Swinging The Big Hook

June 19th, 2006 | brainjuice

You know how sometimes you get a word on the tip of your tongue but just can’t find it to spit it out? It’s like that with writing sometimes.

(I’ll preface this with: don’t send me ideas, you silly fuckers.)

By previous agreement, I’m going to be producing a major new series with Avatar early next year. What that series will be is a matter of contention. I’ve thrown out three full-blown concepts for the series now. None of them were good enough. They weren’t bad books — I went as far as fully scripting two issues of one of them. But they weren’t good enough. They just laid there on the page. One of them attacked the themes I want, one of them had the energy, and one of them had the structure and language. But they don’t stick together, and separately they’re only a third of what I want on the page.

One of them’s too backward-looking, one of them plays too many market games, one of them has no attack to it.

It’s driving me mental.

It’s the blank page thing. Aaron Sorkin talked about it a bit, at the top of one of the WEST WING scriptbooks. The blank page is the only critic that can hit you where you live. In one of the episodes, in fact, a journalist asks Sam why writing a major speech is hard, and Sam says, because it’s a blank piece of paper. It knows all your secrets. In Sorkin’s words, it sits there and hisses, “I know how you’ve been scamming all those people all these years, GIFTLESS, you wanna dance with me?”

And we really don’t. We stare into space for hours, running themes and structures and settings through our heads. And in my case the blank page sits there and says, you’ve done that. That’s old. You’ve said that before. And it drives you mental.

Now, as a writer, I have a certain voice, because I’m interested in certain personality types and certain themes. And I can live with that. I came with things I want to talk about, and if you don’t like that there are plenty of other comics to read. But there are some things I don’t want to propagate. I’ve done enough reassessments of old fictional forms in my longrunning series. IGNITION CITY was a fun idea — crossing DEADWOOD with the 1930s sci-fi serials — but I find I don’t want to do it as a monthly series. Because it was JUST a fun idea, there was very little thematic meat on its bone beyond The Death Of Crewed Spaceflight, the Death Of Wonder and Flash Gordon running a crooked bar while Ming The Merciless hides in the woods and Zarkov does his Tesla routine and Buck Rogers has been drunk since he got back from the 25th Century and blah blah. There’s enough for short graphic novels, maybe. But it doesn’t swing the big hook.

It’s time to stop playing the retro games and start thinking about what fiction in the 21st Century actually means. It’s a long century, and we’re just at the start of it, and there’s no way we’re going to define “21st Century fiction” right off the bat. But I’d rather not end up as a curiosity of the millennium. And I don’t want to find myself writing RETRO TAIL-EATING FUNNIES this time next year, still wrapped up in the business of tying off the 20th Century.

Entirely a personal choice, of course. I’ll still look with interest at what others do in that business.

I dunno. I’m also a little sick of writing things set in America. Even though I don’t do “American” particularly well, I feel like I’m losing my own vernacular a bit.

Send muses.


39 Responses to “Swinging The Big Hook”

  1. Fresh out of muses. I’ll buy you a round of Red Bull though.

  2. Sally Pathogen didn’t lead to anything helpful?-

    No worries mate,- you’ll come through. It’s what you do.

  3. Congratulations, you poor bastard. You get to invent one of the first close-up looks at the 21st century. Yes, I used the “i” word, ’cause that’s what it is.

    And if you’re sick of writing things set in the US, don’t. Write somewhere else. There is, at a minimum, an entire world out there that isn’t the US. We’re filling history’s fucking dustbin over here anyway, the only US story left to write is the Fall Of The Empire, and we have newspapers (mostly other people’s, but hey) and soon history books for that.

    Good luck inventing the future. I’m looking forward to the ride.

  4. stephen king’s on writing was motivating. you do write a lot of shit about america being that you’re british. you also do nihilism well. go for a walk, think about where the world is going, clear your mind, let the ideas come to you. if all else fails go to amsterdam for a week, watch live sex, bang hookers, and eat mushrooms.

  5. Like I say, I’ve got the themes, I know what I’m going to talk about.

    It’s the correct setting and situations that’re currently eluding me.

    I write a lot of things set in America because I’m working for the American market.

    I thought Stephen King’s ON WRITING was embarrassing.

    Oh, and to Michael: SALLY PATHOGEN just came out too dry.

  6. Hey, what about a story with a journalist set in the far future?

    ON WRITING is… not good. Embarrassing is a nice way to say it.

  7. i’m not one to make suggestions, but i’ll tell you that i’m sick and tired of questioning everything i do. i seem to retain the opinion of the last person i spoke to/read/saw about a subject, then i try it out on a new person and find that their opinion is completely different and they’ve sold it to me so much better than the last. so i’ll adopt that to an extent but tweak it so i think it’s mine.
    i definitely want to redefine a wheel but everything i think of is someone else’s to start with.
    blank pieces of paper are horrible but i love filling them with me. the only problem is who the fuck am i?!
    Warren, i know you’re not me, but good-fucking-luck.

  8. http://flickr.com/photos/trixiepix/sets/72157594169881557/

  9. “on writing” i thought was geared more toward the unpublished writer. since i don’t know what you mean by embarrassing, i can’t dispute your claim. although king can afford to embarrass himself considering his publishing record. he can’t write for shit, but i dig quite a few of his stories. and if you’re not writing literature, you’re writing stories.

    being from america, stories that happen in other parts of the world fascinate me, especially in comics. i want to see people and places i’ve never seen before, can’t even imagine, and doing things i’d never dream of. comics to me are an escape, a brief trip that doesn’t tax my brain, and if i happen to learn something new then i’m better off.

    the closest i’ve seen comics come to literature was “blankets,” and ishiguro’s “never let me go” was great btw :)

  10. Hope this helps.

    http://www.geocities.jp/sheceramic/koten2006so.html

    http://tokyoundressed.blogspot.com/

  11. “start thinking about what fiction in the 21st Century actually means”

    It didn’t seem to mean much new for the last twenty years or so of the 20th — particularly in academia. Not much use in postmodernity if it denies the pattern engines in our skulls the authority to ‘find’ or stamp those patterns on the world.

    On the bright side, it means what it always has — parcelling thoughts, images, sounds and sensations into a form others can unpack and put their own spin on in doing so. Entertaining, getting people to ask questions, occasionally to empathise, and keep thinking after they’ve put the book down.

    If the fantastical isn’t delivering, how about grounding in the C21st without any of those elements?

  12. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0873760433/sr=1-1/qid=1150688488/ref=sr_1_1/103-6382115-0255813?%5Fencoding=UTF8&s=books

  13. I’d say you poor bastard, but you don’t need pity. You just require a hit upside your head to reset you brain, followed by a chaser of Red Bull. The US is the Brit’s fucking petri dish, and a good scientist keeps a close eye on their experiment. Quit pissing around, stick your finger in the dish and lick. The taste and texture will give you clarity, and other things.

  14. Warren, we spend all our time reading magazines and watching shows and movies about people in far exotic locales. Americans are tired of America. Nothing interesting is happening right now – save what Rick said about the fall – and we’re all bored to death. We’ve been rocking against nothing for twenty years because we’re fucking tired of boredom.

    Gimme fire, man.

  15. I mean it occurs to me that you need a blank slate after you’ve dicked around so much with postmodernism. Everyone’s pomo. You’re probably popomo.
    I just threw up, a little.
    In any case: BUILD 21st century fiction. Take Fiction off its plinth and stare it (and your audience) in the face and tell it (them) what you want to do.
    Peter Brook, when discussing theatre in ‘The Open Door,’ says the first thing you should ask yourself when staging a play is “Can this be performed in an empty space?” And if the answer is no, then you put into the space whatever is necessary to tell the story.
    So you take these themes you have and you lay them bare for us and you tell us what you want to do with them. And since that may (will probably) require characters, a setting, a Hook, you bring us that.
    I realize that in trying to be helpful I probably sound like a complete twat, but hey, at least I’m not a republican.
    -a

  16. I mean it occurs to me that you need a blank slate after you’ve dicked around so much with postmodernism. Everyone’s pomo. You’re probably popomo.
    I just threw up, a little.
    In any case: BUILD 21st century fiction. Take Fiction off its plinth and stare it (and your audience) in the face and tell it (them) what you want to do.
    Peter Brook, when discussing theatre in ‘The Open Door,’ says the first thing you should ask yourself when staging a play is “Can this be performed in an empty space?” And if the answer is no, then you put into the space whatever is necessary to tell the story.
    So you take these themes you have and you lay them bare for us and you tell us what you want to do with them. And since that may (will probably) require characters, a setting, a Hook, you bring us that.
    I realize that in trying to be helpful I probably sound like a complete twat, but hey, at least I’m not a republican.

    -a

  17. Seal clubbing Benny Hill style. You may need a youtube account to view, as it’s been deemed “offensive.” I believe bugmenot has logins, though.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsUAT3pXlH8

  18. Thank you for that. Your being so candid I mean. It’s nice to be reminded your hero’s are mortal. If it makes you feel any better, and I’m sure it won’t, I don’t do “American” so well either and I am one.

  19. Fuck the Future. I graduated college in 2000, a millenial coincidence that I thought was cool when I was doing the math back in high school. Now it’s emberassing.

    The future in America to me died on 9/11. Not in some “oh let’s all light a candle and blow each other for peace” sort of way, but in the public consciousness the future went from “How cool will it be when…” to terror alert color codes and marching into oil-rich nations whose brown leaders give the US backtalk. I remember having my head blown off by the wild ideas of Ellison and Clarke. I wanted to live in the 21st century where everything was sleek. It seems we sold off the idealism for a parcel of ipods and a bunch of agony-aunt politcos. Fucking Al Gore chiding us for driving too much? That’s our rousing Kennedy moment? Where the fuck are the big dreams, the big ideas? No wonder teenagers are fucking and drugging themselves silly. Pass the hillbilly heroin when your goal in life is to one day be able to attend work for Wal-mart selling enormously fat people tents to wear or packing on some camo and driving around Fallujah awaiting the next grenade attack.

    Someone needs to point at the fucking sky and say “There. We’re going out there, now. Let’s go”. In fiction, in politics, in life, in art, in every way. The 20th century is over, let’s do the next thing bigger.

  20. I don’t see why you should insist on writing American just because you have an American market. I think the kowtowing to Americans needs to stop for them to start looking outside of themselves rather than just looking at themselves all the time. A lot of them are pretty intelligent enough and adventurous enough to brave unAmerican things. Be as British as you want. You’re too close to it to realize that hey, a lot of British things are cool. We love you guys. Bring more of YOURSELVES to US. We want to know more about YOU.

  21. See? Garret is a perfect example of Americans bored with America.

  22. Jesus God, I hate that part of the job, but to be honest Warren, that is the job. You can steal structure, themes and dialogue, but it’s impossible to steal the right decisions. If it helps, I recommend Bob McKee’s Story and some arbitrary boundaries like:
    * no major character lives longer than five issues.
    or
    * characters operating computers aren’t all David Lightman and they need tech support to change the screen resolution.

  23. When in doubt fall back on “evil monkeys” or booze. Ya got choices!

  24. Sending the muses I can–don’t know if they’ll make it all the way there, they’re finicky bastards.

    I associate the 20th century with Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, or The Transformers and Care Bears. Either self-aware expression, sometimes too impressed with it’s ability to look at it’s own process; or earnest, dumbed down storytelling in the service of selling toys. I have no idea how one would go about writing something definitevely 21st century, or even what that might look or read like.

    I’ve never read any advice on writing that, once you cut through the BS, was anything more than advice to fill pages with crap until you got inspired, and to keep on filling them until whatever it was was done.

    Best of Luck.

  25. Well, Just a suggestion for setting and what not, but how about some sci fi story with Indian or Communist Chinese protagonist’s. Both seem to be in a good position to succeed or join America as a superpower. Also, it seems to me that I have never read a story dealing with space travel from a Hindi perspective, and to be honest, it appears India is preparing itself to take a huge step forward onto the world stage, with it’s population becoming more educated. Just a thought, and something different. But them again, your Warren Ellis, and I’m just the low Monkey on the totem pole.

  26. Fighting soliders on the net
    Not in harm’s way, but brave you bet
    They fight Jihadis without pity
    Holding the line, at Circuit City

    Smarter than the high command
    They know the truth ’bout Afghanistan
    They’d catch Bin Laden in a week
    If only Bush could hear them speak

    To keep our children safe
    They have a plan
    All we have to do
    Is nuke Iran

    We are all brothers in this war
    Whether in a tank
    Or at a keyboard

    They fight the liberals with their pride
    Their only fear
    Is to go outside

    All we Americans demand is child flesh and fuel for our self hatred, Internet Jesus.

  27. You know, sometimes I wonder if the 20th Century actually killed all good Science Fiction for the 21st Century. It’s sometimes like Jules Verne. From the Earth to the Moon (1865)? Done. 20.0000 Leagues under the Sea (1870)? Check. The more mankind explores, the less wonders are left. And at the moment there is no new Jules Verne, no new vision for the future. Technical development was so damn fast, from hangglider to rockets to the moon in some 100 years. Fed everyy day with Star Trek. And at this moment, we seem to be kind of stuck, the only progress seems to be in making things smaller and putting more functions into a damn mobile phone. Instead of dreaming, the world seems to be just living and consuming. But you won’t get ideas from consuming. The only things that make me dream at this moment are pictures from the stars, nebulaes and other cosmic entities. If you see pictures like this http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/nebula_collection/pr2002011b/ , Picasso starts to look really bad.

    And maybe you, Warren Ellis, can be our Jules Verne for this Century.

  28. Muses, hm? I’m young, blond, pretty, and unemployed, and I love to dance. I would christen myself Terpsichore and fly to England, but I haven’t got the cash for a plane ticket and I don’t like the smell of cigarettes. Nothing personal; maybe you could switch to cloves?

    We’re all in the shit now, its true. Postmodernism is so dead it reeks, and instead of smashing and swirling the old stuff, we actually have to build something new. Even though we’ve been through pomo so we know it can’t be new…ah, paradox.

    I will make a trite observation: THIS is the twenty-first century. It’s all around you. We’re five years in. Maybe you can’t write the fiction of 2047 today. Start by writing the fiction of 2006, and see where it goes. Aren’t you and Bruce Sterling always saying that the future is happening now? Accept that the story is right in front of you, and maybe that will help.

    As for the chatter of the blank page, tell it to shut the fuck up or I will stow away to England just to spit on it. It is insulting my taste in fiction. GIFTLESS? You are not giftless. I do not spend my hard-earned dollars on the works of the giftless. You have many gifts. I have spoken.

  29. People will have more sex with robots. That’s a big problem. Maybe not so big. write about that

  30. I think that’s the current arc of Y THE LAST MAN, sadly, though the explanation is There Are No Men So The Women Must Fuck Machines, which isn’t too far off from reality and is thus relatable.

    Maybe you and Benito Cereno need to hook up and rip each other off. That kid’s got ideas coming out both ends.

  31. One word: voodoo.

    Gibson’s on to it already, though.

  32. There’s always old, old dreams. Those might be the most important in all of this newness. Those might be what all these above commenters are railing about missing as we miniaturize telephones and bomb things and oh god oh god the technology it’s not cutting it save me retro sci-fi.
    I always thought it was a sort of optimism, in your futurist work, that no matter what toys we have, we’re the same human beings, and often the same sorts of bastards, and the same bits of us shine underneath all the grime. That humanity will continue to be recognizable.
    Maybe, now that the kids are talking about falling empires, it’s time to come full circle and get back to extremely-basics?

  33. There’s always old, old dreams. Those might be the most important in all of this newness. Those might be what all these above commenters are railing about missing as we miniaturize telephones and bomb things and oh god oh god the technology it’s not cutting it save me retro sci-fi.
    I always thought it was a sort of optimism, in your futurist work, that no matter what toys we have, we’re the same human beings, and often the same sorts of bastards, and the same bits of us shine underneath all the grime. That humanity will continue to be recognizable.
    Maybe, now that the kids are talking about falling empires, it’s time to come full circle and get back to extremely-basics? Let the big hook dig into where it’s least expected.

  34. Eh, you’ve just been caught up in the poststructuralist enthusiasm, is all. It’s fun to see and learn a new way of thinking about stories. But I’ve been waiting for a comics writer to snap under the strain of all the self-reference and recontextualizing, throw everything out the window and run screaming down the street without bothering to put on pants first. Too bad you’ve got a blog to complain on instead.

    Tykje, you’re even describing your OWN concepts completely in terms of other people’s concepts. Snap out of it, man. Twist those clichés. TWIST’EM, I SAY!

  35. The next person to mention Robert McKee to me gets the Arse Eels.

  36. […] Quoth Warren Ellis: The blank page is the only critic that can hit you where you live. […]

  37. “the blank page thing”

    Warren Ellis, on what it’s like when you have trouble writing: It’s the blank page thing. Aaron Sorkin talked about it a bit, at the top of one of the WEST WING scriptbooks. The blank page is the only critic…

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