Not a Visual Medium

Writing is not a visual medium.

There's an old saying in comics that writers can't draw, and artists can't write. That's an overgeneralization. Sometimes you do get a John Byrne or a Frank Miller, but there is a kernel of truth to the cliche. Because an artist is trained to think in terms of visuals, he tends to approach writing by letting the book play out like a movie in his head and writing what he sees in his mind's eye.

Now, visualization is a useful skill. It can really help with writing setting descriptions and action. But it's just one of many tools an author must master to reach the pro level. Over-reliance on visualization makes the whole book read like someone reciting the plot and action of his favorite movie. If you see the narrator taking over the characters' jobs, this is the reason. The only solution is to adopt a whole new way of thinking about writing.

How to tackle this challenge? The only answer, as always, is hard work and lots of it.

In writing, as in all things, you have to walk before you can run. Nobody fully appreciates how hard a major undertaking is until he's elbows deep in it. The public has been propagandized for decades to think that being a novelist is easy. Authors as a whole do a poor job of informing aspirants how hard building professional level writing skill is. Well, have a seat, because I'm going to tell you.

Remember all the time and effort you put into reaching pro level at your current job? Now you need to do that again, but this time as a writer.

To be a writer, you must read. Movies, TV shows, and even comics don't count. You must read novels in your genre, and you must read them voraciously. Go to Amazon. Look up the top 100 currently best selling novels in your genre, and read them all. Twice. First, read them for pleasure as a reader does. Then reread them as a writer. That means reading with an eye to the tools the author used to elicit an emotional response. Whenever the book delivers a good gut punch, stop and read that part again carefully until you understand exactly how the author achieved that effect. That puts his tool in your toolbox. You will need a well-stocked toolbox before you go pro.

Then repeat the same process with the books in Appendix N.

To be a writer, you must write. When you can write 2,000 words per day, every day, you will have reached a professional output level. Write daily until you have written one million words of fiction. At that point, all of the bad writing will have drained out of you. You will then be ready to begin.

No, that's not a typo. I meant begin.

Because the idea isn't just to write. It's to sell what you write. When you've read your 200 books and written your million words, you will have sufficient knowledge of your tastes and abilities to offer your work for sale.

My reaction to hearing this same advice ten years ago was, "A million words!? That's ten 100k word novels. I'm supposed to write ten books' worth of prose fiction and just stuff it in a trunk?"


Hard and fast writing rule: First novels always suck.

Every author begins with a millions sucky words in his head, and he has to get the suck out. Selling the suck to readers would do them and the author a grave disservice.

Here's the good news. Just because your first novel falls within those first million words, it doesn't mean you can't come back to it. I did. You should read the first draft of Souldancer sometime [Editor's note: I will never let you read the first draft of Souldancer]. That book accounted for fully a third of my first million words. I stowed it in the trunk until I'd finished off the other two-thirds, wrote a prequel, then came back to it and won a Dragon Award.

You need only patience and discipline to do the same.

I put in the time and improved with each book. My new mecha/Mil-SF series Combat Frame XSeed is gonna walk all over the Soul Cycle, and the Soul Cycle garnered two Dragon nominations and a win. See for yourself just how awesome XSeed is. Back the Indiegogo campaign, and get the eBook two months early!

Combat Frame XSeed


  1. Brian,

    Thanks for the skin in the game pep talk. Reminds me what my parents other elder says, you have to dedicate yourself it'll take time but you must persist.

    Technical question: is deconstruction appropriate when you're reading to learn how the writers structured their plots and applied the tropes?


    1. What do you mean by deconstruction? The term has different meanings in different arts, and also has decayed somewhat. Some people see it as reinterpretation, others as a new presentation of tropes, and way too many see it as a harsh and mean-spirited critique of a genre.

    2. Nathan,

      Specifically, dismantling a story like a motor to understand how each part works and then put it back together. Then try to write a story from what you've learnt by diassembling and reassembling the story.


  2. It really does take a long time just to shake your writing out. On the other hand, you also learn a lot about plotting and characterization which will help make you better as a whole. It's worth the time to go through if you want to write.

  3. Lotta bad drawings in any given artist, at any point in their career. You're always looking back and saying "coulda done that better ... ".

    Trick is to turn around and keep moving forward after beating on yourself.

    "To be a writer, you must read. Movies, TV shows, and even comics don't count."

    This is why so many comic book artists and writers today absolutely blow chunks: they read/drew primarily comic books, and wanted to write/draw them, and never dipped into screen plays, novels, or short stories, or learned commercial art, fine art, or learned a tad about art history.

    The weakness of that (lack of) foundation is easily seen.

    1. True compare the early Asterix stories. There's a lot of reading behind the stories.
      Read and regress harder is excellent advice for aspiring writers


    2. Years of bad drawings. Endless anatomy studies until you can visualize muscles and bones under skin and then rotate the whole figure in your brain like a 3d model. Then you have to worry about color, lighting, and composition on top of that. Comics art can to an extent can fake those skills by memorizing a set of common poses for an idealized male and female form. But if an artist starts there they need to keep growing or their limitations will become clear.

    3. "The weakness of that (lack of) foundation is easily seen."

      The fans certainly saw it.

      "Endless anatomy studies until you can visualize muscles and bones under skin and then rotate the whole figure in your brain like a 3d model."

      Artists deserve the respect due craftsmen who've attained professional level skill in a field.

      From a young age I showed both verbal and artistic talent. Eventually a decision point came where I realized I had to pick one.

  4. When I first read "writers can't draw, and artists can't write," it stung a bit. I do art and I write. But the reason that the combination of the two done well is so rare is that they really are seperate skillsets. How many people seek to attain a professional level in more than skillset? And if they do have multiple pro skillsets those skillsets are usually related. Why would a pro writer want to be a pro artist when he can more easily just hire one? Why would a pro artist want to become a pro writer, if he's already telling stories through images? Each skillset really does use different parts of your brain. So with consideration, the saying does make sense. Though I have my reasons to become more skilled in each field. And perhaps the fact that it is so rare may eventually work in my favor.

    1. Can confirm from the writing end. In my youth I dreamed of writing and drawing my own comic. It soon became clear that I had the patience and discipline to master one of those skills, but not both.

      If you aspire to be a dual threat, knowing the scope of the challenge you've accepted, more power to you.

  5. >Writing is not a visual medium.
    Part of the reason why 'show, don't tell' is one of the most over given piece of writing advice. It is good advice, just over given for this medium.

    > You must read novels in your genre, and you must read them voraciously. Go to Amazon. Look up the top 100 currently best selling novels in your genre, and read them all.
    And you will probably quickly learn your genre isn't what you thought it was. My first time looking at Amazon's colonization tag was similar to going to Steam's RPG section looking for stuff like Elder Scrolls, Might and Magic, gold box games, etc and finding a bunch of MOBAs and mobile games. Some of that will be author's randomly adding tags to try to float to the top of less competitive genres and sub-genres, but some of that WILL also be audience demand. How will you tell? By getting in there and reading the books. And the reviews of said books.

    >Then repeat the same process with the books in Appendix N.
    And you'll want to do this with other old books as well. If you are writing a Space Opera, it's not going to hurt you to get in there and read what people consider the first space operas. E. E. Doc Smith, Edmund Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, etc all have great tools in their toolkit you can learn from. Repeat for your chosen genre. Also be sure to read books from outside of your genre to give you a wide breadth of material to sample from. Yes there is a ton of reading. Cope. A writer who doesn't read is like a cook who only eats food out of boxes and bags. You'll get the time for reading and writing by cutting out stuff not related to your craft.

    >Write daily until you have written one million words of fiction.
    If you want to cheat, count your 4chan posts, and your forum posts in there.

    All of this is solid advice, but I'll add one more thing. Learn grammar. Study it and practice it. Sadly grammar these days is ignored in most curriculum these days so there will be a great deal of trial and error, and self teaching. Bad grammar can -and will- ruin your stories. Most people will overlook a few typos, but if most of your work is badly constructed, people will put the book down and never come back to it. Yes there are exceptions, but they are just that. Also don't tell yourself, 'that's what editors are for.' In my experience freelance editors dislike copy editing, and see their role as to focus on stories and characters. You have to know your stuff, you can't rely on someone else to know it for you.

    1. Artists who try their hand at writing tend to be the folks who need the "Show, don't tell" advice the most. They're especially susceptible to the "dictating a movie in your head" phenomenon.

      The problem isn't the frequency of the advice, it's that the people giving it often don't know what it means. The novel is a "cool" medium which requires significant audience interaction as opposed to "hot" media which monopolize a single sense. "Show, don't tell" means giving the reader enough detail to spark his imagination and let it fill in the rest instead of having the narrator dump a bunch of minutiae on him.

      "If you want to cheat, count your 4chan posts, and your forum posts in there."

      Only if the posts are prose fiction. Otherwise they don't count.

      "Learn grammar."

      You are my hero.

      "In my experience freelance editors dislike copy editing..."

      We really do.

    2. anome,
      Regarding grammar. Agreed. Even more so with the Romance languages. If you don't master the grammar you simply can't write let alone incoherently.
      John (Wright) has mentioned that exquiste writing is a painted word. That's master don't tell show level.


    3. Re: copy editing

      I'm happy to do copy editing. I just haven't seen much evidence that people are willing or able to pay decent rates for the service, or that there's demand going unmet.