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B&N Week 13: Finding Your Voice

| March 22, 2011 | 14 Comments

Tuesday again, huh? Isn’t it amazing how it was Tuesday just last week, and here it is again, all nice and new. Just waiting for us to fill it with some Bolts & Nuts goodness. That’s really what Tuesday’s are all about, anyway. Being filled with Bolts & Nuts goodness.

So let’s do it! Let’s fill it with the goodness that is Bolts & Nuts, and see how we feel at the end. Ready? Let’s go!

This week, I thought we’d discuss finding your voice. Honestly, it is not as easy as you think. It’s not as simple as just writing and letting the story come out. It’s not that easy at all, although most of us wish the contrary.

Let’s look at it from one of the standpoint of Marvel Comics for a moment. When you get into a position to start doing work that can be seen, work that raises your profile so that you’re on someone’s radar, then you’re going to be watched. Editors at Marvel freely admit that they watch to see writers find their voice, and when they think the writer has found it, they may contact them to see if they’re interested in work. This process can take years.

So, what does it mean, finding your voice? Let’s look at it for a while, and see what we’re talking about.

There is a certain confidence that can be attained when you’re writing for a while. That confidence isn’t evident at first, and to the trained eye, is pretty easy to spot. It is the rare writer that is comfortable coming right out of the box. I’m talking Jim Shooter rare. I don’t think Alan Moore, for all of his celebrated ability, was as good as Shooter at such a young age.

One of the telltale signs, of course, is whom you’re writing for. Not to belittle any company, but if you’re working for Bluewater Productions, you have to understand you’re working pretty low on the ladder. Your hope is to go from strength to strength. Bluewater Productions is a strength, because you’ve gotten them to foot the bill for your story [even if you’re writing a character they own]. So you do some work for them, and then you can hopefully move to another strength, call it 407 Studios.

See how that works? Who you work for is a sign, and the higher up the ladder you go, the higher your profile, and the more you’re finding your voice.

Another sign, and this is a big one, is the types of stories you tell.

When I was a kid, I would take my action figures and create stories with them. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was more than huge, and MTV was still showing music videos. The Thriller video was breaking all kinds of barriers in terms of what music videos could be, and everyone had either that red jacket [you know the one I’m talking about] or that damned single glove. [No, I wasn’t cool enough for the red jacket, or a Fonzi jacket, either. Just sayin’.] Anyway, one of my characters during this time was the Thriller, a bad guy that could raise the dead and make them dance you into insanity. I was a kid, and this was high storytelling!

Obviously, this childish story wouldn’t really fly in the hallowed halls of Marvel. But I want you to think about what you’re doing, yourselves. Are your stories the equivalent of my Thriller character? For a decent portion of you, I’m going to say “yes.” The stories you tell, or are interested in telling, says a lot about the current state of your voice. An undeveloped or underdeveloped voice tells stories that are either childish, or outside the scope of your current abilities. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that these stories cannot be done well, and I’m not saying that these stories are to be discounted. What I’m saying is when you’re just getting started, more often than not, these are the stories you’re telling, and it shows.

Telling stories that are beyond the reach of your current abilities can be seen easily, as well. You want to tell an epic, nuanced story, and it comes out very clunky and stiff. The way the story itself is told isn’t what was really in your head, but this is what came out on paper. This is a great indication of your level of craft and a lesson that has to be learned when you are finding your voice.

Another sign is word usage and placement. Of course, since the editors aren’t really looking at the scripts, we’re talking about dialogue and the “voice” of the characters you’re writing. If you’re trying to sell a pitch, this becomes extremely important. The words you use and their placement within the document [to include the story idea and appropriateness to the publisher you’re submitting to] can make or break your chances of finding work.

Then, there is the comic/script itself. While it is true that the artist has a large part to do with this, they are still going off the instructions you gave to them. Your script can be reverse-engineered from the artwork [never thought about that, didja?], and the actions and angles being shown in the panels tell the story about your voice. (But that’s the artist! They’re interpreting the story!) Exactly. They’re interpreting the story. The one that you wrote. Everything that is shown within the parameters of that story is representative of your level of skill and your voice. They’re just going off of what you asked for. Scary, isn’t it?

All of this, however, is outweighed by the biggest thing: having something to say. Having a point to your story is big, but also, what is your story actually saying, beneath the point? THIS IS HUGE, folks. You can have a rollickin’ story full of carnage and mayhem about two friends trying to row across the Atlantic in order to sneak into England and murder a crow. Why? The crow is a demon, responsible for the rise of Britney Spears and Lady GaGa as pop stars. So, that’s the story, but the THEME, the point UNDER the point, is about friendship, and what lengths friends will go for each other.

I’m going to tell you now, most of the stories you’re writing currently are as deep as the sheet of paper you write your notes on. (Hey!) I just call ‘em like I see ‘em. And I will tell you this: I was just like you, once upon a time. I wanted to write my stories, and there was nothing else being said about them. Move the character from A to C, with maybe a short pitstop at B, and that was it.

Let’s talk about Night of the Living Dead for a moment. I’m talking about the original, black and white version. The original. [The GOOD one.] Lots of people talk about the movie and analyze it, saying how it spoke about race relations and such. Talk to the director, though, and he said that all he wanted to do at the time was make a scary movie. What does this mean? This means you can write a story that people can attribute things to that you never meant, which can make you seem deep and clever. Isn’t that nice?

There’s a flipside to that, though. You can also write a story that can paint you as a woman hating homophobe that gets off on demeaning chairs and the people who sit in them. And what did you do? You told a story.

The real point of the story, the theme, to use another word, doesn’t have to be blatant. In fact, most of the time, it’s a good thing if it isn’t. Sure, if you’re writing romance, you can be all kinds of blatant with the theme, no problem. But if you’re writing something about midget weasels doing terrible things to lemurs on stained glass windows, your theme has to be appropriate: either over the top and blatant, or under the action of the story and clever.

Having something to say in your story is every bit as important as the story itself, in many cases. Writing one-off stories that don’t “mean” anything can be fun, but when you start getting more writing gigs, you’d do well to start to have something to say in your stories. You can do it in a 5 pager, sure, but when you start getting full issues to yourself, you want to have a theme to the story. Just make sure your theme doesn’t overreach the grasp of the story or your page count. War and Peace can be done in twenty-two pages, but really, do you want to try it?

Theme is the single greatest thing to be looked at when talking about voice. You could be telling a lot of different stories, but you could be telling the same recurring theme. You could be exploring questions you may have, or expressing your beliefs about something through the theme. This is what the editors at Marvel are looking at and for when they say they’re watching a writer develop their voice. Everything else helps a lot, yes, but this is the single greatest thing that we are talking about when we talk about “voice.” What is the writer saying through the story? Is this their worldview? Are they playing Devil’s Advocate? Are they saying anything at all in this story? Did they go for too much, or not enough? Important questions, all, and they will be answered [and more!] in the pages of your story. Never doubt that.

Generally, all of these things work in conjunction of one another. Think of these parts as the parts of a script, and like a script, they’re pretty interdependent. You can focus on one aspect, but for some reason, when you start to hone one aspect, other portions of your game get raised. Don’t ask me why that happens. I honestly don’t know.

How do you go about developing your voice? One part of it is continuing to write. That is a huge part of it, really. Write within your comfort zone [what you like], and then start to push past that. You like horror stories? Great! Go for it. But then start to focus less on the scary and more on the dramatic. Then less of the dramatic and more on the comedic. When you get back to your comfort zone, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to write in.

That’s only part of it. Another part of it is continuing to learn. Part of that process is what you’re doing here, right? (Right!) Right. But I when I say continuing to learn, I’m not just talking about coming back here every week to listen to me ramble. Go to places like Digital Webbing and put up your scripts to be critiqued. [A piece of advice about that: please, DO NOT put up a full twenty-two page script. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. No more than eleven pages, and believe me, that’s a lot. The fewer pages you put up, the more likely you are to get a critique. It’s not listed anywhere in the “rules.” Think of this as an unwritten guide. You’re better served putting up a single scene, and leaving it at that for a few days in order to get feedback on it.] But getting those critiques are part of the learning process. You’ll quickly learn a few things: you have to be patient, you won’t be able to please everyone with everything, and you shouldn’t listen to everyone. You’ll learn who’s helpful and who isn’t, and even that can be mercurial at times. [And while I’m at it, who’d be interested in a peer-review system here at ComixTribe? That will be outside of The Proving Grounds, of course.]

What does all of this writing and learning and posting do for you? It helps you get to a place where you can get published, and that’s where the real work begins. This is where you really begin to get your voice, and you’re going to be scrutinized for it.

If you’re going the self-publishing route, it’s a lot harder to find your voice. Unless you hire someone to edit you [someone that knows what they’re doing], you have a greater chance of producing crap than you will want to realize. Our egos are pretty big because they have to be. Face it, putting your story out there for the world to read, saying that it is ready for public consumption, is a gutsy move made by those with egos sufficient to handle it [barely]. But to do it alone, without any type of oversight or quality control? This can invite disaster. [Webcomics in particular are going to be prey to this, especially in the coming years, since it is easier than ever to make one and get it out in front of people.]

I won’t say that finding your voice while self-publishing is impossible, but it will definitely take longer. This is part of the reason I advocate hiring an editor when you can. I’ve said it time and again: a good editor will also teach, and they should be able to pull things previously undiscovered out of you. I just don’t recommend trying to do it under those circumstances if it can be avoided. It’s like teaching yourself how to play the piano: it can be done, but it will take years of concerted effort in order to get good. It’s a lot easier with a teacher.

Example time: A client of mine wrote a mini-series. We went over the plots to each issue together, and when approved, they began to write. When we got to the fourth issue, they wrote it going from the plot that we went over and that I approved.

I didn’t like it. To me, it felt like a break from what was previously established. It needed a complete rewrite. The writer wasn’t too happy with this idea [they were pretty upset, to tell the truth], because this was something they’d envisioned when they first started writing the story. However, once I explained my position, how it made me feel, and what I thought the issue should be about and how it should flow, the writer was game to try it my way. The outcome? They liked my suggested way better than what they had previously. If they had gone their own way without an editor, they probably would have had a very big disconnect with their readers for that issue.

Finding your voice is a process. Everyone has to go through it, and not everyone is going to go through it at the same rate. The process will be different for everyone. What I’d like you to do, though, is to be conscious of the process as you go through it. How will you know when you’ve found it? When people start reacting strongly to your stories; when you stop thinking about it; when Marvel comes a’callin’.

Are you an expert now, and will be able to find your voice within the next five minutes? Nope. Not even close. For the love of fish sticks, be patient! Take it one step at a time, one script at a time. And remember, never let them see you sweat.

That’s about it for this week. Homework is to look at your past work and compare it to your current work, and see if you are developing your voice. I also want you to look at the indies and anthologies from any company, and see if you can tell the storytelling capabilities of those creators. See if you can find their voice.

There’s the bell. See you next week!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (14)

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  1. John Lees says:

    It’s weird, the kinda stuff you realise when you try to take a look at your own work. I remember, many years ago, hearing a quote that went something like, “A writer’s first story is always his most personal.” And for some reason that annoyed me. I thought that if I was writing about myself, it would be because I wanted to. And in developing “The Standard”, I thought I was coming up with something totally out-there and very different from anything in my own life. It’s a superhero story about an old man, set in a fictional American city, with some crazy, oddball characters. But with the way the story changed over the course of me writing it, and with me looking back at it now that all the scripts have been written, I’m surprised by how personal it ended up being – despite how out-there it appears to be on a surface level.

    In terms of themes, it’s also surprising how many of my ideas are variations on similar themes. It’s surprising how the same stuff can pop up again and again, even without you consciously trying to get it in there. I recently wrote an article about the themes in Jason Aaron’s work (that can be found here – http://johnleescomics.wordpress.com/2011/03/01/the-shadow-of-scalped/), and I wonder how much of that was deliberately inserted, and how much is just an over-keen reader like me reading patterns and meaning into the stories. I do think it’s funny that, in Jason Aaron’s first ever published comics work – an 8 page Wolverine back-up short – he explored the same themes with the character that he is now revisiting in greater depth in his current role as writer of the “Wolverine” ongoing.

    One of the downsides about looking at your own voice is the realisation of how often you rely on the same tricks. And it can ruin your own writing for you. For example, I wasn’t even aware of this until recently, but I begin every one of my comic stories the same way. I have an opening sequence that starts on some dramatic moment, then I do a flashback to explain how we got to that point. I do it in “The Standard”, I did it in “An Inconvenient Tooth”, I did it in my zombie short, “Baby It’s You”, I did it in “Slay Misty For Me”, I do it in “The Hollow Men”. I didn’t realise I was re-using the same trick over and over until I actually looked back at my own scripts and saw it. And now I’m infuriated, because even now when I come up with new story ideas I instantly go to the idea of starting at the end and going back, and I have to stop myself. I’m starting to think I’m incapable of just starting a story at the beginning.

    • John’s starting to find himself! Let’s give the man a hand!

      I know what you mean about finding recurring themes. Mine is about religion. I have several stories that have religion at its base: Keys (two versions!), The Confessional, and Stones. Even Bullet Time has something of religion in it. It’s something I’m going to keep coming back to. I know it. It’s my “thing.”

      As for other things that are specifically “me,” I don’t know. Possibly someone with an “A” name (Angela, Alex), but I’m consciously trying to move away from that. I try to have ideas that are pretty wide-ranging, and I let the dictates of the story tell me where to start and end. I tend to make up the middle as I go along.

      Who else wants to take a look at themselves?

  2. Just about every story I have ever thought up was about someone coming to accept who they are, in one form or another. I’m not really sure what this says about me, but it is a theme I enjoy writing about.

    I think my main crutch is the absurd. No matter what I’m writing a stupid idea, which I know is stupid, will pop into my head, and I have *real* trouble stopping myself from putting it in. If I’m trying to write something vaguely serious I have to stop every so often and write something deliberately pointless and crazy just to get it all out of my system.

    And John, don’t worry, The Standard cartoon had a chronological plot 😉

  3. John Lees says:

    The Standard cartoon had a PLOT!?!?!!

    I know what you’re saying about your style, Jamie. There’s something about the stuff you write, I think the best word to atribute to it would be “whimsy”, for its Britishness. With “Augmented”, I remembeer you saynig this was your attempt to tell a totally straight story without any of your usual quirkiness, and when I read it I enjoyed it, but it was FULL of that whimsy. Like it’s inescapable.

    Though commendably, “Silver Defender” – which if you were to look at the high concept you’d think had the potential to be the most absurd of all your scripts – has been played pretty straight so far, for the most part.

  4. John Lees says:

    We’re not! We may brave attempting more animation in a while, but next on the agenda is a radio show!

  5. Kyle Raios says:

    Well, seeing as I wanted to get more involved…
    I’ve been writing for a few years, but its only been recently that I’ve really made it a full-time thing (by full-time, I mean whenever I don’t have class :D), but if I’ve noticed anything in my own scripts, it’s that I tend to use history as sort of my “crutch.”
    The first comic I ever wrote was called “Element” and I wrote the first few scripts when I was 17. It’s based off Greek history and mythology, and the original drafts of the scripts, now that I look back, are absolutely horrid. Full of cliches, bad dialog and tons of fill in “eh” moments. The worst part? I tried to cram everything I knew about Greek mythology into the scripts, and it just never flowed correctly.
    Now that I’m actually studying the history and language of the Greeks full time, I’m working on Element again, and attacking it from a whole different angle. I’m fleshing things out more, dialog has improved ten-fold (at least, that’s how I feel) and the story just seems to have more depth.
    So, before I ramble on further, I guess when I look at myself, my main tic in writing comics is to have some sort of historical base to build from. “Benedict,” the script I submitted on TPG that needs TONS of work, is supposed to be a modern-day Benedict Arnold story. Heck, I even want to write a Benedict Arnold Graphic Novel.

    • So, the question now, Kyle, is this: are you going to continue in the vein of your “crutch,” or do you think there is enough there for you to mine for your own stories?

      Is it a crutch, or is it something you lean on? And is it helping you to tell the stories you want to tell?

    • I know how you feel when it comes to wanting to share information with people, and getting a bit over enthusiastic. I started writing a sci-fi story involving inter-stellar travel a while ago, and have been fighting the temptation to spend whole chapters explaining special relativity. That’s one of the reason’s I’ve never even considered writing anything with robots in it: I know fine well that I would go into detail that no reader would possibly give a damn about.

      • That’s when your editor slaps you upside the head and tells you to either condense or cut, Jamie. That’s what we’re here for. 🙂

        Editors: slapping writers upside the head since time immemorial.

  6. Tyler James says:

    When I was 23, I spent a summer at USC taking a film direction workshop. The instructor was a cocky writer/producer/director in his mid-50s. One of the things he said as sort of a blanket statement as that the biggest problem young writers have is that they don’t have anything to say.

    Not yet anyway. In your twenties, you’ve hardly lived at all, he argued. Most people at that age don’t have the life experiences or point of view to write something that’s going to resonate with a vast number of people.

    Of course, at the time, I took offense to that.

    Yet, at the same time, I really struggled when I was younger to move from basic idea to a fully realized piece of work. It’s only in the past couple of years that I feel like a light switch has gone off, and I’ve finally got something to say with my writing.

    A thing I do when I’m working on stories is keep asking myself: WHAT IS THIS STORY ABOUT?

    Ignore the characters. Ignore the plot. Ignore the structure. WHAT IS THE STORY ABOUT fundamentally? What aspect of the human condition is it exploring? What broad themes am I touching on? Doesn’t matter whether its a superhero story, a zombie story, or a straight up drama. If I can’t answer those questions accurately, I don’t yet have a story.

    It’s fun to look back at one’s progression as a creator. Hell, my first ever comic (at 14 years old) is online here: http://www.clovenhand.com/webcomics/upset-issue1-colorcover-upload Clearly, I was imitating what I was seeing in print, and doing my best to impersonate a 1990′s Image comic.

    A few years later, at 16, having discovered Frank Miller’s Sin City, I did my take: http://www.clovenhand.com/webcomics/til-death-01-gif Again, clearly I was still ripping off work that had come before. Very little of my own voice represented in this work.

    But, imitation is practice.

    It really wasn’t until Super Seed that I felt I truly had something to say, and that my voice was starting to develop. Sure there are plenty of problems with the execution of Super Seed, from writing to the art and back again. But the core story that’s there, especially in this issue: http://www.webcomicsnation.com/tyler_james/superseed/series.php?view=archive&chapter=29728 is a personal one. The trappings of the story are super heroes, but at it’s heart, it’s not a story about super powers, but a story about a father who walked out on his son. Feedback from the few folks who read it suggested they had a strong emotional response to the story. And that let me know I was starting to get on to something.

    As far as themes that recur in my work, LOSS is a huge one. OVER, obviously, as it’s about a break-up. But Tears of the Dragon deals with loss in a big way…loss of children, innocence, life, and hope. Super Seed touched on issues of loss as well, and a book I haven’t started working on yet, but one that I think has the biggest “break out” potential of anything I’ve worked on deals with a father coping with the loss of a child. Not sure why that theme resonates so much with me, but I’ll continue to explore it as long as there’s water in that well.

    Great post Steven. Lots to think about.

  7. Johnny Vinson says:

    This has by far been the most eye opening of the posts for me on B&N. Of all those who have commented so far, I’m probably the biggest noob-cake on the block. In terms of comic book script writing anyway.

    It’s funny you talk about theme and voice, as I’ve really developed those the last three years while writing for online publications. Every day for the past three years I have written for a wide variety of blogs, and pushing to bring my words a voice. Which is what worries me about the transition to the script form. Will my voice be able to make the transition?

    I was wondering if there’s a history of those who have written in a more journalistic format; then making their way to comics?

    It’s funny because before the last six-eight months I hadn’t written creatively since college. At that time I thought I wasn’t all that good at it, so I never actively engaged in it. Then I was fortunate enough to land a job writing for a company that needed constant updates on a wide variety of sites.

    It was also around this time I started reading comic books again, and began to write creatively again. My confidence started to grow as I saw a lot of improvement since my time at college. Which then led me to this site by way of John Lees. Here’s hoping the transition can happen.

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