Tagged: Writing

John Ostrander: Whore To Culture And Other Working Relationships

I’m over at Facebook a fair amount. I use it not just for friends and family, people I actually know, but also as a way to keep in touch with fans which I think is important. I try to give them a good personal experience with me because I value them; their support enables me to make a living as a writer. Some publishers have an interest in hiring me because they know I have my own fanbase.

So I post things and answer questions or notes – sort of like at a Con – and it’s nice. Most of the fans are very respectful; sometimes, maybe a little too respectful. There have been those who refer to me as “master”. I appreciate it as a token of respect but, to be honest, I’m uncomfortable with it. To my mind, I’m just a working guy and my work happens to be writing. It’s how I make my living – buy food, pay the bills, and so on.

I’m a professional writer and I take great pride in that; people pay money to read what I’ve written and, as I’ve said elsewhere, that’s something I’ve never taken for granted and never will. There’s a big demand on your dollar today (mine too) and if you spend the money on one thing chances are you aren’t spending it on another. Maybe if you buy a comic I’ve written you can’t buy some other comic. So it’s my job to make sure you get your money’s worth.

I’m not a “fine” writer; I’m a storyteller. Both as a reader and a writer, my big interest is “and then what happened?” I’m not a stylist although I can turn a good phrase. I’m not apologizing in any way; I’m proud of what I’ve written but I know what I am and what I am not.

I had an interesting online discussion some years back with a defiantly amateur writer. He claimed he was “purer” as a writer because he didn’t accept money for his work. In fact, he claimed I was a whore and prostituting myself for taking money for something I should have done for the pure love of it.

I will confess to be a bit flummoxed by this. I wasn’t sure how to answer. I could have said that he probably couldn’t prostitute himself because nobody would pay him; it’s hard to make money if you’re an ugly whore. However, that would have been mere pique and invective and dodged the central question – does getting paid for my work inherently make one less of an artist? Shakespeare (a greater artist than I) got paid, as did Dickens, Shaw, and many other talented artists.

On the other hand, there are plenty of hacks out there who will grind out anything to make a buck. There are times I have taken an assignment, not because I loved the character or the concept but because I needed the work and the paycheck. However, I’ve never put in less work as a result. I have to find something in the character that I can relate to, into which I can invest myself. It’s not always easy but it is always necessary. In some cases I am more successful than in others but the effort is always there because I know that, at some point, someone will put down real cold cash to read it.

I write to be read. I know one of the cardinal rules of writing is, first and foremost, to write to please yourself and I do that. However, I don’t only do that. I’m aware as I write that, hopefully, someone is going to read those words as you are reading these words. If one writes only to please oneself, then I think that’s literary masturbation. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with masturbation; I’ve dated Five Finger Lucy myself. There’s the old joke that goes “if it wasn’t for masturbation, I’d have no sex life at all” and, at one point in my past, that was very true. However, I also happen to think that sex with a partner is, well, better.

When you connect with your reader, it’s like flipping the electric switch to “on”. The electricity flows and it can flow both ways. It’s that connection with the reader that I’m looking for. In my stories, I ask my reader, “Have you ever felt this? Thought this? Considered this”? If they have, then we share something. The electricity flows between us. There’s a bond between us. We celebrate a shared humanity.

That’s my job. That’s what I get paid to do. What I get paid has never determined the effort I put into the work; it has enabled me to do it without expending time and energy making a living some other way, time and energy that I need to put into the work.

I’m not a master; I could never claim that for myself. I’m a guy from Chicaguh who writes for a living; a working stiff like most of you. Most days, I love what I do and, on the other days, it’s a grind, like any other job. Overall I’m proud of the work I’ve done and I hope to keep doing it until I drop. To quote James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, “It’s what I do.”

Photo by mpclemens

Mindy Newell: How Unforgetable Sentences Can Help You Make Magic

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859

The other day two grandmothers, Mindy and Lynette, were visiting their beloved grandchild Meyer Manual.  After playing and cooing and aahing and watching Alixandra attempt to feed him mashed bananas, 99% of which ended up on his bib and his chin and my elbow and just about everywhere but in his mouth, Lynette said she had to split.  As she was leaving, she said to me, “I love your columns.  You’re such a good writer.”  (Be that as it may.)  I said, “I don’t know where it comes from, I never had any formal training.”  Lynette laughed, and said, “Well, I had formal training, and I can’t write like that.”

Well, I don’t know how good a writer I am; I always think I could be a gazillion-million times better.  But that’s not the point of this column.  This is…

I left soon afterwards, and as I was driving home in my car, listening to All Things Considered on WNYC-FM (my local NPR station), coincidentally the segment was about writing.  Well, not writing exactly, but about great sentences.

The editors of the magazine American Scholar have compiled a list of their ten best sentences in fiction and non-fiction; as associate editor Margaret Foster explained, “It came about as a result of ‘water cooler’ talk around the office. We’re sometimes struck by a beautiful sentence or maybe a lousy sentence, and we’ll just say, ‘Hey, listen to this,’” Her choice, she went on to say, is the last line of Toni Morrison’s [[[Sula]]]:

It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.

I haven’t read Sula, but even without knowing the context of the sentence, I agree that it is beautiful. It could be describing the wail of a mother who has lost her child, the ghostly unending cry of six million Jews exterminated by the Nazis in World War II, or the devastating misery of a population in a world gone to apocalyptic madness.  It captures an emotional resonance that echoes of unforgettable pain, unforgivable brutality, and undying loss.

It’s hard to say what makes an unforgettable sentence.  I agree with Ms. Foster, who said, “…in the end, very subjective,” she says. “I mean, who are we to say what the best sentence in The Great Gatsby is?”

By the way, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, which many consider the Great American Novel, made the list with this sentence:

“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

It’s not “See Spot run”, is it?

But even Fitzgerald started someplace.

I don’t know if diagramming a sentence is still taught in elementary school English classes anymore, but I remember it as a continuing homework assignment back when I was a student at P.S. 29 on Staten Island, New York.  It began with simple sentences and progressively became more difficult with our increasing comprehension of grammatical structure.  It looked like this, using the simple sentence from above:

Sentence Structure

Actually, that’s not such a simple sentence, “run” is a shortened present participle (don’t ask!), and the grammatically correct sentence should read, “Did you Spot running?”

So let’s pick another, simpler sentence.  How about…

I | love | comics

         …in which the diagram above indicates the “form” of a sentence.  The “I” is the object, “love” is the verb, and “comics” is the subject.

But how do you get from a simple, three-word sentence to something like Fitzgerald’s last sentence [[[The Great Gatsby]]], or to William Faulkner’s [[[Absalom! Absalom!]]] or James Joyce’s [[[Ulysses]]] without your editor throwing you out on your ass with a copy of E.B. White’s The Element of Style following your bruised butt?

It’s the same answer as that old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice.”

Or is it?  Maybe it’s something else—a mastery of the language, or talent, or maybe it’s something intangible.

Call it a mystery, call it a gift from God or the Goddess or the Universe or even call it The Force…

Whatever it is that allows some to grace us with words that form sentences that speak truth to us and stay in our heads forever and ever—It’s magic.

Photo by gualtiero

John Ostrander: Short Form and Long Form Storytelling

My favorite new show on TV this year is The Blacklist. It’s on opposite another show I enjoy a lot, [[[Castle]]], which is now in its sixth season. Assuming it makes it (and I certainly do hope it’s renewed). I wonder if I’ll still love The Blacklist five years from now.

The new trend in American TV appears to be serial anthology shows such as [[[American Horror Story]]] and True Detective. Both take a season to tell a complete story and then the following season tells a different story but in the same genre. [[[American Horror Story]]] often keeps most of the same actors but then casts them in different parts. You tell the story and then you move on, giving a complete beginning, middle, and end.

There’s a lot to be said for that. The BBC series, [[[Broadchurch]]], told a good story – so much so that I wonder how they’re going to do a sequel as they evidently plan to do.

With a long running series, you have to find ways to keep it fresh if you want to keep the viewers coming back and the reasons for continuing the show are often financial and economic ones rather than creative ones. (more…)

Mindy Newell: Who Are You?

“Whooooooooo are you? Who? Who? Who, Who?”

Composed by Pete Townsend
The Who, 1978

Picking up from last week

All our super-powered mythic creations, whether hero or villain, man or woman, are avatars—whether we realize it or not.

Superman, of course, is the Big Kahuna avatar of comics. Every corrupt politician that Superman put in jail, each mobster who pulled a gun and watched the bullets bounce off Superman’s chest, every misogynistic wise-ass jerk who insulted a woman and was punished by Superman was really being punished by these two bookish, nebbishy, and schlemiel-y kids from Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who weren’t able to fight the anti-Semites or win the gorgeous goyishe blonde.  I doubt very much either of them were consciously aware of the psycho-sociological underpinnings of their alien hero who would capture the world’s imagination, but it’s all there, as many critics and writers, including Danny Fingeroth, Jules Feiffer, Grant Morrison, Scott Bakutman of Stanford University, and A. C. Grayling of The Spectator have noted.  Grayling’s article, “The Philosophy of Superman: A Short Course”, discusses the need for a Superman over the decades since his creation in the 1930’s, including the early 21st century and events post-9/11, stating that:

…caught between the terrifying George W. Bush and the terrorist Osama bin Laden, America is in earnest need of a Saviour for everything from the minor inconveniences to the major horrors of world catastrophe. And here he is, the down-home clean-cut boy in the blue tights and red cape.

Others more erudite than I am may have used more polysyllabic pronouncements when analyzing the characterization of the Man of Steel, but I will say that he is a fugue, an escape, an exodus into a world in which, simply put, the good guys win.

Depending on your definition of “the good guys,” of course.


John Ostrander: Writing Tids and Bits

Absent any overall topic occurring to me, maybe we’ll try the ol’ shotgun approach – a bunch of writing tips with the idea that, if there’s enough of them, some should work. (My friend William J. Norris used to describe my sense of humor that way – if I just kept talking, a certain percentage of it was bound to be funny.)

Da tips.

Cast your characters. This can be short-hand for a character and can help with dialogue. Who would play your character in TV or movies or who would provide their voice if the character was animated? It doesn’t have to be a living actor; heck, it doesn’t have to be an actor at all. It can be somebody you know or knew, friend or foe or relative (the last can be a combination of the first two). It can be a politician or your boss or a co-worker. Somebody you find distinctive and whose voice is inside your head.

Using a person as the template can help you with how the character acts, who they are, how they physically express themselves. Mannerisms, habits, nervous tics can all work into the character. The cadence of how the template speaks, verbal habits, and so on can help you as you write the dialogue. It’s sometimes easier to identify these traits in others than in yourself. That gives you perspective on them.

These traits are all shorthand – you still have to do all the basic hard work of who they are, their background, and what they want but this can help, especially if you get stuck.

You/Not You. All your characters are you; all your characters are not you. You have to find the point where you and your character intersect if you’re going to write the character honestly. Every character – the good, the bad, main characters, supporting character, one line wonders – lives inside you. However, you also have to detach from them a bit. You have to have some objectivity in portraying them. Give them their own life. It’s like parents with kids; at some point, the parent has to acknowledge their kid ain’t them. The dichotomy between you/not you can be tough to master.

Make Them Turn the Page. (more…)

In Memoriam: Bill Hicks

[[[Bill Hicks]]] died twenty years ago today, February 26, 1994. Most comic book fans know him from his appearance in Preacher #31, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon:

Here’s the man at work, in a segment that David Letterman removed from his show:

This was his final statement:

February 7, 1994 –

     I was born William Melvin Hicks on December 16, 1961 in Valdosta, Georgia. Ugh. Melvin Hicks from Georgia. Yee Har! I already had gotten off to life on the wrong foot. I was always “awake,” I guess you’d say. Some part of me clamoring for new insights and new ways to make the world a better place.

     All of this came out years down the line, in my multitude of creative interests that are the tools I now bring to the Party. Writing, acting, music, comedy. A deep love of literature and books. Thank God for all the artists who’ve helped me. I’d read these words and off I went – dreaming my own imaginative dreams. Exercising them at will, eventually to form bands, comedy, more bands, movies, anything creative. This is the coin of the realm I use in my words – Vision.

     On June 16, 1993 I was diagnosed with having “liver cancer that had spread from the pancreas.” One of life’s weirdest and worst jokes imaginable. I’d been making such progress recently in my attitude, my career and realizing my dreams that it just stood me on my head for a while. “Why me!?” I would cry out, and “Why now!?”

     Well, I know now there may never be any answers to those particular questions, but maybe in telling a little about myself, we can find some other answers to other questions. That might help our way down our own particular paths, towards realizing my dream of New Hope and New Happiness.


     I left in love, in laughter, and in truth and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.

More power to you, buddy. Hope you enjoyed the ride.

Mindy Newell: Who’s The Real You When You’re Writing?

“Whenever there is a decline of righteousness and rise of unrighteousness then I send forth Myself.”
—Lord Krishna to Prince Arjuna,[[[The Bhagavadgita]]] (Song of God)

Sanskrit in origin, and a central principle of the Hindu religion, an avatar is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form to counteract an evil in the world.  A central principle of Hinduism, it usually refers to 10 appearances of Vishnu, including an incarnation as the Buddha Gautama and the Buddha yet to come, called Kalkin.”

In the 21st century, it has also come to mean that little picture that represents the user, blogger, columnist, commentator, gamer, or fan on the Internet, and (usually) will tell you something about that person, whether it is whom that user, blogger, columnist, commentator, gamer, or fan admires or identifies with, or even their sense of humor about themselves.  (See my avatar on my Facebook page, for instance, which is from the artwork of Anne Taintor and reads “I plead insanity.”)

James Cameron’s [[[Avatar]]] blended the two definitions in his hero, Jake Sully—Jake is both the “user” behind his genetically engineered Na’vi body (Jake’s avatar) and the “incarnation” of the savior of the Na’vi civilization.

Writers can also use avatars. (more…)

John Ostrander: Upsides & Downsides of Writing

Ostrander Art 140102There are some days that I love being a writer. When the everything is cooking, when the words are flowing, when the characters are speaking to you, when you’re on the top of your game, it’s all magic. That’s not every day. Not by a long shot.

There are the days when you’re staring at the screen and it stares back – and the screen does not blink. You pray and the gods/patron saints (depending on your belief system) do not smile, do not answer, do not share their favor with you. There are days when I have considered offering blood sacrifices to these gods/saints. On those days, the cats hide.

I make my living off of my writing. There are upsides and downsides to that. On the upside, I’m my own boss. On the downside, I frequently hate my boss. He always knows when I’m goofing off and I can hear his voice in the back of my head saying, “Are you making money doing that?” It’s hard to get a day off; there’s no paid holidays, there’s no paid sick days, no paid vacation.

On the upside, I work out of my home. The commute’s a breeze. The only traffic jam is when one or more of the cats gets in front of me as I head towards the office and decides to stroll or flat out lie down right in my path. A semi jack-knifing in front of you is not as likely to stymie your passage as completely as a downed cat. Swearing sometimes clears the path; sometimes it just gets me a blank look.

On the downside, it’s hard to get away from the office. It’s always there and that damned boss keeps on asking “When are you getting back to work?” Yes, I have my own separate office in my home and, yes, I could close the door. I’ve done that. I think there’s a small gravity well at my desk and it keeps sucking me back.

There’s the Freelancer’s Disease. If you’re offered work you tend to say “yes” even if you’re overbooked because you fear if you say “no” the aforementioned gods/patron saints won’t send you any more work. And there’s the corresponding Freelancer’s Nightmare when the work does stop flowing. Will the work ever come again; how will you pay bills, how will you eat if the work doesn’t come back? It’s not a rational fear but it’s a very real one and you can wake up in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning with an attack of it. Been there; felt that.

There’s a corresponding hope that lightning will strike. I was on a plane once and the guy next to me began talking. We were both in our forties. I told him what I did and he told me he was a corporate lawyer. I expressed some envy at him; he had a steady paycheck. He agreed and he said that was the problem: he knew how much he would make this year, and the next year, and pretty much ten years down the line. “You,” he said, “on the other hand, could be hit by lightning.” I could write something, come up with an idea or a concept that could make me millions. It could happen at any time. It hasn’t yet… but it still might.

That’s one of the things that keeps me at it, that and the joy I get when the writing works. I’m also too damn old to work in an office. I can’t see anyone hiring me. I really don’t have any marketable business skills and no résumé.

Nope, for better or worse, for all the upsides and downsides, writing is what I do. I’d better get back to it before the boss yells at me. Again.

The bastard.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell




Mindy Newell: Blood And Streams

Newell Art 140120“Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” – Gene Fowler

 “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader. If you do not believe in the characters or the story you are doing at that moment with all your mind, strength, and will, if you don’t feel joy and excitement while writing it, then you’re wasting good white paper, even if it sells, because there are other ways in which a writer can bring in the rent money besides writing bad or phony stories.” – Paul Gallico

 “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.” – “Red” Smith

 “The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress.” – Philip Roth

 “The road to hell is paved with adverbs” – Stephen King


Maybe you’ve figured out by now that today I’ve got nothing. Zip. Nada. A big Krispy Kreme donut hole. So I’ll just do a bit of stream of consciousness and see what comes pouring out.

Chris Christie. I don’t know why it took so long for Bridgegate to become front-page news. Everybody who lived in New Jersey last August seemed to know that the closing of the entrances to the GW Bridge was a political bullshit thing. Traffic study? C’mon, this is New Jersey. Everybody knows that the traffic at the GW Bridge sucks 23 out of 24 hours a day. You need a traffic stuffy for that?

What I don’t get, what everybody in New Jersey, home to Tony Soprano and Enoch “Nucky” Johnson (renamed Thompson in Boardwalk Empire) and the dirtiest politics in America, doesn’t get is how Christie’s staff could be so stupid as use e-mail in planning and enacting their stupid pet tricks. As to “was the boss in on it?” and “did Christie know and when did he know it?” You could bowl me over with a spoon if it turns out that the Governor was ignorant of his staff’s shenanigans. But I won’t be surprised if he comes out of this smelling, if not like a rose, at least then like a refurbished brownstone in downtown Jersey City. A function of all political flunkies is, after all, to fall upon their sword for God, Country, and Emperor when necessary, and I think that’s what’s going to happen.

“Ignore the barrage of violent threats and harassing messages that confront you online every day.” That’s what women are told. But these relentless messages are an assault on women’s careers, their psychological bandwidth, and their freedom to live online. We have been thinking about Internet harassment all wrong. That’s the journalistic “hook” for Amanda Hess’s cover story “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” in Pacific Standard magazine appeared on January 6, 2014, and the story’s first paragraphs are about her experience of receiving death threats over Twitter while on vacation in Palm Springs. Amanda Hess was on the Brian Lehrer show last week to talk about this. I couldn’t hear the whole thing because she came on in the second half of the show and I had to go into work, but I sat in the parking lot as long as I could listening and thought of all the stories I’ve heard this year from my friends in the comics industry. I’m thinking that maybe the end of “net neutrality” isn’t such a bad idea after all. Maybe making it a little harder to have full access to the web will help cut this shit out?

Nah. To quote Scotty in The Search For Spock, “the more they over think the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.” I don’t know what the answer is, but it aggravates the hell out of me.

I adore my grandchild, Meyer Manual. I adore watching Alix and Jeff be parents. But I still can’t get used to the word “Grandma.” It just doesn’t fit into my self-image vocabulary. Isn’t that incredibly fucked-up? I am trying to think of another “name” for myself to have him call me. When Alix first began to talk she called my parents by their first names, and continued to do so for a very long time; I don’t remember when she stopped and started calling them Grandma and Grandpa, but I do remember that my father didn’t like being called Meyer at first – “I’m your grandfather, not your friend” – but when Alix grew into calling him Grandpa, he missed the first-name bit. I think some part of him was longing for that tiny little toddler. Me, I’d love it if little Meyer calls me Mindy. What the hell, I’ve always been an iconoclast, why stop now? On the other hand, I don’t care what he calls me, as long as he calls me (she said in her best Groucho Marx imitation).

Speaking of my father, we took him out on Saturday night to celebrate his birthday. I told you about how he kept eating the french fries as my brother “Heimliched” my mom, how he’s in his own “Never-never land” most of the time, and how in so many ways my father is gone. And yet, sometimes there’s the glimmer of the old Meyer. My brother ordered a vodka gimlet for him, specifying “Stoly’s.” The waiter repeats it, “Yes, sir, vodka gimlet with Stoly’s” and suddenly my father intercedes. “Ketel.” “You want Ketel 1?” my brother said. He nodded, and then he lapsed back into that place where he lives most of the time. But later, while driving home, Alix told Jeff and I that she heard my dad tell Isabel “it’s an honor to be here with you and the baby to celebrate my 91st birthday.”

Been thinking about the lack of comics in this house for the last year (for financial reasons, as I mentioned in a previous column). Been thinking that I might head over to Comixology or one of the other sites and do some downloading to catch up. Definitely cheaper. But only as a temporary measure. Somehow not holding the comic in my hand while reading seems wrong to me. Well, if not wrong, then weird. Maybe that makes me a Luddite, but if Jim Kirk can read A Tale of Two Cities in hardcover in the 24th century and Jean-Luc Picard treasures his copy of Moby Dick in the 26th, then I’m just doing my part to ensure that real books hang around for future generations.

And, yes, comics count as real books.

Blood has been spilt in their making.

TUESDAY: Jen Krueger