Apologies on the delay, to anyone who cared...
I showed up at New York Comic Con at about 11:15 am on Friday, having not even glanced at the panel schedule. I walked a quick loop of the convention, marveling at the collection of original Superman costumes on display at the far wing of the Javits Center, passing by Rob Liefeld’s table (which strategically blocked any view of his feet), and generally marveling at the scope and scale of it all. “Too much” would be the running theme of the weekend.
Finally looking at the brochure just before noon, my eyes immediately gravitated to “Writing Workshop with Joe Stracynski.” I looked at the time – it was starting in 20 minutes. I quickly hustled into the bowels of the Javits and found the line, right at the point where I was able to get one of the last seats.
Straczynski opened by saying that conventions are a great place to get information from experts, which is why, after an opening statement, he was going straight to the question and answer portion of it.
“No questions are out of bounds…. If this panel sucks, it’s your fault,” he cautioned.
His opening statement was reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s response to the question of “aren’t there too many writers out there already?” He said, “You occupy a piece of turf that no one else has, and that’s your prism, that no one else has,” pointing to a girl in the front row as an example – that the story that she writes is one that only she could ever write.
He also said that if you were having trouble writing, “you’re probably tying to hard; writing should not be homework…. The key is not to get in your own way. Where I screw up is when I start to think ‘how do I write literally (with literature in mind).’ There’s trying to write, and then there’s writing.”
This would be a recurring idea throughout the talk.
Now, the problem I always have, which was exacerbated by the fact that I was so suddenly placed in this spot, is that when I’m confronted with someone I idolize, I turtle. That is, I blank on what to say or do. Knowing this would be the case, I texted my friend John as I entered the room.
“If you could ask JMS one question, what would it be.” Having the benefit of 140 miles of distance and a quicker wit, he answered, and as soon as Mr. Straczynski asked for questions, mine was the first hand in the air.
“Is there anything harder than starting something new? For example, switching gears from an episode of a Ghostbusters cartoon to a Babylon 5 to a comic book, do you have any tips for switching gears?”
Instead of something deep and contemplative, he took no time to mull his answer.
“It’s not hard at all. I love starting something new.”
He then let it settle.
“Look, when Picasso wanted to start a new period, he always did three things: He returned to Spain, he got a new house, and he got a new woman, and that seemed to work out pretty well for him…. The harder thing is three years down the road, trying to stay fresh with the same characters.”
He then referred to the old idea of the toolbox, that every time you complete something, you add a tool to the box. When he started, all he had was an old screwdriver, and over the years added a hammer, etc. After working on all of those different projects, it prepared him for the next thing, made it easier to adjust to something different.
Then, to make it interesting, he turned it around and asked me, “What prompted you to ask that question.”
Shit. I couldn’t say, “Well, I couldn’t think of anything to ask, so I stole someone else’s question,” so I told him that I was juggling three different projects, all of which I felt were good ideas, and was having trouble jumping from one to the next.
He then asked me, “How many projects have you completed?”
He had me again. My heart rate picked up. I thought of my half-completed Master’s thesis, the rough draft of my comic, the tattered pieces of my pulp novel. That epic about Richard Nixon that never pieced itself together.
So I lied. I lied to Joe Straczynski.
I said “One.”
He sat there shaking his head, not mincing his words.
“Well there you go. Pick one and get it the fuck done.” His fingers fluttered around his face. “The other two things are like butterflies, flying in your face.”
It was an obvious piece of advice, but coming from Joe Straczynski, directed at me, it came with a certain amount of weight that left me wondering if I even could consider myself a writer, having never really completed anything, always letting one project get in the way of another and using it all as a crutch for never finishing anything.
“Pick one and get it the fuck done.”
This ties in with the overall theme of the talk, which I can boil down to one word: Confidence. The idea of taking your little piece of turf and having enough faith in it to turn it into a thing.
He was quick to caution people that this does not come easy. According to him, he writes “10-12 hours a day. Every day except my birthday, New Year’s Day and Christmas (later, when someone asked how he had time to read or do research within that time frame, he qualified it by saying “I consider research part of the writing process.”).” In addition, he referred on several occasions to being a nighttime writer, that he usually writes from around 8pm to 3 am, crashes, then wakes up around noon and starts the process all over.
In addition, once you get over the hump, it doesn’t get any easier. He quoted verbatim the line from Harlan Ellison in “Dreams With Sharp Teeth”: “Becoming a writer isn’t hard. Staying a writer is hard.” “Most writers in the union make $3,000 – 5,000 a year, selling one or two television scripts at a time, and then the industry kind of sees what you have, and often times, that’s it.“
In a similar vein, someone asked about writer’s block, to which he frankly responded “I’ve never had writer’s block…. People tend to get writer’s block when they’re trying to make their brains do something it doesn’t want to do.”
Despite this assertion, he gave tips on how to avoid it.
“I don’t write until I know what I’m going to say.” As an example, he mentioned how samurai were required to have hobbies, because in having time to think things over, they became better warriors.
He also suggested finishing in the middle of a sentence, to prime the engine for the next day.
In addition he offered this perspective about writing:
“I’m not telling the story. I’m watching the characters and writing down what they do… let the characters do the writing for you…. Get out of your own way. Let them do what they’re gonna do.”
This train of thought led to the inevitable question of having days where you don’t feel like writing. Straczynski was firm about this: It’s a job, like anything else. In other professions, you don’t have the luxury of waking up and not going to work.
“Many days I wake up and feel like not writing… you do it anyway. I don’t care if you don’t feel like writing; sit your ass in the chair.”
He also talked a lot about world-building, something that John and I have had long discussions about. His best piece of advice regarded a script he was writing for the Twilight Zone. He knew he had to write a scene where a husband and wife were having an argument, but was having difficulty making it sound realistic. He was going to argue over something big, having to do with the rent – possible eviction. So he called up Harlan Ellison, who yelled at him that it was stupid. Ellison suggested that the argument be over jelly – that the husband asks the wife to pass the jelly at breakfast and she passes him the jam, she always does that, always thinking them the same thing when the husband knows they aren’t.
It was what he referred to as a “specificity of ideas” – the notion that the smaller you go, the more universal it becomes.
“You don’t say, ‘the room smells,’ you say, ‘the room smells like cabbage.’”
In addition, he mentioned the idea of working backwards, to “take your character and ask how they got there. G’Kar – warrior. How’d he get there? Lots of wars. Lizard like – well, they’re probably from an arid planet with little water.”
Another question that prompted an almost verbatim Ellison answer was when someone mentioned blogging and “How much of your stuff should you give away for free?”
Again, the answer was instantaneous.
“None of it.”
“People tend to look a writing as being less serious than anything else (referring to other art forms), and it’s not. You wouldn’t hire a carpenter to build you a shelf and then not pay him, would you?” His answer was longer and more vitriolic (to the point where my pen couldn’t keep up), but that’s what it boiled down to. He even mentioned “being undercut by people like you,” with a wave to the crowd.
He finished definitively with “Don’t give it away for free.”
The man who asked the question attempted to save face by saying, “I don’t have a choice.”
Forcefully, JMS said, “But you do. And when you say that, you just did.”
This then led into the idea of personal blogging, and using it to build up an online presence for your writing. Straczynski was for it,
“Every hour you spent putting up a blog post, it’s an hour you spend not writing the next Great American Novel… it’s not achieving the goal. Do the real work, then squeeze in the free stuff.” He likened it to masturbating. Gratifying, perhaps, but pointless in the long run.
The most poignant moment of the day was when a sixteen year-old in Dr. Who get-up asked something along the lines of “is there a minimum age that you can get published.” Again, Straczynski wanted to know why the boy asked, how old he was, etc. , and then proceeded to give the boy the longest, most heartfelt answer of the day. He then said that he was envious of the boy, to know so young what he wanted to do, that he was in the best position of anyone in the room. When you’re that age, he said, you’re going to fuck up, and it’s the best time to do so, because there are no repercussions. As an adult, if you fuck up your writing, your livelihood is on the line. In high school, you’re allowed to, you’re going to make mistakes, and the boy should take full advantage of it.
Possibly the best quote, at least the one that resonated the most with me throughout the weekend, and ties in well with the idea of confidence, was when Straczynski said, “On a piece of white paper, you can be God.” This ties in with the idea of confidence in your work.
“The faith in yourself is what makes it easy.” He recounted his own upbringing, as a poor white kid in an all-black school in Patterson, New Jersey, whose father’s motives were to rack up as many bills as possible, then relocate when the collectors started coming around. As he said on second day (at a different panel), “If I, being the goofball that I am, can make it, than anyone in this room can do the same thing… It’s not that big of a gulf between this dais and where you’re sitting.”
Confidence that you can make it work. It’s not easy, and it most likely will never get any easier, but then again, being God isn’t supposed to be easy…