An audience of aspiring writers gathered in a room too small for their number on a pleasant Thursday afternoon at Comic-Con International to sit at the feet of one of comics' most prolific scribes. J. Michael Straczynski had nothing to promote, no agenda to forward, other than to make himself available to learn from. He only spoke for a moment before opening himself to questions from the audience.
"The only thing I ask is, don't be obtuse," Straczynski warned. "Last year I had a woman who told me her novel was too long and asked me what I should cut? I told her to cut all the verbs – that would be a good start."
Common themes began to emerge early from the first questioners. "Many of you want the magic answer," Straczynski said. "As a rule, there are no rules." Many of Straczynski's answers recalled that oft-heard gem from professors advising on page length for a term paper: make it as long as it needs to be.
"Start with everything you can say," Straczynski advised. "Then you cut it down to everything you want to say. And then you cut it down to everything you need to say."
But how do you know when to end a piece of fiction? "When you run out of words," Straczynski quipped. "A short story will end sooner than a novel. That's just my opinion. If it doesn't, then it's a novel."
Straczynski had advice for those struggling to break in as well and the advice recalled the major theme of his television series "Babylon 5," which he once summed up with the phrase: "Never surrender dreams."
"Don't give up," he offered. "The turf that you have to stand on is occupied only by you. Trust where you stand. Trust your point of view. When I hire a writer, I hire them for their viewpoint."
Straczynski then told a story about how he first began writing, doing perfect imitations of the voices of his favorite writers: Rod Serling, Harlan Ellison, H.P. Lovecraft. "And I thought that was how a writer was supposed to sound. The truth is, a writer sounds like you. Writing is just speaking in your voice... when you meet the vast majority of writers, you find that they write just like they talk."
This dovetailed nicely into another of Straczynski's most repeated nuggets of advice: "No writing is ever wasted." Straczynski urged the panelists to pursue getting their work published in every place, large and small, that they could possibly think of. "If you're still in college, make use of the newspaper, the theater department, everything."
The problem most often faced by first time writers, according to Straczynski?
They don't finish their work.
"Because if you finish a story, then that story can be judged. You can fail. That's scary... [but] failure is important. Failure is something to strive for. The military says you must fail at some point, or you aren't doing it right."
One questioner asked if it was essential to outline one's work?
Straczynski, who rarely works with outlines, had a simple answer. "If outlines don't work for you, don't do them. Don't worry about finding the mountain. Just put one foot in front of the other and start climbing."
Another questioner wanted to know how Straczynski thought comics writing had changed over the last decade. "I think we're living in one of the better ages of comics writing," Straczynski said. "Despite my being a part of it."
Straczynski went on to say that sometimes the problem with artists was what he called "barn and cow" syndrome. "You have the perfect barn you want them to draw, you have it all planned and described in perfect detail. But what they want to draw is a cow. That's fine – there can be a cow next to a barn. But when you get the drawing back, you find you have a picture of a cow with a barn way in the background."
Straczynski was quick to admit that artists can also improve on what one planned. "There are many times when, working on 'Midnight Nation,' when the artist would make a change... and he was right."
One questioner wanted to know whether Straczynski did market research before deciding to write a story.
"FUCK NO!" Straczynski replied emphatically.
"What you have to decide is what burns inside you. If you worry about what the market's doing, you're in trouble. If you're right, the market will follow you." Straczynski then told the story of a writer who sold him an episode while he was the story-editor on The New Twilight Zone. The man in question had an alcoholic father and the story was about alcoholism. Straczynski bought the story on the spot.
"Because he burned in here," Straczynski said, pointing to his heart. "The moment you look out there, you're screwed."
Another questioner asked how Straczynski, or any writer, should go about protecting "their ideas." "The answer is – you can't," Straczynski replied. "Ideas are a dime a dozen. You can give ten writers the same whore idea and you'll come back with ten different stories because they'll filter through who they are."
Straczynski paused, coming up with an example. "Look, 'Babylon 5' [is] a story about a space station with gambling and casinos... and a captain with a destiny? You see where I'm going," he said. "Not that it doesn't still piss me off."
This drew big laughs from the crowd.
Straczynski also addressed the notion of screenwriting "formula." "The problem is, they've decided there's a formula. Which means everything needs to work inside the box. Which means if something works and it's outside that box, that means they're wrong. The box is wrong and it threatens them."
Finally, Straczynski offered one last thought on dealing with studio executives obsessed with formula. "There's nothing you can do about stupid notes," he said. "You have to decide... what is the measure and cost of your soul?"