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CN"S Guide to Writing
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Casual Notice
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 2:56 pm    Post subject: CN"S Guide to Writing Reply with quote

Guide to writing? WTF? Who needs a guide to writing on a comics forum? It's the art that's important!

Yeaahhh...um...no. Writing is important, and to be honest, there are so many webcomics out there that only qualify as Inuyasha fanfiction or Dude-my-last-DnD-Campaign-was-so-cool fiction that there does seem to be a need for at least a basic guide to writing. If not writing well, at least writing well enough that the angels don't cry.

So why me? Well, if it's a question of what qualifies me to write a guide to writing, I'm a professional writer with over twenty years of experience getting paid to write. I think I may have learned a thing or two in that time about putting words on paper. More to the point for comickers, I have a four-year-old webcomic that, while constantly slammed for its below-par artwork, is generally congratulated for the quality of the writing.

If it's a question of why I'm starting this guide, that's a little more difficult to quantify. The reason I gave in the second paragraph will do for starters, but, also, since it doesn't seem likely at this stage in my life that I'm going to be the next Stephen King or Chris Claremont, then maybe I can benefit the world by helping someone who is (or might be, with a little help learning to write).

So, if you've read this far and you're not waiting for your boss to close his door so you can go back to naughtycatholicschoolgirlsdotcom, what will the first lesson be?

Basics. Definitions. General advice.
  • Write what you know—okay, that's a good starting point. Now that doesn't mean that if you're a high school kid living in Northfield Minnesota that you should only write about high school in the Minneapolis suburbs. But it does mean you should make an effort to understand your subject as much as possible. That means research. You don't get to write a space opera without understanding at least the basics of Newtonian physics (actually, you'd be better off fully understanding Newtonian physics, with a basic grounding in Quantum physics and some small grasp of String and Chaos Theory). Maybe it wouldbe better put as Know what you write.
  • Story/Plot-Plot/Story—These terms are often used interchangeably, and you'll get different definitions for each of these depending on who you ask. When I use them, I use Plot to refer to What Happens:
    Code:
    A man bought a turkey.  He cooked it.  He died.
    .
    and I use Story to refer to why it happens and the effect those occurrances had on the characters in the story:
    Code:
    A man bought a turkey.  He defrosted it on his counter, allowing the Salmonella bacteria in the bird to multiply.  When he cooked it, he trusted the weight/time guidelines, and never checked the internal temperature of the bird.  Soon after eating it, he became sick.  "I wish I'd paid attention to proper food handling," he told his mourning wife as he died.

  • Setting—This is where your story takes place. Some settings are by their very nature limiting. You're not likely to have an interstellar ship battle in a story set in pre-Columbian meso-America, any more than you will get away with using Aztec Jaguar warriors in a manga set in Han Dynasty China. When they say, "Write what you know and know what you write," they mostly mean, "Make yourself fully familiar with the setting." Setting is what will first attract most of your readers to your story, and if you've phoned it in, they'll know, and they'll tell you.
  • Character—Character is all about people and relationships. Characters grow and develop. The plot and story affect characters or there's no point in telling them. The character is not you, nor is he any of your friends. Even if you have based him on yourself or one of your friends, he is his own being living in the world you created for him.
  • Theme—Theme comes down to "What do I want to say?" It's technically an element of story, but deserves its own listing because it has a great influence on story. If your story has a theme (and I'm not saying it should), then everything in that story must lead eventually to the exposition of that theme. (i.e. "Be careful to handle food properly.")
  • Props—Props are non-character items that make the story happen. The turkey is a prop in the story above. So is the man's wife. The reason she is a prop is because she is not a character in the story, and her effect on the story is minimal. Many props, especially minor characters, are interchangeable. The man's wife could just as easily have been his mother, his father, or his next door neighbor, Paco. One of the hard things about minor characters is knowing whether they're props or characters. Props are important in that they should only be featured if they have a use. Chekhov said, "One must not put a loaded rifle on a stage if no one is thinking of using it." Some people like to relate this to foreshadowing, but it is simpler than that. It's a matter of economy. Don't fill your story with props and ideas that will never get used. A story is not a warehouse.

That's it for now. Next one (assuming I don't forget), I'll get more into story and plotting, and how they interact, and some of the mechanics of pulling them off.

EDIT: Edited to pick a nit.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 4:07 pm    Post subject: Re: CN"S Guide to Writing Reply with quote

Casual Notice wrote:
One of the hard things about minor characters is knowing whether they're props or characters


Excellent.

Let me add/jump in a bit?

Remember kids, everything is either SETUP or PAYOFF. If it ain't gonna payoff, don't include it.

This thread is gonna ROCK.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 6:17 pm    Post subject: Re: CN"S Guide to Writing Reply with quote

Casual Notice wrote:

[*]Setting—This is where your story takes place. Some settings are by their very nature limiting. You're not likely to have an interstellar ship battle in a story set in pre-Columbian meso-America, any more than you will get away with using Mayan Jaguar warriors in a manga set in Han Dynasty China. When they say, "Write what you know and know what you write," they mostly mean, "Make yourself fully familiar with the setting." Setting is what will first attract most of your readers to your story, and if you've phoned it in, they'll know, and they'll tell you.

Hey, man. I could totally write a space ship battle set in Mesoamerica where the Jaguar Warriors (which are Aztec, not Mayan) wind up in Han Dynasty China, 1500 years into their past. Don't cramp my style. Razz

No but yeah. You're right. Poorly-thought-out setting is what turned 10,000BC (for example) from a passable movie in my eyes to a waste of my time. Even given the fictional liberties of having men from Atlantis compel mammoths to build the pyramids 8,000 years too early, how did that dude walk from snowy Eurasia to the southern Nile without stumbling across, I don't know, the frikken' Mediterranean?!

On the other hand an otherwise mediochre movie that (as far as I'm concerned) was launched to greatness by its setting is Brick, because the filmmaker totally gets what it's like to be in high school, and captures the mood of the place perfectly without being all that strict on the surface details.

Movies make more universal examples than comics, sorry.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 6:24 pm    Post subject: Re: CN"S Guide to Writing Reply with quote

jdalton wrote:
Hey, man. I could totally write a space ship battle set in Mesoamerica where the Jaguar Warriors (which are Aztec, not Mayan) wind up in Han Dynasty China, 1500 years into their past. Don't cramp my style. Razz


I honestly believe you could pull that off, JD, and I would pay to watch you do it if I had money.

But yeah, on topic, fantastic advice Mr Notice. I never really thought about the "bit part characters: props or characters?" thing before. It's something to think about when I eventually start writing my second novel.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 6:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Excellent. It's always good to see people touting the importance of good writing.

Personally, I'm a fan of "know what you write" over "write what you know," if only because if I only wrote what I knew my stuff would be very very boring. Razz

But yes, excellent advice. I think you could also stress that writing is even important in gag-a-day type comics.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 7:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

This information is useful, but hardly set in stone. If one is doing a gag-a-day strip or something where there is no set cast of characters, much of this doesn't apply.

And I think "write what you know," while often given as advice, is a little misleading. I offer this instead: Write what you feel compelled to write. That is, don't write what you think other might want to read. Don't develop characters because you think they are marketable or will connect with a certain demographic. Don't engineer a plot point because it's how some other well regarded author writes. Do it only if you feel compelled to.

The process that finally allowed me to really connect with my own writing was by asking myself, "What stories have I always wished someone else would write?" It happens all the time -- you're watching a tv show, reading a book, and there is a story idea that you think the author should explore and they don't. That's because that idea isn't that author's story -- it's yours. Write it.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 7:32 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

haikucomics wrote:
This information is useful, but hardly set in stone. If one is doing a gag-a-day strip or something where there is no set cast of characters, much of this doesn't apply.


I think it was kind of implied that this was aimed at plot driven comics, not gag-a-days. That thread would be called 'CN's guide to joke telling'. And it would stink. Jesting CN!
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 7:36 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

thestripedone wrote:
Excellent. It's always good to see people touting the importance of good writing.

Personally, I'm a fan of "know what you write" over "write what you know," if only because if I only wrote what I knew my stuff would be very very boring. Razz

If I wrote what I know I'd have to write about a teenage girl who sits on the computer, cleans toilets and occasionally laughs at video game jokes even though she hasn't played the game.

It would be very boring.

I think this is why fantasy is often so popular as you don't actually NEED to research like crazy. Sure, it's good to know your history and geography so you're not making a really crazy place and you have realistic politics and whatever... but ultimately, you can just say MAGIC.

One of the biggest points I disagreed with, though, was 'don't write space opera unless you know these things'. No. Space OPERA is fine. Hard sci-fi isn't. Space opera is a more Star Wars sort of genre and the payoff is not the intensive study of realistic sciences and theories, unlike hard sci-fi where the payoff IS knowing that the author put twelves weeks of study into advanced physics and quantum mechanics to write those two paragraphs on his engines. There's several variations of science fiction, and the intense knowledge of science actually, in my opinion, kills some of them. Star Wars would be dead to me the moment they started using science to explain the Forc--oh.

Same with fantasy. If you're going to write steampunk, chances are you ought to do some serious study on steam mechanics, as the world's only half magic and half technology. Bastardized technology! Just like, to write urban fantasy, depending on your setting and plot, you might want to study cities and crimes and whatnot. To write Lord of the Rings, you'd want to start studying history.

Writing what you know is all good and dandy until you realize that's probably why there's an obsessive amount of gamer on a couch comics.

Write what you have the potential to know. Know what you write. If it's an invented world, know what you're writing. But don't overwhelm your readers with it. Granted, I have pages written up on the Ekaeli language, even more pages written on the Malchani race, pages on the theories of Maldlahin, but all my readers NEED to know is that 'this language is spoken by these people and used to cast magic' 'these people have pointy ears and get drunk fast' 'Maldlahin are ELEMENTAL THINGIES. STOP ASKING!'

Create something to know before you write it, if necessary. That's the big key of fantasy. You don't necessarily need a language or a map or twelve pages on the key characteristics defining the Malchani race and their history. But maybe it'll help. For me, it does.

There's no one way to make a setting. It's certainly not 'write what you know'. If you feel you need to spend three years in college to learn everything possible about quantam mechanics before ever writing your story, go for it! I'm satisfied just knowing 'okay, great, but how can I make it explode?'

There is an unfortunate lack of writing tutorials for webcomics, alas.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 7:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Even for fantasy, it's definitely important to know what you're writing. That means don't just wing it. You need to have an established universe if you want it to be internally consistent, and if you want to enable your readers to suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy it properly.

I think that's what CN is saying.

Quote:
I think this is why fantasy is often so popular as you don't actually NEED to research like crazy. Sure, it's good to know your history and geography so you're not making a really crazy place and you have realistic politics and whatever... but ultimately, you can just say MAGIC.


Deus Ex Machinae make for very meh stories. Magic is fine, but it shouldn't be a major plot device or the only way you have to justify something (unless, like I mentioned, you can make it internally consistent)


Quote:
This information is useful, but hardly set in stone.

You'll notice it says "Guide."
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 7:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Plotting and Story Part 1: The Bible
Before I get into what a bible is and why you should have one, let me digress. At some point in the writing process, right between "This is a great idea" and actually putting useful words on paper, you (or someone close to you) will ask, "Hasn't this been done before?"

Yes, yes it has. Without getting into a larger discussion of how many stories there are in the world, I can assure you that your story, or at least elements of it, will always have some note of familiarity to it. Harry Potter can be reasonably compared to the Narnia series. The comic Marry Me can be held up beside the short-lived TV series I'm With Her and the books of Terry Brooks can be considered retellings of...well...all of the other books of Terry Brooks.

Whether or not your story is completely original is not an issue. The matter of originality comes in your treatment of the story. Loosely stated, all stories come down to "somebody does some stuff". It's the who, the how, and the why that make a story its own, and not just a rehash of the same old slop.

So, now that's out of the way. So what is a bible and what's it got to do with comics? Okay, first let me point out that this guide is for traditional comics that at least give a nod to story and character. If your comic is a rip-off of The Far Side where everything is unique to that strip (or panel) every time you post it, then you probably don't care about any of this stuff. You need to know funny. I know funny, but I can't teach it.

By the same token, if you're a deconstructionist, then none of this applies to you, either. Feel free to go back to your story told entirely with 1930's rural-British street signs.

Anyway, back to the bible. A bible is a book (or file, or whatever) where you keep everything that is important to your story. This should include (but not be limited to):
  • A short plot summary—this doesn't need to be detailed, but it should be right there on the first page so you are always reminded, the minute you open the bible, where you want to go. Like so:
    Code:
    Jaguar warriors are kidnapped by spacefaring time-travellers from the future to save the Han Dynasty.  The story focuses on seven of them.  Six of them die in glorious combat before the last one defeats the rogue time traveller and is returned to his home where he is declared god-king.
    This will prevent you from painting yourself into a corner.
  • A list of main settings
    • An Aztec village
    • The time-travelling spaceship
    • Various battlefield locations throughout China
    • The Imperial Palace

    These should be fairly detailed as pertains to your story. You should note where the aztec village is (the Aztec Empire spread from the Chihuahua Desert down to the Mosquito Coast with mountain, jungle, grassland, and desert terrains), details of the parts of the spaceship (is the navigation station to port or starboard of the Con?), the battlefields, and the Imperial palace (which will not be in the Forbidden City, which was built as a summer palace well after the Han Dynasty)
  • A list of main characters—Each character should have at least a page, and these should be updated regularly. They should include a general description with exact height, build, eye and hair color and skin tone. A reference drawing and reference color swatches would help. In the case of the Jaguar Warrior story, what kind of weapon does he prefer to use. How does he deal with the cooler temperatures of most of China? In short, everything that we'll discuss in the segment onmain characters should be on this characters page(s).
  • A detailed summary of the plot—If not the whole plot, then at least several pages ahead of where you are. This should include everything that will happen. even those things that are only hinted at or completely disregarded at this point in the story. If Tepoz shows up later with the full contents of the spaceship's armory, he better have snuck off earlier to do so.


Why have a bible? Because it keeps you on track. If you're only writing the comic and have an artist for a partner, it helps give him an idea where your head is. If you're working alone, it prevents you from having so many multiple digressions that your comic ends up as simply a series of half-told tales that never quite pan out.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 8:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Metruis wrote:
I think this is why fantasy is often so popular as you don't actually NEED to research like crazy. Sure, it's good to know your history and geography so you're not making a really crazy place and you have realistic politics and whatever... but ultimately, you can just say MAGIC.


I have done far more research for my fantasies than I have for my science fiction.

And this in spite the fact that I wrote a hard science fiction story that ended up in an anthology that won an award for science writing. (See banner.)

In fact, the idea for that hard science fiction story came to me, WHILE I was doing research for a fantasy story.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 8:12 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Metruis wrote:
If I wrote what I know I'd have to write about a teenage girl who sits on the computer, cleans toilets and occasionally laughs at video game jokes even though she hasn't played the game.

I wrote:
that doesn't mean that if you're a high school kid living in Northfield Minnesota that you should only write about high school in the Minneapolis suburbs. But it does mean you should make an effort to understand your subject as much as possible.


I'm not seeing a conflict.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 8:13 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
I think it was kind of implied that this was aimed at plot driven comics, not gag-a-days.


Quote:
Quote:
This information is useful, but hardly set in stone.

You'll notice it says "Guide."


I'm not sure what the point of either of these comments are. Did I break some sort of rule? The title of this thread is "A Guide to Writing." And it's posted in a forum. The title implies nothing about the type of writing to be discussed, so I assumed that these guidelines were meant to be universal. And it was posted in a forum, so the point it to respond, right? I mean, I get that it's a guide, whatever that means. What's the point of emphasizing that? To shut down opinions you don't agree with? Is that healthy in a forum?

If this guide is supposed to help new writers hone their craft, then exposure to a variety of viewpoints is more helpful than a lock-step march towards a single conclusion. I believe my post was substantive, so why dismiss it just because I offered an alternative viewpoint?
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 8:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Casual Notice wrote:
A short plot summary[/b]—this doesn't need to be detailed, but it should be right there on the first page so you are always reminded, the minute you open the bible, where you want to go.


Some writers can't write anything that they have already summarized. It triggers "already told" syndrome.

Patricia C. Wrede always has an outline... but she *never* manages to follow it. (The Star Wars novelizations are exempted from this rule because they were someone else's story.)

Pesonally I'm ambidextrous on outlines. Sometimes I write with, sometimes without. If anything, my endings are stronger when I write without.
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 20, 2009 8:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

haikucomics wrote:
Quote:
I think it was kind of implied that this was aimed at plot driven comics, not gag-a-days.


Quote:
Quote:
This information is useful, but hardly set in stone.

You'll notice it says "Guide."


I'm not sure what the point of either of these comments are. Did I break some sort of rule? The title of this thread is "A Guide to Writing." And it's posted in a forum. The title implies nothing about the type of writing to be discussed, so I assumed that these guidelines were meant to be universal. And it was posted in a forum, so the point it to respond, right? I mean, I get that it's a guide, whatever that means. What's the point of emphasizing that? To shut down opinions you don't agree with? Is that healthy in a forum?

If this guide is supposed to help new writers hone their craft, then exposure to a variety of viewpoints is more helpful than a lock-step march towards a single conclusion. I believe my post was substantive, so why dismiss it just because I offered an alternative viewpoint?

You sound like you were threatened with banning, instead of simply being called out on points with which the posters disagreed. Are you the only one allowed to have a digressing opinion? Must all those who disagree with you—by the fact of their disagreement—be considered horrible people who want to "shut down opinons"?

Seriosuly, have whatever opinion you want to have. I would suggest you work on your reading comprehension before commenting, however. Since your second paragraph in your original post started as a disputation of the bolded portion (but not the body) of one of my points.
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