Writer's Workshop #4: BRYAN EDWARD HILL & ROB LEVIN 2-in-1
Ready for a Writer's Workshop double-header?
Because Bryan Edward Hill and Rob Levin are living proof that two heads can be better than one, as they've been juggling mythology and international intrigue with their Top Cow book Broken Trinity: Pandora's Box, the latest issue having been released this week.
Yet how does this dynamic duo work their magic? We sat down with Hill and Levin to discuss how they navigate characterization, plotting and the sheer challenge of filling in the blank page.
Newsarama: Guys, first and foremost, can you tell us a little bit about how each of you got into the world of writing? What made you guys decide that writing was the career for you?
Bryan Edward Hill: For me, it was very personal. My father died when I was a kid and that same week I read an issue of BATMAN. Obviously, I had a profound connection with Bruce Wayne. His anger. His loss. How he as a character turned that energy into something empowering.
I was given so much from those stories. Fiction can heal in a way nothing else can. When I started thinking about a career, I realized that I wanted to be part of that tradition. There’s a beautiful democracy in writing. It’s a blank piece of paper and a pen. In Hemingway’s hands that’s THE SUN ALSO RISES. In Frank Miller's hands that’s SIN CITY. In Brian Azzarello’s hands that’s 100 BULLETS. Once you start walking into that legacy, it’s very hard to not get passionate and obsessed.
That being said, if Great Britain would have given me citizenship I probably would have just joined MI6, drank martinis and caught mega villains for Her Majesty.
Rob Levin: I think there's some old writer cliche about "you're a writer because you don't know how to be anything else." While admitting that makes me feel somewhat useless, there's some truth to it. I've always been drawn to stories. When you connect with a fictional experience and it feels like something that's made about or for you, there are few experiences that special or that resonant.
A lot of my writing, though escapist, is really about trying to create that experience for the reader. I'm trying to forge a connection, and that's the reason I write. As for what got me there... I can't trace it to any one moment or experience. But when in doubt I always blame "Ghostbusters."
Nrama: Rob, now, you also worked as an editor in addition to your writing career. What's the overlap here? How do you feel your tenure as an editor helped inform how you approached writing?
Levin: My time editing was about as close as anyone can get to a writer's room-like experience where you're working on dozens of different shows at once. The job encompasses so many things from breaking stories to fixing problems to being a shepherd and occasional nursemaid. Throw in the art direction and deadline management and I also figured out how to balance creativity, professionalism, and the commercial side of things.
I didn't have time to write as much as I wanted during the five years I edited full-time, but working with some of the best and brightest minds in the comics industry really taught me storytelling in an intimate, hands-on way that studying film in college had not. Those relationships also afforded me some very helpful and experienced mentors. Certainly in my comics work, not a day goes by that I don't use something from my tenure as an editor.
Hill: For me, all writing is the act of observing the world, interpreting what you see, and communicating that to an audience. I see myself as a constant student. I’m always learning something, evolving my point of view and that’s reflected in my work.
A lesson? Empty yourself of ego, and become a sponge of everything. Not just writing, but everything around you. Just yesterday, I had sushi and the chef was this furiously serious 70 year old man. I watched him prepare the food and he didn’t waste an ounce of energy. It was fascinating. That level of pure focus. It’s the same focus you imagine Batman has when he’s fighting a horde of thugs, or Sara Pezzini using the Witchblade against a demon, or Anakin Skywalker cutting through droids.
Yesterday I learned a little more about what near perfect skill looks like, about what it feels like to be in the presence of that skill. I’m sure that’ll wind up in a future story.
Nrama: Were there any epiphanies you guys had to learn -- like, really acknowledge and incorporate -- before you really cracked that nut of longer-form narrative? Any teachers or influences that just blew you out of the water?
Hill: It’s said a lot, but I’ll say it again here: Joseph Campbell’s work on mythological narratives is probably my biggest influence. The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the idea of the “Hero’s Journey”.
Campbell’s brilliance wasn’t just analyzing narratives, but he demonstrated how and why we have an emotional connection to heroic stories. That’s the first of two hoops I think every writer needs to jump through.
The second is Shakespeare. Although his plays are difficult to consume, they’ll teach you so much. My suggestion to any writer is to read the synopses of Shakespeare’s plays. Find one that speaks to you, and spend time studying it. Don’t worry about the whole body of work. Just pick something you like and wrestle with it. Forget the pretentiousness around the idea of “Shakespeare”, get a study guide and dive into one of those works. I promise you’ll be a stronger storyteller for doing so.
Levin: Learning to let go of pre-conceived notions was probably my biggest breakthrough. I'd read interviews with writers where they'd say things - about their process, that outlines are shit because they tie you to formula, or that writing is about locking yourself in a room and figuring out what's wrong with your story - and I'd accept it all as dogma. Whoever my biggest influence was at the time, or what advice I felt would get me over some hump, I'd believe in it. When I just accepted that there was no path and that every project is a unique and weirdly organic experience, it allowed me to become a much better writer.
And not to steal from Bryan, but understanding structure - not just being told that it's there - is a transformative experience. It took me a long time to really get it. I understood that there were act breaks, and what was needed at certain times, but I didn't know why. I'm not sure when it clicked, but suddenly I was able to inject drama into my stories instead of just trying to do the next "Clerks" and fall in love with how clever my dialogue was. This is actually something I re-discover quite a bit. It seems every time I'm breaking a story and something is messed up, figuring out where it collapses structurally is some kind of epiphany.
I also recently read David Mamet's "Three Uses of the Knife," and in that book he discusses dramatic structure as it pertains to our experience of sports. That pretty much blew my mind with both how obvious and brilliant it was. Mamet is often referred to as a dramatist rather than a writer, and even when I disagree with him, I always get huge takeaways from him.
Hill: One of my oldest friends, Nelson Blake II (now penciling Top Cow’s MAGEDELENA) started working for Top Cow and at the time, Rob was editing. Nelson spoke highly of Rob and made an introduction for me. Rob and I started talking about movies, books, and films. When Rob decided to start writing full time, we kept talking about stories and found some things we wanted to work on together. So whatever career in comics I have, you can give Nelson Blake a good portion of that credit for being one of the few people that championed my work in a world where it can be hard to get read by anyone, no matter your pedigree.
And here’s a suggestion for other writers. Don’t just run around pitching stories. Engage people on other stories. Talk shop. People are much more likely to read your work when they’re interested in the way you think. Conventions are hard because people are busy, but with free social media tools you can blog about stories, post thoughts on twitter and create places where people can engage your thoughts.
With writing, people are often buying into the writer as much as the story she is pitching.
Make sure you’re showing people your perspective, your experience and the passion you have for the kinds of stories you like to tell.
Levin: I had attempted the writing partner thing a few times and it had never really worked out. It was too much sitting around and talking about things that had nothing to do with whatever we were working on. It was fun to hang out with friends, but it didn't mean the creative partnership was working. I worked on a project a few years back in which David Wohl was both my editor and co-writer. At first I really rejected the idea of working with someone else, but knowing how closely we were working as writer and editor, the sooner I was able to let go of any selfish notions of ownership of the project, the better the story became and the more I learned.
I definitely wasn't looking for a partner when I first met Bryan, and I'm not sure he was either. We just vibed on things and eventually I let him pitch me something, then I fell in love with his writing. The fact that we were on the same page creatively opened the door for us to start collaborating, but we also approach things very differently. We grew up different places, went to school on different coasts and took different paths to get where we are. I often say it in jest, but I'm serious when I tell people Bryan is the writer I want to be when I grow up.
When you work solo, it's easy to get stuck. When you work with a partner, you can always have someone tag in and do the heavy lifting for a minute while you reset your mental bearings. At the end of the day, this works because we both toss ego out the window and just try to put it down the best way we can. With each concept we come up with or draft we finish we ask the question, "How can we make this better?" As long as that's the goal we're serving, this is going to last for a very long time.
Hill: I’m a “character guy,” so I had to really train myself to work inside of structure, both three-act structure and five-act structure. Now I can place characterization into a structure that keeps a story moving forward, but that took time and practice.
I still have to work from detailed outlines. Acts broken down to beats, beats broken down to page count, page count broken down to panel count. Rob’s actually been very helpful because he’s so damn experienced with putting a book together from his days being an editor. It’s really sickening how much he understands the form. During BROKEN TRINTY: PANDORA’S BOX and our upcoming SEVEN DAYS FROM HELL he’s not only brought narrative chops to the table, his instincts also really help in structuring a book that (hopefully) gives readers a rich experience.
Levin: We're both character guys, but I sometimes lose that in my execution. I start stories with character first, and I do my best to have that power me through the outline/treatment stage. But in execution, especially in comics where the page count is extremely rigid, I sometimes sacrifice that in order to preserve the plot. Bryan's really good about efficient characterization, and it's something I'm always trying to remember when page counts and deadlines are trying to salt my game.
Beyond that, my biggest nemesis is procrastination. I'll do seemingly anything in my power to not work. Bryan's really fast, which pushes me to not hold anything up on my end. I've yet to blow any deadlines, and I will never leave an artist without a script, but there are times I don't feel like a writer because I just can't put myself in front of the computer and just get something on the page, even when it's the only thing I want to be doing.
Nrama: Writing, obviously, is as much as an exercise in creativity as anything else. How do you guys approach generating ideas and the like? Is there a set process one (or both) of you have when it comes to "I want to tell a story about XYZ"? From soup to nuts, how do you approach building the structure of your story arc?
Hill: I believe that all writers are philosophers, or at least they should be. I don’t mean that in a snooty, lit-jerk way. Quite simply, a story has to be about something or you’re just wasting the reader’s time and money. I’m not going to waste your time or money. For me, everything begins with a theme, a philosophical idea that I want to explore in a narrative.
For instance, with SEVEN DAYS FROM HELL I took out a piece of paper and wrote down “Is murder ever justifiable?” I taped that over my desk and started thinking of a character and a world that would let me explore that. If you want to know how Rob and I answered that question, you have to pick up the book, HA!
I think a philosophical idea is what gives a story longevity. STAR WARS is rich with ideas about morality. I recently screened Episodes IV, V and VI for a group of kids (one film a day) and after each screening it was awesome to see ten and eleven year olds arguing over pretty big ideas about right and wrong, good and evil. To me, that’s the mark of a well-done narrative. Something that’s entertaining, but also evocative. Something that stays with you.
Levin: For me, it's always about putting a character in a situation and wondering what they would do. I take that idea, find a theme, and build from there. I've abandoned ideas where I saw the story clearly but couldn't connect to anything in it; it was just an A-to-Z thing. That might be fine for some people, but I need my stories to deal with a theme, answer a question, or provide some sort of insight to feel truly successful. That might sound a little pretentious for a guy currently writing about giants and dragons, but our story isn't really about giants are dragons.
Building the story isn't so much about nuts-and-bolts so much as it is about decisions and consequences. I try to write about active characters. The second my characters stop being active, I know I've failed. I do this both on macro and micro levels from overall plot to individual scenes and beats. There's not really any uniformity to how things come together.
Hill: I have a little background in acting, and I like to try and see the world through the eyes of the character. Example: Go to a coffee shop. Find a comfortable seat and pretend you’re Bruce Wayne. If you’re Bruce, I imagine you’re drinking herbal tea with no sweetener. You’re looking at the newspaper, watching for the next crisis. You’re watching the emotional climate of the city you’ve sworn to protect. You might see two parents feeding their child, and grieve what you lost. Maybe you look at them and you wonder if you could be a father. When you get up, you might have to pretend you don’t have a set of broken ribs from the work of last night, etc...
Immersion is a useful exercise for me. Whether it’s a shared character like Clark Kent, or it’s an original character like SEVEN DAYS’ John Bishop, I try to take the time to imagine what it feels like to be that character. Not just the main character, but all the characters.
For instance, I think it’s tragic and fascinating that Superman has to constantly ignore the screams of people around him. Imagine hearing so many crises around you and having to pick which scream to follow. There’s a whole story in how he manages that.
Imagining, with as much rich detail as you can, what a character experiences gives you a greater sense of their dimension. It’ll inform dialogue. Plot. As a writer you need to know what your characters want, and knowing how they FEEL is a way into that.
Levin: One of Kurt Vonnegut's rules for writing is that "every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." When I heard that, it changed the way I approached scene construction and characterization. It wasn't just about one character driving toward a goal and another potentially standing in the way of that. It made me realize that each of them has a reason for what they're doing, and not just because my outline says so. Scenes must always be about the characters and not just advancing the plot. This is probably basic to some, but it's one of those things I had to learn. It was a big "a-ha" moment.
I don't do many character exercises to try and flesh out who they are. I've tried that, but it never really feels like anything beyond exposition. Instead I try to make sure that my characters always act in a way that feels honest to how I've conceived them and their first appearance in a story - unless it's a con man story, then all bets are off.
One exercise I will be doing if I ever get some free time is revisiting the first season of "Justified." The writers on that show pulled off some of the most efficient and effective character introductions I've ever witnessed. I really need to figure out how they did it because I've told everyone how great it was but haven't cracked the code. Hopefully deciphering what they were able to do will allow me to do the same.
Nrama: And stemming off those last two questions a bit -- are there any writing or acting exercises that you guys implement in order to flex those creative muscles? Any tactics that you utilize when you can't quite figure out how that last bit of the story is going to go?
Hill: Beyond the immersion, I think it’s critical that you also write for fun. Don’t just do pitches and scripts you’re getting paid to write. Write for the joy of it.
Here’s my favorite exercise: Pick up a magazine with a lot of pictures. My wife gets a lot of fashion mags, so I use those. Pick a picture, or an advertisement and write a two page story based on the image. Limit yourself to two pages, but use the photo to create characters and a conflict and just write based on what that photo brings to mind. Doing that exercise has led to a lot of new ideas.
Lastly, try all forms. Write poetry. Write a screenplay. Try writing a novel. From one form you’ll learn more about the others. Don’t worry about how “good” it is. Just do it for the experience of doing it. “Good” will come through practice. Don’t put it on a schedule. Everything you finish will build your confidence in your ability and that confidence will lead you to where you want to go.
Levin: This is something I really struggle with, not because I don't like writing for fun, but because I don't have enough time to do it. One of the downsides to working freelance is juggling many masters, projects and deadlines. I have a much greater emotional investment in the projects I do just for me, and I suffer some performance anxiety in terms of making them live up to my own expectations. I'd love it if I had some magic technique or exercise that allowed those creative juices to flow, but I haven't found it. When I'm really in a rut or can't focus, I usually write up something for my blog at www.theroblevin.com just to shake out the cobwebs and get something where once existed a blank page and an angry, blinking cursor.
Bryan will give me an exercise from time to time, and that can help, but in my experience it takes all the procrastination and distractions and banging my head against the wall to get words on the page. I'm definitely more productive when I write on a regular schedule though, so that's one thing I can highly recommend. If it's a positive, habit-forming thing, do it.
Hill: In comics? Don’t crowd the art with too much dialogue, LOL! Ron Marz is one of the biggest advocates of pencilers, and he’s right about comics being a visual medium. I’m not going to draw a line in the sand about “talking heads”, but I will say if there’s a head doing a lot of talking, put that head in a cool place, HA!
Beyond that, just keep the reader in mind. Keep thinking about the experience you’re trying to create. Also, remember that comics (unless you’re a total package like Phil Hester), is going to be a collaborate between yourself and a penciler. Work together. Artists and writers fighting each other over ego is one of those ‘Aliens vs. Predator’ situations where no matter which side wins, the readers lose.
Levin: I stick with the classics. Show, don't tell. Action is character. Keep it simple stupid. And again, toss your ego out the window. Build a better product first, worry about how great people think you are later.
Nrama: Lastly, considering you guys have seemed to be doing well as a two-man crew -- how would you guys suggest other writers go about finding strong creative partners to bounce ideas and tag-team on stories? How would you attribute the creative synergy you guys have now?
Hill: It’s like I said before. Show people who you are and keep your insecurities in check. We’re human beings. We’re all afraid of something. If you’re a writer, you might be more afraid than most, LOL. Don’t make decisions based on fear. Make decisions based on what you’re passionate about. Talk to people who are passionate about those same things.
If you put up a flag that says “This is who I am. This is what I believe,” you’re gonna find people who agree with you and want to engage that. Learn who they are and what they believe and use that energy to build a project, a partnership and a career.
Specifically, start a blog. There are so many comic creators on twitter (perhaps because we’re all desk junkies), so engage their posts. Enter discussions. Champion work you love and tell people why. I meet people through my blog www.bryanedwardhill.com every week that are potential collaborators.
Above all else, be prolific. Finish things. Never underestimate the power of a finished piece of work. There are 365 days in a year. If one year ago, you wrote one page a day, you could have a novel, or three screenplays, or sixteen issues of a comic book. Take the time. Dedicate yourself to building a body of work.
Nothing matters more than the work.
Levin: You can't start looking for a partner unless you know what you're about as a person and as a writer. It's easy to be a rudderless vagabond surfing the seas of fiction, and you may even find people that want to work with you, but it's not likely to yield the results you want. When you know what you're after, and maybe even more importantly what you bring to the table, then you can find that complementary piece in a collaborator.
Bryan and I both continue to work on projects solo as well as with other co-writers. There's no illusion in either of our minds that should this partnership break up we'd be unable to complete work alone, but I'm pretty sure we both believe we've found a special mix and want to keep this thing moving forward. We talk about our joint projects at length, and Bryan's always sending me his new stuff because he's prolific. I'd send him stuff, but I'm lazy and I just started raising animals (pets, not livestock) so I don't have as much time to write a new screenplay every two weeks like some people.
His comment about finishing something is key. If the only reason you're looking for a partner is because you're too scared to finish a project on your own, stop and take a step back. A partnership is about what you each bring to the table and how those attributes work in concert. The whole has to be greater than the sum of its parts. It's like the old cliche about relationships - how you can't make someone happy until you yourself learn to be happy - it's the same with writing. You're much better equipped to find a partner when you've realized you don't need one, but it absolutely can make your work that much better.