By Paul Kupperberg
As you may have surmised by now, this column’s less about the nuts and bolts of writing than the broader ideas behind writing. Not that I don’t think that stuff’s important. It is. It’s vital; plotting, narrative, characterization, the three-act structure, pacing, et al are the mechanical parts that all go into building the engine that drives the story. I guess I’m more about the design than the engineering.
I’ve always seen writing as a craft, a skill you possess and hone through practice and repetition. Like your first efforts at whittling or painting a portrait, your early writing is not going to be good. Not at all. It will be the best you can do at the time with those native, undeveloped skills. Ironically for the writer, the beginning is not the word but the desire to tell a story. And on the second day comes the story to tell.
Every writing manual will tell you it’s okay to write a bad first draft; get the story on paper first and then go back and polish everything up pretty and nice. When you first start, a bad draft’s the only kind you’re going to write, but that’s okay too. Keep writing, keep looking for what doesn’t work and learn how to fix it. Don’t ever think there’s something you can’t learn, ever, from anybody, at any time. I have walked away from conversations with four-year olds which resulted in wonderful ideas and insights. Don’t stop, don’t ever stop. Keep writing even when no one’s paying you because even though this may be or turn out to be your full time job, you should never be writing for money.
I’ve said it before: You never write for the money but you turn in the manuscript for a check. The money, necessary though it may be, is not the objective of your writing; writing your ass off is. The check’s a perk. So is publication. That’s the frosting on the cake of the opportunity to practice your craft: To actually have it read by someone besides your friends and parents. (Wanna know a secret, and I know it’s not just me because when I get together with my fellow old-fart writer friends we all cop to it: I still get a thrill when I first see a new publication, a comic book, a novel, a short story, whatever, and there it is: my byline. Almost forty years after my first sale and following some one thousand more. It’s that good.)
But, just because I don’t discuss the nuts and bolts here doesn’t mean you should ignore them. That’s where reading comes in.
Me, I read a lot. History, science, history, non-fiction on strange subjects (salt, cod fish, oysters, the screw, books about the evolution of the book), biography, along with a healthy dose of fiction, ranging from literary to pure mindless pleasure reading. A lot of the biographies I read are about writers: J.D. Salinger, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, Mike Royko, Raymond Chandler, Truman Capote, Charles Bukowski, Pete Hamill, Robert E. Howard, Jimmy Breslin, Philip Roth, Jim Thompson…those are just a few I plucked at random from my shelves. And I don’t necessarily have to be a big fan of the author or, in some cases, even have read anything by them. There are lots more.
I think self-help books are, for the most part, for suckers. Really, how much personal insight can you gleam from such broad generalizations as are required in best-selling books by Dr. Phil and others of his ilk? But I become one of the suckers when it’s books by writers showing other writers how they do what they do.
Which brings us back to broad generalizations. How likely is it that your process is the same as my process? Or even resembles it a little? More likely, you and I approach how we write with polar opposite processes. You’d probably look at my methods and shudder and I’m likely to do the same with yours. But I’m still curious how you do it. Who knows, maybe there’s something I can steal from you that will help me. It’s happened plenty of times, and, at the risk of repeating myself: Don’t ever think there’s something you can’t learn, ever, from anybody, at any time.
F’instance, I can’t read Stephen King. I just don’t care for his stuff. It’s not a critical judgment, just that as a reader, I don’t connect with him as an author...
...But, he’s Stephen King. He’s sold more books than I can ever dream of selling, so, whether he’s to my taste or not, he’s gotta know something that I can hook into in my own writing, so I read his book, On Writing. And, you know, I walked away from it with insights.
I would be remiss if I didn’t at least point you towards some must-read books on the nuts and bolts of writing. You can’t build an engine if you don’t know what the parts do and I’ve found these books to be instructive, even reading them after I’d been doing what they’re teaching for a good number of years.
The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, by Dennis O’Neil (Watson-Guptill, 2001): I read this book in manuscript stage and kept that copy of the manuscript until I had the actual book to read. Denny is one of the best writers this field has ever seen and if you don’t know his credits, you don’t know your history and that’s a no-no (and we’ll get to that, boys and girls, in some books below!). His work on titles such as Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Batman, Iron Man, Azrael, and The Question set standards that make most of the rest of us go “D’oh!” a lot. Denny’s a thinking writer, one who looks at his craft, dissects his efforts, learns from his mistakes and shapes sharp, crisp prose that seems too simple to crackle, but son of a gun if it don’t. I’ve recently reread the first two volumes of The Question by Denny and Denys Cowan and find it’s fresher than almost anything being done today, twenty-five years later.
Think Zen, think Alex Toth, who spent years learning what to put into a drawing before he started taking things out of them and strip his style to the cartoon’s bare minimalist essence. Denny’s writing says what it means, but the beauty is, he never tells you what that is. Instead, he trusts his readers to follow along and figure it out. He’s also a generous teacher who has taught at the School of Visual Arts and lectured at universities…and at DC Comics, where he tried to impart some of his knowledge to the staff. These DC 101 classes were ostensibly for the assistant editors and younger crew, but when Denny spoke, even us older farts listened. Denny quite simply knows what he’s talking about and is worth listening to. Quite intently.
Will Eisner’s Shop Talk is a series of interviews conducted by (need I say it?) legendary Will Eisner, creator of the Spirit and of sophisticated modern narrative in graphic storytelling (y’know…growed up comic books). Previously published in magazines, Will’s style is less interviewer/interviewee as it is two pals, sitting around and talking shop (!) and the old days. We learn as much about Will as we do his “subjects,” a precious resource considering what he brought to the medium. Neal Adams, C.C. Beck, Milton Caniff, Jack Davis, Lou Fine, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Harvey Kurtzman, Phil Seuling, Joe Simon, giants all, and giants pushed to think, dissect and analyze their work and their process by the guy who set the standards for their field. It doesn’t matter that none of us can draw like Eisner or Kane or Kubert; these guys are giving the gift of gold to anybody in any creative field. It’s hard not to be inspired when sparked by men of this creative caliber.
I can only hope some or all of these books are still in print because when it comes to the sheer mechanics of the craft, there are few better than Lawrence Block, author of dozens of mystery and suspense novels, including many starring such enduring characters as recovered alcohol P.I. Matthew Scudder, burglar Bernie Rhodenbar, sleepless do-gooder Evan Tanner and Hitman John Keller. Block writes in what I call the “Mind-F*** School,” playing with the readers perceptions and expectations to shock, surprise and twist the story in ways no one ever expects. His plotting is tight and controlled (although that’s nothing a casual reader would ever pick up on; good construction like that should be so natural, you don’t even notice it’s there), his characters sharp and well-defined but always entirely human. And he writes some of the best dialogue out there. Natural, funny, smooth. There’s much of his prowess of which to be jealous.
Fortunately, the prolific Mr. Block is a sharer. He wrote a long-running column in Writer’s Digest magazine from which he pulled together his books on writing, of which I own and have read once or five times, Telling Lies For Fun & Profit (Quill Books, 1981), Writing The Novel: From Plot to Print, and Spider and Spin Me A Web: Lawrence Block on Writing Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 1979 and 1988); there’s another, it seems, entitled Write For Your Life, which I seemed to have missed but will be seeking out.) I don’t care if you’re writing a comic book story, a novel or a short story, Block’s advice is on the nose. If you’ve read enough of his novels (and I have; all of them), you know before you crack the covers of any of these books that you’re in for a treat.
I also recommend Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Annie Dillard’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, and Ray Bradbury’s Zen In The Art of Writing. Solid, sensible books that respect the process and the individual paths to creativity. And the brilliant William Goldman's (another author in the “Mind-F*** School,” a prolific novelist and screenwriter of The Marathon Man, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Great Waldo Pepper, All The President's Men, etc.) indispensable trio of behind-the-scenes reminiscences, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Which Lie Did I Tel/?, and The Big Picture.
For those of you looking to go the comic book route, there are a ton of books you can read, but a handful of must reads, to give you a true sense of the breath, depth and history of your chosen field. I don’t want to hear that you don’t know who Midnight is or what comic book company published him in the 1940s. You should know this stuff. These books should whet your appetite to learn more. If they don’t, what’re you doing trying to get into this business anyway?
The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer. Published in 1965 and heap full of Golden Age origin stories and other tales of heroes rarely glimpsed in those days, the book’s true treasure is Feiffer’s reminisces of his discovering comics in their infancy and his eventual successful quest to join the industry he loved. The book is charming and filled with the types of observances and stories that make you wish you had been there, slaving over a 64-page comic book that needed to be created, written and drawn over a weekend. Ah, the good old days! (Fantagraphics published, within the last few years, Feiffer’s essay sans the comic book reprints which are, anyway, easily available in reprints and even online these days.)
Steranko’s History of Comics Volumes 1 & 2 by Jim Steranko. Extensive, exhaustive, brilliant. We’ve been waiting since the 1970s for more!
All In Color For A Dime and The Comic Book Book edited by Don Thompson and Dick Lupoff. These came out in 1970 and 1974, reprinting articles on comic book history by then-fans (many, like Ted White and Lupoff, who went on to writing careers) from the early-1960s fanzine, Xero. Great, well-researched and fannishly-enthusiastic (but in a good way) from guys who did it all out of love. And, for one of the best, most thoroughly researched histories of the business, you can't go wrong with Gerard Jones' excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book.
There are many more books out there, how-to books, creator biographies and retrospectives, websites dedicated to any and all characters and creators, histories of the industry and art form you've chosen to dedicate your creative energies to, biographies of favorite (non-comic) authors, whatever. When you're not writing, you should be reading, these books and books by the writers who inspire you in whatever field you enjoy; just because you don't write science fiction doesn't mean there's nothing you can learn from Arthur C. Clarke or Greg Bear. It is all fodder.
Okay, you’ve got your homework assignment.
There will be a test. Open book, of course.
© Paul Kupperberg