Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Table Talk - Questions from the Readers 1.0

As you may have seen, last week we opened up Table Talk to questions from the readers at the request of C. William Russette. While a few crickets chirped briefly, the questions did start rolling in. Now, Barry Reese, Bobby Nash and Mike Bullock have answered the first two reader questions, while discussing the merits of removing limbs from a certain New Pulp character the three of them know and love.

Question (C. William Russette): [On the topic of World Creation]
How much is enough to get a story going? How far back in the timeline do you go? How fleshed out do things like religion, politics, economy, government need to be explored? How much is too much? Or too little?

Bobby: A good question, C. William. For me, it varies depending on what type of story I’m writing. If I’m telling a modern day story that is set in Atlanta, Georgia then there’s not a lot of world building required. I just look out the window. I do then flesh out how the characters will react to things. Is the character religious? Republican or Democrat? Drinker or non-drinker? A reader? College educated or not? Those type of things.

On the other hand, for my first published novel, Evil Ways, I created a fictional town in Northeast Georgia that was similar to the one where I live, but I needed a few additional elements. I spent a good deal of time mapping out that town so I knew where things were in relation to one another, especially focusing on locations important to the story.

For a science fiction novel I wrote (not published as yet) I spent quite a bit more time world building as it takes place off of planet Earth. In that case I documented a lot of information that doesn’t necessarily make it into the story except a few items that are mentioned, but not expounded on.

Mike: Very cool question. For me, it varies. I have one story that I literally have spent years building the environment. It's a sci fi epic, and I have several notebooks full of planets, species, ships, weapons, religions, political systems etc. Unfortunately, I got so lost in the world building, the original story I set out to tell got lost. So, I think there's a point where you can go too far with the world building, as I did there.

In other cases, sometimes I only create what I need to on a necessity basis. And, like Bobby said, if it takes place in "our" world, then there isn't much world building you really need to do, just more character building to populate the story with believable characters.

Barry: For the most part, I create the basic stuff if it’s a new setting – just enough to get me going and then I fill in the gaps as I go and the story demands. It obviously varies depending on the setting – I’ve never created a major sci-fi world that would be very different than our own so I may not be the best person to answer the question. I generally work either in the present or in the past, which just gives me an excuse to do research to try and get it somewhat accurate. Even then, though, I just try to avoid being “wrong” as opposed to “getting every little detail correct.”

Question (Lee Houston, Junior): How do you feel about working on someone else's creations compared to writing your own? How do you approach another writer's character(s), especially those that have fallen into public domain, for it seems to me your work will be judged by a bigger fan base there than on any licensed/freelance project?

Bobby: Good question, Lee. Writing a pre-existing character can be a lot of fun. It’s nice to dip your toe into another creative universe from time to time (although I’ve been doing it a lot of late) and play with someone else’s toys. The trick you have to remember is that these are someone else’s darlings and you have to make sure you leave them pretty much as you found them. For example, I’m sure Barry would be none too happy with my Rook story if I have the title character get his arm chopped off.

Like every other project, I start by trying to tell the best story I can. When it comes to the creations of others, I read some of the previously published stories and do my research so the character(s) are still recognizable. For characters where I have access to the creator, I may ask a few questions. For public domain characters it’s a matter of staying true to the spirit of the original tales and trying to just add another layer to the character’s history. This works for writing prose as well as writing comic book stories.

Pre-existing characters do come with their own fan base. That’s good because you’ve already got a bit of a built in audience. On the other hand, fans will also be the first to tell you if you’ve done something wrong with a character they’ve become attached to through previous stories. I hope to please the existing fans, but at the end of the day, telling the best story I can is my main goal.

Barry: It’s a different experience writing a pre-existing character, certainly. You have less freedom but on the other hand, it’s sometimes actually easier because so much of the design work and back-story has been done for you. You do have to abide by the restrictions laid out by the license holder but I find it kind of fun to work within restrictions on occasion. I have so much freedom with my characters that the challenge of answering to someone else’s vision is one that I sometimes enjoy.

When writing someone like The Avenger or The Green Hornet, I am certainly aware that fans of the character will be reading it and critiquing it, so I try to make sure I have a good handle on the character and understand what it is about that character that “works” and makes them so popular. The worst thing a writer can do is not respect the character that they’re working on.

Mike: I try to avoid working with characters I don't already enjoy and strive to get gigs with ones where I clearly fall into the "fan base" camp. For me, if you're not a fan of the character, you shouldn't be working with them. Sadly, there are too many who don't share that view and that's how I believe we end up with so many stories that don't appeal to the existing fans. If I don't "get" what makes Phantom cool, I shouldn't write Phantom. If I don't dig The Rook, then I shouldn't work with him.

In the cases where I'm unfamiliar with the character when offered the gig, as is the case with the Pulp Obscura line, I research the character first to see if their exploits appeal to me before accepting the job. It really sucks to have to turn down paying work, but as a famous comic artist once said "In ten years no one will care what you were paid, just what you left on the page." So, there are occasions where I turn down jobs, simply because I don't want to turn in a half-hearted story.

I'd also like to echo Booby's comments about putting things back where you found them, although the idea of chopping off Rook's arm had occurred to me (just kidding!).

Bobby: I sense Barry writing up an addendum to the rules for writing The Rook as I type this.

I’ve turned down writing gigs before because I knew I wasn’t the right writer for it. Like Mike said, it’s not easy turning down work, but sometimes it is necessary. I’ve worked on characters I was unfamiliar with before and probably will again, but the trick, as you guys mentioned, is finding that thing about the character that appeals to you then going from there. The hard part for me sometimes is not falling in love with a character I know I’m probably only going to write once. As I get to know characters my brain automatically starts thinking of future adventures. Occupational hazard, I suppose.

Barry: The new rules for The Rook anthology are going out soon, guys!

Seriously, though, that brings up a good point about not taking on jobs for the right reasons. I’ve turned down work because it simply didn’t appeal to me and I knew I wouldn’t be a good fit for it. And sometimes it’s been work that probably would have been “good for the career.” Even when I left Marvel, it wasn’t because they let me go – it was simply that I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. I experienced a few “What the hell am I doing?!” moments but it was the right decision and I’m glad I made it. I don’t regret any job that I’ve turned down.

Bobby: Understandable, Barry. Some of the projects I’ve turned down have gone on to be rather good sellers, but I knew I wasn’t the right writer to work on it. No regrets for me, either.

Mike: Same here. Thanks for the questions, C. William and Lee! Now, please excuse me while I get back to dismembering the Rook… [just kidding]


  1. Thanks for answering my questions, guys. Interesting and informative to hear how other writers tackle certain issues.

    Great column guys!

  2. Good discussion. Sometimes the creation of a world (i.e., ISLANDIA) can turn into the whole point of the novel.

  3. Thanks for the positive feedback! I think I speak for all three of us when I say this column is a lot of fun.

  4. Thanks, guys. Bring on the next batch of questions.



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