Saturday, March 7, 2009

You Never Open Your Mouth Until You Know What the Shot Is.

(or: Peter David Was Kind of a Jerk to Me Once, and It Was One of the Better Things That Has Happened to Me.)

When I was 15 or so, Peter David wrote an article for Wizard about how to become a writer. Like most adolescent comic book nerds in the early '90s, I dreamed of working in comics one day and idolized the aggressive art stylings of your Jim Lees, your Todd McFarlanes; these guys were bigger than rock stars to me. But I was also aware that to be a comics artist, one had to be able to do things like draw really well (Rob Liefeld, the obvious exception here). So I had kinda resigned myself to a more realistic aspiration, like lettering or being a janitor at Marvel or maybe even scripting.

So although I seemed to feel that a good script was second to representations of giant guns, big tits, and intricate capewear, I still knew a fine writer when I saw one. And Peter David most certainly is that. I was well familiar at the time with his work on The Incredible Hulk and X-Factor, and I was also well familiar with the notion of some that he was an opinionated loudmouth and something of a blowhard. Whether or not this is true matters little to me, because not only does this bear no relevance on his work, which continues to be of the highest quality, but because simply put, the guy knows what he's talking about. And as I've come to find out, if you know what you're talking about, it doesn't matter how you put it; conversely, if you don't know what you're talking about, then shut your big yap.

What I remember of the above-mentioned article was nothing ground-breaking, a point I believe David concedes immediately within said article. But it was certainly the first time I'd read anything strictly pertaining to the art of writing, and it stuck with me. Obviously, I don't remember it word for word, but his advice consisted of stuff I'd never really thought of, like read constantly and showing your works-in-progress to friends and family is not a smart move. Stuff like that stayed with me well into my early 20s when I decided I wanted to be a professional writer.

My writing regimen at the age of 21 was basically this: get home from work at about 10 PM, watch NewsRadio, then write and drink until I was too cross-eyed to see what I was doing. Do this once, maybe twice a week. Every other night, go out to the bar and talk to your friends about all the genius ideas you've been having until they're bored too cross-eyed to see what they're doing. Self-discipline is important to an aspiring writer, so I was very strict with myself on this, and at the risk of sounding immodest, I can say I was able to produce some of the worst short stories and most bored friends ever seen in the late twentieth century.

When I was 25 or so, I met Peter David at the San Diego Comic Con. Although I'd remained a big fan of his work, I was always too intimidated to talk to him before. But at this point, hell, we were practically colleagues. So I stood there at his table, a copy of his novel Sir Apropos of Nothing gripped in my sweaty hands. And while I waited for him to finish his rendition of "Trouble" from The Music Man (hey, don't ask me), I daydreamed about me and Pete getting together for drinks and discussing our current projects in between his bouts of enthusiastic praise for my stuff. Man, it was gonna be great.

When I finally put my book down in front of him, I told him how that article in Wizard those years before had been great and was an early inspiration for me to go into writing.

And he said, "Yeah? So how many comics have you written?"

Well, the answer was (and technically still is) none. I was quite taken aback by his bluntness, being nervous enough already, and I muttered something about having written some short stories (which, I believe, at the time could have been counted on one hand if you only counted the ones that were even passably readable).

And he said, "Yeah, short stories are sorta like comics. That's good."

What a fucking dick! I screamed in my brain. But as it turns out, I was screaming at myself. Yeah, Peter David was kinda abrupt with me, kinda harsh. I mean, his actual words were fairly harmless, as you can tell, but it was more the directness of the questions, the tone that wasn't encouraging so much, like that of my elementary school teachers ("Good job, Jimmy!"), as it was demanding. I remember kind of jerking back like I'd been struck. But if anybody needed a slap in the face right then, it was me. Having been (and mostly still being) an amateur writer with dreams of literary grandeur, I had managed to overlook a trifling detail: work. I wanted all the trappings of an artistic lifestyle, all the attention and not having to work at 7-Eleven, but without any of that bothersome effort. There have been many, many times in my life when I've wanted to kick my own ass, but few stand out in my mind like this one.

And so kick my own ass, I did (figuratively speaking, of course. I'm in no shape to beat up a 5th grader or even a less formidable opponent like myself). I got back to work. I wish I could say that I wrote day and night until my right hand cramped into a useless claw, eschewing all social interaction or personal grooming in order to heed my muse. That wouldn't quite be true (except maybe the personal grooming part). But I certainly began to focus more on what I was doing than on what I wanted to be doing after the Edgar Awards ceremony. And, in actuality, my output decreased significantly, but definitely for the better. Any shit-faced moron can crank out three stories a week, just so long as those stories suck royally. It takes time and effort to write something decent, and even more time and effort to shut the fuck up about all the time and effort you're putting into your work. Let the work speak for itself, I realized, and that way, if nothing else, I just won't need to talk about it. It'll be right there in black and white.

I'm certainly not breaking any publishing records these days, nor do I expect to any time soon. But I did have another short story accepted for publication this week, just days after yet another short story was published. I've got a lot of projects going, and actually have other irons in the fire as far as future publishing prospects go. And I've got Peter David to thank for a large part of this. So, if you ever read this, Peter, I'm sorry if I make you sound like an asshole here. But I simply wouldn't have you any other way.