I’ve been too quiet on here as of late because, guess what, I’ve been writing! Specifically, I’ve been revising pitches to Boom!, reworking the third act of my screenplay, and revising the slightly over 300 pages of the first draft of my novel. I’ve never felt so confident in my talent, and Mr. Miranda’s line “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” deeply resonates with me; I’m working hard to complete these stories and get them out to the world more than ever before.
But in the past few months, while doing all of this writing, I’ve been picking up odds and ends of advice, which I want to share. Although no piece of advice this year may compare to Jackson Lanzing’s dictum “Do whatever you want with the goddamn cat.”
Sierra Hahn is co-editing my next book at Boom! She joined the company after a long time at Dark Horse, where she edited the Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics and sundry other books, including one of the greatest OGNs of the decade in my humble opinion, Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case’s Green River Killer. I was fortunate to meet Hahn in person when she moderated panels at C2E2, including one on what editors do, where she passed along some sage advice.
Hahn outlined four key things she looks for most in a project. Three are storytelling-related: clarity, consistency, and sense. A comic, especially a monthly book, needs to have a lot of imagination, but also a unified tone and a plan for how to transition to the next part of the story, or else it’s going to be a mess that will push away readers. The fourth thing is different, and a rule I have lived by since I began making comics: never be late. Never miss a deadline. And the flipside of that is if you underpromise, you overdeliver. Be aware of what you are capable of, and then make promises based on how well you can pull that off. Be honest about those promises. And in this way, you will never disappoint or create a bad reputation for yourself.
One of the greatest struggles of my life has been writing dialogue. Especially in the early drafts, the characters all come out sounding like me. Everyone who has worked with me knows this. Stephen Christy even suggested that I include a scene in the autobiographical comic in which all the characters turn into variations of me to highlight this point.
As many of my friends are aware, I have developed a huge admiration for John Allison, creator of Giant Days among others. A few weeks ago, he was answering questions on twitter and I decided to take a chance. Since I can hear the individual voices in Giant Days quite clearly, I asked “How do you create such different manners of speaking for the characters when writing dialogue?”
His initial answer was facetious: “They’re all drawn differently so they all sound differently!” Then he offered a fascinating idea. Every character, Allison said, has a different poetic rhythm and meter in their dialogue, so no one will express a thought in the same way as anyone else.
Right now, as I revise my novel’s second draft before sending it out to beta readers, I have found a different poet or songwriter for each character and am tailoring dialogue to match these distinct rhythms and patterns. I won’t know how efficacious it will be until someone else reads it, but I am having fun giving this a try.
Finally, one magical, slightly drizzly night, Stewart Martin came over to help talk me through my screenplay’s third act problems. We solved them, and in the process he said something so simple and brilliant that of course I’d never thought about it in all of my years of writing.
My screenplay’s last act involves one character making an offhand choice in dealing with the protagonist, a choice that pushes the finale into being. Stewart was puzzling over the motivation of why the character does what she does to the protagonist, and in working out her full motivation, he said something that made my heart skip a beat: “The characters in your story don’t know that it’s going to end in five pages or be over five minutes from now.”
What he had been referring to was the need to make sure an audience didn’t view her last choice as simply a matter of setting the final scenes in motion, but it made sense beyond that. Real life does not always allow us to see the momentous occasion coming that changes us for better or for worse. It does not allow us to look ahead and see our death coming. The same goes for stories: we know how things are going to end, but we cannot write as if the characters know the end is coming. They all have to carry on as if their conflicts are going to last, their ambitions will not be dashed, success and failure will not be around the corner they’re approaching. I am a dedicated planner and outliner, but planning so conscious that you telegraph the ending by the characters’ actions and words in advance makes the story less fun for an audience to experience. Overcoming this block makes your work more surprising, and provides for finishes no one sees coming.