B&N Week 30: The White Bull

| July 19, 2011 | 3 Comments


It’s Tuesday, isn’t it? Kinda sneaks up on ya, doesn’t it? One day it’s Thursday, and the next—bam!–Tuesday all over again. And yes, before you ask, I missed all of you.

This week, we’re going to talk about the White Bull. [I picked up that phrase from Speechless. I love that movie.] I’m talking about the blank page, and pushing through all the bad words in order to get to the good ones.

Honestly, I’m not a fan of the blank page. I see it, and I just want to fill it up with all kinds of crap. Sometimes, my basic problem is a matter of where to get started. Beginnings are daunting.

Take this week’s column, for instance. I’m sitting here, staring at the white bull, and not knowing where to start. I have things I want to say, but it often comes down to not only how I want to say it, but in what order I want to say it in. So I have to get through all the bad words before I get to the good ones.

When you’re writing, this is going to happen to you as well. If you’re lucky enough to have a writing gig, you’re going to be sitting there, staring at the screen, calling yourself a fraud, and not knowing where you want to begin. It’s going to be horrible, but you’re going to get through it. I’m going to try to help you do it, too.

And in this way, we can help each other.

I guess the basic question is, how do you get out all of the bad words? And believe me, those words are bad. This isn’t the 80s, so I don’t mean bad as in good, either. They’re not really the ones you want when you’re working on the story…they’re more the temporary ones you have to get through in order to get to where you want to be. That’s how I want you to think of them, too. Temporary words, or as placeholders.

Understand what those words are doing for you. Not only are they an outpouring of crap you don’t need, they’re also feelers of how to really begin, or how to bring the story to a close. Just because the words are bad doesn’t mean that they don’t serve a purpose. They are serving the story by helping you out as you flounder around, searching for what you need. And when you finally get there, you’ll say AHA! Just don’t try to stand up too quickly in the tub when you do it. You’ll get water all over the floor. [That’s a riff on an Archimedes myth.]

(Steven, none of this answers the question of how do I get them out.) Sure it does. It just takes a little bit of time to get there. Haven’t you learned by now that I do things in my own time, and we [almost] always get there? And then when you look back, you’ll say Aha! Just remember what I said about the tub…

The easy answer on getting the words out is to just type. Before you ask, yes, that’s it. Just type. Notice I didn’t say about what. I said just to type. Take about thirty seconds, and just type it out. What you’re doing is getting the words flowing. Type out a sentence, and then type out the next one. Then the next. It doesn’t matter if they’re not part of the story you want to tell. You’ll get there, but you have to get these words out first. So you type, and you continue to type for as long as you need to. There’s no set timeframe for this, because everyone is different. Everyone is different, and everyone’s backlog of words are different. Hell, you could do this three times in a day, and have one session that’s three minutes long, one session that’s an hour, and the third can be forty-five seconds.

So you type as long as necessary, waiting for the moment when you want to slosh water out of the tub. You’ll start to find out a couple of things as you do this. Usually, one of two things, but rarely are the two part of the same thing.

The first thing you’ll notice as you type out these sentences is that you have another story on your hands. Not necessarily a good story, but a story nonetheless. It happens. You can beef that story up later if you wish, or just write it to get it out, and forget it. [Well, not really forget it. Just store it somewhere. You may want it later.] The second thing you’ll notice is that it’ll become easier to get to the story you’re supposed to be writing.

To make a car analogy, getting those words out is nothing more than warming up the engine on a cold winter morning. You don’t want to get in and just go, right? You want it to warm up so everything is nice and toasty, and firing on all cylinders. That’s what you’re doing. That’s how it happens.

And then there are the times when you just have to walk away from it for a while. [Never on a writing gig, though. You can’t afford that. Not as a newbie.] Let me tell ya a story. (Groan…) No, this one is interesting! (I’ve heard that before…)

I was in the military, on a small reserve base. [The reservists would come in once a month and wreck the joint, and we’d spend the rest of the time fixing their mistakes.] The base is in upstate New York, nestled in the Hudson valley. Beautiful, really. Mountainous and covered with trees. A decent hunting location. And there were a decent amount of hunters there, too.

I’m listening to a conversation between two of my superiors as they discuss hunting and making their own bullets. That conversation sparked an idea about a guy who was killed, and had his ashes put into bullets that were supposed to kill those who killed him. I had the idea, and was excited about it.

I wrote it on a post-it and put it in my wallet, initially. When I went to the barracks that night, I tried to start writing it, and I couldn’t. It pissed me off, too. The harder I tried, the more the story away from me. I chased it, I hunted it, I tried to corner it, but it always managed to escape my grasp. After trying to write it for a few weeks [!], I left it alone. I left the post-it in my wallet, and literally sat on the story for ten years.

Ten years later, I’m talking to a friend about a story that had eluded me for for a long time, and the floodgates opened up! I talked to her, and the story just poured out of me. I started writing it that night, and I punished the keyboard. My fingers flew, and page after page came out. I knew how I wanted to end it, and I knew what I wanted in the middle. I knew my framing device, and I just wrote. I kicked out five issues in three days, without a formal plot. [The discussion I had with my friend was my plotting session.]

Ten years for one story. That’s a long time, right? And I have another story that’s taking me about as long to find a suitable way to tell it. Right now, I’m at about six years, maybe seven. But I’m not trying to force it, because I don’t have to. It will come in its own time.

And that’s what I want you to do. If you’re just trying to write a story and there’s no timeframe to finish it, just let it percolate before you try to pour it out. It will let you know when it’s ready. But if you have a gig, you have to sit down and get out all of the bad words before you get to the good ones.

And if you’re really behind, you have to hack it out.

Let’s face it, there are times when the Muse just isn’t with you. You can beg and plead with her, but she’s just not going to come to you. When those times come, you have to find inspiration in other ways. This is when you hack it out.

I was at SDCC a few years ago, and attended a panel with a lot of Marvel writers. Chris Claremont made a joke about what he does for inspiration when it’s not there. He said he finds inspiration in the mortgage, because it has to be paid. Yes, everyone laughed, partly because it was funny, and partly because he was serious! The mortgage, the light bill, gas and water…these can be your inspiration to get something resembling a story down because you’re under the gun. If you’re under the gun, then everyone else is, as well, so almost anything you write will be accepted. [Remember, no one else can move forward until they have a script, and you’re the one writing it.]

As a newbie, though, the times when you’re wresting with the white bull should be few and far between. This shouldn’t happen until you have lots of comics under your belt. You should be well into the double digits, almost hitting the triples, before you should worry too much about hacking it out.

You also shouldn’t have to hack it out too much if you have successfully plotted out your story. (I was wondering if that was going to come up.) Plotting is important, and should keep the white bull docile and in his cage. Notice I said ‘should’. There are times when it comes busting out, no matter what you do. This basically happens if you’ve lost interest in the story.

If you’ve lost interest in a story, there are a few options available to you, depending on outside forces.

The biggest outside force is if you’ve already sold the story. If this has happened, you’re going to have to wrestle with the bull and win. It doesn’t matter if you barely win. If you pin him, even for a moment, then you’ve won. [Yes, I’m talking Greco-Roman wrestling, not the wrestletianment of today.] If you’ve sold it, and the bull gets free, you’ve got to wrestle and win if you want to continue writing for that particular company.

If it’s a story you’re going to self-publish, you have other things to guide you. Have you gotten an artist? If so, are you paying them? If you’re paying them, can you afford to take the loss? How many pages have they done? How far along in the process are you? And if you decide not to move forward with the story, be an adult and tell the artist as soon as you know. Being up front means you have the possibility of moving forward with that same artist at another time.

If it’s just a story you started working on and then decide that it has no legs, you can walk away from it without any problem. Just keep it on file. You may have another use for the concept at another time.

That’s a pretty important thing I want you all to do, as well. Something you should be doing anyway, but I just want to state it formally: never throw anything away. As a writer, you have to become a packrat of all your writing. If you’re out at Denny’s and had a great idea, and wrote that great idea on a napkin, fold it up and put it in your wallet. It’ll keep there until you find a different place for it.

That different place? A box with all of your ideas is fine, as is a folder. DON’T have them scattered all around the place. They’ll get thrown out that way. It doesn’t matter that your spouse knows exactly what it is, and that they understand, love, and support what you’re doing—it’s going to get thrown out. Don’t let it happen to you. Get a folder at the least, and a box at the most. You can have anything in between, as well: notebooks, loose leaf binders, computer files; anything that can hold the information you want to keep. This prevents the likelihood of the idea being thrown away, and when you eventually go to revisit it, you can look at the story idea with fresh eyes and life experience under your belt, which will help you tell the story you couldn’t before. So, get what you need now, and throw your scraps in there. You’ll thank me for it later. (You say that a lot, you know.) [I know. Still waiting for you to thank me, too.] (Jerk. Just for that, I won’t.) [Okay.]

This should be an effective means of dealing with the white bull. Most of the time, it’s just a simple matter of proper prior planning on your part. However, when it comes time to deal with it, this should definitely help. And notice, I never once said the words writers block. Writer’s block is something totally different, and is not something I’ve ever really believed in. Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it, not even with Bullet Time [the ten year story], so I’m not the best one to talk about it. For some, it can be very real. I guess I’m one of the lucky ones [so far].

That’s going to be it for this week. Your homework is to get a folder, start a new folder on your computer, get a binder, find a box, just get something to hold your “discarded” ideas, and then start putting all those scraps of paper you have floating around the house in there.

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 (3)

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  1. Thanks for sharing! This was a great read. Loved your bullet points concept. Sometimes we never get started because we want a finished piece and the work seems so daunting. Throwing down just a few bullets of a story that makes us excited to write is a great way to kick it off.

    If you get excited about those bullets, write some more cool bullets. When you are so excited about your story from the bullets, share it. Others may be excited too. If that happens…you just made bank!

    That may be able to fight any mentality that some can get in the way if we are staring the white bull in the eyes.

  2. Tyler James says:

    I always loved the great descriptive phrase “white bull” fair describing the blank page. I’ve always felt you need to treat it as a formidable enemy, which is why I rarely sit in front of a computer screen to script empty handed. I don’t face down the white bull until I have a ton of plot notes, layouts sketched out or pages broken down. I also spend a log of time working things out in my head, so that when I’m staring down a blank page, I’m ready to write.

    The “just start typing” suggestion is another good one. Artists often do warm up sketches, and just typing can be a good way for writers to get themselves into the flow.

  3. Another spot-on column, Steven!

    For my part, I should call my White Bull the White-Oh-So-Precious-And-Sophisticated-Bull because it won’t let me write anything unless it’s all nice and pretty.

    For years, I had real trouble writing anything down because I wanted it to be perfect at the moment it hit the page. If it was a play, the format had to be actor-ready. If it was a short story, it had to look like it was already bound between two covers with a dozen others.

    My writing really took off the day I decided the computer was for final versions only. I need my “workspace” to be ugly – and I have horrid handwriting – or I’l obsess over the format rather than produce some content. Even at work, where I HAVE to use a computer, I’ll do all of my first drafts in Notepad. It drives some of my colleagues crazy!

    As for the homework you just gave us, it seems I was one step ahead of you. I was having a hard time keeping track of all of my loose sheets of paper (not to mention that they tend to not survive their trips in my backpack), so I went out during the weekend and purchased a big stack of notebooks. Now my work can be ugly AND practical!

    Using a notebook also has the added effect of letting me see my progress through the stack of sheets and that progress – however illusory it might be – has turned out to be a great motivator!

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