Bloodstains On The Looking Glass

A ribald old-timey revue, featuring the Scots Flying Monkey Battalion and Shakey Pervy Pete, the Inelegant Dinner Guest.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Best Advice Ever About Writing, Period, Part One

First in a series of odd little scraps that shouldn't have had the impact they did. And yet, I wouldn't trade them for all the writing seminars and scholarly manuals on the subect that have ever existed. These are bits that stuck with me, or that hit me like a hammer in the brain.

When I started writing, it was mostly as a columnist, a little parody thing on the comics industry. I didn't take it very seriously, as I felt it was a pretty meaningless and tawdry endeavor. In fact, I honestly felt that it'd be just a snide little column I'd be sick of immediately (and I was already losing enthusiasm, as I'd picked easy targets and shot at them sort of moronically, I felt).

But this very strange thing happened...people started reading it. Holy SHIT! That had never ocurred to me. And suddenly, I felt this invisible and unwelcome weight of responsibility. Responsibility to myself, and responsibility to the people who bothered reading my stuff. I stress again, I was a hairdresser, just goofing off for whatever reason...because I'd been flattered, because I was curious, I can't say. I'm sure narcissism was in the mix as well. But I never, ever, considered myself a writer, and when people used that word to reference me, my urge was always to say, "No, no, no, you don't mean me, you mean someone who has worked and studied and filled notebooks with unpublished brilliance."

Anyway, the point is, I felt like a skeeve doing fake Wizard interviews and other obvious targets. I wanted to write something funny, but riskier, and I didn't want to write the same shit every week. The responsibility to the readers was to produce something worth their time, I thought, but the responsibility to myself was to make sure I didn't take the easy way out. Silly parody column or not, I wanted to be proud of it.

And that, right there, became my made-up definition for whatever the opposite of the word 'hack' is, that you want to take risks and be proud of your work. Whether it's writing the great American novel or writing porno box covers. You CHOOSE to either be a hack, or that other thing. And you don't ever really stop choosing. One day you make the wrong choice, but tomorrow you go back to having the goal of producing a well-made thing to the best of your talents, however limited or gifted you might be.

Early on, in the process of writing the column (You'll All Be Sorry at, I started hearing from editors and creators about doing pro projects, based on my ridiculous work. Dan Raspler was an early supporter (more about him in part two...he gave me the second best piece of advice ever, and I'm sure he didn't even realize it). But there were many, and some pro creators offered me the chance that many comics readers would kill for...the chance to co-write a project with them for a major publisher.

I turned them all down flat, basically. Partly because of stage fright, but also because, again, I felt that writers are different, that I couldn't possibly be one. Where was my writing education? Where were my stacks of unpublished film scripts? Why hadn't I ever been in a writing workshop? I felt, honestly, that my taking a writing job meant one less job for a REAL writer.

A few things started to, was that people I really idolized started judging my work as actual writing, not merely as silliness. If Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Lea Hernandez, Garth Ennis, Mark Waid, Tom Peyer, and Joe Quesada write to offer you encouragement unasked for, it's impossible to not at least entertain the notion of going pro. But then Lea Hernandez and Scott Shaw went further.

Scott, bless him, read my stuff and rather than simply talk to me about it, he showed it to Bongo Comics, and he INSISTED I write springboards for them. No one person is more responsible for my changed life than Scott, and he did it out of sheer kindness.

The other is Lea Hernandez. I'd loved her work (her art is joyful like few others), particularly her writing, which I found adult and subtle and full of vitamins. And she asked me to write a comic for her to draw, something we could co-create. Which, okay, that's just nuts. If I'd turned that down, I knew I'd hate myself. To this day, I can't really say in words how amazed I am that Scott and Lea took a shot with me, in an industry where most people want to keep the doors CLOSED.

Anyway, I agreed to both, and was suddenly in a bit of a panic. What the hell did I know about writing stories? My columns, to be gracious, might have shown some style or ingenuity (maybe!) but they weren't real stories, not like the comics I loved.

Weirdly, right around this time, and my memory on this is vague. I was reading an interview with a writer, and he thanked his mentor, and the interviewer asked what he had learned from this mentor. And the writer said, "He taught me to always look for the truth in a scene."


As I say, it was powerful enough to split my cranium, and make me forget both the writer and the mentor. "Always look for the truth in a scene." That's it, that's what separates the Mamets, the Brubakers, the James L. Brooks, etc. from everyone else in their fields. They look for the truth in each scene.

Let me elaborate a little, although I suspect some people may have already had that spark go off that hit me so white-hot at the time.

So much of any multi-character story is about what I call necessary choreography. You have to introduce your characters, move the story along, place events carefully, etc. But what if you do all that, what if you do it brilliantly, and yet, your work is as flat and lifeless as a dead turd?

It's because you forgot the truth. The best writers can find more truth in an animated film about dancing cats from Mars than a hack can find writing about his own life. Is the truth of the scene allegorical? Let's take the Lord of the Rings films. There's humanity in them, greed, lust, faithfulness. That's a kind of truth. Hobbits don't exist, but they're nonetheless true.

Watership Down is a perfect example. It's about bunnies, and the behavior they exhibit doesn't exist in nature. And yet I defy anyone to avoid worrying about the rabbits at the book's climax. That's truth.

If you write a scene, and two people are talking, and they're advancing the plot, and the reader feels nothing, you have to ask this real? Is this life? Because nearly every human conversation is so dense with context and meaning...every bit of real life interaction, if you take it as a snapshot, is a story with a million beginnings and no endings whatsoever. WHY are the characters having this conversation? How do they relate to each other? What do they think of each other? How much is being left unspoken? But most importantly, what is it that they need to convey, and what is said about them in the manner they convey it?

Back to the choreography. In my work, and I'm betting this is the same for most, getting a character from place a to place b, to engage character b in situation a, is like an endless goddamned nightmare of choices, 99.9% of which will be wrong. They'll be false. "Hey, this guy left his keys in his car! Let's go!" is false, it's a cheat. Even the least sophisticated reader or viewer knows that you're breaking your end of the writer/reader contract. And yet, the story is almost never getting a character from place a to place b. It has to be done, but it's rarely compelling. You can MAKE it so, and great writers often do, but just as many handily cut all the bullshit right out, as a courtesy to readers, so that they're not forced to slog through seeing our action hero take the goddamn bus.

The point is, find the truth of the scene, even if that truth only makes sense to you. Craft is important, vitally important, and nothing to be ashamed of. But if you haven't, in the end, got some truth in the script...why did you bother writing it? Let someone else write Steven Segal's movies. Let someone else write the next shitty sitcom. You have work to do.

Who knows, this might not have been what the mentor's words to his writer friend meant at all...but if I'd known what he really meant, odds are my head wouldn't have popped off. This is why people are justifiably suspicious of 'high concept' one-line pitches. Because the truth, and the devil, and God, are all in the little decisions.

Find the truth in the scene. Go back, read a favorite book, or comic, with that thought in mind, and I can almost guarantee you that you'll see exactly what I mean. Now read a piece of crap, and I'll bet you can see they ignored this simple credo.

I do want to add one final thought. Writing your own truth is a wonderful thing. Writing ABOUT truth is usually unbearably awful, and if you preach in your writing, you probably deserve whatever beatings you receive.

That's it, it may mean nothing to you, but it changed the way I look at writing. People ask me about writing all the feeling is that they're waiting for someone to give them THEIR writing mantra. I can't do that, no one can. I can, at best, let you share my own.

And it's okay because I stole it in the first place.

Part Two to come soon, all about why having a plot where the UN building is threatened makes you an ass.


  • At 12:18 AM, Blogger Jeff said…

    Your writing is personal, insightful, and humorous. I sense you'll go far in whatever you choose to do. ;)

  • At 12:19 AM, Blogger Gail Simone said…



  • At 12:28 AM, Blogger Peter said…

    This is actually one of the better things I've read on writing. It's not textbook boring, it's not regurgitated info, and it's witty. I can't even think of something smartassy to say

  • At 12:32 AM, Blogger Gail Simone said…

    TRY HARDER! :)


  • At 4:19 AM, Blogger Noah Brand said…

    Excellent post. As someone who decided to break into movies because it seemed easier than breaking into comics, I particularly enjoyed it. You do excellent work, Gail, and I hope you continue to do so.

    Especially 'cause I heard you SUCK as a hairdresser...

  • At 9:49 AM, Blogger Retro VGM Revival Hour said…

    this is some insightful and humorous stuff there yeh got there pard-ner

    that and im a sucker for entering the mind of asrtist/writers and feastings on the gooey goodness of creativity


  • At 4:22 PM, Blogger matterconsumer said…

    I will take your words to my heart and integrate them into my writing style so that everyone will marvel.

    I am a better writer already.

    Now I am off to win friends and influence lebians...

  • At 7:09 PM, Blogger Cream Filled Taco said…

    That's all nice and good, Gail. But should we use three space tabs, or five, in our scripts?

    And please, please, please talk about margins in part two! I hear DC is a stickler for proper margins.

  • At 12:19 AM, Blogger Sarah said…

    Ms. Simone... I'm taking a hit contract out on you. You're giving away trade secrets! This is totally unacceptable. Plus in undercuts the whole point of my putting up my website (which will be about writing)!

    No, but really, Gail - you've got a genuine knack for storytelling. That's real talent, no matter how untrained/unprepared you felt you were. (Says the one with 2 degrees in English.) It's always a pleasure to read your work.

    Yer friend, Scrib.

  • At 5:44 PM, Blogger Keyam63 said…

    That was beautiful, ma'am.

  • At 1:13 PM, Blogger by Jim MacQuarrie said…

    "Find the truth in the scene." Gold. Pure gold. Would somebody please tell that to the people writing Monk? They seem to have missed it.

  • At 4:15 AM, Blogger Unknown said…

    i loved the heck out of your You'll All Be Sorry column. i always left your space feeling happier, and more teary eyed from stifling laughter, than i was before i visited.

    you say you didn't even want to be a writer? you say you just feel into this gig?

    i say i'm insanely jealous. that's my truth. ;-)

    that just means i have to try harder.

    seriously, thanks for that bit of awesome.

  • At 2:37 PM, Blogger Sandicomm said…

    How funny, I was just thinking about this same thing this morning, but only in a lot of different words. "The truth is in the scene"--yes, very succinct, very natural. This is also, of course, how fantasy, sci-fi, and allegory work. It's not realism, it's truth, and people often confuse the two.

    And Gail, you are much too modest. You're a writer, an excellent one, and you need to admit it to yourself. :P

  • At 8:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Good day! 

    I need help with my computer. I is always freezing when i open IE? What do you think?

    By the way, I love that too!  Where did you get that at?  

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  • At 8:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi there 

    How do you change the size of your monitor?

    Wow, I've found the same to be true too!  Where did you get that at?  

    See you soon! Girly Girl 

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  • At 9:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi there 

    Wow, I've found the same to be true too!  How did you find that?  

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