NYCC 2013: JMS Writing Workshop - LIVE!
J. Michael Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5 and the author of comics such as Superman: Earth One, Ten Grand, Sidekick and more, hosted his writing panel Friday at the New York Comic Con.
"The reality is I can sit here and blather here at you for days and not give you one piece of information that you would find useful, helpful or intelligible," Straczynski said, opening up the floor for questions. "If this panel sucks, it's your fault. It ain't me."
"My overall opening statement on htis is for those of you who are trying to be writers, your'e probably trying too hard at your work - writing should not be homework," Straczynski said. "Is there anybody who knows two people who are not related who speak the exact same way? No. You occupy a piece of turf that nobody else does... that forms a prism, a lense through which you see the world. That point of view gives you value as a writer."
"The key is not to get in your own way as a writer. Don't worry about being literary or what you "should" sound like," he added. "Writing is nothing more than putting down what your'e thinking in the clearest possible way in your own voice. The way we screw up is when we think about how we should sound "literary" or "writerly."
There's a difference between trying to dance and actually dancing, and the same thing applies with writing, Stracyznski said. The more you can make it natural and not homework, the easier it gets.
Specificity of ideas and specificity of language. The broader it gets, the less universal it becomes - but the more specific you go, the more accessible it becomes.
Only about 10 percent, or 1,000 writers, make more than $100,000 a year - the majority sell one or two scripts a year max, making less than an average schoolteacher, he said. If you're looking to working in television or film looking for a paycheck, you're in the wrong area, he said.
"It doesn't matter where you come from - I was born in Jersey," Straczynski said, adding that most people told him that writing was an "ivory tower" job that was beyond him. "On a piece of white paper, you can be God - but it takes years of professionalism and dedication. You have to write every day, whether you like it or not. I write 12 hours a day, every day, besides my birthday, Christmas Day and New Years."
Straczynski added that it was more difficult to stay as a writer than to break in. "I know writers who get assignments and don't turn them in, it takes them a year or more to turn in their scripts… dedication and professionalism is what matters."
An audience member said he was struggling with dealing with multiple projects, and asked how Straczynski would jump from project to project. "Picasso went to Spain, got a new house, got a new woman - it works every time," he joked. "My recommendation is to finish one [project], then go to the next." He suggested that writers finish a project, put it on the market, wait until its sold, and keep moving. "If they're worth writing, they'll be worth writing down the road - pick the one that you like the most, focus on it like a laser, and get it the f*ck done."
"Writing is a process of acquiring tools for your toolbox," he added. "Each time you finish something, you acquire more tools for your toolbox. Whichever one you pick, you will learn something from it… going back and forth, you won't acquire those tools."
Another audience member asked how Straczynski developed stories over time. "I keep it all in my head - it helps to have a brain like a bucket of snakes," he said. "What some people I know have a big blackboard, with episode titles across one way, and characters down the other way. So in chapter one, you say that a character is doing one thing, and you plot their arc across time. Where do these characters interact with each other?"
Straczynski said that South Park's Trey Parker had a great quote about developing plots: "It's not this happens, then this happens, then this happens - it's this happens, but then this happens, and as a result this happens. It's connective."
It doesn't matter what kind of explosions or effects that you have - it's all about how attractive your characters are. So keep that at the center of what you do structurally, and that will inform the events. In Babylon 5, there was a character named Cartashian who was an ambassador who was going to be assassinated, and it was my idea to have Londo to do it. At the last minute, Londo's assistant Vir asked to perform the assassination, because it would give him grief and suffering to mine over further episodes.
Straczynski said that it was difficult to write every day, but that it's a job - you can't call in and say you don't want to work. "Well, you can do that once," he joked. He said that often the first few words are the most difficult, but the most important thing to do is to just write, even if it is just writing gibberish on the screen.
An audience member asked what - the larger the body of work that is a sample of your work, the better off you will be. "A one-off issue, just about anybody can do that," he said. "To have a four-to-six-issue series, you're better off than a one-shot. A one-shot shows you have a short attention span."
Another audience member asked about how Straczynski approached foreshadowing. "You have to know where you're going," Straczynski said. "When Arthur Conan Doyle was writing Sherlock Holmes, he started from the end, and worked his way back. It's about doing your homework, and figuring out what comes out afterward."
People tend to look at writing as a non-serious job, Straczynski said. "Don't give it away for free," he said. "That said, I know you're going to do it anyway… we always talk about how we don't have a choice to conceal that we do have a choice, and we just made it. So if you do it, do it responsibly. Wear a condom."
Straczynski said that writing specifically your story is the most important thing to do - writing other things is "just wanking off." "You could be writing the Great American Novel," he said.
The minor characters can wind up becoming the most interesting characters, Straczynski said.
An audience member asked about picking an artist. Straczynski said that sometimes you want to pick an artist that fits the tone of the book - but other times you want to buck the trend and go against the grain to make the book more subversive. "It's whatever artist that will complement your style as a writer, but not necessarily the obvious choice," he said.
How would a young writer solicit his work, an audience member asked. "The usual way?" Straczynski said. There is no age limit to publishing a book - "No one gives a crap what your age is, if you can write."
The first time that Straczynski wrote a play, he was in a similar situation - when people called about the play, his mom picked up the phone. "You have an advantage going in" starting early, Straczynski said. "You're going to suck for awhile as a writer - it's just going to happen." But if you write a story every week for a year, you will ultimately become a better writer.
Short stories won't pay the bills, but they will help writers learn structure. Full-length books will help with dialogue, he said. Even writing articles will help - "The more you can see your name published and to have an editor show you where your strengths and weaknesses are, that's great."
"When I was your age and going into college, I set myself up with the college paper - and I made sure there was something in it every single day. When I went there it was the Daily Aztec, but when I got out, people were calling it the Daily Joe," he said. "Don't look at your college experience as the cafeteria, the classes and the parking lot... you're in a great position right now, because you can fail and not get killed for it."
"Write your brains out, and be open and willing to fail," Stracznyski said. "If you don't fail from time to time, then you're not doing it right. You have to go against the wall, bounce off it, and then figure out how to climb over it. Fail your heart out. Fail spectacularly."
Straczynski told a story about a gorgeous woman he went to college with, who wound up dating the skeeziest photographer in the college newspaper. One day, he finally asked the girl why she dated this person: "He was the only one who asked. I guess everyone else was too intimidated. Especially you." He urged writers to try everything and to fail as much as possible, because that way you can follow your heart and find something that truly fits your tastes.
"The best thing that a writer has is courage - if not, they're worse than a coward, they're a sellout and a fink," Straczynski said, quoting Harlon Ellison. When dealing with editorial notes, you either have to talk the points with the editor, and if the answer is simply "because I said so," you either have to make the changes or walk away.
How do you overcome writer's block? "I've never had writer's block," Stracznyski said. "People tend to have writer's block when they're trying to force their brain to do something they don't want to do. There's always something that points true north. I'm not telling the story, I'm just watching the characters do what they do, and I write it down. Think of it as just watching a film. Let the characters do it for you."
"Imagine your best friend - imagine what they would say if they banged their shin into a coffee table," he said. "Writing is no different. You get to know the characters and situations so well, that no matter what you drop them into, you know what they're going to do."
"To sit down in front of the computer and not knowing what to write is the hardest feeling in the world," Straczynski added. "I don't write unless I know exactly what I'm going to say. I chew on a story in my head for days until I've cracked it... better three days thinking about a story and one day writing it than seven days agonizing about it." Samurai used to be required to have hobbies like calligraphy or gardeners, because that allowed them to be distracted and to process things.
Another audience member asked about world-building. "If you want to create worlds, if a character is a certain way, what kind of environment would create a character like that?" Straczynski said. One tactic he uses is science, such as having a world low on water producing a lizard-like creature. Another tool he uses is history - even our history will create things that seem completely alien if you do it right, he said. "If you want a militaristic character, look at the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany... good artists steal, bad artists borrow."
The audience member also asked about when is the best time to get feedback, in terms of making certain your work isn't stolen? "Wait until you're done with a script before getting feedback, Straczynski said, because otherwise you get the satisfaction of feedback without having actually finished a script." Straczynski said that actual theft of ideas, however, is rare.
Responding to a question on rewriting, Straczynski said that he initially says everything he can about a subject, then whittles it down to what's important to say, and then what he needs to say. New drafts are all about streamlining, not adding. "Rewriting is the fun of it," he said.
But how did Straczynski make his big break? Straczynski related a story about a year and a half period where he had no income, and wound up selling as many possessions as he could just to make ends meet. He wrote a spec script for He-Man: Masters of the Universe, and the producer asked him for a meeting for more pitches. "I made $600 on it," he said, and wrote three more as a freelancer before being hired on staff. "The path that worked for me will not work for you - I can say avoid this road or that road, but no two writers get in alike."
What happens if someone tells you to remove a scene that you really love? "What if they're right," Straczynski responded. "Sometimes you have to kill your children to make things work."
In terms of keeping his stories fresh, he said "you train yourself to see all the obvious choices, and then you say, 'what's the least obvious choice?'" Straczynski recalled when he relaunched Thor, and Marvel asked him where he wanted to put Asgard. "Oklahoma." Putting Thor next to Iron Man isn't a huge jump in power, but putting him alongside a town cook makes him seem more god-like - and having Thor in a town meeting also makes him more human.
Straczynski said that he doesn't usually read other people's works in order to keep from contaminating himself. "I don't believe in competition between screenwriters at all," he said. "What you're selling is your point of view, and nobody else can sell that."