August 22, 2011
Tips for (Fiction and/or Comic) Writers
by Tauriq Moosa
Putting one word, one letter, after the other in order to make a coherent sentence is something most of us can do: you are currently doing it now, except you are forced to ride the tracks of comprehension as laid down by words I choose. There are some of us, stupidly, who are aiming to make this into our profession, in whatever medium most suits our tastes, personality, and continual interest. Having recently begun a thesis, I needed a way to not view writing as a, sometimes, tortuous process, dealing with multiple medical and philosophical and political documents. I decided to dabble in writing comics or, rather, graphic novels.
It’s quite a strange move for me, considering I’ve only started reading comics recently. But that’s not what matters.
What I’d like to do is convey some tips to those looking into writing fiction, in general, and comic fiction, in particular. Because I don’t think people interested in writing creatively are necessarily interested in graphic-novel writing, I will separate the general and specific tips I’ve picked up.
However, here is a disclaimer: I am not a published or recognised writer. I am a complete amateur. Indeed, I have a number of synopses and plot outlines, but no firmly attached artists or publishers to any of them. Finding artists, when you cannot draw, cannot pay, or are an unknown is one of the most difficult aspects of comic writing. This is my current problem, but then I’m in two minds about this as I will explain later. What I am presenting to you is the end results of hundreds of articles I’ve read and discussions I’ve had with more successful people. So I'm not going to keep writing "...but that's just my view at the moment" or "...but do realise this is one person's perspective...". You've got you're disclaimer. Move on.
TIPS FOR WRITING (FICTION)
This is the second most insulting instruction you can give to someone interested in writing (I’ll tell you the most insulting one at the end). However, it is not unheard of for writers to be lazy or non-readers. I’m thinking of the great Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who wrote beautifully and powerfully, but was not himself an avid reader.
By read, I mean read everything. Published authors and editors constantly state that being unaware of the medium is common problem. You could at the very least simply retell an existing story. Or you could be unaware that your “highly original” idea has not only been duplicated, but told by a writer infinitely more talented (this happened to me and an Ian McEwan story).
The worst thing about not reading is being average and boring, developing unrefined ideas. You are unaware of the world around you, missing dynamics of politics and existence which gives rise to all manner of conflicts in the world. And conflicts are what keep every story going. At the least, consider Group A as a cog and Group B as another: they each go in a different direction, but this is what creates the movement of the story. For example, in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, the Bundren family’s desire to bury the matriarch can be Group A, but the individual member’s inner-degradation could be Group B. The conflict of desire and personality is essential to nearly every good characterisation, but Faulkner uses that entire mechanism to drive the story.
Read newspapers, science articles, classics, fairy-tales, people, anything. Just read. Never have a moment of peace. As a writer, there is no such thing: everything is a possible story in itself, or can fit into another. How do humans behave when they are comfortable and/or awkward? Take note of it. What do people do in elevators when someone else is wearing the same T-Shirt? What happens to politicians who lie?
Never be standing around doing nothing. This is why the gods invented paperbacks and the greater gods of Apple created the iPad. If you don’t have a book on you – which should be a sign you’re not taking the craft seriously – then you do have another option…
2. Engage With Your World and Characters
Imagine trying to build a modern car with no idea what an engine does; airplanes with no conceptions of wings. This is what happens if you have no imagination, but want to create a fictional world. By “fictional world” I don’t necessarily mean one filled with Elves, and rings and mountains of Doom; I mean the world in which your story is birthed, breathes, lives and eventually and inevitably expires. Whether it does so in a glorious moment of completion or through neglect is up to you.
The world where your story exists, not your characters, is what matters. Characters, despite being central to me, are merely the outcome of the world you’ve placed them in. They are empty husks coloured in by the fictional world you’ve created. Works of fiction are usually just slices of particular characters who exist in the world you’ve created. Let’s take two extremes: a fictional world similar to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and our reality.
I’ll use Faulkner again for the realistic world. Faulkner derives his Southern Gothic literature by reflecting on the environment he saw around him. How did it feel to be there? Why were things in those conditions: dirt, poverty, incest, crime? How did people react? Why did some react differently? These are questions we can ask and answer about our world at the moment. The answers by politicians and pundits are the blood of news agencies. For you, they are the veins of your story’s heart, pumping meaning throughout the body of work.
All Faulkner has to do is allocate particular attitudes and reactions to different characters and then send them headlong into conflict. For example, a talented, eloquent and reflective character is forced into being related to an almost-mute carpenter who doesn’t care much for anything other than wood. What happens when they are forced into a situation that threatens the family and the family’s goal? What would the one do to cross a river with a coffin, that the other would hate? Who would win the argument? Why?
Notice: characters are essentially meaningless. Giving a name and description to someone is less interesting, if interesting at all, unless he or she does something in the world you make. Let’s make a character now, but done in a very amateur fashion.
We will call him John Benson. He wears a hat, smokes a thick cigar. He is a passionate doctor, but an ultra-conservative. He will only help richer people, refusing, even if the patient dies, all non-rich people. His wife died when she was half-way through her life: first going mute, which resulted in him smoking, then believing she was being attacked by spiders. She eventually died, though no one is sure how or why. He buried her in blue fabric that she loved: a piece of which he keeps in his pocket. When we first meet him, he is in a cigar lounge, pondering how to take over a city which he has just poisoned.
OK. That’s really basic and I apologise. I created him by looking around me. I said Benson because that was the surname of Ophelia Benson, the author of a book next to me. I said a cigar, because there’s an empty carton near me. I said doctor, because I’m surrounded by medical books. I said helping only the richer because there’s a copy of Popper’s Open Society & It’s Enemies Volume 1: The Spell of Plato close to me. I said his wife died early, because there’s a copy of the game Half-Life2 near me. I said spiders because the game’s box is on top of James Hider’s The Spiders of Allah. And so on.
That took me about five minutes and you can tell. It’s not particularly interesting initially. It became interesting when we said he is trying to control a town by poisoning its water-supply. Why did he do this? Why does he want to control the town? Is this the best way he can do it? If he’s a doctor, surely there were alternative methods? Now it’s interesting. But to get to the interesting parts, we had to wade through layers of cliché. If we said a poisoned water supply is interesting, then we can proceed onto why it happened, who caused it, and so on, thus arriving at John Benson. The cigar and dead wife can be filled in later. It is not essential to creating an interesting fictional world.
Now, when we do the Middle-Earth type of fantastical landscape, we must be careful. Here can define whatever we want as real: dragons, talking animals, a man who wears three hats to indicate his mood (or perhaps the mood of the person he’s talking to), a man whose head is a lightbulb, a girl who can change her size and shape and so on. However, just because we add these fantasy elements does not detract from making a coherent, engaging story. The most important question you must ask, as Alan Moore has said, is “Who cares?” or “Why should I care?”. Don’t chuck your philosophical anchor too far into the creative waters though, otherwise you’ll end up on the ocean bed, unable to get anywhere.
You can have dragons and magic, but why should we care? You can create Wonderland, but why should we care about it? The fantasy lands are in fact slightly more difficult, since the reader is assured that all the conclusions can’t really affect her. So what if Wonderland is destroyed? Here is where characters matter: if you can make coherent, intelligible characters, it does not matter where you put them. We care because Alice is in Wonderland, and we’ve come to care for her.
For example, I hate superheroes. I find them tedious and boring. I don’t really care about Superman (actually, to be honest, I hate him). What’s interesting and remarkable though is being able to write a superhero story where readers can actually care. I realise this is more suited for Part II, but you can apply this to, say, a fictional story which stars amazing, super-powered gods (American Gods) and ridiculously handsome, rich men (American Psycho). Most of us are not good-looking or rich or gods or powerful. Why should we care? This is where we show that property of “humanity” that allows us to care for particular characters. We care about Patrick Bateman, the American Psycho, because he is open and honest and struggling to understand his world. He is, in fact, more terrified than he is terrifying. We care because we either understand his feelings or because we appreciate the honest dissection (excuse the pun) of the world around him.
3. F%$- SuperHeroes
Did I mention I hate superheroes? Inherently, they are fun. Much like my love of mythology, it indicates spectacular power and adventures not possible for us mere mortals. But today superheroes are guilty of being portrayed within the cages of cliché: The Amazing Hat Man encounters his arch-nemesis the Coat Hanger. Coat Hanger steals, I don’t know, Hat Man’s girlfriend or mother or city. He does something to make Hat Man unhappy. Perhaps we see some flashback as to how and why Hat Man became Hat Man. He was a dorky store-clerk, high-school kid, or something to make him identifiable to the average comic-reader (hello, Peter “Boring” Parker). Hat Man goes off in pursuit of Coat Hanger but – oh no! – it was all a trap and Coat Hanger has a giant piece of Hat Man’s weakness: a stone, memory, girlfriend, etc. They battle. Hat Man wins. Coat Hanger appears dead but… what’s this!? – from the rubble, a dramatic arm thrusts out against the rising/setting sun/moon.
This is a crude amalgamation of superhero comics I’ve encountered but conveys how I feel about it. I’ve given up the tights and cape and want to see the medium engaged as something that’s not a glorified storyboard for Michael Bay’s wet dreams. Anyone who has read anything by Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore or Brian K. Vaughan will understand this.
The last time I was moved greatly was reading the first few pages of Vaughan’s unbelievably beautiful Pride of Baghdad – which everyone should read. Pride and Watchmen and Maus are what this wonderful medium is capable of. The genre, like their costume, has become confining to and because of superheroes. There is more we can do. I think we can start by eliminating sound-effects (e.g.: bang! Crash! Sffffff! Etc.). We all know what sound a gun makes, of walls crashing, and so on. Sometimes, if you are an incredibly gifted author like Moore, you can use sound to your advantage. But that is a rare case. Moore himself is of the “no-sound” school, as was his co-creator David Llyod (who made V For Vendetta with Moore).
4. The Medium and the Message
How do we tell stories? We use words, pictures, gestures, actions. We are attempting to transfer a story from our heads to others’. We use the tools of communication at our disposal. Alan Moore has highlighted that the problem with films is they have a time limit: by the end of one and a half hours, you must understand the story. Unlike books, you can’t sit with the film, go at your own pace, research words and facts and figures. Films are a big middle finger to the slow-pace of the typical audience member, instead taking off at a blazing speed to the finish line, twirling around and saying “ta da!” But all it’s left behind are a bunch of audience members looking confused and, like me, largely irritated. Of course this all assumes you’re not watching from the comfort of your home, that you don’t have control. Basically, you are in the prison-cell they call a movie-house or film theatre. That awful, labyrinthine nightmare of screaming, dripping children and laughing teenage girls; of grazing, sweating uncles digging their fat fingers into salted cardboard boxes; where cellphones decide it’s appropriate to alter their “Silent” setting and scream wildly as the heroine reveals to the hero the biggest secret of his past. We’re assuming that this is where you go to experience film – which is a rather stupid thing to do.
Anyway, Moore’s point is that the graphic novel is not a novel and not a movie. It is, more importantly, not a half-way point. Though he doesn’t stress this enough, the point is that comics are not designed as the no-man’s land. The medium of comics is unique in that you can do what you want without worrying about actors, settings, availability of sets and so on (from film), or whether you’ve described the character correctly, made it clear what’s happening and so on (from novels). Though this is not entirely true...
Ironically, all the failures I’ve encountered from comics can be made against both novels and films. Characters are unclear, alter their personalities, stories don’t flow and so on. I find Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series strange in that it always reads as though I’ve missed three or four pages, that Hellboy isn’t reacting to the same thing I’m seeing. I don’t quite understand Mignola’s characterisations sometimes and why they suddenly change or are acting weirdly for no discernable reason. I adore Hellboy and the stories, but I’m not blown away by it. I think Hellboy suffers from bad writing in many areas. But these are failures that, as I say, apply to all forms of stories: not specifically comics or films or novels. All stories can be told badly.
So you can have wonderful art, but does your story make sense? Do we care about the characters? Many amateur artists – again, unpublished – suffer from this. They consider themselves talented and capable merely because they can draw. And so story comes second.
No. Story always comes first. Comics is a medium, like novels or films, to tell a story. It is a way to convey an idea of the world to others. It must dig its way into a reader’s heart, it should grip their reality in a fist and shake them loose from the things they take for granted, it should burn the spider-webs of their comfort that cling to the passed unrealised hopes they lock up with their dreams, it should creep up at them at night, disturbing their sleep, it should wrap them in a shawl of creativity so they realise that, in fact, what you’re presenting them is reality. Remember, there is no point in creating a fantastical world that the readers don’t care about. Make them care. Then make them realise what they care about is their world, their life.
Keep At It: How I Write a Comic Script
As a writer, not artist, I find it difficult to sit down and write a script. I have, as I’ve said, not written a (completed and fully-illustrated) comic before. I have no artists who are particularly interested for a number of reasons: Some think I’m a bad writer, some don’t like my stories, they are too busy, but, more importantly, I’m unpublished. Being unpublished should not dissuade you. After all, even James Joyce was unpublished at some point in his life. So were Moore and Gaiman.
Write scripts as if you had an artist; write them and sketch them, as you would do. I’m currently working on one small comic with an artist, but that is largely unconfirmed until later this month. It’s a small, short-story thing; not for payment or anything approaching success. But I’m still sitting writing synopses, pages of scripts, sketching them.
This is what I do when writing a comic script (and I'm always interested in how other writers do it, so please let me know, too):
I decide where I am in the story, what I want to do, and how long this should take me. For example, at the beginning of a story, I like to take one page to introduce an important character, especially if I can show him or her at different angles. This allows readers to get used to this character. We know who he or she is.
I flip between designing the pages in quick sketch (an example can be found here) and writing it out in script first. I can’t tell you which I do first, but sometimes my sketch dictates my script and vice versa. Then I proceed to write out the script in Word.
In the header of the relevant pages, I write the name of the story, the issue number (if applicable – not in my case), my name and the page number of the comic we’re scripting. This means you can have “PAGE ONE” going on for several script pages (obviously). Then, when I’ve completed the comics page, I insert a Section Break and change the page number in the Header. Now it simply reads “PAGE TWO” for however many pages. This is a nice way to write a script, since you can pick up any script page and read a panel description, knowing immediately which page this panel is referring to.
I underline the initial page number. I also indicate how many panels will be on the comics’ page. I then write “Panel 1.” and immediately write the description. No spaces or anything. I then check my spelling and grammar, shrink it down one size and put it in ALL CAPS.
For particular characters or captions, I indicate it with the character’s name in ALL CAPS, too. If it’s a caption, I indicate it as “CAP” and if it’s a particular character, I put a forward slash with the character’s name. “CAP/HAT MAN”.
This makes it obvious which part is description and which is dialogue/captions.
Here’s an example of a typical page of mine:
SUPER DUPER BLASTING THINGS AND STUFF, Tauriq Moosa – PAGE FOUR
PAGE FOUR (6 panels)
Panel 1. THIS PANEL, LIKE THE NEXT THREE, SHOULD BE THE SAME SIZE AND SHAPE. THE FAR RIGHT BORDER SHOULD JUT SLIGHTLY IN, SHAPED LIKE A HAT. IN THIS PANEL, WE ARE BEHIND HAT MAN NOW, WHO IS IN THE FOREGROUND, AS HE THRUSTS HIS HAT FORWARD. IN FRONT OF HIM, THE COAT HANGER IS DUCKING AND GRINNING. HIS HANDS ARE SPREAD OUT AS IF HE IS DANCING. THE BACKGROUND SHOULD BE SLIGHTLY BLURRED, WITH HINTS OF A CITY-LANDSCAPE AND THE SETTING SUN SOMEWHERE. THIS WILL BECOME IMPORTANT LATER, BUT I WON’T SAY JUST YET WHAT FOR…
Die! You will never take her away from me! Die!
Hahaha! But Hat Man, you can never defeat me! For you see…
Panel 2. SAME SIZE AND SHAPE. CLOSE UP SHOT OF COAT HANGER. WE SEE ONLY ABOVE THE BRIDGE OF HIS NOSE. HIS EYES ARE LOOKING DIRECTLY INTO US. FROM BOTH EYES WE SEE HAT MAN REFLECTED, WITHOUT HIS HAT.
I am your twin-brother!
And so the great secret is revealed…
Anyway, I’ve got plenty of synopses and plot-outlines and character breakdowns. But it’s unlikely I can meet artists willing to work with me, given I’m unpublished and completely new to this field. As you can see, I’m coming in already with a whole host of dislikes already. And I’m fussy about my artists – even now. Some will say that’s the wrong attitude to have: you should work with whoever you can.
But I find that insulting to my stories. After all, you can have the world’s greatest photo-realistic penciller, but what if the story is not suited for realism? What if you need a Dave McKean (who actually does use elements of photo-realism… hm, bad example, but I had to mention McKean because I’m in love with his work)? Remember: your story comes first. Saying no to an artist because his style, whether because he is a bad artist or is unsuitable to the story, is not a bad thing. It’s necessary.
The final thing to say, and this is that most insulting thing I mentioned before, is to write. Yes. Write.
But I take that back: To tell a writer to write is like telling most of us to breathe. There is no reason to do so. If you have to give advice to writers and one of the things you say is “Write” then you’re not giving advice to writers. You’re giving advice to people who are looking for ways to make money (yeah , right!), are bored, etc. I have no idea why anyone would willingly want to write. I would not wish this on anyone.
I don’t want to write these stories; I have to. I can’t do anything else. I need to get these out, to tell my tales, to anyone who cares even a little bit. I feel as though these places are living in my head; I see characters I’ve created perform actions in situations I’ve never imagined. Then I write it down and realise this is the next chapter or scene or page of the book/novel/comic. It’s constant. It doesn’t go away. It never leaves. It claws at my skull like a grey creature sucking serenity from the world. It never leaves me alone. The only way to silence this grey bastard is to occasionally put black ink, in squiggly letters, one after the other. For a while, others suck up his marrow, but then he wants more.
Whether there exist such mad people who want to hear my stories is another question for, um, another day.
But to reiterate: If you are giving advice and you’re telling someone to write, you’ve either insulted your audience or are giving advice to the wrong people.
That’s it for now. I go back to join my grey bastard, as he squeals at me to finish this story about a god with a broken face, who digs in a desert, looking for the rest of his bronze body (And as he digs, he makes a new world, filled with sand people).
I’m not mad, he said. I’m a (unpublished) writer.
Posted by Tauriq Moosa at 12:10 AM | Permalink