On Writing and Comics Writing

On Writing and Comics Writing
Black and White meas it's artsy, right?

“Tradition needs storytellers.”

– Dave Kindred

People often ask me for advice about how to become a prose writer or a comics writer, and over the years I have recommended the following books and passed on the following pearls of wisdom.

Books on Writing and Comics Writing (in no particular order):

Actually let me recommend that you read any article or interview that you can find where King discusses the craft of writing. Besides being a bestselling author and one of the most influential writers of the past half century, King is a former high school English teacher. The man knows his stuff and knows how to communicate what he knows.

Ueland, a notable author in her own right, taught writing for several years with the philosophy that, “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.”

Not your usual how-to book. Unparallel advice about the craft of writing from one of the grandmasters.

The basics of filmic writing by a former script reader. Simple and straight forward. Field’s lessons are applicable to fiction writing in all media.

This series features interviews with screenwriters beginning with Hollywood’s golden era up through the Seventies. While some interviews spend too much time painting blacklisted screenwriters as persecuted victims, this is an excellent and enlightening series for writers or anyone who enjoys good movies.

Since sometime back in the Thirties (I believe) “The Writer” magazine has reprinted selected articles from the previous year’s issues in an annual compendium called “The Writer’s Handbook.” The magazine is notorious for publishing cookie-cutter articles, but it does also publish the odd insightful piece by a bestselling author or some lesser-known writer respected in his particular genre or medium, and these pieces are the ones that tend to end up in “The Writer’s Handbook” each year. This makes going down to the library and reading the annual Handbook more cost- and time-effective than subscribing to “The Writer.” And for what it is worth, of all the “Handbooks” I have read, far and away the best edition is the one copyrighted in 1987. Stephen King’s introduction and the articles by Clive Cussler, John Jakes, John D. McDonald, B.J. Chute, and Elizabeth Peters are invaluable reads.

For anyone who wants to learn about writing for comics, you cannot do better than kicking off your research with these two books. McKenzie’s book is the best nuts and bolts book about creating comics that I have found. He gives you the big picture. After reading McKenzie, move on to Harvey, who has been analyzing comic book communication better than almost anyone else for decades. Any book or article by Harvey is worth reading, but this 1996 book is as good as any place to start. One caveat, though, and that is Harvey’s books tend to be difficult to find (this one is published by the University of Mississippi Press). In case you come a cropper, I suggest you then go to any retailer bookstore or comic shop and buy a copy of Scott McLoud’s excellent “Understanding Comics.” You might also want to check out my book “Comics Writing: Communicating with Comic Books.”

Read “Basic Formulas” first and then read “Basic Patterns” before plotting anything. Just do it.

Read this book before reading either of Harris’ books. And if you do not own a copy of this book already… why not?

Put this beside your dictionary, thesaurus, and music collection.

Put this beside “The Chicago Manual of Style” for balance. Essential guidebook for any journalist or any writer who wants to go Hemingway and write like a journalist. Also includes a short but helpful “Briefing on Media Law”.

Steve’s Pearls of Wisdom

Steven Philip Jones black and white photo

Black and White means it’s artsy, right?

Practice. Practice. Practice. But learn about the craft of writing before you begin practicing.

Reading one or more of the books I suggest is a good place to start. You do not need to be an expert, just familiarize yourself with the basics. Otherwise all the practice in the world will just be wasted effort.

Besides practicing and reading about writing, the best advice for any beginning writer comes from Clive Cussler and Robert Louis Stevenson:

  1. Cussler: “Copy.”
  2. Stevenson: “Damn it, it’s the only way.”

Writing teachers howl at this advice. They insist that new writers avoid imitating other writers and develop an unique voice (i.e., style). Well, you do need to develop an unique voice, but not right away.

I am not suggesting you plagiarize. But I do encourage you to imitate. Imitation is one of the best ways to learn how to do anything. As time goes by your own unique voice will develop.

What far too many writing teachers fail to realize is that young writers are usually drawn to authors whose styles are similar to the voice the young writer will develop as he becomes more experienced. This was the case, for example, with H. P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany (see T.E.D. Klein’s introduction for the Arkham House edition of Lovecraft’s “Dagon and Other Macabre Tales.”) And if your favorite author happens to be a New York Times bestselling writer … well … he must be doing something right! If you’re going to imitate anyone, I say imitate a winner.

Besides Cussler and Stevenson’s advice, I would also suggest you read as many books as you can about writers. I highly recommend any selection from the Twayne Author Series. There is really no more pleasurable way to learn the craft of writing than reading about an author’s life along with how and why an author wrote what he wrote.

I would also add that you should not listen to advice from people who say, “You can’t do that.” These naysayers may have logical reasons for being negative, but no one succeeds by not trying. For good advice, talk to writers who have succeeded. The best advice comes from winners. Remember Sean Connery in The Rock: “Losers whine about doing their best while winners [become better acquainted with] the homecoming queen.”

Finally, if any of this prep work sounds like drudgery to you then don’t do it. Writing is not fun unless you love to write and sometimes not even then, but the love of writing is the sole reason to become a writer. Now you can ignore my suggestion and plug at it anyway, but in the words of Edward Van Sloan from James Whale’s Frankenstein, “Well, you’ve been warned.”

Good luck!

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