Between now and Part 3 of this series, we got off Twitter (briefly) and read actual books about writing scripts for comics, books written by a murderer’s row of influential minds in the medium. As a result, this most recent entry in our compilation series of writing tips from pros features the mighty Brian Michael Bendis (Bendis is coming!!!!!) and Alan “Watchmen” Moore. Plus, also David Lynch, who hasn’t (to my knowledge) written comics but is an amazing film director and my personal artistic spirit animal.
Before we get to it though, I have to confess that my own work is suffering lately due to me failing to invest enough time in it. To that end, I’m going to start Tweeting a weekly tally of what I write, letting you all know how many pages I outlined, scripted, finished, etc., even if it’s all zeroes. I know myself well, and this sort of accountability and shame will without question move me to productivity.
I’ll report back on how it goes in Part 5 (coming soon, after I read more books). In the meantime, I hope you’ve found a productive lifestyle and an accountability system that works well for you!
Now, onward to the advice!
David Lynch: Have a setup.
It’s almost a cliche of writing advice, but it’s important to keep a notebook with you everywhere you go. I’ve heard this in journalism school, at creative writing workshops, and from countless authors of instructional guides. I recently read a book by my favorite director—the aforementioned David Lynch—called Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, and there it was again.
“If you don’t have a setup, there are many times when you get the inspiration, the idea, but you have no tools, no place to put it together. And the idea just sits there and festers. Over time, it will go away. You didn’t fulfill it—that’s just heartache.”
To emphasize further, I’ll tell a quick story about Chris Claremont, the all-time great Uncanny X-Men writer I recently met at a comic con in Sacramento. While waiting at his table, I noticed that in the big vest Claremont wore, one pocket brimmed with tattered, oft-used notepads. Here’s a guy with nothing to prove, and he’s still practicing that old kinnard of writing advice. One must assume for a master like him, it’s simply become second nature. Us young’uns would do well to follow suit.
Brian Michael Bendis: Story outlines vs. pitch documents.
Bendis’ book Words for Pictures is an extremely practical guide, especially for those who dream of getting to Marvel or DC. It’s brimming with advice about everything from communicating with artists to identifying the best editors for a pitch. But one thing I found particularly helpful at this early stage in my career (one full script written, one series outlined, one 8-page mini comic slowly taking shape) was this about the difference between outlines and pitch documents.
“A pitch document is a quick one or two paragraph document that describes the story or series the writer is trying to sell. A story outline is a somewhat more involved document that goes into more detail about story beats and character arcs. The difference between the two documents is detail.”
This may seem rote, but when you have an idea that’s so exciting you start to get nervous, it’s incredibly grounding to have it laid out so simply. And, perhaps most usefully, Bendis’ book gives several actual examples of both documents. My own takeaway after reading them all was that I should focus on my outline, which should then later inform my pitch when I’m ready. Maybe you’ll have your own process. Another lesson from Bendis is that creating comics is a multi-faceted endeavor with few hard rules but many available examples from those who have had success and want to be helpful.
Or, as the kids say, you do you...but read up on what the masters tell you first.
Alan Moore: God damn it, you've got to be kind.
Alan Moore and George Saunders are two of my favorite writers, but outwardly they share little in common. Moore is a bearded Englishman responsible for comics like the searing social commentary V for Vendetta and the seminal superhero deconstruction Watchmen, held by many as the best superhero story ever. Saunders, meanwhile, is from Chicago (like me!) and writes hilarious and heartbreaking short stories, inimitable bursts of speculative fiction about a ghost haunting a Civil War recreation, or a male stripper whose aunt rises from the dead to demand he start showing his gear at work for more money, and so on.
Saunders and Moore do, however, have something in common: they both insist a vital part of being a good writer is being a good human (I think this is also probably true of Bendis, who “is coming!!!!!” but is also massively convivial by all indications).
Observe this quote from Moore’s book, Writing for Comics:
“...if you want to be a truly great writer, it is perhaps worth remembering that even in this, it is more important to be a good human being than it is to be a good writer. The artists, writers, painters, musicians whose voices speak loudest to us across the centuries are those that turned out to have the most profound souls…”
This makes all kinds of sense. At the core, most stories aim to show growth, and how can one convincingly depict growth without at least striving to be a good human?
Let’s listen to Saunders advising the same in a 2013 commencement speech at Syracuse:
“Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf…”
Or in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, another all-time favorite writer of mine, God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
And hey, what’s the worst case scenario? If being kind doesn’t improve your writing, you’re still putting net positivity into the world, creating something wonderful, and I don’t know about you but creating something wonderful is what brings me to my keyboard in the first place.
Zack Quaintance is a career journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at @zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.