Saturday, July 12, 2008

Writing is Hard: Beginnings, Show vs. Tell, Getting Graphic, Readers, Getting Published, Rewrites, Artists, the Next Project, and Marketing

I need to go ahead and post a lot of stuff I've been hoarding about the craft and business of writing.

Exciting beginnings

There's a really useful critique blog called Flogging the Quill that encourages writers to grab readers' attentions on the first page. Writers send in the first chapter of their works in progress and professional editor Ray Rhamey reviews them based on how well the first 16 lines make him want to turn the page. He usually goes into a lot more detail than just that though and points out other craft errors that he sees. It's a great opportunity for writers to learn from others' mistakes and - if you're brave enough - get some free advice on your own writing. I've even submitted something myself and learned a lot in the process.

Anyway, Ray's got a couple of nice articles on his blog about the importance of catching readers right away. In one he uses the analogy of storyteller as river guide:

Heezan (Author) shoves off, and they glide down the river on an easy-going current. Heezan says, "Note the lovely hues of red and gold in the rose garden on the far bank." He steers the bow a few degrees toward the near shore. "And here is where our hero was born, poor tyke, the sad victim of -- "

Ima (Reader) peers ahead. "Oh, the hero. I'm so eager to see him."

"Soon enough, soon enough, dear reader. But first, see the ramshackle one-room schoolhouse where Hero first met Heroine, though their meeting was a tussle over who got the swing -- "

It's no surprise that the reader's next words are a request to be let off the boat. It's an inspirational article.

Ray's other piece is more practical. Using a story about a couple of kittens, he gives several suggestions for powerfully opening your novel.

Telling the story in visual terms

/Film has a great quote by Alfred Hitchcock on how the introduction of sound hurt cinema. At first I was struck by how easily it could also apply to comics, but I think there are also applications for novelists as well. It's really just a different way of expressing the Show; Dont Tell rule.

...we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between… To me, one of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.’ Dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”

How spicy?

The BookEnds Literary Agency offers advice on how graphically violent or sexual a book should be. Their suggestion is to do what's right for the book you're writing. Don't second guess yourself by thinking about what publishers and/or readers want. If a publisher wants you to tone something down or spice it up, they'll tell you. As for readers...

Readers don't always know what they want.

Writers can drive themselves insane trying to predict or respond to what readers want. I think it's always helpful to remember that readers don't always know what they want. Case in point, a recent convention at which Marvel Comics Editor in Chief Joe Quesada was asked when Marvel was going to slow down with the big events its been known for the last few years.

Quesada interpreted that question as, "You mean, when are our books going to suck again?" But then he gave a more serious answer that was profound in its simplicity. "At the end of the day, what it means to me, is that our stuff is so compelling that you want to get it. My job ... and all our jobs here are to make you want to buy everything we put out."

Fans sometimes talk about being "forced" to buy comics they don't want, but of course that's ridiculous. No one forces you to buy anything, it's your own collector mentality. You can't really blame the comics creators for recognizing that though and exploiting it. That's like blaming McDonalds because you like their fries so much that you quit eating salads.

WALL-E's director agrees

Andrew Stanton on making animated films for adults:

“I don’t mean this in a negative way, but I don’t think of the audience at all, because I don’t go to see a movie hoping the filmmaker’s second-guessed what I want. I go to see what he wants, because I like his taste and style, and I want to see what he’s going to do next.

“The day we start thinking about what the audience wants, we’re going to make bad choices. We’ve always holed ourselves up in a building for 4 years and ignored the rest of the world, because nobody are bigger movie geeks than we are, so we know exactly what we are dying to see with our family and kids. We don’t need other people to tell us that. We trust the audience member in ourselves.”

Getting published

Science Fiction author Crawford Kilian agrees with and comments on Robert Heinlein's "Five Rules for Writers." The rules are more about getting published than the craft itself, but unless you're just writing for your own edification, they're vital. Here they are in list form, but you should also read Kilian's insightful commentary.

  1. Writers write.
  2. Writers finish what they write.
  3. Writers never rewrite, except to editorial order (this one requires the most clarification by Kilian).
  4. Writers put their work on the market (that's the publishing market; not the bookstore market).
  5. Writers keep their work on the market until it sells.
More on rewrites

I used to have Neil Gaiman's "Advice to Authors" printed and hung on my wall next to my desk. I don't know why it's not anymore; I should probably do that again. It's incredibly helpful.

One of the things he says in there concerns rewriting: "
The best advice I can give on this is, once it's done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you're ready, pick it up and read it, as if you've never read it before. If there are things you aren't satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that's revision."

But recently, an unpublished writer challenged him on that:
...the thing is, I don't do it like that at all.

For one thing, I don't write a first draft completely, then edit it several times. I work with scenes. I write a scene, I correct it, a re-correct it, I edit it and so on. I usually have a story planned out in my head entirely, so I end up writing the scenes in any order, really, although it's mostly chronological.

I'm guessing your advice would probably be "whatever works for you", but the thing is, I don't know if it works for me. I've never finished a novel yet.
To which Gaiman responded:
The biggest problem I can see with the way you're doing it is that it doesn't seem to give you anything finished. (If it was working for you I'd have no suggestions...)
And then he goes on to offer his brilliantly useful advice that you should go read yourself. It comes down to something that another writer called "making mud" though. Your first draft, especially when you're just starting out, isn't supposed to be a completed masterpiece. Using sculpture as an analogy, you're just creating the mud that you're going to sculpt from. That metaphor of the first draft as a pile of dirt and water was hugely liberating for me. Now, I'm all about writing every day until I eventually complete that draft. Then I'll be able to go back and make something cool out of it.

Finding and working with artists

This is comics-specific, but editor/writer Jason Rodriguez (who's worked with a lot of artists) spills the beans on his method for finding and building relationships with artists. Here's one of my favorite quotes:
I think the number one reason writers have a hard time finding an artist is because they find someone they like and they send them an email saying something along the line of, "Hey - I love your work. Blah, blah, blah. By the way, I have this project that I'd think you'd do SO well on. We should totally work together."

That's like asking for sex on the first date. Actually, that's not true. That's like asking for sex immediately after introducing yourself.

"Come here often? My name's Jason. Let's f***."
I also love how he totally dispels the Artist Flake-Out Myth.

What to write next

The BookEnds Literary Agency has more advice, this time on what to work on next while you're shopping around the first book in your series. Do you begin the next book in the series or start on something completely new?
I would never urge a writer to work on the next book in the series while I’m submitting the first. When a series idea is on submission I talk with the author and encourage her to start coming up with fresh new ideas. Why? Because if the first book in the series isn’t going to sell, it’s very likely the second book isn’t either.
Comics Marketing

Here's a podcast interview with a very smart comics retailer about what he's looking for in new comics to sell and what you can do to grab his attention. It essentially boils down to getting readers excited enough about your book that they'll pre-order it, and letting retailers see the work before they have to make a decision about whether or not to carry it. But there are also practical suggestions for how to do those two things, so it's worth a listen.

Other retailers echo that advice and offer additional opinions in this excellent interview at the Newsarama blog.

Tim Broderick also stresses the importance of getting out and meeting not only retailers, but libraries and bookstores as well. And having freebies. Bookmarks and postcards and mini-comics are awesome. I've got to start using those to create interest in my stuff at conventions.

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