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Archive for the ‘Nuts and Bolts’ Category

I don’t talk much about comedy writing, which is funny (no pun intended) because much of my work has actually been comedy writing. I’ve been doing my comic for over ten years at this point, and I spent a good number of years writing scripts for a television sitcom (which never got picked up). In addition to that, much of my childhood and teen years was spent reading humorous offerings – Douglas Adams novels, Calvin and Hobbes collections, Dave Barry columns, etc.

I think it’s safe to say that over the numerous years I’ve picked up some tips here and there. And when I see something that could use a little work to make it funnier, it just gnaws at me. So I thought this would be a good forum for that.

I follow a blog called Texts From Superheroes. It’s fictitious text conversations between comic book characters, and it’s a lot of fun. There are a handful that have had me actually laughing out loud at my computer screen. The following example came close, but for one small misstep. Let’s see if you can find it…

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Now, before I start, let me give you the disclaimer that humor is certainly in the eye of the beholder. I’m in no way an expert on it, but there are certain things that just feel right to me. And this offering from Texts From Superheroes was off. Why? Because they went one step too far with the punchline.

Read the conversation again, but stop at Hawkeye’s last message and ignore Deadpool’s last one. Doesn’t that feel like a much stronger ending? I get that Deadpool finds himself in wacky situations – it’s what makes him an entertaining character. But to have him actually explain the ludicrous situation takes a little bit of the humor out of the exchange. By leaving it at “WHO DID YOU PISS OFF!?”, it leaves the reader wondering and perhaps concocting in their own mind who the offended party is. The last bit from Deadpool is basically like explaining the punchline to a joke (and, to be brutally honest, “Ninja Whalers” didn’t exactly tickle my funny bone).

Really, all it boils down to is an age-old axiom: Less is more. Don’t assume your readers are dumb and explain everything. Sure, some of them might be, but don’t let your writing suffer for fear of losing the attention of that percentage of people.

What? Oh, no, I wasn’t talking about you. You’re not only smart, but you’re attractive and you smell nice.

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I recently began giving my manuscript for the Bardsworth novel (which, frustratingly, still doesn’t have a title) another round of rewrites and edits. When I had last finished doing that, I had made a few notes of things to go back in and fix at the last minute, but had otherwise resolved to call it quits. But then I let the manuscript sit for a long time, untouched. And that’s a bad sign.

When I finally got around to taking another look at it and was about to make those handful of final changes, I realized that I had let the thing sit for so long because I wasn’t happy with it yet. And I can’t finalize something that I’m not at least 80% happy with.

Why 80%? To be honest, it’s just a figure of speech for me meaning that I need to be mostly happy with my work. Why not 100%? Why not totally happy? Because writers are creatives, and creatives are never 100% happy with their work (and if you claim you’ve ever been totally happy with something you created, you’re a big liar with pants aflame).

I remember having a conversation with someone long ago on old blogging platform about when to pull the plug on a writing project. She kept insisting that she never knew when to just stop fiddling with something, and that she was scared that if she did she’d be putting out something that wasn’t good enough. I insisted that it was just an intuition you build up over the years. You have to realize that nothing you do is ever going to be perfect, but that if you feel you’ve put in the best effort that you could, the work will stand on its own after you back away and wash your hands of it.

But it is a fine line between making sure that you don’t spend more time than necessary on a project and just throwing something out into the public that could definitely have used one or two more rewrites or editing sessions. I don’t think there’s any definite answer as to how to make sure that your decision is a right one. It really comes to whether or not you believe it’s a right decision.

As for me, I just don’t want to get caught in an endless loop of changing the adjectives I use to describe something minor. And it does happen if I’m not aware. As my favorite cooking guru, Alton Brown, likes to say when advising not to over-mix something: “Just walk away.”

"Just walk away."

“Just walk away.”

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I thought it might be fun to let you guys in on the writing process I use for Bardsworth, my webcomic. I typically talk about writing in the sense of traditional fiction writing, but they way I write for a four-panel comic strip is a bit different than how I write my books. My webcomic is long form, though, which means that it follows a continuous story. So in that respect, it’s like a novel, and because of that, some of the techniques I use can be employed in traditional writing.

I guess the easiest way to do this is to break it down into steps.

1.) Daydreaming. The way my webcomic works is that there is an overall plot, and within that plot are individual storylines that may or may not link with the plot (if they don’t, they typically have some link to character development). Most of my storylines start off with a question or a premise. “What if someone found a doorway to another world in the back of their closet?” “What happened to this character to make him like that?” “Let’s see what happens if I team these two characters up together.” Once I have that initial core idea, I let it float around in my head for a while to build up smaller ideas around it.

2.) Planning. This is sort of an optional step for me. Sometimes I can roll with an idea and just start writing. Other times, like recently, I have to sit and list out all the possible directions that the story can take. Some I’ll use, some I’ll toss – it’s just a general brainstorming session.

3.) Writing. The meat of the process, which I’ll break up into sub-steps. When I first started Bardsworth, I would try to write within the context of the four panels. What I got from doing that was stilted, oftentimes forced, dialogue and jokes. Years later, I started using a combination of free writing and heavy-handed editing, and that’s what I do today.

a.) Free writing.  I’ll write as if I’m writing a movie or TV script, and I won’t worry about panel constrictions. If a conversation takes a long time, so be it. If jokes take longer set-up time, so be it. I don’t worry about it at that point, I just write.  Whatever I think of goes on the page.

b.) Editing.  When I’ve got a good chunk of the story written (or better yet, the whole thing), I go back and start breaking it up into smaller pieces that work within four panels. This often means I have to hack dialogue, remove actions, and add bits and pieces to make things work. If things still aren’t perfect, I don’t sweat it just yet. There’s still time to tweak things before the strip goes live.

4.) Sketching. I work digitally, but before I do anything on my computer, I do a rough draft with pencil and paper. This gives me an opportunity to see the story visually played out. It helps show whether or not the dialogue meshes with drawing, and if not, I can tweak one or the other.

5.) Drawing. This is the last chance I have to change dialogue. I’d say maybe ninety percent of the time I don’t have to change anything (except maybe a word or two). The other ten percent of the time is usually because the writing wasn’t polished enough following step 3. Very rarely have I ever had to publish a strip with dialogue that I wasn’t happy with. Most of the time I can rescue it at the last minute. But the bottom line is that the writing process doesn’t end when I pick up the pen (or stylus).

I think that it’s important that I shared this because many people think that doing a comic is drawing pretty pictures or scribbling funny gags. And sometimes it is. But for a comic like mine, and for many people I know, it’s mired deep in the writing process. The art, though important enough in its own right, is secondary.

bardsworth

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Don’t you hate it when people do stupid things?

How about when characters in a book you’re reading do something stupid? Or a character on a television show or in a movie? Doesn’t that annoy you? It’s certainly one of my biggest pet peaves.

“Wait, why would he go in there without his gun??”

“Didn’t she learn the dangers of that magical sword in chapter six??”

“WHY WOULD THEY DO THAT??”

I think many times when this phenomenon happens, it’s a case of the writer directing the course of events. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’ve said in the past that this is unacceptable when writing characters. If a character has proven himself or herself capable of making dumb mistakes, then that’s one thing. But if the character has never shown that sort of inclination and in the course of the story makes a stupid mistake or misses a key point of information that he or she should have understood, then it’s the writer taking you for a ride, and I don’t personally like the steering wheel being jerked out of the hands of the characters.

And I get it. When you’re planning out a story, you have a pretty good idea of what you want to happen. In your head, it’s perfect. And then you start writing it, bulldozing ahead with your perfect idea, but unaware of the damage you’re causing around you. Characters do and say things for the benefit of you, and suddenly become inconsistent and confusing. Sometimes it seems like they just do something for no apparent reason, leaving the readers to scratch their heads. But worst of all, when you plow forward with your perfect idea, you lose the opportunities for other ideas.

Every one of my stories – every one of them – started off going in a particular direction in my head. Then, when push came to shove, I’d get to a turning point with a certain character and the plan would come to a fork in the road. In one direction was my original idea, already laid out for me to send my character down. But it would mean forcing the character to make a decision that they normally wouldn’t. In the other direction was… well, I never quite knew. But that was always the direction that made the most sense for the character to go. And from there, a new story idea arose, sometimes birthing new characters, new places, new sub-plots.

The general rule of thumb for me is that the character knows more than I do. I’m just the monkey typing away at the keyboard. Ook ook.

Keyboard-Monkey

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Have you ever been in public and heard a young person talking in the manner of someone much older than them? Or the reverse situation in which an older person is speaking in a manner that you’d expect from someone younger? It takes you by surprise for a moment, because it’s not the norm. And that happens to me when I’m reading about characters who do the same thing.

I’ve only started noticing this more and more in recent years. Having grown up on fantasy, everyone talks pretty formally, young and old alike. But I’ve been opening up to less fantastical writing, with characters in more familiar settings. These characters, mired in either in our world or worlds similar to ours, should speak in a manner consistent with the way people around us speak. But it doesn’t always happen that way.

A good example was one I gave in a book review a while back of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. The character of Odd was supposed to be a twenty-something young man, but he (and his girlfriend, who was the same age) spoke in a way that didn’t mesh well with the description of him that was given. More recently, I’ve been reading a trade paperback from Marvel collecting stories from the “Runaways” series, written by Joss Whedon. Now, I like Whedon’s writing, but I’ve never been one to laud him with praise. He’s good, very good, but many people put him on a pedestal that is much too high in my opinion. And in this TPB it’s reaffirmed for me. One of the big things that’s been killing me is Whedon’s typical attempts at writing witty dialogue, but using it in an inappropriate manner for the age of the characters. These are kids; there is a way that kids talk that is believable, but this is something that Whedon, in his attempt at writing his infamous Whedonesque dialogue, seems to forget. It takes me right out of the story, which is a shame, because it’s an interesting one.

I think the problem writers have in this regard is that they are writing in a way that they think children talk. Oftentimes when a writer has to write something that they don’t have a whole lot of experience in, they fudge it, and sometimes it works. But with writing dialogue for younger characters, you need to know. You need to spend some time listening in on conversations, just like you’d do with observing adults. You don’t have to learn and know all the slang terms, but you need to know the general manner in which younger people talk and what they talk about.

And if you’re going to have them speak in a more adult way and/or make references to things that most people their age wouldn’t know the first thing about, explain it. Use that as a springboard for giving more depth to the character. But at the same time, don’t just do it for the sake of letting yourself talk through the character, because then you’re making the dangerous journey into Mary Sue territory.

In short, this is a case where you don’t write what you know – write what they know.

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I’ve been watching the newest season of Doctor Who with a renewed sense of excitement. I thought the beginning of season seven was pretty strong and had a lot of entertaining moments. I was most happy when they finally got rid of the companion Amy Pond (although I was sad to lose Rory). Without returning to a rant I did previously, Amy’s character was terribly written (and terribly executed by the actress). Characters are important to me, and when a writer (or team of writers) gets it wrong, it pulls me out of the story.

That being said, I was interested to see what the writers would do with the new companion, Clara. The answer, unfortunately is: Not much. I’m only two episodes behind at this point, but the character has failed to be… well, a character. The only interesting thing about her is she’s mysterious. And that doesn’t make her a character, it makes her a plot device.

Stepping away from the Whoinverse for a moment, here’s the deal. Your characters need to have characteristics that set them apart from each other. It doesn’t have to be something overly special. It can be something as simple as having a different reaction to a particular situation, or different way of solving problems, or habit of causing problems. But something needs to come from that character that says, “This is who I am.”

When outside forces are affected by a character who is just “there”, such as the Doctor exploring the mystery of Clara, the character becomes a vehicle to drive the plot and nothing more. Especially so when that character is passive and contributes nothing much to the story.

Characters are people, not a writer’s playthings. They need to become their own individual selves, to do the things that only they do, to interact in a specific way with other characters. Most of all, they need to stand out in a reader’s – or viewers – mind when thought about. When I think about, say, the character of Donna Noble (the Doctor’s companion in season four), I think of a strong-willed and often stubborn woman who had a huge heart. When I think of Clara I think of a pretty face and not much more. Doesn’t speak well of the people running the show, does it? And if a reader reads your stories and has the same feeling about one of your characters, that won’t speak well of you.

Give your characters life, but let them live it.

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I’ve made mention of this before, but I’m a brony (for those of you unfamiliar with that term, it’s a mash-up of “bro” and “pony”; it’s a descriptor for fans of “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic”).  As such, I follow a few of the creative forces behind the show on Twitter.  One of them is the creator, Lauren Faust (who was also responsible for one of my other favorite shows, “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends”).  Recently she tweeted this:

Think you can't write women? Don't. Just write people and make them women.

(In case you’re interested in where the link leads, it goes here.)

This instantly put Faust on the top of my list of favorite people.  I’ve been saying this for years, almost exactly word-for-word.  It amazes me how many male authors think that they can’t write females.  If it’s not just thinking and it’s actually true, then they shouldn’t write at all.

Think that’s a bit harsh?  Here’s my logic.  Being a writer requires being an observer.  You have to know the world around you in order to create worlds on the page.  First and foremost is knowing how to write characters.  How can you possibly do that if you don’t observe how people act?  How they speak?  How they move?  How they interact with each other?  That’s stuff you can’t make up (and when an author tries, you can always tell).

Now, I’m fully aware that there are fundamental differences between men and women.  I’d be dumb to deny that.  But it’s in being observant that we can discern those differences, either consciously or unconsciously, and attribute them where needed.  The rest of it is just writing a character.  You don’t need to think,  “I’m writing a woman”.  Write the character.  Your brain will fill in the rest once you’ve trained it to.

And before you think I’m being one-sided, I do want to say that I’ve seen it happen the other way around.  I’ve seen female authors write what they think male characters should be, and it results in very poor, two-dimensional characters.  So it’s a two-way street, and both sides need to be more aware of their surroundings, because you never know when that unawareness can lead to a crash.

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