What writers can learn from The Far Side

Welcome to the final in our collection of writing lessons from cartoonists. At least for now. I might well realize suddenly that Baby Blues taught me a lot and do another in this series. Or, perhaps you out there will have a suggestion I never even thought of.

But for today, we’re ending on a high note with The Far Side.

Written by Gary Larson, The Far Side comic strip ran from 1980 to 1995. Even though the strip technically ended, The Far Side still has fans all over the world. A wide variety of fans, too. Kids love it, of course. But scientists love it. Almost any scientific discipline has a Far Side comic they can claim as their own.

I personally love Far Side. Like Calvin and Hobbs, it’s another strip I was introduced to from my grandmother’s bookshelf. Here are the lessons I’ve learned from it. 

Your style doesn’t have to be everyone else’s.

When you look at a Far Side strip, you’ll notice that not a single character is cute. Or aesthetically appealing. Everyone is fat, everyone has hairs sticking out of weird places. Even if it’s someone who shouldn’t have hair, like a fish. Everyone in the Far Side world is, well, kind of ugly. And it’s kind of the only strip that is ugly the whole way through. Most strips will at least have a cute cat, a pretty girl, or a guy with a rugged chin.

But that’s just not Gary Larson’s style. In the Far Side world, that’s what things look like. And it works out pretty great for him. 

For starters, it’s recognizable. You see a Far Side strip from across the room, you know what it is. Among a flood of comics that can sometimes look very much the same, you can point Far Side out.

More importantly, though, it’s Gary Larson’s style of writing. He didn’t try to mimic anyone else. He didn’t compare his dogs to Snoopy and lament that they didn’t look as good. He just drew in his style. And that’s great. 

Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to improve your art and get better. But maybe the best way to do that isn’t by trying to write like someone else. Maybe it’s by finding your style or voice and making it as good as it can be.

Write above people’s heads and they’ll reach for it

I bet you’ve read a Far Side strip that you didn’t get. I know I have. Hell, there’s even a joke about that in an episode of The Simpsons. The reason for this is simple. Larson frequently talks about scientific theories and facts that I don’t know or understand.

Here’s the cool thing, though. I’ve been reading Far Side since I was a little kid. Growing up, I’d go back to the collections on my grandmother’s bookshelves over and over again. And every time I read them, I got more of the jokes. I am not the only person who’s described this very thing.

And isn’t that cool? Isn’t it a great feeling to look at something and realize you understand it now? It’s a mental version of a mark on the wall to see how much you’ve grown since your last birthday. 

Don’t try to dumb yourself down. Talk about the topics that you want to talk about. If it’s not for some people, that’s fine. The people that it’s for will find it. 

Never stop having fun

Every strip of Far Side has one thing in common. They feel like the creator laughed when he came up with them. Larson is a fan of his own work.

And that’s awesome! You’ve got to be a fan of your work. You’ve got to have fun when you’re writing, at least when you’re coming up with an idea. (Not all the writing is going to be fun. I say this as someone about to start the fourth draft of her latest book. Not all the writing is fun.)

But you should be having fun with your art. It should be feeding your soul. Otherwise, why do it at all? Why not go get a real job? There’s lots more money to be made elsewhere. 

Being a likable person goes a long way

I have heard a lot of things about Garly Larson. He’s met some amazing people, like Jane Goodall and Robin Williams. What I’ve never heard from anyone is an unkind word about the man. Because Gary Larson is a likable guy. He’s not a pushover, as several legal issues will attest to. But he’s a good guy. 

Being a decent person, and treating other people well will get you places in this world, even when it doesn’t always feel like it will. Especially in the writing field, acting like a professional and a decent human being is a good idea. It might not open doors for you, but it will sure as hell not shut them like being an unprofessional dick will. 

Notice here that I’m not saying to be a pushover. I’m also not saying to not call out people who are being abusive or toxic. But there are ways to do that in a classy manner and ways to do that that will make people not want to work with you.

So be like Gary Larson. Stand up for yourself, but be professional about it. And be kind to people. It does more for you than you think.

I would love to know what your favorite Gary Larson comic strip is. Let us know in the comments. 

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What writers can learn from Garfield

Yes, that’s right. We’ve talked about Calvin and Hobbs. We’ve talked about Peanuts. We’ve talked about Cathy. Now, I’m back from Nebula Con, and I’m fighting allergies for every breath that goes in or out of my body. So I’m pissy and ready to talk about Garfield. 

 A cautionary tale for writers if there ever was one. 

Unlike the other comic strips in this series, Garfield is a lesson in what not to do. As in, what not to do with a franchise that is smart, edgy, and popular.

Launching in 1976, then titled Jon (The name didn’t change to Garfield until the strip was syndicated in 1978) the Garfield comic strip is probably as well known as Mickey Mouse.

In the beginning, it was way darker than most people realize. Jon once had a roommate named Lyman. He was Odie’s original person, and he vanished without a trace. He’ll make the occasional appearance, but for the most part, he’s not around. When questioned, Jim Davis would for the longest time say that no one should look in Jon’s basement. 

Man, I loved that. I also loved the series of comics that seemed to suggest that Garfield was left alone at home, without food or family, to starve to death. There’s a fan theory that nothing after that strip is real, it’s just a fever dream of Garfield’s to comfort him as his life ends, lonely and starving. 

Lots of people have dark fan theories about Garfield. And they’re fun. At least to a twisted person like me. 

The strip itself used to be fun. You had Jon, a successful cartoonist who isn’t successful at anything else. He strikes out constantly with Dr. Liz. He has no friends, except Lyman. His pets don’t respect him, and his neighbors hate him.

That’s funny. 

Then, there’s Garfield. He’s smart-mouthed, violent, and self-indulgent. He eats too much and doesn’t work out enough. He hates Mondays (even though he doesn’t work) and loves lasagna, his bear Pookie and his grandma. (Jon’s Grandma, who is exactly who I want to grow up to be.)

Add Odie into the mix as the idiot with all the luck, and it’s a cute mix. 

Then, things got stagnant. The stories came to a standstill. Then, like everything else that stops moving, it started to rot. 

Now, to my dismay, Garfield is a joke. It’s a strip that tells the same five jokes over and over. It’s a cartoon that has the laziest artwork I’ve ever seen. It’s a cringe-inducing movie. It is, in short, a disappointment.

So today, let’s discuss how we can learn from this. How can we avoid being Garfield? 

Don’t stop growing

Some of you reading this are going to be stars. It’s just a numbers game. Someone reading this is going to make it big. You’re going to be a household name, a Stephen King or a Toni Morrison. 

Many of you reading this will achieve at least some success so long as you keep writing and keep submitting. Again, it’s just a numbers game. To succeed in writing you need talent, persistence, and luck. And talent means the least of those three.

When you succeed, do not stop growing. Do not stop learning and becoming a better writer. 

That’s what, I think, happened to Jim Davis. He had success. Like, a lot of it. His characters are well-known and loved all over the planet. 

So he stopped getting better. 

Do you know who hasn’t stopped getting better? Stephen King. I know, me praising the King? Big surprise. But it’s true. His books keep on getting better. The Outsider was better than anything he’d written to that point. Then he wrote If It Bleeds, and that was even better still.

I would like to think that the same can be said of my work. I think Quiet Apocalypse is the best book I’ve ever written. I think the book I’m working on right now is even better. (It damn well better be. It’s the last Station 86 book. It had better blow your minds.) 

That’s how art should be. Every story should build on the talent and strength of the last one. The dialog can always get better. The story can be more creative. The characters can feel more real. You are probably already a pretty good writer, my friend. But don’t ever stop getting better.

Don’t give up your edge

Garfield is at its best when it’s a little edgy. When it’s a little dark. When Garfield is trying to send Nermal to Abu Dhabi without air holes in the box. When he’s smoking a pipe. When he’s shredding the neighbor’s dog within an inch of his life.

Garfield is at his best when he’s at his worst. When he is the hedonistic, unmotivated rage ball that we all kind of want to be at times. And because he is that so much of the time, it’s all the more endearing when he is kind. When he lets slip how much he cares about Odie. When he’s cuddly with Pooky or sensitive with Arlene. He is in that way a mini version of an anti-hero. We love Loki and Magnito for the same basic reasons. They do horrible things we would never think to do but might secretly want to. At the same time, they have kindness in them that only a precious few ever see.

That doesn’t work when the balance gets tipped. When the bad sides of a character are blunted. 

If you want to write a compelling anti-hero, let them be sharp. Let them do terrible things for their warped reasons. Let them do the things that you would never do, but secretly want to. Like, I would never stab a guy at a bar for touching me without my consent. But it feels so good when a character does it. I would never eat a whole lasagna, kick someone I don’t like over a fence, or cause an uprising in a vet’s waiting room. But I kind of want to.

And Garfield stopped doing those things. Maybe it’s because he was expected to be a good example for children. Or maybe it’s just because Jim Davis got soft. Either way, the strip doesn’t really without it. 

Don’t say yes to everyone who wants to play in your sandbox

Finally let’s talk about Garfield, the movie. Released in 2004 and almost universally despised, this could have been good. It wasn’t, but it could have been. 

If it wasn’t so cheap.

If it wasn’t so lazy.

If the characters didn’t suck and have little to nothing to do with the originals.

Here’s the thing. The Garfield movie was not done by people who loved the source material. It was written by people who wanted to make some quick money off a popular name. And it worked, sadly. 

This wouldn’t have happened if Jim Davis had been protective over his intellectual property. And it shouldn’t have happened. 

I’m all for shared worlds. Star Wars has been such an astounding success because so many diverse authors have been permitted to write in it. But not everyone who wants to write with you wants to do so with good intentions. Some people do not care about your characters in the same way you do. Some don’t care at all, except for what they can get out of it.

Remember, your story belongs to you. Your characters belong to you until you agree to let someone else play with them.

You always have the right to say no.

So that’s it. I hope you’ve been enjoying this series. If there’s a cartoonist I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments. 

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What writers can learn from Cathy

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The comic strip Cathy has gotten a lot of shit over the years. It’s seen as kind of sexist. Written by Cathy Guisewite and running from 1976 to 2010, it’s a strip that follows a ‘modern’ woman struggling to balance her career and social life. And yes, there are some arguments to be made there. Cathy is obsessed with shoes, chocolate, makeup, and home decor. She is annoyed by her long-term partner’s obsession with sports. She lavishes attention on her dog, Electra.

So, why am I, a modern feminist, talking about Cathy? 

Well, for one thing, Cathy was a modern feminist in her time. By that I mean both the character and the creator. For another thing, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with liking shoes, chocolate, and putting effort into your appearance. I like all of those things. Lots of men also like those things. I also like the Penguins, the Steelers, Star Trek, dragons, and things that drip blood in the night. And for a third thing, the comic strip never said that all women like those things. Cathy likes those things. Cathy has an unhealthy relationship with food. Cathy spends too much on clothes and shoes. Cathy has a difficult relationship with her mother. And again, I’m talking about the creator and the character here. 

So yes, we’re going to talk about what writers can learn from the comic strip Cathy. Rather than disregard it as a ‘fluffy’ or ‘girly’ comic. I want to do this because women’s interests are often treated as silly and frivolous as a way to condemn female-leaning people as also being those things and I’m sick of that. I also want to do this because the strip is, ack, good. And yes, there’s plenty that writers can learn from Cathy.

Write realistic romances

Cathy has a long-term partner in the strip named Irving. They dated, broke up, and got back together more times than Ross and Rachel.

Unlike Ross and Rachel, they had a realistic relationship. Cathy was kind of a mess, and so was Irving. He was never a knight in shining armor. Never drop-dead gorgeous. They didn’t have a meet-cute. They had a million reasons for everything not to work out.

They did work out because they made it work. Because they put in the work with each other. They put in the work on themselves. Sometimes they were both childish, selfish, and stupid. They grew up together.

Just in case you’ve never been in a real relationship, that’s how they look. Real relationships are built on mutual respect and care. Cathy tries her damndest to get into golf so they have something to do together. Irving goes shopping with her. The two of them struggle with each other’s families. They bond with each other’s dogs. They sit down and talk about money, even though it ends in a fight. They go from two rabidly independent, career-oriented individuals to being a family. That’s not something you’ll find in a Hallmark movie. But it’s honest.

Write realistic families and friends

Cathy has a difficult relationship with her mom. An even worse one with her mother-in-law. She is her daddy’s girl. She has friends who push all her buttons, but she still loves like sisters. She has a boss who’s kind of an idiot, but a well-meaning one. She has relationships that make sense.

One thing in particular that I like is that the other characters make sense in their little world. They are not only side characters in Cathy’s life. They are the main characters in their mind. Which is something I am still learning the trick of myself.

As a side note here, Cathy doesn’t have a relatable life, aside from her relationships. I will point out here that Cathy is a Boomer. She was a young, independent career woman in a time when a single person working a full-time job could buy a house and still have money for things like food, expensive shoes, and really good chocolate. Yes, she is incredibly entitled. I think it’s important that we accept this, and keep it in mind as we keep talking.

Start where you are, and get better. But start!

Looking back at the start of Cathy, way back in 1976, you might be a bit surprised. The artwork is not great. It’s pretty damn bad. If by some chance this blog post ends up in front of the eyes of Cathy Guisewite, I’m sorry. But girl, you know it’s true. The artwork and storytelling in Cathy were kind of shitty.

But by God, it was there. It was published and went out into the world. And it got better. Over the years, the comic strip got so much better.

Some people might say Guisewite should have worked at her art harder before she published. It might have killed her career to put out a subpar product.

Let me be as clear about this as I can be. Thinking like this will lead your creative career into a never-ending holding pattern. Because you will never, ever think your work is good enough. 

We learn best by doing. I certainly did, and so did Cathy. When I started this blog I didn’t have any idea how to add graphics. I’d never published a book hadn’t published anything except for some poems in high school. I started this blog to provide some structure and a reason to build a writing practice.

Lines improved. Color and detail improved. Stories, characters, descriptions. All of these things got better as Cathy grew as a creator. The same can be said of me. 

And the same can be said of you if you can give yourself that opportunity to grow. 

Write honestly about who you are, and people will find that relatable. 

Cathy is not relatable because all women love shoes and chocolate. Cathy is relatable because she’s written by a real person about her reality. And that is what makes her relatable. 

Of course, we’re not all writing semi-autobiographical comic strips. I write about ghosts, dragons, and spaceships. But into each one, I place a part of myself. It’s not on purpose, it happens. I write about my experiences, and in doing so breathe a part of myself into my characters. I hope that people can relate to that. And if I come off as a bit of a cliche, I guess that’s alright. I am a broke, bisexual Millennial with a side hustle, trying to fulfill a creative dream while not starving I treat my dog and cat like children. I suffer from depression and a coffee addiction. And yes, ack, I like chocolate and shoes. I am none of these things because they’re trendy or popular. I am those things because, well because I am. Cathy was all of the things that she was because she was.

Write from who you are. You’ll be amazed how many people can relate to that. 

As an aside, there will not be a post next week. I’m attending Nebula Con, and taking a long-needed staycation with my family. I’ll see you back here on May 19th.

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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. 

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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.

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.

Hello,

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

Thanks,

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.

The best fictional writers on tv

Writers like to write about writing. I do, as I’ve been posting about it here since 2014. So of course we do get fictional characters that are writers. Even though watching someone write isn’t exactly thrilling. I get why more stories are about athletes, politicians, space captains and ghost hunters. Watching them do their job is a lot more fun than watching me do my job.

And yet, some shining and relatable examples of writers on tv do exist. So today, I want to talk about my top ten favorite fictional writers. 

Diane Nguyen, BoJack Horseman

Diane is, like most of the characters on this show, a hot mess. But she’s a hot mess of a writer in Hollywoo, so she is clearly failing upward. Through the course of the show, she’s a biographer, a movie consultant and a magazine columnist. I would love those jobs!

More importantly, she struggles with actual writing problems. Remaining honest and relevant, and working in a field that claims to value creativity while forcing it to bow to focus groups.

Rick Castle, Castle

This isn’t the most realistic interpretation of a writer I’ve ever seen. But there were some really fun writerly moments in the first few seasons of Castle. Especially in the first few episodes, Castle plays a weekly game of cards with some real-life writers we might recognize, including James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Stephen J. Cannell.

I also love that the series starts with a murder based on one of Castle’s books. I think a lot of horror and mystery writers worry that our work might inspire real-world pain. 

Another thing I loved was that the book Castle is working on isn’t done in an episode. That writing process is an entire season long. And the book isn’t released until partway through the next season! That is some realistic writing time.

Nathan Fillion as Rick Castle

Liz Lemon, 30 Rock

The insane workaholic main character of 30 Rock is loosely based on Tina Fey’s time working at SNL. And yes, writing for a weekly live show would be insane. Liz struggles to balance the wishes of corporate, the actors and her fellow writers, more often than not dropping all the balls she’s trying to keep in the air.

I love any time the characters are in the writing room, working together on scripts. I love the depiction of characters editing until the wee hours of the morning because that feels so relatable to me. And I love that Liz both loves and hates her entire creative team. 

Hannah, Reboot

Reboot was a recent show that only got one season on Hulu. From what I understand, the creators are looking for a new home for season two. I hope they find one.

Hannah is the main character. She wants to reboot a sitcom, making it more modern and relatable. Her father created the original show and has a certain amount of creative control. They battle constantly over hiring writers, managing actors, and crafting storylines. It’s old-school comedy writing blended with modern television sensibilities, finding the best and worst of each other. 

Of course, Hannah is also writing through her very real anger about her dad abandoning her as a child. We all write our demons. Even if we say we don’t, we all end up writing about what hurts us the most. Even if we have to turn it into a punchline. 

The cast of Newsroom

Newsroom was what I wish every news channel in real life could be. I wanted to narrow down just one writer on the show, but honestly, they’re all great. From their professionalism, dignity in reporting, and respect for the work, they are heroes. I honestly wish all news was reported by people like this. 

These writers were willing to go to any length to tell the truth. To tell the news. My favorite example of this is in the episode Amen. People’s lives are really on the line in this one, and everyone is aware. It’s a great example of what kind of danger journalists can find themselves in. 

Bart and Lisa Simpson, The Simpsons

Bart and Lisa have been writers in several episodes of The Simpsons. In an early episode, they start writing for Itchy and Scratchy but have to put Abe (Grandpa) Simpson’s name on their scripts because they’re too young. 

Lisa has also written essays that won awards. She’s a dedicated journal keeper. She is, I think, what we all aspire to be as writers, but can never quite reach. 

CW Longbottom and Ian Grimm, Mythic Quest

Video game writing is an ever-growing field. And much like tv writing, video game writing is a group effort. Being in a group of creatives is a hard thing when everyone thinks they’re smarter than everyone else in the room.

Ian and CW work together to create playable storylines. And CW is a little too proud of his Nebula award. He’s generally a little too proud of his writing, which comes up in a flashback episode that brought me to tears. 

Tina Belcher, Bob’s Burgers

Tina Belcher writes some cringy stuff, man. Uncomfortable sex scenes, wish fulfillment with her crush, weird scenarios involving zombies. And I am in awe of her for it. 

Tina is a writer who writes for the joy of it. She fills up notebooks frequently with her friend-Rodica series and is having the time of her life doing so. This is what every young writer should be doing. Writing what you want to write just for the fun of it.

Jessica Fletcher, Murder She Wrote

Who didn’t grow up admiring Jessica Fletcher and her prolific typewriter? She was funny, smart, and a bit of a workaholic. And she managed to take every bit of her life and use it in her cozy mystery series. It is truly a joy to hear her typewriter click. 

Angela Landsbury as Jessica Fletcher

Rob Petrie, The Dick Van Dyke Show

Rob was maybe the first tv character I ever saw who was a writer. And as a young person who was just starting to understand that someday she’d have to grow up and make money, he had a real influence on me. 

You could grow up and write stories. Well, I guess someone has to write them. Even better, there was a girl in the writing room, and she was just part of the team. 

So now I want to hear what you think. Who is your favorite fictional writer on tv? Let us know in the comments. 

Paper Beats World is free to read, but it’s not free to make. If you can, please consider supporting us on Ko-fi.

 

Creativity Burnout, focusing on the results, not the journey

So far in this series, we’ve talked about fighting creative burnout in a world that’s difficult to survive in. We talked about fighting it in a world that feels like it’s on fire the majority of the time. And we’ve talked about fighting it when the problem is your project. Now we’re at the final post in this series, so it’s time for me to call myself out. (At least, it’s the final post in the series for now. I am open to doing more in this series if there’s a specific creative burnout you’d like me to cover.) Today, we’re talking about my biggest writing weakness. Focusing too much on the results, and not enough on the journey.

So, what do I mean by this? I mean two things, both of which I’m susceptible to. One, we worry too much about meeting self-imposed deadlines. And two, we worry too much about how the work is going to be received.

Let’s look at the two problems separately. 

First, the self-imposed deadline. Deadlines are a beautiful thing, and I certainly encourage every writer to have them. Without a deadline, it’s far too easy to put off writing for all the other things clamoring for our attention. So when I start a writing project, I set what I think is going to be a realistic deadline. Then, I add another week past that. 

Even this is sometimes not enough of a cushion. Because things happen. Some days I can’t work at all. And sometimes the project takes more time than I think it will, thanks to rewrites and freewriting. 

The best thing to do here is not to get rid of deadlines altogether. But instead, see them as flexible. Rather than rushing and putting out poor content, it’s better to give yourself and each project the time it needs to be what it deserves to be. 

However, knowing this and putting it into practice are two different things. And I can tell you from experience that it’s freaking hard when there’s so much pressure to remain relevant. It often feels that if I’m not putting a new book out, a new blog post, a new podcast, a new short story, or a new something you all who read my work are going to forget about me.

These are the demons that whisper to me. I bet you have a similar demon. 

But let’s think about this, without the stress demon whispering to us. I know that I don’t forget about my favorite authors, not even when it’s years between books. When Tamora Pierce comes out with a new book, you want to believe I will buy that sucker. The same for a litany of other authors. 

And the same is true for content creators I follow online. Lisa Jacobs, one of my favorite marketing people, vanished for several years to pursue a corporate job. When she decided to come back to the online marketing space, I was pumped! I bought one of the first courses she offered. 

Also, it’s been years since season two of Limetown. If they came out with season three in 2026, I’d still be there to listen unless I was dead. 

So, I don’t forget about content creators even after they take long breaks between projects. Why should I assume that those who read and listen to my content won’t do the same? 

Next, let’s talk about the fear of how our work will be received. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t worry that their work isn’t going to sell. This is another demon that likes to whisper to us. No one’s going to buy your book. No one’s going to listen to your podcast. No one’s going to read a long-winded blog post full of too many tangents and stamp collector hate. 

Every single creator has those thoughts. And the scary thing is, they might be right. There is every chance that a creative project might fail. 

If you let those thoughts get into your brain, it might stop you from writing altogether. It might also leave you spiraling, going over your work over and over again, sure that it’s never good enough. Sure that this line will be taken wrong, it’ll offend someone you never meant to offend.

If I may be totally honest with you, I almost didn’t publish Quiet Apocalypse, because I was scared to death that people would think it was anti-abortion. Just in case anyone has that concern, IT IS NOT ANTI-ABORTION. 

This spiral worry that the story isn’t good enough, or that it’ll be taken the wrong way can mean death for your writing. It can drown you. 

What’s the solution? Write for yourself. Write content that you enjoy, and that you would want to read. Write what makes you happy. Because yes, there’s a possibility that you might be the only one who reads it. So you might as well like it. And remember, creating art just for art’s sake is still awesome. It’s still more than a lot of people do. And I have said over and over that writing is its own reward. 

But here’s the great thing about that. You’re going to produce your best work when you like what you’re writing. When you’re having fun writing, it’s going to be more fun to read. 

So take your time. Write what you love, and don’t worry about how it will be received until later drafts. That’s when your marketing brain can come into play. And I think you’ll be surprised to find that the work you did while you were having fun is pretty damn good. 

If you’re interested in supporting Paper Beats World, you can do so on Ko-fi.

Creative burnout, your project isn’t working

Paper Beats World is free to read, but it’s not free to make. If you want to support Paper Beats World, you can do so on Ko-fi. 

So far in this series, we’ve talked about some heavy reasons you might be experiencing creative burnout. We talked about life taking a toll on us. We talked about the world sometimes being a shitty place to be. 

There are other reasons we might suffer creative burnout that aren’t so clinically depressing. This week, we’re going to talk about a common one. 

You have a project you’ve been working on. A novel, a short story, a podcast season. Whatever it is, suddenly you’ve hit a snag. You don’t have the energy to work on it anymore. You have the time, but not the inclination. Is it the dreaded writer’s block? Have your words failed you?

Probably not. 

The problem is probably with your story. For whatever reason, it’s not working. You know it’s not working, and you’re not ready to admit it. So, instead, you’re ghosting your draft like you’d ghost someone on Tinder. But unlike your Tinder stalker, your project can still be saved. 

See the problem for what it is

The most important step to take is to see your problem for what it is. It’s a problem with the story, not with you. You are not lazy. Remember, laziness doesn’t exist

This is good news because problems with your story can always be fixed. Maybe your characters are boring. Maybe the pacing is wrong. Maybe there’s just not enough going on to compel the plot forward.

The important thing is to not internalize this. You are not your writing. No one story, no matter how bad, is going to define you. 

Now that you understand that, we can talk about how to fix it. 

Freewriting time

Freewriting is my favorite writing tool. I will come to the blank page like I would a trusted friend and just spill my guts. When my story isn’t working, a lot of what I’m doing in freewriting is complaining. 

This is boring. 

I hate this main character.

What is even happening?

I don’t want to write fight scenes, I hate them.

This isn’t interesting enough.

There’s too much going on to keep track of.

Yes, I do eventually get tired of hearing myself complain. But, by that time I have a list of things that need fixing in my draft.

Mind you, I will do this even if it’s a rough draft. While I don’t normally edit first drafts until they’re done, sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes the project just isn’t going to work how it’s going right now. It’s better to toss a draft and start at the beginning again than to lose the project together.

Talk it out

Sometimes the blank page isn’t the best ear, though. While it’s a great listener, it can’t talk back.

This is when it’s important to have writing friends. Or, at least friends who you can bounce things off of. Friends who don’t mind hearing about your story in its infancy. Most importantly, friends who you trust to be honest with you, even if they don’t think you’re going to like the answer. 

Take a break

If you’ve taken your project’s problems to the freewriting page, you’ve met a writing buddy for coffee to talk it out and you still don’t know how to fix your project, it might be time to take a break. Set the project aside for a while, and work on something else. Note that I don’t suggest avoiding writing altogether. I suggest taking a break from that specific writing project.

The reason for this is simple. You want to keep exercising your writing skills. Every bit of writing teaches us something. And remember, your brain is still working on problems even when you’re not actively thinking about them. So while you’re writing a bit of poetry, your subconscious is still working through the problems with your space opera. 

I don’t suggest taking too much time away from a problem project, though. Otherwise, the subconscious will forget. My rule of thumb is no more than a week.

Is this the story you want to tell?

Before I even go into this, let me be clear. This is a last resort. This is not going to be the case most of the time. 

That being said, sometimes a story just isn’t one that you want to tell. Sometimes it’s a great idea, but you aren’t the person to write it. 

There’s no shame in this. Maybe you tried a different genre and it’s just not working for you. I, for example, love reading historical fiction. I do not love writing it. That does not mean that I am a bad writer. It just means that I have a genre that I’m good at writing, and several genres that I am not good at writing.

Of course, there are other reasons a story might not work. It’s hard for me to tell you how to spot this problem because it’s a personal problem. But deep down, we as creators know when our creation just isn’t working out. 

It’s okay to know when to quit. Just so long as you can truly say that you’ve given it your best try. 

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