Things I’ve Learned Along the Way
By Paul Kupperberg
© Paul Kupperberg
About eight or nine months ago, my wife, our soon-to-turn 12-year-old son, and I went to see Eric Andersen, a 1960s folk singer we like who was playing at a small club in a neighboring town. Andersen is one of these guys who travels by himself, playing small clubs and bars here in the States (he’s a much bigger name in certain parts of Europe but likes to come home and perform for us old hippies every year or so) and accessible during intermission and after the show to sell you some CDs, sign stuff or just talk. We’ve been to enough of his shows that he recognizes us as regulars. This was the first time we brought the kid, who is a musician himself (a drummer, studying for about four years now).
After the show, we went up to say hello. Our son told Andersen that he was also a musician, had a band (they’ve played publicly several times, the last for a local arts and jazz fair as one of the opening acts for a major rock musician, his first paying gig), and asked if he had any advice for performing. Andersen took our son aside and spoke to him for a few minutes privately. After we’d said our good-byes and left, we asked what the singer had told him. This is, boiled down to its essence, what he said:
Don’t think. Thought is the enemy of art. And forget about the audience. You’re not playing for them, you’re playing for yourself. Make yourself happy and they’ll be happy too.
That’s pretty profound advice to lay on a 12-year-old newbie, but I’m glad he did it, and I’m glad the kid’s got enough on the ball to understand what the singer was saying: not that you have disdain for the audience, but that you have respect for the music first and that will come through to the audience. I’ve been telling the kid that his entire life, from the moment he could pick up a crayon and started to worry or get frustrated about coloring outside the lines or using the wrong color for Spider-Man’s costume.
There are no rules in art. There is no right or wrong
He asked me, several years back, why he had to learn all these rules of grammar. He was never going to need to know how to diagram a sentence in real life. Besides, I’m a professional writer and I can’t articulate half the rules of grammar, plus I break the rules all the time when I write. True, I agreed, but at one time I did know them and could diagram a sentence and, to this very day, though I may not be able to name the parts of speech (a dangling whatthewhosis?), I know when something is wrong and I can fix it. And, besides that, I said:
Yes, I break the rules because there are no rules in art. And, before you start breaking the rules for artistic or any other reasons, you first have to know what the rules are.
I pointed out to him that as a musician, he first had to learn how to read music, then play it by the metronome and by the book before he started to learn jazz and how to improvise. It reminds me of the legendary comic book artist Alex Toth, known for his (brilliantly!) minimalist style, who said:
I spent the first half of my career learning what to put into a picture and the second half what to leave out.
That’s art: Learn it, then turn your back on it and make your own way. Just take the step. Don’t think about it.
Doesn’t sound possible. Writing — I’ll use writing as my example because that is, after all, what I do — is a thought process, putting words on paper in a certain order to achieve a specific narrative or emotional effect. Inform your reader of the locale or the time period, describe a character or setting, evoke fear or sadness, make them horny, whatever. You need to think about that before you jump in and start writing. This stuff doesn’t just happen by itself.
Well, it does and it doesn’t. Sure, you sit down and say, okay, in this scene, I want to achieve this thing that either moves the plot forward or reveals something about your characters, or both. In my recently completed mystery novel, a 1950s period story, I have one scene intended to convey new clues to the police detective. He’s talking to a waitress and short order cook in a diner while they drop the requisite information and plot points under his questioning. The scene took on a life of its own and became a set piece more about the character’s love of pie — he eats 3 or 4 pieces during the interview — and his integrity: He won’t take the pie as a freebie and insists on paying because he intends to come back often for the pie and wants to be a welcome visitor instead of a crooked cop on the take.
If I had thought about doing a character bit like that, it would have come off as clunky and unconvincing, but by just letting it flow from the process of writing the information I needed into the story, it turned into the one chapter mentioned by two out of the four people who have read it.
The real heart of your story comes out in those moments, the unplanned character bits, the spur of the moment inspiration that turns a minor character into a major player — another thing that happened in my mystery. Having elements of pastiche to it, I included a deceased real-life person who I got to know, thirty-five years later than the period in which the book is set, intending to use him in one scene, just as a tip of the hat to a man for whom I cared very much. But art knows no reason and he wound up coming back in later on in the book and, in fact, ends being a sort of Dr. Watson to my detective’s Sherlock Holmes. Didn’t plan that, never would have planned that, but it happened and, without thinking, I went with the flow.
Another example: in a Justice Society of America novel I wrote a few years back, the heroes are all down and about to bite the big one at the hands of the bad guys. The POV character for the book, Mister Terrific, a one-time Olympic athlete, flashes back to his only competitive defeat, a loss by like 2/10th of a second because he allowed himself to be distracted by how his competitor was running his race. It’s maybe 800, 1000 words out of 85,000, but that little flashback, the frustration of not only reliving that moment but of repeating it now — when the stakes weren’t a silver medal instead of a gold one, but his and his comrades lives as well as the lives of countless innocents — is one of four or five in the book that stand out to me as what these characters are about, not just events that push the story forward (although they do that, too).
Plotting is a mechanical structure: One comic book writer friend of mine creates elaborate charts of story direction, individual character arcs, introduction of subplots, how long they played out, secondary and tertiary subplots and how they evolved to become major subplots and then the main plots. He can wipe the floor with me on the down and dirty connect-the-Legos-level of sheer mechanical plotting. My plotting in comics — even ones I wrote over long stretches — was always ad hoc, based on some broad outline that I sort of knew where it was headed — unless I changed my mind and went somewhere else because my free-form plotting allowed me the room to do that. With his plotting, you start pulling on one thread and the whole sweater unraveled.
On sheer writing ability alone, I kick his ass. I’m not bound by the specs of the plot-machine he builds for himself. He has said he envies my ability to write that way, more from the gut and less from the head. The gut is where the passion and the juice come from. The head is where rational thought lies. You want about 25% of the latter and 75% of the former in your work. Know where you’re going, understand the mode of transportation you’ve chosen to take you there, but don’t be bound by some route you’ve laid out on the map before you even left the garage. Take detours, visit interesting roadside attractions, cut across land marked with “No Trespassing” signs, leave the blacktop and explore some dirt roads, and stop every now and then for a couple or four slices of pie at that diner you pass along the way.
Just do it, but whatever else…don’t think!
Paul Kupperberg is a freelance writer who began his career at Charlton Comics in 1975 and has never looked back. At DC Comics, he’s written a little of everybody, from Arion to Zatanna. He is the author of several books, numerous short stories and novellas, young adult non-fiction books on subjects ranging from pop culture to hard science, online animation and syndicated newspaper comic strips. He has also been an editor for DC Comics, Executive Editor of Weekly World News and Senior Editor of WWE Kids Magazine. His latest work can be seen in the humor book Jew-Jitsu: The Hebrew Hands of Fury (Citadel Books, 2008), a short story in The Avenger Chronicles (Moonstone Books, 2008), back-up stories in every issue of Captain Action comics (Moonstone Comics), and sundry issues of DC Comics’ Cartoon Network titles and Bongo Comics’ Bart Simpson Comics. Visit him at his blog, www.kupperberg.blogspot.com.