Keeping Score: April 19, 2019

1,086 words this week, all for the novel edit, this time.

Though I suppose calling what I’m doing a second draft would be more accurate. I’m not just reading through chapters, tweaking phrases and dialog. I’m rewriting some chapters wholesale, others I’m stitching together from bits and pieces of the previous draft like a linguistic version of Frankenstein’s monster.

It’s hard to ignore that previous draft, sometimes, even when I know it’s wrong. Not just bad — though the writing certainly deserves the name vomit draft — but wrong. Wrong for the story, wrong for the characters, wrong for the book. And yet, the fact that its words are done, written there on the page, makes it tempting to use them. Even when I know I shouldn’t.

So it’s easier to delete them, get them out of the way. Of course, then I’m staring at a blank page, that intimidating spotless thing. Who am I to rubbish it up, especially when I know this won’t be the last draft? These revisions will need revisions, and those will need tweaks, and those will need a polish.

I resort to tricks, at that point. Lie to myself. “Just 50 words,” I’ll say, “and then you can go back to Twitter.” Or: “Just describe what this character feels right now. You’ll cut it later, but get it done now, just in case some of it’s good.”

And once I’m going, it’s hard to stop. Even when the clock reminds me that it’s time to close up shop and head to the day job, to earn the money I use to keep my hobby — my art — going.

Every day a new trick. A new lie. But every day the word count grows. The work takes shape. The story comes alive.

WonderCon 2019: Day Two

Day Two of WonderCon was packed with panels and interviews. I admit it was almost too much; towards the end of the day I stopped taking notes, and just sat back and listened.

But I still took down lots of good advice, from building a career in comics to getting hired on staff for a TV show.

Many thanks to the creators who took time away from their work and their families to share their insights and advice with us!

Breaking in and Staying in Comics

jim zub, max dunbar, chip mosher, ivan salazar, kiersten wing

jim zub: currently writing the avengers and iron man; did the rick & morty vs dungeons & dragons comic

max dunbar: artist, worked on dungeons & dragons, various comics at dc and marvel

jim zub: unlike a lot of other industries, you can go to conventions and show off your stuff, meet people; easiest way to get started in comics is to start making comics; got his own start in animation, because it seemed easier (to him) to break into (so many people needed for every project); started doing his own comic in the evenings after work (c. 2001); what’s amazing about the internet is a lot of the barriers to getting your work out there are gone

max dunbar: x-men cartoon blew his mind when he was young; drew all the time, thought “there’s a job where you get to draw non-stop”; much later, started taking his work to conventions; first breakthrough was convention in 2012, getting into a portfolio review, talking to editor directly, showing them his work

kiwi: there’s a lot of different jobs in comics: marketing, editorial, etc. lots of other ways to get in

chip: got into comics in ’82, parents let him have a subscription to rolling stone, which was a mistake, but it had an article about the dark knight, and he thought “this comic’s going to be hot”, so he went into the shop and bought two number 1s; soon followed with swamp thing, watchmen, etc; one his favorite comic companies at the time was kamiko: robotech, johnny quest, grendel, mage, etc; worked in a comic shop when he was a kid; somehow talked his parents into letting him take a bus from houston to san diego to let him go to comic-con when he was 16; he volunteered because he couldn’t afford a badge; ended up meeting bob and diane with kamiko, who took them to a party where he got to hang out with mark hamill, ended up working for them, and then moving to boom studios and helping them staff up and become a major player, then to the movie side for oni press, then…

max dunbar: make as many contacts as you can early on, never know when those contacts are going to provide an in

jim zub: joined a creative community early on, they would go to the cons and then to dinner afterward, and all look out for each other as each of them got their foot in the door

kiwi: and not only those contacts help you get in the door, but they become your support system later on

jim zub: though if you take a hunt-and-kill approach to making contacts, just looking for the next person to help your career, people are going to notice and you won’t be the kind of relationships you need to not only get in but become a better artist, a better collaborator; seek out the people on the sidelines, who aren’t being mobbed, they’re all important, and they can become part of your support system (and also: it’s just good people to recognize the humanity in others)

ivan: got his job in marketing not on the basis of his professional stuff, but on the strength of his fan-mix covers; because (according to chip) they were more him

jim zub: agreed; so many people pitch stories that they don’t really care about; but the biggest successes in indie comics over the last 25 years have been passion projects; nothing else is going to keep you going when you’re juggling a day job and grinding this out on the side

audience questions:

  • for jim: how do you get in the mindset for villains? jim -> when writing, he’s done so much d&d, he’s literally roleplaying all of it; villains are people that think they’re good and can always justify how they’re working towards their goals; they’re driven people; if you don’t know who your characters are, if you’re just putting them in there because “we need a bad guy” they’re not going to feel real to the reader; finds villainy for villainy’s sake to be boring, always wants to find their motivation
  • if you come in later in life, with a day job, how do you balance that?
    • jim -> can be really difficult, he’s still teaching, and writing at night, it’s nuts and it’s hard to get in the right amount of writing; like any hobby, like exercise or dieting or anything habit-forming, you need to be able to carve out that time; and hopefully the people in your life understand that and will give you your space; it’s so important to stop pretending like “i’m going to take 6 months off and do my creative project”, that’s a lie; make incremental progress constantly, daily, and then you’ll look in the rearview mirror one day and marvel at your progress
    • max -> start small, on anthologies, short comics; it’s important to work on projects and finish them, put them in your portfolio; put in the daily effort you’ll need to work on your craft
    • jim -> definitely don’t do things like cashing out your retirement account early so you can take a year off work to produce a comic; the problem with getting advice from successful people is that none of the bodies strewn on the fields around them speak up and talk about how things didn’t work out for them
    • max -> you can keep your job and work in comics, it’ll just take more discipline to juggle the two
  • american market is saturated with superheroes, can you talk about pitching stuff that isn’t that?
    • jim -> would not recommend trying to break in with a superhero comic; better to do a different genre, and build your rep there
    • max -> plenty of other stuff out there; his first superhero book was just last year
    • ivan -> for pitching, look at editors, see what they’re working on, look for similar stuff, and pitch your stories to those editors
    • jim -> check the names in the back, be targeted in your pitches, look for the people/names in common with the work you like; when you reach out to them, be genuine, don’t blow smoke, make a real connection based on your research and your fandom
  • jim: don’t send generic emails out to companies; meet people, and send your stuff to them

Spotlight on Scott Snyder

with whitney moore, host of the DC Daily (podcast?)

“what does it mean to have 80 years of batman?”

  • batman was one of his favorite comics when he was little; he’s from New York, grew up when times square, etc wasn’t considered safe; batman resonated with the problems he saw growing up, every day
  • and you want him to win, because he’s the most human of the heroes; no super speed or strength or anything else

didn’t handle his first year of writing batman well; got the book when he was in a low place, was really unsure of himself; was writing short stories at the time, one of them caught the attention of editors at DC, was only supposed to do background for the book, and then suddenly got handed the whole book; thought he’d only have that one shot at batman; wasn’t handling pressure well, was drinking too much at cons and parties, getting into fights with editors, etc; ran into grant morrison, who told him the only way he could deal is if made his character have a birth and death, and that’s when he started working on zero year; wanted batman to deal with the problems his kids are dealing with (shooter drills, terrorism, things that scott didn’t have to deal with when he was little)

batman laughs is his chance to vent, be crazy; write the anti-batman; let loose with all his little problems like “i got stuck in traffic today”

what is it about the horror genre that draws you?

  • was a very weird, anxious kid; lots of worries and anxieties; horror helped him deal with them
  • found a loophole in the video store: they wouldn’t rent R-rated videos to kids, but they would deliver them to your home; remembers getting night of the living dead, made a huge impact on him, so bleak, so socially conscious, lived in his imagination for months
  • horror is the perfect distillation of conflict; even if you’re writing a drama, you’re pitting the hero against their own worst fears; if you’re writing horror, you can go at it directly
  • takes your worst fear and makes you face it; takes the worst version of what you’re afraid of, and makes you face it, and then you come back ok

but even your horror has levity, how do you approach that? is a formula of timing, or..?

  • tries to throw in jokes because you need some release through the book

always puts himself in the work; it comes from what he’s struggling with personally; if you’re an aspiring writer, be prepared to be vulnerable, because the only way you’ll make these characters original is to bring to them your fears and problems

advice for aspiring writers and artists?

  • you gotta write your own favorite story that day; doesn’t have to be the smartest or the funniest, but the story that would change you that day
  • pragmatically; it’s going to suck; there’s going to be lots of years when everyone else has careers, and you’re like “i’m a writer!” with no credits
  • you can’t wait for the muse, you have to think of it as your real job, your secret identity, and work it like a real job
  • when he started out, he wasn’t the brightest bulb in the class when it came to writing, but he wanted to do it, and so he kept at it

audience questions?

  • writer’s block is just the fear of writing something shitty; even on the days where you suck, you have to write anyway
  • what if you don’t want to confront yourself on the page?
    • there’s no way to avoid it; whatever you write will be you; even if you don’t want to face your fears, write what about something you love, and make the villain the thing you hate, and you’ll still be confronting yourself on the page

Inside the Writer’s Room

chris parnell, gabrielle stanton, ashley miller, steven melching, ryan condal, deric hughes, bo yeon kim, kay reindl, jesse alexander, sarah watson, brian ford sullivan, marc bernardin, mark a altman

haven’t done a breaking in panel in a while, let’s do that, shall we?

focus on the staff writer today; how do they fit into the room?

gabby: levels: staff writer -> story editor -> executive story editor -> co-producer -> producer -> supervising producer -> co-executive producer -> executive producer, and that’s wobble for a while

who hires writers?

  • mark: writers hire writers; he wrote comic books for a while, didn’t work out, agent got ahold of one of his comics and said what do you want to do when you grow up; need to be able to write a pilot, need to come to LA for meetings, need to wow a show-runner, need to be able to plug holes as a staff writer; your job is to help the show-runner execute their vision
  • ryan: even show-runner has to get approval up the chain

in order to get hired, have to get your name on a list. how do you get on a show-runners list?

  • sarah: once you’ve written your one great script, write your second great script; you don’t know what show-runners are gonna be looking for; having a breadth of material helps; write as much as you can, because you get better with every script

recording this for inside the writer’s room podcast, which will launch later this year

jesse, how many scripts had you written when you got staffed?

  • wrote mostly features first, got into tv because a friend did and said it was fun
  • found his voice very early on, but now he’s so old that he’s lost his voice
  • write what you love and what you want to see, just crank out tons of it
  • wrote 40-some scripts just to learn how to do it

understand: the show-runner’s been moving up the chain for years, and this is their one shot to get their vision out, so they want to build a room that can get their voice out there

as a show-runner, what are you looking for?

  • jesse: had series with nbc, young writer submitted 2 spec scripts for other shows, and they were amazing and they were two very different shows, and so he hired her
  • kaye: is always looking for the writing; tip: read lots of scripts, read good ones and bad ones; most scripts aren’t bad, they’re just average; when you read something with a craft to it and a point of view to it, it stands out; she’s looking for someone that has their craft working for them
  • mark: wrote an original pilot that got him on castle; but he’d written features for years

when trying to get in a room, should they focus on specs or original material?

  • mark: recommend writing original material; really depends on the show runner; he prefers reading original
  • gabby: have a spec in your back pocket, because a lot of the writing programs now are asking for a spec and an original
  • sarah: have a spec because it teaches you how to write in someone else’s voice
  • kaye: also helpful to learn how to breakdown a show

when staffing colony, ryan only show sci-fi scripts, but he really wanted drama writers, because the show was meant to be character-driven in a sci-fi backdrop; also looking for diverse voices, even someone that doesn’t like science fiction to find out what kind of show they would watch

gotta market yourself to get on staff, right?

  • deric: yes, you want to pick a lane, get known for something to get on a list, and then once you’re established, you can move out of the lane; writing a smallville episode got him representation, but writing a rescue me episode is what got him his first job; gotta prove that you can write, no matter your lane
  • ashley: i’m supposed to have a lane, but i’ve been drinking, and so i don’t know the lane until i get home; been doing a lot of sword&sorcery lately; finding a lane is good advice, because it’s about knowing who you are as a writer; having a ground truth you can start from is very powerful; should constantly be creating material and developing skills

nelson, any different in animation?

  • in the early days, in the 80s, was studio staff driven; building full of writers would be assigned to whatever shows they were doing
  • then it became a freelance model, with single show-runner
  • now it’s more like tv model, with staffs of writers working on show
  • want to emphasize that it’s important to find your voice and where you fit, because it’ll be soul-crushing to be stuck somewhere you’re not happy working in (imagine being stuck in a show type you don’t like for 4-5 years)

what sets a good script apart from a bad script?

  • ryan: voice; it’s the hardest thing to quantify, but when you read a cormac mccarthy novel, you know it: that’s a voice; that’s the thing that leaps off the page, especially for people reading tons of scripts every day
  • jesse: looks for craft in the scene; needs someone who can tell a story and knows the format of tv; know how to tell a story in a scene
  • kaye: no more excuses for not having the right format for your script; when reading for a competition, knew she had a good script just from the way the writer started off the episode (just five pages in)
  • sarah: it’s character; wants to feel like she knows those characters; nothing more boring than a cop show that’s just about cop stuff; hook her with the characters, and then she’ll be into everything else

what’s a good pilot character?

  • jesse: put specifics in it; don’t say “i love a car” say exactly what car; this is nuts and bolts stuff that’ll make your work stand out
  • marc: it’s a character that’s never satisfied; the show is them trying to cross that gulf between where they are and what they want (ex: buffy and her need to be normal); mulder is much more interesting before he finds his sister

brian: got in through the warner-bros workshop; made it through a scene of house he wrote

what are options out there for getting in the room?

  • warner brothers writers’ workshop
  • abc/disney
  • writers on the verge (nbc)
  • cbs writers’ mentoring program
  • writers’ assistant is another way in; they’re the keeper of the wikipedia of the show, they keep all the notes and all the discussion from the room; they have to take everything and collate it into coherent thought at the end of the day, and send it out to the writers
  • marc: don’t be a dick; conduct yourself with grace; a lot of this business is people you know, and if you’re a dick, people will find out and they won’t want to hire you
  • also: don’t go on twitter and tear other shows down, it’s not a good way to get known; people look at your social media when considering whether to hire you
  • sarah: twitter is an optional platform with real-life consequences

audience questions:

  • can you be too old to break in?
    • marc: got first staff job at 43 years old
  • what about show bibles?
    • deric: no do not write the show bible, the show runner has that and they don’t want to read yours

kaye: don’t save anything from the pilot, don’t assume you’ll get a second episode; just blow shit up in the first episode, and deal with it once it gets accepted

Writing Fear

nelson soler, lia martin, kristine huntley, kayreth williams, suzanne park, teresa huang, ken choy

feeling fear makes you a writer; wants to create a safe space; teach you how to utilize it

if you don’t have a writing support system, get one, to help you through your periods of doubt

take those traumas you’ve been through and turn them into fodder for comedy; it can be very cathartic

one method to add the comedy: have a character that can do things they wouldn’t normally be able to do (example: if they have cancer, there’s a lot of taboos they can break)

the rules: be funny, be honest, and be ugly; if you’re going to go (expose trauma) go all the way; dig deep, write all the ugly into the script

“all procrastination is fear”

epiphany: the fear never goes away; you have to learn how you’re going to live with it; stop fighting it or feeling bad about having it

technique: use creative kindling; give yourself 5-15 min to write something else: from a writing prompt, or a diary complaining about how things are going; then set timer and write during the whole time

every story is about fear; fear gives you the stakes, and the tension

take your fears and build them into stories, that’ll make them resonate with other people

for a tv show, need to take that fear and make it big enough to form an umbrella for 100 episodes of a show; example: fear of failure in college, make the college a super-prestigious place where failure means derailing your entire life (and maybe ruining your family): now all the normal events and stresses become much more dramatic

Keeping Score: January 11, 2019

Again, no words written this week. Staying focused on editing the novel, and submitting existing short stories.

One of the stories I submitted last week has already been rejected by the market I sent it to; I need to pick another market and send it back out, hopefully by the end of today.

Otherwise, I’m still plowing through the Breakout Novel workbook. I’m still managing to get through about one exercise a day, though some of them are longer (and thus harder) than others.

Each time I feel like skipping one, I push myself to work through it. And I feel like skipping them a lot; this is adding up to a lot of work. But I tell myself I’m in no rush, I’ve got no deadlines. And I’m the only one who can fix my story. If I don’t put in the work to make it better, no one else will.

And the exercises are paying off, so far. Even the frustrating ones end up generating some good ideas. Sometimes it takes a few hours for things to shuffle around in my head and then suddenly click into place, but that’s ok. Those sorts of lightning-strike insights I wouldn’t have otherwise are exactly why I’m doing this.

Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

A 1990s trenchcoats-and-mirrorshades action film published in the 21st century with 1950s gender roles. An odd, frustrating, throwback of a book.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • Be careful when porting an old genre to a new skin. Bringing along the social mores along with the other elements will make your book feel dated from the start.
  • Taking an otherwise-competent character and pushing them out of their element is a great way to both explore a new world and make it challenging for them.
  • In sci-fi, it’s not enough that the names of things — computers, cars, etc — change. Our relationship with them needs to change, too, or it’s just window dressing.

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

Disturbing. Most of the characters are completely unlikable, especially the men: the worst are outright misogynists and racists, even the best act like superior assholes to everyone else.

Mamatas doesn’t pull any punches in exposing the sexism and harassment that happens at fan conventions. It makes for tough reading, both because the female protagonist is constantly experiencing it and because the male narrator, whose death she’s investigating, is one of the superior assholes it’s hard to sympathize with.

Worth reading, though, if nothing else than as a “Do I act like this?” check.

Three things it taught me about writing:

  • – Can get away with very skimpy descriptions — or none at all — if you choose the proper perspective to tell the story from (in this case, a corpse’s).
  • Protagonist’s motivation for pursuing the mystery can be thin, if the reader’s interest is piqued enough for them to want to see it solved
  • Characters will always rationalize their behavior. Even when dead.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler

Prescient, gripping, and intimidatingly good. Definitely going to read more of Butler’s books.

I’m rather sad that she wasn’t able to complete a new Earthseed series, like she planned, before her death.

Three more things she taught me about writing:

  • Perfectly acceptable to have the sequel start out as more “and then this happened”.
  • First act turn is a great place to upend what the characters have built previously, have the outside world come in with the force of a storm.
  • Editors and compilers of biographies can have agendas just like other characters, and become more interesting when they reveal them

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Oddly compelling. Told any other way, it’d be just one more story about giant robots and the people piloting them. But by telling it through interviews, to make it feel like you’re reading a classified dossier, makes it feel fresh and compelling.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Even old ideas can feel new again when told in a different way.
  • Interviews can let you do first-person narration without having to actually narrate. No need for detailed descriptions, etc. Can take a lot of shortcuts and still feel real.
  • Don’t forget the interviewer! They have their own agenda, and that should come through in their questions and reactions.

The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

Eerily prescient. Takes place in a California where water is scarce, most government has been privatized, and the President uses racial politics to push through reforms that weaken protections for workers and the poor.

Felt all too familiar. And she predicted all this over twenty years ago.

I usually don’t like post-apocalyptic books, especially ones that go in for the “slow apocalypse” where everything just collapses over time as people stop taking care of the things that keep civilization going. It’s depressing reading, but Butler’s writing is so compelling, I had to see it through.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Scarcities in society will be reflected in the social order. If food is scarce, being fat is a sign of wealth. If water is scarce, being clean (taking baths) will be seen luxurious. In both cases, being poor and engaging in “rich” behavior will be seen as uppity.
  • There’s life in the hero’s journey yet, if explored from different angles. Here the young protagonist grows up in a small town, yet feels called to greatness, then compelled to become a leader when driven out of their home.
  • Adopting a diary structure can let you skip past boring parts of the story will zooming in on the important ones. A well-written diary will do that, and still give you a chance to convey the rhythms of life, since it’s the story the person is telling themselves, as they live it.

The Just City by Jo Walton

Inspiring. I could not imagine daring to try to write dialog for Greek gods and long-dead philosophers, but she did, and does it brilliantly.

Made me miss my days as a philosophy major, and that’s a good thing.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Long explanations of things are ok, but only after the reader has come to know the characters, and care about them.
  • Switching first-person narrators is fine, so long as you keep the number of them down and clearly label each chapter so we know which character is speaking.
  • Sense of place can come through not just by food and clothing, but architecture and leisure activities as well.