11 Ways Stan Lee Can Help You Improve Your Writing Right Now

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Stan Lee may not be the first person on your list when you seek out the advice of great writers, but maybe he should be. Lee is most famous as a writer of graphic novels and as the co-creator of Marvel Comics characters who still command the zeitgeist to this day, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, the Hulk, Black Panther, and many more. Lee began his professional life refilling inkwells and went on to become a writer, editor, publisher, producer, and even a United States Army playwright. He has a Hollywood Walk of Fame star, appeared in countless movies, and aside from Walt Disney is seen as perhaps the most prolifically successful creator of enduring pop-culture properties.

Lee’s stories and characters captured the imaginations of readers such that they’re ceaseless fodder for adaptation and re-imagining, even as they continue in their original serialized form. While you may not want to write comics, you do want to tell stories, and it’s here that Lee excelled. Rest assured that his rise from the lower rungs of disposable, pulp entertainment to the pinnacle of pop-culture ubiquity offers insights aplenty. Let’s consider a few and how they might help the writers of today.

1. Read for your work, write for yourself

Every author worth their salt instructs budding writers to read, read, read. Lee describes this as a process of refining one’s own taste and style with the end-goal of understanding what you’re most interested in (and thus most suited to) creating.

Comics are stories; they’re like novels or anything else. So the first thing you have to do is become a good storyteller. I think the way you become a good storyteller is to read a lot of stories and evaluate them in your own mind. Why did I like this one? Why didn’t I like this one? What quality did this one have that made me like it? Whether you do that consciously or unconsciously, it’s something that has to go on inside of you.

After a while, you should be able to tell when you yourself write something, is this really interesting? Or am I just putting a lot of words on paper? Would I want to read this myself if I weren’t me? … Basically I think the more you read, the better you’re going to become as a storyteller.

– Stan Lee, ‘Stan Lee Reflects on 70 Years in Comics’, IGN

2. It’s normal to doubt yourself (but keep working)

Doubt is the perpetual companion of any creator. It can be a crippling feeling, but there’s some relief in realizing that every artist you admire likely felt like an impostor at some point in their career. Crucially, if you’ve read their work, they also found a way to keep writing.

I mean, certainly early in my career, before The Fantastic Four, I struggled. I felt I was never going to get anywhere. Even afterward, I was embarrassed to say I wrote comic books for a living. I had a lot of shame about that. Even when I made a good living, my dad didn’t think of me as a success. He was pretty wrapped up in himself most of the time. Some of that rubbed off on me. I was always looking at people who were doing better than I was and wishing I could do what they were doing – Steven Spielberg or a writer like Harlan Ellison, or even Hugh Hefner. Part of me always felt I hadn’t quite made it yet.

– Stan Lee, ‘The Playboy Interview: Stan Lee on Superheroes, Marvel and Being Just Another Pretty Face’, Playboy

3. Don’t undervalue entertainment

Another feeling that can stop authors reaching their potential is a lack of faith in the simple goal of entertaining the reader. Many authors feel the need to achieve grand social accomplishments with every piece – to change minds immediately and en masse, to educate the foolish, to explore the form in ways that change it for the better. They’re great goals, but they’re not essential to good storytelling. Entertaining the reader is the core virtue of a piece of writing. That might mean scaring them, inviting their curiosity, or even outraging them, alongside the more traditional accomplishment of pure enjoyment.

Entertainment isn’t the opposite of art, it’s the gateway to effective communication. #forauthors #amwritingClick To Tweet

You need to entertain before you have the right or ability to do anything more ambitious, but entertainment is an immense service in and of itself.

I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.

– Stan Lee, The Washington Post

4. All art is political

Of course, just because you value entertainment (and the engagement it earns) doesn’t mean you’re not saying anything. In How To Manage The Politics Of Your Writing, we talked about the bold claim that ‘all art is political’. That is, all art is a product of perspective, and communicating that perspective is an ideological dialogue with the reader.

There’s no way to jettison your perspective as a writer. You can try, but at a certain point you hit a bedrock of assumption that it would take a lifetime to burrow through. Lee advises that we don’t try to do so, instead embracing the ‘message’ of a story and delivering it in an engaging and morally defensible form.

From time to time we receive letters from readers who wonder why there’s so much moralizing in our mags. They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading, and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all – old-time fairy tales and heroic legends – contained moral and philosophical points of view… None of us lives in a vacuum – none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us – events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives.

– Stan Lee, ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ from ‘The Avengers #74

5. Write to be read

Just because your writing comes from your perspective doesn’t mean it should be a screed. Art is an act of communication. It’s a message from the author, yes, but to the reader. Valuing entertainment and writing what you’d want to read are both tools to make your writing more engaging to the people it’s actually for. This is perhaps the skill on which Stan Lee’s success was most firmly built: the ability to find and emphasize the elements of a story that will grab the reader.

To have an idea is the easiest thing in the world. Everybody has ideas. But you have to take that idea and make it into something people will respond to. That’s hard.

– Stan Lee, ‘In a superhero-heavy summer at the movies, Stan Lee talks about genre’s appeal’, The Washington Post

6. You can’t wait for inspiration

Stan Lee was a professional writer of serialized fiction, and that means deadlines. By all reports, Lee took his deadlines seriously, including an occasion documented in Bob Batchelor’s Stan Lee: The Main behind Marvel where he risked prison time to access a time-sensitive document in an Army mailroom.

This level of commitment to deadlines was, for Lee, at least partly a financial necessity. For authors who aren’t living on their work, it can be difficult to set such limits and stick to them, but Lee’s approach is what puts words on the page. Above all, professional authors can’t afford to wait for inspiration.

I don’t have inspiration, I only have ideas. Ideas and deadlines.

– Stan Lee, ‘In a superhero-heavy summer at the movies, Stan Lee talks about genre’s appeal’, The Washington Post

For professional authors, deadlines are more useful than inspiration.Click To Tweet

7. You’re a brand

While Stan Lee was part of creating some of pop-culture’s most enduring characters, perhaps the most successful character he created was ‘Stan Lee’. Lee’s self-promotion was a huge part of his career, and he put effort into communicating with readers in ways which seem to predict the social media model that exists today. Lee’s regular column ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ appeared in the backs of comics he wrote, a space in which Lee also corresponded with fans and awarded ‘No Prize’s to those who pointed out continuity errors in his work.

Lee’s appearance and voice have long been treated as a brand, and they’re a big part of his pop-culture status and the reasoning behind his frequent cameos in movies, television, comics, videogames, and other media to which his work has been adapted.

Lee’s self-advertising was a big part of his success, but it’s a tool to use with care. Some artists who worked with Lee have complaints about his behavior, and within the comics industry, there remains debate about the effects of Lee’s brand.

People have this idea of Stan as a kindly old grandpa who “created” everything [and that’s why] Marvel puts him in the movies. But that’s simply not true… [I created anti-Stan-Lee badges to have] a conversation starter of who did what on the books, how Stan’s business practices are definitely less than virtuous, and how he consistently takes credit (or simply doesn’t correct people when they attribute successes to him that he was minimally involved in) on stuff… People are opinionated, they have an idea of who Stan is because “Stan’s Soapbox” columns were propaganda of the highest order, and people really responded to them.

– Dave Baker, ‘Marvel, Mortality, and Protesting Anti-Stan Lee with Dave Baker’, Inverse

Whether you’re of the opinion that Lee’s brand was merely an effective communication of who he truly was or you think it was an effective tool used to insidious ends, there’s little debate that Stan Lee’s brand was a huge part of his success. For modern authors, the creation of a brand – and especially the ways in which they engage with their readers – is even more important.

8. Sometimes, success comes down to luck

As powerful as Lee’s brand is and was, the man himself was happy to admit that much of his success was down to luck.

For years, kids have been asking me what’s the greatest superpower. I always say luck. If you’re lucky, everything works. I’ve been lucky.

– Stan Lee, ‘Stan Lee Reflects on His Successes and Regrets: “I Should Have Been Greedier”’, The Hollywood Reporter

To many writers, this may seem like a damning statement. Are we meant to accept that however much we work, it ultimately comes down to luck? Well, not exactly. Luck in any artistic industry comes down to opportunities; how often they arrive and whether they’re taken.

What no artist can do is force an opportunity to work out, and it’s here that Lee is completely correct. A thousand different things can happen behind the scenes to get you noticed, get you signed, and get your book on shelves… or they can go the other way, with contracts falling through at the last minute and opportunities coming to naught.

What we can control is how often those opportunities occur. Getting your work out there – promoting it as widely as you’re able – is what will get it seen. Out of fifty opportunities, only one might work out, but you only encounter those fifty if you put the work in. He may have been lucky with the opportunities that arose from his work, but Stan Lee consistently put the work in.

You can’t control which opportunities work out, but you CAN create new opportunities when they don’t.Click To Tweet

9. Keep moving forward

Though Stan Lee created opportunities through hard work, he didn’t just blindly keep writing and hoping for the best. Lee’s conception of ‘luck’ didn’t stop him actively chasing success. For authors today, it can be tempting to keep releasing work into the ether, but that creates far fewer opportunities than a deliberate, targeted approach.

You know, my motto is ‘Excelsior.’ That’s an old word that means ‘upward and onward to greater glory.’ It’s on the seal of the state of New York. Keep moving forward, and if it’s time to go, it’s time. Nothing lasts forever.

– Stan Lee, ‘The Playboy Interview: Stan Lee on Superheroes, Marvel and Being Just Another Pretty Face’, Playboy

If you’ve tried what looked like the best option and it isn’t working, move on to trying something else. Chase opportunities by submitting to competitions, building a social media presence, and making contacts who can help you get ahead. These techniques don’t guarantee success, but they will increase the number of opportunities that come your way.

10. You can’t predict the future

There’s no single path to success because the future is unpredictable. Your career as a writer will take forms you never expected, and success will often look entirely different to what you imagined.

When Lee was creating his most famous characters and stories, he wasn’t trying to construct a media empire that, sixty years later, would be bigger than ever. To the contrary: he was just trying to do a good job.

Q: When you launched your career as assistant at Timely Comics in 1939, did you ever imagine you’d create source material that would fuel so much of pop culture?

A: (Laughs) No! Not only did I not imagine it, all I thought about when I wrote those stories was, “I hope that these comic books would sell so I can keep my job and continue to pay the rent.” Never in a million years could I have imagined that it would turn into what it has evolved into today. Never.

– Stan Lee, ‘Comic book king Stan Lee loves the everyday superhero’, USA Today

So while you’re actively pursuing opportunities, don’t ignore success because it looks different to what you imagined. If it means producing work you’re proud of and entertaining readers, it’s an avenue worth exploring.

11. Don’t let posterity strangle enthusiasm

On the flipside of not ignoring the future because you don’t recognize it, it’s important not to allow an imagined future to stifle your present.

In Are You Sabotaging Your Own Success? Here’s How To Stop, I talked about the different types of fear that can lead authors to sabotage their own writing. One common but little-discussed fear that authors face is the fear of success. Success can be scary in a lot of ways, and its specter can create an imaginary ‘you’ who your real self can never measure up to. Looking at the first draft of a work can be enough to dissuade further effort if you’re intent on comparing it to the finished work your future self will be known for.

It’s so indescribably thrilling to realize that so many people really care about a character I dreamed up and wrote so many years ago. Although it’s probably lucky I didn’t know how big Spidey would become in later years – because, if I suspected that, I’d have been too nervous to write the stories, worrying if they’re good enough for posterity to judge.

– Stan Lee, ‘Stan Lee on What Made Spider-Man So Special’, Marvel.com

Give yourself permission to flourish without worrying you’ll hold future-you back. The future is not yet written, so you’re never working ‘away’ from a predetermined destiny. Instead, you get the future your efforts create. As Stan Lee proves, sometimes that’s more than you could ever have dreamed of.

Don’t use the author you want to be to intimidate the author you are right now.Click To Tweet

Stan “The Man” Lee

Stan Lee was an enthusiastic writer who talked a lot about his craft, so there’s more advice out there if his outlook appeals to your approach. For now, though, Lee illustrates a model of a professional writer whose dedication to publishing engaging work allowed him to triumph over self-doubt and embrace opportunities that he worked to create even as he couldn’t imagine where they’d take him.

It might seem like a lot to live up to, but again, Stan Lee started off filling inkwells in a medium completely devoid of critical respect and with no hint of the massive cultural influence it would later wield. If he could find such immense success from that position, you can meet your artistic goals from yours.

What do you think of Stan Lee’s words of wisdom? Let me know in the comments, and check out 12 Ways Neil Gaiman Can Help You Improve Your Writing Right Now, Why You Need To Brand Yourself As An Author, And Exactly How To Do It, and What Makes An Iconic Character? (And How Can You Create One?) for more great advice.


3 thoughts on “11 Ways Stan Lee Can Help You Improve Your Writing Right Now”

  1. Andreas Krauß

    Hello Robert,

    I am sorry. But I think it’s not right to put up Stan Lee on a pedestal along the lines of “(X) ways how Stan Lee can teach you about writing”.

    After all, the guy (or maybe I should say: “The Man”?) was a parasite, a thief of intellectual property, a hypocrite, a warmonger, a racist and a liar.

    And he was all those many different types of villain (yes, real people can be villains too, no matter HOW much they may feel as the “heroes of their own stories!), all at the same time for at least 58 years: From at least THE FANTASTIC FOUR #1 on to pretty much until his death in November 2018, but more likely since May 1941 (CAPTAIN AMERICA COMICS #3) already, until his death. (Which, just so you know, would give the term “A Life in Evil” new meaning. I mean, a whooping 77 years of betrayal, lies, hypocrisy and parasitedom…!!)

    So how do I dare to say so nasty things about the HERO of the comic book medium?

    Easily, even though with a lot of disgust, and even more lots of sadness for somebody who likely now burns in Hell for his persistently evil deeds.

    1) He was a parasite, because he always took care to be in excellent relationship to his own boss (originally his uncle) even when it meant stomping over the justified rights of his workers, people who had trusted him; and even more, because he always forcibly (via pulling rank as their boss) attached himself to the best and most creative artists Jack kirby, Steve Ditko, John Buscema), so that he could always sign THEIR hard work with his own byline, and could pretend to the public that all THEIR creations were in reality HIS doing.

    2) He was a thief, because he stole literally HUNDREDS of different characters and concepts from Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, all the while passing them off as HIS creations! Just google “Stan Lee vs Steve Ditko”, “Stan Lee vs Jack Kirby”, “Who really created Spider-Man”, or google whether the X-Men were conceived by Lee or Kirby, or visit the “The Case against Stan Lee” website.

    And that’s just a starter, really. The facts are everywhere, in plain sight for anybody who bothers to look for them.

    But most comic readers don’t WANT to know the truth, OR the truth known, just like most Marion Zimmer Bradley fans don’t want the world to know that MZB was a pedophile anti-Christian who hated God, children and men, and who often brutally raped and nearly drowned her own daughter during a particularly sadistic sex-attack in the bath tub, so they “don’t dwell on it”, or otherwise ignore or even surpress the facts even as they scream into their faces. They’d much rather go on believing Lee’s over half a century old lie tirades, because they think Lee is “cool” and “charismatic”.

    Even more, Stan was a thief because he took credit for two prime components of what makes up the modern superhero medium: “Heroes with problems” and the “Shared Universe”.

    But once you look closer, it becomes apparent that Lee didn’t invent the Shared Universe. Not even in the advanced sense as we understand Shared Universes today:

    Even ignoring that there were lots of “shared universe” mythologies even centuries (like Greek Mythology, the Robin Hood Mythos, Arthurian Mythology and so on), before ALL-STAR COMICS #3 introduced the first persistent Shared Universe for comic books some 20 years before Lee supposedly did it, once you read the early Marvel comics and know how Lee worked, it becomes clear that the true Marvel Universe (that is, the intertextual continuity that was made up by interlinking the early story-world of the Fantastic Four – and hence, everything else created by Jack Kirby, at least in theory, as Kirby himself had already co-joyned the early HULK and FANTASTIC FOUR mythologies with each other – with the story-world of the newly-created Spider-Man) was NOT created by Stan Lee.

    It was in reality created by Steve Ditko. It is well known that Ditko never accepted or followed instructions from Lee.

    Yet soon as he was certain that Spider-Man became a continuing feature (with his own comic book, even), Ditko immediately decided to link the world of Spider-Man to the world of the Fantastic Four.

    And he treatened the Human Torch as just another regular supporting character to Spider-Man, hence made it certain that Spider-Man and the FF would continue to be part of the same bigger “super-story”, of whom one aspect was the Fantastic Four, and another one was Spider-Man. (And a short time later, he co-linked his own Doctor Strange to Spider-Man’s mythos, too, just as Kirby had combined the FF and the Hulk some time earlier.)

    Only after fan mail made clear that the customers liked this new “combined story” did Lee suddenly start to think along the lines that the characters should inhabit one big story.

    But it was Ditko who came up with the idea of a “combined” universe, NOT Lee.

    And as for the so-called “realistic” heroes with problems, remember that it were Kirby and Ditko who came up with the way the characters acted, and drew them accordingly. Lee only SCRIPTED the characters. (And in the process, came up with some character quirks that can’t be drawn, like Reed Richard’s verbiousity or Ben Grim’s dialect and dark humour.)

    3) Lee was a hypocrite mostly for two things. First off, he always pretended to be the creator of the Marvels (a term both for the Marvel Comics, the Marvel characters and specific Marvel concepts, like Marvel’s Asgard or the Negative Zone), yet he himself compalined during the early Seventies about how he didn’t have the rights for “his” characters, even after he STOLE them from Kirby, Ditko and the others. He pretended to suffer under the same crime he himself routinely inflicted upon ALL his workers, just to deepen the impression that Marvel was his creation instead of the creation of the artists.

    And Lee was a hypocrite because he was one of the most racist creatives I ever read about (though not, strangely enough, in any way racist against Blacks), in addition to being just out of his mind with mad dreams of the “Glories” of War; Yet soon as it became “fashionable” (i.e. politically correct) to stand up for Peace, only then did Lee suddenly start to blather about how bad War is.

    But only a few years earlier, he had still published glowing love letters to the “glorious” deeds of War (mostly in TALES OF SUSPENSE, in the Captain America and Iron Man features, and in the Ant Man stories). My goodness, what a slime bag.

    4) He was a warmonger, maybe even comicdom’s worst warmonger this side of Kirby. See above. Really, read the early Captain America, Ant Man and iron Man stories. Rarely have I seen so much trash. In many ways, it rivals the Golden Age Wonder Woman, in sheer vileness at least.

    5) Lee was a true racist. Honest, his racism bordered on the insane, easily equalling the Golden Age Wonder Woman in that regard.

    Even though his racism NEVER turned against Black people, oddly enough. But everything else, from Germans (“Nazis”) Asians (“the “Yellow Peril”) and Russians (“The Red”), all of whom were not only drawn by an equally (or, most likely, even MORE ) racist Jack Kirby as sub-human, dehumanized monstrosities, but the dialogues Lee gave them is off the scale!

    And his characterizations for the foreigners, especially enemies…!

    Let’s simply say that The Mandarin (Iron Man’s classic arch enemy) is the single worst example of racism I EVER saw in any comic. It makes the Golden Age Wonder Woman’s crusade against the “Japs” look positively restrained, and it is worse than Marston’s worst excesses against “Negroes”.

    Again, Lee stopped only when it became “unfashionable” to spew venomous tirades of hatred against “the red” or “the yellow peril”. Only THEN did LEE suddenly present himself as somebody who LIKES Russians and Asians, and as somebody who doesn’t abide racist stuff in HIS books. (Could’ve fooled me, considering how incredibly racist all early works except Spider-Man and Doctor Strange were, and even THOSE two books were excempt only because Ditko wasn’t interested in illustrating Lee’s hate-filled pamphlets against “The East” or the “iron curtain”.)

    6) And lastly, Lee was a liar. He lied for at least over a half century about being the “creator” of characters and concepts too many to easily count them. Not only did he permit and actively “encourage” the public to form the idea that HE came up with all this stuff.

    No, he actively denied the truth when he could get away with it, and hid the truth when he couldn’t get away with outright lying (“Gee, don’t you know? I have this chronically bad memory, and I just can’t remember any details about that stuff…”

    So, as you can see, there’s really no reason to set Stan Lee on any pedal. He was never any sort of “hero”. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    And he should be judged by universal moral standards, standards that are untainted by at least half a century of indoctrination ionto the great lie of Lee being the creator of Marvel.

    He wasn’t. He was merely a thief who was related to the boss, and hence, could get away with stealing all his worker’s intellectual property, especially the moral right to their creations.

    Again, we should judge him by universal standards, by the same kind of standards we use to judge everybody else. By standards that are unswerved by his “charisma”, “humor” and “coolness”.

    And by those standards, Stan Lee is a villain. Even though he scripted HEROES, honest, DECENT people.

    And as a scripter, he’s actually VERY good: Easily one of the BEST, much better than riffraff like Grant Morisson or Alan Moore.

    But sadly, you never gave us any actual tipps how Lee’s writing style might help us to become better writers.

    Maybe a sequel about how Lee could help us to become better writers?

    1. Hi Andreas,

      Thanks for commenting. While I don’t agree with every point you raised, I think many of them are valuable in appraising Stan Lee’s legacy. That said, the aim of this article is to mine his own advice for useful contemporary tips – I can safely say that we’ve covered more than one writer in this series of articles whose personal philosophy disqualifies them from any moral pedestal, but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer words of wisdom (or useful examples) to modern writers. As you say, there’s a large contingent of people who see Lee’s personal brand as his greatest fiction, and while there are moral issues at play in that, there are also lessons to be learnt.

      Of course, when covering any kind of artist, there’s a responsibility in terms of how you engage with the myth-making done around them. I think we did a good job there, but I’m also glad you’ve provided such an extensive account for any readers curious about the case against Stan Lee.

      Best wishes,

  2. I’m baffled by Andreas’s conviction that Lee wasn’t racist towards American Africans nor Africans in general. The “Soapbox” noted for his strong statement against bigotry was not a “straight shot.” He states it’s wrong to hate ALL members of a group, but the terms he uses target extreme bigotry and violence. But what about the name “Ace of Spades” used in a jocular way? Or what of the head of International MENSA remarking that “…at least you’ve learned to wear clothes. ” Or what of a high IQ celebrity from a news magazine asking, “Are you a Kalahari Bushman?” (as though she were an expert on various Bushmen) and laughing at my discomfort.

    Then there are the times people say, “With your name, I expected a tall, broad blond European.”

    Lee leaves these micro-assaults on one’s dignity unaddressed. These do much to lessen one’s response to opportunities. Do you get on to the next day’s episode, or do you fold?

    Lee’s writing shows a disturbing display of ignoring what real heroes of fights against bigots have learned.

    Bigots don’t choose blindly to attack. They allow subjugation to exploit millions of people. Lee may have helped exploit enough people.

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