This past weekend I attended a writing workshop at Third Eye Comics, my local badass comic shop. Kelly Sue DeConnick, current writer for Marvel's Captain Marvel series among other things and creator of the new Pretty Deadly Image book, ran a two hour lecture-with-participation on how to write for comics. For the record, she's aces at it. All of her advice was on point and helpful to anyone looking to break into comics, so if you get a chance to catch her doing this sort of thing again I heartily recommend you attend.
What follows are the notes I took that are applicable to any sort of writing, not just comic books. I'm not going to reproduce my entire note pool because A. it would get unwieldy for one blog post, B. I don't write comic books for a living, C. a good chunk of it is exercises that won't translate well, and D. Kelly Sue does write comics and if anyone's going to dispense her specialized wisdom in that area, it's her. But I'll gladly steal (well, post with permission - thanks Kelly Sue!) the more general tidbits, because they're fucking worth knowing.
Disclaimer: Anything in quotes is a direct quote. Anything outside of the quotes is subject to the stupidity of the stenographer. Now, in no particular order:
1. Ideas in your head are always going to seem more perfect than words on the page. Deal with it. You need to put the words on the page. The shitty first draft is better than perfect words in your head.*
2. Variant: "Ideas are shit. I have six a day!" Sitting down and getting the story done is the hard part. Nobody's going to pay you for your ideas. You are welcome to make people pay you to write their ideas down.
3. A good part of your job is sitting like this, listening to the voices in your head. Kelly Sue's method involves writing down conversations she hears in her imagination, but you might see freeze-framed scenes. Whatever works.
4. An exercise for the crazy: Get a favorite comic book's script (or a favorite book) and copy it out in longhand. This will help you focus and read critically. (I have tried this and it works, though it is a time commitment.)
5. Warren Ellis's advice for fight scenes is to call your shots, meaning if somebody is going to be hit with a club in one panel, the club should be visible in the previous panel. In a book, this means foreshadowing: if an object or plot device is going to be crucial to a scene or the whole book, try to make sure you've at least mentioned it before you use it.
6. “What is the Get?” Once you have a first draft, go through and ask yourself with every scene: Does it tell us something about characters, or push the plot forward? If not, cut it. Kill the darlings, basically. But create a Morgue file on your desktop to set your darlings aside, and one day, when you're at loose ends, go through it and look for new story ideas.
7. If you're having a rough time of it, just think "I need to get through today, tomorrow I'm quitting." Remind yourself of that until you're done for the day. Then, tomorrow, think: "Okay, just one more day, but then TOMORROW..."
8. Kelly Sue recommends the South Park writing method, which is making sure your scenes are connected by "but" or "so", not "and" or "meanwhile". (She also admits to a bit too much "meanwhile".) You can watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone describe their method here.
9. Some "don't"s: Don't fall in love with your words. Don't add captions that tell us something we can already see (in prose, consider this to refer to adverbs). Don't be a petty child (or at least try). And finally don't give your stuff (manuscript, self-published work) to editors at conventions. 75% of the things editors get at conventions will go in the trash before they get on a plane. Instead, get the editor's contact information and their permission to send them your stuff.
10. Feminism 101: First, when writing someone of the opposite gender, pretend they're people! Kelly Sue also recommends the Bechdel Test, and introduced the Sexy Lamp Test, to wit: Can you replace a female character with a sexy lamp and not change anything else in your plot? If so, fuck you. This means you've written a female character who is nothing more than something to rescue or avenge, or a reward or decoration. To fix this problem, simply ask yourself what the sexy lamp wants; then, give it agency, meaning the ability to go out and try to get what it wants. Note the "try": a character doesn't need to be successful to have agency.
11. In the same vein, let's have a 5 year moratorium on rape in comics. It's a lazy choice. So is killing children or dogs. Kelly Sue still feels bad about killing a dog in one issue just to get to an ending she wanted. And I'll note that my wife will stop reading or watching anything that kills a dog immediately. Which is why I still haven't seen House of Cards. Thank you Kevin Spacey.
12. On creating characters: Use the old improv trick of "yes, and" when you're coming up with a character. Ask yourself what your character wants. Another old actor's trick: keep a journal for a character you're trying to develop. Take notes as you see themes cropping up.
13. Characters again: Ask yourself, "What is their [your character's] wound?" Try to tie that in with your character's gift. (For example Superman has all his powers, but he's the last of his kind.)
14. Once more on characters: Ask yourself, what part of the body does your character lead with? As an example Kelly Sue noted that Captain Marvel leads with her heart and her chin: she sees a problem and her response is to march in and hit it. Her best friend Spider-Woman on the other hand leads with her hips: her first response to a problem is to get up and walk away, she has to try very hard to be a hero. (Yes this last question will make you sound like a crazy person.)
15. Put your characters through hell. You are allowed to feel bad about this afterward.
16. Further reading recommendations: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and Shawn Coyne, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels by Peter David. Also Chris Claremont's run on X-Men, and pay attention to the way he throws out random details that end up paying off into great stories down the line.
* Originally this ended with "And the second draft is going to be a hell of a lot harder than the first." Then I got a note from Kelly Sue: "I probably did say this, but it’s not quite true. The hardest part - the actual hardest part - is getting the first draft down. After that, it’s grunt work. You get stuck, you get upset when you see things that don’t work, sure - but having a manuscript to work with is infinitely better than NOT having a manuscript to work with." I believe I lumped two statements made over the evening together, and somewhat mangled the context.
I do disagree with her, though. I find getting the first draft down painful, but doable. The second draft, where I have to fill in roughly a thousand plot holes, flesh out my cardboard cutout characters, and get the hideous goddamn creature that is my novel breathing, is infinitely harder for me.
That might be because I'm working on a NaNoNovel and huffed raw nitrous oxide during the first draft; it might be that I failed at Proper Preparation and Planning the first time through; or it might be that novels are a different beast than comics and short stories, because with short stories I've found the first draft absolutely is harder than the second. And Kelly Sue has vastly more experience, so take my opinion for what it's worth.