on Facebook, a father asked me what advice I could give his 13-year old daughter who wanted to be a writer. I had to be succinct but I think my reply was moderately useful and I thought I’d repeat it here.

As I’ve done columns about writing before, some of this may be familiar but this time it will be the short form.

  1. Read. If you want to be a writer, you need to be a reader. Fiction, non-fiction, newspaper (or online news feeds). Read outside your narrow interests. You draw from yourself so you need to feed yourself. My late wife Kim Yale called it “re-stocking the pond.”
  2. Write. Seems obvious but it’s not. Write every day even if it’s only for five minutes. Get into the habit of writing. We all have a certain amount of crap we need to write out of our systems before we can do real work. A writer writes. Get to it.
  3. Live. Again, seems obvious but in writing we draw upon our own experiences. Live life. Learn from those experiences. It’s all grist for your writing mill, the good and the bad. If you don’t know anything about life, how will you get life into your work? If you don’t have any real life in your work, how will the reader connect with it and you?
  4. Write what you know. This combines 2 and 3 above. Write what you know from your own experience to be true. Not what somebody else told you was true. What you know.
  5. You have a right to make mistakes. Best advice from a teacher I ever got (Harold Lang at Loyola University Theater, Chicago). You have the right to try something and have it not work so long as the attempt was honest and that you learn from it.
  6. Make big mistakes. Again, courtesy of Harold Lang. Big mistakes are easier to see and correct. You learn as much – maybe more – from your mistakes as from your successes. A big mistake means you took a big risk. There is no success without a big risk. Try, fail, and learn.
  7. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It won’t be on the first draft, anyway. It never is. Write first, correct/improve/spellchek later. You need to put the story into words so you have something concrete from which to work. The first draft is not intended to be the final draft. Don’t get hung up on it.
  8. Don’t tell anyone your ideas before you write them down. You do that and you’ll release all the energy in the story. It wants to be told; you want to tell it. Speaking it lets the steam out of the engine. Let the steam out and the engine doesn’t run. If you speak your idea you won’t write it. Write it first. You don’t know what you have until you’ve done that; you just think you know. Do the work and then share.
  9. You are your characters. There has to be something of you in every character you write. That includes the bad guys, the villains, the psychotics. If you write a bigot, you have to find out where the bigot is within you. That’s not easy and it’s not comfortable. It still has to be done in order to write the character honestly.
  10. You are not your characters. You also have to separate yourself from your characters. They are not your alter-egos. You have to give them their own lives and then let them live their own lives.
  11. Don’t look down. You’re a tightrope walker with no net. You have to focus on getting to the other side; if you look down, you’ll fall. Translated from metaphor – don’t ask if you can write. Assume you can. If you have to ask, the answer is “no”. Don’t put the weight of your existence on your writing; that’s too heavy an existential load. Don’t pretend that asking these questions will make you more honest and thus a better person and thus a better writer. They won’t. They’ll just feed your neuroses and keep you from writing. Do the work.
  12. You have to know the rules in order to know which ones to break. A freeform jazz musician may appear to play whatever the hell they want but they know music, they know their instrument, they know what has been done before and they interpret it their own way. Learn the rules.
  13. Write questions, not answers. If you want to preach, get a pulpit. As my fellow ComicMixian, Denny O’Neal, once told me, “You can say anything to a reader but first you must tell them a story.” Pose the question, explore it, and – if you feel like it – give AN answer but don’t assume that it is THE answer. Some readers have come up to me and told me what they got out of a given story and character; if I’m smart, I listen and learn. They may have a better answer than mine. Assume your readers are at least as smart as you.
  14. There is only one way to write and that’s whatever way works for you. Anyone tells you differently is trying to sell you something. That includes me and this column. Listen to everyone and take the bits that makes sense to you. That way you come up with your own style, your own approach.

Now… go write something!

John Ostrander: Don’t Look Down

John Ostrander: Don’t Look Down

Wile E Coyote

There’s a rule for tightrope walkers: don’t look down. If you look down, you’ll fall. Focus instead on the other end of the wire, where you’re headed. Focus on the goal. I’ve always felt that’s good advice for writers as well.

Don’t look down.

If you doubt that you can write, you can’t. If asked if you are a writer, your answer has to be “Yes.” If you’re asked if you are a good writer, your answer has to be “Yes.” If you’re asked if you are the best writer that you can ever be, your answer should be “Not yet.” You not only have to say it, you have to believe it. If you don’t or can’t, then you are looking down.

Don’t look down.

This isn’t about being humble. It’s not about modesty. If you’re going to be a writer, you have to believe that you are good enough to be read. If you want to be a professional writer, you have to believe that you are good enough for people to want to pay money to read you. You have to believe it and you have to continue to believe it even despite evidence to the contrary, even if people tell you that you can’t. Margaret Mitchell was rejected 38 times before she sold Gone With The Wind. J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by 12 publishers before finding a home. Agatha Christie was rejected for five years. Louis L’Amour got 200 rejection letters. They stuck it out.

You can’t just say you believe. You have to choose to believe. Any belief worth having must be chosen.

Can you falter? Yes. I’ve looked down a few times. I doubted. I fell. You wonder, you question, you doubt. In the end, if you’re going to continue to write, you have to look back up and choose to believe that you can write, that you are a writer. Every time I start a story, every day that I sit down at this keyboard, it’s an act of faith.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be critical of your own work. You just have to criticize without ego. You have to take criticism without ego. I know people whose whole sense of self-worth is tied up with their work. Writing is too slender a reed on which to place such an existential weight. It’s not about you; it’s about the work. Your objective should always be to make the work better. You must also accept that some parts will be better than others and some parts worse. Some parts will, in fact, be good. Deal with it. If you have any talent, any skill, some parts of the work should be good. It’s okay to claim that.

Your writing will never be perfect. That’s inherently impossible especially when writing on a deadline. All it can be is as good as you can make it at that moment. It doesn’t have to be perfect; Shakespeare isn’t perfect. If you doubt me, go read the climax of Cymbeline.

Whenever I’m asked what I think is my best story, I invariably answer, “My next one.” That has to be true. If it isn’t, I’m done. Might as well quit. I like writing too much to want that to happen. Well, most days I like it too much. Some days I hate it and that’s normal, too.

The best way to become a better writer is to write. We all start with a certain amount of crap in our systems and you have to write the crap out. There are no shortcuts; just accept that a certain percentage of what you do is crap and keep working. Over time, with diligence, with luck, you’ll write less crap. Don’t worry about the doubts or the fears; we all have them and we all wrestle with them. Some days they win but, as you go on, those days become fewer. So keep at it. And remember. . .

Don’t look down.

Dennis O’Neil: Can You Teach Writers How To Write?

Typewriter Keys

It was a pretty doggone swell affair, last Saturday night at the Garnerville Arts Center – the best kind of swell affair, the kind that doesn’t require abnormal behavior or unusual threads.

Remember Thoreau? “…beware of all enterprises that require new clothes…”?

Well, nobody needed to beware at Garnerville. But I think we all enjoyed ourselves.

After the program had ended, I was approached by a young woman carrying some papers. She said she wanted to be a writer and wondered if I had any advice for her. You scriveners out there may have heard similar questions a time or two.

How did you answer?

I’d really like to know. I’ve been fronting classes with titles like “Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels” off and on for more than twenty years and I hereby aver and proclaim that I have never, ever taught anyone to write.

I’m not sure anyone ever taught me to write, either. though I have an academic minor in “creative writing.” (You could look it up. St. Louis University, Arts and Sciences, Class of 1961.) What I did to earn this credential was, essentially, to take the same course six semesters in a row. We wannabe writers were required to produce a thousand words of (sparkling? awesome?) prose every week. The professor would choose one of us to to read our work aloud and when that person fell silent the rest of us critiqued. What else? Not much. I can remember only one bit of instruction and one assignment in all those hours of sitting at a table perusing typed pages or listening to familiar voices speaking unfamiliar sentences. All in all, not a bad way to pass an hour.

Any benefit there? Yes. The discipline of producing those thousand weekly words was, I think, useful. If you’re going to write for a living, and maybe if you’re not, you’re going to have to get chummy with deadlines. I think they have value in and of themselves, but whether they do or not, they’re a part of most writing lives. I’m glad I made their acquaintance early.

And what did we do to fulfill the thousand word requirement? Little bit of whatever. Short stories. Essays. A nun who was, I think, auditing the class read from a work-in-progress about her stay aboard a Japanese ship. Poetry? Maybe, a little, though verse would probably require fudging those thousand words. I do remember handing in a bunch of haiku one week – far from a thousand words worth – and not being scolded so I guess some fudging was okay. And one student began thinking he’d be a short story writer and has become, in the fine ripeness of maturity some of us are privileged to share – that means we didn’t croak early – has become a much-published poet. Don’t know if he fudged as an undergrad.

And here we are at the end, not having answered an implicit question: If I can’t teach writing, why did they pay me to teach writing?

Next week.

John Ostrander’s Guide To Writing Secrets

SecretOnce again I’m a JohnnyO-come-lately to a pop culture phenomenon. I don’t know why I avoided watching Downton Abbey on PBS outside of general cussedness. I get like that. Even something I think I might enjoy I’ll not watch or read because everyone else is doing it. Perverse.

Mary decided she wanted to watch the show so we bought the disc of the first season just to “sample” it. Well, that done it. We’ve gotten all the others and sort of binge watched right through the current and final season. Yes, we’re now ahead of friends and relatives who have been fans of the series right along, but don’t worry. I’m not actually going to reveal the upcoming plot twists and turns.

Rather, I want to consider the use of secrets in the series. We all have secrets at varying levels – things we don’t share. If true with us, so it should be with our characters.

Some are just very basic secrets – name, address, phone number – but things that are not necessarily shared with everyone. If a drunk at a bar asks a woman for her name and phone number, she may keep that secret and/or give him wrong information.

There are secrets that acquaintances might know – people at work or school. Deeper than that is the level with friends and deeper than that are the close friends. Family has its own level of secrets and even within family, some members have access to your secrets that others don’t. Your siblings may know things about you of which your parents are not aware but they choose not to rat you out (most of the time) and you know their secrets as well. Assured mutual destruction. The ones we love, with whom we are most intimate, can share our deepest secrets as well as our bed. Sharing secrets indicates a real trust and that’s why a break-up can be so hard. Your secrets are no longer yours when the trust is gone.

There are the secrets about yourself that you keep to yourself, that no one else knows (or so you think). There are secrets that you keep from yourself and only learn perhaps too late.

The thing about secrets is that they want to be told. What propels many stories, especially in Downton Abbey, is what secret is told to who and when and was it a good choice? Often the reader/viewer can see it when the character can’t; sometimes the most interesting choice the writer can make is that the character reveals a secret and we know it’s a bad idea.

Some characters make it their business to learn the secrets of others, the better to use as a weapon when they think they need it or just feel like it. There has been more than one character like that on Downton Abbey.

We also see people keep secrets from each other on the show, especially with couples, and more especially with married couples. While the characters rationalize it as necessary, it’s rarely a good thing. It’s almost guaranteed to bite them in their ass. Sometimes the secret will be shared with one or two people but not with others.

Of course, the biggest secrets are the ones that the writer keeps from the audience. They get teased out as the show goes on but, as with all fiction, it’s important for the writer to choose what to reveal and when. It keeps our interest up; it creates suspense. It’s a problem when the writer has a secret and they don’t know the truth themselves. It’s not out there; it’s not anywhere. Some big secret, some big mystery, lies at the heart of the story and you only find out later that the creator doesn’t really know the answer either. They were sort of making it up as they go. I hate it when that happens.

Secrets have power and are sometimes used like currency. It’s true in our lives and so it should be true in the lives of our characters. It was certainly true on Downton Abbey and would-be writers would do well to study it.

Excuse me now while I go think up some secrets to hide.

Mindy Newell: Are You Typing?

Bradbury Snoopy

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” • Dorothy Parker

“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” • George R. R. Martin

“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done, they’re done.” • Kurt Vonnegut

“Are you typing?” • My mom, when she would call me up in the middle of the day when I was writing for DC and other comics companies.

Who are the people who tell us our stories?

And how do they do it?

Some like to plot everything out, down to the last word, using what I call the “shuffling cards” method in which important plot developments or character moments are written out on index cards, and then mixed and jumbled and rearranged until the writer holds a royal flush. Some writers start at the end of the story and then figure out how it got there. Others get a scene or situation in their head; it could be the middle, it could be the end, it could be the opening paragraph, or somewhere in between. Then that scene or situation plays over and over again, like a needle skipping on a vinyl record in the middle of a song, and. like that skip, doesn’t stop until the writer does something about it.

There are writers who get up in the morning and eat a proper breakfast and take a proper shower and get dressed as if they are going to the office or meeting up with friends and walk to their study or their den and work a proper eight-hour day, writing. There are other writers who get up and squeeze their story-telling in the hours between the time the kids go off to school and the spouse leaves the house to join the 9-to-5 rat race to when it’s time to pick the kids up to take them to their play dates or swim team practice or religious school – not to mention cleaning the house and going grocery shopping and doing the laundry and making dinner for the husband or wife who will soon be home.

Then there are the writers whose beds never get made, their carpet never gets vacuumed, and everyone is picking their clothes out of the laundry hamper because mom or dad is “in the zone.” Or, perhaps, the only time the beds get made and the carpets get vacuumed and the laundry gets done is when the writer is having a particularly bad day and everything that works so beautifully in the brain comes out on paper or the computer screen reads like it was written by some ignorant schmuck of a troll in a Twitter feed.

There are writers who live in their bathrobes and there are writers who can only work in the middle of the night when everyone else in the house is fast asleep. There are writers who live alone but have the TV on as “white noise” as they write. There are writers who play classical orchestral symphonies while they are “at it,” and writers who play specific music that matches rhythms of their words, their characters’ lives, their plot, their story. And there are writers who must shut out all the sounds of the outside world, who must listen only to the noise, the racket, the voice of their individual muse demanding to be heard.

There are other writers who demand feedback, who meet a trusted friend or editor and over lunch or long walks or over a beer or a Guinness or a Scotch, and work out the voices in his or her head, like a neurotic going to see his or her shrink.

There are writers who are incredibly prolific, churning out story after story after story, as if they are not individuals, but simply shells of flesh occupied by hundreds, if not thousands, of “others” who wait on a line that stretches out into infinity until at last they reach the front of the line and it is their turn to tell their yarn. There are writers who have but one tale to tell, and when “the end” is reached, they are no longer writers; they are finished, they are done.

There are writers who drink too much wine and smoke too much tobacco. There are writers who need a doobie or a blunt to get the juices roiling. There are writers who can only write on deadline and writers who are masters of procrastination.

There are writers who get to the gym every day; there are writers who think walking to the stoop to pick up the daily newspaper is exercise. There are writers who withdraw from the world, and there are writers who are at every A-list party and every movie premiere. There are writers who are constantly on the phone to their agents or their publishers’ marketing departments demanding more publicity, there are writers who let their words speak for themselves.

There are writers who would never option their story to Hollywood. There are writers who tell their agents that they won’t finish the story until it is optioned by Hollywood.

There are writers who are braggarts; there are writers who are shy. There are writers who are savvy with the Internet; there are writers who still use pencil and yellow legal pads.

There are writers who write instant classics, there are writers who never see success until long after their bodies have rotted away and the maggots have eaten what’s left.

Those are the people who tell us our stories.

And that’s how they do it.

Editor’s Note: The graphic atop this column is of Ray Bradbury and Snoopy. Yes, we know you knew that, but that person sitting over there did not. It was cribbed from The Atlantic from about three years ago, and it is damned brilliant.