Thoughts For Aspiring Writers

By | Friday, January 06, 2012 2 comments
It's a bit strange to think of myself as a writer. I was just another blogger when I started Kleefeld on Comics, but now I've got ongoing columns for The Jack Kirby Collector, MTV Geek and Drawn Word (coming soon). I've contributed short pieces to a few different books now, and wrote an entire one myself, with another (slowly) in the works. So it kind of looks like I'm a writer of sorts now. Kind of makes me wish I took more classes on it in school.

When I was in, I believe, third grade, the teacher gave us a story assignment. I think it was a simple one-page story about whatever we wanted, but it was supposed to be fiction. I wrote about a battle between a barbarian and a wizard, and I liberally plagiarized the one Conan comic I had at the time. But, in that plagiarization, I lifted some dialogue. I recall the teacher being impressed and calling it out as a good example because I was the only one to use dialogue at all. No one else's story had anyone saying anything, and she pointed out how much more engaging and exciting my story was because of it. (I believe one line was something like, "Surrender, dog! Or I'll slit your throat from ear to ear!" Why that didn't seem to concern her, I don't know.)

English was, of course, a mandatory subject throughout grade school. I had pretty much all the same lessons as everyone else. I was more interested in art, though, so the "College for Kids" classes I would take up at the local community college on weekends were mostly centered around drawing. Those of us in the school's gifted & talented program did take a journalism course for one quarter in eighth grade, but it was as much about printing and production processes as it was about writing.

In high school, I somehow wound up working a bit on the school newspaper. I honestly don't know how that started because it wasn't something I actively pursued, and I never went to any meetings about it. I don't remember writing or turning anything in, but I can distinctly recall seeing my articles in the finished papers. My mom thought my report on the band's activities in one issue really stood out, and I got more than a few congratulations from other students for a particularly derisive op ed piece I wrote about the school administration. But I was more interested in the cartoons that I drew for the back of the paper.

Freshman English was mandatory in college, but I was in a graphic design program so nearly all of my projects were art related. I didn't even have many term papers to write. I did take a fiction writing class as an elective my senior year, but my pieces came across as horrendous compared to the other students in that class. My girlfriend at the time noted at one point that she thought I wrote very well. I don't know what work of mine she'd read, but she was minoring in English, so it didn't come across as completely idle praise.

But now, here I am writing every day. I'm still making my living doing design work, but there are people out there willing to pay for me to write, too! With little formal education or training beyond what most high school students get.

But, looking hindsight, one thing I can see that I've done is read. A lot of comics, to be sure, but a lot in general. And I often did more than just read; I took mental notes while I was reading. I wasn't thinking specifically in terms of formal writing conventions, obviously, but I could see, "Oh, the writer is dropping some heavy foreshadowing here; that's clumsy" or "Wow! That came out of left field! That doesn't make any sense!" Mostly a list of what not to do. But I still mentally absorbed things like narrative structure and character arcs and word choice.

For anyone out there who might want to be a writer -- of comics or non-fiction or whatever -- you will be told repeatedly to read a lot. Which you do need to do. But don't just; think about what you're reading. Is the author just following a standard Joseph Campbell narrative? Is the work driven by plot or characterization? What sort of tone do the specific words being used convey?

Reading is great.

Reading and thinking is even better!
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Matt K said...

"I'm still making my living doing design work"

Just out of curiosity - I had the impression your job no longer involved that much in the way of actual design?

James said...

Wonderful to actually make a living doing what you love. Rare... but wonderful.