B&N Week 29: Becoming A Better Writer

| July 12, 2011 | 0 Comments


I’m in the mood for a Krispy Kreme, but since I can’t have one, I’ll just say that it’s Tuesday, and welcome back to Bolts & Nuts!

There are some things you should know when it comes to being a better writer. The first thing to realize is that you’re honestly not as good as you think you are. (Real nice, Steven. Way to be helpful.) Trust me, I am. Once you realize that you’re never as good as you think you are, you’ll be a lot better off.

Think of it this way: if Alan Moore thinks he still has a long way to go, what kind of brass ones do you have to think you don’t? It’s not about breaks in the industry or anything like that. It’s about the way the story is being told. I’m talking about story construction. World building. Population control. Storytelling, plain and simple.

So, you’re not as good as you think you are. Neither am I. I’m always learning. I’m always listening and trying to get better. Alan Moore wants to write the story that cures cancer. My goals are a little less lofty. I just want to write one that ends violence. See? I’m a simple man.

Getting better is more than just a state of mind. It takes a lot of work. Let me say that again. A LOT of work. There are lots of steps to getting there, but the biggest thing to realize is that it’s an ongoing, lifelong process.

The next thing I’m going to tell you to do to get better is to read. Read everything, not just comics. You have no idea how much further you can go if you step outside of the medium and into another. Novels, books, newspapers, magazines, the back of a Snickers wrapper—read it all.

I had a small argument about this a few months ago. A poster on DW’s take on this is that you can go far just by reading and studying comics, and that comics is the only medium he could think of that the conventional thought was to study outside of it. I’ve already stated my position on it. Comics is too small of a field for there to be too many seminal works to be studied. You can study seminal works in film and prose. Those lists can go on and on. Comics? Not so much. Seminal works have been generated only by a handful of creators. Because of that, you have to go outside the medium in order to bring different thoughts and techniques back to comics. Otherwise, we’d still be stuck in the 60s with our storytelling abilities. This would have killed comics a lot quicker than the lingering death we’re going through now.

Anyway, read it ALL, and bring it back. What’s wrong with opening your mind to new techniques? Without them, we wouldn’t have the stories we’re enjoying now. Bring on the new stuff. Don’t be afraid of it.

Don’t forget to write every day. (If I had a nickel…) Yeah, but how many of you are doing it? ( ) You come here every week, wondering what I’m going to say next, and then I say the obvious. If it’s obvious, why aren’t you doing it? It’s a simple question. (Well, I work a full time job, I have to cook and clean, spend time with the kids, social obligations, walk the dog-) You can stop right there. I’m going to call bullshit on all of it.

I’ve said before that writing means sacrifice. I used to work a ten hour day, four days a week. I work out, am married, and between my wife and I, we have ten children. [That’s not bullshit. We have ten kids.] I write two columns [with a third to be added soon], and I still find time to write two other stories [more on those later], read, spend some QT with my cutie, watch my favorite shows, and sleep. I get it done. You want to do this for a living? Then you need to write every day. There’s no other way around it. You want to get better? You have to work for it.

This reminds me of a line from the movie Fame [showing my age again]. You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here is where you start paying, in sweat. Same thing. You have to do it. You have to. Remember, the more you don’t, the more you won’t.

The next thing is, unless they’re writers themselves and know something about the medium, do NOT listen to friends and family. Let me say that again, because it’s important. Do NOT listen to friends and family. You want to go wrong fast and get a swelled head while doing it? Don’t listen to them. Just don’t.

Put it in these terms: think about your job. The one that when you start talking about, most people don’t understand the intricacies of it, so you have to break it down into laymans terms? The glazed over look that comes over their eyes and the knowledge that they wouldn’t be able to do your job without a massive amount of training, if ever? You know exactly what I’m talking about. Now, you want to give these same people your comic script and have them pick it apart, telling you what’s wrong and why it’s wrong? Didn’t think so.

So, whom do you listen to? I would say your peers, but not all peers are made alike. Some places you go, there are people who like everything. Then, there are some who don’t like anything. Your job is to look out and listen to those who seem to know what they’re talking about. You’ll know them when you see them. They’re the ones who will tear you down with the intention of building you back up. They ask the questions, they give out pointers, they’re there to help. There are a lot of them, thankfully, and only a few of the other two kinds. Take their advice to heart, learn from it, incorporate it, and do better next time.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. The first thing you want to do is get defensive and start explaining things away. Don’t do that. Explaining is fine, being defensive isn’t. Critiques and criticisms don’t have anything to do with you as a person, they’re about the work. Separate the two. This will save you a ton of heartache later. Trust me.

I’m going to go one better, and say don’t even explain at first. The reason why is because it’s difficult to just explain, at first, without being defensive. There’s a knack to it, and it’s a knack that’s learned. I suggest saying thank you, and leave it at that. Hard to do when you’ve just had your literary spleen ripped out, or been split in half and left hemorrhaging for all to see. I’m going to tell you, don’t do it.

Defensive often comes across as hostile, and hostility is never a good thing with people that are honestly only trying to help you. If you have to explain it, then you haven’t done your job as a writer. Unless it’s there on the page and someone missed it [I’ve been known to miss things on occasion], don’t explain.

Now, if you MUST explain, if someone asks for an explanation, it’s best to start out with something approximating this: what I meant to say was; what I was trying to get at was… Starting out like this acknowledges the fact that you didn’t do everything you were reaching for. It says, yes, I know I failed to reach my goal of clarity; here’s what I was trying for.

Don’t be afraid of the word failure. It’s just a word, like any other. Sure, there are connotations with the word, but in the end, it says everything that it needs to.

By now, you all know me, and know that I’m going to give it to you straight. I’ve been doing it for weeks now. If I’m giving a crit on a board, I point fingers and tell you like it is. If I say lazy, and say things like you failed to do this or that, that’s exactly what I mean. But remember this: I’m just a guy, and it’s just my opinion. And in all honesty, my opinion doesn’t mean much. I can’t give you a job, I can’t open doors for you, I can’t do anything besides express my opinion.

And I want you to remember that that’s all everyone on a board is doing when they comment on your work. They’re expressing their opinion. Now, if they’re all saying the same thing, there’s more than likely something to it. You’re posting up your work not because you want to try and show off your writing skills and be told you’re a genius—there’s always something that can be torn down about a work. You’re putting up the script because you’re looking for the flaws. Only by looking for the flaws will you get any better. Simple fact.

Want to get more reads of your script? Here are some tips: only put up a few pages at a time. The longer the passage, the less likely someone’s going to read it. I suggest no more than 11 pages at a time, and let it sit for a few days. I also suggest about five pages, and if people want more, put it up at that time.

Make sure that you have put the story in some sort of format. There are MORE than enough places on the web that have scripts, and we’ve spoken about format here, as well. Like I said before, there’s nothing easier to learn about comics than format. This will always remain true. (Steven, there isn’t-) Don’t. Just, don’t. There’s an approximation of a standard format. Learn it, use it, and be adaptable when you get a writing gig. Your editor may ask for changes in that format.

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE use the spell and grammar check before you post your work. You’re going to be putting your work up in front of a bunch of writers, and there’s nothing worse than reading something and being thrown right out of the story because of truly avoidable spelling and grammar mistakes. Want to feel someone’s wrath and not be treated as a real writer? Lots of spelling and grammar mistakes is the way to do it.

Put your scripts up in the most polished version possible. If you’re writing in something like Word, pay attention to those red and green lines. They’re there for a reason. Unless it’s a word you just know isn’t going to be in the dictionary, make that red line go away. If it’s green, find out why it’s green. Simple.
(Not really.) Positive attitude!

Now, here’s the thing that will really ramp up your writing skills. This is something I believe every writer should do and take to heart, because it will help to speed up the process of learning the process. [Yes, that makes sense. Trust me.]

Criticize and critique. C&C scripts, picking them apart as much as you can, will make you notice your own mistakes, and you’ll start to make less of them. It will also force you to think critically, which is important. Most of you don’t do this now. (That’s not right.) Yes, it is. If you thought critically, you wouldn’t put up some of the things I find posted. But if you truly want to help yourself, help another. By helping that other, you’ll get better yourself. You’ll see mistakes that they make, and then will be less likely to make that mistake yourself.

Critical thinking takes some time to get used to and to grow into. Don’t think it’s going to come all at once. And for your own sake, don’t be afraid to comment on someone else’s work. They put it up for a reason! Give it a whack! Take some swipes at it. Don’t be an asshole about it, though. Always be respectful of someone else’s work. If you read a script and find that you have no crits, one of two things has happened: either you didn’t look hard enough, which will more than likely be the case, or the script is very, very good. Extremely good scripts don’t pop up too often on the boards. They just don’t. So, if you don’t have any crits, I’m going to say that you didn’t look hard enough.

If, for some reason, you don’t have any crits, talk about what you did find, and try to explain why it works. It takes some time, but work on it. Learn by doing.

Also, learn by listening. It’s been said that I know what I’m talking about—I don’t know whether or not that’s true, because I’m always learning, but at the same time, I’ve learned by doing and by listening. I listened, internalized, understood, incorporated, and regurgitated lessons learned by those that came before me. I didn’t come out of the womb knowing how to edit or write. I learned. So can you.

(What if they don’t like what I say?) Tough. If someone puts up a script looking for an ego stroke, they’re putting it up for the wrong reason. I don’t tolerate it, and honestly, neither should you. If they fire back with vitriol, remember what I said about your online persona, and how your words online will stay forever. Stay calm, stay rational, and if you cannot comment back in a reasoned manner, don’t comment.

Recently, someone at Digital Webbing said their book was going to sell 10k copies, because the book has great art, a great character, and lots of action. This was after wondering how the Image deal works, and they came to the conclusion that they should make a certain amount of money per page because they were doing a certain amount of work. Counting their chickens before they were laid, not even getting to being fertilized so they could hatch. I told this creator that they don’t need to worry about how much money they’re going to make—the first thing they need to do is make sure they have a publishable property, and then worry about breaking even. I tried to help, giving some practical advice, and was told, for all intents and purposes, to fuck off. (Oooh!)

There were tons of things I wanted to say, and there were some that defended the creator’s position, but instead I just said nothing. It wasn’t that difficult, and the poster eventually stuck their foot in their mouth [up to the hip, really], and my next comments were short and well reasoned.

Basically, if they don’t want to get better, you can’t make them. But again, by helping them, you’re also helping yourself. So post those comments, be respectful, and let the chips fall where they may.

And that’s about it for this week. Homework is to go C&C a script, while you go over your methods to get better.

Next week, I’m going to talk about being wary. Yes, there are reasons to be wary in comics. Sob stories happen all the time.

See you in seven.


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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.

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