Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How I Write

How I Write

Well, how I write as of mid October 2011, anyway. This may well be more than one post, depending on how wordy I am.

The Idea

Ideas are easy. Most writers, I think, have more ideas than they can reasonably manage. I sure as hell do. I’m actively looking for ways to be more productive because there are stories I want to tell sooner, rather than later.

So I’m not going to say much about getting an idea. They come from everywhere, all the time: snippets of conversation, articles, bad movies or bad comics. But not all these ideas have enough to them to be their own thing. Most don’t, actually. The trick is picking out the ones that lead to…

The Story

Let’s take Luther Strode. The idea that Charles Atlas ads work, or that superheroes and slashers share some similarities are not stories. The story is the transition from a normal kid to something else. It wasn’t until those two ideas met that an actual story was born.

Both this and the idea bit are vague, because the process is a bit of a black box; I can’t speak well about how it works because I don’t know how it works. I do know that once I’ve got the bones of a journey in mind, I can start fleshing that out.

Generally speaking, what I usually come up with first when I’m fleshing out the story is the end. Once I know where it all begins, and I can figure out where the best place to come into the story is and then work my way towards the ending.

At this stage, what I’m looking to do is to be able to sum up the overall story in a paragraph or so; where we start, where we go, how we get there. Just enough for me to see that there is a beginning, middle and end and that’s a story I think will either be fun or worth telling. Both, preferably.

The Arc

What I’m also looking for here is the character arc for the main character. There has to be some kind of journey that they move through so that they either come out changed at the other end or, sometimes, have failed to be able to change.

I’m capable of writing all plot stories that are interesting and move well, but I find that if I haven’t found the right arc for the protagonist, it all feels sort of hollow for me. So I need to be able to ask what the character wants, what he’s willing to do to get it, and what will happen if he does.

There exists, and I will at some point make publically available, radically different versions of Luther Strode issues two and three. In the original issue two, he ends up being arrested for murder, and in issue three he’s broken out of jail by the librarian, and spends the rest of the series on the run.

And here’s the thing: it was pretty good. There’s at least one action sequence in there that is as good as any I’ve written and maybe better, and it’s all very exciting. It’s also not right. It felt to me like it was all sizzle and no steak.

Ironically, this was itself a change from the original plan for Luther Strode; the actual comic is pretty much exactly what I had originally set out to do, with those issues being a detour.

The Theme

Like character arc, this sounds hugely pretentious to me, and when I was a younger writer I was solely concerned with the mechanics of plot and I thought this was bullshit. Young me was a fucking idiot.

Theme is, I think, more or less unavoidable. You may not have one when you start, but one will certainly arise from the mess. Me, I try to figure out what the theme is before I start writing the thing, even if sometimes the theme is hard to articulate.

For Luther, the theme could be boiled down to “be careful what you wish for” or even more simply “unintended consequences”. It’s at least partly an examination of the difference between the fantasies we have and the reality we get, and knowing that helps me structure the narrative.

For me, knowing the theme gives me another benchmark to evaluate the story I’m telling, so that I can look at the scenes and ask myself whether they advance the plot, change or develop character or illustrate the theme. Every scene should do at least one, and great scenes do all of them.

The Issue Breakdown

Once I know that stuff, I usually start hammering it out into an issue breakdown. These usually start as a one line description of what happens in the issue. Now, typically, more than one line’s worth of stuff happens in an issue, but this is just the major thrust.

What I’m looking for at this stage is for each issue to be bigger than the last. I’m building towards the climax, so the single line description of each issue lets me see that issue three isn’t a bigger issue than issue four in terms of what’s going on.

Once I do that, I usually make a list of all the stuff that has to go into the issue – stuff the reader needs to know, questions to be raised, etc.

So, for Luther issue one, it’d be something like:

Luther discovers he is developing superhuman powers

- Intro Luther
- Intro Pete
- Intro Mom
- Intro Petra
- Intro Librarian
- Est. abilities
- Est. The Bound

Once I’ve got that, I establish the character beats that I want to hit for this issue. For Luther, it’s discovering he’s getting powers and actually using them.

After all THAT, then I hammer out the story and what I need to do to get where I’m going. I use a three act structure for this, with pages 1 – 7 serving, roughly as act one and so on.

Page Outlines

Once I’ve done all that, and I usually do this for all the issues before I start writing the first one, I move onto the actual page by page outline for the individual issues. Basically, I use a legal pad and write down one through twenty two and what happens on each page. Usually just the names of characters and what’s going on. At this point I’ve been working on the story enough that I don’t need much prompting.


Sometimes I do this and sometimes and don’t, and sometimes it even happens off and on within a script. What I call the protodraft is basically a line of what happens in each paragraph and any particularly relevant dialogue that pops into my head.

This often happens in an action heavy script where I get into a full tilt boogie and just keep writing.

First Draft

Wherein I go in and write real descriptions and flesh out dialogue. The line between protodraft and first draft is fuzzy. The drafts do not always go according to the page by page breakdown, either, as I find I need to expand and compress things for a variety of reasons.

Other Drafts

Generally speaking, I don’t really rewrite in the sense that many people do. The script I get is either about 95% there or I just throw it out and start entirely from scratching. What usually happens after the first draft is that I let it sit for a bit, and then go back in and add to panel descriptions I think are weak, and tweak the dialogue.

If I chuck the script out, it’s starting all over again. This has been known to happen as many as five or six times although, thank god, it usually doesn’t. Mostly, if I make it to the first draft it’s really close to where I want it to be, which is sort of the point of all that initial work.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Limits of Understanding

There's understanding and then there's understanding.

Take this for instance:

Which is basically about how to physical and mentally abuse your child into being a perfectly obedient drone. Now, even if this worked, I am absolutely incapable of understanding an empathizing with the sort of mind that would want that.

Now, I understand enough about that sort of person that I could probably press their buttons. I could maybe even fake writing a character that thought that way. But on a very real level, these people are aliens to me.

Their way of thinking and frame of reference is so different from mine that they become a black box: I can understand that if you input certain situations, you get a certain result, but the underlying thinking is something I'm not capable of getting.

Now, what this has to do with comics is that it is difficult, although not impossible, to write characters that are that different from what you think. I can write murderers and monsters even though I am not a monster or murderer because their actions are based in things that I can understand and empathize with enough to be able to get into their headspace.

I've gotten asked a few times whether any of my characters are like me, which doesn't seem like a hard question. All of my characters are like me, in the sense that their minds work like mine work at the base level. Their values and conclusions and actions are different, but the actual mental steps they take to get from point A to point B are definitely based in the way I think.

The analogy that fits best is that the characters I create all have the same base operating system but the programs loaded into them are different. This is, in and of itself, not a good or bad thing. It's just a fact.

Where it can be a problem is when you don't realize it. If I were to write, for some reason, a character that wants to train up a child, there's going to be a level of faking it. If I did this casually, the character will always read wrong to me. So I try to be conscious and aware of what the limits of my own ability to understand are.