Saturday, March 19, 2011

Everything I Learned About Writing My First Novel I Learned from J.M.S.

Okay.  Not entirely true, but after attending a panel from J.M. Straczynski at the 2008 San Diego Comic Convention (SDCC) there is a ring of truth to the title of this post.    For most of my life I have been interested in art and writing, comics and science fiction, horror and adventure.  Godzilla was my Mr. Rogers, the Legion of Superheroes my Sesame Street, The Micronauts my favorite babysitter; let’s just say I was an odd kid. 

I spent my time absorbed in distant fantasy realms ruled by diabolical despots and obsessed over quests to rescue abducted princesses and recover lost treasures of immense power.  In the real world,
this translated to getting whatever girl I was crushing on to acknowledge my existence, somehow avoiding my grade school tormentors and convincing my mother to buy me a set of nunchucks.  For the record, none of my efforts paid off—that is another story—but this meant that I spent my time drawing my favorite superheroes and eventually flirted with the notion of writing a book; I never made it past chapter four. 

The book was a semi-autobiographical spoof on myself that immediately became bogged down in revision after revision.  I toiled over the proper phrasing of sentences and spent so much time rewriting the same chapters that I never moved forward and never completed the damn thing.  I gave up.   Whatever genetic material goes into the making of a writer, I was missing the stuff.  I shelved the project and returned to reading about fantasy worlds instead of constructing them.  Then came July 2008 and the SDCC.

I had attended the SDCC the previous year and had the system down, with J.M. Straczynski’s panel on Professional Writing: Threat or Menace my top priority.  I was a huge fan of his Supreme Power series and believed I was attending a lecture about his other works and experiences, but the panel turned out to be advice for writers.  That hour changed my life.

I was expecting to learn if Hyperion could beat up Superman or not, but instead I received a message of “Writers write” and “Write what you love and write for yourself.”  Fair enough, I thought, trying to spackle up this fresh crack in the foundation of my resistance and to return to the doubt that has plagued my creative endeavors.  J.M.S. had my attention.  He spoke about writing a first novel.  A book?  But those are hundreds of pages long, no one can do that.  I know. I tried.  No sooner had the thought crossed my mind, when Straczynski razed everything I believed. “Write two pages a day, every day, for one year and you will have written a novel and a half worth of material.”  There it was.  Spelled out and quantifiable.  400 to 500 pages always seemed an insurmountable task, but two pages a day…that was doable.   

A week later, with J.M.S.’s words still resonating, I went to lunch with a pad of paper, a pen, ordered a couple of beers and began developing characters, a problematic situation and a world to house it all.  The week after my beer-fueled brainstorming session I began my two-pages a day, until nine months later (yes, I see the parallels here) I had completed the first draft of my first novel.
I do not want to give the impression that my first book is any good; in fact, it could be terrible. The point is that writing a first novel, although intimidating at first glance, does not need to be a Herculean task.  For me, all I needed was a change in perspective and the unreachable became the attainable. 

Sure my first draft was a mess; I assume most are.  That’s okay.  That’s why second, third and possibly further drafts exist.  The main accomplishment, the completion of a novel—hundreds of pages of a novel—was achieved.  And you know what?  It wasn’t that difficult.  It was only a matter of setting my mind to the task and sticking to the goal; the practice soon became a pleasant habit.

There were days that writing two pages felt like I was extracting my own teeth, but then there were days I could have written ten pages and did.  Nine short months and something I thought impossible and best left to the Kings and Rowlings I had accomplished.   Come to think of it, I had progressed further than most self-described writers.  You know who I’m talking about, those who prattle on and on about the art of writing and how they have some ideas brewing, yet they have never produced a single work whether it be a novel, novella, screenplay, comic book or what have you. 

I wrote a novel. Hell, if I could do it once, I could do it again and again.  Maybe the next novel will practically write itself now that the weight and fear of the task has already been conquered.  Anyone with the drive and the desire could do this.

So, thank you, J.M.S.  Thank you for the wonderful lecture and for sparking something that I had buried and refused to acknowledge for the past twenty years. I would have never done it without you.  I love writing and feel like something is missing on those days that I do not hammer out my two or more pages. Writers write, but sometimes a little perspective is needed to get the process started.

1 comment:

  1. Cool post on how JMS inspired you to write that novel!

    Straczynski inspired me as well a few years back, with his message in the introduction to "The Complete Book Of Scriptwriting." He was writing in the context of breaking into Hollywood, but I think his words apply to anyone who wants to become a writer:

    "But everyone knows that people like us don't make it in Hollywood. Your parents, your friends, your teachers, meaning only the best for you, hoping to save you from disappointment and pain, will offer that piece of advice, repeating it over and over until you either accept it or go mad. ... The people around you will take one look ... and shake their heads. What a dreamer. No offense, but folks like you just aren't the type to make it in Hollywood, to see your name on the screen or the television tube in front of millions of viewers. Please. Get real. It doesn't happen that way. Everybody knows that.

    "Except...except for one little truth, which is at the core of this book, the one singular and important truth you must keep close to your most secret heart, the truth I learned, the truth I hope to pass on to you.

    "Here it is. Ready?

    "Everybody is wrong.

    "Keep writing. Keep fighting. Keep dreaming.

    "Because sometimes, every once in a while, the dream really does come true.

    "Even for folks like us."

    A few years back, when I was wondering if I was crazy for even thinking I could be a writer, that message was exactly what I needed to hear.