Demon of the Underground

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How To Read a How To

As some of you may know, in early October I received my first short story contract. Since then, I've been in contact with many other writers and have had the opportunity to learn a lot from them. In a recent conversation with a more experienced author, she told me about her unpleasant experience reading a "how-to" guide to writing. The guide was written by another author whose work I enjoy, and although I knew he'd put out this how-to guide, I never felt inclined to read it. The conversation made me think about why I'd avoided his book, and why I actually tend to avoid most how-to's in general, both in writing and in art.

Would I read a tutorial called "How to use the curves tool in Photoshop" or "How to use an airbrush"? Absolutely! Do I read the Chicago Manual of Style and check out the style guides of any publisher I plan to do business with? Definitely. These are technical skills and guidelines that anyone can share, and I'm always interested in learning them.

But when it comes to creative endeavors--i.e. how to write a novel, how to paint a webcomic page, etc.--I believe that the words "how to" in the title of any book or tutorial should be replaced by "how I." I love checking out step-by-steps and process work of other artists; it's fascinating to see how different we all are, and how other artists' brains work. And sometimes I learn a thing or two that could make my own art better. But when "this is how I do it" turns into "this is how you should do it," there's the potential for trouble.

I'm speaking as someone who loves looking at unique and one-of-a-kind art, and someone who loves reading books that don't follow a formula. I get disheartened every time I see a clique of webcomic artists who share the same style and every time I read a book that I feel like I've already read.

In the field of illustration, there are many valid professional reasons for emulating someone else's style. But the beauty of webcomics, self-published comics, and most novels is that they represent the creative vision of their individual writers and artists.

Unlike the big comic book publishers that choose a story based on marketing directives and hire people with good technical skills to churn them out, webcomics and self-published works come from a more natural origin. They are individual works of art; therefore I believe they shouldn't look like they came out of a corporate cookie cutter.

So technically, the title of this blog should be "How I read a how-to." And the way I do it is I treat it as an autobiography. If there are elements of it that are inspiring, I give them a shot. But I don't follow them step-by-step. I want to draw like Bob, not like the lite version of someone who wrote a tutorial.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I am an author as well, though I think with the proliferation of the internet most people can make that claim. Not commercially-published, yet, though I have been lucky enough to get several shorts into professional publications. Difficult to find pro-ranking fiction magazines anymore, though. There are less than a dozen I submit to regularly. The acceptance letters are always so elating, aren't they? Especially after several hundred rejections.

    I'm sorry, I'm getting off topic. Your point about How To books and articles is well made. The book that Stephen King wrote on writing, for example, was so authoritative that it sounded as if a writer must follow all the instructions inside to be successful. It wasn't until about a year ago when I received a letter from another author I admire that I stopped feeling guilty about writing in short bursts rather than daily. All we can do is present what methods work for us. I am, for example, one of the most plodding authors I've ever heard of. It takes several months of research and reading every book I can get my hands on to familiarize myself with anything even remotely tangential to the premise before I even begin to formulate an outline. Then it's several months more of refining the concept into an outline which details the scene by scene progression of events. Character descriptions, backgrounds, and ongoing motives feature greatly in the proceedings. Only once that has been polished do I start to write the rough draft. When people offer encouragement by telling me to sit down and "just do it," I want to smack them and their happy-go-lucky, power-of-positive-thinking attitudes. Of course, there are plenty of writers (geniuses, unlike me) who can sit down and hammer out a novel without planning anything ahead of time. It's all about how we tick inside.

    Anywho, I found your webcomic, read it thoroughly, and was entranced by its imagination, characterization, and detail in its story. I will continue to read with great interest and can't help but confess a fair amount of envy in regards to your success as an illustrator, your accomplishments with this work, as well as your ability as a storyteller. It's in that same vein, and related to your blogpost, that I'm just going to throw it out there and say that your worldbuilding abilities, creation of 3-dimensional characters, and knowledge of how to intertwine each character's backstory, motives, and actions into what I can only describe as a tapestry is so good that I've no doubt many authors would benefit from your creative process being explained. I certainly know I would read with great interest, as I always hesitate to throw more events into the mix, which you don't seem to fear at all.