Sometimes it’s not there. No matter how hard you try. No matter how long you sit at your laptop, staring at the screen, waiting for your fingers to start typing something magical, waiting for everything to suddenly click into place. Sometimes it’s just not working.
The dialogue won’t flow. You can’t find a character’s voice. You can’t break down the action. You can’t establish any sort of rhythm. You can’t even get past this one damn page or this one line of dialogue or even come up with this one new character’s fucking name. And you feel like if you could just get this one tiny detail nailed perfectly, then the whole thing would suddenly fall right into place. And sometimes it does.
Or sometimes you work and work and then look back and realize everything you’ve just written is shit. Flat and boring. Useless. Bad enough to get you fired.
Sometimes you feel like you had it before, but now it’s gone. Like the perfect line or scene came to you last night, right as you were about to drift off to sleep, but you were too tired to get up out of bed and write it down, so you told yourself, “Do not forget this,” and you promised yourself you wouldn’t. But now you have. Not completely, maybe. You remember some of the words, but not how to fit them together just right and you hate yourself for not putting it on paper when you had it.
When you’ve got the idea, when the passion is freshest, that’s when you have to write. You put something on the back burner for too long, you’ll lose it. You’ll lose at least part of it. Sometimes you look back and wonder why a story never quite came together like you thought it would. Why it didn’t turn out like you’d envisioned it. It had seemed to fit together so perfectly in your head, but it didn’t once it made it to the page. And sometimes it’s because you waited too long to write it. You strayed too far from where your head was at when it came to you. You lost the fire and were just going through the motions. You got too distracted.
Sometimes you pray for a distraction. When things seem futile and aren’t going anywhere, you sit there wishing for the phone to ring or an email to show up that has to be answered right away. You pray for an excuse to stop banging your head against the wall. Sometimes you just have to walk away. Find something else to do. Work on some lettering corrections for a different project. Empty your inbox. Go for a walk to clear your head. Or read something. Comics by people you admire. An issue of Morrison’s “Batman & Robin” or Fraction’s “Iron Man.” Sometimes seeing how other people do their job can kickstart your own brain. Or at least fire you up to want to try and match their level. Or sometimes you just go eat a sandwich, watch “The Daily Show” and then go back to your desk and try it all over again.
Sometimes life intervenes. A cross word with your spouse. A rough morning with a grumpy kid. A small thing here or there. It wedges in your brain and won’t come out. It throws you completely off your game. Sometimes you want to work, but your brain won’t let you. You want to disappear into your story, but you can’t let go of your day to day bullshit. Sometimes you lose days. They just slip away and you don’t know where they went, and you go to bed knowing that tomorrow, you’re going to have to work your ass off.
It’s always work. Even when it’s easy. Even the days when the dialogue just flows and the pages race by and the whole thing just seems to pour out of you. It can seem like magic, but it never is. Even on the days when it doesn’t seem much at all like work, there was still a lot of work that went into it somewhere along the way. The outline you crafted weeks ago. All the research you did to find the character’s voice. The last three days you spent wandering around the house, the beats of the story all simmering in your head. It takes a lot of work to make one of those easy, magical days. And even with a lot of work, they still come rarely.
But so do the impossible days. The average day is somewhere in the middle. Where one page flows and the next one bogs down. Where one batch of dialogue rolls right out while another one has to be painstakingly hammered and chiseled into shape. Sometimes you read back over something you wrote before and like it, but don’t remember writing it. Sometimes you have something you’ve been hanging onto forever, a line or a character or a moment, and you finally find just the perfect place for it. Or sometimes you realize you’re trying to wedge something in that doesn’t belong and you have to cut it. Even if it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever written, you have to cut it and save it for something else.
Sometimes you try to hide your mistake. To gloss over it instead of going back and tearing up all your tracks, trying to fix it. Or maybe you can’t go back. Maybe you’ve gotta live with it and you just put it out there hoping nobody will notice. But somebody always notices. A reviewer or a fan at a con or somebody posting on a message board. They saw it and they nail it and it kills you because you saw it too, but you didn’t fix it when you had the chance.
You can never hide your mistakes.
Once they’re out there, you have to live with them forever. You’re not James Joyce. You’re not going to die, someday, with three or four masterpieces to your name and nothing else. You’ve going to leave behind a mixed bag. Some good stuff and some stuff that’s not so good. Anyone who looks over your career will see you learning your craft as you went along. They’ll see how you developed a style. How you fell into ruts and repeated yourself. When you challenged yourself and when you took the easy way. How you made mistakes and hopefully learned from them.
Sometimes the thing you like the most, the line or moment or whatever, is the exact same thing that other people like, and that’s a terrific little connection to make.
Sometimes you can work a story to death. You can work it until you don’t even know what you’ve got anymore. Is this good? Is this complete shit? You honestly can’t tell. You’ve been looking at it for far too long. Someone else has to tell you if it’s worthwhile or not. If it’s worth pursuing or if you’re wasting your time.
Sometimes you don’t work a story enough. It’s a first draft and it reads like a first draft. Sometimes your first instinct is dead-on and you should run with it, but sometimes your first instinct is just the most obvious answer and the best answer lies somewhere deeper.
All stories are crafted. There’s no holy muse who speaks through you. There’s no spirit feeding you lines from above (or below). You have to do the work. You have to make it happen. You have to work to get yourself to that point where it suddenly seems easy, seems like magic. Sometimes you do it and it makes your day and you turn in your script knowing people are going to love it.
And sometimes you don’t. And it sucks.
And all you can do then is just tell yourself, “I’ll do better next time.”
And get back to work.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.