How To Write Gooder

A while back someone on Tumblr asked me how to get better at writing. This is what I replied.

It’s been sitting in a text editor window ever since. I decided to post it here before closing it and consigning it to the aether forever.

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Read.

Read great stuff. Read garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage even though they sell a ton. Read stuff everyone says is great that you think is garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage that you think is great. Read your favorite genre. Read other genres. Read that tedious shit they put in the New Yorker where nothing ever happens except for some white people not quite getting a divorce. Read stuff you think is great now that you’ll think is garbage in ten or twenty years.

And don’t just read it. Think about it. Ask yourself why the stuff you think is great is great, why the garbage is garbage, what appeals in the terrible best-sellers, what appeals in the great best-sellers. Develop a sense of what makes writing, plotting, characterization, and storytelling good or bad. Then apply that sense to your own writing. If a piece doesn’t pass that test then fix it until it does, if you think there’s something worth salvaging in it. If you don’t know how to fix it then ask how one or another of your favorite authors would fix it.

Read that book you loved ten years ago and read every few years and still love. But don’t just read it. Get a paper copy of it and start *dissecting* it – take notes in the margins. This bit supports this major theme of the story. That bit is an awesome grammar trick you didn’t notice until the third time you read it. This bit is just fucking amazing writing. This bit touched something important in your budding pre-teen sexuality. This bit contradicts that other bit (intentionally?). Here’s a major turning point in the story; here’s a major turning point in this particular character’s story. Flense the story’s skin and muscle off its bones, think about how one supports the other and how badly it would work without some part.

(Doing that is why the last third of Rita is shaped the way it is – I picked up *Use Of Weapons* to re-read as a way of saying goodbye to Iain when he died far too early; I started asking myself how and why he twisted the timeline into knots in that story, and what he had to do to make it work, then applied that to my own story.)

There’s lots of books on How To Structure A Story. Some are shit. Some are great. Read some of them. Personally my current favorite is the one Film Crit Hulk wrote a while back. Be warned: if you’re reading screenwriting manuals, do not try to fit your seven-act story into the Procrustean bed of a three-act screenplay. Let your story be the shape it needs to be. (But keep in mind Vonnegut’s dictum to respect the reader by starting the story as close to the end as possible; you have to *earn* the reader’s attention if you want to tell the six hundred years of Madeupistan history leading up to the point you want to make.)

Do not get lost in “worldbuilding” and “backstory”. Do not skip it, either. Stories and characters grow out of them. But it doesn’t all need to be on the page. I’ve seen the metaphor of an iceberg: maybe 10% of the shit you come up with for a novel ends up on the page. The rest? Save it for the RPG worldbook.

Getting lost in TVTropes is part of your job. It’s a great resource of common building blocks of stories. But you can’t just mindlessly put tropes together; think about which ones work, which ones you should bend, which ones you should avoid entirely, in service to the *theme* of your story and the *characters*.

Having a theme helps a lot too. Whenever you’re stuck for the next thing to aim the narrative at, you can ask how you can bring the theme(s) back to the fore.

The hardest part: figuring out how people act. I mean fuck I’m an involuted freak who spent twenty years of her life hiding from any and all social interaction and learning how to draw and program. The best background is nothing without characters, full of dreams and goals and successes and failures and foibles. Give them things they want, put obstacles in their way, and then story occurs.

Some people will divide writers into “planners” and “pantsers”: one makes elaborate plans of how the whole plot will unfold before they write a single paragraph, the other just starts writing shit and just goes where instinct takes them. Personally I tend to go back and forth; it’s worth noting that both Stephen King and George R R Martin describe themselves as firmly in the “pantsers” camp, and they’ve sold a fuckton more books than I’m ever likely to. Pantsers tend to be about dropping a bunch of characters into a situation, and seeing how they work their way out; this can involve going down a lot of dead alleys as the characters try things that don’t work out.

Personally, Rita started very pants-y: here’s this robot lady infiltrating a building, why? An assasination, apparently. She’s talking to someone, who? Carol. What’s their relationship? I had some vague ideas for visual tricks I wanted to pull with the multiple-story trick but no real clue of the story; it didn’t really start to come together until a random obstacle I dropped in to stop a Relationship Conversation from going on forever opened his mouth and said he was Rita’s psycho ex, and shattered her reality for her. Then I knew a lot more of how it was going to end; once I knew that, I could say “okay, I’m here, and I want to get here – what’s a midway point?” Then repeat: what’s about midway from the latest page to that midway point? To there? Eventually I get down to having a handful of sentences describing what needs to happen in the current chapter, then to what needs to happen in the next page or two, and then I just start plopping words and doodles onto the page in Illustrator. Absinthe’s been similar, albiet much slower. Parallax is super-planned – we’ve turned to TVTropes, we’ve got a list of Common Star Trek Episode Types we made, we’ve spent a whole year kicking back and forth a framework for a multi-season TV show.

It’s okay for first drafts to be terrible. Now you have something to fix, and that’s a lot easier than having the story burst forth fully-formed like Athena from Zeus’ brow.

If you find someone who you collaborate well with, hold onto that for dear life. I would not be half the writer I am without Nick there to help me. We broke up during Absinthe, then got back together during Rita, and now we’re collaborating both on Parallax and Absinthe. Having another pair of brain hemispheres to toss ideas back and forth is wonderful; they’ll bring in a similar-but-different set of references, loves, inspiration, and knowledge.

But mostly: read a lot; turn off your internal censors and write some absolutely terrible stuff. Then either fix it, or write some more terrible stuff until you have something worth fixing.

Also: go ask someone who knows more about writing than me, 99% of my longform writing output is volleying crazy smut fantasy paragraphs back and forth over a furry muck until someone came, fell asleep, or had to go to work the next morning. honestly I’m not sure they’ll have that much more to say, I mean King’s “On Writing” is basically him saying “read a ton, good and bad, and write a lot while applying the critical eye learnt from your wide reading to your own stuff” plus an assortment of anecdotes from his much longer writing career, just do it again and again until people are willing to pay you for it or you give up.

Some Thoughts On Lettering

A friend was trying to do some comics and having some trouble with getting the lettering to work, so I did a couple quick pages of Things I Think About When Lettering My Stuff.

some-thoughts-on-word-balloons some-thoughts-on-word-balloons-2

I do not claim that any of these tips are The One True Way To Letter. Just that they are things that tend to make my own comics more legible. (I say this because I see a lot of lettering tips about How To Superhero Letters that take a super dogmatic tone.)

There’s a lot of stuff I left out: I did not go into using differently colored balloons, the use of different types of edges for thought balloons or for shouting/electronically transmitted stuff (or for hints about tone of voice), or why I sometimes choose centered text, sometimes left or right justified, and sometimes do paragraphs with indents. I also didn’t go into translucent word balloons – I feel that solid white balloons look super clashy over modern softly-colored art. I also left out the rant about how I feel the ALL CAPS SUPERHERO LETTERING is something best left in the past, where it was a good idea due to the terrible reproduction those things got then. Which also means I left out the digression about the weird little rule that you should never write a superhero comic about someone named Clint Flicker because of how it looks if you type it in all caps and aren’t super careful with the kerning or start having the ink bleed…

Anyway. Hope this helps someone a bit.

your adobe illustrator lesson plan

Someone on /r/adobeillustrator posted an image and asked what parts of the program they should explore next. I ended up giving a list of most of Illustrator’s major features, ranked by how I think about them and how I sort of see them in different levels of complexity:

core stuff: global palette swatches, flat-color shapes with the pencil tool (double-click and play with its settings, the defaults suck), layer organization, draw above/below/inside (and clipping masks as well), transparency. Also of course all the basic shape tools and the pen tool (never turn more than 90° between two points, pull curve handles out to about 1/3 of the length of the curve segment they control, avoid s-curves between two points).

finesse: gradients, blurred shapes, line blends, pathfinder (I almost always hold the alt key when visiting that palette to keep my source paths live), play with bitmap effects and find 2-3 that don’t mostly suck (I find most of them to be kind of ugly, but I love using a soft/hard light mezzotinted rectangle at the top of the layer stack to apply texture to my work, also blurs can be super useful), line width.

don’t repeat yourself: blends, art brushes, scatter brushes, maybe symbols though I rarely use them, pattern fills. each of these is a powerful way to make complicated work quickly; each of them is the right tool for the job sometimes. play with them, learn their quirks, learn when to use one over another.

your invisible assistant: distortion meshes! Make a 1×1 d-mesh, then use the perspective mode of the free transform tool, maybe push the mesh points around a little more, and voila, something complicated in perfect perspective.

advanced: funking up your paths with live effects, layering multiple fills/paths/effects in the appearance palette, saving them for later use. I’ve been doing this a lot lately, as I find ways to make a faux-painterly look that is still clearly not “fake painting”, and renders quickly as my comic book pages get more complicated.

stuff i never use: gradient mesh (too fiddly, doesn’t play well with global swatchs), charts, autotrace.

And maybe that’s the outline for the book on Mastering Illustrator that I’ll probably never write.

Illustrator tip: Symmetric drawing.


Here’s a way to quickly do repetitive designs with Illustrator. The examples and directions are for a kaleidoscopic effect; you could also use it for a simple vertical or horizontal mirror.

1. Make a big rectangle. No fill, no stroke. Like, really big, bigger than you intend to ever let your design get and then some. Put its center wherever you want the center of your design to be.
2. Click on the circle beside the layer’s name in the layers palette.
3. Effect->distort and transform->transform. Choose a rotation value (something like “360/5” will work if you don’t want to bother doing the math), type a number in the ‘copies’ box (say, “4”).
4. (optional) Lock the rectangle you drew.
5. Deselect all, appearance palette->flyout menu->clear appearance.
6. Draw some shapes, watch them be automatically duplicated. You can make something super complicated very quickly this way!

Step 1 is the key to this; if you don’t draw the giant rectangle, the center of everything on your layer may shift every time you draw a new path.

You could do this on multiple layers with different repetition settings. You could also do this on a layer with sub-layers inside it, to make working on different parts of a complex design easier.

You can edit the repetition settings by repeating step 2, and visiting the Appearance palette.

If you want to define this more interactively, you might enjoy Astute Graphics’ Mirror Me plugin. I have it and I never use it, because they tend to only provide video tutorials of their stuff and I am very much a RTFM sort of learner.

some tips on motion

motion-tips

 

I drew this yesterday when someone asked for tips on drawing action. There are lots more things I could have said, lots more rules of thumb I could have mentioned. But these are the ones I thought of before I decided I was done drawing and went back to trying to kill the Shadow of Yharnham so I can progress in Bloodborne’s story. Which I still have not done.

SOLO COMICS PROTIP

So you want to do a graphic novel. That’s great! And you think you have the writing and drawing chops to do it all by yourself. That’s great too!

But if you want it to be entirely painted, and your only idea of how to write is to throw a few characters into a situation and see what they do, you’ll probably never finish it.

Because comics take a lot of time. And comics don’t pay very well. And shit happens.

Figure out where your story is going, and how to get there in about 200 pages, and find an art process that won’t take too much longer than the pencil and inks of the B&W days. Or you will never finish your story.

(Me? I’m 10-20 pages away from finishing Decrypting Rita. It’ll be 200-210 pages, depending on if I decide to do the epilogue I’ve been debating the need for. But my mother dying kinda took the wind out of my sails for a bit. I’ll probably get back to it soon; I’ve been working on it fairly frequently for four and a half years now, and comics are kind of my day job thanks to Patreon.)