SPEAKING WITH… KURT BUSIEK
(Part Two)

Welcome back to What Th--? #13, and the second part of our three part question and answer session with Kurt Busiek. In less than a decade, Kurt has justifiably emerged as one of the major talents in comics, winning award after award for his work on Marvels, Astro City and other great comics and graphic novels. I want to thank Kurt for his answers. Again, it is so easy for writers to just toss out a few words here and there when asked to submit to a website questionnaire. We’re asked daily to respond to questions and, frankly, I’ve been known to short-shrift a few answers if the person needs it quickly. I’ve been incredibly lucky so far that the people who have agreed to be featured in What Th--? Have gone above and beyond. I hope that our readers are getting something out of this. If you’re interested in being a professional, I can think of nothing better than understanding why other writers do what they do. Again, thanks, Kurt.

Marv Wolfman: HOW DO YOU RECOGNIZE WHEN A STORY ISN’T WORKING AND WHAT DO YOU DO TO FIX THE PROBLEMS?

Kurt Busiek: There's a terrific book I discovered about 15 years ago, a book called THE FICTION EDITOR, by Thomas McCormack (also known as THE FICTION EDITOR, THE NOVELIST AND THE NOVEL), which helped me enormously on that front. Up until then, I didn't have much confidence in my writing, because I thought I was missing something, that other writers knew what they were doing and I was just floundering about it the dark. I didn't understand theme, I didn't get it -- I couldn't make sense of the contradictory stuff I'd read or been taught -- and I suspected that there was some secret I just didn't know and never would, and all I could do was depend on craft, make my stories logical, and hope that was enough.

But McCormack argues that theme, as it's taught in literature courses, is useless, contradictory crap. He rips the whole idea apart, starting with the idea that theme is all-important, but that great stories can have trite themes, and lousy stories can be built around fascinating themes. He goes on to suggest an alternative, gleaned from his years as an editor -- that every story needs an organizing principle, a goal that the author is trying to communicate, whether it's an over theme, like "war is hell" or "love conquers all," or simply an attempt to capture an emotion, an experience -- making the reader know what it felt like for the author to be seventeen one particular summer, for instance.

Everything in the story must serve that principle -- not a message, not a moral, but just whatever it is the author is desiring to communicate. I don't know whether that works for others, but it was a revelation to me -- it was something that I could understand, that allowed me to shape a story beyond its surface content. And my writing got a whole lot better, very quickly, as I got more ambitious, reaching for something beyond mechanics.

So the job of an editor, McCormack argued -- and this applies to self-editing, too, to the author judging his own work -- is to make sure the story serves that central principle as well as it can, or find a different principle it can serve better. And all the techniques of fiction -- rules of structure, rules of presentation and so on that writing books go on at length about -- are subservient to that one goal. And more, these techniques are diagnostic. They only get used when something's going wrong.

So if a story works -- if it satisfies, if it feels right and accomplishes what it needs to -- then technical rules are irrelevant, just as if a man has only one lung, but is breathing fine, a doctor won't do anything. But if the story's not working, if the man is having trouble breathing -- then you bring all your diagnostic skill to the situation to see what might be wrong.

As a personal example, ASTRO CITY #1 is simply a character sketch. We're told, in writing class, that a story is about something changing, about a protagonist or protagonists involved in a conflict that reaches a resolution as they succeed or fail, and they are changed as a result. That doesn't happen in ASTRO CITY #1.

Samaritan doesn't change, doesn't succeed or fail in his overarching mission -- he just struggles for a day, and falls asleep knowing that the next day will be more of the same. But the story works -- what I set out to do was to make the readers understand what it's like to be in that position, what it feels like to be so busy doing what you love that you don't have time to enjoy it. And at that, it succeeds. If it didn't work, then out would come the diagnostic tools, out would come all those rules of thumb about craft and structure and dramatic pacing, and I might have played around with the idea that the story didn't work because there's no change, nothing that's different for the lead at the end of the story. But that's all diagnostic -- because the story works as is, I can safely ignore the fact that it breaks the "rules."

So that's my yardstick. If the story as it's coming together feels right, feels satisfying to whatever inner sense of these things I have, then I don't need to change anything. If it doesn't work, if I find it unsatisfying, I start asking questions -- I try to make sure I understand that core principle I'm serving, I break the story down into acts to see if each act is doing its job, and I look for things like "what changes? how is the conflict resolved?" And all those mechanical rules, all that craft, usually serves to point up what's missing (and in my case, I often find that it's structural, that I have pieces of what should be the first act spread throughout the story, and as such it feels like the story ends too fast, because the reader isn't engaged with what the characters are engaged with until too late). At that point, I either rebuild the story, or I give up on it and start over with a different take.

MW: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A FIRST DRAFT AND FUTURE DRAFTS?

KB: I find it rare that I do a formal second draft. Most of the work is done at the outline stage, and I bash away at it in that form until I have something that works, at least for me. Then, I write it. Once I've written it, I go through it again, doing a polish, looking for awkward moments, flat dialogue, awkward transitions -- and I smooth it out or punch it up as necessary. But I don't think of it as a second draft, more as a "final pass."

I have friends who'll write a story, realize along the way that they need to add scenes or alter scenes in the beginning, and go back and add whole new plot threads in a second draft. I find that I do that kind of revision in the outline, so I rarely need to do it in the finished text. And if I'm writing something, and it's just not coming to life, just isn't working in the text, I'll go back and re-outline, messing with it until it works. Then I'll start the new structure more or less from scratch. So that's a second draft, I suppose, but it feels like starting over to me.

But in that general "final polish" I do, generally what gets added, if anything substantive does, is more unique character behavior -- characters reacting to situations as they alone would, or getting dialogue more specific to them. I seldom end up adding new scenes -- if I need them, that usually comes up in the outlining.

W: HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT CREATING A CHARACTER?

KB: It varies -- or at least, the starting point does. Some characters I'll create out of whole cloth, and then try to come up with a story to put them in; others (the bulk of them, actually) are created to serve a particular story need. So if I'm writing THUNDERBOLTS, and I know I need a young, innocent, idealistic hero to contrast with the rest of the team, who are a bunch of wolves in sheepdogs' clothing, then I've got a particular role for the character to fit.

A lot of Jolt came simply from knowing the shape of the hole I needed to fill. She was young because it set her apart from the others and fed into her innocence and idealism. She was agile and physically active because we didn't already have someone like that one the team. She was Asian-American because the rest of the team was all white, so why do another white character? And so on.

But at some point, the character develops a core -- a basic attitude, a central idea -- not unlike the core principle in a story. Wherever I start in creating a character, it's a matter of finding that core and then building outward from it. For instance, with Jolt it became clear early on in thinking her through that she needed to be idealistic enough to contrast with the T-Bolts, but tough enough to weather the revelation that they were all villains and to want to redeem them, since she'd come to like them.

That's part of the reason we wound up establishing that her parents had been killed during Onslaught -- it allowed us to show that she'd already been through one crisis and was tough enough to weather it without breaking, to shoulder responsibility at a devastating time and do her best to protect others. So that combination of toughness and innocence informed the rest of the character -- her powers give her a lot of bounce, make her active, in motion, which fits in with her being young and energetic and upbeat. She's skinny and short, which makes her look fragile, which helps the innocence come through. The disparate pieces of the character have to fit together and add up to something; they can't just be a collection of unrelated detail.

For instance, I don't know that we ever established much about her eating habits, but I could see her being a junk food freak (it fits the sense of youth and energy), snacking a lot but burning it off with non-stop fidgeting and activity. I could see her being careful about what she eats, knowing a lot about nutrition and health, because that feeds into her coming off as responsible and dedicated. Still, even if she was a wheat-germ-and-granola type, she'd be open to a late-night pizza or a banana split -- she's impulsive, so even if she's usually sensible, she's not going to be rigid about it.

However, I can't see her being a gourmet -- she moved too fast, she's too much on the go, to savor fine French cooking or spend hours in the kitchen perfecting her pesto sauce. It's a detail that doesn't fit, that doesn't combine with the rest of what we know about her -- though it'd fit Moonstone or Zemo, and would even suit the blue-collar Atlas -- he's contemplative enough so that working in the kitchen would give him time to settle his mind and think, and he'd take pride in learning to do something well. So if it turned out that he makes a mean coq au vin, it'd be surprising but illuminating, rather than jarring. [On the other hand, he wouldn't be a habitue of upscale restaurants -- if he was a gourmet, it'd be the cooking that attracted him.]I'm rambling, but that's part of the process.

A character needs their various tics and quirks and interests and fashion styles to fit together while being distinctive and individual enough to avoid cliché. What does Jolt like to watch on TV? Well, if we're going no deeper than "bouncy teenager," she could drop references to the latest hot shows with hunky leads -- but that's flat and uninteresting. If we reach back into her core -- innocence and idealism, but tougher than she looks -- we might choose to make her a fan of old Warner Brothers gangster films, or classic musicals. Something with a lot of energy, where love or justice win in the end. That makes her more specific, but it can still be used to illuminate her basic core, instead of just being surface detail.That's the basics of it -- I start with what I need for the story, mess with it until I know what the character foundation is, and then build outward from that foundation, looking to make the character distinctive but focused.

Anything that doesn't illuminate that core idea -- or at least that doesn't mesh with it well -- is a distraction. But once you know that core, the rest can be worked out from it -- if you're trying to figure out how the character interacts with others, then the answer is usually, "in some way that'll illuminate their core concept." Hawkeye's so focused on maintaining his skills and psyching himself up for the kind of competition he engages in regularly, for instance, that he doesn't have a whole lot of energy to spare for others. So he works hard, he relaxes hard, and he's not considerate of other people's feelings. His interaction is consistent with his inner drive. He knows how to engineer fancy arrows because it's a skill he needs, so it gets his focus. He's a sloppy speaker because it's a skill he doesn't need, and thus it's a distraction.That's not an example of character creation -- at least not on my part -- but it does show how a well-conceived character is made up of facets that fit together, rather than just any old surface details.

MW: WHAT MAKES A STORY?

KB: I went into some of this earlier, in talking about how to tell when a story's not working. But I guess the short answer is "instinct." I like talking about technique, figuring out ways to bring the story through, but I don't think I've ever been terribly articulate about the underlying structure, about just where the boundaries are and what the difference is between plot and story, between story and theme -- I just know what feels like it works and what feels like it doesn't. I've read stories since I was three and a half, and that gives me a sense of what feels like a functioning structure and what feels like something's missing.

Ultimately, I guess, I'd say a story is a matter of two things -- a premise and a purpose. The premise is the story idea -- what if Dorothy Gale is swept away into the Land of Oz, and has to get home? -- and the purpose is that uber-principle I was going on about before -- in this case, maybe it's the idea that everybody wants something, but your heart's desire may not be what you think it is. If the premise is somehow resolved and the purpose is addressed, you have a story.

If all you do is resolve the premise, you've got a plot -- a sequence of logical events -- but no heart. If all you do is address the purpose, then you've got a sketch, not a story.So if I start with a premise -- what if there's a superhero who loves doing what he does, but is so busy he can't take the time to enjoy it -- and a purpose -- I want to make the reader understand, emotionally as well as intellectually, what it feels like to be in that situation, whether we're talking about superheroes or cops or freelance writers -- and I resolve the first part (in this case, the resolution is simply, "he endures and goes on") while addressing the second, I have the story from ASTRO CITY #1.

If my premise is that Ultron kills off a whole country and kidnaps all the Avengers that are "related" to him because he wants to build himself a home and a family, and my purpose is simply to make Ultron a badass again and to get the extended Avengers family emotionally churned up, then I've got "Ultron Unlimited." The former is closer to a sketch and the latter closer to a big ol' roller-coaster ride, but there's enough to each to make them both stories.

But all that's analysis after the fact. What I did in writing both of those was start somewhere -- in ASTRO CITY's case, it was with the idea, "What would it feel like to fly? I have flying dreams, but why would a superhero having flying dreams if he can already do it?" and in the AVENGERS case it was just, "We oughtta bring Ultron back. What would he be trying to do next, and how can I make it really personal for the Avengers?" -- and then I messed around with it until I had something that felt right.

MW: HOW DO YOU PITCH AN IDEA TO AN EDITOR/STORY-EDITOR/PRODUCER?

KB: Used to be, I had a formal structure for a proposal -- start with a nutshell description of the series idea, then expand on it, then provide any character descriptions or histories that are needed, then do an issue-by-issue outline to left people know how the story material will play out. Each stage is designed to let the editor figure out if he wants to keep reading. If he doesn't like the nutshell description, there's no point in going further. If he likes it, though, read on, going from the general to the specific, from bold strokes to finer details. If he makes it to the end, it's probably because he likes it.

These days, though, I'm usually dealing with editors who know my work, so I don't have to convince them I'm a good writer. If they didn't like my work, they wouldn't be listening to me. My pitches are usually verbal, or a brief written piece ranging from about a page and a half to two-and-a-half pages.I know all the submissions guidelines say keep it to a page, but I was never able to do that, so I work at the length that's comfortable to me, and trust that if my idea is good, editors will be willing to keep reading.

Beyond that, my approach is simply to explain the idea -- not dryly or in some rigid format -- but casually, and as if I'm telling someone the concept over lunch. If you're talking to a buddy, you're not worried about being formal, but you don't want to bore him -- so you tell the idea in enough detail so that he's not confused, but not so much that you're telling him every beat of the story.I might start with a nutshell concept description, or with an intro to the main character and whatever makes him compelling, or with a particularly intriguing opening scene. It depends on the story, and what best suits it. If it's interesting, they'll keep reading until they find out what it's about -- as long as it's not too long.

If I don't get to the main thrust of the story within a few paragraphs, I'm doing it wrong.The pitch for THUNDERBOLTS was like that -- first, over the phone to Tom Brevoort, then to Bob Harras at a Marvel writer's summit, in a noisy bar. I think I said something along the lines of: "In the wake of Onslaught, all the classic 'good-guy' heroes are gone, apparently dead. The general populace must be terrified -- the guys left are mostly scary mutants or suspected outlaws or rampaging monsters. They desperately need someone to come along and fill those empty shoes, be the guys who stand on the wall so that they can sleep safe in bed at night. This series would be about a new team of heroes that does just that -- they come out of nowhere, and they're heroic and noble and powerful and the public embraces them, the government welcomes them, and everyone's relieved.

The only problem is, they're really the Masters of Evil and this is all a big scam to lull the populace into a false sense of security, so they can do something awful."I wound up writing an actual series description/outline, so the marketing guys would have something to work with, so Mark Bagley could have a point to start designing visuals from, but that wasn't until after the series was sold. It sold on that paragraph above.

And it's backwards, from my classic approach -- the concept isn't there 'til the very end -- but it's short enough so that's not a problem. And the lead-up stuff sets the stage, points out an aspect of the Marvel Universe that isn't being used; it's interesting enough so that even after the first three sentences, the listener is engaged; the reaction is likely, "Yeah, that's an interesting situation -- what could come out of that?" And the answer is intriguing enough that I had a sale.I still like the formal structure, and would use it if I needed to -- but the main idea is still to hook 'em with something interesting, gets them thinking about what's different, what's intriguing, what the possibilities are. What sets the idea apart, and makes it dramatic.

Pitching an individual story rather than a series is the same thing, except there's less set-up work to do. If you're pitching a CAPTAIN AMERICA story, for instance, you don't need to explain who Cap is, though your pitch had better have something to do with who Cap is, and not be just an adventure in which he's easily replaced with some other hero. For instance, I sold an Iron Man story years ago with a pitch that started something like: "Nobody knows Tony Stark is Iron Man -- they think he's an employee. o what if there's an employee at Stark Enterprises who desperately wants to be hired to be the next Iron Man, and keeps putting in applications for transfer to the Iron Man program?"

I went on to frame out a story where the guy could interact with Tony Stark, could be involved in an Iron Man battle up close and personal, and could reassess his dreams as a result -- but I'd already started with something we hadn't seen before, an interesting situation that couldn't happen to anyone but Iron Man. From there, it was just a matter of proving I could build on the idea and do something satisfying with it.

***

That’s it for this week. Join us in seven for the conclusion of our massive interview with Kurt Busiek. This has been an incredible Q&A and I can’t thank Kurt enough for participating and pulling out all stops. If you are enjoying this as much as I am, let Kurt know by writing into our WHAT THE HEY? Message board.

See you all in seven.

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