Writing Advice from Warren Ellis

On a scale of 1 to 10, this man is awesome. (Original image by Gage Skidmore)

Warren Ellis is one of my favorite writers. One of his most popular creations, Transmetropolitan, is easily one of my favorite works in any medium. He’s also a wonderful man with a prolific online presence who was kind enough to respond to a few questions via email, so here is advice from one of our great modern artists.

Teachers, writers, students, and anyone with any interest in creating art, please pay attention.

1) Independent publishing has taken off in the last several years. You yourself work through Avatar Press, but you’ve also worked for the big labels. Under what circumstances should artists go at it alone or indie and when is it best to look to work for a big outfit?

Indie publishing’s been around in American comics since the 60s.  This isn’t a new thing, and there have been several peaks in indie comics over the decades, some bigger than the current situation.

Ultimately, Marvel and DC aren’t interested in publishing your original work.  Simple as that.  Make your decisions based on whether you intend to paint someone else’s house, or build your own.

2) Opinions differ on writer’s block. Some writers say to just work on something else. Others say to focus on the problem until you crack it. Others don’t even believe it exists. Your thoughts (and possibly remedies)?

Writing is writing.  If one thing isn’t working, move on to another thing, or some correspondence, until you’ve solved the problem.

3) What’s harder? Starting or finishing a story, and why?

Finishing it, by far, because it requires you to ensure that you closed everything you started, and have connected up every loose wire you threaded, and generally that the thing has to make sense.  I always slow down towards the end of a job because I have to make sure everything’s tidied away.

Good Morning Sinners by ~lerms on deviantART

4) You and your work are known for discussing transhumanism. You’re also known to be quite vocal in your fiction regarding your points of view on everything from religion to politics. How can a writer get something so dear and close to his or her heart out in a story without sounding like a preacher? Or do we NEED to be preached through fiction?

I have no issue with being preached to through fiction.  Some of my favourite books — some of the world’s favourite books — have strong opinions that they aren’t shy about firing.  I’d rather read a good book with passion and vigour to it than a piece of brilliant prose styling that was about nothing because it was terrified of offending someone.

5) My classes range from 7th-grade writing camps to undergraduate college courses. The biggest problem my students face is the fear of being heard, of someone calling them out for their opinions. Often, though, they’re just afraid they’re not good writers. What would you say to students who are afraid of writing, of having their opinions heard?

If you prefer not to have your opinions heard, or, indeed prefer not to project any kind of personality or worldview whatsoever, you will probably be very successful and make a lot of money.  It will be my opinion that you have betrayed the role of the writer, but, you know, you probably don’t care about that.  What we say through our fiction is reportage: we explain where we think we are today, and what we think it looks like.  The joy of fiction is that we can explore this by creating characters that we don’t agree with, and characters who contain only facets of our opinions, and therefore by writing we can discover what we truly think about things.

Don’t be afraid of not being a good writer.  None of us start out as being good writers.  Be afraid of not being an honest writer.  At this point in your career, being honest to your work is far more important.  Write every day.  Find out what your voice is.  Find out what you think about things.  Finish pieces.  Hate them.  (Believe me, you will.)  Then read them again, and learn lessons from them, and then write something else.

Warren Ellis is frequently found on Twitter. He may or may not be insane, but it works for him. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you Monday, folks! In the meantime, enjoy a short fan video of Transmetropolitan‘s own Spider Jerusalem explaining how voting works.

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