by Jeffrey O. Gustafson
An overflow crowed packed into the J. Michael Straczynski workshop Friday at New York Comic Con. The writing panels from Straczynski – who has experience in plays, journalism, television, film, comics and more – are always informative and entertaining, and this was no different.
He opened by stressing the importance of individual voice. “The best writers write the way they talk and talk the way they write. Writing is nothing more than putting down what you’re thinking in the clearest possible form in your own voice. You screw up when you start thinking ‘how should I sound literary, what is the process.'” He contrasted a dancer trying to dance, going through the motions, and a dancer just dancing. He also noted the importance of “specificity of ideas and specificity of language,” to boil down the ideas as small as possible.
He immediately opened up the floor to questions, letting the large audience of aspiring creators dictate the panel.
On the economic side, he noted the financial challenges facing working writers. “If you are looking for a big paycheck, you are in the wrong area.” Talking about television, “the average career of a writer is ten years, then you’re done.”
Dedication to craft is important. Straczynski writes 10-12 hours a day, every day without fail. About evolving the work, “Writing is about acquiring tools for your toolbox. Each time you finish something, you acquire new tools for your toolbox.” About motivation, though he doesn’t get writers block, “There are many days I wake up and not feel like writing.” But just as you wouldn’t no-show a regular job, writers should be dedicated and professional with their craft. On writer’s block, “People tend to get writer’s block when you are being forced write something you don’t want to do.” It is important to have other hobbies, other pursuits to help focus the mind. And to let the characters tell the story for you. “Imagine your best friend, imagine they get up in the dark and they bang their shin on the coffee table: You know your friend, you know exactly what they are going to say when that happens. Writing. Is. No. Different.” And don’t start writing until you are ready to go. Straczynski mulls story and character for days before he starts, and the story comes out at once in “a white heat.”
A writer asks about doing work for free. “What fucks us [working writers], is [people who work for free], because if you guys do it for free, they look to us to do it for free. If someone hires you to build a shelf, wouldn’t you want to get paid for that? People tend to look at writing as not a serious profession. It is. It’s no different than being a doctor or a plumber or a bricklayer.” The question-asker clarified that he was a blogger who worked for himself, and Straczynski pointed out that its different. There is a distinction between fiction and non-fiction writing, but the “goal of a healthy relationship with your work” is to be paid. To do “the real work and then squeeze in the free shit.”
(My own two cents: I didn’t ask the question, but I write for myself for free, too. I also get a great deal of satisfaction from it and folks are beginning to notice my work. But I’m writing commentary and opinion, not writing fiction. I’ve long promised myself that I wouldn’t write for anyone else for free. The work I’m doing now for The Beat, including this report, got me unfettered press access to the con, which I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I’m getting something out of this, and hopefully Heidi and crew are too.)
When asked by a teenage aspiring writer about young writers breaking in, Straczynski noted age should not be a factor. Straczynski was a “Jersey street kid” who ground it out in the trenches and worked his way up. Your age doesn’t matter, the work does. “The first time I ever had a play produced, I was 16, 17. The earlier you start, the better you’re going to be. Starting at 16, you have an advantage going in – you are going to get the bad stuff out of your system early on. Go for broke. Write like crazy. Be open and willing to fail. Failure is an important part of the writing process. Accept your inner failure, do not be afraid of it. At your age– Fail gloriously. Fail your heart out.” Learn everything, write short stories, articles for newspapers, everything a writer can, because that is all valuable experience for building the tools in the toolbox.
When asked about getting a note from an editor or producer that he disagreed with, Straczynski noted the importance of having a line you are not willing to cross. There are some situations where there can be a give and take with the material and the editor, but sometimes, if it matters that much, you need to make a stand. Paraphrasing Harlan Ellison, “You cannot approach this from a place of fear. The chief comodity that a writer has to sell is courage, if he is a coward, he is a heretic and a sell-out and a fink. Writing is a holy chore. I believe that to my soul.”
On showing others your work, and getting feedback, Straczynski says to wait until the work is finished. On the worry of the work being stolen, Straczynski noted “As far as stealing stuff, it almost never happens, it’s really, really rare,” then making a joke about Deep Space Nine. (Long story.)
When writing, you should do “the least obvious choice,” and explore that. “It will keep your stories fresh.” When asked about revisions, he noted that “Rewriting is the fun of it. I love the rewriting process. The rewriting part is the most exciting part of being a writer.” With revision you can refine the work, clarify the ideas, and make the work better.
On breaking in to the television industry. “A real writer gets to where they’re going by a road that rolls up behind them. What worked for me won’t work for you.” On other writers, “I don’t believe in competition among writers. What you are selling is your point of view, no one has that.”
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.