Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Writer Will Take Your Questions Now (#26) -- Writing Anthology Shorts

What advice do you have about writing anthology pieces (short comic book stories)
to help writers break into the business? -- republished from Inside the Lines magazine

Bigger Ain't Always Better
(Eight Guidelines for Getting Down to Business in Anthology Shorts)
As I write this, I'm listening to Jimi Hendrix scream, "Let me stand next to your fire," and it's really driving home the one point we writers need to wrap our minds around -- you'd better light a fire on page one or scrap what you've written and start over with a better piece of kindling.

Particularly when writing a "break-in" story for an anthology.

The anthology short story remains one of the best ways for a new writer to break into the comics business. Not really much of a shock, is it? Sure, there may be fewer of them than just 10 years ago, but the market is still paved with small press anthologies that can be a new creator's best hope of entering the world of comic book publishing, whether in internationally distributed books such as Shooting Star Comics Anthology and Digitial Webbing Presents or in any number of one-hit, oversized books and locally distributed comics.

But how do you actually condense a story so that it will work in only six to eight pages instead of the 22 or 32 pages you're used to hammering out to make your series pitches to DC, Marvel, or CrossGen? Well, here's the sad news. You don't. You can't.

As editor of Shooting Star Comics, I see lots of anthology submissions. Sadly, many of them suffer from the same malady -- writers who don't grasp the concept of telling a full story in just a few pages. New writers often try to condense a larger story into a smaller page count. And as an editor who has to wade through those submissions, let me tell you, it just ain't happening, my friends. 

The art and craft of writing a short story differs radically from that of writing a 22-page comic book script. It's closely akin to the difference between writing a short story for a literary journal and writing a novel for Doubleday. Perhaps it's a bit unfair to the novelist to put this way -- but I believe it's apt and accurate -- in a novel or longer piece you have more room to lose your focus a little, and the reader may be willing to forgive you, but in a short piece, it's one strike and you're out.

So, how do you avoid that strike? Try following these guidelines for developing stories more effectively suited to the short format: 

1. Think small. If you don't have room for an epic dinosaur tale featuring a cast of seven, then forget the epic and pare down the cast. Focus in on one single incident and one or two primary players trying to avoid becoming breakfast for a hungry family of raptors.

2. Start after the beginning. Perhaps the best writing advice I ever received came from Chuck Dixon, and I'll steal it for this column since it applies so perfectly. Begin at a highpoint of action, danger, or violence. In a short, your character doesn't have the luxury of getting out of the car and walking up to the front door. It's much more efficient and effective to have him start out standing at the open door, staring up at the killer who is threatening to massacre his date inside the foyer.

3. End before the denouement. Repeat after me: "I will ignore the stupid, little voice inside my head that makes me want to write a page or panel to explain the ending. This is not an Agatha Christie mystery, and my readers are smart people, so I don't have to spoon feed them." A good writer knows that readers expect for something to have happened both before and after your story. But that doesn't mean you actually have to write that part, especially when you don't have room for it.

4. Don't wander backward after your opening action. Do your job right on page one, and you shouldn't have to take a breather for a page of back story or use the common "Here's how I got into this situation" approach. This can be a useful tool in a longer story, but you don't usually have the time to spare in a short. 

5. Don't overwrite. This applies both to your dialogue and internal monologue or narration. Sometimes in a long piece you can get away with unwieldy sections of expositional dialogue or flowing narration, but a short story should be like a restroom in a public venue -- everyone wants to get in and out quickly and easily. They don't want to be bogged down by long lines or lots of people talking to them. 

6. Let the artist do his job. Nothing bugs me (both as a reader and an editor) more than to see a panel in which someone enters a dimly lit room and then read a narrative caption that says something like, "I crept into the dark room." Well, duh. We can see that, right? It's bad writing anyway to describe the action your artist has already conveyed, but it's downright unforgivable in a short piece. Words are a limited resource in a short, and you should use them for the important business of moving the plot forward and developing your characters, not describing the action in the panels. 

7. Break the rules for all the right reasons. For every rule, there is an equal and opposite reason to break it. But only after you understand the reason for the rule in the first place. (Much like ignoring the rule about not using sentence fragments, like the one I just wrote.) I'll admit that I've written stories that backtrack or don't start at the latest point possible, but I can only get away with that when I know why I'm choosing to ignore tried and true writing procedure. Sometimes it's for effect or for parody, but it's always for a reason, never out of ignorance or lack of diligent editing.  

8. And finally, copyedit your story. And don't just rely on your spell checker. Learn to recognize common errors like confusing "too" for "to" or "of" and "or." Your editor will not only thank you for it, but he or she will be a lot more likely to run your story. In a long script, a typo or two may not seem as big a deal, but in a short one, it can be the kiss of death that labels you an amateur in all the wrong ways.

Well, that's it for now. Happy writing! (Wait, was that a denouement?)