Writer's Workshop #8: THE SIXTH GUN Man Cullen Bunn
Cullen Bunn has been making a splash this year with his new series with Oni Press, but, as it is with many writers, his journey has been long, and not without its sets of challenges. For the eighth edition of Writer's Workshop, we caught up with Bunn to talk about his structuring process, how he approaches characterization, and just how he's made the climb into the comics industry.
Newsarama: Cullen, just to begin — what made you decide that writing was something you wanted to do professionally? What were the hurdles that you had to overcome before you felt you were ready to show your work off?
When I first started submitting my work professionally—and we’re talking years and years ago—I had no patience for editorial response times. I hated waiting to hear back from people, hated waiting to see my work in print. This brought me down some dark paths. In my anxiousness to join the ranks of the “published,” I made some poor decisions, signed some bad contracts, and hitched my wagon to some real nags.
I foolishly thought that having a bunch of publishing credits made a difference. It took me a while that being published is nothing in comparison to being well-published.
And even though I was making some foolish mistakes in terms of getting my work out there, I still managed to land a couple of really nice (and really big) gigs. I don’t want to go into too many details about it, because I’m pretty ashamed, but I really dropped the ball on a nice book project because I simply couldn’t handle it. I wasn’t disciplined enough at the time to do the work that needed to be done. In the process, I hurt my standing with a few editors. This, by the way, was well before my days trying to break into comics… Thank goodness I had grown up a little bit before burning those bridges!
Another problem I had early on was thinking I was a much more talented writer than I really was. Confidence is a good thing… but I was sporting the bravado of a writer with a full catalog of bestsellers, and that just set me up for a fall. It caused me to take rejections personally. Worse, it made me insanely jealous and bitter towards other writers — many of them dear friends. The good news is I managed to get control of that pretty quickly once I recognized it, but it took some time. Thinking about those days, I shudder to imagine the person I was.
Bunn: The biggest lesson for me is that writing isn’t easy. It’s fun, yes. I love it. But it wasn’t until I started treating it like a job that it started paying out like a job. There’s not a lot of explanation beyond that, I guess. The key was to put my behind in the chair and work on my proposals, scripts, and stories. And when I got tired of working on those things, I worked on them some more.
As for influences, I guess the list is pretty lengthy… and it changes just about every time I write it out. I did one of those influence maps a while back (http://www.cullenbunn.com/?s=influence+map) and it’s still pretty accurate, I suppose. Lovecraft, John Carpenter, Alan Moore, Joe R. Lansdale, Robert McCammon, Skipp & Spector, Jack Kirby, Claremont. It’s a weird combination, I guess. But, really, just about everything I consume influences me in one way or another. One of the pitfalls that snags almost every creator is that you’ll never again enjoy a comic or a TV show or a movie or a book in the way you once did. Everything I watch or read is research and inspiration now. I’m always on the lookout for the tricks and tactics other creators use in telling their stories. What worked? What didn’t? How did the writer or director or actor pull that off? I no longer read or watch TV for pure enjoyment. Maybe I should take up (watching and participating in) sports, because maybe I could unplug the storytelling aspect of my brain while that’s going on.
Bunn: For a while, my methods seemed to change from story to story and even from issue to issue. I think this was just my way of figuring out what would work best for me. I’ve finally (and this is relatively recently) found a kind of routine that feels comfortable to me and makes the scripting a little easier.
Just stemming off that last question a bit, could you walk us through an example or two of how you've recently approached one of your scripts?
Here’s how my process works nine times out of ten. Currently, I’m using the iPad app Corkulous for this, but I’ve done it with Post-It Notes and/or Index Cards, too.
I usually start with a basic idea of what I want to accomplish in a particular issue or chapter. This is something that should be summed up in a sentence or two. For example, the summary for The Sixth Gun #6 might be, “Drake, Becky, and Billjohn make their ‘last stand’ against General Hume at the Maw.”
From there, I’ll often start jotting down snippets of dialogue. I overdo it here, probably. I’ll write pages of dialogue exchanges and caption text that may or may not make it into a particular issue or story. Sometimes I’ll write several versions of certain exchanges just to find one that I like best or one that sounds right for the characters. A lot of elements seem to gel at this stage, though. Characterization, major plot points, big reveals…
I then make sure that I’m listing any questions that I want to answer in that issue or any plot points that need to be highlighted.
I’ll also make a list of “money shots” and “big reveals” for the issue. These are the things I want to make sure punch the reader squarely between the eyes.
From there, I plot out the scenes and how many pages each scene will take.
The next step is to plot out (very roughly) the number of panels on each page and what I want to occur on that page.
I then go into scripting mode, and I usually write out the description and action for each panel, skipping the dialogue for now.
After all the action is plotted, I go back and plug in the dialogue.
The last step (aside from several rounds of edits and revisions) is the placement of sound effects as appropriate.
Bunn: I think many of the same things that make up a good yarn in one medium translate to a good yarn in another. Characters, plotting, pacing, dialogue. If anything, I think my scripting is a little more detailed than a lot of the samples I’ve seen, and I think a lot of that has to do with my prose background. Don’t get me wrong; we’re not talking anything as detailed as an Alan Moore script. But I always try to keep in mind that editors and artists are seeing this story for the first time without the accompanying artwork. I have to paint a picture for them and set a mood using words and words alone. I want them to have fun reading my scripts.
Bunn: I think one of the biggest takeaways from working in the horror genre is that you can’t scare a reader if they don’t give a damn about the character. And it doesn’t matter if the character in question is a hero or villain. The reader has to connect on some level, or they simply will not care if the character lives or gets ripped into a thousand pieces by some slime-dripping beast. And that translates into every emotional connection. No one cares if the good guy gets the girl if the good guy is an empty shell.
Nrama: Let's talk characterization a bit. For you, what goes into characterization? What sorts of things are important for the writer — if not the reader — to know about their character, to sort of calibrate for you how they might react in any given situation?
Bunn: I know some writers probably write out detailed character biographies, noting everything from the character’s eye color to favorite movie to books in their to-be-read pile. I’ve seen articles and books on the subject, and they structure a character biography like a character record sheet from Dungeons and Dragons.
That might work for some people, but I don’t think I ever want to know EVERY detail of the character when I start out. I want my characters to have room to grow, to have the ability to surprise me. If they can’t surprise me, they won’t surprise or interest the reader.
So, I usually start with a general character archetype — innocent farm girl, grizzled bounty hunter, rodeo clown with a checkered past — and I start tweaking the character from there. For my money, the archetype gives the reader something familiar to latch onto right away, and it is the alteration of that archetype that immediately grabs the reader’s interest. “Oh, this farm girl is a machete master!”
Of course, the archetype isn’t the character. It just gives me something to work with from the very beginning. From there, I like to get the character’s voice down in my mind. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t frequently walk around my office talking to myself in my character’s voice. This was how I got into the head of Eddie, the main character from The Damned, and I’ve stuck with the method ever since.
From that point, I watch the character grow in a very organic fashion. A lot of writers will say, “My characters took control of the story.” This is just my way of riding that rollercoaster.
Now, it’s important to note that sometimes I want the archetype to be the character. Drake Sinclair from The Sixth Gun, is a good example. He’s the brooding gunslinger, the seedy opportunist… at least on the surface. Sure, there’s more going on with him, and we start to see more and more of his “character” as the story progresses, but I really wanted to play the gradual changes the readers will see against the tried and true epitome of the role. So, I’m taking his transformation a little more slowly.
Bunn: Without the plot, you’ve just got a bunch of characters standing around doing nothing. I know… some people try to sell that by saying it’s all an “exploration of the different characters rather than a story in the truest sense of the word,” but I’m not buying it… at least not often.
I usually approach the general plot first. I like to have a pretty good idea of where the story is headed before I get started. I like to keep my eye on the prize as it were. That doesn’t mean things don’t change once I throw my characters into the mix. The plot always seems to change, but that’s all right. That’s the fun stuff.
Actually, I love the “Save The Cat” methodology. Save The Cat is a book on screenwriting by Blake Snyder. Among other things, the book presents a step-by-step “beat sheet” for plotting your story. It’s designed for screenwriting, but it’s great stuff for comic writers, too. I highly recommend it.
Bunn: I take pacing very seriously, to the point that it keeps me up at night. I sweat over page turns and reveals scene length and dialogue-heavy panels versus silent panels.
I look at the pacing of one scene in a book in terms of how it plays with the other scenes. For example, if I’ve got several very short scenes, it’s time for a longer scene. In prose, I try to vary the rhythm of my sentences to help keep the reader’s interest. Scenes in comics are, for me, similar.
To some degree, I have to play it by sense of touch. If it feels right, then I’ll go with it. But there are times when I really struggle with what will work well for a particular scene. I have to suffer through it, though. Besides, the hours of torment are there so you know how good it feels when it all comes together.
Nrama: And as far as resonance — for you, how do you approach making a story really hook a reader, and make them want to stick around for the long haul? I know that's a fairly broad question, but maybe it gets to the heart of everything: For you, what does a story have to have in order to succeed?
Bunn: It’s a combination of things, really. Strong characters, snappy dialogue, an interesting premise, a brisk plot. If I can manage to get all those things working well together… well, that’s the sweet spot. Also, one of my goals is to set the bait and coax the reader along slowly over the course of the story (as long as I have the breathing room to do so). I like being able to set up these milestone moments that give the reader those “Oh, shit!” moments as the story progresses. I don’t answer every question right away. I build up to the answers… and often lay the groundwork for more questions and answers to come. I guess it can frustrate some folks, but that’s the chance I take. With The Sixth Gun, I’ve got plans that stem from the very first issue to the ultimate conclusion of the series. I think casual readers will enjoy it, but I’m hoping to reward the people who are there from the very beginning with something special.
Also… and I can’t stress this enough… It’s important to me that no character is safe. The characters I like the most often have the shortest life expectancy. I always hope that readers never take my stories (or the survival of a particular character) for granted. I can’t help it. I like to pull the rug out from under you. I believe that uncertainty can keep readers turning pages.
Nrama: Something I don't think people really look at very often when it comes to creative people is when things don't work out. Could you tell us about times when you've been writing where a story just isn't working, or you can't figure out that key moment to make the story work, or if you've written anything that, in retrospect, you thought was flawed — and how you got over it?
Bunn: I’m sure I wouldn’t know what you’re talking about. Everything I write is solid gold!
The truth of the matter, though, is that sometimes a story just isn’t ready to be told. Sometimes, ideas sound better in your head… and that’s where they should stay. It happens for me most often with short stories or novels. I have dozens of failed endeavors sitting in the filing cabinet. With comics, it usually happens in the proposal stage, and I have a bunch of half-finished proposals sitting around to prove it. When a story dies, I take comfort in the idea that I’ll be able to steal bits and pieces from it (sometimes for years to come) or that it could be salvaged at some point when the time is right.
Also, I’d rather catch a failed story than for a reader to catch it for me.
Actually, after I’m done with a script, I always find things that I’m not 100% happy about. But there comes a time when you eventually have to let a story go, because trying to get it perfect will kill your writing buzz.
With the first series of The Damned, which is a book I’m very proud of, I think I made a few rookie mistakes, especially towards the end of the first arc, that confused a few readers. Looking back on it, a couple of additional lines of dialogue and a slight shift in the order of scenes, and it would have resolved the problem… but I didn’t see it until it was too late.
Sometimes, though, those minor errors or omissions can open up new possibilities for a tale, too. Sometimes, the challenge of writing yourself out of a corner can create some interesting plot points and illuminate new avenues of character development.
Nrama: As someone who's been making a splash this year with your new series The Sixth Gun, I should ask — what do you think has been the biggest learning experience for you in the comics industry? What sorts of things should up and coming writers know about that they just don't?
Bunn: I’m often asked about the secret to breaking into comics. And while I think it’s different for everyone, I am often met with looks of defeat when I describe how I went about it. There isn’t a magic bullet besides hard work, networking, paying your dues, falling off the horse, and putting yourself right back out there again. I think the most important thing I learned is that, as a writer, it’s much easier to show your work to an editor when you have something completed to show them. Editors are very busy people, and they’re often hard-pressed to take the time to read a script for something you’ve written. Comic book editors also like comics, though, and if you have a completed comic, with artwork, to show them, your chances of getting a read are much, much better.
Other than that, I’ve used the last few years to develop a kind of credo for my comic book writing life. It goes something like this:
Write every day. Meet your deadlines, even when it seems impossible to do so. Always thank the editors and artists you work with. Try to help aspiring creators when you can. Don’t get too big for your britches. Don’t ever become a precious little princess. Keep your cool. If you make a promise, keep it. Be persistent. Be nice… until it is time to not be nice.
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