I’m taking a three-week break now, but there are a number of topics I hope to cover when I come back, or in a future collected edition of Storyteller.
I feel they are important, so I can’t resist giving a few pointers on each of them just now.
Robert McKee says ‘exposition is ammunition’, yet it really can be a problem for writers old and new: how to avoid great chunks of potentially boring explanations about what’s going on?
Script editors will come down hard on you for too much exposition. If you’re unable to avoid this pitfall, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Girl with a Dragon Tattoo has endless chapters of – in my view – dull exposition but it doesn’t stop it being a bestseller. Dan Brown’s ‘Wikipedia exposition’ is so notorious I once watched a hilarious stand-up comedian at the King’s Head in Crouch End devote her entire act to sending up his expositions, using chunks of Wikipedia.
Then there’s Donald Sutherland’s massive conspiracy exposition in the film JFK, which I thought was excellent, but it definitely breaks the rules. So if Oliver Stone, Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson can get away with it, maybe you can too.
The tone will steer the story and it begins with the title. For example, on a forthcoming Defoe for 2000AD about Britain’s 17th century plans to send a space ship to the moon, I originally called it ‘Jacobite Zombies in Space’. I saw it as dark comedy, like Mars Attacks or Iron Sky. Editor Matt Smith quite rightly pointed out that the title was too jokey. On reflection he was absolutely right and I eventually came up with a more serious title (The Divisor), which actually suits the story much better. Thanks, Matt.
Until you’ve found your own voice, it’s useful to have up to three writers as your tramlines to keep you on the straight and narrow. For fantasy, Lord Dunsany’s style seems to have inspired everyone from Tolkien to H. P. Lovecraft, to Michael Moorcock. I didn’t know about him when I created Sláine – and I’m glad I didn’t. The path I took was to find the style from the original saga sources. That’s where phrases like ‘He didn’t think it too many’, ‘Am I not a candidate for fame,’ and ‘Kiss My Axe’ come from. As a result, I believe Sláine doesn’t feel like any other fantasy saga. I still prefer to use original, authentic sources for style, even on very different modern stories, but it’s a time-consuming and long-winded way to go about things. Reading Lord Dunsany is quicker and his books are free online. It worked for many other writers, so why shouldn’t it work for you?
COMMERCIAL v CULT
Following your muse doesn’t mean you don’t have to follow the rules of dramatic writing or comic art. To reach a wide commercial audience your creation still has to tick the boxes of popular culture and obey the principles of storytelling. You can’t ignore them just because ‘you’re an artiste’ – even though the French can. As one of them told me: his audience finds him, he doesn’t have to find his audience. But that’s France – the biggest comic market in the world, after Manga (the USA is number three). In Britain, rather more demanding rules apply. When British comics were booming – in the 1980s – it could support cult writers and artists, like John Hicklenton, whose art I adore, as well as mainstream creators who were the reason for the boom. Not the cult creators.
In these tougher times, new cult writers or artists will have a hard time of it. Of course they will attract an enthusiastic, vocal following of fans who will tell them their work is brilliant, especially because they’re ‘not compromising’. But there won’t be enough bums on seats to register in any significant way commercially. So what’s the point? If you need to pay bills and you want to reach a wide audience, follow the principles of storytelling. It’s a craft as much as it is an art.
The majority of superhero comics are ‘political’ in so far as they reinforce the status quo. This is confirmed by the number of superhero movies that are backed by US government money. So the term ‘political’ in my context, really means ‘counter to the establishment narrative’.
Charley’s War and Third World War challenge the status quo. Rebellion tells me Third World War is finally scheduled to be published as a collection, which I’m delighted about. Although the equally political and incredibly popular Finn is delayed yet again.
I’m only aware of one creator producing comparable strong political work today and that’s the truly brilliant Darren Cullen (www.spellingmistakescostlives.com). I’m in awe of his work; it’s the kind of thing I wish I could be doing more of. It’s street level, entertaining, and controversial with nothing pretentious and ‘North London’ about it.
HOW TO WORK WITH AN EDITOR
This is the final but most important topic of all.
I’m not aware of any ‘how to’ writing guides covering it, so I really must. Because new creators are often horrified when an editor takes their work apart, suggests they change the title, the plot, the location etc.
I’ve noticed they resist it as an invasion or attack on their personal creativity, not to mention a serious affront to their ego. But that’s the nature of working in mainstream popular culture (as opposed to literature, cult books, arthouse, small press or fan comics). My ego certainly had a serious kicking numerous times – first of all working as a sub-editor at D.C. Thomson’s, where the editor would make me constantly rewrite stories and articles, come up with lists of new titles etc. And later, endlessly rewriting Doctor Who scripts in the 1980s over some four years/four seasons. I nearly went bankrupt and took out a bank loan to fund it, before the editor finally accepted my story, signed off on it, and I went home to celebrate. Then, after a three-month delay, he decided it wasn’t right after all, and binned it. It took me a while to get over that one! (Today it’s been adapted into a full-cast audio Doctor Who from Big Finish: Song of Megaptera).
Punishing as such experiences are, if the editor is right, say, seven times out of ten – as he was on that occasion – it’s well worth going through them. But if the editor is right only five times out of ten or less, or they’ve got some twisted or confused agenda, or they just enjoy screwing you around because they’re on some weird power trip, then it’s not worth the pain.
I cover some examples of the latter in Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD & Judge Dredd: The Secret History. Even so, I’d still recommend new writers or artists go through a similar rite of passage – maybe via a weekend workshop or online course – just to develop a necessary thick skin. So they don’t end up being far too precious about their work.
But new writers, who haven’t had that experience, look horrified and wounded when an editor does a major dissection of their work, even though it’s actually quite normal. It’s what the editor is paid to do. ‘You’re taking over my story!’ one new writer complained to me because I was suggesting radically different alternatives to their story. Not to mention pointing out major gaps in it, etc., which I could see how to solve.
I can still recall when I was editing Action, calling in new writers for evening script sessions and seeing the looks of shock, suppressed anger and resentment on their faces when I turned their stories inside out and upside down to suit the very precise criteria of what I wanted Action to be. No one had done anything like Action before, so it was inevitable many of them would get it wrong. I got as fed up with the process as they did, so I decided on 2000AD it was easier to just write everything myself.
So that sense of shock – when an editor ‘mauls’ your masterpiece, putting it through the mincer, is something a new creator really needs to be prepared for.
There’s also the issue of ‘information overload’ – your mind reels from so many new and contradictory ideas being thrown at you during an hour of intense critical conversation, particularly in a face to face meeting. I know just how that feels. Every professional’s been there. It’s like going back to school, yet somehow far worse!
But I’ve found so many new creators can’t handle it and get angry, sullen, or depressed and it’s a pity because ultimately, they lose out. A true professional still feels all those negative emotions, even after years in the business, but we keep it to ourselves. We wait till we get home, ponder it over a glass of wine, and then – if we still feel the same way – make an effigy of the editor and throws darts at it. Or find some other form of catharsis to get over it.
So this concludes Part One of Storyteller. In Part Two I’ll feature DETAILED CASE STUDIES illustrating some of the topics from Part One. That should be in three weeks time. Hope you will join me for them and, in the meantime, do keep sending in your thoughts and questions on the art and craft of Storytelling.