Last year, the resolution for 2017 could easily be the same as 2018 — I told you to WRITE DESPITE, meaning, no matter how deep the world is buried beneath an endlessly burning pile of horseshit, carve out some time and some space and create something anyway. Because writing is a form of resistance. That one still works, should you so require it.
This year, the writing resolution is for me less political and more personal:
Write with intentionality.
What it means, is this: you can write a story by simply wanting to tell it, and then telling it. You can let the story be, if you will, a river into which you have been tossed. And this can feel right and proper, because a story feels like a winding, animated thing. It pulls you along, and ideally, pulls the reader along, too. A lot of storytelling comprises, as Bob Ross calls them, “happy accidents.” Meaning, moments and pieces that seem serendipitous, that seem born of some strange narrative alchemy that is not precisely in your control — you just slapped together a couple of elements and it made, I dunno, a new element, or a lightning strike, or a rainy day, or a magic wish-granting bear. (What, you don’t have a magic wish-granting bear? WRITE HARDER.)
Happy accidents are good. Storytelling should be that way, sometimes.
But it isn’t always that way, either.
In writing comics, I’ve learned the power of really taking the time to — for lack of a better term — practice your aim. Writing a novel often feels like spraying the pages down with machine gun bullets, just chewing prose until you rat-a-tat a story into the fucking wall. But comics, man, you have a narrative economy to deal with. You have so much of a page, and only so many ways to frame out what happens. It’s fucking hard. It’s like writing a kid’s picture book. You ever try writing one of those? Haha, you think they’re gonna be easy, because it’s like, 100 words. But turns out, making 100,000 words work is easier than making 100 work. Because in a hundred-thousand-words, you can spackle over a lot of dents. In a hundred, every tiny ding, every off-angle, every bit of dirt on the lens — it is keenly seen, diminishing the potency of the tale told.
Film, too, works this way: you only have two hours-ish, and you have to make each moment on the screen, with image and dialogue and music, a goddamn triumph. (Might I recommend EVERY FRAME A PAINTING? It is now retired, but the archive exists, and go right now to check out “Edgar Wright, How To Do Visual Comedy.”)
This year I wrote a monster-sized book. I’ve gone on about it (sorry!) because holy shit, I have never done this before. Before this year, the longest book I’d ever written was Zer0es, which was 125,000 words (and is on sale, along with Invasive, for $3.99 right now, prod, prod). The average Miriam Black novel is around 70-80,000 words. This book, Wanderers, ended up at 260,000 words, more than twice my longest book.
I have no idea what the final word count will be. I await edits from the (truly spectacular) editor, who I trust will help me shape this thing into the massive epic horror-ish siege weapon I need it to become. But in writing this thing, I tried to take it slow, even as I wrote it fast. I tried to pause with scenes and chapters and ask myself along the way: why is this here? Not only that, but what do I want this scene, this chapter, to do? Specifically, what do I want it to do to the reader? I want them to feel a certain way, so how do I engineer that feeling with story and character? Often, first drafts involve me rolling myself into a ball-shape and then pitching myself down the side of a mountain, screaming as I tumble unstoppably forward… but this time I tried to be more deliberate, more aware, of what I was doing, and how, and why. I tried to feel every step of the thing. That doesn’t mean I was successful, mind you. But it does mean that I tried to develop a keener, more highly-tuned sense of what the story was as I was writing it.
I tried to treat every page like a frame in a comic book.
What’s the economy?
What’s the point? What am I saying? What should you be feeling?
And I would engineer it ahead, too — I would think, okay, this is a downbeat, I need an upbeat soon. This is some dark shit, how do I intersperse with humor for contrast? This next bit, I want to hurt the reader, I want to hurt ’em so damn bad, so how do I reach through the page, grab the reader by the heart, rip out the heart, then force them to re-eat their own heart again?
It was difficult.
Again, no idea if I was successful.
It’s like playing chess instead of checkers. It’s not chopping onions; it’s filleting a fish.
It helped me understand the story better, that intentionality. Usually it’s a thing I tend to in subsequent drafts, but now I try (key word: try) to get my hands around its throat on the first draft. I want a firm grip from the first page. Hell, the first line.
That’s not to say there are not, contained within, a number of happy accidents — there are, and ideally, always will be. (In Vultures right now I wrote a random Uber-driver character who I liked so much he has become a primary supporting character with agency to push and pull on the plot. He was an extra, but now he’s got a supporting role.) And it’s not to say it made a cleaner first draft; arguably, I think it made it messier, because if things didn’t quite fit for my vision of how a chapter or scene needed to go, I’d just scrap them, leaving the floor littered with plot scraps and swatches of ill-fitting narrative. But it helped me get a larger sense of the thing. And it helped me focus up what I’m trying to do, not just in the macro, but in the micro, too.
So, for me, and maybe for you, there’s power in writing with intentionality.
Decide how you want the reader to feel, and write that way.
Decide what you’re trying to say, and why, and then fucking say it.
Know the purpose, aim your voice, write with vigor and deliberation.
Take command. Be confident. Be willful.
And play, too, to find out how to make it work. Compose and recompose a scene. Go one way with it, then rewrite it another way. Learn to see how intentional changes make for a butterfly effect in the work. Learn the weave and the weft of it. Don’t just go down the river. Put objects in the water, see how fast they move. See if they block the flow or speed it up or break the river in twain.
Write with intentionality.
Try it out.
Let me know how it goes, how it feels, how it works.
And I’ll see you in 2018.
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DAMN FINE STORY: Mastering the Tools of a Powerful Narrative
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho’okipa Beach have in common? Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, video game, or comic, this funny and informative guide is chock-full of examples about the art and craft of storytelling–and how to write a damn fine story of your own.