ON WRITING PIPELINE
You’d have to be mad to want to write a twice-weekly comics review column.
If that’s what you want, though, I’m about to impart to you more than 1700 words of advice, suggestions, warnings, and random ramblings. And that’s a short column.
Nobody ever told me how to do this. How to write a weekly column, let alone a twice-weekly column. I’ve learned by doing, coupled with whatever English lessons I had in school growing up.
After four and a half years of writing Pipeline, I’m still learning things.
I’ve been reading Warren Ellis’ COME IN ALONE collection lately. When the mind starts wondering, those columns are a wonderful way to send it down a singular path. The columns are bite-sized. You can read one in less than five minutes, which is perfect for today’s attention spans.
What really grabbed me in looking over the columns, though, is Ellis’ use of his opening line to hook you in. Take a gander at some of his column openings:
“There aren’t enough comics.”
“The selling of comics has become a horribly simplified enterprise.”
“This is the sound of the enemy. Listen:”
“You don’t read these comics. If you did, they’d be selling lots and lots of copies and be on the charts everywhere and we’d know, wouldn’t we?”
Each one grabbed me from the start and made me want to read more. It’s an idea I’ve been playing with more in my writings lately.
See the first sentence of this column for an example.
The problem with writing a column for this long is that it forms a paper trail of sorts. My soul is laid out to bare. I can run, but I can’t hide. The proof of my past opinions is only a couple of clicks away.
John Byrne once said he hated doing interviews because they would forever be out there for people to read. And if he ever changed his mind on something – as humans are wont to do – that there would be people out there to use it against him.
I think I know how he feels. I’m sure if anyone out there were bored some day they could look back on a couple dozen Pipelines and find some discrepancies in my own statements.
Of course, my paper trail is so large and unindexed that you’d have to be mad to want to chase it down, so I feel safe.
Pipeline is prone to running in stages. You can see it if you look at the column descriptions from a vantage point far enough away. There are months where I go on reviewing tears, talking about every comic I read in any given week. There are times when I focus on trade paperbacks. There are times when I focus on industry issues.
Half the fun of Pipeline is that it’s open enough that I can shift with my moods. Right now, I’m getting a little sick of reviewing the week’s books. I’ll still be doing it. It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily come as easily as it once did. I’ll back off a little bit and it’ll come back again. I have a couple of ideas for series of columns that will keep me going in the meantime. Don’t fret.
I can count the times I had Pipeline completed more than a day in advance on two hands. At best. Thanks, Jonah, for putting up with all those late evening submissions.
It doesn’t hurt at all that Jonah and I are on different coasts, so when I e-mail him a column at midnight, it’s only 9 p.m. his time. Heh heh
What advice do I give to aspiring columnists? The same advice aspiring novelists get from professional novelists: write. Pipeline started out on the Usenet and on my own web site. It lasted there for two years before joining CBR. I never would have made the leap to CBR without first getting those two years of experience under my belt. Nobody would have wanted me.
Of course, there are a lot more comic review web sites out there today than there were two or three years ago. So what do I know? I’m practically an old fossil.
Whatever you do, though, stick to it. Don’t write a column when you feel like it or when you can fit it in. If you don’t establish a schedule with a deadline for yourself, you’ll never get it done and nobody will know to come read it.
Friday’s column is still technically considered Pipeline2, while the Tuesday column is Pipeline Commentary and Review. I just tend to refer to them collectively as “Pipeline.” It’s that way because I’m anal about the numbering scheme. I like the idea of the issue number of Tuesday’s column being the same as the number of weeks I’ve been writing this column overall. I’m up over 230 weeks now. Time flies.
I have a file on my hard drive called “Bits and Pieces.” It’s where all these columns begin. Whenever an idea for a column strikes me, I start writing in there. Sometimes, it ends up as a one-liner, other times as a short piece, and still others as an entire column. I have one full column in that file that I wrote but never used, because I wasn’t at all convinced I was right with it. I’ve got one that was such an early draft of a column that did eventually make it onto the web site that it feels like an entirely different column.
I hate throwing things out.
I’ve also got “Notes Towards A Column” on runs of comics that I’ve read in the past. I’ve got half a column written on a prose book I read 6 months ago that I wanted to talk about but never did. I have scattered notes on at least two different manga series that I started reading but never talked about. I’ve got enough “one-liners” to make a half column. I have no idea how much of that stuff will ever see “print,” but it’s good to know I have a running start whenever I need a column idea.
My boss at my day job suspects that I hang out in my cubicle all day writing these columns. While this may have been true with one or two columns, it’s not what usually happens.
The trick to writing is to steal the time to write, and to write whenever inspiration strikes. To that end, yes, there are times when I’m working on some brain-deadening stuff at work when some comics-related idea will pop into my mind. The first thing I’ll do is pop up a new e-mail window and e-mail the idea to my home account. Sometimes it’s just a line; sometimes it’s a paragraph or two. But the important part is that I’ve got it down in ASCII bits and I’m ready to import them to the next column to be expanded upon.
Tuesday’s columns get a first draft over the weekend and are finished up Monday night after bowling and that night’s videotape of BOSTON PUBLIC. If writing gets too tedious at any point or I start to repeat myself, I do a cover scan or two. This keeps me in front of the computer working on the column while not having to exercise the same muscles to write something. It’s a nice breather. The important thing is that the butt is still applied to the seat.
Thursday nights are much the same, although I watch a little more television and get finished a little bit later.
In this past Tuesday’s column, I talked about nearly 20 different comics that I’ve read in the past week. When do I read all these comics? I fit them in. I usually read one before I go to bed. It’s easy to steal 10 or 15 minutes of sleep to read. Believe it or not, I’ve never once fallen asleep in the middle of a comic that way.
You have to steal time where you can. Waiting for some television show to come on in fifteen minutes? Read a comic.
I like to hit the stationary bike a couple of times a week so I get some form of exercise. I’m usually on it for about half hour a night that way. As my legs peddle furiously away, I’ve got a stack of comics next to me and read through as many as I could. Tonight, for example, I read the last story arc on HELLBLAZER this way. (Yes, that’s right. I’m writing this at 11:30. Stealing time, as I download some files.)
You want to read more comics? Give yourself incentive to. Read more complete stories. Read runs of books. Read trade paperbacks. Comics read a lot faster when one builds upon the other and you find yourself unable to put them down. Comics read faster and more enjoyably when you can get yourself locked into a certain style and can follow that out.
Don’t be afraid to write out of order. At any given time, I may be working on three separate columns. Stuff I write for one column may get cut and pasted into another. Stuff I want to bunch together for another column gets written when the muse strikes. Write when all of this stuff is fresh in your head. If you wait until days later, it becomes work. You’ll delay it and the column will never get written.
For that matter, don’t be afraid to write paragraphs out of order, or even sentences. Cut and paste is a writer’s best friend these days. Get your ideas out, and structure them later. Yes, this will sometimes entail rewriting vast sections of stuff, but at least you know what it is you wanted to say. (Fiction teachers are fond of saying that most student short stories used to start off strong and end poorly. Nowadays, with the advent of the word processor and the ability to jump back and forth and not pound something straight out of the typewriter, the middles and the openings are weaker, too.)
Much of the past 500 words were written back in February. I brought it out, dusted it off, updated it, and threw it in the column.
It’s all about stealing time and writing when inspiration strikes you.
And you’re mad if you do it.
More than 300 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.