I’m often asked by fans and prospective writers about my storytelling. Why I write. How I write. How I created various characters. What are the tricks of the trade? Where do I get my inspiration from? How do I get over writer’s block and so on. So I thought it was time I answered those questions and shared my experiences in a series of weekly blogs, starting this week with CREATIVE JAMMING. I hope it will make Storyteller a useful ‘How To’ guide for writers – whether we’re talking comics, novels or film. Because the ground rules are ultimately the same. And many of those rules apply to comic artists, too – as one of my particular fortes seems to be discovering talented artists and pointing them in the right direction. So I’ll be covering the ground from their point of view, too.
And if you’re simply curious and would just like to know more about modern media and the comics industry, in particular, I’ll do my best to enlighten and, hopefully, entertain you. Some of my peers at least, seem – understandably –bashful on the subject. Whilst several confirmed the horror stories I described in Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD & Judge Dredd: The Secret History and related their own even more shocking stories to me in private correspondence, they declined to be quoted. In one case, at least, because the person thought that recounting past editorial misdeeds from nearly two decades ago might still affect his current work. As you possibly know, I’m not remotely bashful on this subject, so I will continue to tell it like it is. I believe in full transparency – I think we need to turn the spotlight on archaic practices and attitudes that should have no place in modern publishing and are so last-century. Primarily so it doesn’t take another century for things to change. If creators are afraid to speak out, or worse: they give up and don’t care anymore; if they just take the money and run, as so often happens, if everything is shrouded in secrecy and spin, everything remains the same and stagnation and decline sets in. It certainly did in the late 1990s and it’s a miracle that, largely thanks to Rebellion’s takeover of 2000AD after the millennium that we still have a comics industry. Be assured that speaking out does make a difference. I’ll go into some examples later. But why would I personally care? I guess because British comics, although now penetrated by the elite, are not dominated by them. Yet. At least not in the way they dominate the rest of the media. Comics still have an appeal to young people, just about, and to traditional audiences from whence comics originated, before ‘North London’ thinking tried to transform them into a world of ‘prestigious graphic novels’ (or ‘fat comics with bits of cardboard around them’ as one comic artist put it). They still have grass-roots appeal; they can still produce great new talents, they still have counterculture voices – barely. They can still be a refreshing alternative to the corporate, conservative thinking of elitist American superheroes. They can still be a platform to challenge the Orwellian status-quo in Britain today. And that’s quite something at a time when overwhelming covert media censorship, deniable but provable beyond any doubt, is at an all-time high. Comics have the potential to slip under the wire, not least because the elite don’t really understand them or their audience and have grossly underestimated their impact in the past and their potential for the future. So that’s why I care. I believe I also have some insights you’re unlikely to find elsewhere, especially as I’m going to stray into the usually taboo area of marketing with some rather more honest conclusions than those I’ve read elsewhere. For instance, I have a negative view on many publishers and agents and believe there are strong alternative possibilities in self-publishing and promotion. In my experience, once you’re successful and don’t need an agent, that’s actually the time when you’re most likely to be accepted by one. And companies may even insist you have an agent, so you have no choice. I’ve been on the books of one famous Hollywood agency and got turned down by another well-known British agency ‘because I wasn’t famous enough.’ I have also turned down a top film agent who was keen to work with me, even though I was assured by one of his famous clients, ‘He’s actually okay: although you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with him. I turned him down because I got fed-up working with people who often have only the most rudimentary idea of what I write and what it stands for. I’d have just been another name on his list. But my negative opinion is not just based on my own experience. The writer-producer of a famous American TV series and some recent successful films told me he had never got any work through his agent. I’ve heard the same story from other creators. Of course an agent will be useful elsewhere for progressing payment and scrutinising contracts, but even there I’ve found I have a much sharper eye for spotting problems in the small print. Agents also don’t seem to care if you accept a poor deal on a contract, because they get their cut, after all. My take on it is that they’re a necessary evil and that’s it; so I guess I won’t be dedicating the book version of Storyteller ‘to my agent’, as so many writers seem to do. And I think my personal take on finding your inspiration, AKA ‘meeting your muse’ is rather original. Much more on her later. Also, not forgetting the need to raise prospective writer’s self-esteem. There’s so many damned ‘can’ts’ in their way. So many gatekeepers who will wilfully, and sometimes vindictively, I’m afraid, impede their progress. No wonder newcomers suffer from ‘writer’s block’ or lack of motivation. But I passionately believe that writing is as much a universal talent as painting, singing or playing a musical instrument. Of course, there will be some who don’t have it in them and never will. But that goes for art and music, too – I sing flat, for instance, and my attempts to do something about it have failed dismally. But many more writers could make it with the right encouragement. I discovered this when I regularly went out of my way to work with new, completely unknown writers often with significant commercial success. It was great for me, too, because the new writer would have some expert knowledge I could only dream of. Writing with them was writing from the heart rather than from Wikipedia. But despite the benefits, at least one publisher put a stop to it by firmly insisting that I was a ‘brand name’ and if I kept working with unknowns I would be ‘diluting the brand’. Another publisher complained bitterly that I was causing him massive contract headaches by wanting the names on the by-line changed to include the newcomer. I’ll never forget his sustained and bitter tirade, but I stood my ground and insisted on a dual credit on a story. All the paranoid problems he imagined never happened, but he was still most unhappy about me letting in a newcomer. And that’s really what it was about. I guess because ultimately most publishers (You’ll appreciate I say ‘most’ for obvious reasons!) are ultimately motivated by a desire for power and control rather than a love of storytelling as art. If they have to choose, they’ll go for power every time. I still miss those days of creative jamming with new writers. To me, it’s like musicians spontaneously jamming in a pub or club – there’s no egos involved and something exciting and unpredictable emerges. Why shouldn’t storytelling have the same boozy, sexy, improvised atmosphere of jazz musicians? Does it really have to always come down to one guy alone in his room with a laptop? Wasn’t storytelling originally an art form told around a fire, staring into its glowing embers? I think we’ve lost something with the sometimes cold and clinical modern method. When I wrote the original version of Read ‘em and Weep with Kevin O’Neill he liked to work on it in a crowded city pub. Because the energy level was so high it inspired his best work. So he’d be shouting absolute gems of dialogue across a crowded and noisy bar to me and I’d be laughing my head off as I hastily scribbled them down, often on serviettes or scraps of paper. I’d then desperately try to decipher my handwriting the next morning. The end result is in Read ‘em and Weep Book One: Serial Killer and Book Two: Goodnight, John-Boy.
The authors of Serial Killer, in a bar.
These novels, based on the often lunatic and hilarious world of publishing in the 1970s show the trials and tribulations of new writers trying to ‘write to market’ rather than from the heart. At that time girls comics, in particular, were outrageously over the top, yet hugely popular with their audience, often selling more than 200,000 copies a week. A brief example here. Emotionally shut-down writer Dave has been trying to impress Glaswegian girls’ comics editor Joy with his story proposals.
‘I think a blind javelin thrower is stretching credibility too far, Dave. Una Never Saw the Umpire didn’t really work for me….Anyhoo … it was an improvement on your previous proposal: My Dead Little Pony… ‘I need realistic stories, Dave, relevant to girls’ lives in the 1970s. Hard-hitting. Social realism, showing the kind of Britain we’re living in today.’
‘Less Ken Barlow, more Ken Loach?’
‘Yes. If you like.’
‘Then I think I’ve got just the story for you, Joy. How does this sound? Tower Block Tessa. She’s homeless and sleeps in the lift. Her mother’s a bag lady and her father lives in a burnt-out car. She wants to be an Olympic swimmer. So she’s training in the water tank on the 30th floor. Maybe she has a disability, too, and is using her crutch to sweep aside the dead pigeons. She could find her alcoholic mother in the tank as well.’
Dave saw Joy’s wide-eyed face. ‘I’m not reaching you. Too over the top? Not enough? Give me some guidance here.’
(From Read Em And Weep 1: Serial Killer)
I’ll try and give guidance like Joy in this blog series.
Creative flow in Agharta Jazz Club, Prague
I think Storyteller should also be of interest to fans because it goes further behind the scenes on my stories. It picks up where Be Pure! leaves off and gives further insights (and horror stories) about the comics industry. Many readers also wanted more details on the storytelling process which – for reasons of space – I sometimes glided over. I’ll do my best to fill in the gaps with some key examples. How I actually went about thinking up Ro-Busters and the story of Rico Dredd, for example. And more on my relationships with comic artists – those who are driven by the muse and those who are driven by their bank managers. I’ll get into the various heroes and heroines I’ve created and why they’re invariably working class. Not least because most well known heroes in fiction are middle or upper class. And most people seem to accept that as the norm – which is outrageous! That’s why you’ll find there were rarely officer heroes in the early days of Battle, Action and 2000AD when I was controlling their destinies. Rat Pack (convicts) D. Day Dawson (sergeant), Charley’s War (private), Dredger (dirty secret agent with an old Etonian sidekick) Hook Jaw (force of nature) and so on. Similarly, on girls’ comics, Moonchild (Misty), a physically abused heroine becomes empowered. And in Land of No Tears (Jinty) the down to earth heroine takes on and defeats a futuristic ruling elite.
Dredger and Hook Jaw ACTION™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT © REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
As I’m writing this as a series of blogs, if you have a particular question or subject you want to know more about, do please leave a comment or drop me an email and I’ll be sure to turn the spotlight on it. Or if you’ve got a different take or experience on writing that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it. The creative jamming starts here. More next week.