What writers can learn from Calvin and Hobbs

Last week we talked about Peanuts, the comic strip about Good Man Charlie Brown by good man Charles Schultz. Today, I’m going to change directions entirely and talk about my favorite comic strip from childhood, Calvin and Hobbs. 

Written by Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbs ran from November 18th, 1985 to December 31, 1995. While a decade of work with one character on one project might not seem like a lot, let me put this in perspective for you. Garfield, who we’ll be discussing later in this series, has been running from June 19, 1978, until today. Foxtrot started on April 10th, 1988, and is still published on Sundays. So ten years is honestly quite a short career.

And in that short career, Watterson taught me a lot about being a creative. I owe him a great debt of thanks for that. Not only for the lessons but for many peaceful and joyous hours when I was a little person. 

That being said, not everything I’m going to say is kind. But here are six things I learned from Calvin and Hobbs, and the writings of Bill Watterson. 

Don’t write down to your audience

People have mentioned that I have a wide vocabulary. Not in a positive way, but that’s another story for another time. While some might assume I got this from reading difficult books early in life, the truth is that I learned lots of big words from Calvin and Hobbs. Because there are a lot of big words in there. Lots of big ideas, too.

And I got them. I learned how to look up words I didn’t understand, which is the number one way to increase your vocabulary. I learned that I could teach myself, in other words. Which is incredibly important for kids to learn.

See, here’s the crazy thing that happens when you assume most of your readers are at least as smart, if not smarter than you. You turn out to be right. And when you assume kids can learn things, they rise to the occasion. 

Great art can exist within ‘pulp’ creations

As Calvin and Hobbs went on, the art style changed. Sometimes it was simple, a boy and his tiger bashing around the house and woods, flying through fields and landing, more often than not, in the lake. But the artwork, especially in Calvin’s fantasies, got better. It was deeper, more expressive. More like a painting than what you’d expect in a kid’s comic strip. 

Watterson also started writing poetry. Some of it was for Calvin and Hobbs. Some of it was just good poetry.

As someone who writes genre fiction, it’s easy to feel looked down upon. Genre fiction, much like comic strips, is often not seen as real art until at least ninety years after the creator is dead. 

But that’s frankly bullshit. Art is subjective, but it’s not tied to any specific medium. So if graffiti artists can create works of art, if a cartoon about a little boy with an overactive imagination can include some of the best paintings and expressions of visual art I’ve ever seen, then a genre fiction story can have literary merit. Don’t limit yourself, or your work. 

Put what you love into your work

Bill Watterson likes to learn about weird stuff. If you read Calvin and Hobbs from the first strip to the last, which I have done multiple times, you’ll see Calvin’s knowledge and understanding of dinosaurs grow. That’s because Watterson’s understanding of dinosaurs grows. This is not the only thing that fascinated Watterson, and Calvin by extension. They both love detective noir, outer space, and nature. Calvin brings up politics and money from the perspective of a very bright six-year-old, which is a perspective I think a lot of adults fail to reach.

Write about what you love, and what you know. Write about the things that bother you. In my speculative fiction, I’ve written about witchcraft, depression, fearing that I’ll die alone. I’ve written about coal mining, bad landlords, and small-town living. My characters have dogs because I like dogs. Things that interest me work their way into my writing, whether I mean them to or not. So, why not lean into it? Why not have some fun with our art?

Don’t sweat details you don’t need

Throughout the whole run of Calvin and Hobbs, Calvin’s parents are never given names. We don’t know Susie’s parents, we never even see them. And of their entire class, we only ever know one other classmate’s name.

We don’t know these things because they are not important to Calvin or the way he experiences the world. He probably does know his parents’ names, but that’s not who they are to him. They are Mom and Dad. To Hobbs, they are Calvin’s Mom and Dad.

We do know that Calvin’s dad is a patent lawyer, though. It doesn’t come up a lot, but you can see how that might play into how Calvin sees his dad. Dad is a square who likes plain oatmeal and has a boring job as a patent lawyer. That’s all we need to know.

Sometimes we as writers put way too much detail into our work. Like, way more detail than we need. 

Listen, if it doesn’t have any impact on the story, we don’t need to know every little detail about the world you’re writing. We don’t need to know about the character’s family members that don’t impact the story. Hell, I usually don’t even mention what eye color my characters have unless it has something to do with the plot. Will it help you enjoy Quiet Apocalypse anymore if you know she has brown eyes? No, it doesn’t matter at all. So I didn’t include it.

If you’re in the process of editing something right now, let me give you a bit of advice. Go through your draft with a red pen and see how many details you can remove without impacting the story or the pleasure of reading. I bet you take out quite a lot. 

Protect what is yours

I’m sure you’ve noticed that there isn’t any Calvin and Hobbs merchandise. This isn’t because of a lack of demand. It’s because Watterson decided early on that he never wanted any toys, lunchboxes, cartoon spinoffs, or cereals tied to Calvin and Hobbs. There were lots of emotions regarding this decision. Lots of people stood to make a ton of money from merchandise. Lots of money from me, frankly. Do you know what I would spend on a Calvin and Hobbs lunchbox? Bill, if you are hurting for money you could still license that and make bank off silly nostalgic women like me. (Nostalgic being one of the words I first learned from a Calvin and Hobbs strip.)

But he never wanted that. He wanted Calving and Hobbs to be about just the comic. And I think that’s beautiful.

By the way, any of those awful decals you’ll see of Calvin peeing on various things are not licensed, and in fact, violate copyright law. So in addition to being tasteless and tacky, they’re also illegal.

It was a hell of a battle to keep Calvin from being plushy, or these days a squishmallow. But it was a battle that Watterson won. And despite my desire for a lunchbox with Calvin and Hobbs sitting in a tree on a fall day, I’m glad he won that fight. It sets a precedence for creatives like us, who might like our work to be about the work itself, and not have our characters slapped on anything that doesn’t move fast enough.

Leave when you know your project is done

I don’t feel that there’s enough Calvin and Hobbs. This is a world I could live in forever. 

That being said, there are a lot of comics I thought I could say that, and eventually, it all gets a little dull. 

Calvin and Hobbs ended while the characters were still fresh. When there was still passion in the story. 

When there was still passion in Watterson for these characters. 

There are a lot of reasons to end a story. Maybe it comes to its eventual conclusion. Maybe you as the creator lost your passion for it. Maybe the project didn’t take off with fans like you wanted it to. Maybe there are just lots of other things you want to spend your time working on. 

Whatever it is, you as the creator get to decide when it’s time to walk away. When it’s time to bring your characters to their happy (or not) ever after.

So that’s it. Sorry this post was a little late, but it was also a little long. Now, I’d love to hear what you think. Have you read Calvin and Hobbs? Let us know in the comments. 

Click here to preorder Man in The Woods today!

What writers can learn from Peanuts

Writers love Snoopy at the typewriter. At least, I love him. Like, a lot. I love his terrible stories that all start the same way, it was a dark and stormy night. I love his rejection letters that threaten violence. I love the everlasting optimism that drives him to write another story, send another submission, and even enlist Lucy as his beta reader. While his writing might be terrible, his ability to get up and dust himself off is an inspiration to all of us drowning in the slush pile. 

But that’s not all the inspiration that Peanuts has for us. Unlike his beloved creation, Charles Schultz was a terrific writer. Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang have been a constant source of joy and inspiration for decades. Today, I wanted to share with you the five most important lessons I’ve learned as a writer from them.

It’s okay to lose

Charlie Brown never has a winning baseball season. Lucy never gets Schroder to like her. Linus never gets to see the great pumpkin and Snoopy always gets rejection letters. Even Peppermint Patty, who always wins on the football field loses in the classroom. 

But that’s okay. They all lose, over and over, and they’re fine. They get through, they get by. And they’re pretty happy most of the time.

Look, we’re going to lose from time to time. I know I do. I’ve had failed launches. My football and hockey team didn’t make it to the playoffs this past season. I’ve bottomed out my emergency fund more times than I care to talk about. Life is far from perfect. And that’s okay. Life is still good, even when we lose.

Don’t shy away from what you believe in

My favorite Peanuts character is Linus. He knows himself. He knows what he needs, what he believes in, and who he is. 

Linus is a Theologian who carries around a blue blanket for support and believes wholeheartedly in God and The Great Pumpkin. And he doesn’t care if anyone else believes. He also doesn’t care if anyone thinks he’s foolish, or childish for doing what’s best for him.

Linus is my role model. I want to be brave enough to tell people exactly who I am and what I believe in. And in fairness, I usually am. Most people reading this will already know that I’m a witch and also a Christian. It’s weird, but it works for me. 

I also aspire to be unapologetically me. To carry my version of a blue blanket for comfort as I face a world that is sorely lacking in peace. To insist upon my cup of stars. 

What’s your blue blanket? Let us know in the comments. Mine is a specific red lipstick and my favorite crystal necklace with a St. De Sales medal attached to it. 

Plan for the rain

One of my favorite Charlie Brown quotes is this. He said the secret to happiness is to own a convertible and a lake. If the sun is shining, you can ride around in your convertible and enjoy it. If it’s raining, you can be comforted by the knowledge that all that rain is good for your lake. 

It’s gonna rain in your life. Bad things are going to happen. Life’s gonna be a lot easier if you accept that. Especially in your writing life. Maybe your publishing company will go under. Maybe your computer will crash and take your document with it. (Cloud backups, people!) Maybe your loved one will get sick while you’re trying to launch your book. Your career and your life is going to be a lot brighter if you accept right now that things aren’t always going to go to plan, and it’s not even a little bit your fault. 

It’s okay. Enjoy your convertible, and know that the rain is good for your lake. 

Know when to fight for yourself and your creations

This one’s a bit of a cautionary tale. Charles Schultz, much like his beloved Charlie Brown, was a little bit wishy-washy. He never liked the name Peanuts for the strip. He wanted to call it Lil’ Folk. 

He also wasn’t super thrilled with the rampant commercialization of Charlie and the gang. I’m not thrilled that Hallmark owns the rights.

At some point, Schultz lost control of his creation. Likely it happened in the same way the frog is boiled, little by little. 

We have to protect our creations. Yes, as writers we have to work with publishers. Yes, sometimes we need to listen to other people’s ideas. But sometimes we need to listen to ourselves and stand up for ourselves. Sometimes we’ve got to say no, even if that means we don’t work with a certain company. Otherwise, we end up with a comic strip named something we don’t like, or a whole series of books with trashy covers. 

This was a lesson I needed to learn myself.

Keep trying

Even though Charlie Brown never wins a baseball game, he keeps trying. Even though Linus never sees The Great Pumpkin, he keeps trying. Even though Lucy will never win Schroder’s love, she keeps trying. Okay, maybe Lucy should stop trying. That’s kind of stalker behavior. 

But the rest of them are right to keep trying. And so are we.

We’re not idealists here. We’re professional writers, and we know how freaking hard that is. It’s getting harder every year.

There are fewer and fewer publishing companies and bookstores. Magazines are dying. The paying markets are drying up. More and more people are struggling to make ends meet, so they sure as hell aren’t buying luxury items like books. At least not as many. 

And yet, I’m going to keep trying I’m going to publish my books and submit my short stories. I encourage you to do so as well. 

Step up to that pitcher’s mound. Show up in the pumpkin patch with your best friend and blue blanket. Yes, you might lose the game, or miss trick-or-treat. 

But maybe, just maybe, the Great Pumpkin will find that your pumpkin patch is the most sincere. And he’ll bring toys to all the good little boys and girls. 

Or, in our case and Snoopy’s, publishing contracts.

Pre-order Man In The Woods on Amazon now.

Here comes another book!

If you’re following me on Instagram or Mastodon, you might have seen some fun and dark videos from me in the last few days. And you might have been wondering what that was all about.

Actually, if you read my post last week you probably know what this is about already. But just in case, here you go.

That’s right. I’m relaunching The Man in The Woods as a standalone short story on Amazon. And if you’ve never read this eerie little tale of mine, you are in for a treat.

Plus, check out that new cover. I love that cover!

The Man in The Woods was inspired by the consistent residential development of my sleepy little hometown. I have a deep hatred of insta-neighborhoods where each house looks exactly the same. They often go up in or near quiet neighborhoods where families have lived for generations.

Families that know the land. They know the things that exist in those lands and what to do to protect themselves. They know to watch for the signs of danger. And there’s often danger to watch for. Such is the case in The Man in The Woods.

The short story is available now for pre-order on Amazon. It’ll launch on May 5th, and I’m super excited. It’s a fun read, and I hope you love it.

Go preorder your copy, and share it around if you want to give me a little bump. I’ll appreciate you forever.

My publisher just dropped me! What do I do now?

On March 27th, I woke up to five of the most confusing emails I’ve ever received. Each one was from my publisher, had a pdf of one of my books attached, and contained only two words.

Rights returned.

Confused, I did the unthinkable and checked the author’s Facebook page for the publisher. At first, it appeared that it had simply vanished. I caught a comment from another author in a notification that I could no longer open. It read simply “I just got emails that said rights returned.”

Still incredibly confused, I sent an email to the publisher. It was fairly simple, so I’ll include the entire email below.


Sorry, I must have missed an email. Can you tell me why all of my book rights are being returned?


Nicole Luttrell

The answer came days later. As it was also simple, I’ll include that entire email below as well.

Your books were returned for a lack of promotion.

The only thing I cut from that communication was the name of the COO. I could share it. But I, unlike the people who run this publishing company, am a professional. I’ll not be saying the name of the publisher here. You know who published me. 

I have had links to my books on my website for years. The Woven trilogy isn’t exactly something I’m quiet about. And yet, at some point, this became not good enough. It wasn’t good enough for at least one other writer. I believe there were likely other victims in this culling, but I cannot prove that.

So here I was, at the end of March, with four books dumped into my lap that had been adequately represented just days before and me with no reason to think this was going to happen. 

I am hurt. I feel betrayed. I don’t know the real reason my publisher decided to drop me and potentially other authors. And yes, I imagine if I’d fought the issue I could have forced them to keep right on publishing my book. But frankly, I don’t feel like it. 

Frankly, I think I’ve got every reason to take my books and go home. Frankly, there’s a reason that Falling From Grace was the last book I published with them, even though I’ve published several books and a podcast since then. The company wasn’t exactly professional to start with. The covers were sad, the promotion was dismal. The launches were botched and my concerns were never met with any real answers. And honestly, the rights for at least one of my books were about to expire anyway.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, I have some advice for you. First, understand that it is perfectly okay to get mad. This was shitty behavior, and I didn’t deserve it. My books didn’t deserve it. I have every right to be angry. 

Don’t freak out online

Just because I have a right to be angry doesn’t mean I should jump on social media and start dragging people. It’s childish, and it’s unprofessional. Even here on my personal blog, I’m not going to start calling out my former publisher by name. I’m not going to call names.

For one thing, I’m a grown-ass adult. Just because others have not treated me properly doesn’t mean I’ve got to act in kind.

For another thing, the publishing world isn’t all that big. If I was to act like a child over this, I’m not going to like how other professionals in the field react. 

Don’t feel like you’ve got to hide what happened to you

That doesn’t mean I can’t tell you all that this happened, though. After all, I have every reason to warn people that this is the kind of thing that can happen to you. Since this is a blog about living a writing life, it’s kind of my job to warn you. Just because you have a publisher doesn’t mean your career is set.

This is one of many reasons literary agents are worth their weight in coffee. 

But if you have been mistreated in the publishing world, and you can talk about it without acting like a twat, do so. We need to know who the bad actors are in this world. 

See this as the opportunity that it is

Finally, celebrate. Yes, I’m sorry to say that this means my books are out of print right now. If you never got a chance to read the Woven series, you’re going to have to wait until later this year. 

Don’t think for one second that a setback like this has to be the end of your writing career. It’s not. You have your work, and you can do whatever the hell you want with it now. That’s the beautiful thing about the self-publishing world. If you have the rights to your books, then do what you want with them.

More of this on Monday. 

All in all, I think the next several months are going to be pretty exciting for me. And for you, if you like my work. Because now I have all my books back. I can only make them better. And of course, I have several other projects in the works. 

If you’re a fan of my horror stories, check in on Monday. 

If you loved season one of AA, July is going to be fun for you.

If you’re a fan of fantasy stories about boys who weave visions and girls that spin light, you should look forward to November. 

Don’t let anyone stop you, my loves. Don’t let other people’s shitty behavior make you shine any less. And I can’t wait to take you along on this journey with me. 

Paper Beats World is a labor of love. If you can, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi.

We should be concerned about AI writing

It was a dark and stormy night, the kind of night that makes you want to stay inside and lock all the doors. But Sarah had promised her friend she would house-sit for her while she was away on vacation. The house was old and creaky, and the sound of the rain tapping against the windows made Sarah uneasy.

As she settled into the couch to watch a movie, she heard a strange noise coming from upstairs. It sounded like footsteps, slow and deliberate. She tried to convince herself it was just the old house settling, but the sound persisted.

Sarah cautiously made her way upstairs, her heart pounding in her chest. As she approached the guest bedroom, the sound grew louder. She pushed the door open and found the room empty. But then she noticed something odd – the closet door was slightly ajar.

As she reached for the door handle, a cold breeze swept through the room, sending a chill down her spine. She hesitated for a moment, but curiosity got the better of her. She slowly pushed the door open, and what she saw made her scream in terror.

Standing in front of her was a figure, dark and shadowy, with eyes that glowed like fiery embers. Its mouth twisted into a sinister grin as it reached out to grab her. Sarah turned and ran down the stairs, the figure hot on her heels.

Just as she reached the front door, Sarah felt something grab her ankle, causing her to trip and fall. As she looked up, she realized that the figure had been nothing more than a coat hanging in the closet. But the relief was short-lived as she heard a sinister laugh echoing through the empty house.

Sarah quickly got up and ran out of the house, never looking back. She never returned to that house again, and she never spoke of that night to anyone. But she knew that she had encountered something truly terrifying, something that she could never explain.

I didn’t write that story, a chatbot did. 

Yeah, we’re talking about chatbots today. And I’ll be really surprised if I’m the first person you’ve heard talk about this topic. It’s been hotly contested in social media. Artists of all sorts are in arms about AI-generated art. Is AI content taking a chunk of the already slim writing market? Are we going to lose our jobs to AI writers? Was this blog post written by an AI?

(No, except for the above story, it was not. This is all me, baby.)

The bad news

Let’s start with how I got the above story that, again, is not mine. I pulled up a free AI word generator and asked it to write me a scary story. That’s exactly what I typed in. Write me a scary story. Whether or not that story was scary is arguable. But the story is competent.

So what if I had asked the AI to write me a product description? Or a blog post on a specific topic? The chances are good that I’d have gotten a similarly bland but competent response. 

Back in the day, I wrote product descriptions for independent businesses. Lots of writers do that to make money. Some other ways writers make money include but are not limited to ghostwriting blog posts, writing content for business sites, and copywriting. When done well by a creative and talented writer, any of this content can be awesome. But not everyone needs that writing to be awesome. Frankly, that writing just needs to be competent. Businesses need a ton of writing done, and nothing is saying it needs to be lyrical and lovely. It just needs to give accurate and concise information. So yes, I think a lot of companies that used to pay writers for writing are probably already using AI-generated work instead. Being a full-time writer was already hard. Hard enough that I, after nine years of work have not gotten there. Lots of writers rely on copywriter gigs to make consistent income. To me, this feels like low-cost competition copywriters didn’t fucking need.

Then, of course, there’s the thorny little question about where this content came from. Again, referring to the story above, I do not know how the AI did that. In a matter of seconds, by the way. For all I know, this writing is the work of some unnamed and uncredited author. An author that I just unknowingly stole from. And insulted by calling their work dull. If that’s you, I am sorry. But don’t worry, creativity’s like any other muscle and it can be strengthened. 

The point is that stealing from creatives is a terrible thing. And it’s the last thing we want happening on a grand scale.

This is a major concern for visual artists, and I get it. No one should have the right to take your work, even a part of it, without giving you the credit you deserve.

The good news

You probably didn’t need me to tell you that the story above wasn’t mine. It’s clearly not my writing style. If you’ve been around Paper Beats World for a while, you know my writing style. 

If you’re a fan of anyone’s writing, you can probably recognize their writing style. I could read a paragraph by either Laini Taylor or Justina Ireland and probably tell you who wrote it. 

This is what is really missing from that writing example above, any sense of personal style. 

This is why I don’t think creative writers have anything to fear from AI writing. At least, not yet. AI can only replicate what already exists. It cannot develop its own style, or create new things. 

Yes, I do think the market’s going to get flooded by shitty, AI-written fiction. No, I don’t think it’s going to cause much of an issue. There is still no replacement for human creativity and personality. 

What can we do about it?

Sadly, I don’t know that there’s much we as individual creators can do. We can’t make businesses hire actual writers instead of using AI-generated content. And we certainly can’t stop people from using this AI technology. Nor should we, because that’s a slippery slope. Look, I might not think the AI can write a good horror story, but it still has a ton of vital uses.

But we can reject AI-created work. As indie writers, we can keep hiring actual graphic artists to create our covers. We can shun AI art and writing online, and call it out when we see it. We can make sure that we’re being honest if we do use AI in any of our writing. 

Which, to be clear, I have no intention of doing. But if you do, that’s fine. Just remember that real human creativity is always going to shine through. 

Another way to battle AI content is to support flesh and blood creators. If you’d like to support Paper Beats World, you can do so on Ko-fi.

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