Rules, What Rules: Independent Superhero Comics

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

Eliminating Adverbs

Avoid Alliteration

The Three Act Structure

The Rule: Don’t Write Independent Superhero Conics

One of the most common pieces of advice given to young comics creators is not to make superhero comics. How can you possibly compete with Marvel and DC, the big two companies who have a virtual monopoly in the genre? Do you really want to go up against the name recognition of those famous characters? Superhero readers know where to find the comics they enjoy, and they’re not coming to small-press row to find them. When I first started attending “Breaking into Comics” type panels at various cons, some piece of this advice was repeated on each panel.

And yet…

Recently, there have been many non-big two superhero comics which have enjoyed commercial and critical success. Titles like The Boys and Invincible have even been picked up for streaming, and Barbalien, a book from Jeff Lemire’s Black Hammer series was listed on NYPL top 100 books (all books released that year, not just comics and graphic novels) of the year list a couple of years back.

Big creators like Alan Moore have written non-big two superhero comics, Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, Mark Millar’s Kickass, and Mike Mignola’s Hell Boy are breakthrough indie comics from the relatively recent past.

Ahoy Comics, one of my favorite widely-available indie publishers (and not just because they’ve published my work) publishes multiple superhero titles, including two which I read regularly, The Wrong Earth, by Tom Pyer and Jamal Igle, and Second Coming, by Mark Russell and Richard Price.

If the major indie’s aren’t afraid of the big two, and are willing to publish superhero comics, shouldn’t all creators, regardless of where they are in their careers, be willing to do so as well? There certainly seems to be a path to success within the genre.

Analysis

I would imagine that the most common response to my point about the success of independent superhero comics which I listed above would be that many–if not all–of these titles are not traditional superhero stories, but rather twists or angles on the superhero genre. Each puts a unique spin on the concept of superheroes, often deconstructing and critiquing the traditional trope, or using the familiar trope to affect a critique of society and address some larger theme. While this is true, it is not really different from any other genre. You wouldn’t not be successful writing a zombie book that was exactly like the Walking Dead or a crime book that was too similar to 1000 bullets, Criminal, or Sin City either. Originality is important, regardless of genre.

To this point, when I walk around small press and artist alley at various comic cons, or visit indie-focused comics Facebook groups, superhero is far from the most common genre. If anything, it’s horror, and based on my experience, it’s not particularly close. We may be getting to the point where, at least in small indie circles, superhero comics stand out, ironically, because of their rarity.

When I posted this idea in one of my comics groups last week, one of the responses was that the most successful independent superhero comics were, by and large, created by big-name creators, like Mark Millar, Jeff Lemire, and Gath Ennis. This is also true, but is it really that different from any other genre? Jeff Lemire has had success writing horror comics, fantasy, and sci-fi as well. Mark Millar has done space adventure, time travel scifi, and slice of life horror. Gath Ennis has written major titles in crime and war comics. If an independent creator were to attempt to sell work in any of these genres, they would be up against name creators regardless.

Moreover, if superhero comics are successful, shouldn’t we be creating in them? Shouldn’t we be practicing to get better at them, so that when we have the opportunity to pitch editors we have the style under our belts. Should we have portfolio pieces which show we can do that kind of work? If the top of the industry is producing superhero books, how can we break into that segment if we do not know how to create them? If we, one day aspire to write or draw for Marvel or DC (recognizing how unlikely that dream is for any creator) shouldn’t we be practicing and publishing with an eye toward that type of work?

Additionally, I believe that there is a marketing angle to writing independent superhero books as well. I have found that when I table at cons, I can find potential customers by observing what they are wearing. If I see a goth, for example, I might call them over to my table to check out Into That Darkness Peering or Love Letters to Poe, the gothic horror titles at my table. Well, superhero fans make up a huge segment of the comics-buying community. “Do you like Spider-Man? perhaps you’d be interested in checking out this book about a teenage…” “Oh, I see you’re wearing a Batman shirt. Let me show you my book about a revenge-seeking…” It seems foolish to ignore the largest segment of the comics fans.

I will end by saying that the prejudice against superhero comics in indie circles is real. There are definitely people who will tune you out if you bring up a super hero concept. Some of these people have power within the industry, and may reject a pitch outright just for being a superhero title.

If, however, one has the opportunity to pitch a company which publishes superhero comics, why would one not do so? And, since many in the independent world self-publish, there are really no restrictions on the types of books one can create.


Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

News and Notes

It’s been a while since I’ve done a news and notes post, so here it goes:

Last week I found out that my application to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association was accepted. I am now a full member. This is a major milestone in my career, and it is something I’ve been working toward for a long time.

The symbol of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association.

I also received my author copies of the Rio Grande Review, which includes my prose poem The Substance in the Shadow. You can read my piece on the RGR site, but since the online version does not include the accompanying illustration, and since the university is apparently running low on physical copies, I’ve included a photo here.

My prose poem The Substance in the Shadow in the Rio Grande Review

I am putting together my summer appearance schedule, and while I still have to finalize some dates, I can announce that I will be tabling at Geek Out Staten Island on August 12th.

Lastly, I celebrated a birthday this week. ICYMI, here are my thoughts about turning 45.

A tweet about birthdays and midlife crises.

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What I Learned From…Star Wars

One of the most effective ways for writers to improve their craft is to read intentionally. But, what does reading intentionally really mean? To me, when I read as a writer, I observe the way the other uses craft–either on the macro or the micro level, and see if there are any techniques or strategies I can incorporate into my own writing. I don’t always read like this, as it distracts, to some extent, from my ability to fully immerse myself in a story for pleasure, but, reading (or watching or listening, depending on the medium) for craft not only is an important part of my writing practice, but also has allowed me to get something out of almost anything I read, even if it is something which I would not–or do not–otherwise enjoy. It is especially important for a writer to read broadly and outside of their genre, as casting a wide net exposes one to a wider array or strategies and techniques.

In this series of articles, I will write about one element of craft I learned from a specific writer. Of course, in most cases, I learned more than one technique from each author, but for the purpose of this series of articles, I will focus on just one per post.

As with my Rules What Rules series, I will list previous entries at the top of each post, as while I plan on writing many of these, they, most likely, will not be in consecutive posts.

Previous Entries:

Oscar Wilde

Bob Dylan

WHAT I LEARNED FROM Star Wars: Organic World Building

Happy Star Wars Day! The original Star Wars trilogy stands as the pinnacle of space opera and science fiction storytelling. It is a masterpiece in so many ways, has permeated pop culture like few other genre franchises, and it is, along with The Lord of The Rings, is one of my original fandoms. Today, May the Fourth, is Star Wars Day, a day to celebrate the franchise, and as it is also the day on which I post my blog. As I’ve been doing a “What I Learned From…” series recently, it is the perfect day to write about what I learned from the original Star Wars trilogy. It is difficult to pick only one thing. I could easily have written this article about adapting archetypes (monomyth, Oresteia) or how to write successful banter, but I’ve decided to write about world building, as the original trilogy does a masterful job of worldbuilding organically (unlike the prequel trilogy, but more on that later), providing the viewer with enough context and information to establish the verisimilitude of the secondary, fantasy world, without committing the all-to-common cardinal sin of over-explaining and info-dumping.

Let’s look at a few lines from the first movie, what I knew as Star Wars growing up, and you kids now call A New Hope.

In the opening scene of the movie, C3PO worries that he and R2D2 will be “sent to the spice mines of Kessel, smashed into who knows what…”

We'll be sent to the Kessel spice mines or smashed into who knows what.
gif of the preceding quote

C3PO says this as if it’s a bad thing. We understand that even though we, as visitors to the movie’s secondary world, don’t know what the spice mines of Kessel are, what spice he’s talking about, why droids would get smashed there, etc. Presumably, R2D2 knows, but we do not. And yet, the line doesn’t break the action of that opening scene. C3P0 who is one of the most verbose characters in the movie, does not go into a lengthy explanation of spice trade, Kessel, etc, he just mentions it quickly, the way someone in that world would actually talk. He does, however, plant an important world building seed that’s developed later in the movie.

Later, when Luke and Obi Wan are in Mos Eisley to hire a spaceship to take them off of Tatooine, they encounter Han Solo in the cantina. Solo boasts that his ship “made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.”

It's the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.
Gif: It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

What is the Kessel run? Why is Solo using a unit of distance rather than time to brag about his ship’s speed? Again, we don’t know. But we recognize the word “Kessel” from a previous scene. Obviously, this is something people in world know about. Shady things seem to go on there, perhaps related to the aforementioned spice. The writers have added another layer of depth to the world building without descending into lengthy, boring expository backstory.

Despite the lack of backstory, the viewer never feels lost in secondary world. It feels strange to us, which it should as we are but visitors there, but it feels real. Why? Because that is how real people talk. The characters speak like real, in-world people, not history professors.

To explore this premise further, let’s look at Princess Leia’s plea for Ben Kenobi’s help. She says, “years ago, you served my father in the clone wars.”

General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars.
Gif of previous quote

What are the Clone Wars? Again, we don’t know. But as viewers, we understand that it was a major war in world, which took place in the previous generation. There is no time in this hurried plea for help to explain the backstory–and there is no need. We all understand what this means. Let’s move the dialogue int our world. In 1977, when the movie came out, it might have read, “years ago you served my father in Second World War.” No one, in this parallel situation would go into a lengthy history lesson about World War II. That type of backstory would seem out of place and superfluous. In this secondary world setting, the writers trust the viewer to contextualize this unfamiliar detail by using their own parallel, real-world experience. The result is what makes the world sound authentic. It makes the world–and the characters–seem more, rather than less because it simulates the way real people speak.

The worldbuilding strategy is consistent throughout the first trilogy. Take, for example the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han and Chewie are trying to fix the Millennium Falcon’s broken hyperdrive. Han says: “Horizontal boosters…! Alluvial dampers…! Well that’s not it. Bring me the hydrospanner!”

Bring me the hydrospanner!
Gif: Bring me the hydrospanner!

The audience has no idea what those things are, and yet the dialogue rings true. If a mechanic asks for a socket wrench, he can presume his assistant will know what a socket wrench is without an explanation of how it works or what it’s used for.

Similarly, Vader’s reaction to finding out that Luke had constructed a new lightsaber in Return of the Jedi follows the same world-building strategy.

I see you have constructed a new lightsaber.
Gif: I see you have constructed a new lightsaber
Your skills are complete.
Gif: Your skills are complete

The construction of a new lightsaber is, as we can glean from the context of the dialogue, a key milestone in the training of a Jedi, and yet there is no discussion of how one would construct a new lightsaber, what rank this would bestow on Luke, etc. Both Vader and Luke would know this information already and would not need to explain it to each other. All the audience needs to know is that in constructing a new lightsaber, Luke has reached a new level of Jedi skill, a level which has impressed Vader. Anything beyond that takes the audience out of the story.

When someone says, “let’s take the car to the movies,” they don’t go into a lengthy explanation of the workings of the internal combustion engine. It is, in fact, likely, that most people who drive a car have little idea how an internal combustion engine actually works. They do not go into a long polemic about the fossil fuel or climate change (They might give a throwaway line about gas mileage or a brief, glib comment about the extent to which their hybrid is or isn’t saving the earth, but that’s half a line of dialogue at most). They don’t explain the history of the car from the model T to the present time. So why would we expect characters to do similar things in a science fiction setting? The ship will “make .5 past light speed.”

She'll make .5 past light speed.
gif of previous quote

How? it doesn’t matter. In a world where FTL travel is the norm, no one would need further explanation. .5 what? There is no unit of measurement. Well, that’s how people really talk. “She’ll go 0-60 in 6 seconds.” There’s no need to say miles per hour. Everyone understands the context.

Star Wars is often criticized for it’s lack of scientific explanation, especially by fans of a certain other popular sci-fi franchise. Yet, I would argue that this makes it a more authentic, more believable world. As soon as you offer an explanation of technological marvel, you both take your reader/viewer out of the world, and give then something to nitpick and start an argument which you can’t possibly win. Yet, doing the worldbuilding obliquely, allows you to drop in the necessary world building information–and even layer it richly–without breaking the spell of verisimilitude by taking your audience out of your secondary world and giving them a change to question their suspension of disbelief It is both effective and realistic.

Notice, too, that this world-building strategy is affected in normal dialogue throughout the movie. None of the lines quoted above are the most famous, most quoted, most meme-able lines in the movie, yet they serve an important, world-building purpose. By integrating the world-building in this fashion, the writers keep the audience in the fast-paced action and fun. The world-building dialogue is like an invisible force which binds the Star Wars galaxy together.

Many later entries in the Star Wars franchise show the other side of the coin. They get bogged down in exposition and explanation, explaining the spice trade, or the way to construct a lightsaber. They try to flesh out the causes of Clone Wars, and codify the method of Jedi training. The prequel trilogy, which has sometimes been criticized as CSPAN for the Imperial Senate–is especially bad in that regard. It abandons the highly effective world building strategy described above, and loses both the fun and the verisimilitude of the original. The effectiveness of the original strategy can be seen in the contrast.

Enough negativity, though. Today is a day of celebration of all things Star Wars.

As writers–especially writers of speculative fiction–verisimilitude and the willing suspension of disbelief are essential to the success of our enterprise (are we allowed to use that word on star wars day?). We should use the original Star Wars trilogy as a paradigm for effective, organic world building which allows us to create rich, secondary worlds without breaking the spell of action and story.

Happy Star Wars Day. May the fourth be with you!

Remember, the Force will be with you always.
Remember, the force will be with you, always.

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What I Learned From…Bob Dylan

One of the most effective ways for writers to improve their craft is to read intentionally. But, what does reading intentionally really mean? To me, when I read as a writer, I observe the way the other uses craft–either on the macro or the micro level, and see if there are any techniques or strategies I can incorporate into my own writing. I don’t always read like this, as it distracts, to some extent, from my ability to fully immerse myself in a story for pleasure, but, reading (or watching or listening, depending on the medium) for craft not only is an important part of my writing practice, but also has allowed me to get something out of almost anything I read, even if it is something which I would not–or do not–otherwise enjoy. It is especially important for a writer to read broadly and outside of their genre, as casting a wide net exposes one to a wider array or strategies and techniques.

In this series of articles, I will write about one element of craft I learned from a specific writer. Of course, in most cases, I learned more than one technique from each author, but for the purpose of this series of articles, I will focus on just one per post.

As with my Rules What Rules series, I will list previous entries at the top of each post, as while I plan on writing many of these, they, most likely, will not be in consecutive posts.

Previous Entries:

Oscar Wilde

WHAT I LEARNED FROM BOB DYLAN: focus on the General Rather than the Specific When Writing Social Criticism

There’s a strong argument to me made that Bob Dylan is the defining poet of his generation. As the only popular singer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has achieved success both in the popular and critical arenas. Dylan came to prominence in the 1960s and was a major voice in the anti-Vietnam war movement. He is, perhaps, best known for his protest songs, which despite being written ostensibly about that war, have lived on long after the war in Vietnam was over, and which continue to inspire change-makers and poets alike years after they were written. While there is much that any poet can learn from Bob Dylan, from his expert characterization, to his use of biblical and literary allusions, to his ability to craft unique and whimsical phrases, it is the enduring legacy of these songs, Dylan’s ability to write evergreen poems about about a specific current event, which I wish to focus on today.

So why do Dylan’s songs still resonate? I would argue that is because he writes about the event of the day generally rather than specifically. Let’s look at Blowin’ in the Wind, which is, perhaps, his most famous protest song.

The song begins with a series of rhetorical questions:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, ’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ’n’ how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

The song, which everyone knows as a protest song, does not mention contemporary issues at all at the beginning. The first question is a question of maturity. The second, is a biblical allusion to the Noah story. It is only the third question which addresses war specifically, and even here, it is a general question about war, not a specific question about a specific war. Imagine you were listening to the song for the first time and without context. You might not yet know what the song was about. Yet, if you were attending an anti-Vietnam war rally, you would immediately associate that last question with the (then) current conflict.

Looking back at the verse, the first two questions, which invoke maturity (1) and the bible, which is a source of morality (2), frame the third question which addresses the social issue about which Dylan want his listener to focus. A mature, moral person would recognize the futility of war in general, and the amoral nature of the specific was which was going on at the time Dylan performed the song.

The second verse is structured in the same way as the first, but Dylan varies the types of questions he asks:

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ’n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ’n’ how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

The first question in this verse resembles the first question of the first verse. It is a general question. This time, however, he moves to a specific social issue in the second question. The third question, continues on the theme of the second by implicating not just the oppressor, who is called out in question 2, but also the “neutral” observer, who while they don’t oppress others themselves, also don’t challenge the oppressor. Again, a listener in the 1960s would associate the second and third question with a contemporary issue of the day, in this case, the civil rights movement, but, like the first verse, Dylan chooses not to name the issue or those whom he criticizes explicitly.

Even though the structure of this verse is the same as the first, the content moves in a different way. Like the first verse, this one begins with a general question which establishes a context. In this case, the context is time. Oppression has been going on for a long time, both in the general sense and in the specific sense which Dylan implies from his own social context. The second question moves to the specific social criticism, in this case oppression. The movement between the first and second question does not happen until the third question in the first verse. Here, it happens one question sooner. The third question, however, makes a different type of movement. Dylan turns the question directly to his listeners. Even though it’s still stated generally, Dylan’s audience, who, likely, would not consider themselves pro war or oppressors, may recognize that they are not doing enough to fix these social issues. Thus, the third question acts as a call to action.

Let’s look at the third verse:

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ’n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Once again, the verse is structured in the exact same way: three questions and the refrain. But this time, Dylan masterfully connects the themes of the first verse with those in the second. The first question, once again, seems to establish a general thematic context. Though it mimics the first question in the other verses structurally, in this case, it also echoes the last question in the previous verse, which continues the theme of blindness. It is implied, in context, that the blindness is willing. The second question continues the theme, switching from seeing to listening, but with the same implied message.

The third question makes a new kind of move. It masterfully connects the themes of the first verse and the second verse with one simple question. When he sings “too many people have died” does he mean in the war or because of oppression? It does not really matter because the answer is really both. Too many people died in the war. Too many people also died because of their civil rights were abused. Moreover, there were civil rights issues with the Vietnam war as well. All of these issues are connected. The same type of person who does not see–or hear–one will not see or hear the other. This criticism also applies, perhaps most strongly, to those in charge, whose policies and lack of empathy lead to each issue.


While the song as a whole is a scathing piece of social criticism, it does not refer specifically to any current social issue. There is no mention of a specific war or a specific type of oppression. The listener at the time would have recognized the specific, current events which inspired the song, but, because Dylan did not mention them explicitly, they are relevant to many other similar situations throughout history. Thus, Dylan effectively writes social criticism about the issues of his day while also writing a timeless poem which has lived on long after that specific war ended. (The civil rights issues, unfortunately, are ongoing). His material has an evergreen, timeless quality which transcends the events about which he was writing.

There is a strong temptation to write about those issues which make us most angry, and to write about them specifically, and, there is a value in doing so for sure. But, as Dylan shows, it is often more effective to address theme generally and trust one’s audience to understand the point one is trying to make. Dylan wrote many other songs which fit this paradigm, notably Masters of War and The Times They Are a’ Changin’. While he wrote songs which addressed specific events of his day, the are (with the exception of Hurricane) not among those which are considered his greatest hits. And yet, despite his tendency to write generally, Dylan–and his songs–were very clear about where he stood on the issues of the day.

This lesson can be seen in the work of other writers as well. It is the reason why 1984 is a better novel than Animal Farm, for example, and it is a large part of why Shakespeare’s tragedies are considered his greatest plays.

As writers, we should aspire to write our social criticism is evergreen ways. We all dream of writing work that lasts. While many factors go into whether a piece will resonate beyond its era some in our control and some not, emulating Dylan gives us the best chance at writing social criticism with a lasting legacy. And, Dylan’s example proves that writing generally does not detract from a poem’s effectiveness as social criticism of specific, current issues.


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A Thought About Age and Poetry After Seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band During National Poetry Month

This past Sunday, I saw Bruce Springsteen perform for the 15th time. He is my favorite musical act, the best live performer I’ve seen, and one hell of a poet. Over the years, I’ve taken inspiration from him in a myriad of ways, from his skill adopting the voice of different characters, to his unique ability to stay in the right side of sentiment with out crossing the line into sentimentality, he has taught me so much about the craft of writing story and poetry. As I watched another incredible performance on Sunday with an E Street Band that sounds as good or better than it did the first time I saw him, I came to another realization: we need more poetry from older poets.

The creative industry in general trends younger. Everyone looks for The Next Big Thing, and much of the media coverage related to debut albums and novels, under-a-certain-age lists, etc., and while I get the appeal of the prodigy, there are subjects about which young people are not generally equipped to write well. Listening to this concert, I was struck by how much Springsteen’s later work—especially the songs from his crisis albums, The Rising and Letter to You—spoke to me. The song Ghosts, for example, stands up to anything else in the show, and is, in my opinion, the best song about the effects of the pandemic.

Springsteen is an especially good example of what an older poet offers. He has had a long and sustained late-career renaissance, which started with The Rising, his 9/11 album. While there was always depth and political meaning in his songs—even when they were nominally about cars and girls—but his later work has a depth and maturity that speaks to me as I get older. Thunder Road and Badlands remain both timeless classics and great poems. They have a timeless quality and bring the house down every time he plays them, but the guy who wrote those isn’t the same guy who now discusses the issues of the day with Barack Obama.

I still love the songs I grew up with—and seeing a favorite act perform the songs I grew up with is always going to be a highlight of this type of show, but hearing the music of an artist who continues to grow as I grow adds to the experience.

In a way, it’s a shame that only artists like Springsteen who were successful in their youth get to have an audience for their mature work. I wish we got to read more debut poets who’s writing has matured after their youth.

Bruce Springsteen at UBS Arena

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What I Learned From…Oscar Wilde

One of the most effective ways for writers to improve their craft is to read intentionally. But, what does reading intentionally really mean? To me, when I read as a writer, I observe the way the other uses craft–either on the macro or the micro level, and see if there are any techniques or strategies I can incorporate into my own writing. I don’t always read like this, as it distracts, to some extent, from my ability to fully immerse myself in a story for pleasure, but, reading (or watching or listening, depending on the medium) for craft not only is an important part of my writing practice, but also has allowed me to get something out of almost anything I read, even if it is something which I would not–or do not–otherwise enjoy. It is especially important for a writer to read broadly and outside of their genre, as casting a wide net exposes one to a wider array or strategies and techniques.

In this series of articles, I will write about one element of craft I learned from a specific writer. Of course, in most cases, I learned more than one technique from each author, but for the purpose of this series of articles, I will focus on just one per post.

As with my Rules What Rules series, I will list previous entries at the top of each post, as while I plan on writing many of these, they, most likely, will not be in consecutive posts.

What I learned From Oscar Wilde: How to Write Witty

The defining trait of Wilde’s writing is his wit. While he certainly does other things well (Dorian Gray, for example shows how a great high concept can elevate an otherwise conventional story), if you ask the average reader about Wilde’s writing, the first thing they are likely to mention is his clever wit. For this reason, Wilde is one of the most quoted writers. His short, sentence-long witticisms often appear on posters, t-shirts, stickers, and memes. As a writer who has been accused of wit (see my stories here and here for examples) I am especially interested in dissecting Wilde’s technique.

In general, Wilde’s wit works depends on subverting the reader’s expectations by finding a cliched phrase or idea, then changing the second half of the of phrase in an unexpected or ironic way. It relies on the reader’s prior knowledge of a common phrase or societal convention, and the way the sentence is constructed syntactically to make the ironic turn.

Let’s look at a few examples:

“I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”

“A gentleman is one who never gives offense unintentionally.”

“A good friend will always stab you in the front.”

“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”

On a syntactical level, Wilde’s sentences set up an expectation in the reader’s mind. When he write, “I have the simplest of tastes,” he sets up the expectation of a second half that espouses frugality; “A Gentleman is one who never gives offense” seems like the kind of advice Polonius would give to Laertes, and one would expect more of the same type of banality; “A good friend will” is beginning of a cliché involving being stabbed in the back, etc.

The second half–or in some cases the end–of each line flips that expectation on its head. “The only way to get rid of temptation….is to yield to it. The end is completely unexpected. It not only subverts the conventional wisdom, but also reveals the emptiness of the common phrase and, therefore, it criticizes a societal norm, in this the repressive Victorian culture of Wilde’s time, as well. The other quotes work by the same principal: A good friend never would stab you in the back, they would stab you in the front! A gentleman never gives offence…saving for when he intends to.

Many famous witticism follow Wilde’s example. Dorothy Parker’s “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think,” and Yogi Berra’s “Nobody goes there anymore it’s too crowded” are both examples of this technique as well.

To write a witty quip like Wilde, I would start with a well-known cliché. Let’s take (because it’s the first one I thought of as I was writing this) “The grass is always greener on the other side of the yard.” Next I would find a dramatic context in which to use the cliché, preferably one which alludes to the meaning or message which the cliched phrase is trying to teach us.

Off the top of my head:

“Mr. Wilde,” I said, “Mr. Rubin seems to be jealous of your fame and success.”

“That is to be expected,” Wilde replied. “The grass is always greener on my side of the yard.”

Perhaps it’s not perfect, but I think it illustrates the point. The second character–Mr. Wilde–subverts the cliché by changing the second half of the phrase to something witty and unexpected. In an actual story, I’d choose a cliché that matched the dramatic situation, theme, or context of the larger story, but I this example is sufficient to illustrate the point.

I hope that you can use this technique in your own writing, and I encourage you to read widely and with a purpose so that you can continue to build your writers toolbox.


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Rules, What Rules: The Three Act Structure

In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s.” While I have gotten away from that theme from time-to-time, I try to return to it every now and then as part of my series: Rules: What Rules? which consists of a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work–by a successful author–which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.

In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.

Previously in this series:

Dialogue Tags

Eliminating Adverbs

Avoid Alliteration

The Rule: The Three Act Structure

Stories, we are all taught at a young age, have a beginning, a middle, and and end. This fact–for it rarely stated as anything but a fact, goes back at least to Aristotle, who explained the basic plot structure, or, as he called it, protasis, epitasis, and catharsis, using the metaphor of string. In the first act, the protasis, the various plot strands are introduced, in the second act, or epitasis, the strands are wound around each other so that they tighten into a rope–the plot thickens–until can’t be wound tighter, and then in the the third act, the catharsis, the strands are cut at the climax of the action, and fall away.

Modern critics have taken Aristotle’s ideas and adjusted them to focus on character instead of plot, but, the general idea remains the same.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning-poet-and-screenwriter David Mamet, one of the most successful and influential contemporary writers, also advocates for the three act structure in his book Three Uses of the Knife. The title of the book comes from this Leadbelly quote, which is one of the cleanest representations of the three-act plot: “You take a knife, you use it to cut the bread, so you’ll have strength to work; you use it to shave, so you’ll look nice for your lover; on discovering her with another, you use it to cut out her lying heart.”

In fact, nearly every writing class, from kindergarten through the graduate level, as well as nearly every independent course or article for writers, advocates for a three act structure. You might think it was the only way to structure a story.

And yet…

There are many successful stories which do not follow the three act structure. Shakespeare’s plays have five acts. Many successful modern plays (Waiting for Godot and the Elephant Man immediately come to mind) have only two. The Glass Menagerie has seven scenes which are not divided into acts. Star Trek (The original series) is a four act show, as is Eugene Oneill’s The Ice Man Cometh. Kishōtenketsu, a traditional Japanese story structure also has four acts.

It’s worth noting, additionally, that the ancient Greek plays and epics which Aristotle analyzed in the poetics were not conceived as three act stories either. The plays were told in a series of scenes and choruses, and the epics were largely episodic, and if anything, tend more toward a circular or two act structure than three.

Analysis

I’m going to start off by saying there is nothing wrong with the three act structure. It’s a fine way to tell a story. It’s just not the only way to tell a story. The examples above prove there are others.

I do not object to the existence of the three act structure when it is appropriate. What I object to is the reductive nature of writing instruction and criticism which tries to shoehorn every successful story into this framework. Tennessee Williams could have made The Glass Menagerie a three-act play if he wanted to. He wrote Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as Three Act Play, for example. If he didn’t include acts, there must have been a reason. Similarly, I cannot tell you how many lessons I’ve seen where a teacher tries to teach a Shakespeare play like a three act play.

Moreover, for most of history, the three act structure was a critical tool, not a creative one. Aristotle–who has been proven wrong (through still historically important) in most fields said Sophocles plays were composed of three parts. There is nothing to indicate that Sophocles felt the same as he was composing them.

Modern analysis, which attempts to reduce Joseph Campbell’s hero journey (itself a critical rather than compositional tool) to a three act structure, is an interesting crutch, but are likely more accurate as a description of how modern stories synthesize the hero’s journey with the three act structure, with the older, epic form. It may be useful for some writers–and work for some stories–but they should not be considered one-size-fits-all prescriptions, and there are other types of circular narrative (see Alan Moore’s writing and writing about writing for examples).

Experimenting with different structures can help us get out of our ruts and solve common compositional problems. When I teach, I often suggest my struggling students try a simpler structure to begin with. A two act structure is a powerful structure with a long history. It allows the writer to set up parallels and juxtapose moments by placing their characters in similar situations before and after a central event or turning point. Many writers have the most trouble with the second act. Why not get rid of it, and just focus on two? Other students may have difficulty with the beginning or the end. Why not follow Shakespeare’s example (he is generally considered the greatest writer of all time for a reason) and try to plot your story across five acts to resolve those issues.

More generally, however, all of these divisions are tools rather than rules. Even if we focus exclusively on the hero’s journey narrative, there are all sorts of ways to divide the story structurally. We can, of course, divide it, into the classic three act structure around the crossing of the threshold, the journey, and the return to the familiar world; but we can also divide it into four acts, up until the character crosses the threshold, from the crossing to the underworld/belly of the beast. the heavy price, the return, changed, to the familiar world (this divides the circle into quadrants); or even into just two acts: descent and return. The pie, being a circle, can be sliced in infinite ways. The writer should choose whichever form works for them, and leave the critics to their own analyses.

On top of that, Star Trek, The Eastern forms like the Kishōtenketsu , Shakespeare, the great Russian novelists, and the post modernists who consciously reject classical forms, show the myriad of other forms a story can take.

Again, there is nothing wrong with the three act structure. It’s a great structure, and many successful stories use it. As writers, however, it is important to recognize that there are other ways to write a good story. Limit yourself at your own peril.


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Cubism, The Trompe L’oeil Tradition, and Writing Practice

If you’ve been following this space for a while, you know that I often draw inspiration from various museum exhibitions I patronize throughout the year, (And if you’ve not been following for a while, I bid you welcome.) Writers can learn a lot from other creative professions, and I am particularly drawn to the way painters approach their artistic practice. I’ve often written about lessons I’ve learned from famous painters (including this post about Matisse and dealing with impossibility of perfection), and Miro’s description of his creative process in I Work Like a Gardener matches my own. It is no surprise, then, that upon visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Cubism and The Trompe L’oeil Tradition, I found something I could relate to my writing practice. While the show, which showed the influence of Trompe l’oeil on the cubists, featured many exquisite paintings by the great cubists Picasso, Braque, and Gris, it was a picture of marble texture from a French painting manual which caused me to consider my own writing practice.

Consider the following picture:

A picture of marble from a French painting guide

It is a full-page example of how to paint textured marble from a French painting manual contemporary with the time Georges Braques was learning to paint. A classically-trained French artist was expected to be able to replicate the look of various materials so that they looked realistic. There are similar examples in the manual which show the materials and techniques needed to paint wood, paper, stone, etc, realistically. The French painter was expected to be able to replicate these materials in their work to such an extent that viewer would not be able to tell the difference between the imitation and the original.

According to the exhibition, the goal was to emulate Parrhasius, who according to Pliny the Elder, entered into a competition with Zeuxis to see who could paint the most realistic painting. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistically that a bird flew up to it (thinking they were real grapes). Parrhasius’ painting appeared to be behind a curtain, and Zeuxis requested that the curtain be drawn so that he could see the painting, except the curtain was actually what Parrhasius had painted. Zeuxis admitted defeat and said that while he had deceived birds, Parrhasius’ painting was so realistic that he had deceived another artist.

While this level of skill might seem mythical, the trompe l’oeil painters got pretty close. Consider this painting of two chipped, plaster reliefs by Jean Etienne Liotard from the exhibition:

Trompe L’oeil, by Jean Etienne Liotard

Braque, being trained in the tradition, was expected to achieve a similar level of skill.

While the cubists did not paint realistic, representational art, they were classically trained. One can see the skill they had for imitating materials and textures, especially, in the works presented in this exhibition. The challenge presented by the gallery cards early in the exhibit was to try to figure out which elements of each paining were painted, and which were collaged. It was often nearly impossible to tell.

Take for example, this painting by Picasso.

Painting By Pablo Picasso

In order to achieve this level of skill, an artist would have to spend hours painting entire canvases of textured material, like the one presented above. Its inclusion in this show not withstanding, no one is hanging a picture which imitates a slab of marble on their wall. But, to achieve the requisite skill and become a master artist, painters like Braques and Picasso would have to spend hours in the studio working on pieces that were not intended for exhibition or sale, whose only purpose was to help them hone their own skill. Only by spending hours practicing, could he become the artist they wanted to be.

So, what does this have to do with writing? As I’ve written about before, writing advice tends to focus on product rather than skills: How many words are you going to write each day; how much time are you going to spend writing; how many books/stories/poems are you going to finish/publish/submit this year. These types of goals are important, but they neglect a key component of improving as an artist: intentional practice. While the current theory of writing instruction, from K-12 to the post-graduate level is that writing makes you a better writer is likely true to some extent, it neglects skill development as an important part of a writers’ development. What little skill-based advice there is tends toward over-simplified, trite advice like avoiding alliteration or eliminating adverbs. While I’ve criticized these one-size fits all approaches to writing advice in the past, they are symptomatic of a the larger issue. Skill-based advice and instruction gets boiled down to this type of shallow nonsense because most writers do not take the time to authentically and intentionally work on aspects of their craft as writers for fear of falling off the hamster wheel of productivity.

When was the last time you worked on your metaphors? By this, I mean not trying to come up with a perfect metaphor for a story your working on, but just sitting down and writing a series of metaphors (or similes, or personifications, etc) to get better at the actual skill. When was the last time you wrote dialogue that was unconnected to a character you were already writing? I bet it’s been a long time.

Years ago, I did an exercise from The Creative Writers Notebook where I had to come up with as many portmanteau as possible. Portmanteau is not a device I use often in my writing, but that was all the more reason to do the exercise and to expand my tool box as a writer. It’s been too long since I’ve done those kind of exercises regularly.

Meanwhile, artists post pictures of their figure work, or their progress drawing a particularly difficult body part like hands. Intentional practice and skill development, is a part of their tradition, and it is not, to the same extent a part of ours.

If we look toward non-creative fields, we would see the same thing. A boxer works on the speed bag to improve hand speed, but they do not come into the ring spinning his hands the way they hit the bag; a basketball player works on dribbling drills to improve ball-handling, but the intricate patters they practice are made to improve coordination rather than be practical, in-game moves; a musician practices scales, but does not play those scales straight through in performance. As writers, we should understand that, much like these other pursuits, practicing the component skills of our craft is an essential component of growing in our art.


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Happy New Year From Famous Writers

Happy new year. Each of the last few years, I’ve written a blog post about resolutions during the first week of January. While I encourage you to read those posts—you can find last year’s here—I feel I said what want to say about the topic. So, I’m going to do something different this year. Here are a series of memes I made which paraphrase quotes from famous writers as messages, wishes, and yes, even resolutions, for the new year. I hope you enjoy them.

Wishing you a surcease of sorrow in the new year, Edgar Allan Poe
Another year has passed. So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut
The new year dwells in possibilities, Emily Dickinson
Wishing you the best of times (and not the worst of times) in the new year, Charles Dickens
Wishing you a new year in which you rise, Maya Angelou
Wishing you a year full of unexpected journeys, JRR Tolkien
Wishing you a year free of war and full of peace, Leo Tolstoy
Be fearless and therefore powerful in the new year, Mary Shelley

Once again, a happy new year.

A Glimpse Into The Past, A Cover Letter I wrote 20 Years Ago

I have been sick with the flu for the last week, and have been stuck in the house. During that time, I found an old writing notebook, probably 20 years old, though I don’t know for sure. Within its pages, I found a draft of anold cover-letter I wrote to accompany an application for an Associate Editor position at Wizard Magazine, a comics trade publication. They eventually did call me in for an interview, but that was over two years after I wrote the letter. By that time, I had left journalism, finished graduate school, and taken my first teaching job at The Bronx High School of Science. I did end up writing one article for Wizard. It was a centerfold spread about the Mach 5 from the, at the time, new Speed Racer movie. If you can deal with my chicken-scratch handwriting, I think you’ll enjoy the brilliance (he writes, sarcastically) of a 25-ish year old struggling writer who is desperate for a new job.

Wizard Cover Letter, Page 1
Wizard Cover Letter, page 2
Wizard Cover Letter, page 3