Fantastic Four Characteristics to Make You a Better Writer

Ok, I’m a comic book geek through and through. Out of the current 594 issues of Fantastic Four, I own 576. So needless to say, a lot of my thought processes get filtered through the comic book viewpoint.

Two recent events got me thinking about the Fantastic Four again. The first was starting school. Last week, 31 new students began their sixth grade career with me as their teacher. I always conduct a team building exercise to highlight important character traits. You know, honesty, organization—things that will help them in life.

The other event (that always seems to occur the same week as school) was the San Diego Comic Con. I haven’t gone every year, but I’ve certainly racked up my share. Plus, I started attending in the 1970s back when it was still relatively dinky. I do know my way around an exhibition hall.

My mind went to work to link these two concepts together—instilling good character in pre-teens and a convention floor crammed with 150,000 pop culture nerds (like me). The resulting pastiche was an idea to base character traits on the Fantastic Four.

Invisible Woman
She represents teamwork. Think about it. She turns invisible. No one knows where she’ll be. If she doesn’t stick to the plan, her teammates will bash into her or knock her down.

As a writer, teamwork is crucial to success. Only recently did I join professional writing groups. Before that, I pretty much wrote in isolation. It was natural for me. I was an only child and was used to working alone.

A professional critique group raised me up to a whole different level of writing. But you can’t approach this venture selfishly. A critique group is reciprocal process. You have to put everything in. You can’t always be thinking about your own work. I often find I learn how to be a better writer by striving to improve the work of my fellow scribblers. And that’s the essence of teamwork.

The Human Torch
Definitely courage. This is a no-brainer. Johnny Storm is a hot head. He often rushes into the fray without thinking. Yet, he never holds back. A trait that wins many battles. But is also got him killed in issue 587. (Maybe he’s dead. Nothing is permanent in comics.)

This is a quality every writer needs. When you put together that manuscript, don’t hold back. Peel back your soul and dredge up every bit of nasty that lurks inside. Take a risk. That’s the only way to write deadly honest prose.

Mr. Fantastic
The epitome of Reason. Yes he has the power of super stretchiness. However, most of the time he defeats his villains through a well conceived plan (which often includes building a machine).

As a writer, organization is key. Plan your scenes before you write. Set up a character bible so you get the details right throughout the story.

But reason is more than simply thinking ahead. Mr. Fantastic can stretch to attack an opponent from any direction. Working on those tough points in your manuscript are the same. Bashing your head against a blank computer screen will get you nowhere. Think. How you can get at the story from a different direction? Maybe take a break. Switch locales. Go old school with a notepad and a pen. Whatever works to crack that blank page open and get the words flowing again.

The Thing
Persistence. Period.
This is my all time, favorite character. No other super hero personifies persistence like this man. I mean he gets stuck with the ugliest mug in all of comicdom, yet he never gives up. Yes, the Hulk outclasses him in strength every time. This won’t stop Ben Grimm. He keeps up the fight until there’s nothing left.

Persistence is every writer’s secret weapon. I mean we aren’t actors or models who will lose our good looks. Or athletes that have to worry about strained muscles and the ravages of time. We can write until the Grim Reaper knocks on our door. Take my good friend, Chet Cunningham. He’s written 400 plus books. His eyes are going, so he has to use a magnifying glass to see his computer screen. Yet he still churns out the books (usually two or three a year).

Yes you’ll get more rejections than acceptances as a writer. Your critique group, though helpful, won’t be all smiles and sunshine. If they’re good, they’ll tear your sentences apart.

But you need to keep going.

This is what separates wannabes from real writers. Butt to chair. Keep writing. No matter what.

Nuff Said.

Tim Kane

Must See Booths at the San Diego Comic Con

Every year the Comic Con hits town, I head down to the Exhibition floor to check out the vendors. Yes there are the mega-sized corporate booths like Lucasfilm and Marvel, but unless you sprint to them directly after the doors open, they’re mobbed. (In fact, I’m often amazed at how there are already lengthy lines when I arrive directly after opening hour.) I prefer to frequent some lesser known vendors.

Urban Vinyl
My first stop is the Urban Vinyl Toys area. This is always located in the upper left corner of the massive floor (find the map PDF here). If you’re not familiar with Urban Vinyl, it means toys that you’re not meant to play with. I know what you’re thinking. Huh? Why shouldn’t I play with them. This is an offshoot of the action-figure-in-original-package set. Only here, these toys are designed to be looked at, not played with.

Take Funko (booth 4829). Last year I bought a Thing bobble head. Sure I wiggle it once in a while, but most of the time it sits on my desk looking nifty and admired by my students. Yes I disagree that all Urban Vinyl toys need to be no touch items.

My absolute favorite is Conduct Happiness (booth 4832), creator of such slogans as “The Pea Pea Dance,” and “Pea in the Pool.” My daughter loves their Go Pea Go book. If I could, I’d buy everything at their booth. One of their neighbors is also a fav or mine: Mr. Toast (booth 4831). They make plush toys of unusual items, like toast and bacon. Basically, you can have your own plushy breakfast. (A bit like those ads at drive ins with the dancing hamburger and soda cup).

Ok, I’m a sucker for anything old gods. Mostly I like the aesthetic, the tentacles and creepy vibe. For a general smorgasbord of items look no further than Adventure Retail (booth 4423, catty-corner to Urban Vinyl). They have plenty of stuffed old gods (we have a Nyarlathotep) and they even carry Cthulhu slippers (have these too). I’ve also picked up some Lovecraft audio books produced by Audio Realms.

All the way on the other side of the exhibition hall (quite a trek), you’ll find Badali Jewelry (booth 530 right next to the ZDN Zombie Defense Network). They have the most amazing Cthulhu jewelry. I own the Miskatonic class ring. This year they will reveal a new Necronomicon necklace.

Okay, last year I found an aisle that had three or four great steampunk vendors (I want to say there were on the fringes—far right or left of the floor), but seeing as the Comic Con hasn’t designated any stempunk section, I’ll have to hunt for it again. One vendor that is easy to find is Weta’s Dr. Grordbort (Booth 2615 sharing with Dark Horse). If you’ve never experienced Dr. Grordbort’s awesome ray guns, then you are not a true steampunker. These guns make you want to shed the internet for some steam and brass. So far I’ve picked up the tiny models of each gun (I still can’t afford the full sized ones).

That’s pretty much it. I wander around, looking for eye catchers. If I can afford it, I’ll try to extend my Fantastic Four collection. But seeing as one issue in this range starts at a Ben Franklin, I often can’t afford these pleasures.

Enjoy the Comic Con and remember, pace yourself. That’s a big convention center.

Tim Kane

Force That Inner Whiner to Grow Up and Get Writing

No one likes a whiny writer.

Lately I’ve been struggling with my inner whiner. If you’re a writer of any consistency, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s the voice in your head that complains about critiques. It grouses about revising. Basically, it’s the one that holds you back.

I’ve learned to beat this inner whiner back, but it never stays down. Just recently I received feedback on the final revised chapters of my manuscript. In my mind, I was ready to send the novel out to agents. Get the ball moving. Etc.

But then the critiques came back. Not what you think. Mostly positive, confirming that the story was ready for an audience. Then, inches from the finish line, one writer saw that I didn’t have enough closure for a key character.

Then came my inner whiner. “Good enough,” it said. “Just ignore it and send the manuscript out.” But when a second critiquer nailed me on the same issue, I couldn’t ignore it. I either had to face up to the fact that I was willingly going to let this novel continue in a substandard state, or I had to get to work.

This got me thinking about the various ways your inner whiner tries to subvert you to produce less than astounding work. I came up with two versions.

The “I Wrote It So It Must Be Good” Syndrome
This inner writer tells you that everything you create is golden. It urges you to rush toward publication like a kid stuffing his hand in a Fritos bag. It doesn’t trifle with revisions and it cringes at the mere suggestion that the writing isn’t ready.

This was me for the better part of my writing career. I had few real writers to bounce ideas off of. No critique groups. It was just me and the computer screen. That, I think, is what breeds this syndrome. Isolation. After only a year with the San Diego Professional Writer’s group, these delusions were slapped out of me.

The “Good Enough” Writer
This is the next step up. Here your inner whiner accepts that you need to do some revision because that’s part of the writing bargain. But there are whispers, at the back of your head. “You’ve done enough. This writing hits all the marks. It’s ready.” It implores you to move on. Finish and submit.

I hate to admit, but this is where I’ve been the last few months. I struggle to resist the call to submit. Just end the constant revision and get the whole thing over with.

A great writing friend of mine, Crystal Allen, pointed out that critique groups aren’t just there to judge and improve your work. They should call you on your foibles. And push you.

There are two types of writing:

  • Good enough
  • The best I can do

The goal of a good critique group is to push the writer toward that second goal—the best possible writing you can accomplish.

The answer to silencing that pesky inner whiner is camaraderie. You need other people, professional writers, who will nail you when you’re being lazy. This requires a level of honesty and trust that is hard to come by. But you’ll need it to grow as a writer.

Tim Kane

What Can Tarot Cards Teach You About Morality?

Death card designed by *ligoscheffer

I sat down to do research on the Tarot for a young adult novel, yet found that the majority of the books dealt only with the meanings of each card. There was precious little on their actual history. Most of the books simple threw out a vague paragraph or two about playing cards, Egyptian gods, and mystical forces. Yeah, that’s going to help.

Then I stumbled on Paul Huson’s book Mystical Origins of the Tarot. He linked the Tarot to the Turkish Mamlük cards and all the way back to Chinese “money-suited” Dongguan Pai cards. All this explained the origin of the four suits. Huson’s best argument links the major arcana (which he calls trumps) to Christian morality plays like the Dance of Death.

Okay, strap on your time traveling belts, it’s history time.

The Catholic Church had long banned any sort of pagan drama (read Greek theatre). But, once they had successfully eradicated all hints of pagan storytelling, the Church allowed certain dramatic events (relating to the bible) to be depicted at Easter or Christmas. What started as a pure recitation of Gospel, gradually blossomed into lines of verse performed on a stage.

The French drama, “Adam”, appeared by the twelfth century, which was performed before the gates of the church. By the thirteenth century, plays not based wholly on scripture appeared. The “Miracle of Theophilus”, by Rutebeuf, depicts the popular legend of Theophilus, who lost his holy office and bartered his soul to the devil to regain it. (A precursor to Faust.)

Typical Medieval Morality Play

Morality plays were an offshoot of the Miracle plays, which encouraged proper Christian behavior rather than simply quoting gospel. The most famous morality was “Everyman” (originally called “The Summoning of Everyman”). In this drama, Everyman, who dresses in fine clothes and seems to lead a wild and sinful life, has a visit from Death. Everyman must undergo a pilgrimage to absolve himself from sin before meeting his end. He asks if he’ll have any company on this journey. Death replies that only those who are brave enough will come.

The various characters represent virtues personified. One by one, all the characters desert Everyman, unwilling to face Death with him. Everyman’s friends and family (Fellows, Kindred, Cousin) refuse to go along. Finally Goods (representing worldly belongings), also backs away.

Good Deeds would accompany Everyman, but she is too weak to walk. Her sister, Knowledge, leads Everyman to Confession, who instructs him how to show penance. This allows Good Deeds to travel with Everyman.

Discretion, Strength, Beauty, and Five Wits promise never to leave Everyman’s side. Yet, when they arrive at his grave, and Everyman begins to die, they each leave. In the end, only Good Deeds will follow him into the grave. The play makes its grim point that we can only take with us the things we’ve given.

Paul Huson's Mystical Origins of the Tarot

The Black Death ravaged Europe throughout the fourteenth century. The epidemics were so frequent and merciless, that everyone had to face the prospect of death. This led to the Dance Macabre (Dance of Death), as an offshoot of the English morality play.

This is another play where Death is viewed not as a destroyer, but a messenger from God. The drama consisted of a monk reading Scriptures while actors representing death (dressed in yellow linen painted with bones) escorted other actors to the grave. Every position in society was represented (the King, a Bishop, a beggar, a soldier, a farmer, etc.)  The purpose of the play was to illustrate that regardless of your position or wealth, you were going to die and must Repent now. This idea was summed up in the phrase: “Memento Mori” which translates to “Remember you shall die.”

This procession of figures mimics the trumps of the Tarot. We start with the lowly Fool, and travel up through the Emperor (representing the king) and finally the Pope. At least that’s the theory laid down by Paul Huson. He goes on to state that the various middle trump cards mimic the personified virtues (Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and the Hermit for Prudence). Dame Fortunate routinely appeared in morality plays, and she’s represented in the Tarot as the Wheel of Fortune.

The four most important events in a Roman Catholic’s life, known as the Four Last Things, are represented by the four trump cards:  Death, the Devil, Judgement, and the World (if we agree with Huson that the world could mean heaven).

I found the connection of morality plays (like the Dance of Death) with the Tarot a compelling argument. There are plenty of books that border on pseudoscience, linking the Tarot to UFOs and Egyptian gods, but Huson lays out a reasonable argument based on historical traditions.

Next time you pick up a Tarot deck, think back to these Medieval dramas. And remember, you too shall die, so start wracking up those good deeds.

Tim Kane