The HOS Guide to writing something that doesn't totally suck balls.
I'm writing this thread primarily to help out (or at least try to help out) Owithrow, who wants some advise and tips on writing better comics. So, I'll do what I can. But this being an artist/writers community, I'd like to think all of you could maybe learn something from what I have to say. Or not. We'll see.
Because I mostly write novels and short stories, most of what I will be giving advise on will be referring to those mediums, but of course you can take that advise and refer it to your comic project, were you inclined to do so.
Ok, advise time. Creating an original story, set within an interesting world that follows the lives and pursuits of unique, memorable characters, is certainly not easy. A lot of what I will be saying will be advising you on what to avoid when writing, which I have learned from various critiques of my work and from looking back and re-reading old projects and thinking; 'Well, that was lame, wasn't it?'
Ok, lets start at the very beginning:
Haven't we all been asked that wanky little question at some point in our lives? 'Where do you get your ideas from?' This is a stupid question however you choose to look at it. Either you don't know where they come from, they just pop out of your subconscious, unannounced and incomplete and its then up to you work with them, or you do know where they come from...they come from your subconscious, unannounced and incomplete and its then up to you work with them.
When people talk about story ideas, they normally refer to the plot. If you say to someone 'I have an idea for a story' they say 'What is it?' they are probably expecting you to have a clearly structured story with a beginning, middle and end, a decent explanation of the conflict within the story and at least a loose notion of the main 3 or 4 characters within the story. They probably aren't expecting you to say something like 'Israel conquers the Gaza strip and then something religious happens...' But why not? Its an idea, isn't it? Albeit a very loose and unevolved idea, but still an idea. And, like I said before, it probably came to you in your subconscious, unannounced and incomplete, probably when we weren't even thinking about ideas, probably when you were having a shit or sitting on the bus looking out the window.
Hell, it doesn't even have to be an idea, just a coherent thought. I remember the spawning of an idea I had for a short story I wrote called 'Miles'. I had just started a new job, and of course didn't know anybody. I went in on my first day, shiny shoes, suit looking good, hair looking slick and went into the bathroom to have a piss, after which I washed my hands. I remember as I was washing my hands I looked into the mirror in front of me and saw the reflection of one of the cubicle doors were closed and therefore occupied by someone. I remember thinking to myself 'Hmph, wouldn't it be weird if that guy started talking to me...?' And that was it. That was the thought that spawned the whole story. I won't give you the process because that would take too long, but the point is sometimes by just listening to your own interior monologue, you can come up with something worth considering for a story idea.
Think of ideas like a tiny thread of what will be a much larger tapestry. You need a shit load to make your story work, but that doesn't mean you need to constantly think up new ones, or rather wait until they pop out of your subconscious. Work with them, evolve them. Even if you have a terrible idea that could never work, try to develop it as much as you can. It may seem futile and pointless, but its not, maybe from that development process you will find something worth having.
For example, say I have a silly idea that a man born with three legs decides to climb Mount Everest, succeeds, becomes famous, gets drunk with power and decides to invade China. Stupid idea, it doesn't work on any level, but try to develop it anyway. Ask yourself the questions: 'To what extent has the stigma of being born with 3 legs effected him throughout his life? What process did he go through to climb Everest? Surely he didn't just turn up in Nepal and climb it? or did he? By what means did he invade China? Did he join the army? did he become a political leader or revolt against the current government to seize power? Did he join/found a terrorist organisation of some sort?' And there are many others I'm sure you can think of too. The answer you give to these questions will spawn totally new ideas that you never would of fathomed had you not originally come up with that stupid idea. The point is, just because you have a crap idea, doesn't mean you can't work with it. It doesn't mean you can't ask questions and dig away at this crap idea until you find something worth putting in the 'maybe pile'. You'll find after you have repeated this process a few times, that that 'maybe pile' has become fucking huge.
I know its obvious, but always carry a notepad and pen around with as well to write these ideas down. Some people say carry around a tape recorder of some sort, but I disagree with this because an idea may come too you at any point. If you're sitting on a crowded bus or in a busy waiting room and you suddenly pull out a tape recorder and say 'Man gets arrested for sodomizing neighbors dog, while in prison becomes a crime lord.' ...Yeah, you get the point.
Of course there are certain ideas which need to be built on a lot, via much research, independent study and a hell of a lot of reading, but I'll get onto that in another post in the future.
Ok, so lets say you've found your idea, your basic, one sentence synopsis for your soon to be manga/comic/novel/script/whatever. Now what do you do? Well, now comes the interesting part. Its time for the notes.
This isn't something that is essential, but I strongly advise it. A big problem a lot of writers have is they simply start writing too early. You convince yourself that once you have built enough on your one sentence synopsis to visualize your opening scene, that now you have to write it. Don't. Step away from the computer, have a smoke (or whatever), come back to the computer and start taking notes. It's a pain in the ass, but your notes are worth their weight in gold.
Remember I said that your ideas are like tiny threads of a much bigger tapestry? Well, now we have to start forming that tapestry. But now its harder, because now you have a premise. That one sentence synopsis you have is the back bone of your story and at any point if you start to get lost in the direction of your story, you can always refer to it and remind yourself what needs to happen next. But, its only a sentence. But treat your notes in the same way. Just a sentence. Write out a setting, maybe. Not necessarily a street, a town, or even a country. Just a location. Write an event. Nothing too specific, maybe something like: 'Main character's car is stolen.' and then maybe an after thought 'he suspects his brother.' That will do. At this point, you don't need to know anymore than that. Remember, its just another thread to your tapestry and you can change it or thicken it with more detail any time you want. It doesn't even have to be prose, write out a snappy piece of dialogue, maybe an insult 'The best part of you was bled out onto that sanitary towel.' It may seem weird to just have a random piece of dialogue, completely out of context, in your notes, but build on this, build a scene around this one line. Who is saying this? Who are they saying it too? Why are they saying it? If you think of something funny, something sick, something profound, whatever, that any of your potential characters could say, just write it down. Fuck the context, you can worry about that later.
To give you a better idea of what I'm talking about with notes, here are a few notes I took before beginning to write the novel I am currently working on. In short, a Marxist government has taken over the previous capitalist government of Ireland, with the promise to the people that all the people would be equal and free under their rule. Of course, this turns out not to be the case, so the story follows a group of anarchist revolutionaries who seek to bring down the Marxists and abolish government completely. Here are some of the notes:
Story begins in Wexford Town, Co. Wexford, in the not too distant future.
Anarchist, Michael Rafferty making speech in factory floor/civic hall
Marxist police come and shut down speech and protest
Rafferty and other main characters are arrested
These 4 simple little lines equate to between 20-30 pages of content. Not bad, eh? And its extremely simple, as you can see. Place, rough time frame, location and then 2 events. When you are in the notes stage, that is all you need.
I think this is a healthier way of writing because you are tackling your story in small chunks. If you plan to write an epic novel, or a 20+ volume manga series, the enormity of what you are planning to accomplish can seem a little overwhelming. This method helps you break it up into easily digestible lines. Simple. Well, simpler.
Another thing I would advise doing with your notes is adding in any relevant background information that will effect the world and the characters. For example, taking notes from the same story, I write this note, referring to the current Marxist government (who are referred to as the proletariat) in the story:
Government has Propiska (where citizens have to obtain an internal passport so that they can travel from county to county. This is so the proletariat can keep citizens in their places of residence and control migration. Without a stamped signature on the Internal passport, a citizen will not be able to leave the city which the work in. Leaving the country without permission is punishable by death.)
Its very important to add information like this because if you suddenly decide that you want your main character to leave the current town and travel somewhere else, they will need to overcome this hurdle which, if handed the right way, could cause you to write a very interesting scene. The reason I wrote out the explanation is that if I had simply written 'Government has Propiska' I would look back on these notes some days later and think '...what the fuck is Propiska?' Yeah, I've done something similar to that before.
Ok, so that's Ideas and Notes covered, in the next post I'll cover some more stuff, but for now I think I've bored you enough.
à bientôt, tout le monde.
(Do you mind that I posted or should I have waited until you were done with all posts?)
Excellent work! I emply a lot of what you said in the Ideas section already, hearing that a skilled writer does the same is reassuring. The Notes section was very useful, as I'm often guilty of writing to early as you explained. Hopefully I can apply those notetaking techniques in the future.
One Thousand Member
Well you certainly made some good points, HoS. I think with comics in particular, simply wanting to rush through things and get the the ideas onto the page can really kill the spark that made you want to write it in the first place. It's worth noting that making tiny little two-second drawings (called thumbnailing, I'm told), just to store ideas, is also a thing that some artists do, in a similar vein.
The only thing I'm thinking now is; Is it better to leave your story a fuzzball of half-related ideas, or is it simply better plotting to make everything tightly strung? In other words, how does one go about handling random information that is just there for flavor? How do you know what is too much or too little, and does one go about making the important things more obviously important?