I received two great pieces of news today that I want to share with everybody.
1.) MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has accepted me for treatment; they have experience with the particular rare cancer that I have. We are just working out scheduling.
2.) io9 posted an article today about 51 webcomics that have never been nominated for an Eisner award but SHOULD BE. Lovecraft is Missing is on the list. I’m flabbergasted and proud and pleased and stuff like that there. Given the fact that there are thousands of webcomics, and many done by highly professional people, to be included on this list is just….wow.
And right now, I am going to my workroom to work on the latest page as well. Looks to be a good day.
Obviously I am not going to give a drawing course in a single post, so I am going to assume you already know how to draw well enough to get your point across, or have an associate who is going to do it with you. But if you’re just starting out, the least I can do is introduce you to your enemies.
Twin Killers in Cheap Suits
Like all good demons, they hover around us perennially. Make no mistake, they want you, and they will do everything in their power to get you, though naturally, like all good demons, they’ll drape their evil in enticement and allure. That’s why they are so successful.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the two Crown Princes of Hell, Procrastination and Perfectionism.
There are, of course, charms to work against them, but only two: Commitment and Discipline. In some ways, that may sound like the game isn’t worth the candle, but in the end it comes down to your answer to this question: Do you want to do a webcomic or not?
I’m going to assume you said “yes.”
I think I put this in an earlier post, but it’s always worth repeating: Commitment means doing what needs to be done even, perhaps especially, when you don’t feel like it. It means that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done. There’s always something else that needs doing, and always something else that seems like more fun. That’s where Procrastination is in its element.
The only real method I’ve ever found that is successful against Procrastination is the Five-Minute Rule. When you don’t feel like working on your comic, and in the absence of any life-threatening emergencies, commit to sitting down and working on your project for five minutes. Set a timer if you like. At the end of five minutes you reassess…and you’ll be surprised to find that your interest in working has increased.
Commitment also comes into play when you find yourself spending hours and hours over a single panel or face, always finding something wrong. That’s a sure sign Perfectionism has snuck up on you and sunk its teeth in.
There’s nothing wrong with standards. I believe in doing the best I can at any given moment. And the higher your standards, the more work your comic is going to be. That’s all to the good…
…except when your standards keep you from getting the work done, or even when they are severely impacting your life in a negative way. Derrick Ravey, over at Everyday Decay, has an interesting tale to tell in that regard, so I suggest you check out his blog.
Perfectionism’s greatest friend is unfocused Commitment. Are you committed to that one panel or to getting your story out to the public? It’s a balancing act, sure, but you have to decide.
And how does one do that?
Oooh, sounds kinky. But you don’t need to dress in leather for this one unless you want to.
You do have to remember that you’re going to get better as you go along. Your reach will, if you’re creative, always exceed your grasp.What’s perfect today is going to be imperfect tomorrow.
And you will improve more by doing a thousand decent panels than one or two ‘perfect’ones. That means learning to let go, move on, do it better next time. The point at which you let go is, unfortunately, up to you. It’s not an easy decision.
Discipline also reinforces Commitment. In fact, Discipline is the strength that allows you to keep your commitment.
You’re not a ‘writer’ or a ‘penciller,’ you’re a story-teller. Even a single gag panel is a story. The most incredible draftsmanship, the finest rendering, is not going to make much impact if it doesn’t convey its point. Flashy panel layouts and whacky perspectives won’t do it either. All can add to the impact of what you have to say, but in a pinch, clarity always trumps window dressing.
Play to Your Strengths
If you’re not (fill in the artist flavor-of-the-month here) then don’t get lost in pretending you are. You can be influenced -lack of influence, so they say, is lack of interest – but the sooner you find your own way, the more quickly you’ll find satisfaction in the work…and believe me, it is a lot of work. A LOT.
Now me, for instance, I have a shaky hand. I can sit and mope about not being as slick as this guy or as graphic as that one, I can put off drawing my comic because I think people won’t like my work, or I can get over it and incorporate my supposed weaknesses into my style. And although I always strive to improve, as should you, your style is going to emerge anyway, so the sooner you get to it, the sooner people wlll quit spotting the Mike Mignola swipes.
If all you draw is stick figures, then draw stick figures, the most expressive, powerful stick figures you’re capable of; that’s what it’s really all about, expression. Yeah, we all love to drool at the folks who draw for the ages, but comparing yourself to them is a dead-end game, ’cause you’re not them and you never will be them and if all you want is accolades then you really don’t want to express yourself in the first place. I guarantee that any successful story teller would be telling stories, even if they had to work in a laundromat to make a living. (Shades of Stephen King!)
There are lots of comics on the web that have very simple drawing styles and yet are still very popular, because it really is all about the story you tell. Take a gander at Order of the Stick, or the noob; A Softer World uses photos.
Lately rediscovered, likely by Bruce Timm when he redesigned Batman for animation, is the idea that you don’t have to draw realistically to tell compelling dramtic stories. Anyone who has ever read Dick Tracy strips from the thirties and forties could have told you that.
No matter what you set out to do, your own personal style will emerge over time, the amalgamation of all the things you’ve taken in during your life-to-date.
You can’t make all your decisions up front; your strip is going to grow and evolve. Waiting to finalize your drawing style is merely procrastination and/or perfectionism in a cheap suit.
But you don’t want to set out on this journey without some idea of where you’re headed. Too easy to get confused and lost, and that will kill you as surely in your storytelling as it will in a blizzard.
Just as with your script, you need to at least decide as much of what you want to say as you can…then feel free to change it as you go along.
It’s called growth.
Today is my 61st birthday.
Went to the oncologist yesterday. Aside from the fact that he was an asshole, I didn’t get much out of the appointment. Wow, could it be because he didn’t have my records or ct scan and, after my wife provided him with copies, he barely glanced at them? Or maybe it was the fact that he seemed genuinely perturbed that I didn’t feel bad like I am apparently supposed to. Either way, though I am not Pollyanna-ish about this, I don’t believe in this guy as far as I can spray urine, so we’re off to someone else. Trying to get into MD Anderson in Houston. We are supposed to hear by Thursday.
Prognosis? Well, nobody knows, and Dr. Doofus was so non-committal that I might as well just make my own guesstimate. On one hand he’s talking about possible years, and in the next breath 9 to 16 months.
One of the really positive things to come out of all this is the realization that I want to spend however much time I have left –and it might be years and years — doing the exact same stuff I am currently doing. Might like to travel a bit more, but writing, drawing, reading, collecting, yakking with my friends, enjoying the world, loving my wife….it really is who I am. That’s a big relief.
I’ve always known you folks were incredible, but I won’t reject the proof expressed in your comments. Thanks everyone for every good wish, thought, prayer, and hug. They feed me (in a good way) like nothing else can. A couple of people sent in cash donations, which is nice, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart, but it’s unnecessary. However, that money has been put aside with my advertising proceeds and other various cash into a fund that will be used to defray any costs of getting LIM finished or in book form.
I should get my biopsy results today. Then I’ll have a better idea of what happens next.
I drew the first two issues of Lovecraft is Missing on paper, but have now switched to all digital. Why? Speed. It is hard enough to keep up a regular schedule without adding steps that don’t add to the comic. Scanning in pages eats up a couple of hours that are better spent on the story and art.
Photoshop and a 9 x 12 Wacom tablet are my primary tools for drawing and coloring, though I now have a Modbook which lets me work on the go. ‘m also now using Flash to ink. I have a Master Page template set up in my LIM folder that saves me a few minutes on each page, and those minutes do add up.
The Master page is 11 x 17 inches, at 300 dpi, and, as you can see from the layers palette, has a number of layers. The bottom one is simply a scanned sheet of comic book blue-lined paper, for registration. I put a white layer over that for reasons that have more to do with color than anything else, so I’ll talk more about that when I get to color.
I also have multiple panel layout layers ready to go. I use the 9 panel page a lot, but I use some four panel strips, and some larger panels. All the sizes I use most are on layers, so I can knock together the layout of a page really fast. Sure, it’s not that difficult to make new panels, and when I need to, I do, but I am telling you, every second saved can go into the important stuff rather than the prep. (See the gallery at the end of this post for all the variations I mention that aren’t shown alongside the text.)
I also have a layer of a variety of balloon shapes. I can mix them, match them, overlap them, resize them quickly and easily. The only design aspect of balloons I care about is how the sit in the panel. Other than that, I don’t care if they are all basically the same shape.
Next, I lay out the panels, the number per page as well as what goes in them. The fewer panels, the more variety of sizes you can have, but you have to take into consideration what is going to be in those panels. Big. empty panels always look to me like the creators don’t have enough story to tell.
And how do you decide what to put in the panels, and which to emphasize? Well, that’s the art part and is totally up to you, but whenever I get stuck, I have one question I ask myself : what do I want and need the reader to see at this moment?
Simple. Difficult. If you can’t answer it, you don’t know your story well enough.
The panel layout is also an integral part of your story. Some people have found my panel layouts a bit on the unexciting side. However true that may be, it is done with intent: my story is set in the 1920s, and the period is a really important part of the story, of the mood, and of the pacing. You can’t just stick an old car in the frame and evoke anything other than a genric period.
Snazzy modern ways of laying out comic pages would detract from the feel I’m going for. The 9 panel page lays down a kind of steady drumbeat that makes deviations from it a bit more expressive.
Think about your own story this way. For instance, a hip modern story and character could be played out in hip modern styling OR you could tell that same story and use the LIM way of doing things. Each would affect your story in different ways, even if everything else was the same. The reverse, a period piece with modern layouts, would also have a different feel, and so would the million variables in between.
Since I’ve been writing the script, I already have a pretty good idea of how many panels I have, which ones to emphasize, etc. I am always willing to change if a better idea comes along, and I do that all the way up to posting, but basically I first do a real rough version of what I have in mind. Really, it’s a scribble that has no meaning to anyone other than me, kind of like my first draft outline.
I adjust my panel size as necessary, delete any layers I am not using, then–very important–I use Save As to set up a separate file. No time is saved if you have to go back and constantly recreate your Master Page.
I use Lafayette Comic Pro as a font, and I lay in my dialogue and captions at this point, so I can see where I will have to adjust the picture. If a panel is too wordy, I may move a sentence, or rewrite it more concisely, but by the time I am done, I have the dialogue and balloons in a little folder in the Layers panel. Once I have the little roughs arranged, I turn the dialogue folder off so I won’t be distracted.
Step number next is to refine the rough a little more, but I still don’t get into much detail. If I were sending it on to an inker I would draw it out more, but since most of us are lucky if we just have enough time to do it ourselves, I rely on the inking stage for details.
Inking is one of those areas where I want to spend all that extra time I’ve saved. I have a shaky hand and I try to use it to my advantage, but some things just don’t look good that way. By saving each rough image as a jpg file and importing them into Flash, I can use the brush tool to get a richer line weight, plus there is the wonderful Optimize menu selection which lets you smooth out your drawings for a sharper, crisper look. I usually set the slider to 25, then export the image as a jpeg file.
When I open the images in Photoshop, I copy and paste them on the page, adjust them to my roughs and I’m pretty much done.
I take all roughs and any reference I’ve put in the file, drop in a folder marked ‘outs’ and turn it off. You never know when you’re going to need those pieces again, so don’t delete them just yet.
I collapse all the final art down into a layer named, what else, ‘finals’ BUT I keep the panel layer separate for now. For one thing, it’s easier to clean up any little line nubs that overlap the panel frame without messing up the frame itself. Plus, some things may still change.
My last step is to add a layer for base color. I don’t always use it, but it helps me visualize the page if I can see the art through a particular color. But that’s another topic.
Have a good weekend.
Ok, here’s the skinny on why you haven’t heard from me.
I have cancer. It’s inoperable and has spread to my liver. That said, we don’t know enough about it yet to know what good chemo and radiation may do. We should find out more middle of this week.All my efforts and resources obviously are going to go into surviving.
But I don’t intend to leave you, my readers, hanging either.You’re my traveling companions more than anything else. It sounds corny, but you are my friends and family as well. I never did this comic to make money out of it, I made it to share with people who like this sort of stuff.
I have four or five more pages in various states of completion. I may put them up as black and white pages, but I’m still trying to get my whole plan thought out.
But there is at least a year or two of story left, and, as things stand now, I’m not going to be able to draw them. I don’t know anyone I can turn the art chores over to, at least at this moment. So I am going to write out a long, detailed and hopefully entertaining prose version of the rest of the story. This will take awhile, but I have already started. I will print this as soon as it is finished. It will cover every plot detail, character arc and mystery that has been set up and bring the story to the conclusion. I can’t give you a date at the moment, but I will when I know more. In the end, you’ll get it, even if it’s in one sentence bursts.
I’m talking to some friends about them getting the book ultimately published in soft cover. That will be announced here if it ever comes to pass. It’s a big job, and as much as I love what I’ve done, I know LIM is never going to be a mega-seller. I’ll be splitting the money with them, but no one is going to be able to retire on it.
So, that’s all I know at this time. It bums me out, obviously. I so want to finish this story. I will, even if not the way I originally intended.
Best to you all,
Ok, you’ve developed your idea, know your characters, written your script – what’s next on your march down that road og good intentions?
It’s actually something you’ve probably been working on at least in the back of your mind all along, whether you’ve been sketching anything or not, and that’s design,
I break this process down into four parts: the world, the characters, color and page layout.
The look of your world is influenced by the time period of your story, the approach to your story (i.e, realistic, comedic, stylized, etc.), the level of detail you are comfortable with and the amount of research you want to do.
Lovecraft is Missing is set firmly in 1926, with flashbacks from 1908. My approach is a stylized realism filtered through the look of a traditionally animated film, I like to do lots of detail and I really love research. I can’t swear I’ve succeeded, but I’ve tried to make sure that every single prop and reference is correct. I try to use accurate locations whenever possible, so that the house HPL is shown living in IS the house he was living in at the time the story takes place. When I have to make a location up, I find a raft of sources and create an imaginary place based on real places and/or events. For me, these things are absolutely essential to the story I am trying to tell. A generic jazz age milieu would undermine the mood I am trying to achieve.
A story set in the far future or on an alien world would require a whole different kind of research, and a whole different part of the imagination. If you’re comfortable with a kind of generic world you can mimic any of a million movies or comic books. That may work for some stories, but I always prefer a unique vision that reflects and supports the story. As a reference, look at the movie Poltergeist; the whole point of the film was to transfer a stock haunted house story to the suburbs, so creaky old houses and rickety fences would have played against the story, Edward Scissorhands took a similar approach, contrasting a bland suburbia with Gothic elements. The Dark Knight had a stylized realism; Iron Man based it’s world on high tech, which really emphasized the remote caves in which Tony Stark was held captive; Pirates of the Caribbean was richly detailed by highly stylized, a pirate fantasy rather than the smelly, dirty reality. In comics, Moebius is particularly brilliant in creating such worlds for his comics, as are Howard Chaykin, Alex Raymond, Kevin Oneill and Mike Mignola.
Most of the same thoughts that go into imagining the world apply to your characters as well.
Everyone’s taste is different. I like interesting character faces and am put off by stock jut-jawed heroes and overly buxom beauties, especially when they appear in every role. I’m not crazy about he current crop of movie and tv stars for the same reasons. I can’t tell them apart, and they have no character, just looks.
I’ve given some examples of how I work up a character design in earlier posts so I won’t go into it in detail here. Suffice to say, characters looks can either symbolize their character or mask it; a jolly looking guy who is a killer is creepier than someone who looks really mean; a small, weak looking man who is a kick-ass hero is more interesting than the another Christian Bale look-alike. In other words, each face needs to be distinct and be a fundamental part of the story. Attractiveness really is about character, not looks. Humphrey Bogart is one of the most enduring movie stars of all time, and you can’t call him a pretty boy, though he obviously has a lot of attraction. Most of my favorite actors – John Malkovich, Brad Dourif, Tom Hulse, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins – fall into this category. I like Frank Miller’s Sin City in large part because he’s not afraid to show unusual faces. Nobody is ever going to mistake Marv for good-looking.
That’s not to say a character cant be good looking, only that it needs to be a reflection of the character you are trying to get across. Looks unrelated to character are boring.
Oh, and one other thing: make sure your characters are at least recognizable. I was recently reading Simon Dark and half the time I wasn’t sure who I was looking at. A character would show up and I would have no idea who they were.
Whether you are doing a gag strip or an adventure comic, color is a critical element. For all the mystery and creepiness, I chose a very saturated color palette for LIM, inspired by my years in animation. The Zombie Hunters, on the other hand, has a very mute color palette; Hellboy has a saturated red hero played against fairly desaturated backgrounds and characters. The Sandman, for all it’s strangeness, had a very bright palette. I’ll be going deeper into how I color a page in a week or two, but for now, just know that your use of color needs to be carefully considered.
Here’s my first shot at a video tutorial, showing how I layout a page.
We’re going to look today at some of the other elements of storytelling that are critical to an audiences enjoyment. There are obviously many different ways to enjoy a story, and the thoughts below are my own solutions. The important part for you is that you consider these things. How you deal with them is what makes you unique
Plot is what happens to your characters. Whether you choose to work out everything in advance, or let things develop as you go along is your choice. But if plotting were all that there was to writing, then there would be a lot more good books. A mechanical, predictable plot is a sure turn off, but then so is a rambling, incoherent one. No matter which approach you take, you have to have some idea of the story you are trying to tell. You don’t have to be a fanatic about it, because you can address problems in your second, third, fourth and fifth drafts.
Selection is what parts of the story you choose to tell. Every one of those choices needs to add something to the story, whether it be plot, characterization, foreshadowing or whatever. The obvious example of what not to do is detailing a person going from point A to point B. Unless it is germane to the story, is an exercise in tedium: She unlocks the car, gets in, starts the ignition, drives down certain streets, pulls into a parking place, turns off the ignition, gets out of the car, locks it and goes inside. Wowzer. Better than Sominex.
Thanks to TV and movies, now even novels and comics can say “I need to go to 5th street” and cut directly there.
However, use the same tedious details of the trip and add someone mysterious following her every move and you have the basis for a suspenseful sequence.
There is only one tool that I am aware of to help you select what to include, and that is to ask yourself, “What do I want my reader to know at this particular moment?” It’s as simple and as complicated as that. If you’ll refer back to Wednesday’s reviews of Dominion and The Exorcist:the Beginning, you’ll see that the exact same sequence, that of Merrin choosing which of his parishoners are to be shot by Nazis, presented in two completely different ways, to differing effects.
Pacing is the rate at which your story unfolds. Popular fiction,as opposed to literary fiction, tends to rely on a fast pace. Action, baby, action is the writer’s equivalent of drill, baby, drill. The problem most people have with this approach is that speed is relative; fast is only fast if there is something slow to contrast it against; otherwise, fast is normal speed. A story in any medium that moves at a rapid-fire pace continuously soon becomes a monotone, dragging a story down to the level of bad pulp fiction. Such a pace allows for little character development or nuanced details.
As far as comics go, you have two major tools for working out your pacing: 1. how much you decide to reveal in each panel and 2. the number and arrangement of panels per page.
Pacing is not always about speed, either. It can affect meaning as well. Here are two silly examples.
This comes back to the “read like a writer” guideline I mentioned last week. Look carefully at your favorite comics and see how the writer and artist have broken down their story into discreet bits. Grab a sheet of blank paper and scribble out some alternate ways of doing the same page,combining or separating dialogue, rearranging panels and composition. Even if the result is terrible, it will be instructive to figure out why.
Dialogue is the toughest nut to crack. It has to be believable, and sound like real speech, but it is actually very stylized and selective. Even so called slice of life conversations are stylized representations of conversation, and still aimed at creating a mood or effect or convey a storypoint. However, take stylization too far, add lots of slangy catch-phrases, or affected speech patterns and you stray into satire or humiliation. It can also date your story, and not in a pleasant way. Trying to read 19th century pulp fiction can be a real slog because it was common to render all the ethnic dialogue phonetically. Get an Irishman, a Chinese and a Brit together in a conversation and I’ll take a root canal, please.
Some questions to ask yourself: 1. What do I need this character to say here that adds to the story? 2. How would this particular character say it?
The other thing you need to work on is listening. No two people talk alike. There are patterns that we all have, some concise, some rambling, some full of big words….the variations are endless. Then you have to distill that down to something usable. As an example, you might here someone talking like this:
Ah…y’know, you uh take..uh..Reno…no, Rogers… is it Reno or Rogers…I think it’s Rogers. Pretty sure it’s Rogers, yeah. So take Rogers down to , uh, that big blue, you know, ugly building, kinda dirty tan….used to be a bar or something, I never went in it, not my kind of place, my dad says it was a gas station when he was a kid, only one downtown..uh, you know..the Blue Dome, yeah, got that Big Blue dome thingee on top, on Third…can’t miss it.
A little of this goes a long long way. But the staggered speech pattern is useful, as is the habit of irrelevant digression. We can use these and edit the sentence a bit, then apply these techniques to the characters other lines:
Take..uh..Reno…no, Rogers… is it Reno or Rogers…Pretty sure it’s Rogers, yeah. So take Rogers down to , uh, you know, ugly building, kinda dirty tan….used to be a bar or something… got that Big Blue dome thingee on top, the Blue Dome, yeah,…can’t miss it.
And, uh, if you see Mary…I mean, even if you just talk to her, doesn’t matter if it’s, you know, in person, tell her I said, uh, well, just tell her I said ‘hi.’ Martin says ‘hi.’
Comics are a visual medium first, so there is also the issue of what pictures the dialogue is played against. Here’s some chatroom give and take I got from a website:
I like that
cool. Be there.
Realistic, maybe, but I’ll drink a glass of tepid, used dishwater for excitement. As a scene of two teens chatting with each other, if there’s some larger context and the conversation didn’t go on as long as most chatroom conversations do, then it could work. For instance, one of the teens is planning a suicide as he chats, or while someone else is torturing an animal in the next room. Suddenly, the mundane becomes monstrous… and effective.
Robert McKee, in his book, Story (which I highly recommend) has this observation, which is pretty far-reaching, but which fits nicely right here: If the scene is about what it seems to be about, it’s a badly written scene.
Rewriting is, for all us normal folks, a fact of life. Maybe there have been a few geniuses that turned out memorable material without any revision, but none come to mind. Susan Clark worked on her wonderful novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, for ten years, until she got it right.
Everyone I’ve ever known who prided themselves on being able to turn around a half-hour animation script over a weekend –and there were quite a few– wrote umitigated crap. Studio execs loved them because of the fast turnaround. The people who had to then make the cartoon hated them because nothing was thought through, nothing made sense. Batman would be tied up in one scene and free in the next with no clue as to what had happened.
Me, I work on the story right up to the moment I post the strip, and sometimes even after that. My process is 1. Write a rough outline, 2. Make notes on the outline, 3. Write a complete script, breaking the story down into panels and writing captions and dialogue, 4. Make notes on the script, 5. Revise the script as I am drawing it, changing dialogue, adding characters and story beats, 6. Revise the script as I am coloring it, changing dialogue, adding characters and story beats.
This would obviously be harder to do if I were writing for a company, or working with another artist.
If you are working with another artist, then you can go through the same steps, you’ll just work them all out on paper first, and make the script as detailed as you can. Samples of comic scripts are available all over the place, and Denny O’Neill has a good primer on the subject.
Criticism is something we all need, something that helps us grow. But you have to be judicious in whom you ask for it. There are three basic flavors:
Worst Kind #1: People who love what you do, no mater what.
Worst Kind #2: People who never like anything, and can only give you vague notions as to why.
Worthless Kind: People who try to get you to tell their story instead of yours
Wonderful Kind: People who tell you what they really think think and why.
Sometimes this will be a good thing, they really will love your work. Other times, you may hate what they say; get a six-pack of thick skin and get used to it. They are helping you. You don’t have to agree with them, don’t have to like it, don’t have to incorporate any of it; just listen for anything that strikes you as useful, absorb that and forget you ever heard the rest. There will always be somebody who doesn’t like your story. So what? Some people think Stephen King is a hack, others revile John Irving for his meandering plots, Moby Dick has put as many people to sleep as it has excited others. If you’re only looking for pats on the back, you’ll never grow as a writer.
You have to do it. You can think about it, talk about, dream about, argue about it, screw around in your head with it forever, and you still will never be a writer until you put it down in some readable format. You don’t need an audience –J. D. Salinger made it into his nineties avoiding one– but most of us do desire one. All it takes, as a teacher once told me, you have to find people whose taste is as bad as your own.
What you write may truly be terrible, but let me invite you to do it anyway. Do your worst, be gloriously, liberatingly bad; vomit out volumes of convoluted, ill-conceived prose, purge yourself of the scabs and decay that have grown around your creativity and one day, probably not as far off as you might think, you will look back at the previous day’s writing and say, “Hey, that’s not bad.”
I wish that for all of you.
Now I have to learn how to use this screen capture software so I can do a tutorial for next week’s topic, design and layout.
Have a good weekend.
Before I launch into this week’s topic, I want to clear up something about previous posts. Nothing in them is meant to discourage anyone from doing a webcomic. Au contraire, I want to encourage you to do your comic, BUT without a foundation from which to plan your work, it’s easy to get all balled up and frustrated, turn off readers and finally chuck the whole thing. I don’t care to set your standards for you, I only want you to be able to choose your standards from real knowledge of what you are getting into.
Doing Lovecrat is Missing is one of he most exciting, fun and satisfying things I’ve ever done, and I want you to have that experience as well. It is a lot of work, but then isn’t everything that’s worthwhile? And it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Now let’s get on to the guidelines I use for my work:
1. Read like a writer
Every book and teacher I am aware of agrees that to be a writer one has to read. I’ve always read a lot, but that never seemed to help me as a writer. For years I was baffled by plotting, characterization, dramatic tension and so on.
Finally an author of young adult novels, Anna Myers, added the ‘..like a writer’ tag, and suddenly -really, a matter of a few months–my entire knowledge of writing shifted and transformed into the real deal. Maybe it’s a no-brainer for most of you, but it was an entirely new perspective for me.
But what the heck does it really mean?
For me, it meant reading a book once to enjoy the story, and a second time to mark every passage with a code letter that told me the function of each paragraph and line of dialog in the book. By code, I merely mean C=Characterizaion, P-planting something for later uset, F= foreshadowing, S=story or plot point, etc.
Some paragraphs had multiple functions, and so got multiple letters, and some were easier to identify than others, but I would not move on until I had analyzed and identified the function of each element of the book. It’s like breaking down a car engine.I still do it. Currently I am working on Stephen King’s The Green Mile.
I no longer do it with every book, ut I am much more conscious as I am reading through the first time of what is going on, just as I notice the editing while watching a movie. When I really like or really hate a book, I go back to marking the book up. Bad books are harder to do, but you can learn a lot about what not to do. You not only learn how a particular author gets particular effects, you get an insight into the whole process.
Listening is a life skill that a lot of people never learn. You no doubt know a dozen people right off the top of your head that don’t or won’t do it. If you are a good listener, you might still not listen to yourself well beyond “I’m hungry” or “I”m sleepy.”
For me, it’s the most important writing skill I know, and I learned it from the same lady, Anna Myers. It’s about sitting in front of your typewriter and letting your story come to you from the inside, rather than forcing it onto the page from the outside It’s a vey meditative state, but once you get proficient at it you will be amazed at how much creative stuff will whisper itself to you, stuff you could never have made up, things about your characters that you would have never known in advance, lines of dialogue that fit your character and story tone.
For more on this, see number 6 below
3. Turn it upside down or inside out
At some time in the past, all cliches were fresh innovations, a simple truth or twist presented to thwart the readers expectations. They are victims of their own success, and they still occur to most new writers. The danger is in succumbing to the temptation.
I took a class in creative problem solving years ago, and is still by far the most valuable class I’ve ever taken. I use things I learned every day of my life in some way or another. Most of the material is available in books like Lateral Thinking, Conceptual Blockbusting, A Whack on the Side of the Head and others, and you will do yourself a big life favor by reading one or all of them and doing the exercises.
The major obstacles to this line of thinking are preconceptions and taboos. You might really feel strongly that your character has to be all good, and the character may be fighting you. The more you force your idea, the more hackneyed your writing will be. And if the character or other cliche suggests a solution that abhors or disgusts you, you need to at least think it through. Another better solution will likely present itself, but if you turn it off, you can constipate yourself, creatively speaking.
The essence of the techniques is simply to approach any problem without preconceptions, seeing it from new viewpoints. Easy to say, hard to do.
You can take the advice literally: when I am storyboarding and run into a staging problem, I will often imagine the scene taking place on the ceiling. Silly as that may sound, 99% of the time it helps solve the issue at hand, simply because of the new perspective.
It can also mean simply challenging assumptions. At one time, heroes and heroines were all good.That became predictable and cliched Someone somewhere along the way challenged that by asking “What if the really good guy has a fault? Or several faults? What if the good guy is only good relative to the bad guy, the lesser of two evils?” Now that has become a cliche, though it still allows for a lot of variation as far as which faults you choose.
Reverse the situation, play it for laughs, write it as a sermon–approach it from as many different angles as you can, and you will find your way past the cliche into something fresh.
4 ‘Write’ every day
This is another canard propagated by writing manuals and teachers, and I have to say, for thirty years I found it impossible to do.There is always something important -the roof leaks, the carbattery is dead, a deadline looms-waiting to interrupt the flow. But you’ll notice that I put quotes around ‘write.’ And that’s because I redefined the term.
Now I do ‘write’ every single day. But I consider writing a letter or blog post writing, I consider reading a book for study writing, I consider analyzing a movie or tv show’s script while I am watching it writing. I work on my stories as often as I can, but I believe writing is more than just putting words down on paper. Study and exercise are all part of the process.
Someday I hope I can get to the point where I write four hours every morning, but it ain’t happening anytime soon. But after years of frustration with my own ineptitude, I have now developed habits that have carried me through two novels and my comic strip… by ‘writing’ everyday, my way.
5. Tell the ‘truth’
This isn’t some big philosophical issue, especially as stories are lies anyway. It’s not about exacting historical detail or facts of any kind. The truth simply means the truth of your character(s) and the context in which they find themselves.
Characters who have no depth, who only act on one virtue like honesty or courage are rightly called cardboard, due to their shallowness. Stories that violate the world that the author creates are melodramas of the worst sort. Most bad movies and novels, such as Plan 9 from Outer Space or XXXXX are bad because of these two faults. The characters act unbelievably in situations that disregard the ‘reality’ of the story.
‘Reality’ doesn’t mean our world. Looney Tunes cartoons have a ‘reality’ of their own making, which has its own rules, as does any science fiction movie. You can create whatever reality you want, you just don’t want to violate it. In Desperate Housewives it would be a violation of that reality to suddenly have a werewolf stalking the neighborhood. Obviously in The Wolfman, that ‘reality’ allows for werewolves but would probably stumble if it depended too much on infidelity and soap opera tropes.In this case, truth really is what you make it.
In Hitchcock’s film The Wrong Man, the Henry Fonda character is a devout Roman Catholic. He isn’t perfect, but everything he says or does filters through his religious outlook, whether for or against; the other characters do not have this perspective. To have him ignore this fundamental part of his character without addressing the act would not be telling the truth about him.
In the film In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, Ralph Fiennes plays a psychotic killer who is guided by a very strict code of ethics. In the end, when he inadvertantly violates one of his rules, he kills himself because he has to be true to himself.
McDonagh’s plays are well worth reading to see how a master writer can create wild, outlandish characters in wild outlandish situations who are true to their wild, outlandish natures without ever lacking credibility. They are masterfully crafted. The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Lonesome West, The Lieutenant of Innishmore and The Pillow Man are great primers for storytelling.
As I mentioned, I don’t always get to write on my stories everyday; even when I do, I sometimes do so only with great effort. In both cases, I’ve found that certain writing exercises are very helpful for priming the pump and freeing the mind. Best part is that they take only a few minutes.
My personal favorite, which I think I made up myself, is to write a stream of consciousness paragraph for about ten minutes. The only restriction is that grammar and sentence structure must be adhered to. Otherwise, I put down the first words that come into my head. It really opens my mind up to other possibilities when I actually do start to write for real. Here’s an example, written on the fly:
The dubious pattern of strucural engineering presented in the dovecoat was mystifyingly obese. It had neither feathers nor a banana, yet still managed a creative and obdurate ramification that was unhindered by fluff and powder of any sort. Hells bells, I queried, shivering in the windy gulch of my subconscious. The right snowstorm has yet to flinch in the face of disaster, yet here I am clowning around like at Castle Muckross, the very pinnacle of oblivion. Get the hence. The roundabout measurement of world history is a token of esteem when it comes to panhandling, and neither the strong nor the wicked profit much from twining in the afternoon(unless, of course, they are baffled.) It’s a worrisome monarch butterfly that carries no moss,or that’s what I have come to receive.
If that sounds silly to you, fine. I have pages and pages of this stuff and find it really helpful, but i accept your disdain. My point is that you need to find exercises that work for you. Nothing can get you past procrastination an writer’s block faster.
7. Always have a plan; always feel free to ignore it
In my everyday life, I schedule just about everything. I make plans, and alternate plans. Again, I’m not very formal, but I always start with a clear idea of what I am attempting to do or say, and the order in which I will do or say it.
Then I forget about it and get to work.
When I was at the American Film Institute in the directing program, I would post a shot list every morning of every shot I wanted to get and the order in which I felt it was easiest to shoot them. Then we would discuss it, make changes, and start shooting. As the day wore on and realities like time and electrical outages and actors who couldn’t remember lines bore down on us, we adapted to the situation, combining shots, tossing others out, etc.
But we never got lost in the confusion. We always had a document that we could go back to, to make sure we got all the important stuff, to see what we had left, to see what might be best to shoot next and what we might cheat.
This is handy with a story as well. My outlines are loose, ragged, generalized, detailing the parts I know, asking questions about the parts I don’t. For a novel , this would amount to a first draft. For my comic, it is 15 pages to guide me though more than once I have gone off in completely different directions. The good news is that I knew I was going off in a different direction, and thus could accomodate the ripple effect that such a move causes through the rest of the story. And when I get confused about who is doing what for what reason, I can go back and straighten it our quickly.I was comfortable with whatever creative thoughts came to mind rather than struggling to keep my story on track.
8. Write what you love; you can learn what you don’t know
One of the oldest and most deleterious writing advice is to ‘write what you know.’ When you don’t know anything, that pretty much puts an end to your writing career.
Of course we all know something: our experience of the world. That is what the advice actually means, write what you know and think and perceive of the world. You don’t have to ‘know’ about grocery stores, mortuaries, spaceships or the like in order to write about them, because details about those, though they may inform and influence your story, are essentially window dressing. All of that can be learned through research, or a friend. Stephen King always gives credit to the folks who vet his books as regards firearms, explosives, medical procedures and so on.
It’s your characters and your story that you need to know, and that comes from inside you. It’s probably not the best choice to write a romantic novel if you’ve had no experience of romance. Horror novels, no matter how far out, are still grounded in fear, which everyone has experienced at one time or another. Most emotions are the same whether they are directed at a potato or a tumor or a squiggly, writhing thing from beyond. Disgust is disgust, fear is fear; you transfer your own personal reactions and emotions to another object, through your character.
9. Not knowing is the best part
A lot of my friends enjoy trying to figure out what will happen next on Lost. I don’t bother with it. I am so enthralled with not knowing what comes next for a change that I don’t want to spoil it by guessing.
Nothing pleases me more than to read a book or see a movie that takes me someplace I never expected to go. Leonard Bernstein calls this “the violation of expectations,” and believes it is a cornerstone of all great art. I couldn’t agree more.
Many people hated The English Patient, because they couldn’t understand it. I didn’t care for it that much myself when I saw it the first time. But I was intrigued and saw it a second time. Wow. What a movie. The skill with which the filmmaker tells his story entirely out of chronological order is amazing, and at the core is a terrific story. But it takes patience, something that is in short supply in these fast paced times.
Pulp Fiction is similarly fascinating for the same reason.
But even in a linear story, there is nothing more boring than knowing every beat of the story to come in the first ten minutes. This is my big gripe against Avatar. Beautiful as it is, it was obvious from the get-go that the guy would infiltrate the aliens, find they were really good folks, turn on his bosses and become one of the tribe. Same story as Dances with Wolves and a million lesser movies.
In writing my own stories, my enchantment with not knowing exactly what is going to happen ratchets up about a thousand per cent. There is no feeling quite like coming up to a point in your story and discovering something that you could never have thought of in advance, be it a twist, a character flaw, a new character, a subtext.
This is why I write such loose outlines. I crave that feeling like a drug, and it happens with greater frequency the more I write. In a young adult novel I wrote, I didn’t know the climax of the book until I got to that page, and then it all fell into place. Yes, it’s still unpublished, but I am as proud of that novel as if it outsold Harry Potter, though obviously not as rich.
10. Trust yourself
It goes without saying that you can’t utilize some of the above guides, notably 2, 5, 6, 7 and 9, unless you can first get to this point. It’s hard, because we all want our writing to come out right the first time through. We fear failure. We have preconceptions and filters.
Gotta get past all that.
And the best way to do it is to remember that nobody ever has to see your mistakes. You’re going to make them, everybody does, so get them out of your system early on. Confidence and trust come with practie, like anything else. Remember learning to ride a bicycle? Remember the moment when you first made it without the training wheels?
If you can learn to put down what comes to mind, remembering that you can delete it in an instant, you’ll open up those channels to your real thoughts and emotions and creativity. This is why writing can be therapeutic.
And it feels good, too.
That’s it for this week. Next week, we’ll look at dialogue, pace, taking criticism, and getting your ideas down on paper.
Have a good weekend.
I am going to do something different today. I’m going to put what would normally be the end of my post, Larry’s Personal Writing Guidleines, first. You will either be intrigued enough to read the rest of the article, or get all you need from it up front, or even decide it’s of no interest to begin with.
These are the things that guide everything I write. They are not rules, nor are they the combined Ten Habits of Highly Successful Writers. They have been gathered over a number of years from a lot of different sources, but they don’t necessarily reflect any school of thought or any one teacher; they are in no particular order, though some are more essential to me than others.
I want to emphasize that this list is what works for me. It may work for you, it may not, but if at worst it sets you on the track of compiling your own guidelines, I’ll consider it a successful post.
1. Read like a writer
3. Turn it upside down or inside out
4 ‘Write’ every day
5. Tell the ‘truth’
7. Always have a plan; always feel free to ignore it
8. Write what you love; you can learn what you don’t know
9. Not knowing is the best part
10. Trust yourself
I’ll go into each in greater detail next week, but first we need to ramp up to actually writing.
Wow. That’s a tall order, because the term itself covers so many different kinds of writing, maybe even all kinds of writing, maybe even everything in life.
Isn’t a recipe the origin story of a particular dish? Isn’t a poem the story of an emotional experience? Heck, even a painting can be looked at as the story of what one artist was doing at a particular moment in time.
Lying to cover up something you’ve done contains all the classic elements of a story: beginning-middle-end, conflict, resolution, and so on; and to you, it is complete in itself; to someone who knows you are lying, it is an oblique story about the lengths to which a frightened or shamed person will go.
Most of the stories we are concerned with here have no other intent other than to entertain or inform, but even a history of, say, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, needs to be told dramatically, intriguingly. David McCullough’s The Great Bridge is one of my favorite reads of all time, but those events, and the interpretation of what they mean, are filtered through a consciousness that sees the world in one particular way. Someone else could tell the same story from a different point of view and have just as readable a book.
At the other end, the Errol Flynn movie The Charge of the Light Brigade is pure fiction saddled with an historic title, but its purpose wasn’t to teach or to misinform, only to get the audience caught up in romance and thrilling adventure, with an emotional payoff.
So to get back to the point and define story, I’d go with this: a purposely manipulative ordering of events and actions, real or imagined, in order to bring forth an intended response from the reader/listener.
A simpler definition might be lies, though that sounds a bit harsh.
For our purposes here, I am going to make that intended response “interest.” Whether we want to write Ulysses or X-Men or A World Lit Only By Fire, we want and need to interest our readers. That doesn’t mean always making them happy, or giving them nothing but gratifying experiences. Who was happy when Hedwig got snuffed in Harry Potter & the Deadly Hallows? Can Eraserhead be considered uplifting? Conan Doyle killed off his famous detective in The Final Problem and got even more interest from outraged fans, a thought surely behind all the various deaths and resurrections of Batman, Superman, Captain America and so on.
Happy endings have nothing to do with satisfying stories; happy endings,as Orson Welles once said, merely depend on where you stop the story.
Some folks define story as plot, the main beats of the story arc. This threw me for a lot of years, because I bought into it, along with the idea that you had to have everything worked out in advance. Some people can and do work this way. I find it boring to the point of wanting to trim fingernails or watch reruns of Operacion Repo.
I like the story to be able to breathe and develop as the writing progresses. Most of the best moments in Lovecraft is Missing, at least for me, are things I didn’t know were going to happen until I got to that part of the story. If I’m surprised or delighted or creeped out, I figure you will be too.
For me, the plot develops out of the character’s choices. not my own. If I force them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do, my story goes flat. That’s the definition of pulp writing for me, and that holds no interest for me (even though I am writing about pulp writing:-))
From working out my idea I have a big-picture notion of where the story is going to go, maybe even an idea of how it will end, and a few big set pieces that I’d like to work in, maybe some philosophical point. But I’m not married to any of it. The ending I conceived for LIM is not the ending I currently have in mind, and the ending that appears may be different yet. The characters will tell me.
This assumes I have also worked a bit on my characters and have an idea of who they are, which I have. Still not enough to write that full-scale biography, but I am much more comfortable with them all, yet still am open to new revelations that could change my attitude toward them.
With that in mind, I write an outline.
Wait a minute.
Didn’t I just say I didn’t like to work out everything in advance? Yes, I did, but it’s no contradiction. See Guideline # 7 above. If you don’t have a plan, it’s easy to get lost; if you do have a plan, you are free to ignore it, but can always retreat to it if the way gets murky.
Honestly, outline is probably too grandiose a term for what I do.It isn’t formal, isn’t meant to solve every problem, and isn’t meant for anyone else to read; I put in lots of questions, leave a million holes with notes like “Something scary needs to happen here, but to who and what is it?” and ” How the heck does this connect with anything else in the story” and “Does this contradict what I said about her earlier?”
I use it to solely to explore my characters operating within the context of my idea. When you put your characters in particular situations, how they react will tell you a lot about them. You may never use that incident, but in a different situation, you will be able to hear your character more clearly.
It also takes me one step closer to committing to the tone and approach I am going to take with the story. Think of it as your sophomore year of college: you need to declare a major, but there’s still some wiggle room left.
Put another way, it’s that old saw about driving across the country at night: the headlights only show you a few feet of the path in front of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.
My outline for LIM ws 15 pages long, broken down into six issues. Here’s a sample from my Master Plot Outline for LIM Book 2 that became the three page sequence in Jackey’s loft:
Jackey’s office. Lots of odd scientific equipment.
Start with P is 500 years old. I’ve killed him twice, once in 1916 in the Ukraine and again in 1921 in XXXXXX. I think he finds me amusing. Did you find Mr. Lovecraft? Keep animosity between J and N. Get in Win’s correspondence. Howard’s a great one for writing letters (use later?) Why did they want you? Win’s scar is hidden from Jackey – win doesn’t know why.. Issues of Weird Tales, which gets Win’s notice. Doesn’t see Call ms, or the other stories (Re-An in Home Brew, Festival in WT 1.25, LF in Home Brew 1923,United Amateur, etc. and so on.) J gives Pauline and Hayden Larch file to Nan-how does she react?. Need to know how they are tied to her. Jackey and Nan, for different reasons, want to find Nikola. Win wants to find Howard. Is there a problem? He vanished before I got there. His name is turning up with alarming frequency. HPL a reporter.He may be more significant than I at first thought. J really thinks HPL is helping P, and thus is very dangerous. Prove me wrong. Help me find him. Significant to what? Time to rest. I drugged the tea. How tie HPL and P together? Set up some possible ulterior motive for Jackey, like winning converts or something that Nan can really harp on. And let it be just possible that she’s right.
P, for Paracelsus, and Nikola were some of the names I considered for the villain when I first put these thoughts down. There was no reason to correct my master plot, because it only has to make sense to me. I ‘drive’ all the way to the end of the story this way, and though I may return and make notes on it as I go along, I don’t rewrite any of it, even if I’ve gone off in a new direction.
A lot of this stuff got thrown out, or moved, or changed. Feel free to pause now and check out those pages in the archive for comparison.
Real comics have a fairly standard format; webcomics do not. You have to decide what approach,you’re going to take, which will be one of three choices :gag, serial story, or a combination of the two. They will be modified by whether you want your strip to be serious or comedic.
Gag strips are largely self-contained, though there may be themes and continuing characters, just like in the newspapers. (Anybody else remember those?) There a ton of gag webcomics, and the quality runs the gamut from incredibly bad to incredibly funny, from incredibly coarse to incredibly sanctimonious. Some have readers in the tens of thousands, others get less than 50 readers a day, and those numbers don’t always relate to the quality of the strip.
Many post two or three times a week, which is impressive. Just because the strips are short doesn’t mean they are easy to write. In a lot of ways, it’s harder. You can’t tread water like you can in a serial story. When I think of guys like Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Patrick McDonnel (Mutts), Gary Larson (The Far Side) and Scott Adams(Dilbert), who turned out five high quality dailies and a Sunday every week for years, I am awe-struck.
Gag strips can be funny (Something Positive(comedic gag strip with continuing characters and some continuing storylines), Boodachitaville (comedic gags with continuing characters but no story arcs), or just weird, like The Secret Knots (dramatic gag strip, meaning the pages are largely self-contained, though some have a continuity) A Softer World (stand alone gags, which can be funny and/or painful). And let us not forget those Lovecraftian classics, El Joven Lovecraft and The Unspeakable Vault of Doom.
Serial stories can be comedic or dramatic, though they tend toward the former. Fantasy, Anime and Zombies are big, and story arcs can run a year or more. I’ve never cared for fantasy, a bias I admit, so I can’t really recommend any strips, though several at Top Web Comics get tens of thousands of votes every month. Somebody likes them. And I’ve mentioned The Zombie Hunters, Everydy Decay and The Meek before. I immodestly think Lovecraft is Missing has its merits as well.:-) Dungeons and Dorks is a comedic serial story.
Okay, that’s it for this week. Next week , in the cleverly named Story, Pt. 2, I’ll go through the whys and wherefores of my guidelines one by one, and the following week, in Pt. 3,we’ll really get down to the nuts and bolts of writing a story.
Have a good weekend.