"The Walking Dead" Creator Robert Kirkman Talks About Writing

The creator of “The Walking Dead” proves there’s a lot any writer can learn from going to hell and back.
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As an online companion to our March/April 2012 issue, here’s more from comic-book-author-turned-scriptwriter-turned-novelist Robert Kirkman—creator of “The Walking Dead.”

Click here to pick up your copy of the Robert Kirkman interview that appeared in March/April 2012 issue of Writer's Digest.

When your first comic was published, how did you feel?

Most of everything that I did, I did for free or to get further in debt for the first three or four years of writing. I used to joke that the main thing I write for is the charge of getting your work back, seeing the work and being able to hold it in your hands. When I used to get my preview copies back from the printer, I would tear the box open and flip through the comic and check the printing to make sure it turned out OK. Really, just being able to hold it in your hands and feel that sense of accomplishment was the charge for doing more work.

I still get it to this day when I get my comics in the mail. I still feel like I’m doing something right.

When you get something in the mail, and you look at what was produced, how do you examine your writing?

I only read my stuff maybe three or four times. I write it, and I don't revise [it] in any way. I type the words and then I send them off to an artist, and then when the pages come in, I read the work to make sure that the dialogue works with the art, and I do revisions to make sure it all fits; then I get it lettered, where the word balloons and everything are put on, and then I read that to make sure there aren’t any typos or anything that I don't like. That’s usually the last time I read the work, unless its “Invincible” or “The Walking Dead,” which have been going for almost 100 issues, and I have to go back to read what I've written to make sure that the story continues, or there isn't anything I've said that gets contradicted in a later issue.

I like what you’re saying about typing up a story and sending it off to the next person—the artist, proofreader, etc. What's your take on creating that first draft?

I'm a very firm believer in momentum. I think I could revise a script for years and never be happy with it, and half the time I feel like when I revise something it's 2 percent better. But is that really necessary? Also, it slows me down. I get bored very easily, so that’s why I work on so many projects; I'm able to jump from project to project. In comics, you hand your script off to an artist, and I look at the revision process as that second person drawing your story, and then the second revision when I get the art back, and then another revision when I get the lettering (word balloons and text) back. It's not really necessary for me to go over my writing, read the script, and rethink the scenes. It's really a run-and-gun operation. … I just start on Page 1 and bat out the scenes. There's always another issue. That's something I try to tell writers: Learn to trust yourself and get addicted to momentum.

Do you think a lot of novice writers trust themselves?

Not in my experience. I'm always talking to up-and-coming comic book writers. It's frustrating to find that most people want to noodle everything, rework things and rethink things. I know guys that will revise scripts entirely after they've turned a script in, and that just baffles me.

How do you come up with ideas?

Critiquing things usually generates rough ideas of how to do something different. One example … I saw the trailer for Inglourious Basterds one day before the movie came out. I love Quentin Tarantino movies, and the trailer is all about Brad Pitt walking down the line of guys and he’s talking about killing Nazis … and I knew the plot was all about them going after Hitler. And I thought: If that movie is set in WWII, but they kill Hitler in the end of the movie, that’s going to be the most brilliant movie ever, because [few have] ever done that in a war movie, where you just ignore history and do the thing that would be satisfactory in a movie.

Does fiction allow us to ignore things like historical facts?

If you’re doing something that’s fictional, do something that’s fictional. In my writing, I’m much more interested in making cool things up. To me, being entertaining is far more important than being accurate. That’s how I feel about the entertainment that I enjoy, and that’s how I feel in my writing. There have been times in "The Walking Dead" comic book series where … there is something going on that characters are talking about that exists in real life, but it’s completely wrong.

I had a guy that got shot with a bullet, and I didn’t know how to field dress a bullet in the wild, and so I started doing research on how they did it in colonial times and what you’re supposed to do if you don’t have medical supplies … and the research says that you should wash it out with water … and that was boring to me. So I just made up this thing involving wax and tea leaves … that the tea leaves would dry out the wound and that the wax would keep it in place. I wanted to make this character look smart, so I came up with this elaborate nonsense that was completely fake, but the way I did it seemed realistic and was more interesting than what was accurate. But then I got all this fan mail saying that would lead to his leg being amputated.

Between four ongoing comics and the TV show, you have a lot of characters to keep track of. How do you do that?

I do take notes plot-wise, but character-wise, I keep all the characters in my head, and I keep things mostly straight in the writing. It sounds a little weird, but most of my characters are completely different. Rick Grimes (of "The Walking Dead") is not the same character as "Invincible," and I do a book called "Super Dinosaur," and the main character is a talking dinosaur with a best friend who’s an 11-year-old kid. They exist in different plots, so there’s not a lot of crossover, and because they’re so different, I can go, OK, the guy that’s going to punch the dude with lava coming out of his head is from "Invincible," and the guy who’s going to sit on the couch and talk about how depressed he is, is from "The Walking Dead."

What’s your advice for writers who have 40-plus hours devoted to a job or a commitment, and are looking for time to write?

Figure out how little you can sleep every day, because if it’s important you have to make time to do it. It’s a tough thing. When I was first starting out, I had a day job—and for a while two day jobs, so I was working 55 hours a week. … I always felt like if I had a really sh*tty two or three years, but they led to a good life, that they're totally worth it. I would recommend having that two years of hell, really pushing yourself to the limit.

Last question: Are you driven by deadlines?

I’m driven by missing deadlines, and I always tell everyone to give me fake deadlines, because I usually come in a day or two after that. If I didn’t have deadlines, I would probably spend too much time on everything that I do.

Get more on "The Walking Dead" Creator Robert Kirkman in the March/April 2012 issue of Writer's Digest by clicking here.