Saturday, February 20, 2016

ON WRITING: short stories & how they develop (for me)

Harlan Ellison is my favorite author, and he has famously stated, on myriad occasions, that there is no magic to writing, no muse one must seek out in order to get the words down on the paper.  It is a job—like a plumber or a teacher or a banker—requiring a knowledge of, and dedication to, the craft, coupled with an imagination and a keen observation of humanity, in order to succeed.  (Of course, this does not guarantee success, but it builds a solid foundation)  To that end, Ellison has created roughly two dozen stories extemporaneously, sitting in the windows of bookshops across the globe, allowing patrons and passersby the opportunity to watch him work.  When people suspected he may have plotted these stories out beforehand, Ellison solicited ideas from friends, like Chris Carter and Robin Williams, having them offer the starting point at the beginning of his performances.  Start to finish, a new story written in one or a handful of days, with no forethought.  Impressive. 

That’s now how I work.

At heart, I am a planner.  I like to know where I’m going, the exact route to get me there, and the itinerary for once I arrive.   I like that safety net, whether it’s a physical trip or one across the pages of a new story.  As regards writing, I have needed to learn to back off the outlining—or, more to the point, to become more trusting of myself and allow for some gaps in my story’s plan.  A strict outline can stifle creativity, and if you already know what’s going to happen, the writing can be boring, and you may not reach the end. 

For me, when an idea hits, it’s like being flooded with information from varying aspects of the story—scenes, bits of dialogue, characters, all fight for dominance in my brain (and this often happens while I’m driving somewhere or laying in bed, away from a computer or pen & paper).  This is how I know I’ve got something I should pursue, as a story.  But, even with all these ideas sparking in my brain, many of the details, including details of character or setting, can be missing. 

This is why I tend to write my short stories over the course of days, or even a few weeks.  I slowly discover what the story is about and where it should go next.  Currently, I’m almost 4000 words into my latest story, which involves a man in the present, using his cell phone to speak with the past, to a boy trapped in the cellar of the home he now owns.  It’s been slow going, each scene teased out of me over the course of the past two weeks, and I’ve found myself questioning where the story was going on many occasions, and considered just scrapping it a few days ago, the writing was going so poorly—like pulling teeth without any anesthetic would be an apt metaphor.  The biggest problem, I felt, was that I didn’t know my characters well enough and, more importantly, didn’t understand why this old man, in the past, was keeping this young boy locked up in his basement.  The old man was evil, sure, but to what end? 

Then it hit me.  The old man wanted the boy for a sacrifice.  He was scared of the future he perceived in 1920s America, a world where other races were gaining power, meaning he, as an old white man, would be losing power, in his warped mind.  Once I understood this, all the rest fell into place, and the next scene I had to write flowed more quickly and smoothly than any other part of the story had, to date. 

It’s not a conscious effort, on my part, to allow these stories to unfurl over the course of weeks, in order to discover what they are about.  It is more a result of me not knowing, fully, what is to come next.  I have to work hard to figure out how a scene should be written, with many false starts.  It is a subconscious manifestation of my own ignorance of the narrative, pushing back at that day’s writing, slowing me down, saturating me with doubt, causing me to rework scenes or just scrap them.  It’s frustrating.  But, eventually, by working at the story and writing scenes that may get cut and fleshing out these characters without fully knowing how they work and think, that allows me to push through that murkiness to find the nugget buried in that initial idea and get to the heart of the story. 

Was it there, when I first envisioned the story?  No.  But I never would have discovered the reason behind the initial concept if I’d merely jotted down some notes and then pondered it for a couple of weeks.  There would have been no spine, however frail, to work from.  As the story slowly grew, it morphed into something else, for me, something more concrete and better realized.  Until I reached the tipping point, and my subconscious finally broke through to tell me why something, within this specific story-world, was initiated.  From there, it’s a matter of finishing up the first draft, at which point, I can let it rest, knowing that I can make it eminently better upon revising. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Fistful of Comic Books Cancelled (or Announced) Too Soon

Conceived and used with the permission of Matthew Constantine and Brad Gullickson, the original dorks.

Everyone has a “Top 5.”  But Brad and Matt, choosing to walk a different path, amended that to “A Fistful…” over at their blog, In the Mouth of Dorkness.  A film-centric blog where they also discuss comics and books and TV, these two regularly share their top 5, ranging from “Heroic Kids” to “Spies” to “Summer Movies” to “Punches” to all things in between.  Always fun, often insightful, and something I hope to regularly pilfer for Warrior27.  As they say:  If you’re going to steal, steal from those you know relatively well, who will not sue you.

Recent years have been a boon to comic book readers.  Classic series that were out of their price range, in back issues, are now available in affordable collections or digitally, while ones that incurred publication delays—or were thought to have been abandoned—due to publishers going bankrupt (in the case of Moore & Gebbie’s Lost Girls) or the rights of publication expiring (which seems to have been a contributor to Mumy & Dutkiewicz’s Lost in Space: Voyage to the Bottom of the Soul being unfinished for many years) have risen again, like the Phoenix ß check out that sweet cliché.  This has afforded me, and others, the opportunities to read the conclusions to stories we may have thought forever lost to us.  This, as much as anything, is why many fans see this as a golden age for comic books.  

Despite that, there are still a number of series that were cancelled well before they should have been—in my opinion—and there is little that would lead me to believe they will ever see the light of day, at this point, for a variety of reasons.  Here are five comic series that ended far too soon, if they even ever got onto the comic racks. 

5. Everest: Facing the Goddess, written by Greg Rucka, art by Scott Morse (Oni Press)

Greg Rucka has written some of my all-time favorite comics and novels.  Scott Morse is an artist and writer who is on my personal Mt. Rushmore of comic creators.  To have these two working on an adventure series set on Mt. Everest—that just sounds awesome.  Set to be published in late 2004 by Oni Press, all we ever got was the FCBD preview that year.  It was as good as you would hope.  Too bad we never saw anything else.  *sigh*

4. Semper Fi, written by Michael Palladino, art by John Severin, Sam Glanzman, et al. (Marvel Comics)

Following the surprise popularity of their hit series, The ‘Nam, Marvel launched a second military comic book.  Semper Fi followed various generations of a single family, all of which had members who served in the United States Marine Corps.  The stories were engaging and fit nicely next to Marvel’s ‘Nam, but the real draw of this book was the art by John Severin.  This was my introduction to Severin, who was a seasoned veteran when he got this assignment, and he killed it—sometimes penciling and inking, sometimes providing inks over Andy Kubert’s work.  Severin was a revelation to my young eyes.  His figure work and the detail within the backgrounds was astounding and beautiful, some of the best work coming out of Marvel at that time.  It’s curious this series didn’t last past issue #9, but sales were so poor there was nothing to be done about it.  But at least I still have those issues to re-read, whenever I want.

3. BWS Storyteller, by Barry Windsor-Smith, with help from Alex Bialy-additional inks and Joon Kostar-lettering (Dark Horse Comics; Fantagraphics Books)

One of the most beautiful, and most fun and engaging comics I ever read.  Barry Windsor-Smith created a one-man anthology, with three stories all created by Windsor-Smith—The Young Gods, a Fourth World homage, The Freebooters, a Conan homage, and The Paradoxman, his science fiction epic.  The art was lush, gorgeous, and the stories captivated my imagination like very few comics have.  You could tell BWS was having fun, and it translated directly onto the page.  Sadly, the oversized dimensions of the book, which added much to its, and a lack of marketing and advertising on the part of Dark Horse (according to Windsor-Smith) led to its quick demise.  BWS did return to the stories for two Fantagraphics collections that included extra essays and comic pages (Paradoxman never did get this treatment, for reasons unknown) from Windsor-Smith, but, though these were beautiful and illuminating, they were merely a tease of what was to come.  An unfinished masterpiece. 

2. Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor, comic adaptations of Harlan Ellison’s short stories by a collection of writers and artists (Dark Horse Comics & Edgeworks Abbey)

Harlan Ellison is my favorite author.  Period.  And when he was afforded the chance to marry two of his loves—comic books and short stories—it was amazing.  With the likes of Paul Chadwick, Jan Strnad, David Lapham, Steve Rude, Peter David, Diana Schutz, Teddy Krisiansen, and myriad others working from Ellison’s own words, this was my favorite comic, at the time.  And every issue included a new short story by Ellison, based on the cover image for that issue.  It was great!  But, notorious for being demanding, something happened between Dark Horse and Ellison that led to the early cancellation of the series, after attempting two different formats.  A second collection, years later, published many of the then-completed stories that had not made it into print, but the promise of however many more could have been published is still a great loss for Ellison fans, and comic fans, in general. 

1. Big Numbers, written by Alan Moore, art by Bill Sienkiewicz (Mad Love Publishing)

Set to be Moore’s magnum opus, after he was coming off the star-making publications of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The Killing Joke, collaborating with one of the most experimental and dynamic artists in comics, Bill Sienkiewicz, this was going to be amazing.  A comic that revolved around real life, around the building of a large shopping mall by an American corporation, in a small English town, it was to be a twelve-issue examination of number theory, the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher, and the consequences such socioeconomic upheaval has on real people.  Only two issues were ever published, with a third available online, if you know where to look.  After Ellison, Moore is my favorite author, and the fact that this will remain unfinished is just sad. 

Honorable Mentions: 

--- Lost in Space: Voyage to the Bottom of the Soul, written by Bill Mumy, art by Michael Dutkiewicz. (Innovation Publishing)
A serious take on the classic sci-fi series.  This book delved deeply into the characters and created an engaging and thoughtful look at these characters and the turmoil they endured in space.  It was completed a number of years back, by a small publisher, but was so under-ordered, I missed out on getting a copy, and now they go for hundreds of dollars online—too rich for my blood.

--- Borrowed Time, written by Neal Shaffer, art by Joe Infurnari (Oni Press)
A wonderfully eerie alternate-dimension tale revolving around the Bermuda Triangle.  The art is lovely and the story had me hooked from the outset.  Sadly, only two volumes were ever published. 

--- Vox, written by Angela Harris, art by Aaron McClellan (Apple Comics)
A science fiction tale, slated to run seven issues, the first six were only ever published, leaving me waiting for over a quarter century for that final, climactic issue.  I guess I won’t be finding out how it ends, now.