Archive for June, 2009

Jun 29 2009

Disco, leisure suits, dancing monkeys and other 1970s abominations

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.


Atlas Issue #7, Variant Cover


8 responses so far

Jun 27 2009

Thanks, Evil Editor!

Evil Editor reviewed my query letter for Don’t Forget the Death Ray!, a guidebook about how to write superhero stories. Although he and his readers mostly panned it, I found their comments very helpful and informative. It’s really important for prospective writers to have thick skin, so I’d like you to know what kind of feedback I’m getting.

  • “You may not have meant it this way, but you managed to insult professional writers while talking down to teens.”
  • “This is a bad query letter… Now you show a great facility with language in this letter. Obviously your writing ability is there; but you need to consider the subtext of what you are saying just a teensy bit when you read what you wrote.”
  • Continue Reading »

19 responses so far

Jun 25 2009

Don’t Bury Your Story in Science and Realism

I’d only delve as deeply into science as much as the story and audience warrant. For example, if a villain shrinks the hero, 99% of readers don’t care that a shrunken human body couldn’t function because human cells are designed to function at a particular size. Unless you’re deliberately targeting a technically savvy audience (such as in hard sci-fi), your readers probably don’t care much about surface-to-volume ratios and the like.  Similarly, most readers don’t need elaborate explanations for superpowers. You don’t need to explain where Spiderman keeps all that webbing.

However, if you’d like go off on a tangent to satisfy the few readers that do care about these elements, I’d recommend trying to make it interest readers that don’t care so much. For example, one recurring implausibility with the Hulk is that the character’s pants stay on even though his size fluctuates so much. Real pants would burst off if you got twice as big, right? The latest Hulk movie addressed that rather hilariously by showing the character buying elastic maternity pants in Guatemala. (“¿Tienes más stretchy?”) That’s intuitive, simple and clever. In contrast, if the movie had made up scientific mumbo-jumbo like Pym particles or whatever, it probably would have confused or annoyed many viewers.

Finally, I would recommend taking with a grain of salt any reviewer concern that you expect would be limited to a tiny, tiny fraction of the potential readership.  In particular, my rule of thumb is that if you need college-level coursework to know that something is implausible, it won’t probably won’t create a major problem for most readers (unless you’re writing something like hard sci-fi). You can still address the concern if you’d like to–maybe you feel that addressing a scientific implausibility will make the story feel more believable–but don’t feel like you have to. Fiction doesn’t have to be realistic.

Professional communication tip: When you have a philosophical difference with a review (for example, if the reviewer cares a lot more about scientific plausibility than you do), I think it really helps to be polite. Coldly dismissing someone’s writing style is not a great way to make friends or win new reviewers. One possible approach would be something like “Thanks for your advice. I know this story may not be 100% scientifically plausible, but I think that most of my readers will be okay with that.” For one example of dealing with different artistic styles, I think I responded pretty courteously to a Marvel artist that was concerned the coloring on a mutant alligator protagonist wasn’t realistic enough.

12 responses so far

Jun 24 2009

Key traits of interesting jobs

Many, perhaps most, real life jobs have a fairly narrow and specialized focus. For example, most people of a company’s employees work for a particular department and newspaper reports usually focus on stories related to their section of the paper. In general, I’d recommend giving your heroes jobs that are more flexible because it gives more opportunity to entangle the character in the plot and add new developments.

Here are some aspects that can make a job more flexible and plot-friendly.

1. Get the character out of his office. Offices are mostly bland, forgettable, comfortable and safe. As far as readers and interesting stories are concerned, they are Kryptonite. I’d recommend giving your character a lot of work outside the office because the real world is harder to predict and gives you more opportunities to work in new scenes, danger, seedy characters, etc.

2. Please avoid making the character the boss. Usually, the boss has the least interesting job in the building. Privates and flunkies usually have more at stake than a general or a business magnate does. In addition, low-level work is generally more interesting. I’d much rather read about a platoon patrolling hostile streets or a corporate flack trying to steal corporate secrets than about the men that decided to send the patrols or steal the secrets.

3. As much as possible, I’d recommend having the hero spend his time working in situations that are high stakes and/or heavy on conflict. E.g. if the character is the CEO, it’d probably be easier to create interesting situations if most of his problems can’t be resolved just by telling people what to do (like unreliable employees, dissension in the ranks, embezzlement, corporate sabotage, labor unrest, whatever). If the relationships within a company are usually tidy and well-controlled, it might help to have the characters interact with outsiders. For example, if a police officer has to convince a reluctant witness to testify, that’s a better opportunity to show how impressive he is. In contrast, if the cop could just order the witness to testify because it’s the law, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting or impressive. (Technically, a cop probably could order a witness to testify, but persuasion may be necessary (e.g. if the case is dangerous, the witness is wary of police, the witness has a good relationship with the defendant or a bad one with the victim, and/or would be creating major problems for himself by admitting that he was there).

4. I’d recommend making the hero accountable to a tough boss. Characters like JJ Jameson tend to add a lot more dramatic potential than friendly bosses like Perry White. They create more of an obstacle for the heroes and usually make the heroes seem more likable.

29 responses so far

Jun 24 2009

Please take our survey!

Hello.  If you haven’t taken our survey yet, I would really appreciate if you gave us 10 minutes of your time.  That will help us get published.  You can take it by clicking here or by reading under the fold.
Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Jun 24 2009

Comic Book Tip of the Day: Use Motion in Your Covers

Published by under Art,Book Covers,Comic Books

In visual media, motion usually makes a scene more interesting.  It’s particularly important in a cover because you have to catch the reader’s eye.

For example, let’s say we have two covers that use the world as a soccer ball. (The issue’s title is Americans Don’t Play Soccer, and the issue is about Darfurian genocide and other things very far removed from the typical American’s life.  For ideological balance, we might add a thinly veiled Obama vis-a-vis the Iranian democracy movement).

Cover #1:  On a soccer field, the villain is standing next to a globe.  In the background, the hero is the only thing between him and the net. The villain’s pose would probably look lifeless, like these.


Cover #2:  On a soccer field, the villain is doing an insane flip as he punts the world at the hero.  The cover would probably look a lot more energetic and stylish.  This is particularly important because the cover will probably show the villain from the back.  It’s quite hard to strike an immobile pose from behind.


It would probably also help if the hero/goalie had some action. Bracing himself for impact is a little bit banal, so I’d like something that’s striking and makes it clear that this comic isn’t really about soccer. So let’s say the hero is bracing himself behind a transparent SWAT shield.

No responses yet

Jun 22 2009

How to Interest Publishers In Your Characters: Avoid Irrelevant Details

When you’re making a pitch to publishers (or explaining your story to prospective readers), I’d strongly recommend focusing on crucial details like major personality traits, unusual decisions, major goals/motivations, and anything else which has a major effect on the plot. In contrast, these demographic details tend to be irrelevant and forgettable: 

  • Hair color
  • Eye color
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Age, unless perhaps it creates an important contrast with other characters or is critical to understanding the plot. For example, if I were doing a synopsis of Scott Pilgrim, I’d probably mention that the main character is a 23 year old trying to get over a crushing breakup by dating a high school student.
  • What the character wears, unless it does an exceptional job of developing the character and/or establishing interesting personality traits. Note: Being rich or poor is neither a personality trait nor inherently interesting.
  • Nationalities. Okay, this could be useful, particularly to point out an unexpected setting, but generally I wouldn’t recommend mentioning this unless it’s hard to understand the plot without knowing who’s Canadian and who’s Russian.  (Rule of thumb: If you’re listing nationalities mainly so that we know how diverse your cast is, it probably doesn’t matter).
  • Birthplace–unless, say, we need to know that a character is from another town, country or planet.
  • Educational background–unless it is relevant to the plot and/or suggests an important trait or skill.  (For non-students, the character’s job usually covers this better, however).
  • Blood type, horoscopes, or birthday (Japanese publishers may care; Western ones definitely do not).


However, some demographic information could be relevant because it affects the book’s audience appeal and how the book will be marketed.

  • Race–if the protagonist’s race is critical to understanding the plot and/or audience appeal.
  • Gender–usually relevant (on at least the grounds of audience appeal) but usually it’s unnecessary to explicitly tell us who’s a lady and who’s a guy. You can cover that with gendered pronouns (e.g. he vs. she).
  • Anything else that is particularly important to the plot.  Some examples may include jobs, species (for nonhuman characters), major illnesses, mental disorders, etc.
  • Anything that affects major character decisions or goals.  For example, if the character’s main goal is to get over some past trauma, it would probably be worthwhile to briefly discuss the trauma.


Obviously, these are just guidelines.  If the character’s height or weight or eye color are particularly important to the plot and/or provide a major obstacle, then mention them. However, in most cases, they are not.



Many beginning authors start out by doing lists of their characters’ demographic traits.  If that information is for your eyes only, I don’t think it’s an issue.  However, when you’re presenting your book to professionals, I would recommend a smoother approach that spends less time on extraneous details and more time on why your characters matter to the plot.   A particular detail might be relevant for some characters but not all characters.  For example, if one of your characters is an alien or elf, it’d probably be worthwhile to mention that (assuming it’s plot-relevant), but you probably don’t need to explicitly tell us which characters are humans because we can infer/assume that on our own.



Good luck!

12 responses so far

Jun 19 2009

Marvel Comics Meets Robot Chicken

Published by under Comedy

This is strikingly funny.

2 responses so far

Jun 19 2009

Don’t give up your secret identity!

Published by under Comedy

Bleach’s writing is not terribly inspired and it introduces its premise in a fairly awkward fashion.  However, this visual from episode 2 made me burst into laughter.  The hero is at school and meets someone that is obviously the girl he saw dice up a demon the night before.  (Because of secret identities, he can’t say anything to the people around him, though).  He starts to freak out and she turns to shake his hand.

24 responses so far

Jun 18 2009

What Makes a Character Likable?

Here are some of the things that can make a character likable.

  • A distinct personality, even if it’s sinister or abrasive. This is one of the reasons that Sylar (a serial killer) and Dr. House (a curmudgeonly asshat) are fan favorites.
  • Relationships. These are particularly important if the character is unrelatable.  If the character has a thought process that is really unusual to readers, we’ll probably get to know him through how he interacts with other people.  If an unusual character isn’t interacting with other people, readers probably won’t find him very interesting because they don’t know enough about him.
  • Competence. This is especially important for villains.  Readers usually love the villains that scare them, and competent villains are scary.   See Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader.
  • Relatability. For example, in young adult fiction, the hero is usually a few years older than the readers (young enough to be relatable but old enough to be impressive).  Having an everyday job (or having once had an everyday job) can also help here.
  • Style. Most stylish characters are competent, a bit clever and witty.
  • A sense of humor. Obviously, not every story is a comedy, but even a bit of humor can make a character more likable.   For example, Han Solo only got a few lines like “we’re all fine here now, thank you,” but they were enough to establish his personality.
  • Flaws. Often, the flaws make a character more likable than his assets do.  Flaws are more unique and they tend to stand out more.  There are thousands of brave heroes, but what people remember about Captain Kirk and James Bond is that they’re recklessly brave.
  • Limit the complaining! Brooding, moping, crying and angst usually make the character sound whiny.  It’s really hard to like a character that whines, no matter how seriously awful his life is.
  • Proactivity. This is what distinguishes Sylar (a character dealing with a seriously hard life) from someone that complains about how hard his life is.  Readers would much rather see a character try to solve his problems than talk/complain about them.  This is one of the (many) reasons that Han and Luke are more likable than C3P0.
  • Good intentions for the villains. This is a useful way to add depth to the antagonists.
  • Variety. This is particularly important for the hero.  Give him opportunities to try different solutions and improvise.
  • Stark characterization. Please don’t make your characters “kind of an ass” or “sort of brave” or whatever.  Go big!  It’ll be more distinctive and interesting than a hero that just sort of does whatever is most convenient for the plot.  Also, it will raise the stakes and make the conflicts sharper.
  • Growth. Stagnant heroes are usually a bit boring.  If the hero’s quest doesn’t change him in some way, what’s the point?
  • Vulnerable. This is particularly important for the hero.  Ideally, he’s a bit less powerful than the villain and might actually lose.   That will force him to be intelligent and will leave readers on the edge of their seats.
  • Lone superheroes often benefit from interesting alternate identities. The alternate identity helps establish what’s at stake and makes the character feel real by giving him something to do besides beating people up.  Alter-egos are more challenging for superhero teams because there’s less time available for each character.
  • Context/justification. Some traits that might otherwise raise a lot of eyebrows might be forgivable or even endearing in the right context (e.g. extreme paranoia and being hyper-violent might be an issue in a police story but probably not in a zombie apocalypse or a DC fundraiser).

There are many more, I’m sure.  What am I missing?

55 responses so far

Jun 17 2009

My Query Letter

Hello. This is an early draft of my query letter for Don’t Forget the Death Ray!, a book about how to write superhero stories.
Continue Reading »

No responses yet

Jun 16 2009

D’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below.  Thanks!

26 responses so far

Jun 15 2009

Please Do Not Make Generically Nice Characters

Generic niceness is a dangerous trait to give a character–particularly the protagonist. First, it’s probably not very interesting if the character is always agreeable and only does things that the audience is meant to sympathize with. That reduces the potential for conflict.  In practice, a character that’s 100% nice is usually boring and/or a Mary Sue.  Here are some traits that suggest that the character may have issues with generic niceness.

  • Polite
  • Compassionate
  • Agreeable
  • Kind
  • Personable
  • Friendly
  • Social
  • Helpful
  • Pleasant
  • Nice, of course.
  • A complete lack of flaws besides ones that nobody would hold against him (e.g. “he tries too hard,” unless that leads him to make decisions that most readers will disagree with)


If your protagonist has traits like these, I’d recommend taking them in a direction that they might create some problems for the characters.  For example, perhaps the character is so social that he tries to negotiate even when the audience knows that action is necessary.  A character that is too polite might be stiff or reluctant to speak her mind. A character that is too helpful might try to help even when it’s unwise for her to do so.  Alternately, perhaps the character’s traits lead him into conflict with non-antagonists*.  For example, being agreeable and trusting is generally desirable, but if you were a prison guard, your coworkers would be on your case all the time.


*I think non-antagonists would probably work better here because an antagonist conflicting with a hero for being too nice would probably be one-dimensionally unsympathetic.  A conflict with a relatively sympathetic character would probably develop the protagonist more and be more emotionally interesting.  For further details here, please see #5 in How to Fix Mary Sues.

10 responses so far

Jun 15 2009

Brian Taylor’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below.  Thanks!

3 responses so far

Jun 14 2009

The Arlington Rap

Published by under Comedy

If you’ve ever been to Arlington, VA, you know how accurate this is. Down to the bad rappers.

2 responses so far

Jun 13 2009

Sequential Chicago…

Published by under Website Design

Both Chicago and comic books are pretty awesome.  Hence Sequential Chicago, for all of your Chicago comic book needs.  Hmm.  Is this a half-baked idea or a well-targeted niche?  What do you think?

No responses yet

Jun 11 2009

Shard Reaper’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below.  Thanks!

37 responses so far

Jun 10 2009

Black Cat’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below.  Thanks!

57 responses so far

Jun 10 2009

Black Cat’s Second Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

I’m writing a fantasy novel, DemonSlayer Kai. Please see the comments below.  Thanks!

2 responses so far

Jun 05 2009

“Funeral home closed after dismembering corpse to fit casket”

Ok, that settles it.  I’m getting cremated.

11 responses so far

Jun 04 2009

12 Reasons Skynet Deserves to Lose

Published by under Comedy,Science Fiction

You deserve to lose if…

1. …you have access to every Russian and American ICBM and still cannot exterminate the human race.

2. …you make a human into a cyborg and then show him where to find his control chip. You deserve to have him tear out the control chip and kill you.

3.  …you make a cyborg with a control chip, and the control chip does not prevent him from ripping out the control chip.  What was the control chip doing?

Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

Jun 03 2009

A Writer’s Review of Gotham Central

Gotham Central was a police procedural series that ran for about 40 issues.  It focused on an ensemble of homicide detectives in Gotham City.

What Worked

Continue Reading »

2 responses so far

Jun 01 2009

How to Turn Jumbled Thoughts into a Coherent Story

Published by under Writing Articles

Figure out what your story’s central question is.  For example, Spiderman’s central question is “can a regular teen be a superhero without giving up the people and values that matter to him?” The central question of the Superhero Nation comic book is “what sort of changes would a regular accountant have to make to survive as a superhero?”

Once you know what the central question is, it’s easier to decide which ideas are relevant. Ideally, everything– the villain’s plot, the side-characters, the side-plots– somehow relate to the central question. For example, pretty much everything Spiderman does endangers his family and makes it really hard to enjoy a normal life. The plot frequently puts him in morally difficult situations to test his values. Does he kill the man that killed Uncle Ben? Does he save Mary Jane or a bus full of kids?

It’s easy to get discouraged because you have a lot of ideas that don’t seem relevant. However, please consider whether they could be relevant. For example, let’s say you have a cool idea for a romantic sideplot. Make it relevant to the central question. For example, the Spiderman movies made Mary Jane relevant by using her to create moral dilemmas. Is it possible for him to keep seeing Mary Jane and work as Spiderman? Should he tell her? How can he keep her safe?

I’d also recommend making sure that the villain’s plot is relevant to the central question. In the first Spiderman movie, the climactic battle between the Green Goblin and Spiderman shows that Spiderman can be a superhero without compromising his values. Spiderman manages to beat the Goblin without killing him. The Goblin dies only because of his flawed morals. (He tries to kill Spiderman and ends up offing himself instead).

8 responses so far

Jun 01 2009

JM’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please read the comments below.  Thanks.

18 responses so far

Jun 01 2009

Sandman’s Review Forum

Published by under Review Forums

Please see the comments below. Thanks.

55 responses so far