In writing, the simplest truth is that if you don’t sit down to write, the work won’t get done, regardless of your talent. This sounds obvious (I can just feel your eye rolls), but being disciplined and making time to write is the advice I've heard accomplished writers give the most.
Yet, for me it’s a struggle, because there’s always Twitter and my stacks of unread comics and the simple pleasures of just staring wistfully into space. Making time to write every day is kind of like getting eight hours of sleep: I know how important it is, but wasting time on my phone is just sooooo much easier.
To combat distraction, however, I try to think of my daily writing time (ideally an hour before work each morning and another hour at night after dinner) as a foundation. In that, I could know all there is to know about building fancy walls and windows, but the whole thing will fall over if I don’t have a solid base.
That metaphor is a bit jumbled (self editing is also very important, clearly), but there’s truth in it somewhere. Basically, I think you can know characters and three-act structure and scripting and suspense, but if you don’t put your time in, all your other knowledge will go to waste.
This series, however, is not about my own fairly obvious musings! (Although, I do tack some onto each section.) No, it’s about the advice I compile from comic book writers and editors and other creative people. Before we get to that good stuff, though, I’d like to note that last week’s How to Write Comics: Tips from the Pros Part 1 is and will continue to be up on the site. And, as always, if you want to share your own tips, thoughts, or just some pictures of small dogs looking like cranky humans, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Happy writing and creating, friends, much love to you this week with all your creative endeavors!
The Importance of Writing When You Don’t Feel Like It
Eric Heisserrer is the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter responsible for Arrival as well as for the best Valiant book of 2017, Secret Weapons. He may have a difficult to spell last name that I had to triple check, but he also knows the importance of getting yourself to the keyboard at times when you don’t feel inspired to write. Here's a bit from his Twitter:
I have written more than 400 script pages in the last three months and, while it has been awful, there were a dozen brilliant discoveries in that mess. Writing when I don't want to write often bears fruit.
I LOVE this. I'm one who makes this excuse: “I don’t have any ideas right now, so I’ll just skip today and go hard tomorrow.” Sound familiar? I bet it does. Well, Heisserrer’s Tweet exposes this as a lazy cop out. It’s important, of course, to write when you’re burning with inspiration, but it’s equally as important to force yourself back to your pages when you don’t feel like it. You never know what you'll find until you open your word doc and arrive (sorry, Mr. Heisserrer! I have a lot of growing to do still, clearly).
How to Write Comics: Scripting
Greg Pak, who you may know from the super-underrated Totally Awesome Hulk or the increasingly popular Mech Cadet Yu, gave me a gift this week. While I was putting together this piece, he laid down a Twitter thread about comic book writing so exquisite, I nearly wept. This thread got much run, but I'm going to rehash it here in case you missed it, as well as for posterity. Buckle in, because it's a long one. You might even call it hulking (what is wrong with me?):
How I write a comic book script:
- Outline the whole thing.
- Break the outline down into pages.
A. Break pages down into panels, then add dialogue.
B. Hammer out some dialogue, then break down into panels.
- Write from the beginning, but if I get stuck, skip around and write the easier scenes first.
- Go back and write the harder scenes, which are easier now that I've done the rest.
A. If I'm really stuck on a scene/beat, call up my editor and talk it out. Editors are awesome. Sometimes they just nod and say "uh huh" and let me blab until I work it out. Sometimes they ask just the right questions. These calls ALWAYS help.
- Rewrite the easier scenes now that I've written the harder scenes and know my story better.
- Go through and edit everything multiple times.
- Turn it in when I run out of time.
- Enjoy that fourteen minutes of calm you get after turning in a script.
- Work on revisions.
- Figure out what it's REALLY all about and make the subtle dialogue tweaks that bring out that deeper theme/emotional thread.
Also worth noting re: 1: If my outline is really working, it nails the big plot beats as well as the big emotional turning points & thematic brushstrokes. All the essential things that make the story work & matter. A great outline means the scripting goes MUCH more smoothly.
Hardest parts of writing a script:
- The outline.
- The beginning (particularly working in exposition seamlessly in a serial story).
- The ending/cliffhanger.
- Pages 14-16 or so. Those beats before the climax (p.s. it's all hard, sorry.).
There's an interesting mechanical aspect to writing a script, sometimes. Where you come up against page count limits, for example, and realize that helps you make decisions that work. For example, every once in a while, I'll have a 3-page scene that's hard to crack. So I'll write everything that precedes & follows it. And suddenly I discover that there's only a page left for the tricky scene -- and that's all it needed. Or maybe I don't really need it at all.
Two general notes to myself that always seems to work is give your characters quiet moments that dramatize character, especially early in the script/story, and give the big emotional beats time to play out. Let it breathe when it needs to breathe.
There's a lot of unspoken panic, particularly in superhero comics, to blow something up pretty quickly. Understandable. Gotta grab people's attention in 5-page previews. BUT action without emotional drama falls flat. Gotta take the time to build character and emotional drive.
Other ongoing activities essential to the writing process:
A. Drink a glass of water.
B. Get enough sleep and food.
C. Acknowledge that whatever you're writing this very instant isn't perfect, but you're gonna revise it and make it better and "perfection" is an illusion anyway.
Also worth noting: Everyone has a different process! This is just what works for me, right now, for the most part, most of the time. Figure out what works for you and do that.
This is helpful in a couple ways. Not only has he given us so much invaluable practical advice, but he's also given us encouraging glimpses into his own occasional frustrations and struggles. I'm yet to be paid for a script, and I find it incredibly comforting that someone as experienced and good at what he does as Pak has similar troubles as I do.
How to Write Comic Books: Gail Simone Section
One of my favorite comic book writers on Twitter is Gail Simone, who is not only really good at what she does, but is also incredibly generous with advice. I featured her last week, I'm featuring her again here, and, WARNING, I'll probably feature her again next week. For today, she weighed in on the value of finishing small projects when you're just starting out:
First, get something completed. It is a rare person new to comics who can make a full OGN happen. Start smaller. A smaller story has fewer places to hide, and thus is better practice, anyway.
Every item you COMPLETE will change you for the better, I promise. If you finish a ten page story, you will have learned a metric ton of information about what NOT to do next time. But it only works if you FINISH things.
Now, I have a bit of experience writing short stories, with a handful of publications at journals that even many folks in the literary world haven't heard of, so I'm by no means an expert, but one of the obstacles that tripped me up when I started was that I obsessed over my BIG ideas, thinking I could and should be able to execute them now. I wish I'd known the value of baby-steps, as well as the value of being patient with one's art. No writing time is ever wasted, of course, but I would have certainly done things a bit differently.
Motivation from Lin-Manuel Miranda
Our final comic writing tip this week comes from outside the medium, from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the lyricist, composer and playwright behind Broadway mega hit Hamilton. Really though, this one is an inspirational missive for any creative, one that shows the broad ways (at what point is this a cry for help?) and time investment one must make for success. On New Year’s Eve 2017, Miranda Tweeted:
What I was doing on New Years Eve 2011. The work is hard but it is worth it. Don’t give up.
With a screen cap of another Tweet of his from back then...
It’s very hard to write battle raps between Jefferson and Hamilton when you’re nowhere near as smart as the people for whom you are writing. The hamster in the hamster wheel that runs my fevered brain needs a drink.
I find this incredibly inspirational. Roughly five years after this Tweet, Miranda's hard work bore fruit in the form of the most successful Broadway musical penned in most of our lifetimes. He was clearly struggling when he wrote the first one, but he forced himself onward, kept working, kept running with that hamster wheel in his fevered brain. Pretty awesome.
Anyway, do you hear that? It’s the keyboards of the world calling us to give them some love. Best of luck, friends. I hope the ideas flow, but, more importantly, I hope you stick to your writing schedule. The brilliant work inside you depends on it!
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.