Writer's Workshop #1: MARJORIE M. LIU On Novels, Comics

Marvel List Look: DARK WOLVERINE #80

Writing, sketching, coloring, lettering, editing -- the comics medium is a tricky beast, with tons of moving parts needed to get to the final product to readers. But how do your favorite creators do what they do best? That's the question we at Newsarama plan to answer in our new regular feature, Writer's Workshop, which will be teamed with its sister column Artists' Alley -- where we ask comics professionals to dig deep into how they operate.

And the first subject of this column is quite prolific. Many fans might know of Marjorie Liu from her work on Dark Wolverine or X-23, in addition to her two bestselling novel series, Dirk and Steele and Hunter Kiss. What's it like to write like Marjorie Liu? We caught up with the author-adventurer to talk about how she got started, what it's like to balance action and character, and just why having a thick skin is essential to get published.

Newsarama: Marjorie, can you tell us how you got started with writing fiction? When you ended up shooting to write at a professional level, what were the hurdles you had to overcome, and what gave you the epiphany to do it?

Marjorie Liu: Well, I was a little kid with a crayon in my hand, and...

Ha. Seriously, though, I've been writing and reading for as long as I can remember. I always loved words -- I loved them, I loved them -- and so it was totally natural to just scribble down ideas, stories, scenes, possibilities.  Plus, I read A LOT.  I read everything when I was growing up, and that was really the only learning tool available to me as a writer -- because English classes didn't teach me how to write.  We'd analyze books and poems for deep meanings, and study grammar, but that didn't teach us anything about how to write.  My guess is that it's nearly impossible to find a class, or teacher, who can do that.  

I wanted to tell stories for a living. So I wrote, and read, and over the years, I found my voice and learned how to build character and plot -- and endurance.  The endurance to finish what I started.

Because when you write professionally, you have to finish these stories.  You have to see them through to the end, no matter how tired or frustrated you get.  You have to show up every day and put words down -- and while that is fun, what you might not realize is that it's really hard work.

It's also a career full of risk.  Every career has risks, of course, but writing for a living doesn't mean you'll make a living. You'll rarely be paid on time, you'll be subject to the whims of marketing and sales, or a lack of shelf-space in bookstores; you'll be torn apart by critics; and even if folks love your book, that doesn't mean you'll sell another to your publisher.  

Of course, I didn't think about any of this while growing up and dreaming about being a writer.  I didn't even know those were problems that writers had to deal with.  What happened, finally, was that in my third year of law school I decided that it was now or never, that I had to try to follow my dream -- because the alternative was a career that would make me destructively unhappy.  And even if I had known about all the business hurdles that writers face, it wouldn't have stopped me.

The biggest hurdle, and the one I finally overcame out of sheer desperation -- was simply sitting down to write a novel, and finishing it.   

I sat down and for one month a book poured out of me. I did nothing but write for one month. I finished writing the novel I started.  I never had, before that (and when I think about it now, I'd been trying to write novels since the fifth grade).  I revised, sent it out, and eight months later -- sold it.  My little miracle.  

But that miracle was built upon many years of internal struggle -- working on the craft of writing, building endurance, self-confidence -- all the little pieces you need to make a go of it in this business.

Nrama: Do you have a particular set process when it comes to generating stories? Is there any one piece (whether its a character, an action, an ending, or a twist) that you feel you have to have to start building? In other words, do you feel there's an equation to storytelling -- sort of an A + B = C -- or do no two stories get built in the same way?

Liu: No two stories get built the same way -- at least, not with me.  Each book presents a new challenge -- and, quite honestly, I begin writing each new book uncertain that I can pull it off.  That's why beginnings are so important to me.  I feel as though they're the anchor, and that they set the tone for everything that comes after.  So, while I don't have a particular process for coming up with stories, I must have a perfect beginning.  I spend a huge amount of time crafting the openings of my books -- partially for my readers, but mostly for me.

Every writer has a different process.  It's all deeply personal.  I know some authors who plan their books down to the smallest detail before they even begin writing, and I know others -- like me -- who just sit down with an idea and write without a plan.  Writing by ear keeps the story fresh for me.  I don't like knowing every little thing about the characters and plot.  I like to be surprised, and while one might assume that I, as writer, know exactly how the story will turn out...I really don't.

I suppose, in a way, it's all about your comfort level as a writer.  You need to find the best way for you to unlock inspiration.  

Nrama: Stemming off that last question a bit, could you walk us through your process a bit, give us an example or some examples of how you've put a story together from soup to nuts?

Liu: Okay, let's start with my upcoming Hunter Kiss novel, A WILD LIGHT.  First of all, the Hunter Kiss series is about a woman covered in living tattoos that peel off her body at night to form her own demonic army.  It's science fiction and mythic fantasy: the demons are aliens from another world -- worlds made accessible by an inter-dimensional highway called the Labyrinth. Humans aren't native to earth.  Time travel is involved.  Genetic modification.  And a hot chick with a sword.  

Here's the original opening of A WILD LIGHT: I woke only minutes before dawn, on the edge of a nightmare.

That's an okay first line, but it's not great.  It doesn't tell you much about the character, her history.  No meat on the bones.  

So I came up with this, which will be in the final version of the book: It was my birthday, the anniversary of my mother’s murder, and on the way to the party, I made a special point to stop and kill a zombie.

Much better, I think.  There's action, some backstory...plus, it gives me a place to jump from, right into the story.  It's the heroine's birthday, the anniversary of her mother's murder -- she's headed to a party -- but she's going to kill a zombie first.  I mean, I'm not an outliner...but there's my outline.  For the first chapter, anyway.  I approach each chapter the same way.  I start with a need, a driving action, and then just go for it, following the characters, letting their personalities and problems lead me as I craft their stories.

Until I reach THE END.

That's an overly simple explanation, but you get the drift.  

(If you'd like to read what comes after that first sentence, check out an excerpt of A WILD LIGHT at my website.)

Nrama: Are there any particular "rules" you have set for yourself in terms of writing? Or on the flip side of that, any lessons or maxims that you feel you've learned (or relearned) over the course of your career?

Liu: Rules?  Not really, no. Be professional.  Work hard.  Have fun.  Don't take yourself too seriously.  Be kind.  It's not rocket science, but it is a lot of common sense.  Which, I admit, can be seriously lacking sometimes.   But if you've got the right attitude, that's half the battle.  I will say that prior to selling my first book, I didn't know anything about the business side of publishing, or what goes into releasing a book.  I hadn't given much thought to the mix of art and commercialism, and the importance of marketing.  

Nrama: When you're working, how do you get yourself in the particular headspace for a particular book? Is there a place you have to go, any particular bit of media you need to consume, another book you have to go back to to realign your focus?

Liu: I just chill out.  Read, watch a movie... hop on a plane to China.  I live in Beijing for part of the year, and I find that traveling there seems to stir up my creative juices in some crazy ways.  

But each book and story does require something different from me -- different voice, different mindset -- and it takes a period of adjustment, even a small one, while I transition from different projects.  Like comics to novels, or from one novel to another.  

Nrama: In a lot of ways, it almost seems easier to write action than it is to write character. How do you approach characterization, and write your characters as three-dimensional people? Could you walk us through a character that you've done this with in the past?

Liu: I find it's the opposite, for me.  I have a hard time writing action.  Fight scenes are awful to script -- and I don't care much for writing them in novels, either, though given the nature of what I write, it's totally inevitable that fists will fly, blood will spill, and there will much wailing and gnashing of teeth.  The key, I think -- or rather, what I tell myself every chance I get -- is to make the action mean something by using it to show some aspect of the character.  Show, don't tell.  

In my novel, THE LAST TWILIGHT, there's a lady doctor, a researcher for the CDC who has been in the Congo for years.  She's a tough cookie with a sense of humor.  So I open the book with her arm-wrestling Congolese soldiers in the middle of sweltering guard station on the edge of a river, teasing them, making bets -- until her cell phone rings with an urgent message, and she's done, out of there.  The set-up might sound over-the-top -- or to some, stupid -- but everything you need to know about her is there in her actions.

I think of my characters as people -- and they usually enter my mind that way, full-blown.  I don't have a process for coming up with characters, or making them three-dimensional -- I don't write lists of traits, hobbies, or anything like that. I sit down to write a book -- or comic -- and think about these people who will be inhabiting the world.  I try to get inside their heads and figure out what scares them, or what makes them laugh, or what turns them on...and then just build a story around them that brings out the best and worst in them.  

Nrama: As someone who works in both prose and comics, what would you say the biggest difference is between the two mediums? And on the flip side, are there any elements of prose and comics that translate between the two?

Liu: It's all storytelling.  The focus might be a bit different between the two, but you still have to concentrate on building character and plot.  Of course, when I write a novel I don't have an artist to rely on -- everything has to be described, fleshed out.  And there's a considerable difference in length.  Novels are around 90,000 words, or 300 pages.  Comic books are 22 pages.  That doesn't make comics any easier to write -- sometimes they're just as hard -- but at the end of the day, writing one issue of Black Widow or Dark Wolverine will definitely take less time than writing a novel.    

Nrama: Something else that's interesting in your case is that in 2009, you became writing partners with Daniel Way for Dark Wolverine. Could you tell us how that partnership came to be, how you guys have split your duties, and how you navigate working with someone else whose ideas may be just as strong as yours are and still come out with a product that has your voice?

Liu: Dan didn't have time to write Dark Wolverine on his own.  He liked my work, and there you go.  

Though if you had asked me whether I would ever agree to co-write -- even an hour before the whole idea of co-writing with Daniel was brought up -- I would have told you to go away, because that's crazy. I'm a loner, not a team-player.  Co-writing?  What's that?

But our editor, John Barber, must have caught me at one of those strange moments when I'm feeling especially friendly toward the world, because I said, "Let me think about it."  And then I talked to Dan on the phone about his ideas, his vision, and I thought, "Okay, I can definitely work with this person. I think this could be interesting. Plus, I like the character."

So I said, "Yes," and never looked back.  It has been a wonderful experience.  As a writer I work alone with just my computer, the dog, a comfortable couch.  I don't really discuss my stories with anyone -- I just go for it.  But, in the case of Dark Wolverine, it's great having someone to bounce around ideas with.

Now, I can't speak for Dan, but there was a part of me that looked at that first issue (#75) as a trial run to see whether we could work together as a team -- although I figured out that we could, absolutely, long before we finalized our storyline for those first three issues.  We were working together via phone and email, trying to hammer out that arc -- we had an idea, a direction -- but then we hit New York City for Comic Con.  That was a key moment, I think. We were standing there in the middle of the con, and just sort of looked at each other and decided that we could do better, and push the envelope.  We had this great chance to try something different, and didn't want to waste it.

Our process is this: Dan and I talk about upcoming stories -- he listens, I listen -- then he writes the outline, we tweak, I write the script, we tweak, and then we send it off to our editor (now Jeanine Schaefer) for more tweaking.  It's very straightforward.  I get asked this question a lot -- you know, how Dan and I write these books together -- and sometimes I think that folks are expecting something more complex.  But honestly, it's uncomplicated, undemanding, and -- again -- super straightforward.  Our goal is to tell good stories.  And have a great time doing it.  

Which, I suppose, leads into your question about preserving one's voice in a writing partnership -- although I don't think I have an answer that will satisfy many people.  Because... you either preserve your voice or you don't... which means the partnership works... or it doesn't.  I've come to believe that you can't negotiate a good writing partner.  When it comes to words and ideas, and voice -- all of which are personal and tenuous -- both sides must find a way to be themselves, and yet compromise when necessary.  But if you have to negotiate those things, or even think about them -- if that individuality and mutual respect doesn't come naturally within the work -- then you're already in trouble.  

So, in short, Dan and I both do our own thing -- mesh that together -- and each issue of Dark Wolverine is a product of that combined effort.

Plus, we're lucky to work with great artists -- who have their own visual 'voice', as well.

Nrama: For new and upcoming writers, what do you feel is the mistake or misconception you see the most for people? And how would you suggest people overcome these flaws?

Liu: Writers are sometimes afraid to embrace their own individuality. They see a trend and try to follow it.  Or they're told to follow that trend.  Or maybe they try to write outside the box -- get knocked down -- and after that play it safe.  

You have to be fearless in this job.  You have to thicken your hide against the critics and rejections, and have a clear sense of who you are and what you want.  Being a writer requires serious self-motivation.  

I think, too, that there is the fantasy of being a writer -- and the reality.  The fantasy changes from person to person, I suppose, though mine was pretty simple.  That I would get to write full time, make a living from writing, and be totally free from the rat race.  

Okay, that came true.  But the reality is that I don't just write -- I'm also running a business. The business of my books and name.  Which, honestly, is a topic for another time.

For those interested, I have several new and upcoming releases: A WILD LIGHT, the third in my Hunter Kiss urban fantasy series, due for release on July 27th -- and IN THE DARK OF DREAMS, a paranormal romance that will hit shelves on November 30th.  You can learn more about my books at my website: www.marjoriemliu.com.


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