Want to know a secret? The secret to writing? Good writing? It's actually not that much of a secret. The secret is, there is no secret. Read any book on writing (and there's plenty of good ones) or listen to any writer talk about the process and they'll all say the same thing. Read and write every day. That's it. Blog dismissed, go make some comics.
Oh, where you looking for a little more? As hokey as it sounds, that advice is actually really the best you'll get. I think for a lot of us, it's difficult to wrap our brains around the slow process that is working on your craft. Even the most talented people had to put in some level of work and dedication to refine their gifts. Malcolm Gladwell coined the theory of 10,000 hours, or the amount of time it takes to become a master of something. That's a lot of hours and the prospect of doing anything for that long seems daunting, especially if you already have a ton of responsibilities pilling up. That's a real commitment. That's true dedication. And, thinking about it now, that might really be the secret of writing. Perserverance.
Writing is a personal and private act. No one can really tell you how to do it, it’s just what works best for you. So from here on out, I’ll talk about the way I go about doing things, starting big and then focusing in on different parts of a script.
So after I’ve done all the circles and mapped out what’s happening on each page along with the panels, I start to type it all out. I just use Word. Other people use various scripting software. You don’t need to spend a lot of money (or any really) on pro writing software, but if you find something that you like, by all means go for it.
Now here comes the psychological/mystical/neuroscience part of this whole process. If you’re like me, starting is the hardest part. That’s another reason why I go through that whole planning process, because it gives me a whole bunch of stuff to refer to off the jump. I’ve already done a lot of the grunt work up front, now I mostly just have to get it all down on the page. Another thing I’m sure I have in common with a lot of writers is the constant feelings of doubt and the frustration of not being able to get what feels so perfect in your head on to the page. All the words just seem to come out ugly, or clumsy. Your brain keeps telling you there’s got to be a better way to phrase that dialogue, but you just can’t seem to think of it. Or you’ve just finished reading an amazing comic and then you look at your work and think, “this is nowhere close to Gaiman/Morrison/Moore/Ware/Clowes/Hickman/Bendis/etc.” But the truth is, when Neil Gaiman is doing a first draft I’m sure he also thinks this is nowhere close to where it should be. I’m not even sure if it’s legal to type what Warren Ellis probably thinks during a first draft.
Two things to always keep in mind. First, writing isn’t a competition. It may feel like it, especially when you’re trying to get noticed, but if you’re focused on trying to best any individual writer or group of writers for that matter, you’re going to find the writing itself to be very difficult. Instead, use all those stories you admire as fuel to make yours better. Just because Walking Dead is super popular doesn’t mean there isn’t room for your own zombie story, and I feel pretty safe in saying that Robert Kirkman would encourage you to write it.
And if you feel like what you’re typing isn’t any good, here’s the second thing to keep in mind. No one is going to read that first draft. Well unless you let them, but why would you do that to someone? As good as writers like Brubaker and Aaron are, I’m sure they’d rather suffer any number of horrible fates than to let anyone read their first drafts. That’s why the less you think about it the better. Just sit down with your notes and start typing. That’s what Stephen King does, and it’s worked out pretty well for him. In his memoir/how to book On Writing, he says writing is almost like being a paleontologist. The story is already out there, you’re job as a writer is to just dig it up. He’ll often times just have a concept for a story (writer is kidnapped by crazy fan), do a small amount of character/story development, and then see where it takes him. Very bare bones (pun gratuitously intended). Obviously I don’t work quite like that, but I do find that just letting go and seeing your imagination takes you can often lead to great things.
Why is that? Well there’s a half scientific, half magic answer for that. The first has to do with the two parts of your brain. Not the left and right, but the conscious and the unconscious. What all that plotting and thinking about the story beforehand does is get your brain thinking about the problem. How are you going to resolve certain conflicts? How are you going to handle certain emotional beats? What’s the big twist at the end? The conscious part of your brain is what brings up all these issues and does the critical thinking. The unconscious part is where the magic happens. In issue #8 of Pretty Deadly, Kelly Sue DecConnick has an essay about what is called “the quantum soup.” This is the place that great ideas seem to come from. Out of thin air. And at least for me, when you least expect it. You hear people talk about coming up with stuff in all sorts of places. A lot of mine come on walks. Yours might come in the shower or driving to work. Now while we can’t directly tap into this, we can certainly feed it and keep the gears turning, in part by consuming other stories, and also by doing some sort of pre-writing. This can be anything from character notes and thinking of basic beats you want to hit, to full on outlining and plotting.
I’d say that’s a good place to stop for now. When working on your story, try just letting go and seeing where the story takes you, you might be surprised, in a good way. Also make sure to feed your unconscious mind with plenty of stories, both fiction and non-fiction. Next time I’ll get into specifics concerning writing panel descriptions as well as just figuring the amount of panels you need. Until then, go make some comics!