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Issue #80

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #80

Can someone be taught how to write fiction?

I never intended to go to college. By the time I’d finished high school, I’d had enough of public education. So I took three years off, hitchhiking to the West Coast and back to the Midwest (it was popular then), working in a bookstore (with access to a slew of books even college wouldn’t have exposed me to) and dabbling in short story writing (on an old Olympia manual) and low level publishing (don’t ask). Only one thing drove me to college: money. (Money remains my main motivation; without the need for it, I’d be more than happy to watch DVDs in bed all day.) What passed for Madison’s comics fandom in the early 70s intersected with the University’s intense film society culture. At that point the University of Wisconsin had the highest density of film societies of anywhere in the world. Among those running them were eventual film scholar Gerald Peary, current CHICAGO TRIBUNE film reviewer Michael Wilmington (with whom I’d eventually alternate as head film critic for a Madison weekly), co-owner to be of Capital Distribution and current Diamond staffer John Davis (who also published a critical film magazine, THE VELVET LIGHT TRAP, that I briefly edited) and Capital employee-to-be Mark Bergman, whose film society specialized in wonky exhibitions like the First Annual 50s Feminist Anti-Communist Science Fiction Film Festival (a double bill of THE ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN), and who was fond of proposing social advances like the Sado-Masochist Switchboard. (Think about it.)

And who also happened to be head projectionist for the UW’s movie theater.

Mark knew I needed a job – after three years of zip pay jobs, movie was very tight – so he put me up for a projectionist job. (The cinema was too small for the Projectionists Union to care about.) By the time I applied, though, the job was filled, but Mark’s boss, who ran the entire theater area (the cinema was just part of a whole complex) offered me another job: backstage doorman. Backstage doormen are hard to keep because it’s a boring and lonely job. I saw it as a way to read a lot and keep to myself. The duties were this: get there at 4:30 on show nights before the day secretary left, on show nights; unlock the backstage door at 6:30 to let performers and night staff in; monitor the back door until everyone left several hours later; lock up. First in, first out, scant human contact in between. Meaning plenty of hours, little hassle. Perfect.

The catch: they were only allowed to hire college students. At that point, college seemed problematic. For one thing, I’d never taken an SAT test. No scores to show them. For another, I had no tuition. But I sheepishly trudged over to the admissions office to see what I could pull off.

Turned out that not only had they recently voted to allow all Wisconsin residents admission regardless of test scores (meaning no tests were necessary, though those without scores had to take admissions tests to determine placement) and, for some reason, they were eager to pay me to attend. That pretty much capped it: I was going to college.

So there I was at the English placement exam. Elementary stuff: multiple choice complete the sentence exercises. I’m whipping through the test, and suddenly, there it is. And another. And another. More and more. I raise my hand, call a teaching assistant over. “Yes?” he says. I showed him the problem. “Yes?” he said.

“All the answers are wrong,” I said. “There’s no right answer to this problem. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one…” He just stares at the paper. “Should I write the correct answer in, or…?” He takes the paper, goes to the overseer. They discuss it intensely, out of earshot. By now, half the room is looking at me. Finally, the T.A. brings back my test and says “Just pick the one that works best.” “But they’re all wrong!” I insisted. “Just pick the one that works best.”

I don’t know what my final score was, but I do know that damn test landed me with a journalism major and it took me two full years to get it changed, during which I kept getting scolding notices that I wasn’t fulfilling the requirements of my major. But this is one of the problems: no one even agrees on what constitutes good English, let alone good writing.

The writing courses I took in college shared one wimpy precept: writers are delicate, so be kind when you critique their work because you don’t want to crush their fragile spirits, and think of all the fine writing we might lose if that happened. Other writing courses I’ve taken over the years, like the Steranko seminar mentioned last week, shared a pattern: here are the basics, follow these principles and you will be a successful writer if you’re creative enough. (Which, face it, is a bit like saying here are the rules of baseball, follow them and you can be starting pitcher for the Yankees. If you throw well enough. All true, but that’s a gargantuan if. This is also the WRITER’S DIGEST model. WRITER’S DIGEST is one of my favorite comedy magazines. Like the Mad Thinker, they seem hell-bent on eliminating that elusive Human Factor that continues to screw up their 99.9% perfect schemes. But it’s the human factor that makes or breaks writing.)

My approach to teaching writing is somewhat different. As my grandmother used to say, the best way to teach a baby to drown is to throw it in the water.

(Just for the record, I know of only one good way to learn to write: read, and write. Read everything, fiction and non-fiction. Books, magazines, newspapers. Not just what you like. Everything. Sometimes you learn more from work you hate. There’s an old saw that goes “write what you know.” It’s wrong – write what you can imagine – but try to know everything. Dissect everything. Read literary criticism till blood fills your eyes at the thought of it. And write. And write. And write. And dissect. And write. And want to write not to be a writer but because you have something to say. All other methods aside from raw talent, as rare as a Lotto jackpot, are just words.)

“There’s an old saw that goes “write what you know.” It’s wrong – write what you can imagine – but try to know everything.”

Putting together a writing clinic for the San Diego Con on the fly, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew what I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want a reiteration of basic principles that everyone should have learned in grade school. I didn’t want a Hollywood style checklist of elements every story should have – two fight scenes, a chase and a weird villain – or any other bogus commercial formulaics. No semi-mystical litcrit courses disguised as writing seminars nor The Steven Grant Method For Comics Writing (which, let’s face it, would leave careers stillborn right and left, since I never did anything the right way).

I think it’s true most comics fans think they’d make great comics writers. Of those who actually make the push, the general delusion seems to be that if they could only break in, editors would prostrate themselves before the brilliance of their ideas and all doors would open, realizing their perfected vision on paper to dazzle all the world. Okay, that’s overwrought, but you get my drift. Most people who want to break in want to break in to write Spider-Man or Wonder Woman, or some work-for-hire variation thereof. There are those fixed solely on MyCreationMan©™, but even most of them see publication via A Major Publisher as the way to go. Self-publishers self-publish and don’t usually concern themselves with How It’s Done. Wannabes tend to see breaking in as the obstacle. Breaking is not the obstacle. Breaking in is an obstacle. The business is the obstacle.

What was needed, I decided, was an experience that approximated the conditions of pro comics writing. If comics writing were simply putting your ideas into effect and letting someone publish it, it would be the world’s easiest gig. But everyone’s got their own ideas of what your story should be: the editor, the artist, sometimes the guy from marketing who wants to write comics himself, sometimes even the editor or artist’s braindead lover who happened to look over his shoulder while he was reading the plot. In these situations, you have precious few options: calmly explain your point of view, hope for the best and go with whatever the decision is (this assumes your editor is rationale, something you shouldn’t necessarily take on faith); be a prima donna and refuse to accommodate any alterations to your vision (a good way to never get another assignment); go over the editor’s head to his superior to complain (another good way to never get another assignment – from anyone in the company); or quietly acquiesce and hope it builds up enough good will that you’ll get your way next time. Comics writers who are traditionally rarely more than a couple paychecks away from living in a cardboard box usually find the latter course most practical, but repeated continuously over time it becomes a really spirit-crushing experience. Editors tend to view making changes as part of the writer’s job, not a favor; it’s easy to find yourself writing stories you couldn’t care less about because they’re not your stories, and the history of comics is littered with writers who compromised to keep after that that elusive next story where they’d get what they wanted through, or stopped caring about anything but the check, or simply threw up their hands in disgust and got out. This is the ground we walk on. There is no wannabe who expects that person will ever be them, and few realize they’re that person until it’s too late to change anything.

So it turned from a “how to write comics” clinic to a “what writing comics is like” clinic. 19 people, one room, eight hours, five pages, one story. Not an exact simulation, but trying to get your idea intact past 18 other people with their own ideas was an approximation of the comics experience. (Not to mention the Hollywood experience; it exceeded what to expect in comics while not coming even close to Hollywood.) The first hour went painlessly enough, as we sorted out what we were going to do and laid out the ground rules. I doubt what was going on really sank in. Some came with notebooks full of ideas, but what good is that when you’re generating an idea from scratch? Time was wasted as the group tried to come to a consensus as to what type of story to do, what genre. (It wasn’t really wasted; most of them came to understand how frustrating the process can be.) One woman left in annoyance that the group wouldn’t give her ideas what she felt was a fair hearing; I’m sure as final arbiter (that is to say: editor) I probably didn’t help much, since time was already slipping away (also a constant factor in comics writing) and there simply wasn’t time to hear idea after idea.

I’ve often said storytelling is problem solving. Everyone knows what the end result of fiction looks like. Everyone, on some level, knows all the complex elements that go into any story, regardless of length. Idea, character, plot, story, theme, conflict: you start with any element and start interweaving others in until you end up with fiction. I forget where we started, or what the general idea was, but I do remember it wasn’t where we ended up. This is much less uncommon in writing than most editors (and writers, for that matter) would prefer. Some people came to learn The Secret (which, of course, doesn’t exist); when they saw what a haphazard chaos the clinic was, they quietly exited. We were in KARATE KID territory (the movie, not the superhero): they wanted to know kung fu, while I had them painting fences.

Somehow a story began to emerge: a man mistreats a dog. But that’s not even a springboard. Why does he mistreat the dog? That wasn’t specific enough. Complicated ideas were thrown out and flushed; in that space we needed something with a quick introduction – story and character in your face from the word go. Five pages equals roughly 30 panels, 25 if you have a splash. If you go by the old DC rule of thumb of six panels to a page. Where were supporting characters? Were they necessary to flesh out the theme or did they just fill space? Flourishes? No room. Boom: the man’s lover/wife/girlfriend left him, so he takes it out on the dog, the only thing left in his life. The rough idea mutated into an EC comics style story about parted lovers. Why is the dog the only thing left? Boom: the man’s blind and bitter about it, and his bitterness drove the woman away – which also made the resolution of the story as credible as it was going to get, because what happens flows from his blindness and bitterness; while an EC style shock ending, it doesn’t leap from nowhere. I forget who came up with all these things. I guided the group toward some obvious things they were missing, and kept a cap on the time, but they were the ones spitting out and agreeing on ideas. They broke the story down. Intro the man, the dog. Work in the woman. Dialogue quickly became a problem. On the one hand, you have to get the ideas across quickly. On the other, dialogue isn’t strictly for getting ideas across; dialogue and physical action are the two main conduits of character. Some subtlety is necessary. You have to know when your theme is served better by not being specific. When the man encounters the woman, he doesn’t tell her anything. Sure, they could have a fight. But if he could fight with her, he wouldn’t have to take it out on the dog. So she gives him an opportunity to air grievances, but he erects a wall instead. Etc. In fact, they used the scene to demonstrate the woman’s perfectly willing to work with him, if only he’d reciprocate – which reflects his situation with the dog. They worked and refined it, dumping their preconceived notions to try to get the story done in the allotted time.

Was the clinic a success? I dunno. You’ll have to ask the attendees. (Only one that I know of went on to a comics career: Dozelle Young, who’s now writing THE MONARCHY for Wildstorm. When you get his autograph at conventions, ask him about the seminar. He’s not shy; he’ll tell you.) All I know for sure is that when time ran out, there was a story. It was a grueling night for all of us, filled with frustration, but there was a story. A great story? No. A decent story. Was anyone totally happy with it? I doubt it; with so many people involved, no one person could put their stamp on it. I typed it up and sent it to Dark Horse Comics for publication, as arranged. Was it the best story that could have come out of that session? No way to know. With deadlines you have to commit, for better or worse. Worrying about how you could have done better wastes energy, so let me quell your doubt right now: of course you could have done better. We all see the warts and birthmarks on our stories after they’re printed, even when no one else does. We all cringe. Just do it better next time. After all these years, finishing a story, whether I’m reading one or writing it, remains one of my great thrills. It’s one of the few times you get a real sense of accomplishment in comics. If you never finish, you never get that thrill.

And you never get it if you never start.

I’m in the midst of a double deadline crunch, wrapping up CHYNA #2 for Chaos Comics and the final issue of X-MAN for Marvel. (#75, out in March; this is “big idea comics” gone to hell in a haywagon.) So no notes this week. Check in next Wednesday.

Question of the week at Master Of The Obvious Message Board: we’ve been having a conversation on the board about whether anthologies are marketable here in America. Historically, they’ve found little commercial success since the advent of the direct market and the comics shop catering to hardcore fans. So here’s the question: do you like anthologies as a delivery system for diversity in comics, or do you consider it an imposition to have to spend money on a comic you may only be interested in a portion of? Do you support anthologies?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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