Friends, every writer has his or her own story and their own unique path to success. As a guy who has been writing seriously for a couple decades and who has immersed himself in the writing world for as long, it’s been a pleasure to learn my craft from writers and work in every genre. I may certainly be incorrect, but I have seen a widening schism between “literary” writers and those who work in genre and other non-“literary” arenas. (What does “literary” mean? Who knows?) We miss out a great deal if we don’t at least dip our toes in the other parts of the storytelling ecosystem. If nothing else, we are missing out because these genres often outsell “literary” work and genre fans are often wonderfully passionate.
I tend not to discriminate; my goal is to be able to enjoy as many stories as I can. That certainly includes the romance genre. I had the pleasure of seeing Wendy S. Marcus give a talk at Oswego State in which she talked about her work and her journey. Ms. Marcus came to writing later in life than I did, but has published far more books than I have and knows a great deal that they don’t (but should) teach in MFA programs. In brief, Ms. Marcus wasn’t a big reader until she picked up a Harlequin romance on a whim and became hooked. After a while, she made that same move every writer has made: she figured she could do better than some of the books she read. So she started putting words down on the page. Once she had built up a support system of critique partners and started sending out her work, she began publishing for Harlequin, Loveswept (Random House) and eventually on her own. Continue Reading
2016, Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith, Oswego State, Romance, Wendy S. Marcus
Dear reader, teaching is often as frustrated as it is rewarding. A teacher cannot force students to care or to learn or to grow…that desire must come from within. Well, Peter Melnick is a former student of mine, and a fascinating young man who has that internal desire. The gentleman was kind enough to think of me in the rush of excitement he felt after a brush with his writing idol. I suggested that he might want to share his thoughts and inspiration with all of you by writing an essay about the experience. It is just our luck; he agreed to write an essay for all of us and Great Writers Steal is quite pleased to present it. Mr. Melnick also happens to be a graphic designer and has been kind enough to produce an attractive PDF of the piece that you can read and download.
The Tough Shit I Learned from Kevin Smith
I’m pretty sure that if I never discovered the work of Kevin Smith, I would not have taken the path I had in life to become an artist as both a writer and graphic designer.
Bold statement, isn’t it? While that may be the case, it is most certainly true. Back in 2001, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back hit the theaters. Around the time this movie was coming out, I was a 12 year old about to enter the 7th grade. Unfortunately due to having a parent who didn’t want to take me to an R-rated film (understandable), I wouldn’t be able to see the film until a few months later on VHS. Before that would happen, I was able to get my hands on a copy of the film’s script and somehow convinced my 7th grade “Reading” teacher to let me take the script and do a book report on it. My school had both an English teacher for that grade and a “Reading” teacher – the difference between the two classes? I couldn’t tell you even if I tried. Thankfully the script was released as a physical book from Miramax and I didn’t have to take 90 something pieces of stapled printer paper and use that. I probably got a good grade on it. It’s been almost 13 years since I was in middle school, so I couldn’t tell you every single grade I got back then. All I know is that not long after reading the script and then watching the movie, that exposure made me into a fan of Kevin and his work.
When you’re a kid and you discover things like films, television shows, etc., you sort of become obsessed. Deny it all you want, but it’s true. When I was 5 years old, I was completely obsessed with the Power Rangers. Three years later? Star Wars was the love of my life. A year later? Pokemon. I think you get the point. Once you discover something you like, you want to do whatever you can to learn more and enjoy what you love. Discovering the work of Kevin Smith was no different. Once I finally saw Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I had to see everything he had committed to celluloid. By the time I reached 8th grade, I practically wore out my VHS copies of the Clerks animated series and Mallrats.
Fast forward to Fall 2007. My grades were in the toilet from high school, but I decided to enroll at my local community college to try and boost them. Sitting in the registrar’s office, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to choose Liberal Arts as a major mainly due to the fact that math and I are just not compatible. So right then and there while looking at the options I had available, I decided to go with Graphic Design as a major. Now what does this have to do with Kevin Smith? Numerous times throughout his career, he has told people to “do what you enjoy,” so I did just that. I had really enjoyed working with Photoshop over the years prior, so I thought why not?
Now we move ahead two years and I graduated from that community college with an Associates Degree in Graphic Design. At this time, I had gotten accepted by SUNY Oneonta, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to attend. For the next year, I decided to continue my education (i.e. avoid the real world for another year) and go into Communications since there were no other programs that interested me quite like that one. Again, I went with Kevin’s logic of “do what you enjoy.”
During this time, I was reapplying to some of the schools to which I applied to a year earlier. One of the schools that caught my eye was SUNY Oswego. My best friend had been attending for the past year and told me how great it was, so I decided to go for it. During that first semester, I took two Creative Writing courses, one with Leigh Wilson and the other with Chris Motto. Both were phenomenal professors and made me realize that writing was something else that I enjoyed on top of my work in Graphic Design.
The next semester rolled around and I was in a meeting with my advisor. During said meeting, she made the suggestion that perhaps I could add a minor to my college career. Looking through my options, I decided that maybe Creative Writing was the right thing for me. Over the years of watching Kevin’s work, I realized that what he was doing was essentially getting out how he felt about the world around him, expressed his thoughts through written word. This led to myself taking a poetry class the year prior at my previous college. Much like Kevin, I was writing out how I felt about the world around me. Though these were short bursts of expression, I knew that if I could bring out those thoughts in small doses, I could certainly do it in larger ones as well.
As the semester was ending, it was time to start scheduling what was to come in the Fall. The thing that I was gung ho on was taking a screen writing course. Unfortunately, I was not able to get into any of the classes. Instead, I decided to go another route: playwriting. Since both were similar in many ways (and different in others, obviously), I decided to go that route. As luck would have it, an introductory course on the subject was open for the Fall semester and was being taught by Kenneth Nichols. The only downside to the class was the 8 AM start time. Regardless, I went in and I appreciated what was being taught to me. Nichols’s teaching method was unique in that he didn’t rely strictly on showing the standard playwriting materials like the work of the greats in the field, but rather often presented clips from sitcoms, films, and even news programs. By using these sources, he showed us ways to borrow methods from other forms of media and incorporate it into our playwriting. Additionally, he showed us that it doesn’t matter where inspiration comes from. As long as something connects with you, you’ll be set. Kevin would even go on to do something similar when he worked on his soon-to-be released film, Tusk. He found a bizarre ad online and creativity was brought forth.
It wasn’t until a full year later that I would be able to take the followup course. When I did, I fell further in love with the concept of playwriting. One of the most important things that Brad Korbesmeyer gave us was the ability to have our plays read aloud and even acted out in class. Doing so, we were able to see just how things work and how they don’t. It’s one thing to think over the lines in your head, but it’s another to actually see the words and actions on your page come to life. When a play is going into production, you can’t really fix things up during a live reading. The people who are putting on the production usually like the play the way it is and may not want to see changes. With Brad’s method of having the class act out the play, you still have time for revisions for your upcoming drafts. On top of all of that, you can also get to cringe when one of your lines doesn’t sound the way you want it to (though that’s not really a positive thing to experience).
After graduating college and leaving Oswego, I returned home. One of the very first things I did was start writing again. The problem with leaving school, however, is you don’t really have deadlines. Instead, you have to create your own and go from there. Without official deadlines, sometimes it will become “oh, I’ll write tomorrow” or “I’ll write after the weekend is over.” For myself, this would go from days of not writing to weeks and finally, to months.
Over the course of the past year and a half, I have run into different people who occupy prominent places in a wide range of creative realms. Quite a few of them would be comic book writers due to my love of the medium. In many ways, the job of a comic book writer can be hard since they’re constantly on the spot to create original content on a monthly basis. Since they have such a heavy burden with issues (no pun intended) like that, I felt it would be good to get advice from them. I would hear from people like Evan Dorkin (of Milk and Cheese and Beasts of Burden fame), Justin Jordan (writer of The Strange Talent of Luther Strode), and Jill Thompson (of Scary Godmother fame). On top of all of this, I was able to hear from Bryan Johnson (the writer/director of the film Vulgar) who gave me the simple, yet valuable advice of “write every day.”
One bit of advice would come almost a year after my graduation from college. Who was it from you ask? Writer/director/producer/actor/podcaster/Bane vocal impersonator, Kevin Smith. Early in the month of May, it was announced that Kevin would be doing an “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) on the website Reddit. I knew immediately I had to ask him a question. Unfortunately, due to the large number of users, it would be impossible to get him to see my question in time, so I decided to write up my question in detail ahead of time. After all, if I’m going to ask the man something, I might as well go all the way. Ten minutes before the official thread was posted, I copied my message/question to Kevin into my phone. I then proceeded to continually refresh the app I was using like a person anxiously waiting to enter a store on Black Friday to see when the AMA was posted so I could post my question.
About 5-6 minutes before the AMA was supposed to start, I noticed that Kevin had just posted the official thread. As fast as I could, I opened up the discussion and posted my question into the box and submitted it. My question was one of the first two or three submitted, so I know that he had at least seen it. I then went over to his profile and kept refreshing to see how many answers he had given. The first one was a humorous one in which he answered back to someone who asked if they could his accountant. After that, there would not be another answer from Kevin from another several minutes. In the meantime, I noticed that my comment was getting buried at the bottom of the page with “downvotes” (Downvotes are a way to hide posts on Reddit you may not agree with or find acceptable. In this case, people were downvoting my question so their’s could be seen by Kevin over mine.), to the point that it was in the negative numbers.
This was my message that I relayed to Kevin:
First off, I want you to know that I absolutely adore your work. It was your work that pushed me in the direction of wanting to become a writer in the first place (even going as far as adding on a Creative Writing minor to my college degree in Graphic Design). Your ability to manipulate language and so forth really inspired me and for that, I thank you. Yes, it’s cliche to say, but you are my hero.
Now, over the past few months, I’ve been doing some writing and trying to keep at it daily. There have been a number of times where I don’t know what to do next. I stare at the screen and try to figure out what to write. Others would say it’s “writer’s block,” but I’m one of those who believes such a thing does not exist.
Prior to the recent work that I’ve been doing, I would stop writing for days to even weeks. Lately though, I’ve been of the mindset where I have to push myself to write even if I don’t think it’s very good.
So, what I want to know is what keeps you going? What inspires you to write and have there been times where even you, a man who is verbally gifted didn’t know what to put to paper/type on a keyboard?”
Then it happened.
I refreshed my phone and saw the following reply to my question:
“Honestly? Death motivates me. One day it all ends for our hero, and he doesn’t get to express myself anymore. Nightmare thought for a motor mouth full of ideas (some of which are actually good). What am I waiting for? Might as well spit it all out now while I’ve got the chance.
You know what also helps? Change up the creative outlet from time to time. A writer writes, sure – but a writer can also podcast, and sometimes saying shit out loud can help. Or go take some photographs. Or shoot a short film. Or paint. Even if the words aren’t flowing, capture SOME moment that you can share or convey to others: that’s your only job as an artist. Don’t worry about whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as art is in the eye of the beholder anyway. You just capture the moment, by any means necessary (Except, y’know, any way that hurts or kills someone else).”
After briefly shaking from the realization that the guy who made me want to become a writer actually acknowledged me, I began to calm down and to absorb the wisdom he had granted me. The idea that life ends really didn’t occur to me when it comes to writing. My lack of foresight was due, in part, to being young and believing in the “tomorrow will be another day” mentality. With that bit of advice from Kevin, it made me realize I should let whatever thoughts flow into whatever it is that I’m writing as there may not be a second, third, fourth, or even fifth chance. When the opportunity arises, you should grab it and write. Literally, if you want to take writing seriously, you should do it as though your life depends on it. Otherwise, those thoughts will never be free and be shared with the world around you. In a way, I wish I knew that bit of advice sooner for the fact that maybe I could have gotten more things out earlier than I did. To be fair, however, there’s no time like the present, so it shouldn’t matter how soon or how late I began writing. The fact I’m getting all of my thoughts out now is the most important thing.
The suggestion of taking part in as many activities as possible was also incredibly helpful. Like I had stated earlier, I’m a graphic designer and writer. I already have my hands in two pots. Why not go and do more? Be creative in as many avenues as possible. Sure, the product of one might not be as good as the others, but it doesn’t matter. You’re capturing how YOU feel. It shouldn’t matter what the quality is. Look at the work of Ed Wood. Sure, what he made wasn’t great to many, but he gave the world his vision (no matter how strange it was). There were probably some better takes from his films that made it to the cutting room floor, but what he used was what he felt was right for that situation.
Will I listen to every bit of advice that Kevin gave me? Absolutely. In many ways, it helped push me to go further as a writer. I shouldn’t look back and I shouldn’t be so critical of my own work. I’m also going to be starting up a blog of my own in the near future to jot down my thoughts about the world around me. I used to maintain a blog when I was a teenager, but eventually abandoned it. The blog isn’t the only place where my writing abilities will be showcased. For the past few months, I’ve been keeping busy working on a play that I hope to shop around to various playwriting contests within the next few months. I’m always going to be a graphic designer, first and foremost. I preoccupy my time doing freelance work for clients in a variety of realms, be it logo design, poster work, among others.
I just feel that no matter what, if you want to be serious about what you do, you should live every day like it could be your last. Be brave and take a chance. This can be in the form of the littlest things like starting a blog or painting a picture, to the large like going skydiving or bungee jumping. Kevin told me to “capture the moment” and I hope to do so not just with my art, but also with my life.
Peter Melnick is a graphic designer, writer, and graduate of the State University at Oswego. If you would like to take a glimpse into his everyday life, follow him on Twitter (http://www.twitter.com/PeterMelnick). He is not related to the composer of the same name, but was once friends with said composer on Facebook for a day.
Creative Nonfiction, Feature Film
2014, 37, Chewlies Gum, Clerks, Finger Cuffs, GWS Essay, I'm Not Even Supposed to Be Here Today, Kevin Smith
Title of Work and its Form: Issue 1 of Cryptozoic Man, comic book
Author: Story by Bryan Johnson (Twitter) and Walter Flanagan (Twitter). Written by Johnson, pencils by Flanagan. Inks by Chris Ivy. Colors by Wayne Jansen (Twitter). Letters by Marshall Dillon.
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found: The comic can be found at all fine comic book stores. Why not consider making a trip to Oswego NY’s The Comic Shop? If you don’t know where your local comic book shop is, you can find it here. The fine folks at Dynamite Entertainment will be happy to sell you a copy, too.
Bonus: Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan are stars of the AMC program Comic Book Men. As of this writing, the show is available for streaming on Netflix. The gentlemen are also responsible for the Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave podcast.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythology
Cryptozoic Man is an interesting comic book that had an interesting genesis. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan pitched Dynamite with the concept…and you can see what that looked like. Why? Because it was included as a scene in Comic Book Men:
I usually write my own summaries, but I think that Dynamite says it best:
Alan Ostman, a middle-aged husband/father, sees his life quickly unravel when his daughter goes missing on a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest…Bigfoot country. After Gray aliens abduct him from a roadside bar, he learns that the fate of the world is dependent on trapping the world’s most legendary cryptids…not to mention defeating a psychopath in a pig-shaped leather bondage mask, Alan knows he has his work cut out for him.
Yes, Stan Lee may have been practicing a little hyperbole when he said that there’s never been a story like Cryptozoic Man, but he’s not too far off the mark. The book is a mélange of references to monster movies, mythical creatures and science fiction literature. In only the first few pages, I see the following:
- The alien from Alien
- The Loch Ness Monster and similar cryptids
- Alien “grays”
- The scary three-color things from War of the Worlds.
So the authors have made it clear that they are playing in the same sandbox as countless other writers. People have told stories like these for thousands of years; they sit around a campfire and offer an explanation for that feeling of paralysis when you’re almost asleep. Why, it’s an incubus (male) or succubus (female), of course, sitting on your chest and preparing to have sex with you.
How do you explain when a person’s behavior changes once a month. The person is a sane and reasonable human being…but will turn into an absolute monster every twenty-eight days, striking terror into the hearts of everyone around.
You know, like a werewolf. (What else could you have been thinking?)
Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan tap into our primal fears by borrowing all of these concepts. None of us believe that we’re going to transform into a half-monster, but don’t we fear “changing” into something that we don’t want to be? These stories are a part of us; Cryptozoic Man benefits because we can all relate on some level.
As I understand it, Cryptozoic Man is intended to be a short-run series. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Flanagan, therefore, don’t have much time to waste. The first page is illustrated in sepia tone. Mr. Johnson offers a hint that the suburban paradise in the art is now gone:
“Thin veneer of pretense lends readily to delusion. In the rippling currents of the rueful stream, regard exists…that somehow, an adulteress would be favored above the flotsam of humanity.”
Then you turn the page and BOOM. A two-page spread in which the transformed Alan fights a number of scary, weird-looking monsters. Turn the page again and Alan tells you about the daughter that motivates him to kill the pig man bad guy. You have a responsibility to set everything up for your reader, no matter the length of the work. If you’re writing War and Peace II: Good God Y’all, you can take your sweet time. In a limited comic series, you better be snappy.
Think of it this way. You get home and can’t wait to tell your significant other a funny story. One of your coworkers, in their early morning funk, accidentally brought the wrong lunch bag to work. Their child went to school with a yogurt and an orange and your coworker has a Lunchables and a Fruit Roll-Up. This is not an earth-shaking anecdote. This story should not take forever to tell. How should your significant other begin their story?
“Forty years ago, food scientists at General Mills created a pectin-based fruit-flavored snack that they decided to package in a manner that they felt would appeal to childrezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…” See? You already fell asleep.
What about: “Guess what? Vanessa brought her kid’s lunch to work by accident. She had to eat a Fruit Roll-Up at her desk.”
See? The amount of time you have to get to your point is directly related to the power of the idea and the length of the work.
What Should We Steal?
- Contribute your own ideas to the mythologies that have always been a part of the human experience. What new ground can you break while playing with the idea of the vampire or sea monster or ghost?
- Match the pace at which you release exposition to the length of your work. If you’re doing a five-minute comedy set, get to the point. If you’re talking to the person sitting beside you on a flight from California to India…take your time. You have eighteen hours.
2013, Bryan Johnson, Cryptozoic Man, Dynamite Entertainment, Kevin Smith, Mythology, Walter Flanagan
Title of Work and its Form: Clerks, feature film
Author: Written and directed by Kevin Smith
Date of Work: 1994
Where the Work Can Be Found: Clerks has been released on DVD. The tenth-anniversary edition includes a ton of bonus features that will be of interest to fans of the film. As of this writing, the film is streaming on Netflix.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Material
Kevin Smith was working at the Quick Stop when he decided to sell his comic book collection and max out his credit cards to make Clerks. The story is relatively simple; Dante Hicks is called in to work in the Quick Stop on his day off. He’s not even supposed to be there on the day the film takes place! Dante is in a bit of a rut; his sweet and beautiful girlfriend, Veronica, urges him to go back to school. Instead, Dante seems resigned to a lifetime of jockeying the register and dealing with the crazy customers. Randal Graves is his best friend and works at RST Video next door. The two play hockey on the roof and attend Julie Dwyer’s funeral and even deal with the news that Dante’s ex-girlfriend is engaged to an Asian design major. (Things don’t end well for poor Caitlin Bree…)
Clerks represents Kevin Smith playing to his strengths and getting the most out of everything at his disposal. Smith couldn’t afford a ton of lights and could only film at night, so the script calls for the store’s security doors to be jammed shut. In the days before digital video, cost was a huge roadblock for beginning filmmakers. Mr. Smith made his budget realistic by filming in black-and-white. At the time, Nicolas Cage wasn’t willing to take a role in exchange for a ten-dollar bill handshake. Therefore, Smith cast local actors, some of whom had no experience in front of the camera.
These limitations were actually fortuitous accidents for Mr. Smith. David Klein’s black-and-white cinematography lends a rough, rock-and-roll look to a film that was decidedly NOT a product of the Hollywood studio system. The film is about young people who don’t make that much money and don’t have much going on in their lives…the look of the film fits perfectly. Liev Schreiber, one of our finest actors, would not have fit in the film. Being forced to cast relative amateurs like Brian O’Halloran and Jeff Anderson meant that Mr. Smith got a fresh kind of passion on the screen that most films just don’t have. Having the shutters over the windows through the whole film reinforces the sense of claustrophobia in the protagonist’s life. Dante is scared he’ll never get out, but he doesn’t know how to get out.
Mr. Smith made the most out of everything he did have. When writing his script for the film, he clearly thought about everything that could be done in a convenience store and a video store. He might not have been able to afford a thousand crane shots and to film each dialogue scene with the perpetual spinning you find in a Michael Bay film, but he could give one of his friends the role of a customer who searches for the “perfect dozen” carton of eggs. The building has a roof, of course…Mr. Smith had his characters play their hockey game up there. What does a video clerk need to do from time to time? Order videos. So Randal reads a list of porno movie titles in front of a mother and her two-year-old.
At that point, Mr. Smith was not a highly experienced filmmaker, so he made up for it with loads of passion. He didn’t have a ton of money, so he wrote a script that he could afford to make. Most importantly, he just went out and DID IT. Shouldn’t we all follow his lead?
What Should We Steal?
- Exploit your setting and your characters. As you’re writing, make a list of everything that you would find in your settings. Let’s say you’re setting a horror movie or book in a hardware store. Wouldn’t you expect to see your characters use a wide range of tools during the story? What if a character happens to be a plumber? Plumbers are generally good with their hands and have a good sense of how to fix things. How could you exploit that in your story?
- Turn your limitations into advantages. Do you have trouble writing stories that are very, very long? Write an epistolary novel that consists of lots of very short sections. Maybe you’ve only lived in one place your whole life. That’s fine; write the short story that truly captures the feeling of your hometown.
1994, 37, Kevin Smith, Material