Writers are people who have to write. They write every day. They don’t talk about it, they do it. People who don’t write every day are not writers.
You must know your craft, the rules of grammar, how to conjugate a verb. Don’t get nervous. Most of you already know this without the fancy labels. I see, you see, he sees. It is part of your instinctive grasp of English. Everyone needs a little book of rules. For the writer, it is Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This slim volume has been in continuous publication since 1935. It takes an hour to read and is quite droll. Buy a used copy. Do not get the illustrated version. It has been bowdlerized in the name of PC. All good fiction, whether comics or otherwise, is built around character. We humans are mostly interested in our own kind. The more interesting your protagonist, the better your story. Stories start with people. The TV show House on Fox is a perfect example. Hugh Laurie’s character is so thorny and unpredictable people tune in week after week out of fascination with his personality. Same thing with Batman, since Denny O’Neil straightened him out. Prior to O’Neil, Batman wandered from mood to mood, often “humorous,” seldom entertaining. Denny made Batman a self-righteous obsessive/compulsive. Obsession is always interesting.
While it’s possible to grow a great story out of pure plot, sooner or later it will hinge on the characters of your protagonists. “Character is destiny” holds true in fiction as well as life. Know who your characters are before you start writing. Some writers construct elaborate histories for each character before they begin. It is not a bad idea. Start with people then add the plot. Get a bulletin board. Write each character’s name and salient characteristics on a 3 X 5 card and tack it to the bulletin board. You can do the same with plot points. You can move characters and plot points around to alter your chronology.
What is plot? It’s a dynamic narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. It’s like a good pop song. It has to have a hook. Sometimes that hook is simply the narrator’s voice. Huckleberry Finn succeeds mostly on the strength of Huck’s voice, by which I mean the way he presents words. In other words, it’s not the meat, it’s the motion. It’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Huck comes alive through his words, which are fresh and immediate. We feel we know Huck. Same thing with Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. It’s that world-weary, cynical with a heart-of-gold voice whispering in your ear. “He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” Chandler also said, “A good story cannot be devised, it has to be distilled.” In other words, start with character and let character find the plot. Comic writers think visually. No matter how bad our chops we can pretty much describe what we see in words. Some of us can even draw a little bit. I used to write comics by drawing every page out by hand—everything—all the tiny details, facial expressions, warped anatomy, half-assed perspective, all word balloons and captions. Editors and artists loved it. Why? Because they had everything they needed on one page instead of spread across three pages of single-spaced type. Some of the most successful writers in the industry write very densely. Each script is a phone book.
What is drawing? While drawing I became so immersed in the story I gave myself a spastic rhomboid muscle. Friends! Do not do what I did. Learn to draw properly. That means a drawing board, an ergonomically correct chair, and applying the pencil lightly to the paper. So much for art advice.
There is another advantage for writers who would draw each page. It forces you to confront issues of pacing, camera placement, and editing. It teaches you the natural pace of a story, when to break a scene, when to zoom in for a close-up, and when to pull back for a two-page spread. Archie Goodwin and Harvey Kurtzman both used this method when writing comics for other artists. I’m not advocating such. Most of the best writers in this industry do not draw. If they do, they still write full script.
Even though you are only providing words, it is up to you to SHOW, DON’T TELL. This is the prime directive. What’s the dif? Tell: “The assassin drew a bead on Mac’s back and pulled the trigger.” Show: “Mac stared at the wall. He thought he saw a face there, maybe his ex-wife, damn her. He was still staring when a thirty foot giant slammed him in the back with a titanium driver. As he slid to the ground, his cheek scraping granules from the brick, a creeping numbness radiated from his right shoulder followed by the gush of warm blood and the scent of sheared copper. A loud bang lingered in his ear.” We don’t have to mention the assassin because obviously someone pulled the trigger.
When writing for comics, try to show as much as possible. A finicky man entering a public phone booth might pull out a handkerchief to wipe the receiver. Maybe he’s obsessive/compulsive. Maybe he carries a box of Sani-wipes with him everywhere. By showing this man wiping down the receiver, you have established something about his character.
Never describe what the reader can see for himself.
There’s no established format for comic scripts. You can’t go wrong by doing it as a film script. You don’t necessarily need a screenplay writing program, just write it like a play. What does a play look like? Brush up your Shakespeare. There are a lot of books out there on writing comics. I’ve contributed to some of them. It never hurts to read about writing. We’re all curious as to how other writers do it. Many aspiring writers have recommended Robert McKee’s Story as the way to go. While Story contains good advice, it is also egregiously padded and never uses a nickel when a fifty cent piece will do. Joe Esterhaz’ The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood is the anti-Story. If you read one, you must read the other.
There’s also Denny’s DC Comic’ Guide to Writing Comics, a no bullshit primer by one of the best.
There are no writing schools but there are many writing programs. College level courses on comic book writing are a bull market. I’d advise any struggling writer with a Master’s degree to head toward the local college. Run don’t walk. Nobody can teach you how to write. You either got it or you ain’t. But a good teacher can help you improve your writing. Famous novelists in residence offer a career shortcut to those who are determined to become novelists or screenwriters. Same old adage, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
It is the narrator's voice that draws you through the story.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I Meet Queen
My first job out of college was smoking dope for the govt. I moved to
Boston because I heard there were newspapers there who would hire anyone
who could string two words together. I answered an ad in the classified
section of the Boston Phoenix seeking volunteers for a joint study
conducted by Harvard and the National Institute of Mental Health on the
effects of marijuana on the brain. Eleven other volunteers and I lived
on a hospital ward in Mattapan, smoked government-grown marijuana every
day, ad took a battery of tests. It was just like college! When I got
out, I wrote it up, sold it to the Boston Phoenix, and in a little while
they hired me as music editor. It was my job to go out night after
night, listen to bands, write about them, and talk to musicians. Rough
job! One day my editor said I had to show up at the Ritz to have lunch
with two members of a new band that was on their first American tour.
Queen. I met Brian May and Freddie Mercury. I couldn't stop staring at
Freddie's teeth. I asked him, "Freddie, why did you name your band
Queen?" Palm facing outward, he stuck his pinkie in his mouth and said,
"Oh I don't know. It was just the worst name we could think of."
Why you should outline:
Why should you outline? There are several reasons. The first is to provide a road map for the story you intend to write. A good story is like a good pop song with a theme, a bridge, and a hook. Shifting dynamics. The outcome is always in question. If you were to portray your outline as a sine wave, it would look like a roller coaster ride. The outline doesn’t have to be exhaustive. My outlines range from two to ten pages. Ken Follett’s outlines are over a hundred pages. The reader must surprise himself if he is to surprise others, so the outline must contain wiggle room. The outline must reflect your protagonists’ personality and character, as well as those of other major figures. The outline must contain the protagonists’ names and a little something about them.
“John served two tours of duty in Iraq.” “Martha wrote her first symphony when she was twelve. Cedric always hated golf, and with good reason.”
Character is destiny. The readers want someone with whom they can identify, unless you’re writing about a rogue, such as George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. Even Flashman is charming. You enjoy his company even if you don’t want to be anywhere near him. Or the book has to be compelling, such as Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout, a novel about a despicable racist. A skilled novelist can make any protagonist compelling. Cormac McCarthy’s stories are often extremely cruel, but you keep reading.
Just as a good song ends on a definitive note, such as The Beatles “A Day In the Life,” so should your outline indicate an end. But beware! Your characters will come alive and start dictating plot! When this happens, trust your characters.
The second purpose of the outline is to excite readers. The outline must be entertaining in and of itself. If you have written a dry recitation of events crammed with adjectives and qualifiers, throw it away! When the reader has read your outline, his reaction must be, “Holy shit! Where’s the book?”
Use your craft to bring that outline alive.
A chapter from the next Nexus novel
Juggling all sorts of project while working on my second NEXUS NOVEL: THE SHADOW OF THE OLIGARCH. While much of it is grim, some ain't. Here's a chapter.
CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE “Ragtime Girl”
A single spot hovered over the front of the stage. Curtains parted to Nexus’ right and out strode a cadaverous green figure wearing black swallowtail jacket and a top hat. The lizigator stuck his hands in his pockets and slouched, trying to penetrate the gloom. He was about six feet tall.
“That’s not Clonezone,” Nexus said.
Jugason put a finger to his mouth and winked.
“When I first arrived on Hendereath, I was told that no lizigators were allowed” Klonezone drawled in a sepulchral voice.
He stared around, impassive.
“I was questioned for hours by a man with thick lips. He looked like a Venusian fly trap. I pulled out a handful of dead insects and dribbled them around the desk. I had him eating out of the palm of my hand. I told him if he didn’t let me in, I’d bite his head off.”
“He laughed so I bit his head off. They threw me in a fridge and beat me with truncheons for eight hours. They ground me up and fed me to the dogs. They used my skin to make boots. They had to piece me back together for the proctology exam.”
“HAR!” someone boomed from the back.
“It was so cold in the interrogation room I went into hibernation and woke two hundred years later. They were still asking questions.”
Laughter, polite applause.
“They asked me where I’d been last night.” He drew himself back and looked down his snout. “With yo’ momma!”
He crossed his arms and drummed his fingers. “A broken down old miner goes into a bar on Rand. It’s filled with big, beautiful, beefy blonds. He sits down at the bar and orders a beer. The bartender looks like she can bend ingots with her teeth. She’s got a Punisher tat on her arm.
“‘You wanna hear a joke?’ asks the geezer. “They stare at him. You know that stare when you’re trying to make something disappear. The geezer is emboldened.
“’This blond goes into a bar…’ he says. The bartender cuts him off.
“’Wait a minute,’ she says. ‘I was Titan wrestling champ. You see that woman over there?’ Points to a tall but curvaceous blond with a long ponytail. ‘She’s a professional wolf wrangler.’ The wolf wrangler saunters up…” Legs akimbo, Klonezone illustrated her swagger.
“’And Minnie there can bench press a thousand kilograms. Now are you sure you want to tell us that joke?’”
“’Well no,’ he says. ‘Not if I have to explain it three times.’”
The audience roared, including several attractive blonds.
“And now, I’d like to introduce a very special guest and one of my closest friends, or he would be if he weren’t an impostor like me, a man who has literally killed on planet after planet…”
The corner of Nexus’ mouth turned up.
Klonezone whirled, throwing out his arm as the spot changed to Nexus. “THE GREAT NEXUS! Let’s give him a big hand, folks!”
The applause went on and on, and suddenly everybody was standing. Nexus stood, and nodded. He started to sit but Jugason poked him in the ribs. “You should say something.”
Nexus held his hands up in appreciation. “Thank you! I never dreamed I would receive such a warm welcome. We were on our way to Skyrizi when we were struck by alien debris. Truly a stroke of luck. The Infinite Spirit works in mysterious ways.”
Applause lasted five minutes. Nexus wondered what he said that was so droll.
Klonezone reclaimed the spotlight. “Is it true some poltroon has taken my name and gives performances duping billions of people?”
Nexus smiled. “I think I have some tapes in my ship. I’ll send them to you.”
A barstool with a bottle of bourbon and a glass appeared. Klonezone poured himself several fingers and tossed it back. “Ahhhhhhhhhh.” His whole body wound up, tail to jaws and he belched
The ship shook like a maraca. The room erupted in laughter and applause. Klonezone stalked the stage, hands clasped behind him, looking up from time to time, waggling his eyebrows, and belching. Jugason laughed and gasped. Lucy and Uma convulsed. Nexus shook his head. Sundra told him he had no sense of humor.
Klonezone lit an enormous cigar. “It’s hard to make fun of some of these species… Nevertheless…”
“Take the cuttlefish. Please. Jerome Jerome is the most famous cuttlefish. Likes to drink. And whatever you do, don’t bring up the Gazornin Olympics.”
Uma leaned in. “He’s awful.”
Nexus smiled. “Ain’t he?”
The audience lapped it up. He took on the Giz, the Thune, and the frogs. He paused, tapped ash on the stage and looked around. “Any quatros in here? Yes? No? Good. Let’s make fun of them.”
“Quatros got no sense of humor. I asked a quatro once if he ever got a manicure and he beat me with truncheons for eight hours.”
“HEY!” boomed from the back of the room. The spotlight shifted, quavered, centered on an immense quatro, seven feet tall, wearing a black tux and a cummerbund as he strode toward the stage, left hands pushing up the sleeves on his right arms.
Klonezone tilted backwards and marched toward the exit, waving his hat. “Thy-th-that’s all, folks!” The quatro lunged for him as he disappeared behind the heavy curtain, leaving his top hat on the floor. The quatro crouched and picked it up. The quatro smiled at the audience holding the hat jauntily over his head. The quatro marched from right to left waggling the hat and singing, “Hello my baby, hello my honey, hello my ragtime gal, send me a kiss by wire, by wire. Baby, my heart's on fire!”
Nexus and the girls stood along with everyone else applauding. When the applause died down, the quatro took the spotlight and looked around with one enormous eye. “Are there any lizigators in here? No? Let’s talk about them!”
Nexus turned to his host. “Where did you find a quatro with a sense of humor?”
Jugalo winked. “A magician never gives away his secrets.”
Nobody was all good or all bad. Nexus was torn. Touching the prime minister, he had learned of atrocities, deserving of execution many times over. But Nexus was there by accident. He’d never dreamed of Jugalo. He’d never dreamed of a funny quatro. He wondered if they’d fallen into a virtual reality, that this entire episode, from crash landing to the dinner, had taken place in a nanosecond between the time they had the accident and their deaths. He turned to Uma.
“Would you switch places with Lucy for a minute?”
Quietly, they switched places. Lucy flopped down smiling. “What?”
Nexus held out his hand. “Tell me if I’m dreaming.”
She took his big hand in hers. “No, it’s all real.”
“How do I know you’re not part of the dream?”
“Do you want me to smack you?”
Jugason noticed the little girl sitting next to him. “Well hello, Lucy! How are you enjoying the evening?”
“Oh Mr. Jugason! I can’t remember when I’ve had a better time! I only wish Bob and Shiloh were here too!”
Jugason set his hand paternally on Lucy’s face. She turned ashen. She shivered, then colored. She stood. “I’m sorry. I have to go back to my seat now.”
HOW I SET A TRAP FOR MYSELF
In 1990 I broke my hip. I set a trap for myself and was successful. A
couple years earlier I was in Los Angeles, when Bill Liebowitz and I
received an invitation to visit Harlan Ellison at his home in Thousand
Oaks. His house was unlike any other in that cul-de-sac, sort of stucco
free-form. Harlan graciously showed us around. The house was filled with
collectibles. I wish I'd taken pictures. Paintings, models, especially a
perfect scale model of the Nautilus from the Walt Disney movie of Twenty
Thousand Leagues Under the Seat. Harlan pulled one of his big paintings
away from the wall to reveal a hidden room. "I have several more, but
this is the only one I can show you." He also told us that he'd
booby-trapped his basement window wells against burglars, so that when a
burglar entered, a steel gate slammed down holding him in place until
the police arrived. He caught one burglar this way.
I built a house in Madison. I also designed it, with the help of an
architect. I didn't have a budget for a secret room, so I decided to put
a trap door in the floor of my bedroom closet with a ladder going down
into the basement. I could astonish guests by going upstairs and
emerging from the basement. Few were astonished. One night I was there
with a woman I was dating. We were drinking and doing coke. I showed her
the trap door. An hour later, we decided to go out for dinner. I stepped
into my bedroom closet. I had forgotten to close the trap door. As I lay
in the basement I thought, "Dear Lord, please don't let it be something
major." I tried to move and heard the bones scraping together. This
being comics, word spread like wildfire. Baron has set a trap for
himself! Magazines called me up for an explanation. I told them what
happened, and that I had been inspired by a visit to Harlan's house.
A couple weeks later, when I was back home, the phone rang. I picked it up.
"Ellison is to blame? Ellison is the cause you broke your leg?" It was