Tag Archives: Reading

Writing for Comics

I can’t say I have a whole lot of experience with writing graphic novel scripts, since all I’ve got under my belt are two Script Frenzy efforts, but going from zero knowledge to current knowledge there are some things I’ve found extremely useful and I figured I might as well share them.

First is a book by Will Eisner, called Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative. For those who haven’t heard of Will Eisner, he’s the artist for whom the comics industry named their annual awards (The Eisner Awards), and he’s probably best known for his work on The Spirit though his credits run much deeper than just that. He later also turned to teaching and lecturing and is extremely respected in the field. Reading this book, it’s easy to see why. In this one he stays away from basic writerly things like what makes a character interesting, or any of  the nuts and bolts associated with good story writing, and focuses on what makes for compelling visual narrative. There are many ways in which graphic stories vary from prose, and even from movies, that aren’t obvious. At least, they weren’t obvious to me. There are loads of examples, using Eisner’s own work as reference, showing how things like minute changes in perspective, combining elements into a single panel, even details down to the lettering, can affect the user’s perception of the work, and user perception of the work is really what drives a good graphic story. You need to know the backbone of telling a good story before you can tell a good graphic story, but there’s no guarantee that being good at the first will allow you to be good with the second. So doing regular writing homework first is a must, but I think this book should be considered essential to anyone who wants to know how to take their story and tell it in a way that makes the best use of the square inches available to them on a comics page.

The most intimate relationship where graphic novels are concerned is between the art and the reader, but the art is guided by a third hand, that of the writer, which brings us to the second thing I’ve found extremely useful this month.

In this short blog post, Warren Ellis explains What A Comics Script is For. The first line states:

A script is a set of instructions to the artist(s), letterer, editor, colourist if applicable, and designer if applicable.

This may sound brutally obvious, but it’s the sort of thing you don’t necessarily think about if you aren’t in the business. I’m used to writing for the end consumer, the reader, and I’m used to employing all sorts of tricks and tactics to reveal information, to avoid revealing information, or to reveal something subtly. A comics script is not the place for subtlety. Your story may employ subtlety, and the art may reveal things in a certain sequence, so the user may be expected to see a vague shape coming out of the shadows to reveal a specific monster, but the monster needs to be very clearly defined to the artist who is going to draw it, even from the first blurry outline. The rest of Ellis’ post serves as a fantastic, concise, hilarious list of what to do and not to do when writing a comics script.

Many times this month during Script Frenzy I’ve found myself hinting at things or being ambiguous in my descriptions because what I needed was for it to be ambiguous to the reader, but that’s not how it’s done. It’s how I’m used to writing things, but it makes for a piss-poor script. I’ve left it as is for now because a) I have a 100-page target to hit, b) That’s what rewrites are for, and c) I couldn’t care less right now because I know that this particular script will never see the light of day in its current incarnation. I am, however, trying to keep these things in mind for the pages I have yet to do.

So, my recommendations for people dumb like me who think they can squidge out a comic script are to read Eisner’s book to see the best way to communicate graphically to a user, and read Ellis’ post to see what you need to remember when writing a script so that you can wring those precise graphics out of your artist.

One last thing. Once you have a grasp on the above, there are several writers out there who have made a few of their comics scripts available to the public. Find writers you’ve heard about, get the scripts they’ve made available, get the relevant comics so you can see what happened between the script and the final product, and learn. Never stop learning.


Checking it Twice…

I’ve put together the list of things I want to get done through March. For the writing, I’ve set myself a goal of 100,000 words, which is a bit excessive but it’s what I need to do to feel that I can catch up and hit my target of one million for the year. It’s going to be brutal, but it’s necessary. I don’t like my odds of achieving that goal, but my odds of hitting my one million word goal if I don’t hit 100K this month are even bleaker.

I want to finish this novel that’s been killing me for the longest time. I hope to be able to write a short story or two but I haven’t managed to hit that light-bulb moment where one of them comes together and I feel like it has something to say for itself. I also want to write my outline for Script Frenzy since I’ll be doing that again come April. It will be the same basic graphic novel idea that I ran with last year, but I want to clean it up a lot and give it a sense of direction rather the half-assed discovery journey that was last year’s effort. My goal is to complete a six-issue story arc in one month, which based on last year’s total will run around 200-225 pages. Graphic novel pages run way fewer words than do pages of prose script so that’s not as many words as it may sound like.

I will of course be keeping up the effort of blogging daily, and I’ve also added to my list something which has been gravely lacking the last few months – reading. It’s not normal for me to go four months without finishing a book and I’m going to damn well finish some of the stuff in my to-read pile if it kills me.


So I did manage to beat the four thousand words that I wanted to hit yesterday, and I finished the day with a total just above 4,500. I could have done more but I held back in favour of doing something I haven’t made very much time for at all in the last few months – reading.

I’ve been working my way through the huge pile of graphic novels I picked up in the fall, but aside from that I’ve been reading the same two books for months. It’s not that they aren’t good books, it’s just that I’ve been preoccupied with other things and going to bed very late. Since my habit was always to read in bed before going to sleep, going to bed really late often means my wife is asleep and will kill me if I turn on the light to read.

So last night, knowing that I was killing the word count, I took some time to catch up and do some reading before I completely forget what’s happened in these books. Today’s count is necessarily going to be lower, being a work day, but I’m going to try to make some time for reading a few pages while I’m at it. Part of me thinks I should have made reading a part of my resolutions for the year, and part of me knows that I wouldn’t be able to keep up both a heavy writing pace and a heavy load of reading as well. Rather, I could, but that would leave me absolutely no time for anything else, and that would make me crazy.


Happy New Year!

I rang in the New Year as I have for the last ten or so, with a house full of friends and family. It was fun but exhausting. My wife was called away to work all day yesterday so I was left with all the cleaning and food preparation, and she’s at work again today so I’m left with the clean up, though I’m letting the dishwasher do most of the work.

I don’t often make resolutions, but I figured I’d give myself a bit of a kick in the ass this year, so here’s the rundown.

1.) Lose weight: This one is on a lot of people’s lists, but my weight has really gone up over the past two years and I’m at the point where it just doesn’t feel good to be me. I get tired, sore and out of breath and I’m tired of it. My goal is to lose 50 pounds by my birthday (July 22), and to keep those pounds off for the rest of the year.

2.) Cafeteria Independence: The cafeteria in the building where I work used to be amazing. It was almost impossible to go there and not find something that looked really tasty. The quality has gone so far down it’s ridiculous. Now the choice is less about which one of several options you like best, but to mark off options because they all look horrible, so you’re taking the lesser of three or four evils. Recycled soup, leftover sandwich specials finding their way to the panini section three or four days later. Horrible. It looks like they made an effort to reduce cost by reducing quality, but they’re the running gag of the building. So, I will bring my lunch in as much as possible, and will make the greatest effort to bring my own coffee in the morning so they won’t get my money off that either. Controlling what I have for lunch will help with the weight loss as well.

3.) 365 Blog Posts: Well, okay, 366 since it’s a leap year. Basically I want to use this blog every day. Quick hits, long rants, and everything in between, but I want to make sure that I get and stay in the habit of making this my go-to place to speak my mind. So expect much more of my drivel over the coming year, a minimum of one post per day.

4.) One Million Words: I’ve heard it said that you have to write one million words of crap before you start to write well. I want to get those million words out of the way this year. This will be sort of an expanded and extended NaNoWriMo. I’m going to count this blog, short stories, novels, and anything else that falls into the loose definition of creatively putting one word after another. The only thing I don’t know how I’ll handle is edits and revisions. I’ll figure something out, but suggestions are welcome.

And that’s about it. The only one that really worries me is the writing. One million words is a lot. Keeping up that pace for a year is going to hurt, but it will be a good hurt.

For the rest of you out there, may 2012 be what you want it to be.


Serendipity

A writer friend of mine is moving to the west coast, and posted online that he was trying to unload a lot of his books and comics because it was too much to move. Books I have enough of but the comics piqued my interest.

Backstory time…

When I was younger (roughly 11-16 years old), I used to collect a lot of comics. I’d save my allowance, save up my lunch money, scavenge cans and bottles for 5 cents each, and then every Friday I’d go to the comic shop and pick up my haul. Mostly I read Marvel, some Image, and a handful of DC titles.

I’d regularly read Spider-Man, X-Men, Punisher, New Mutants, Wolverine… generally super-hero stuff. Occasionally I’d ask the people behind the counter what was good to read and they’d look me over and point me to more superhero comics. I didn’t have a problem with superheroes per se, but everything was starting to look and feel the same. Comics were starting to feel predictable. I read several series that didn’t last long. I read a lot of stuff that just wasn’t very interesting, and every time I asked what was good I’d get pointed to another series with a guy in tights.

By the time I graduated high school in 1993 I’d pretty much stopped collecting, only buying the occasional issue that caught my eye. I’d basically given up on comics because I thought that they were all the same.

Fast forward several years. I’d read a book called Good Omens, written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, because I  was (and still am) a huge Pratchett fan. Over time I heard Neil’s name come up fairly often, and picked up another book of his called Neverwhere, a novelization of a TV series that he’d written. I loved it. When I asked a friend about him, he said Gaiman was one of his favourites, at which point I brought up the fact that he hadn’t written very much. My friend said “Not novels, no, but there’s Sandman.”

I’m so glad I asked him,”What’s Sandman?”

Sandman blew my mind. I picked up the first collection grumbling about how expensive it was (I almost put it back on the shelf), because I knew I could get two new novels for the same price. I expected it to suck. I expected it to meet absolutely none of my expectations. I expected to hate my friend for encouraging me to spend so much money on something I couldn’t possibly enjoy. I never expected that I’d be going back the next day (having stayed up until 3am reading the entirety of the first volume) for the second collection in the series, or that I’d be going back two days later with my credit card so that I could buy the rest. I did my best to make them last but I couldn’t believe what I was reading. I’d never before seen such an incredible story told with pictures.

I learned over the following years that I’d missed a lot while I was reading the comics I was reading as a young teen. I learned, way too late, that comics aren’t just about the title or the character on the cover, that comics have writers, and that some are more to my taste than others. I’ve spent the last few years trying to give myself an education in comics, learning that there are writers who consistently impress me (Gaiman, Moore, Ellis, and some newer faces) but there’s a lot to catch up on.

I can’t believe that I gave up on comics having never read Watchmen. I can’t believe I gave up on comics while Sandman was in it’s prime. I’m not surprised that nobody pointed the twelve-year-old me in the direction of those titles, but I’m upset that the fifteen year old me didn’t ask better questions, or that I didn’t find them for myself. I’m very happily learning that some of the greatest stories told have been told in monthly issues with art on every page.

So…

/EndBackstory

I was happy to go to my friend’s house and look over his comics and get more suggestions as to what was worth reading. We seem to have similar tastes in a lot of ways, and it was great to have someone around who could point me in the direction of what would interest me, and it didn’t hurt to get it for much less than it would have cost me to get them all new at a store. I came away with a huge pile of stuff, some continuations of series I’ve already started (Transmetropolitan), some I’d heard of and have been looking to pick up (Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, some Batman), and a whole lot of stuff I’ve never heard of at all (Finder, Zot!, Wormwood).

I’m looking forward to all of them, especially now that I have two weeks off to make the most of it. And all this just in time for Comic Con this weekend, which should be lots of fun. It looks like it’s going to be much bigger than last year’s edition.


The Editors Strike Back

I wrote about Nascence by Tobias Buckell a few months ago, and mentioned how useful it was to me. Here’s a book which, in design, is Nascence’s polar opposite but which is just as valuable.

The book is On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back! from the editors of Asimov’s (edited by George H. Scithers, Darrell Schweitzer, and John M. Ford).
It’s an old book, about 30 years old now, but it still stands as a useful read for novice writers of speculative fiction.
In Nascence, Buckell provided his own old failed stories, and explained why they failed and what he could have done better. In On Writing Science Fiction, the editors present good stories, all of which are first sales by unestablished writers, and explain what it was that made those stories good enough to buy.

The stories are grouped into sections. The editors will introduce each section with an aspect of writing which, when well executed,  distinguishes the good speculative fiction from the ordinary (Idea, Conflict, Background, etc.) and they’ll go into as much detail as they can, giving examples when possible. Next comes the story or stories that the editors feel exhibit that particular quality. Following the stories is a response by the authors to a short series of questions, and then another segment by the editors where they explain what is is that made them buy those story, and how those stories exemplify the topic of the section. Most of the sections deal with elements that carry across all genres, but they are examined with an eye towards science fiction. There’s a lot of information here, a lot of very good information, but it’s more than can be fully absorbed in one pass.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else by any of these first-time writers. I certainly didn’t know them by name at the time I read this book, so my initial assumption was that none of them went on to blockbuster careers though it would take some research to confirm. (EDIT: Of course, having thought that, I HAD to go and research it… more further down…) For the stories in this particular book, all are good. Some are excellent. It’s worth reading this book for the stories as much as it is for the writing advice, and my standout favourite is The Tryouts, by Barry B. Longyear (EDIT: With a bit of a search, it appears he won the John W. Campbell, the Hugo, and the Nebula all in the same year, so there goes my statement about these people not making something of themselves. It looks like this story formed the seed of later novels. And of course I HAD to google the rest and it looks like Steve Perry, at the very least, has also published quite a few titles).
As a side note, one author in the book defends their story and says they wished they’d kept in a part which the editor had asked them to remove. Having read both the story and the bit about what was suggested to be removed, the editor was right. Let that be a lesson to all amateurs, especially those with no or few sales. The editor is not always some monster looking to shave your story down so they can pay you less. The editor is probably not someone who is so stubborn that they can’t see how utterly brilliant you are. The editor is, in all likelihood, someone who has been entrusted with the content of the magazine or anthology (and with their money) because someone else trusts their judgement, trusts that they know what makes a story good. It doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t a good one or that the scene isn’t well written, it just means that it isn’t helping the story out, and in some cases it’s keeping it down (This author who wanted to revise back in what the editor wanted out? Not a blip on Google, unless they’ve been using a pseudonym).

The final section gave me a good chuckle, and dates the book somewhat (originally published in 1981). It’s largely about formatting, and though some of it holds true today, the complete focus on skills with a typewriter detracts from it’s helpfulness. The book is still in print today but I haven’t looked into it (I borrowed the one I read from my local library), so possibly the newer editions deal with writing in the digital age.

In the end, this is a good book for any genre writer, but it didn’t have the same immediate punch as Nascence did for me (for being a book in a similar format where complete stories are analyzed). What I learned from Buckell hits me immediately whenever I outline a story now, and whenever I edit. Maybe I only learned a handful of lessons, but I learned them well and I find it easier to keep a few major mistakes in mind and to avoid them than to keep five or ten or one hundred things in mind that need to be done right. This is the sort of book that needs to be read, and re-read, and have notes scribbled upon it, and re-read again until it becomes second nature. It’s not a fast way to learn the craft, but anybody who said learning to write was fast or easy was lying.

On Writing Science Fiction: The Editors Strike Back! is available at Chapters, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.

Also, you can still get Nascence as an ebook, DRM-free directly from Buckell’s website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble.


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