Lessons From the Comics – Do You Have a Story?

Helpful, that’s what people like to be when you tell them you’re writing a novel. Help is good, no doubt but writing is a solitary endeavor most of the time. Though really, success is found in embracing a community of editors, beta-readers and dogs…no not dogs, unless you’re thinking of Snoopy who has a lot of experience with unhelpful people like Lucy.

Today’s lesson from the Comics, is from Peanuts. Lucy informs Snoopy that his writing is terrible. She doesn’t say that, family and friend critics often don’t. She says it lacks ‘feeling’ then gives the great advice of a plot of ‘boy meets girl, loses her, finds her again’. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. This is Lucy’s interpretation of feeling, a simple plot with an emotional path.

Apologies for the grainy copy. The original has gone the way of a the floor of a bird cage!

Okay, so a backbone of a three sentence plot is a good idea but I challenge you to look a little deeper in your current work. What feeling pervades it? Is there one? I think the easier that you can identify the feeling of your novel, the more likely the story is sound and therefore able to handle the structure and bulk of a novel. I took this challenge myself. I debated and searched in my novel “Kill Words”, but I cannot say what overarching feeling the story carries. I’ll have to think about that, which means I’ll have to think about why that is and if it is fixable. In my defense, I haven’t been working on it for several weeks. I’ve lost my way a bit. However, the storyline in “The Roady Series” on my flash fiction blog Entylerywords.com is easy to state. The story is saturated with rejection and acceptance juxtaposed. Hmm, also something to think about.

Lucy doesn’t stop there with her editorial advice. She insists on helping Snoopy by looking over his shoulder to provide him with instant feedback. Is that the answer to a great first draft? Would immediate criticism ensure writing and the story stay on track? I’m thinking, no. As much as reader’s opinions are essential to perfecting a novel for publication, feedback over the shoulder is as helpful as a back seat driver. I’m likely to drive off the road in nervous reflex to one more instruction on how to improve a sentence. Even so, I would take someone up on the offer. I have found even one pointer on how to improve my writing is worth any amount of feeling like my hard work is derailed to the junk yard; a truth I want to face early on. What about you? Is there a brutally honest ‘Lucy’ in your life?

Write on, even if you have to start over. Sigh.

Who is Ed? – Lessons from the Comics

It matters how something is said. We all know that. But it also matters how something is thought to be said. Our lesson from the Comics today is from “Pickles”by Brian Crane. The cartoon is of retired couple Opal and Earl. A recent episode featured Earl jealous of a text he sees on her phone which he believes is a reminder to call “Ed”. Opal explains that it doesn’t say, “call Ed”. It simply says, “called”.
It’s funny in a cartoon but if confusion is in a novel or short story, not so much.


What am I talking about? Not simple reading errors but word placement that causes confusion or maybe a whole different meaning.
For example, “You can hop on the tube and eat lunch at Harrow’s Grill for three dollars.” Someone might think it only costs three dollars for lunch at Harrows when it really costs twelve bucks for the cheapest dish. Should say, “For three dollars you can catch the tube to Harrows Grill and get some lunch.” Whole different point.
Here’s another, “After eating my bird whistles.” Hmm, does that mean someone is eating a bird?
How about, “My favorite foods are fried chicken, peanut butter and jelly and pizza covered with anchovies.” Is that peanut butter and jelly with anchovies?
These are just simple examples of poor word order and missing commas, but you get the idea. I’ve heard the best way to catch these types of mistakes is to read what you write aloud. When you read your writing, if you stumble at speaking it, chances are a reader will stumble at reading it.
In the cartoon, the momentary confusion almost led to a serious issue between Opal and Earl. Hopefully we can avoid even near misses. When my novel gets before an agent or publisher the last thing I want is for even one sentence to leave her scratching her head saying, “What?”
I’m fairly certain that would be followed by a, “Thanks but no thanks.”
Write on but take the time to read aloud!

Writing Tips from the Funnies- Authenticity

It’s a hot debate in writer’s circles with the old adage ‘write what you know’ against ‘create your own world’. I personally think writing is one of the last frontiers for the mind, that and scientific research (ha ha). The subject, the setting, the fiction needs to have the freedom to expand to fill whatever space the story fits in. Apart from technical and historical accuracy, I say, breathe your characters to life in the circumstance that they fit in whether it’s been your experience or just one you know of. The truth is, in many ways we all share in common human pressures, disappointments, joys and triumphs. In mini-bites there are moments of hunger, desperation, hopelessness, being mis-understood, deceived, betrayed, loved, abused, broken, wounded, stuck with no clear way out and the list goes on and on.


In the Peanuts cartoon, Lucy complains that Snoopy’s story about suffering is shallow, meaning it’s not believable. She accuses him of having not suffered enough to get it right.
That is the key point if you’re going to superimpose your mini-bites of life over a character whose whole life is about something you may know just a little bit about and the rest is imagination you better get it right. To do that, you need to be a studier of people, of emotions, and think deep enough, act out in your mind the full experience and lose yourself in a new reality. It’s a gamble and it means frequent gut checks. Does this ring true? It means research and interviewing and pulling from all those sources and then crafting the words up out of it. In that process, I have lost myself in research and learned things I never would have if I didn’t need to strengthen the believability of my story plot. Early on in my writing adventure I was writing a book about two friends, one with AIDS and the other a medical student. My draft story received such a scathing critique from someone on the frontlines of patient care. She let me know I didn’t get it right. She challenged me to get to know my subject. I took the challenge and joined a volunteer program to help patients who didn’t have any family to support them. Before you think I’m a saint, I never actually became an active volunteer but I stepped into a world that I would never have understood if I didn’t write myself into that corner. Tread carefully in the land of research. That’s all I’m saying. It may be easier just to rewrite scenes from your own life ; avoid the challenge and pitfalls of conjecture….really? When are we writers afraid of going into the unknown wherever the pen may take us? You’ll be fine. Write on!

Writing Tips From the “Funnies”

Writing advice is free all around us but there’s no place more fun to get it than the Comics. What a challenge comic strip writers have: tell a story, make it funny and often times also impactful, all in three to five frames. There’s a lot to learn but not just tight story structure.

Take the message in a recent cartoon called “Zits”by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman about sixteen year old teenager Jeremy. His mom asks how his day was and he says, “It started. It ended.” Mom of course wants more and asks for the missing ‘middle’. He tells that part is in ‘on a need’ to know basis.

It’s easy to know where a new novel is going to start, and even we Pansters usually have some general idea of how it will end, but the middle is the stuff that makes or breaks it.

Between “it began” and “it ended” what would Jeremy’s mom really want to know? How he walked to school, opened his locker got out his history book, math book and a beat up pad of paper and then dropped his one and only pen, chased it down the hall, and barely made it to home room where he had to listen to ten minutes of announcements including that chocolate milk will no longer be served in the cafeteria? Would she care to know that Mr Perkins wore a striped shirt again and Joe McGinnis called him a clown to his face and got detention or that the he got spearmint gum stuck on the bottom of his sneaker? No she would not.

The description of his day could be told with literary prowess, amazing accuracy, the best writing ever and still be duller than a tax form. What mom might have wanted to know was that he asked Suzy out and now has a girlfriend. Or that an enormous crack appeared in the gym floor and some kids fell into it. Anything but the well, defined mundane happenings of the day.

Point being, make sure the middle of your story is not bulked up with a lot of great scenes that no one cares about.

There’s another gem hidden in this cartoon. The idea of dispensing information little by little on a ‘need to know’ basis. Mom might need to know there would be no gym for a few months or the school would be shut down for repairs, but she doesn’t need to know about Suzy until it’s prom time and he has to rent a tucks (or a limo).

This is a hard one. I often find myself getting caught in the trap of laying down a framework to build my story on. A critique partner recently hinted at this, pointing out how I had a lot of background information but that she likes to give out only a little explanation and then let the questions and gaps lead the reader to find out more.

It’s good advice. I put that into practice with the newest round of revisions. It’s amazing what a story can do without once you start chopping!

To tie it all up, two simple pieces of writing advice – make sure what’s in the middle is what ‘mom’ would really want to know and don’t give her all the news at once.

Write on and write well!