Thursday, August 29, 2013

DAUNTLESS DAN JOLLY

Dan Jolley, writer of FIRESTORM, VOLTRON, BLOODHOUND and many other great comics, stopped by the Recondite Pictures lot to give us a peek into the mind of the quintessential writer!

Here's what he had to say:

Why do you write?

A couple of reasons. The short one is that I'm not really good at (and God knows, not qualified to do) anything else. The longer, more pretentious reason is that I have no choice. A writer is both who and what I am. For better or worse, my sense of identity is knotted up into what I do for a living. When I'm not writing stuff I get paid for, my hobby is writing other stuff that I might get paid for. Even when I'm on vacation, and my wife will attest to this, I can go about three days without writing anything. Any longer than that and I start to get antsy, and have to scribble something down. If I were told, for whatever reason, that I would never be allowed to write again...well, I've never once considered suicide, but that would push me closer to it than anything else could.

How long did it take you to get good?

I got my first contract when I was nineteen, and saw my first published work actually hit the stands at twenty-one, but I don't think I wrote a single word worth reading before age twenty-five. I didn't understand storytelling well enough to be able to keep up an ongoing series for any length of time till I was about thirty, and the supreme importance of memorable, engaging characters didn't truly sink in till I turned forty. I've been getting steadily better all these years, or at least I'd like to think I have been, but I couldn't put a pin in the timeline at a certain point and say, "Yeah, okay, that was where I finally got it." I will say, though, that I hope by the time I turn eighty I'll be a really freaking awesome writer.

How do you come up with story ideas when you are put on the spot without any criteria of what the story should be?

Honestly, I can't think of a circumstance when that's ever happened. I mean, I can come up with stories that I want to tell -- sometimes, when I'm really lucky, a complete story will just fall out of the air into my head, start to finish. More often I get the bones of an idea, and chew and gnaw on them for days or weeks or months until I get it figured out, and then I'll write it all down. And I can certainly come up with stories for other people. But when someone comes to me and asks me to write something, they always have some kind of criteria in mind. It might be, "Come up with a story for this character," or "Pitch me an eight-page horror story," or "We're looking for stories that appeal to tween boys." But I've never had anyone approach me about a writing job and just say, "I need a story! Right now! Give me one, you've got ten seconds!" Maybe other writers have difference experiences, but in my career, that's simply not how it works.

How do you create cool characters people want to follow?

I try to go for some kind of wish-fulfillment. Make the character someone the reader can identify with, or someone the reader would like to be, and then allow the character to do and say things the reader wishes he or she could do and say in real life. It's fun to watch people do that. It's also a lot of fun to watch characters who are the absolute best at something. And it can be practically anything; the best bare-knuckle fighter. The best cake decorator. The best serial killer. If a character is a true genius at something, audiences gravitate toward them. A perfect example of a character who's both a genius and embodies a lot of smart-mouth wish-fulfillment is Gregory House from House, M.D. It didn't matter one bit what the medical emergency was each week on that show. Viewers tuned in to a) be dazzled by his medical problem-solving and b) hear whatever outrageous thing he said next.

What elements of comics scripting are too often ignored?

I'm not sure about ignored, but one thing I definitely see misused way too often is the caption. That was one of the first conversations I had, with my very first editor (Dan Thorsland, who hired me to do some Aliens stuff for Dark Horse) -- about what he called "Explainy Dialogue." Basically, the caption should never give the reader any information that has already been conveyed by the art or the dialogue. The first time I talked with him, on the phone, Dan told me about a page he had on his desk, and said Panel 1 featured a guy exiting a bus with an oblong box under his arm. Apparently the caption read, "The stranger carries a box under his arm." Dan read that to me, and I started laughing, and he said, "Good--that was the correct response."

How can people get better?

The four most important things as far as I'm concerned are:

1) Read constantly and listen constantly. You should read the kinds of stories you want to write, definitely, but branch out from there as well -- you never know where you're going to find inspiration. Read books, read comics, read magazines, read fiction and non-fiction both, read everything. Also, get into the habit of paying close attention to the way people talk. Nothing takes me out of a story faster than hearing or reading stilted, unnatural dialogue, and the way to avoid that is to become a student of speech. Make notes if you have to, but start analyzing speech patterns. Record colorful expressions. Listen, always listen, but especially listen when you hear someone talking in a way you haven't heard before. You might end up creating your most memorable character by giving him the speech patterns of your eighth-grade gym teacher, or your ten-year-old niece, or your father. When my father gets agitated, he's likely to come out with the exclamation, "I'll swear to my time!" I'm pretty sure that doesn't actually mean anything, but it's certainly distinctive.

2) Write constantly. That's an old saw, but it's true: the only way your writing is going to improve is if you keep doing it. Don't just think about it, or talk about it, do it. If you think about writing, or talk about writing, but don't write, you're not a writer.

3) Cultivate your own creativity. You can do this by establishing a ritual: sit in a certain chair, or wear a certain hat, or play a certain song, whatever, it can be anything -- but do that same thing every time you sit down to write. Eventually your brain is going to associate that ritual with writing, very much in a Pavlovian-response kind of way. That's important, because if you're making your living as a writer, there will be many, many times when you need to write and GOD, you don't feel like writing. The creativity ritual solves that, because even if you don't feel like it, by the time you've settled into your writing chair, or put on your writing hat, or played One Night in Bangkok, your brain kicks in the association and you will feel like writing.

4) Once you've started a writing project, whatever it is, DO NOT READ IT until you've FINISHED it. So many aspiring writers I talk to balk at this, because they want to get that first chapter, or first page, or even first paragraph exactly right. So they write that first thing, stop, and go back and tweak it -- but then they're not satisfied with that tweaking, and they go back and modify it again, but that's still not quite right...and they get stuck in a horrible, non-productive cycle and never get any further than page one. The thing is, the creating part of your brain is different from the editing part of your brain, and you shouldn't mix them up. Start writing, and don't stop until you're finished. What you'll have will probably be a really terrible first draft, but that's okay. First drafts are supposed to be terrible. And now that the terrible first draft is done, you can go back and fix it -- and you have something to fix. As opposed to that poor guy who's still trying to perfect his first paragraph.

How do you write a good scene transition?

There are a lot of ways, but one of the best is to have a character ask a question, and answer it with the next scene. "How are we supposed to get to Nevada with no car?" Cut to: the characters riding a freight train. Or a tried-and-true one is to have a character vehemently protesting something, and cut to the same character doing whatever was being protested. "There is NO WAY I'm playing Santa Claus. Forget it." Cut to: the character in a Santa suit with a scowl on his face and a kid on his lap. Or, if you're switching from one storyline to another, leave the first one at a cliffhanger. Have a guy walk into a motel room and freeze when he sees someone in the shadows holding a gun -- and cut to the guy's wife across town, doing something unrelated.

However you do it, if you're writing a comic book, you want to aim at putting scene transitions (and surprises within a scene) at a page turn. Anything big, if at all possible, should take place at the beginning of an even-numbered page.


Is plot really important?

Yes, plot is important. It's not as important as the characters -- especially in an ongoing format, such as a comic book series or a TV show -- but the plot is the glue that holds all those awesome characters together. People come back to Star Trek or Breaking Bad because they've fallen in love with the characters; if you ask someone what they love most about Castle, you'll hear a lot about Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. No one's going to say, "Oh, I loved the structure of that mystery in episode blah blah blah." But if the plot is weak, it doesn't showcase the characters properly (at best) or makes them look bad (at worst).

What does every comic issue story need to deliver to be satisfying?

It's kind of a nebulous answer, but basically, when you're done reading it, you need to feel as though something happened. The same is true for TV episodes -- everyone has seen an episode of a series they follow and, when it was over, said, "Well, nothing happened in that episode." You need to make sure you never write what could be considered "filler." And it's not that difficult; in each issue, something needs to happen that advances the story, or lets you learn something new about one or more characters, or both. Ideally, both.

One thing that, to me, is particularly unsatisfying is when a comic book gets too self-referential -- too tied up in itself. Oh my God, Super Zapper Man woke up today and realized his power has changed, and now he's Super Buzzer Man! If that's the whole story, that's about as interesting to me as watching someone decide to change their hair color. I don't remember who said it, but someone described that as "writing a comic book about a comic book." If you're going to write a story, you need a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, and some kind of resolution. Spending a bunch of time watching Super Zapper Man freak out because suddenly he's shooting lightning bolts out of his fingers instead of jets of acid is just the writer being lazy.

Why do you read comics?

The same reason I read novels and short stories. The same reason I watch TV and go to the movies. I like to be entertained by stories that someone else has made up. Comics is a storytelling medium, with exactly the same amount of credibility and potential as any of the other media I just mentioned. Well, okay, comics have a lot more potential than TV and movies, because the stories you can tell in comics have zero to do with production budget. But still, it's all about being entertained, escaping the world I live in and visiting someone else's. Comics does that beautifully.

Why do you write comics?

The practical answer is that comics is the medium I've worked in the longest and the one in which I feel I have the greatest degree of skill. The better answer is that I write comics for the same reason that I write novels and children's books and video games and screenplays. I've never thought of myself as "a comics writer." I'm a writer, and one of the things I write is comics. That being said, I fell in love with comics at age six, when my eleven-years-older brother came home to visit from college and gave me a Xerox paper box stuffed full of comics he'd bought. That was very shortly after I had learned to read, and those comics served as both a learning tool and an imagination enricher. I soaked every one of them like a freaking ShamWow, and I've loved comics ever since.

What is your favorite thing about writing?

I've heard other writers say, "The act of writing is not enjoyable. Finishing writing is enjoyable." That doesn't apply to me. I enjoy the whole process, beginning to end, even when I get stuck and have to go do something else for a while to give my subconscious time to work out the kinks. But part of my whole process is picking out the story's ending, and then working toward it. It's like reaching a destination -- one that you've been able to see for a while, and you've spent a lot of time and effort to get there. When I'm closing in on the end, it's just this great, exhilarating feeling, and I literally start typing faster, hammering on the keys because I'm so excited to get there. And if it works the way it's supposed to, if the story fits right in to the ending I'd envisioned, it's like finishing a delicious, satisfying meal.

People who make stories up as they go along baffle me. I mean, more power to them -- they've figured out what works for them. But that whole concept is alien to me. I never write a story without outlining it first, beginning to end.

How do you come up with interesting stories?

It depends. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes a story just shows up in my head, all wrapped up in a bow. Other times I hear something on the news, or read an article in a magazine or on a website, and that gives me the bones of an idea. Sometimes I read another story, and some little aspect of it sticks with me -- something that the story itself didn't go into at all -- and I think, "Wonder what would happen if I took that one thing that that one minor character did, and extrapolated on that, and expanded it?"

One of the things that helps me out a lot, especially when I've got the bones of a story and need to put flesh on them, is to drive around aimlessly and listen to loud, aggressive music. Stuff like Disturbed, or White Zombie. Recently I discovered Tech N9ne, and a lot of his songs work. About half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes of that, and usually the pieces click into place for whatever I'm working on. I think it's a function of the music making my brainwaves align themselves in a slightly different way.

Do you ever doubt the quality of one of your stories even though you think it is really good? What do you do about that?

That's where a good editor comes in. This is something that I believe in wholeheartedly -- I mean, it should be a law: EVERY WRITER NEEDS AN EDITOR. An editor will make your work better. It doesn't matter how good you are, how many awards you've won, how big a house you live in from all your fat royalty checks, a good editor will make your work better.

There have been many times when I've finished a script that I feel really good about, and I send it in with a note that says something along the lines of, "I'm pretty happy with this, but I'm too close to it to know if it's actually good or not. Looking forward to your feedback." And if your editor is in sync with you, and understands the subject matter you're writing about, he or she will give you honest feedback -- stuff ranging from, "I think this point could be made more clearly," to "Wait...if the Buick is in the parking garage in this scene, how does Jim get to the club?" That last kind of note can be quite humbling, when you realize you've got a massive plot hole that you hadn't even noticed.

It's just a universal truth: things that make perfect sense to you won't always make perfect sense to someone else, and that's why you need a second pair of eyes on what you write.

Any tips on steadily finding writing work? Some freelancers are challenged by this.

For me the key has been diversification. I started out in comics, made a few connections, and began writing licensed-property novels. Down the road that led to original novels, which looped back around to movie novelizations. An encounter at a comic book convention with a video game developer led to working in the content department of an MMO for a couple of years, which led to a stint as lead writer on seven or eight other games. A friendship with a comics artist led to an introduction to an editor at Lerner Books, and a cold call to another editor led to the multiple manga volumes I did for TokyoPop. Basically, network as much as possible, and work for not only as many companies as possible, but as many kinds of companies as possible. That way, if one or two of those outfits dry up, you've got others to fall back on.

Plus, don't be too stubborn or prideful to work a day job. Will your productivity go down if you're doing something else for eight or nine hours a day? Yeah, probably. Will your productivity hit absolute rock bottom if you can't afford to buy food or pay rent? Yes. Yes it will.

What advice do you have for up and coming comics writers?

I actually spent a lot of time talking about the nuts and bolts of writing comics on my blog, which you can find on my website, DanJolley.com. I'm one of the world's worst at keeping up with a blog--I haven't updated it in months--but there's a whole series of posts on there called "How to Write the Way I Write." It pretty much covers the sum total of my advice on writing comics.

What comics should people look for in the back issue bins to introduce themselves to your work?

Obergeist and The Liberty Files have both been collected now, and I'm really proud of them -- Obergeist was named Horror Comic of the Year by Wizard Magazine, and the second half of The Liberty Files was nominated for an Eisner for Best Mini-Series. But for the most solid introduction, I'd say it's my original creator-owned series Bloodhound. It was originally published by DC, but I got the rights back, and you can get the original issues in a snazzy new collection from Dark Horse called Bloodhound Vol. 1: Brass Knuckle Psychology. Or, if you're more of a licensed-property mindset, you could check out the Voltron series I did for Devil's Due. I had a lot of fun with that.

What do you have coming out?

Dark Horse has gotten behind Bloodhound in a big way -- the first new Bloodhound story since 2005 came out as a three-parter in Dark Horse Presents #23 - #25, and in October, a new, full-length mini-series debuts, entitled Bloodhound: Crowbar Medicine.

What's coming up in the future?

There will be an announcement at New York Comic-Con, also in October, about my next project. It's part of a very well-known franchise. I'm also co-writing an original YA graphic novel with Shawn deLoache -- Shawn and I created it with artist Marlin Shoop, who'll be handling all the art duties -- plus I have a couple of prose projects in the works. I can't divulge any further information about any of that stuff yet, though, much as I'd like to do so.


Scott Amundson writes comics for Bluewater Productions, Heroes Fallen Studios and Recondite Pictures.

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