John Glynn: Improving Your Writing
Special thanks to John Glynn, Vice President of Acquisitions and Rights with Universal Press Syndicate, for offering some great advice on writing:
Ah … hello there, I am a syndicate comics editor. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “How did you get in here?”
And you’re right to ask. Let me explain.
It all started a few months ago — and before you dismiss me, know that I’ve been a paying member of Webcomics.com since the start. So imagine my delight when I had the good fortune to meet Brad in person for the first time at PAX East. Anyone who knows Brad knows that Brad is a handsome man, in fact some say he’s “too handsome for his own good” but not me, I thought his handsomeness was perfectly appropriate.
I told Brad how much I loved the site and as an editor how useful I thought it was for all cartoonists, not just Web cartoonists. He patted me lightly on the head, and said, “That’s great, Peter, now run along.”
But I sensed it was pitch time: “What about a piece from a syndicate editor’s perspective? On writing, or editing, or marketing?”
That’s when he slapped me. Hard. I was startled and tears began to well, but Brad quickly explained that’s when he knows he’s heard a possibly good idea, his slap reflex kicks in.
So here, hubris-loaded, is a syndicate comics editor, attempting to give you advice on how to improve your writing. And in the interest of space, I’ll be talking primarily about character-based strips. Brad said any other topics would require another slap and I’m still putting Aquaphor on my cheek from the first one.
Remember when Hollis Mason was introducing his memoir in “Watchmen?” He said the first thing to do when writing is to tell the saddest story possible so that readers will immediately sympathize.
Sympathy. Pathos. Remember the Pathos! Make your readers care about your characters. Think about how many times we’ve fallen for it. The old “I had a troubled childhood. My real parents were killed by a deranged psychopath after the theatre one night/an unstable reaction in my planet’s uranium core/a deer hunter in an open field/ by Voldemort,” etc. See what all those authors did to you there? They made you feel sorry for them. Sympathy – a/k/a Pathos — my dear friends. Bloody pathos.
You see Calvin beg sometimes. Charlie Brown does win occasionally. Opus has the last word sometimes. That’s why people love them. They are the illustrated representation of who we are as a race.
In a character-based strip, humor is dependent on the character’s personality and their reactions to a situation. Specificity is the key. Make them specific. Someone who is generally paranoid isn’t as funny as someone who’s deathly afraid of hot lettuce. Are they?
Give your characters loves and hopes and dreams and then deny them happiness! Douse them in humanity! Make them complex … give them depth. Make them — dare I say– three-dimensional. That’s how readers will relate and identify.
I think doubt is a wonderful “humanifying” emotion, it reminds me of the Bertrand Russell quote, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Doubt shows that the characters’ actions are not the definition of who they are — they’re more complex than that. They think. They question. They reflect.
Maybe I’m getting too literary here, but my point is that the great characters of literature (and comics) have flaws and strengths.
So give your characters strengths and weaknesses. Make their strengths be their weaknesses … make their weaknesses be their strengths.
Your art doesn’t have to be breathtaking, but good gravy it helps if you use it effectively. I’m of the school that says body language is criminally underused in comics today. Eyebrows, arms, leaning, hands, posture, and the eyes!
Can we talk about the eyes for a minute?
Hath not a comic character eyes? Are not eyes the windows to the soul? Use them. They can be contradictory to dialogue (intentionally), they can hammer home your point even further, or they can convey sarcasm, hope, love, distraction, confusion, irony, hunger, longing, malaise, etc. — the whole gamut of emotions.
Which all goes back to my depth-of-character point; use the body language to help define your character. Every choice you make in comics should be a furtherance of the character, of the scene, of your point.
SIDEBAR: Do you think it’s a coincidence that Annie was cancelled after only 80 years in print? The girl has no pupils, how does she expect anyone to care?
And here’s another clumsily made point. In a comic, body language can be subtle, the moment in time is frozen. It doesn’t happen and then fade away like in an animation. Subtlety works in static comics. It doesn’t have to be an over-the-top Looney Tunes reaction to make an impression. Subtlety is an art.
I suggest Richard Thompson’s “Cul De Sac” www.gocomics.com/culdesac to see a master of this.
LANGUAGE: RELEASE THE CRACKLE!
Keep your language tight. Tight. Make it crackle! Get rid of all extraneous words. A paragraph of heavy text above a character’s head can be daunting, if not off-putting.
Tight language screams confidence — in your writing, characters and humor. I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t think Tolstoy could have made all his points in War & Peace in half the word count.
And here’s an idea: why not make ALL the language as funny as possible? Just because your punch line might be in the last panel doesn’t mean that you’re precluded from saying something funny or clever or bizarre earlier in the comic.
HUMOR: ON BEING FUNNY
I know what you’re thinking: “What an f’n earnest section headline. How are you, Mr. Jackass Syndicate Editor, gonna tell me how to be funny? You’re a dinosaur. And you smell. And that shirt? Awful.” And while I don’t disagree with your points, I’m not crazy about your tone.
I think we can all agree that humor is subjective. What I like you may not and so on.
And on a larger scale, all art is subjective, of course. But certainly, one can tell and appreciate the difference between Van Cliburn and a 3rd grade piano recital, right?
So when I compare two comics that are on different quality levels and someone butts in and says, “Yes, but all humor is subjective.” I whisper, “Get out of my face!”
So now, that we’ve established that some humor is superior you’re probably asking, “Well, how to I get funnier?” Good question. I’ll now refer you to a blog post that Scott “Dilbert” Adams made a few years back that breaks down a formula for humor that’s as good as I’ve ever read:
One of his final points is that you have to be born with a humor gene. I don’t necessarily agree. I think if you really study why anything is funny you can figure out to a certain degree of success why it works — just like you were studying math. You may never become a mathematical genius, but certainly, post-study, you’ll be better at it than you were.
To take everything Scott said and boil it down: it’s about expectations. The best comics are the ones that took me somewhere I couldn’t get to on my own or surprised me. We like to laugh because I think it’s as primitive an emotion as fear, it touches something visceral in us. It’s an escape, it derails your expectations and takes you on a path you wouldn’t have walked on your own.
Case in point, if I read a comic where I can see the punch line coming and then the punch line is delivered exactly as expected I say to myself, “I could have done that.” And there’s no escape, no reward, no change in expectation. I read 100 submissions a week. I can’t tell you how many, “he ain’t got a six pack, he got a keg” jokes I see in a year.
Be different. Be better. Throw curve balls. Challenge expectations.
Spend more time on your writing than your art. Write a comic you’re happy with and read it again. Read it again. Read it again. Make it better. Don’t settle. Upgrade the punch line. Tighten the dialogue. Tighten. Upgrade. Tighten. Upgrade (insert Bruce Jenner facelift joke here) .
Let me ask you a personal question: Does your work actually make you laugh? Does it make you laugh on more than one read?
To me, the best comics can make me laugh more when I re-read them. Think of that. I don’t know what the explanation is. Maybe it’s that the experience is so memorable you remember and sentimentalize the first time you experienced it. For me, I could read Far Sides all day long, and laugh and laugh and laugh and then take a drink and then laugh and laugh and laugh.
But if you can’t make yourself laugh how can you expect anyone else to laugh?
Unfortunately, I’ve reached my space limit. And I don’t know if any of this helps. All I know, is that once you’ve been slapped by Brad Guigar, life looks a little different … mostly because my left eye won’t go into focus anymore.