MegaCon 2010: Writing Genre Fiction Panel

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Late Saturday evening in Orlando, Florida, five veteran comic book writers discussed their processes and the fine-tuning of genre fiction. On hand was Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray (Power Girl, Jonah Hex), Marv Wolfman (Crisis on Infinite Earths, Vigilante), Billy Tucci (Sgt. Rock) and Brian Pulido (Lady Death) to talk about everything but superheroes.

The panel started out jovially, with Gray and Palmiotti, co-writers on most of their titles, riffing with one another. Palmiotti was also joking that Darwyn Cooke couldn’t make the panel due to previously trying the Cajun Chicken at the convention center. A warning was henceforth issued: Don’t try the Cajun Chicken.

After brief introductions (and yes, Justin Gray is real), they immediately went to taking questions from the audience. Asked about the difficulty of writing genres, Marv Wolfman noted, “There are maybe eleven stories out there and they’ve all just been repeating.”

He was alluding to the fact that writing genre is just like writing anything else, in order for it to succeed, the characters have to resonate. His remarks resonated with the dais as well. The genre aspect is just mechanics, where as none of it matters without compelling character work.

When asked about what genre they find challenging, each member of the discussion chimed in with their dreads. Brian Pullido added, “Anything heroic tends to be sappy when I write it,” alluding to his comfort in more macabre stories.

Both Billy Tucci and Marv Wolfman agreed that writing a straight romance story is difficult for them without feeling or sounding cheesy. Gray added that it’s difficult to truly capture a teenage character’s voice. At this point, Palmiotti added that when it comes to dialogue, it typically only has a five-year shelf life, at best. The way people talk changes, so you tend to steer away from slang.  I can imagine this making capturing a youthful voice even more difficult.

When asked about the best constructive criticism received in their careers, Mr. Wolfman relayed something Jerry Conway once told him at the beginning of his career.

“Jerry told me I can’t write characters and I should learn. I concentrated on it for three years.”

Further into the discussion, the topic of romance kept popping up. Palmiotti and Gray added that there should always be romance in a story. Whether it’s between two people or the love of an animal or car. Your character is infinitely more relatable if they love something or someone.

When discussing clichés, Wolfman added, “recognize it’s a cliché and work around it or with it.” To which Gray added, “a cliché can be a useful weapon” towards quick characterizations or broad strokes to be filled in later

One of the more entertaining bits of the panel was when Palmiotti and Gray started going back and forth regarding a far-fetched scenario. Jonah Hex Vs. A Shark. Without skipping a beat Justin and Jimmy started asking one another questions to make the scenario work.

-       How did the shark get there?

-       Why is the shark there?

-       Why does Jonah have to/want to fight it?

-       Is the shark from the future?

This back and forth went on for a few minutes, quickly illustrating the two writers' teamwork mentality. Upon conclusion of it, Jimmy added, “No matter what, editorial will not let you have anyone feeding a baby to alligators.”

After the laughter died down, the panel continued to discuss topics of mechanics, and inspiration. They left us with some wonderful tidbits of structure and fun learning tools. For instance, if you want to learn how to end a story, read a newspaper. All of those articles have an ending. As a writer, you just have to get us there. Also useful, read all dialogue out loud. If it’s at all clunky, lose it.

The room of about sixty people closed out their convention day with these five writers lamenting about the popularity of Twilight (pros and cons), the danger of Cajun spiced poultry and how they make a living off of doing something they love.

It was a great and thoughtful way to close out an eventful day.

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