Devourer of Words 051: Giving Thanks (and Answering Questions)

Toucan reading a comic

As we’re rolling up on Thanksgiving, I wanted to give some thanks to the readers of this column, both here and on Twitter, who engage with it in such amazing ways. So, rather that windbag my way through another column solo, I wanted to shine a light on some of them.

Before I succumb to the turkey-stuffing-pie coma, we’re gonna do an old-fashioned Q&A.

Rob Hines #NaNoWriMo‏ (@RobHinesWriter) asks…
How do you approach writing existing copyrighted characters? Do you try to write only original characters and/or public domain characters?

I think the key is to realize, right from the start, that whatever story you’re going to tell about a company-owned character isn’t going to be a transformative one. You’re never going to get to change, fundamentally, who Barry Allen is. (Unless DC asks you to do specifically that.) It’s toybox writing: You get to pick up a toy, play with it for a while, then put it back in the toybox, more or less the way you found it.

Of course, there are plenty of great stories to be told that don’t require the main character to change—see: pretty much every James Bond story. In that case, the challenge is to have the character who can’t change affect change in other people. Supporting cast, guest players, the public at large.

Figure out ways to put the character in positions that require him or her to make a decision informed by who and what they are. Difficult decisions. Then see what happens.

The challenges are the same when writing original characters — you just don’t have anyone breathing down your neck.

Juan Solo‏ (@juanjoseiturbe) asks…
What was the catalyst that made you KNOW you were a writer? I’m trying to get my kids into something to express themselves. I love reading, but never got the itch to write. I’m amazed by those who can; and do express themselves so well. Is there something you’d recommend for a 10-year-old?

I wanted to be an artist until I realized I couldn’t draw. (Then I briefly detoured into wanting to be an architect because I foolishly thought it was drawing with rulers.) I think I’ve always been fascinated by stories, before I consciously knew that it was something you could do for a living. When I was in college I wrote and directed a bunch of short films that always fell short of my vision, for any number of reasons. But I then shifted to writing because, on the page, it was always the way I wanted it to be.

Hopefully, your kid loves reading; it’s the gateway drug to writing. Also try role-playing games. Playing D&D as a teenager was my first foray into collaborative storytelling. If you’re the player, you are literally making it up as you go; helping to drive the narrative, making choices that change the outcome. It engages the imagination—which is the real ammunition for any writer.

Jordan Clark‏ (@Jrsosa18) asks…
What’s your method for dialogue? Is it something you have a feel for going in or do you work on it until you have to send the script out?

If I’m writing for the page, I aim for dialogue that A) gets the emotional/plot information across and B) sounds cool. If you’re writing a pre-existing character, you should already know their voice. Batman says things that only Batman would say—there’s 75 years worth of reference. But part of the work of creating a character is knowing where they come from, what the circumstances of their formative years are. A poor kid from Kansas City will not sound like a rich kid from San Francisco. And Clark Kent the Kryptonian should speak differently from Kara Danvers the Kryptonian.

Dialogue will always be the thing you work on until the deadline, partially because it’s the thing you can always obsess over. Trust yourself. Listen to the world. People speak in funny ways. They almost never use complete sentences and almost never say what they mean.

Mrs. White‏ (@CannaMiss) asks…
How do you write about the political atmosphere of today without alienating your audience whose views could be wildly opposite or even agree too much with your own views, while keeping it factual?

Luckily for my sanity, I tend to write genre material—and genre has long had the capacity to comment on current events in such a way that Trojan horses it past the resistance of those who might disagree.

But I think you have to be unafraid to tackle the stories that call to you—and when a story calls to you, it’s not because of the political angle you can take, or the moral high ground you think it’ll let you occupy.  A story begs to be told because of the characters in it, because of the world that’s coalescing in your subconscious. And if you let those beacons guide you, you can have some faith that some of your audience will see the story, not the politics.

Brian Stoner‏ (@DiscoD_83) asks…
With so many years of content out there how do you keep your writing original in a field where so much has already been done?

A lot of it comes with trying to keep current—a fool’s errand if ever there was one, as these days there’s too much content for any one person to read/watch/listen to it all. It is, honestly, one of the reasons I chase after too many work-for-hire opportunities on legacy characters—what are the odds that you’ll find the one story no one has told about Spider-Man? Of course it’s possible, and writers like Dan Slott do it on a sickeningly regular basis.

But if you’re writing original characters, then almost by definition, the stories will feel new and fresh. Know the landscape as well as you can, then aim for the sweet spots.

Mike Fedoris‏ (@mcfedoris) asks…
What’s the major differences writing solo, with a partner and writing in a writing room?

Writing by yourself involves lots of staring at a keyboard, wondering why you’re not smarter/faster/funnier/better. It’s a solitary experience, but one that doesn’t ask you to budge at all from what you want to do. You don’t have to compromise for anyone or anything—but you also have to solve each and every problem by yourself.

Writing with a partner is an intimate form of collaboration—you have to know each other well enough so that the fights you have won’t escalate into friendship-shattering rows. And if you find a partner who complements your skill set—is strong where you’re weak—you can do great things. But every difference of opinion needs to be argued over and won. You are equal partners.

Writing in a room is an exercise in social judgment. Everyone is there because they’re smart, but not every idea is going to fly. You have to look at it as skipping a rock across a perpetual lake—every idea pitched in the room needs to add one more bounce to the rock, and if someone sours the room with negativity, or if someone exerts some political power move, then the rock will sink.

You have to know how to read a room and call your shots. But when that rock is skipping and everyone is contributing, it’s a joy to behold.

Mohammed Hoosen‏ (@MoeLycaen) asks…
How do you go about getting your writing out there? Say you have a whole universe all written out and ready to be transferred into a comic and published. How do you get it to those last two steps?

If the last couple of years of Hollywood movies have shown us, don’t make the first thing you do building your universe and foisting it upon anyone. The single biggest universe in Hollywood—the Star Wars universe—started with one movie that was a complete experience. Sure, George Lucas had given some not-so-idle thought to the nine movies in the Skywalker Saga, but that first Star Wars movie has a beginning, middle, and end. If we never got another Star Wars story, we’d have been satisfied.

So tell one great story that rewards the reader for having read it. Find a collaborator willing to take that finite journey with you. Pitch it to publishers, or crowdfund it, or self-finance and put it online.

A “universe” can be daunting to new adopters. But a well-told story is like a drug that only works on humans—and they can’t get enough.

That’s all for the mail bag and that’s it for the year. Thanks for reading, have a fantastic Holiday season, and we’re see each other in the New Year.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words will return the third Tuesday in January.

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