Over the next nine months, I’m going to be writing two novels and a comic book miniseries. This is all for those very very important credits that will earn me a degree in creative writing. While I have absolutely no idea of what to write for the two novels, and I’m sure that I will change my mind between several ideas in the near future, I do know exactly what I will be writing my comic book series about.
I decided I wanted to write a comic book when I went to see The Dark Knight Rises in the cinema. I was talking with a friend about super-heroes, their powers, their personalities, and most importantly, if we were to create our own super-hero, what would their powers be? We had several ideas up in the air, but we settled on one that we thought would be incredible; different, experimental, but free of cliche and convention. I decided then that for my third year independent project, I would write a comic book.
Over the following weeks, I did some research. I had no idea about comics up until about thirty days ago. I looked online for advice, I bought comic books, I bought comic books about comic books… And I learned a lot. I figured out that there’s no way to write something properly, especially in the world of script. That’s what happens when writing a comic book. It’s much like a film or TV script, with the directions and speech and descriptions of setting and characters. I used to love writing scripts.
Scott McCloud and Will Eisner became my go-to mentors. I read some of their respective works on writing comics, understanding comics, and I did some reading of other super-hero stories.
The one thing I think is really important about the planning process is having a tried and tested way of doing it. I never had one until Dennis O’Neil told me about his via a book called DC’s Guide to Writing Comics. It involves several documents open on the computer at any one time, but all of which I’ve used in my planning process, and all of which I think I’ll use in the future, even outside the realm of comic book writing.
I’ve got a folder titled “Legacy” in my documents on my laptop. That’s the name of the piece I’m writing. Inside are three documents, each made up of various bits and pieces. The first document, and by far the most extensive and most visited out of them all is the proposal. Writing a comic book for a publisher involves a proposal. Actually, writing most anything for anybody involves a proposal. Write a proposal. Not for your publisher, your editor, or anybody else. Write your proposal for you. Write it as you would write yourself a note when you’re drunk and want to remember something important the morning after. Use language that you will understand. Use code if you want. Use personal jokes. Make sure you get it, and as soon as you open it, you can find yourself back in that mindset you were in when you wrote it.
The proposal should be made up of a number of sections, each of which I’ll outline below:
- Premise should be the first thing you write. Then follow it with the premise of your work. It doesn’t have to be a complete outline. It can be three words. But as long as it represents the key story elements of your piece, that’s fine.
- Goal of your work. What do you want to achieve? If you just want to make people laugh, or entertain them, or scare them, that’s cool. But if you want to establish a mythos that steps away from the conventions of the genre in an attempt to wake up the audience to the truth of the style, write that. Even if you don’t know what it actually means.
- Structure is important, and it should definitely be something you think about. No matter the format you’re writing in, the structure should reflect the story. Are you going to split lots of stories up into small chapters? Are you going to have lots of character-centric chapters? Are you going to write an epic trilogy, a comic book miniseries…?
- Background is what leads to the story’s beginning. What has happened to get your character to where they are today? For a story to be interesting or real or both, you need to have thought about what comes before the story, not just want comes during or after.
- Story follows. Now that we’ve established the background, setting, and all that stuff, we can get to the juicy stuff. Draw from your premise – flesh it out, but not too much, as you will probably want to change things later. Any key moments you wouldn’t dream of omitting should probably feature in your story outline.
- Characters is the longest section of my own proposal. There’s a lot of them, and there’s a lot to them, even if I don’t know it yet. There’s always a new one added last minute, or one taken out, or a different name or personality… But at least get an idea of the key players in the game.
This is probably going to be a far simpler document than the proposal. At least, on the surface. In reality, uncountable numbers of man hours will go into crafting the perfect outline. For a comic book, I’ve done mine page by page, describing in a sentence what happens: “Fight scene”; “Charlotte runs away”; “Sam is being taunted”… It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it doesn’t even have to be good. But as long as it gives you the idea of how a character gets from point A to point B, it’s probably good enough. Besides, you’ll probably end up changing it substantially once you actually get going. I have. It’s fun.
This is where your structural decisions come into play for the first time. If you’ve chosen to write a novel, your outline will be defined by its chapters. If you’re writing a movie, scenes will be the way you lay things out in the outline. Of course, these things aren’t binding, and you might even find that maybe your story wasn’t meant to be a movie, and you want to make it a novella or a TV series instead. Whatever. That’s what this process is for.
But once it’s done, and you’ve got your outline written out, as extensively or not as you like, then you can start writing.
Ah, the notes. The messiest, least thought out and most sporadic document you’ll have in your folder. Hopefully. Whenever you think of something important and want to remember it, write it down. Out of context idea? Noted. It’s how you’ll fill in the blanks later. Writer’s block, whatever that is, can be beaten many ways, but one of the best ways, from my experience, is looking over your previous ideas, whether good or bad, used or discarded, and crafting them into something new. That, and notes are important for not forgetting stuff.
Note: The above super-awesome way of planning stuff isn’t my idea, but I’ve taken O’Neil’s suggestions and made them suit my own style. Hopefully they’ll do something for you too. If you want to read his own advice as is, check out The DC Guide to Writing Comics.
Those are the three documents I’ve got, and they’ve seen my through to the finish line … of the planning stage. I’ve never finished planning anything before, not even as I’ve been writing it. The finish line comes when I feel like it should come. Not when a previous document with a detailed outline says it should come. But times are changing, and it feels better knowing that I have a structure, a purpose and a plan behind the whole story. I haven’t started writing yet, but I know that when I do, in the next thirty days most likely, I will be able to power through, experiencing what is hopefully the smoothest writing experience of my life.
That, or I’ll find myself unsatisfied with my former-self’s planning abilities and writing will become hard again. But I’ll let you know.