After watching the Netflix series ‘The Umbrella Academy’, I was inspired, for the first time in a long time, to go check out the original comic books of the same name. Written by Gerard Way, and illustrated by Gabriel Ba, both of whom have storied histories of vastly different backgrounds, it’s been interesting to take a moment to drift back into the comic book world and get that surge of nostalgia and recognition – even if the modern comic universe looks almost nothing like the one I knew when I was a kid.
What’s been most interesting, from a writing perspective, is analysing the stories from a more mature viewpoint. The first thing? Comic book narratives are unlike anything else, and it’s almost impossible to compare them, for the most part, to any other form.
Yet at the same time, these narratives were part of what lead me to being a writer. I was hugely into comics between the ages of 11 and 14, and while I couldn’t understand the moral complexity of the stories, the narrative style definitely had some impact, at least early on, as to how I approached writing.
That was then refined by novels and screenplays, so it’s hard to say what elements stuck with me, if any. But in particular, it has been interesting to note just how much is left up to your imagination in comic books, how you’re only getting a brief snapshot of this whole other world, and whatever else is going on is only alluded to between the lines.
That lends itself to the writing style I prefer, in minimalism, which puts increased onus on the reader to connect the dots. That, to me, is a more engaging style, as it demands attention and lets you piece things together a bit more than a descriptive, prescriptive style, which is what most genre work caters to. In Umbrella Academy, the main storylines are actually very brief, but you can imagine the lives of these characters and the worlds they live in outside of the focus narrative, which makes it a more engaging, and dare I say it, obsessive experience for those readers who connect with the work.
You can see why comic book fans are so passionate, they’ve been asked to invest a lot of themselves and their own imagination into these characters and worlds, which is what keeps them coming back. Because it becomes part of them – each person’s vision of each world is unique to them, which helps solidify their relationship. It’s also likely why comic book fans get so upset when a film adaptation veers from what they know, from the rules that have been established within the lore of the source work.
Of course, there are longer form comic books – graphic novels and the like – which more closely align with a traditional Hero’s Journey type narrative structure. I’ve checked out some of those over the years (did you know that Chuck Palahniuk’s two Fight Club sequels are both available in graphic novel form?), but they’ve always felt, to me, like a hybrid form that straddles the line a little too much, which has left them, in my mind, less satisfactory. But the traditional comic format will always have a place in my heart, getting small insights into these worlds one episode at a time. Writing such is a dedicated skill within itelf.
It’s been interesting to note why that is, and what engagement elements work best within the format, which may help to inform other writing approaches.
Two simple pointers to help you improve your fiction writing are:
- Avoid flat description
- Eliminate unnecessary adverbs
The first point is fairly obvious – your writing will be more mentally engaging if you can add more to your descriptions, and provide context, as opposed to instruction.
Here’s a basic example – in a recent short story I wrote, the first line was originally:
“When I was sixteen, I had this girlfriend, and one day she didn’t want to go home.”
That’s not so bad, but it’s fairly basic, right? I’m telling the reader, straight up, that ‘I was sixteen’. That, to me, is flat description, and I think there’s always a better way to communicate such detail.
On my second edit, I changed it to:
“Back before I was old enough to drive, I had this girlfriend, and one day she didn’t want to go home.”
That’s a small change – going from a direct age reference to an experiential one may seem like nothing. But reading both examples back, the latter is more engaging – it’s active and prompts a recollection, it engages a little more of your brain than just reading a summary detail.
Subtle changes like this can add significantly more depth to your work, and invite the readers to invest more of themselves, and their own experiences, into the story, which can help bring it to life. Reading a flat description doesn’t do the same, and it’s a fairly easy element to correct.
By pushing yourself to think of a more engaging description, as opposed to relying on prescriptive detail, you add more creativity to your work, and offer more ways for your readers to connect.
The second element to be wary of is unnecessary adverbs – words like ‘quickly’, ‘sleepily’, ‘sadly’, ‘hurriedly’ etc. There’s likely a better, more engaging way to say the same thing, normally within the surrounding context – when you go to use an adverb like this, it’s an opportunity to consider whether you could add in extra description, a more visceral reference, it there’s another way to add depth to your work.
“He moved quickly across the room and hurriedly scrambled with the lock”
“He rushed across the room and clawed at the lock, as if it was hot, burning at his fingertips”
That’s an average example, but it illustrates the point – instead of relying on simplistic description, it’s an opportunity to provide a simile, a way for the reader to ‘see’ what you do, as opposed to simple noting the detail.
These rules, of course, are not definitive, and your capacity to judge when, and how, to apply them will be what truly separates your writing (which is why teaching creative writing is difficult). But they are some additional points to consider, which may help you improve your description and context, and build more engaging scenarios with your words.
As per Maguire’s speech (re-printed in The Guardian):
“When I got to uni I read a lot of amazing books I never would have come across otherwise, and I’m forever grateful for that. But I also got infected with this idea of the canon, and the associated conviction that books outside the canon are fine for a certain kind of person – but not for serious readers. Definitely not for serious writers, which is what I wanted to be.”
No doubt you’ve experienced the same – some books are serious, others not so much, and if you were really serious about literature, you wouldn’t waste your time on the latter.
Maguire’s focus was more related to the dominance of the white male perspective in ‘the right books’, but the point relates to all reading, and writing, more broadly. No one can truly say what the ‘right’ books are, nor define, in absolute terms, what literary merit is. Sure, there are certain elements that I would argue are relative to what I consider literature to be, but they may not definitively be correct. What I look for in a book is likely very different to what someone else seeks – and that’s really what’s most important, that you find the work that speaks to you, which aligns with what you want to read, when you want to read it.
Some people read to educate themselves, some for pure pleasure, others for both. Some look for realism, some escapism – as a writer, the key point of reading as widely as possible, in my opinion, lies in finding writing that sticks with you, that catches in your soul and ignites your own thinking, connecting with you on a deeper level than the mere words alone. And that, really, can be anything.
Of course, if you want to actually be a writer who sells books, there are certain commercial realities, but those can and do shift, things change in the marketplace, new readers raised on different stories and formats grow up to expect books and movies to do different things. As such, there’s a wide range of readers looking for a diverse variance of stories, which means that rather than trying to enhance your work’s appeal based on a market-defined set of rules or ideas, you’ll likely be better served by simply finding what works for you, what you love to write, and going with that.
Will that guarantee you success? No it won’t, there’s no way of knowing for sure whether your work will connect with readers and find its people. But you have to work with what speaks to you, what feels true to what you want to create. That’s a harder path, in terms of how you then, ideally, go on generate income from the same. But literary culture is made richer through diversity, through the sharing of many perspectives, which enables readers to see things they otherwise would not, and cannot, experience.
If you’re ever stuck thinking about what you should write, how you should write, what works best – go read. Read through many styles, many genres – not hundreds of books from each necessarily, but enough to understand what connects with you and what doesn’t. Absorb what you can, think through it. Then, as you start to connect further with those sentences and stories that spark in your mind, your own prose will eventually start to come clear.
It’s interesting to consider what it takes to become a writer.
It’s a key focus among the questions that people commonly ask – ‘How did you get published?’ ‘What’s your writing process?’ ‘What word processing program do you use?’
As evident by the raft of self-publishing platforms out there, many, many people want to be able to call themselves writers, and want to be able to generate income by doing what they love. And they’re looking for the secret, the magic trick that will transform them from amateur to professional.
But the truth is, there really is no one thing.
Of course, you likely know this, but when I consider what I’ve done, in comparison to others I speak to who haven’t yet seen the same success with their writing efforts, I think the main difference is that I get it down and I send it out.
I’ve always been fairly disciplined in this respect, and good at maintaining a level of writing momentum. Even when my most recent novel slowed me down (significantly), I still kept writing, I kept working on other things. Within that process, I had to really re-assess whether this is what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to keep pushing, and once I had decided that I needed to stay with it, I had to re-arrange my day-to-day scheduled to make time for fiction work.
And eventually, I got it down, and I’ve written a lot more since (in what may come as welcome news for those struggling with a difficult project, once I’d gotten my second book out, and freed my mind of it, I was back into full swing, and I’ve written more in the last 12 months than I had in the previous 5 years).
For me, I feel like that’s been key – having the persistence to get the work done in the first place, then the confidence in it to send it out.
Many aspiring writers I talk to will say that they’ve always wanted to write, but they’ve never had the time. You won’t get anywhere unless you actually do it. Then there are others who would never dream of showing anyone else their stuff – or at least, not until it’s 100% perfect, and that, in many ways, is a noble, logical approach. But at some point, you need to send it out. So what if it gets rejected, or if you don’t hear anything back? At least you’re pushing. At least you’re trying to get to that next stage.
There is also a level of natural ability, and research required. I guess that’s another element which is often overlooked – while you might not necessarily see it, writers are constantly reading in the genres they write in, and in general, they’ve thoroughly studied writing theory and process too. It may not be obvious, but every writer has to do this work – if you want to write and be published, you have to know the market, and you have to understand what works.
Reading what’s out there, and understanding literary analysis is key.
As a basic example, sometimes my wife will be like ‘why don’t you just write some big selling commercial fiction book and set yourself up financially?’ Because I can’t – because in order to do that. I would have to read hundreds of books in that genre, in order to understand the language flows, the tropes, the ways in which to best communicate that type of story. Genre fiction may seem more straight-forward than ‘lit fic’, more formulaic to a degree, but you still have to do the work to make your stuff great. You have to know the style, in and out – you have to read, a lot.
Again, this is what all authors do, and that’s likely why there is no magic pill, no secret tip that can turn you into a published author. Because, for one, there is no set path – there are no prescriptive guides, everyone’s evolution is different. And really, it comes down to work, to your capacity to learn and adapt, to your commitment to understanding your story, your genre, and your ability to connect everything together into a compelling piece of your own.
Maybe, then, that’s the secret. It’s not easy, it’s no shortcut. But the truth is you have to do the work.
Get it down, fix it up, then send it out. Then start on the next thing.
I have a confession to make – I don’t always finish the books that I start.
And it’s not necessarily because they’re not engaging or interesting, it’s not boredom, definitively, that’ll make me put something down. As a writer, I read for education as much as for entertainment, and I often find myself so inspired or my imagination so triggered by the way the book is written or a certain idea within the text, that I drift into my own work and move back to writing.
I imagine a lot of writers have the same, though definitely when I tell some people that I don’t finish every book I read, they can’t understand it. For some, starting a book or a movie also requires completion – you have to know how the story ends, it’s like a need, a compulsion. But the ending, for me, is hardly a consideration. If I’m inspired by a certain aspect, or taken by some element, then I try to run with that and use it as fuel for my own work.
That’s also not to say I don’t complete anything – I read plenty of books to completion. But it’s almost become a guilty admission, a shameful secret. I don’t always get all the way through to the last page of every story. Yet, I probably still get as much value from the process as somebody who has done so.
It also feels kind of hypocritical – I don’t finish every book I read, yet I pain over every single page of my work in the hopes that it’s engaging enough to keep people interested. That, of course, relies on people reading to completion, so I write for people who do read. But then again, I guess if there’s some aspect of my work that people find inspiring, that’s fine too – I’d be glad I was able to provide some level of value.
It is interesting though when people ask ‘What are you reading?’ or ‘What have you read this year?’ I’ve read lots and lots of things, and I always have several books on the go. But could I give you a full rundown of the plot of each one – no. But I can show what things I’m working on.
It’s not the same, but that’s kind of how I look at it.
I was amazed when I saw it, startled for a moment. It was right up near the roadside, behind the high fence of the reserve. A deer, a huge male. Antlers reaching up like dried lightning, poking from the side of its great head.
The fence surrounded the lake, a water source for the region, and the wire mesh was around eight feet high with twists of barbed wire crowned along the top. It traced the distance of the lake and its surrounds, kept it all in, a haven for animals like this.
The deer didn’t know about the fence, that it kept people out, and the big one – there were two others a distance behind. The large male stood looking out at the road, monitoring the cars flashing by. The others went about business, nudging at the leaves across the ground.
And the cars were rushing by. It’s an 80 kilometre zone, so normally you’d just zoom on through, but today, I saw the deer.
A sambar deer is what it was. Good eating, my uncle told me later.
I turned the car around and drove back along the road slow, scanning the forest, then I pulled over so I could see, so I could watch the animals as they moved between the trees. Till they faded away, merged into the thin trunks and dried leaves. Till they were gone.
I sat there, watching on, watching the other cars go by. And I felt like stopping them, like standing out in the roadway and pointing at the sambar deer, saying ‘Have you ever seen this?’ ‘Have you ever seen anything like it?’
A trend that’s developed in literary circles over time is the politicization of literary works, particularly through festivals, events, etc.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – all art, by some measure, is political in nature. But much of that is driven by surrounding circumstance, and comes through in capturing the authenticity of the world in which the work is set, as opposed to the author setting out to make a statement on the same.
Most authors – and I’m speaking in generalization here – start with the story first, the idea that sparks something in them, that compels them to explore further. That story will likely have political and societal elements, but the impetus for writing, in most cases, is not those factors. It’s the story first, the exploration of an idea, then the craft of writing to capture it in the right way. Definitely, if there’s a timely angle or element, and you can accentuate that within the context of the broader narrative, you should, but the driving force is the human heart, the experience at the core, the story that captures best what intrigues you, as the writer, about this tale.
I guess, my concern with the overt politicization of literature is that we risk amplifying elitism – already, literary fiction is seen as the domain of the well educated, the higher end of society. But literature is for everyone, it’s about sharing the world from a different perspective, and as such, we should be looking to share the idea of writing and literary creation to people at all levels of society, in order to encourage them to capture their own experiences in a way that best suits their message.
You don’t have to be an academic professor well versed in mythical theory to write a great novel, you can be anyone, anyone at all who has a passion for writing. That’s what we should seek to encourage. Given this, my view is that literary events, in the majority, should be more focused on the process of creation, the sparking of ideas, the method through which you learn the craft itself. The passion for the process is more important than the political drive behind the narrative.
That won’t universally be the case, I know, and there are many literary events that do focus on such. But the discussion around literature, at times, has been hijacked by the political movement/s of the times. There are positives and negatives to this, but really, focusing on the elements of the craft themselves is most crucially important.
Author Jonathan Franzen appears to have stirred up controversy with his ’10 Rules for Novelists’ piece recently published on LitHub.
And you can see why – people are upset because it challenges how they do things, it implies their approach will be less successful, and the listing takes a very elitist view, particularly through the use of the term ‘rules’.
But really, who cares?
If you don’t agree with Franzen’s ‘rules’, don’t apply them to your process.
It’d be hard to argue that there’s zero value to them – Franzen has published many critically acclaimed novels, he clearly knows a thing or two about the endeavour, likely more than most. But as with all things related to writing, you need to find what works for you, then work with that. Once you’ve established why you’re writing, what you’re trying to achieve, what you want to get out of the process, then you can adopt (or indeed ignore) outside recommendations and ideas in a more creatively beneficial way.
The truth is, there are no prescriptive ‘rules’ to writing. If there were a set of clear guidelines you could follow, then every aspiring novelist would do so, and we’d all be published and successful, etc. But that’s not how it works.
If someone says ‘you can’t do this’, someone else will be able to show you an example which defies it – some would say, for example, that you can’t have pictures in a literary novel. But ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ does just that, and it works perfectly to illustrate the relevant points. Every ‘rule’ can be broken if it fits into what you’re trying to achieve.
The truth of great writing is just that – that you need to find the truth of the story you want to tell, then expose that within the narrative.
Every story you write, or want to write, will have a personal connection to you, a reason that you connect with it, and if you can find that and link it back to your own psychology, then definitely, your work will be better for it (this is what Franzen’s referring to in his second rule above). Writing is a way of better understanding the world and your place within it, better understanding the human experience more broadly, and connecting with others. It’s the ‘why’, it’s viewing things from another perspective and not merely reading or writing the words, but feeling them too.
You need to find the voice of the characters, you have to understand them, you need to feel what they feel. Then you need to re-create that emotion within the body of your readers.
That’s no easy feat, but there are no prescriptive ‘rules’ on how to achieve this.
The more tangible you can make the world of your novel, the more effective it will be – and you do that through honesty, through knowing the story, the scenes, the characters. If you really, truly know these elements, and can translate them into the right words, through your learned experience and understanding of effective language, then your story will work.
Definitely, it’s worth noting how other authors go about doing this, but there are no ‘set in stone’ regulations on literary communication.