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
William Shunn’s guide to manuscript formatting is the best reference I’ve seen on this subject. If I could add some minor formatting points that should be obvious:
- Please do not ever use more than one exclamation mark at time. It looks awful!!!
- Even if you’re writing a heated conversation, please don’t end a string of sentences with exclamation marks! It will look really strange! I wouldn’t recommend it! In a heated conversation, readers can infer that the characters are shouting at each other even if the sentence ends with a period.
- If you’re inclined to capitalize words for emphasis, 1) don’t and 2) if you do, please do so super-sparingly. (No, really, just a FEW times in the manuscript, PLEASE. It’s SO HARD to read when AUTHORS just seemingly use all-caps AT RANDOM).
Teresa Nielsen Hayden, an editor for Tor Books, wrote this list of the most common evaluations of novel manuscripts. Where do you rank? (The best I’ve ever gotten is #12, sadly).
- Author is functionally illiterate.
- Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
- Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.
- Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.
- Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.
- Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.
- Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)
- It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.
- Nobody but the author will care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.
- The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)
- Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.
- Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
- It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
- Buy this book.
Here are some excerpts from my comments and reviews over March 2011.
- “The only reason a guy would go to see Titanic is if he loves his girlfriend more than his dignity. That’s why ladies make their boyfriends watch Titanic–to test their commitment.”
- “Moral of the story: Beanie Babies will make you a felon.”
- “[There are ways for characters to distinguish themselves besides having different superpowers]. Like how they use their superpowers or the quests they have to complete to attain their superpowers. For example, both Heroes’ Sylar and the Invisible Woman have telekinetic/force-projection powers, but the Invisible Woman uses hers to keep the team alive, whereas Sylar is a serial killer that psychically decapitates his victims to access their brains. (He doesn’t eat the brains, though. ‘That would be gross,’ he explains).”
- “For example, if we’re supposed to really feel how tough these drills are for her, maybe you could talk more about something like the heat or humidity or the air or sun or ground or whatever? (For example, the heat and humidity at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base are almost bad enough to make a Marine cry, and the Marines training at Parris Island have lost enough boots in the muck there to stock a shoe store).”
- “I’m slightly amused that 3 people have shared my oral surgery post with their friends on Facebook. Slow week at work? “
- “’Technically, Okie was a derogatory term, but it was crafted by those that hate Okies’ awesomeness.’ Like Steinbeck. He hated on Oklahoma so much he wrote a book about it.”
- “ ‘[He's] a bit of a hick, but smarter than he acts… which generally results in him getting beaten to within an inch of his life. He doesn’t really have a secret identity, although he does have a codename/nickname. He’s… not super-buff like Superman or the Hulk, and he’s a little on the short side.’ That sounds so much like me it’s sort of scary. “
- “Number 4′s villain was neither interesting nor scary. He doesn’t even get a name! Come on. Even Godzilla got a name. You know who else didn’t get a name? The enemy commander in Battlefield Earth. Name your villain or surrender to suck.”
- “Your sci-fi setting builds an interesting contrast between the calmness of the trees and the whip flowers strangling each other. I think that helps develop the characters because they react in such a different way than how I would (namely, freaking out–’omgwtfarethoseflowersdoing’).”
If you sent me something to review or a question before March 20 and are still waiting on a response, please resend it. Right now, I have Scott C., Harry, Aaron J., Stacy B., Matt, Emily and Greg M. on my assignment list. (Generally speaking, I usually respond to questions within one week and do chapter reviews within 2, so if you haven’t heard back by then, please send me a reminder). As always, I can be reached through my contact form or by emailing superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.
1. First drafts always suck. Nobody writes publishable material on the first go. It takes rewrites to make the story coherent and stylish.
2. Your first draft has permission to suck (hat-tip: Linda Gerber). When your first draft sucks, as every first draft does, you have not failed as an author. You have succeeded in creating a scaffolding for a better story–maybe even a publishable story. Excellence emerges only during rewrites, and you need to give yourself something to rewrite.
3. When writing first drafts, I would recommend focusing on getting it done rather than trying to get it done excellently. I find Tiffany Reisz’s take on this to be very helpful. “I don’t view my first completed draft as my book any more than I view a bunch of ingredients as a meal. The first draft is just the groceries still sitting on the counter. But at least I’ve got the stuff to make the meal now. Once I have a first draft, THEN I start cooking. Cooking is the hard part. People are impressed I can write a 100K book in six weeks. But I can’t. I can write a draft in 6 weeks, but that draft, those ingredients, takes another three or four months to become the book. I don’t stress about the first draft, just throwing it down, anymore than I stress about buying groceries. I might stress over the cooking, but not buying the ingredients.”
4. Doing extensive preparation/outlining may help, but will not prevent the first draft from sucking. Also, please don’t get so embroiled in your planning that you never feel ready to actually start writing the story.
5. I would recommend holding off on most research until you’ve finished the first draft (unless the research is absolutely integral to the story–e.g. historical fiction or nonfiction). You’ll have a better idea of what you need then, so your research will be better targeted and more efficient then. For more details on research and increasing your productivity as a writer, please see this.
A reckless kid with a drug that gives superpowers sets out to become a fake superhero. Little does he know that the real superheroes are hiding even more lies than he is.
Rosegirl is working on a live-action superhero TV show.
This article on the response to the Japanese earthquake will put a damper on my plan to have more readers than my tech guy by the end of the year. (He was already ahead by at least a bajillion). He’s also reportedly the best contributor on Hacker News, which he assures me is less interesting than it sounds.
The Wily Writers site is looking for superhero stories between 1000-5000 words. Deadline: April 30, 2011. Thanks, Aponi!
Please see the comments below. Thanks!
From The Amulet of Samarkand:
“The temperature of the room dropped fast. Ice formed on the curtains and crusted thickly around the lights in the ceiling. The glowing filaments in each bulb shrank and dimmed, while the candles that sprang from every available surface like a colony of toadstools had their wicks snuffed out. The darkened room filled with a yellow, choking cloud of brimstone, in which indistinct black shadows writhed and roiled. From far away came the sound of many voices screaming. Pressure was suddenly applied to the door that led to the landing. It bulged inward, the timbers groaning. Footsteps from invisible feet came pattering across the floorboards and invisible mouths whispered wicked things from behind the bed and under the desk…
Hey, it was his first time. I wanted to scare him.”
A few observations:
- The book has two rotating points-of-view, the ancient djinn here and an eleven year old magician. It was refreshing and brave to start with the character that wasn’t the audience stand-in.
- I like that the author implies (rather than exposits) what’s going on here. He never explicitly says that this is a magic ritual, but it’s pretty obvious even before you get to the invisible mouths whispering nefarious things.
- The atmospherics and sensory details did a really good job foreshadowing the plot and setting the mood. The description of the magic is a lot more sinister and evocative than, say, the Harry Potter series. (Quickly distinguish your story from competing works, particularly if your main character is a tween British magician).
1. Think outside the box. When you’re writing, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the most conventional (and forgettable). It probably came to mind first because you’ve seen it (or something like it) so many times before. If for some reason you need to try something that’s very conventional, at least have characters respond in a different way or build to a different outcome or try a different angle. For example, killing off the parents in a superhero story gets used more often than a taser at a hippie convention, but it was still extremely effective as dark comedy in Kick-Ass. (Instead of leading to a “MOTHER, I WILL AVENGE YOU!”, it was a deliberately random aneurysm). Likewise, instead of another scene where a protagonist saves a love interest, the fugitive protagonist of Point of Impact breaks into an FBI-guarded morgue to reclaim his dead dog. It’s a memorable scene because the character is putting himself on the line for something that wouldn’t matter to pretty much anybody else.
2. Let your characters act unusually compared to other characters in their genre(s). If the characters only make decisions and do things that 90%+ of other characters would do in the same situation, they’re probably going through the paces of a pretty banal plot rather than anything we will want to remember. This is most immediately noticeable for protagonists, but distinctive villains can also excel. For example, who else but Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter could get away with psychically strangling one of his boss’ subordinates in front of him or taking down two cops with his teeth?
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