Know What You’re Writing About

Hello, and welcome one more to “Tales from Outside Comics!” The series of posts from someone just like you, a wide-eyed hopeful looking to break into the industry, talking from the heart about the things that keep me up at night. This week, I’m going to dive into talking about actual writing. Which means the “advice” might be even more subjective than usual. A lot of this is coming from my time in a nontraditional writing program, so if you disagree with any of it, feel
free to sound off in the comments.

“You don’t know what you’re writing about.”

It’s the first piece of feedback I’d received that really cut me to the core, and it came at the end of my first semester of creative writing in college, from my professor, Joe Amato. I didn’t want to admit it then, but he was right. Hell, most of me didn’t even know what he meant, but I still knew he was right. He referred to my work as “finger exercises,” the act of merely throwing sentences together for the sake of it. The label hurt, but hard truths usually do. Now, I think of finger exercises as a phase everyone has to go through. I know I’ve hinted at the sentiment plenty the past two weeks, but nobody starts out great, I was just naïve enough to think that maybe I did.

Since then, about 7 years ago now, I’ve probably spent more time thinking about writing than actually doing it. (Which is always the struggle, isn’t it? Shout-out to my fellow procrastinators). It’s easy to dream, but harder to craft. Which is what I think Joe was getting at. I was crafting without dreaming; trying to write before I’d seriously thought about writing.

Writing can be an expansive, elusive subject, and I feel like there’s a lot of advice out there that tries to oversimplify it. So many people emphasize three-act structure or the hero’s journey as the keys to crafting a solid story. While I’d say that those are still important, basic tent-poles of storytelling that everyone should familiarize themselves with, they also drive me crazy. Yes, they’re ideas so broad that they can apply to almost any creative endeavor, but it’s their very effort to ground writing/storytelling as something definitive that robs the craft of its magic. (The irony isn’t lost on me that I’m now embarking on the very same task, defining writing, that bothers me so greatly about the previously mentioned ideas. I’ll try to slip through a loophole by saying I’m embracing the chaos of the process rather than enforcing a structure, but please, don’t let me off the hook that easy. It’s really not good for me.)

Speaking of magic, here’s another book recommendation in the vein of thinking about writing. (Something I meant to do last time as well, but it kind of slipped away from me.) For anyone who hasn’t read Promethea by Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III, it’s basically The Catcher in the Rye for wayward, semi-mystical, wannabe writers. It took me a bit to get into (as does most of Moore’s super-dense work,) but it was worth it. What Moore and Williams do differently is that they walk the walk, so to speak. They create a story about storytelling, and even if 4/5ths of it read more like a philosophy lesson than an adventure, I still love it.

Which leads me to another oft repeated piece of advice that I do embrace: if you want to be a writer, reading is just as important as writing. Where Promethea works for me, but studying three-act structure or the hero’s journey doesn’t, is that it shows rather than tells, to reiterate that old adage. I don’t think there’s any shortcut to storytelling out there – you’ve just got to wade into the wilderness and find your own path.

Years ago, a friend of a friend asked me for advice on the novel he was writing. When it was clear to me that he needed a lot of help with organization as well as individual passages, I suggested reading a few different books for examples and inspiration. Which was when he told me he hadn’t read a whole book since before high school, relying on spark notes to get through English
classes. It was as bad as if he had wanted to become a chef but had only eaten fast food.

Once again, I don’t have the answers to help people figure it out, or at least I don’t have your answers. To make a roundabout reference to the underrated classic Willow, the power to change the world doesn’t rest in someone else’s finger. And the path to becoming a writer rests within your own finger exercises.

We’re all going to struggle with the process, but the important thing to remember is just that: it’s a process. Growth is incremental, but it’s still growth. Every book you read will teach you something (even if it’s what not to do,) and every time you sit down with keyboard or notepad, you’re getting a little bit better.

But if you truly feel stuck (a feeling I’ve been more than familiar with,) like no matter how much you write or how many books you read, you still have no idea what you’re doing, there is one last thing you can do.

Live more.

To circle back to the start of this post, part of why I didn’t know what I was writing about is because I hadn’t experienced enough worth writing about. Sure, I could put sentences together, but I was lacking in perspective and Truth. How did I expect myself to make something of value when I didn’t know what was of value in the first place? To know what you’re writing about, you have to write what you know. And I didn’t know anything then. I was still building a functioning
worldview, much less discovering how to navigate my way through it. I know it can be disheartening, to hear that the only remedy is time. But that’s what separates someone who fantasizes about writing from someone who’s actually writing. A transition that was another massive hurdle for me, one I’ll talk more about next time in “Day Jobs: Can’t Write with ‘Em, Can’t Live Without ‘Em.”

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