Monday, December 17, 2012

What's On My Writer's Reference Shelf

Hi, there. I don't think we've been introduced. I'm Michael, Sequential Salon's resident writer-with-no-artistic-talent-whatsoever.

Anyway, Lynne asked at the last meeting for more posting, so I thought I would help out by sharing some about the books on my writer's reference shelf. I have two reference shelves, really; one is general reference for stuff I might want to put into stories someday, and the other is books on writing. Of course, there's no substitute for actually writing, but this stuff is helpful nonetheless. Some of it's comics-specific, some of it isn't, but it's all about story, so that's all right.

Under the cut, because goodness there's a lot of this stuff.

The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1989 Edition: Every writer should have a good dictionary. I should probably have a more recent one, but this one has some sentimental value; my mom got it for me as a study aid for the regional spelling bee after I won the county one. It turns out that going through the dictionary page-by-page every night is a really good way to get a kid to hate spelling bees. But I kept it, and it's still useful. And really, I know how to spell newer words like "cromulent" and "website" anyway.

Webster's New World Thesaurus: "Revised and updated for the 1990s!" Yeah, I don't buy new reference books very often. This one's probably even more useful than the dictionary. A lot of people think synonyms are indistinguishable, but denotation and connotation make each one unique, and as Twain said, we should use the right word, not its third cousin. It's not often that I need to use a word like "mendicant", but when I do, I can look here under "bum" and find it.

The Little Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar: This one's a bit more esoteric, but sometimes you find yourself forgetting what exactly the vocative case is. Or is that just me? The anatomy of language gets pretty short shrift in English education these days (harrumph harrumph), but I think it's important to know how all the pieces fit together, or at least to have an idea. This is more of a prose thing, though.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White: The writer's little bible. There's a school of thinkers that pooh-poohs this book, probably because they were taught it badly by a fascist twit of an English teacher, but they're all rather silly. Gene Roddenberry may have redeemed the split infinitive, but clumsy, ignorant writing still looks like crap on a stick, and this book takes that writing and flushes it. You have to know how to walk before you can run, and this book is the best guide a toddler-writer could ask for, as well as the most helpful reference for a veteran to turn to when he's not quite sure about a sentence or phrase. Buy the latest edition right now and keep it in a place of honor. Best section? All of it, but "Elementary Principles of Composition" is probably the one I find most useful.

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law: Okay, yeah, this is just for nonfiction writing. But I'm a completist, dammit.

How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card: Ooh, controversial! Or maybe not. Regardless of how you feel about his politics, Card knows a lot about writing, and specifically about writing in genre. This is one of the first "how-to" books I bought, and it was pretty instrumental in getting me to think about stories as stories. Some of the specifics he gets into are damn weird (seriously, you have to read his bit on developing a concrete system of magic, but not after dinner), but the theory is sound.

On Writing by Stephen King: Not so much a "how-to" book as one author's guided tour of his journey as a writer and how he developed his own process. The memoir parts are interesting, as you see how King got to where he is (and, of course, compare it to your own writer's journey), but there's some good meat in the back half as well, especially a section where he walks the reader through his revision process, complete with the marked-up first draft page. King's been writing professionally for damn near fifty years, and non-professionally for a lot longer than that, and no would-be writer should pass up this chance to learn at the feet of a master.

Various Issues of Danny Fingeroth's Write Now!: Yes, Virginia, I do have comics-related stuff. This was a magazine briefly published by Twomorrows Publishing where Fingeroth, a comics veteran, interviewed comics writers on their process. I learned a lot about how to write a comics script from this series. A great bonus is that Fingeroth also published script examples alongside the finished pages. Seeing how artists interpreted the scripts (not always for the better) is a real eye-opener. Also, you can see Fingeroth try to get Bendis to admit his dialogue is repetitive!

Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative and Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner: Remember what I said about learning at the feet of a master? In these books, Eisner breaks down the elements of a comic book story into their simplest forms. They're books of theory, but written in a simple style that focuses on utility. Eisner also includes some sample stories, pointing readers at certain techniques and leaving them to absorb the wisdom from how well the story works. Panels, pages, figures, and even lettering are all here, all explained. The writer-artist will get the most use out of these books, but even schmucks like me can learn to write visually from a careful study of Eisner's technique.

Panel One and Panel Two, edited by Nat Gertler: Two excellent books of comics scripts by writers old and new. Pretty much every kind of comics scriptwriting is represented here, from "Marvel-style" plots to the kind of dense scripts that make Neil Gaiman's assigned artists cry. There's even a set of thumbnails from Jeff Smith from his prestige format Bone prequel, Rose. Every writer finds his or her own style, but these scripts are great for picking and choosing. Panel Two also features commentary from the artists on the stories, for more insight into how the script translates to the printed page. If there's been a Panel Three or Panel Four, get those, too, and then link me to their pages on Amazon.

The Writer's Guide to the Business of Comics by Lurene Hanes: Yeah, there's other stuff you have to know first. Whether you want to be a freelancer on your favorite company-owned superhero book or self-publish a series that will break the medium wide open, you have to know how to manage your career. I wouldn't call any of it fun, but there's stuff you need to know about self-marketing, self-employment, getting paid, and keeping the IRS off your back. Hanes outlines everything very well, and gets plenty of commentary from actual working writers and writer-artists in comics. The business world is a dense jungle, and this book is the machete you need to hack your way through it.

Writing For Comics with Peter David: David is one of my favorite writers, and a comics veteran who doesn't need me to talk up his credentials. Here, he walks the reader step-by-step through the basics of storytelling, punctuating each lesson with examples from his own work and giving suggested exercises. All of it is explained simply, but not shallowly. There's even a bit at the back with advice for breaking in and setting yourself apart from the pack. I actually have the first edition; I understand the second (called Writing for Comics and Graphic Novels with Peter David) has even more stuff. Excellent for beginners, especially those who want to do serial genre stories (and that's probably most of you).

Understanding Comics and Making Comics by Scott McCloud: One of them is the book that made me look at comics as a medium and a career. The other is the book that made me realize how much further I still had to go. Understanding Comics breaks the medium down to its elements and defines them; Making Comics takes those lessons and applies them to the practice of building a comic from the ground up. Like the Eisner books, these will be most useful to writer-artists, but again, writers-only will still find plenty to learn. McCloud has another book, Reinventing Comics, but it hasn't aged quite as well; time has proven most of his predictions about comics in the digital age to be pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Still, it's kinda fun to flip through from time to time to pick out everything he got wrong.

The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Denny O'Neill: Back when he was a group editor at DC, O'Neill would put new writers and editors through a little story boot camp to get them up to speed with how he did things. Eventually, he took his notes from that boot camp and turned them into this book. I don't know how much use it would be for writing at DC these days (there's no section on having the hero's girlfriend raped or basing a book around a team of blood-vomiting violent maniacs), but it's definitely useful for learning how to write a comic story. The examples are, of course, skewed towards superhero comics, but the theory extends to pretty much any type of story you might want to tell. This is part of a series DC did on pretty much every aspect of creating comics, so if you're looking for a how-to for penciling, inking, coloring, lettering, or digitally drawing comics, you could do worse than to check out the respective volumes.

Alan Moore's Writing For Comics: A curiosity, and maybe a bit hard to find, but worth searching out. Like King's book, it's less of a "how to" and more of a "how I"; unlike King's, it eschews memoir entirely, and is much shorter. Much of its 48 pages is taken up with what I call Moore's practical philosophy of writing comics, covering general thoughts about the medium itself, as well as specifics of story structure, theme, plot, and world-building. Then he takes us through his process of writing the classic Superman story, "For The Man Who Has Everything." (Turns out it's about more than just Superman dreaming about a Krypton that never exploded and then beating the crap out of Mongul.) Moore reveals quite a lot of the tricks of the trade here, and I urge readers to steal them liberally. (I certainly do.) In showing us how he thinks about a comic story as he's writing it, Moore touches on an aspect of process that's often left unspoken in books on writing. This may be the most valuable book in my collection, now that I think of it.

Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction and getting published by Brian Stableford: I'll be honest, it was those last three words that made me pick this one up. Not that the front end of the book is worthless; on the contrary, it's filled with tips, information, and musings on the genre from a forty-year veteran. But boy, did I love and do I love the section on submitting and selling your manuscript once it's finished. No one had ever said the words "slush pile" to me before, and while they still sting every time I think them, better I learned them here than on the streets. It's a pre-Internet-ruling-everything book, so some of the information on market research is less than helpful, but extrapolating from it and running a Google search can be very profitable. (The mention of the Science Fiction Writers of America led me to seek out the guild's website, which today is a treasure trove of resources.) And, as with every book on this list, the Further Reading/Bibliography section is a great starting point to expand your knowledge of the field in which you want to work. Because you do want to work, don't you?

That's what's on my shelf. There are no doubt many glaring omissions, but I've found it works pretty well for me. Use this as a guide to build your own shelf. But while you're doing that, don't forget to write.

No comments: