Making a book, Step 1: There are no wrong words. (At least not yet.)
I’m not one to name-drop, because people who drop names never do not sound ridiculous when doing so. But I can’t run down this post without running past Roger Ebert, who, when I met him some 15ish years ago as a college newspaper opinion page columnist, dispensed the best and simplest advice about writing I ever received:
Don’t stare at a blank page. Write something down. And don’t read what you just wrote.
Even with an idea sort of in hand, looking at a page full of nothing is intimidating, because years of really unimaginative elementary and high school English classes trained us to believe too absolutely in the value of a dynamite opening paragraph (and not nearly enough, if at all, in the virtues of obsessive self-editing.)
Ebert’s point was basically this: If you have an idea, just take whatever it looks like in your head and write it down. Write whatever comes to mind, no matter how horrifically it reads as it leaves your head and enters the page. And then keep writing as those poorly-formed ideas lead to more ideas that then help those original ideas become not-so-poorly formed after a second or third pass — which happens another day, because once you start this first pass, there’s no going back to what’s written to pretty it up. Just leave it be and move on.
My writing style — be it for columns or term papers or the movie reviews and comic strips I did for a wire service after college — changed completely the day I heard what may or may not sound like stupidly common sense. (It’s funny what common sense sounds like when it comes from one of your favorite writers’ mouths.)
So when I sat down to brainstorm an amusing multi-panel drawing based on the Jekyll-and-Hyde sighting I’d witnessed a while back, I did the most sugar-free plain vanilla thing possible and wrote down the obvious first two lines I’d previously thought of when this all started. I visualized a two-panel cartoon solely built around this, and I pondered how lame that would be if that was all there is, but I wrote them down anyway in hopes that two uninspiring lines would lead to a third or fourth that might take it somewhere worth saving.
Rather rapidly, two lines led to three, four, five and roughly 46 equally shoddy lines that fed off of that first thought. Nearly all of it was completely mediocre. But it was here, looking at this anthology of C-tier observational humor I’d created, where I lost interest in the idea of a cartoon and adopted a mindset that, with a couple hundred or so passes at this incredibly mediocre list, there might be a book here.