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[personal profile] ejne7
I thought I'd collect the ten best articles I read last year about writing craft and technique. They cover a mixture of subjects for creators of comics and novels, but I think they all offer something to writers of either stripe.

I should say that the posts weren't all published last year - that's just when I cottoned on to them.

1: Use theme to sort the wheat from the chaff

POST: The Five Laws of Making a Story Complicated Without Creating An Ungodly Mess
AUTHOR: Charlie Jane Anders @ io9
DATE: 20 May 2010

QUOTE: "I think that theme is something that sort of bubbles up from the unconscious. It emerges during the telling of the story, and it's something that must be at least somewhat accidental, or it's not worthwhile. A story told with a conscious theme in mind is a homily."

WHY IT GRABBED ME: Boiled down to its core, this article gave me two ideas. Firstly, that theme is a divining rod you can use to prune the deviations and accretions that any story grows naturally as you write it; and secondly that the point at which you apprehend your story's theme comes well after you start writing it. That's a nonintuitive idea for me - wouldn't a strong theme be one you worked out fully beforehand, then crafted a plot and characters to manifest it? But thinking about the way I actually write, the idea of theme as something that reveals itself feels very familiar. I don't know, neurologically, why this would be the case - if we have some kind of story-making centres in our brains that later get overrun by those apophenic tendencies that find pattern and meaning in the random. But it sure does feel familiar.

2: We'll love your women characters - so long as they're one-dimensional harpies

POST: Are male characters more likable than female characters?
AUTHOR: M Lawski at OverThinkingIt.com
DATE: 28 June 2010

QUOTE: "All of the above data suggest to me that we ... like a wide variety of male character types but prefer our women to be two-dimensionally “badass” and/or evil. Most great female characters...are doers—not thinkers or losers or comedians or lovable orges or what have you. Great male characters, meanwhile, range across the entirety of human experience."

WHY IT GRABBED ME: Applying SCIENCE to a suitably subjective question, this post analyses Entertainment Weekly's list of 100 favourite fictional characters to arrive at the above-quoted conclusion. Men, it seems, are appealing in more modes. Attempting to explain the phenom, the author suggests that female characters in Hollywood have been "focus-grouped to death": that films are so full of middle-of-the-road Cameron Diaz characters, great haircuts crowning heads full of common sense, greeting each day with a kind of fundamental unthreatening perkiness, that we all collapse into raptures when some writer churns out an evil bitch instead.

As an unscientific guess, I'd suggest that writers are still writing female stereotypes more than female characters, and don't have a broad range to choose from. There's less mould-breaking going on than among male characters, and thus fewer opportunities to generate a real new character with real appeal. Male characters can be anything, women only a handful of cookie-cutter roles, so they get fewer chances to make real bids for readers'/viewers' affections.

3. "The Hero Of A Thousand Faces" votes Tory

Buffy S8, canon Sues, and the impossibility of socialism under Campbell: or Protagonist Privilege

DATE: 17 April 2010

QUOTE: "And that's why Hollywood writers who want to be politically progressive can't be when they try to create a happy ending: because the only way anyone has historically achieved anything in a progressive cause is by collective action, and because progressive politics demands that if you are a leader you are actually accountable to the people you claim to lead. In protagonist-centred storytelling, any form of accountability of that kind is almost always a bad thing, because the followers are obstructive or scared or stubborn or duped by bad guy infiltrators. Without collective action or accountability you're left with stories that don't stand up, or do stand up but actually endorse autocratic, individualistic, right-wing ideologies."

WHY IT GRABBED ME: Via a discussion of the Buffy season 8 comics (which I haven't been reading), the author arrives at a fundamental criticism of the influence of Joseph Campbell's "Hero of a Thousand Faces" model on contemporary serial storytelling. The trouble with the Campbell-style hero, it argues, is that such a protagonist is made the lodestar of the story to such a degree that their own interests and development are expected to trump the stories of any other characters almost entirely. By making everything revolve around what Our Hero has to learn and defeat and achieve, every other character is reduced to a means for realizing the hero's story. That, the author argues, makes it basically impossible to tell a truly progressive story on the Campbell model: however inadvertently, the model reduces all stories to Ditko-esque parables of the virtue of individual achievement.

4. An action scene is plot-development by any other name

POST: Writing: Action Scenes
AUTHOR: Kung Fu Monkey
DATE: 7 December 2005

QUOTE: "You don't do an action sequence for the sake of doing a damn action sequence -- you do an action sequence because it's a new or more effective way to advance your character or story."

WHY IT GRABBED ME: So simple. So obvious. So not something I'd grasped up til that point.

This had several points of resonance for me. Firstly, it starts out with a comment by someone who loves writing sex scenes and gets bored stiff (unfortunate word choice?) by action sequences. I am, shall we say, more a lover than a fighter myself, so that rang a few bells.

I am also a naturally very soapy writer, and the genres I'd like to work in are very zap-pow-biff ones. I have the problem the fictional executive in the post professes: watching action sequences in movies, I find myself composing mental laundry lists or simply staring at the edges of the screen. Reading this helped me learn to look for the narrative continuing through the action - if war is diplomacy carried on by other means, then action scenes are plot in a different guise as well. Or at least they should be.

5. The secret of your mystery is in your setting

POST: Taking the Mystery out of Writing Mysteries
AUTHOR: Dennis Palumbo at WritersStore

QUOTE: "One of the smartest things a crime writer can do is develop the clues and red herrings out of the world in which the story is set. Most used car salesmen don't know where to get their hands on lethal yet undetectable poisons. They do know how to cut the brake lines of a car. (Or blackmail a mechanic to do it for them.)."

WHY IT GRABBED ME: This is another new genre I was trying to learn this year. What I got from it It ties in with the message from the io9 article, about theme revealing itself gradually: here, the author argues that in mysteries the setting you choose - the world of the story - will furnish the detail that realizes your plot. I wrote something set in part in a down-at-heel dive bar, and a crucial detail of the plot presented itself once I had the setting down pat. I'm not a member of that school of authors who insist they have no idea what their characters will say or do til they start to write - for me, that's been a recipe for flabby and directionless stories - but amid all the forward planning there's a good case to be made for letting detail reveal itself to you as you work. It stays fresh that way, stops being too mannered and forced. By entering your story's world, not just creating it, you also share the experience you'll give you reader - which helps you to see the questions they'll ask, the leaps they'll make, and how you can direct or mislead them.

6. Prose and storytelling are not necessarily BFFs

POST: Writing vs. Storytelling
AUTHOR:Nathan Bransford
DATE: 3 August 2010

WHY IT GRABBED ME: One of the most significant things I've learned this year is that writing does not improve along a unidimensional continuum. So my ability to turn a plot has expanded this year, while my dialogue is bumbling along pretty much where it always was. There are so many facets to it and they can all be learned separately, improved separately, practiced separately. This post, talking about why Stephanie Meyer's books are popular, does a fine job of pulling apart writing - the crafting of high-quality prose - from storytelling - the sheer yarn underneath the hood. I think I am at a point in my writing just now where the prose and the story are sometimes at odds with each other.I am trying to stop the kudzu of prose from rampaging over the plot so hard it chokes it, or snaring my feet til I can't forge ahead.

There's an implicit moral in the original post - that high-octane storytelling's more important than decent prose for commercial fiction - but that's a matter for debate elsewhere.

QUOTE: "Whether or not you agree with King's assessment about Meyer's writing, at the very least he's making a distinction between writing and storytelling, or at least what I assume is a distinction between prose craft and storytelling craft, and is acknowledging what he sees as working in Meyer's books. Yes, good writing aids storytelling, you need a certain level of writing for a book to work. But just because you don't care for the prose doesn't mean there's nothing that's working and nothing to be learned."

7. If you're Darwyn Cooke, you can tell instead of showing

POST: Tell, Don't Show: The Darwyn Cooke Lesson
AUTHOR: Timothy Callahan at Comic Book Resources
DATE: 1 November 2010

QUOTE: "The best bits of "The Outfit" are the moments, the full sequences, where Cooke rides the diegetic wave along with language straight from Westlake. And he tells. The telling takes the form of the descriptions of a series of heists with Cooke using a different style for each. One's an illustrated short story, heavy with text. One's like a UPA cartoon, rich with captions. One's near-storyboard which breaks off into a comic strip. And one's practically a manual, with diagrams like you'd see in Will Eisner's "PS, The Preventative Maintenance Monthly."

WHAT GRABBED ME: This one's a corking read - a comparison of two Darwyn Cooke stories; his 1985 "The Private Eye" and last year's "The Outfit". The greater success of the narrative in the latter, Callahan argues, boils down to its choice of a diegetic approach - one in which narrative captions "tell" a lot of the story and leave the art to embellish detail - over the the mimetic style (sparser captioning, the art and dialogue carrying the story by themselves) of the earlier work. It's always fun to see an old chestnut like "show, don't tell" get dumped on its head, and this hints at why that could work so well in a crime comic - as well as investing the action with meaning, some good honest telling can inject a piece with style. If we're working in a genre field, a little diegesis to situate the reader could be just what an all-action story needs.

8. Even The Flash can't outrun a leaden metaphor

POST: Building versus Writing: Geoff Johns, Hal Jordan, Barry Allen and the Rebirth

AUTHOR: David Uzumeri at Funnybook Babylon
DATE: 8 April 2009

QUOTE: "The problem with this is that this first issue is so mechanically crafted – so completely self-referential, every line of dialogue reflecting every other line of dialogue, every scene emanating from the CONCEPT OF SPEED – that the story’s artifice began to override its momentum. For a book ostensibly about speed, I found it very difficult to get caught up in the momentum and flow of its story, especially not when it was so obvious with its themes and subtext."

WHAT GRABBED ME: So this article critiques Geoff Johns's Flash comics on the grounds that the subtext and text in the book are so closely aligned that it's just like reading a plot summary. The story's tropes, it argues, are so exhaustively used that they become visible to the reader and jolt her out of the story. Perhaps this just restates the old criticism of stories that are "on-the-nose" - where there's too little distance between the thematic/metaphorical undertow and the actions and events that represent them - but it was interesting to see an example in the wild.

9. The biggest loser is the key to your plot

POST: Making Trouble
AUTHOR: Janice Hardy
DATE: 9 April 2009

QUOTE: "Ideas are easy to come up with. We get them all the time, but the tough part is figuring out how to turn them into a story. Conflict is usually the key to that, since figuring this out tells you who has the most to lose and who might be in opposition. Protagonist and antagonist."

WHAT GRABBED ME: That's a handy shortcut for idea development. Take your concept - your scenario, your world, your wrinkle - and figure out who in it has the most to gain from it and the most to lose. Trying this with a couple of "In a world where..." scenarios at the moment.

10. Writing fiction is pretty much like Transatlantic flight

POST: The Opposite Of Resistance
AUTHOR: Steven Pressfield
DATE: 17 November 2010

QUOTE: "When fear and self-sabotage threaten to get the best of me (which is plenty of times, believe me), I sometimes flash on Charles Lindbergh in his younger days, when he was struggling to find the backing for his solo transatlantic flight.

Lindbergh must have heard the scamp in his head too. She was the opposite of Resistance, and she carried more rank. “Holy cow,” that cheeky little daredevil told Lindy, “What if we could pull this stunt off? What if you could fly the Atlantic alone? Would that be the coolest thing in the world, or what?”

The opposite of fear is love–love of the challenge, love of the work, the pure joyous passion to take a shot at our dream and see if we can pull it off."

WHAT GRABBED ME: I think that quote can stand for itself. Have a passionate 2011, everybody.

Date: 2011-01-13 10:22 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] whatistigerbalm
I keep reading and rereading these - thank you! - but the Darwyn Cooke article keeps me thinking the most, and not just because it opens with a neat description of Auerbach's Mimesis which is something I found in my parents' home library in primary school (this is up to age 14 in Cro) and tried to get into very, very hard because I could tell it was relevant to my interests but didn't have the learnings to figure it out yet.
Edited (the curse of superfluous commas) Date: 2011-01-13 10:24 am (UTC)

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