31 March 2010

House of Sand and Comics

by guest columnist Mike Elrod.  Follow him on Twitter.

One of the things I love most about working for a college is that from time to time we host lectures by various people. Already this year we’ve had the head LGBT officer from Atlanta speak to our gender studies classes, Jane Goodall was with us for two days last month, and most recently we’ve had Andre Dubus III come to our campus and speak to our creative writing classes. This is just to name a few of the great programs our professors and administration has brought to campus to enlighten these students with their experiences. I had the chance to speak with Dubus one-on-one for a bit last week. For those of you who don’t know, Andre Dubus III is the author of House of Sand and Fog.

While he’s an author in the novel genre he offered me some good advice on creating the graphic kind. One of the things he had brought up during his discussion with a class was the act of putting some ideas away. Now, for me this has been an issue since I started writing. Currently, I’ve got four stories in my head. None of which are connected. Each one however is a graphic novel. Some advice I had gotten from a fellow writer a while back named Joe Hormes was to concentrate on one story, the one that I was most excited about at the time. Dubus’s advice to the class was right on par with Hormes’s.

Part of the issue I had been dealing with however was that I would gather scenes in my head for these various stories and write them down. My initial desire was to go ahead and write each one out as that particular chapter of the story it affected. I was spreading myself thin. Joe’s advice made me realize that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with this method on any of the stories. If I were to try and write them all at once I would never be able to explore each world as I should with my writing.

Professor Dubus and I spoke more specifically about the various scenes that I have come up with for All That Lives since I’ve been concentrating solely on this particular story. While scenes that I’d like to write come up and seem to fit into various parts of the story he advised me that it was best to still write them down but not to hold too firmly to them.

“If it’s a good idea it’ll come back up,” he told me. My problem with these scenes has been that while I’m confident in many of them I find myself trying to write to get to them. While this may work for some authors, I found that what he was telling me was to allow the story to evolve on its own. If these ideas still fit during this process I’ll get to them when it’s time. So, I began to think more on this as we spoke.

The conclusion I came to along with our conversation was that all parts of story telling fit into this method. The desire to write a story of social relevance and the desire to write a story that connects with an audience are in many ways secondary in the process. A writer must simply write. Those things that are within you will come out.

Therefore, if a desire to write something that connects and inspires people is within you, you need to have the reasons for connection and inspiration within you. If social justice is important to you it will develop in your mind and the reasoning for getting it into the social consciousness will be a natural part of why you write.

Otherwise, you’ll produce something that is too obvious and too blatant that tells a story but with no flare. If these things are a part of you they’ll be a part of your writing. All you have to do is let go and start exploring the world you’re creating. My basic original plan for what has become All That Lives was to tell a story about growing up. However, I can’t concentrate on this too much. I have to let it come out naturally by writing down what happens to my characters. It may head somewhere else but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If it’s based in my knowledge and desire it will reflect these things in its own way while at the same time allowing me to explore other commentaries along the road as well.
It’s how a book can be interpreted in different ways by an audience. If you’re not pointing them in a particular direction, you’re trusting them to find their own way. If your audience isn’t five year olds, your story needs to treat them as adults with the capability of reading and interpreting a road map. 

That’s what draws an audience. It’s not that it’s sequential artwork telling them a story (as amazing as that is) but it’s about their involvement in that story. They have to be part of it and place themselves in the panel. If you tell them who to be, you’ll only have readers who wouldn’t understand social justice or any other deep thought if their lives depended on it. In creating graphic novels we have a great tool when it comes to the artwork. People automatically are drawn into the panels. It can’t be helped but, the quickest way to kick them out of the panels is to tell them what they should be thinking with the dialogue. We don’t want sheep as audience members, we want fully functioning adults who can then take these tales and run with them. Not everyone takes the same meaning from a graphic novel but that’s the point. 

If we live in an age of reason, we have to allow others to use theirs as much as we use ours to write.

Mike Elrod is an instructor for a small college in the North Georgia Mountains where he spends his days helping students research their papers as he pines for the city. By night however, he reviews the show Supernatural for Pulptone.com. He also writes a graphic novel along with Michael Carpenter who produces amazing artwork about growing up and the zombie apocalypse in the South that is in the process of being renamed as you read this.


Jonathan said...

About your bio: You sure it's still in the process of being renamed? I read the the article as an indication that it had been renamed...

Also, nice article. While I often reject the idea that it's really all about just letting the story flow naturally...I think there may be more science to it than that, if one feels like putting the effort in that direction...you make some nice points for writers seeking to tell what might be called a "genuine" story. It's a perspective I also think I need to consider in designing games...definite corollaries there.

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