The Staple: From an itchy brain to a sore back

January 17, 2013 | 826 Blog Post

Our good friend and hero Jim Ottaviani not only has a Wikipedia page, but he’s also tutored for us regularly for the last several years. He is a font of knowledge and incredibly humble, and it is for these two qualities that we like him best. (Well, and like, ten other qualities too, to be honest.)

After months of pestering, he has, at long last, agreed to write for the Staple! Enjoy.

— Editors Amy —

Title: From an itchy brain to a sore back

Subtitle: How a few ideas can end up becoming a book that drags you through fifteen airports in fifteen days. (Also, six train stations, twenty-three subway stations, four buses, and nine cabs)

Amy keeps telling me I have loads of things to say about writing and publishing and book tours and such, and I do. The problem is a lot like the one Richard Feynman (the subject of my most recent graphic novel) discovered: every path between every idea that turns into a book is different. And possible! Sure, some are more likely than others, but still, anything can and does happen. For Feynman, that wasn’t a problem. It was the solution he came up with to one of the hardest puzzles in quantum mechanics. For writers? It’s not much help. There really are a lot of ways to make a book. Every published author will tell you that and nobody will believe them, convinced that we’re hiding THE SEEKRET from you. We aren’t. Really.

But of course I’d say that, right?

So fine, don’t believe me. But believe this: all my best book ideas have come from reading other books and talking about them with friends. Not watching TV or movies, or playing video games; books (which are written by people) and people (who are, you know, people). Not that TV and movies and games aren’t written by people. They are, but the problem for me is they’re too visual, and an idea for a new graphic novel has to be an image I see in my own head, from my own head. Otherwise I fear it like I fear wild animals growling unseen in the night. So read a ton, spend a ton of time alone with books, then spend a ton of time talking about them with people who are smarter than you. (This part is easy for me!) And make sure you see some of the story in your head, complete with color and motion and whether you’re seeing it from hidden beneath your character’s bed or sitting at the kitchen table with the character’s family or hovering overhead on your flying unicycle (set to stealth mode…you don’t want to disturb the fictional characters down there; they’re skittish!). Hear the story too. Smell it and touch it. Taste it too if that’s not going to be too gross.

Believe this as well: The only thing that matters after that is getting it all down on paper. Maybe I should put the word ‘paper’ in quotes, like I just did, since that’s not the only, or even the right way, for every story to appear. (This twenty-first century we’re soaking in has made things more complicated!)

And this? You should believe it: I just lied to you. You have to do much more than get it down on some paper-like thing. You have to do that but then you have to forget about it for a while and come back to it in your most vicious, cruel, don’t-you-dare-waste-my-time mood. Look at your own work as if it was written by someone who made you angry this morning, but still respect and, deep down, want to have succeed. (Think of your siblings at their most annoying.) And then tear apart what you wrote; make sure reader-you doesn’t let writer-you get away with anything. Now rewrite.

[Side note 1: I like the Stephen King rule that says the second draft should be the first draft minus 10 percent. There’s almost always extra stuff in there. As Elmore Leonard says, leave out the parts readers tend to skip.]

[Side note 2: I didn’t make it to 10 percent time, but if I’d skipped these first two notes I would have come close.]

[Side note 3: I write non-fiction comics about scientists, so there’s a big research component woven throughout this process as well. I’m not going to talk about that here, but if you ever had to write a five-page paper on a subject you didn’t know much about, it’s like that, times fifty. Actually, times a hundred, since you — or at least I — need to do at least twice as much research as you think you do. That’s because a lot of what you find out will be wonderful, but won’t fit into the story once you get to that editing stage. Sometimes even before that stage. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s really not like writing a five-page paper for school at all, because research is fun! Really, if for no other reason than that it gives you a legitimate reason to avoid the real hard work of writing for a while longer.]

You’ve torn it apart and put it back together and now you think it’s ready for publication. Believe me, you’re wrong. Now it’s time for somebody else who’s not you (and is also not someone who loves you and wants you to succeed and has loved you and wanted you to succeed since long before you started to write) to read it and tell you what you missed and tell you things you’re going to hate hearing. (This is why you need that hasn’t-loved-you-since-before-you-were-a-writer person. They can rough you up in ways that your best friends usually can’t.) They’ll tell you where the plot got lost, or the story doesn’t make sense (or that you’re using too many parentheticals). Believe them. They’re almost always right.

However, if they offer solutions, listen and say thank you but…don’t believe them! Or at least, doubt them a little. They’re trying to help, but fixing the problem is not their job. It’s yours, and you know your story best.

Then rewrite, again. Believe me, you’ll want to. Well, you probably won’t because by this time you will and should be tired of this story and these characters and ready to move on to the next story. But you’re not done with this one yet, and these characters still need you.

[Side note 4: I write comics, so I get the extra benefit of having someone illustrate the books. How to choose an artist is a true secret, hidden from me by my own brain. Usually by the time I’m in the middle of the second or third draft, though, I can see an artistic style in my mind’s eye; before that I still see the images, of course, but they look like a generic mixture of live action and low-budget animation. In other words, sometimes I imagine the real people I’m writing about doing things as if they were actors and I was a director, sometimes a scene plays out as if it was a cartoon projected against the inside of my eyelids. But by the second or third re-write, an actual artist whose work I know pops up and my imaginary version of that person says “I’m the one. Call me and see if I’m interested!” Sometimes that means talking to my editor and suggesting that person, sometimes I actually do make the call. Not everybody is interested or available, but that’s okay. There’s usually someone else who’s in that stylistic neighborhood who is interested, and is available. I’ve been happy with and grateful to every single illustrator I’ve worked with. Lucky!]

Now send it to a publisher, get it published after a couple more rewrites based on advice from another hasn’t-loved-you-since-before-you-were-a-writer person called an editor and looking at galleys and find embarrassing typos and run-on sentences that you can’t believe you didn’t see until now, minutes before the printer pours gallons of ink into the ink-holding-thingee at the press and starts spreading it onto thousands of sheets of paper and binding those sheets into a book…

…and get ready to do the hardest thing you’ve done since you wrote the thing: talk about the book in public, to strangers.

A book tour looks like fun, and you better believe that it is fun! But like all worthwhile things, it’s also kinda not fun, just like it’s energizing and exhausting, thrilling and boring, normal and stranger than you can believe. I’ve only done one, though, so maybe they’re not all like that. But I’d gladly try the experiment again, especially if it includes dinners in New Orleans, a signing at a bar in Bushwick (NYC) where people Sang Songs About My Book!, a bathroom disguised as a Tardis, a signing thirty feet away from the Apollo 11 command module, and seeing lots of new places and meeting many old and new friends along the way. And even though I said there are infinite paths to doing the book writing/touring thing, and no right answer, here’s where I can give very specific advice:

  • Travel light. After the first three airports, you’ll be glad you only brought one small piece of luggage and a backpack.
  • Make sure every shirt/top you bring matches every pair of pants/skirt you bring. (I’m partial to black themed shirts tucked into black pants for this.)
  • You’re a performing monkey. Don’t worry that you’re repeating what you said yesterday…you’re hundreds of miles away from the folks who heard you talk last night.
  • You can wear the same clothes today because you’re hundreds of miles away from the folks who saw you wear that shirt yesterday.
  • Don’t do that! Make time for laundry. Everybody will be glad you did. Also, eat interesting things at least once a day. You’ll be glad you did. (I took pictures to demonstrate my strategies for this.)
  • You’re a performing monkey. Don’t take any of this too seriously, but remember that you’re making about a zillion first impressions each day.
  • Keep some kind of diary. I did it via my blog — I wasn’t Tweeting at the time. Then when Amy asks you to write about what happened, you won’t have to rely on your memory. (Which is good, because you won’t have much memory left by the time you’ve checked into your tenth hotel room.)
  • Come home and appreciate what it’s like to no longer be a performing monkey.
  • Now, write another book.

I believe that covers just about everything I know. Now, I should get back to avoiding writing my next book by doing research for it instead. So much to read, so little time.

See you at 826.

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