Not to be a party pooper, but there isn’t a page for this week, either. Inb fact, I am so slammed I am going to take a short break until the first week in April and get ahead. It is ridiculous for me to be trying to rush something through the night before when I know it isn’t good enough. Not striving for perfect, but a guy has to have standards.
In the meantime, my series on how to make a webcomic will continue every Wednesday, and in one week I will be debuting an odd new feature, entitled Ogg the Monster. Written by George Nelson, Ogg is making his first public appearance here. His first adventure isn’t Lovecraftian, but I enjoyed it so much that I offered to serialize it. After some months of hemming and hawing, Mr. Nelson finally relented. I’ll be putting up a chapter every Tuesday and Thursday for your reading pleasure.
Finally, pal Joe Pearson’s animated feature, War of the Worlds:Goliath, opens this weekend. If the title alone isn’t enough to draw you in, watch the trailers on YouTube. C’mon. Teddy Roosevelt – mech warriors-martians. What’s not to like?
Have a good weekend.
First Unpleasant Truth: There are no rules
Second Unpleasant Truth: You ignore them at your peril.
Third Unpleasant Truth: No one can teach you how to break the rules.What works for me likely won’t work for you, at least not in the same way.
Think of the steps below as an equation with variables, as opposed to a formula. The latter always produces the same results. That’s fine if a person wants to be a hack, but that’s certainly not you. And it’s only a little more work to fill in the variables in the equation. Even slight differences result in different answers, or, for the metaphorically challenged, different characters.
From all the books I’ve read on how to write it would seem that the first step a writer is supposed to take when creating a character is to write a complete bio of him or her. I wish I had a nickle for every hour I spent on THAT particular waste of time.
Maybe it works for some people, but I’ve come to see a character as an interesting person I’ve just met. Andlike real people, you can’t write anything about them until you know something about them. And to do that. I hereby pass along the single best piece of writing advice (and actually, life)I have ever been given:
No matter how much you may try to write a character in imitation of some personality you already know, he or she will still be filtered through the perceptions you’ve absorbed over the course of your life. You can base a character on, say, Al Pacino, but what will come through is only going to be your perception of Pacino plus what you think about those perceptions. You will respond differently than anyone else in the world.
So maybe we should amend that advice to : Listen — to yourself.
Listening is, admittedly passive, and the opposite of thinking, at least when the latter is defined as an intentional and (sometimes) rational process. There will be plenty of thinking to do later on, when you start fine-tuning the characters and story together, but for now, the character is already there inside you. Listen and they will tell you who they are, both by what they say and what actions they take. Ideally, those two things will not match up exactly.
Even though I truly believe that what a person does –and a a character is a person, even if imaginary– is a more reliable indicator of who they are than what they say, I generally start out by transcribing a monologue.I say transcribe, because I really do let the character dictate it. I don’t decide their grammar, their accent, their affectations, I let them tell me, just as I would when meeting a new person. Sad, passionate, whiney, pissed off, good person, bad person – I let them vent about whatever they want to vent about. I don’t censor, and I don’t worry about my spelling or typos. This document is FMEO – for my eyes only.
Of course I have my basic idea, right? But here is the point at which the idea starts to morph into what will become your story. As I said before, don’t let the idea be a millstone. You are free to reject any new ideas that come up in this process, but you don’t want to chuck something out if it is actually better, even if it kind of messes up the idea. Ideas are not sacred. They are variables in the equation.
The first paragraph or so might be kind of shaky, but I am usually rolling by the second. By the bottom of the page I will know if this is a character that is going to fit in my story, probably even where they are going to fit. But even characters that seem uninteresting at first can turn out to be fascinating once you peel back the onion.
I once got cornered by a prune farmer at a funeral. All he knew, all he cared to talk about, was prunes. At first I though, ohmigosh, is there any way I can trade places with the person in the coffin. By the end of the hours long conversation, I was thoroughly fascinated, not only with the intricacies of prune farming and marketing but with the man’s truly passionate love for what he did. This was 10 years ago, and he told me of the campaign the large prune farmers were undertaking to change the name of the product from prunes to dried plums. Silly? Check out the dried fruit section of your grocery store.
I absorbed notions about passion, obsession, marketing, farming, without ever once wanting to be a prune farmer. All of these, including the last part, are fodder for future characters. They won’t be prune farmers – they may be murderers, society women, politicians, whatever, but that two hours conversation will burble up through my many other thoughts and emotions, and spill out onto the page. You’ll know when you’ve struck gold, because, like I mentioned in the Idea post, questions will start popping int your mind at an alarming rate. If you want to know more about the character, it’s more likely that other people will too.
If ultimately the character doesn’t work for this story, file it and save it for future use; then open a new file or grab another piece of paper and get thee to it again and again until something usable comes forth.
It’s not that you can’t have some general notions about your character before you really start. But let’s not confuse thinking your character is honest as being any great breakthrough in characterization. What does that really mean beyond being a hero/heroine out of a melodrama? DEvious? How does that progress beyond Snidely Whiplash, Dishonest John or Crabby Appleton?
Honest but also devious? That’s a little more intriguing, though I’d want just a skosh more definition. Does it mean he lies but does the right thing? Is she trustworthy to a point, after which all bets are off? Does the person manipulate things behind your back, then announce them after the damage is done? The conflict gives you more to work with, but it’s still just a gimmick unless you can flesh it out by action.
In creating your character, listen to what they say, but watch carefully what they do. Sometimes it’s the same, but often it’s different if not out-right at odds with their version of the story. This is eminently human, and goes a long way towards making your characters breathe and live. Our perceptions of ourselves are always skewed relative to someone else’s perception of us, not because we lie to ourselves –though we sometimes do – but because we know the whole story of our lives, and no one else does.
Let’s go back to the vampires vs. zombies story we were working on last time. Remember that the zombie apocalypse has diminished the human population to the point that vampires are living on animals as they fight back
Here’s a bit of dialogue I “overheard” from a vampire in the story (s0mewhat censored since this is just not that kind of blog:-D):
Forget it. Lamb again? No freakin’ way. I am lambed out. I hated it as a kid, I hate it now. My mom pushed that crap at me like she thought it was ice cream. Some kind of freakin’ ‘healthier than chicken or beef ‘notion, and to prove her wrong, she was the first person I bit when I went over. Not enough to make her one of us, just to pay her back for all those freakin’ stinkin’ gristly lamb chops, lamb racks, lamb patties, with our without freakin’ mint jelly. Then you get the big idea about Australia — wide open ranges, sparsely populated, easy to hide. What was I thinking? Sheep stations! That’s all that’s out here, freakin’ sheep stations. Well, nobody ever said eternal life made you freakin’ smarter. There’s five million freakin’ acres out there. There has to be an armadillo out there somewhere. I’ll be back before dawn.
Ok, admittedly no classic, but I learned a lot about this character from the exercise—and I’m asking questions. Most striking to me is that I don’t think about vampires having been normal kids with parents very often. How do they remember those times? Something worth exploring. Does blood from different species taste different? Don’t know, never tried it. Maybe it’s a vampire thing. Again, something to consider, as in ‘Do vampires need variety in their diet, or vegetables, or fiber?’ and ‘Are there gourmet vampires?’. Are certain blood types considered fast food? Does vintage make a difference?
Since I am primarily a visual person, meaning I tend to think in pictures, and a cluster thinker, meaning I don’t think linearly, but in bursts of thoughts that I connect afterward, I also simultaneously develop my characters with pictures. For those of you who don’t draw, you still need to think in pictures, because comics are after all a visual medium. It’s a skill you can develop over time, so don’t sweat if this interests you but you have trouble with it at first. (For more examples of this, see the Lovecraft is Missing Sketchbook.)
My first sketch was this:
I immediately don’t like it. Too much of a been there, done that look. Along with impossibly muscled-superheroes, fandom long ago adopted the notion that zombies and vampires had to be bigger, badder, with wider jaws and longer teeth and more drool spilling out of their mouths than last month’s version.
So I went the opposite way:
Ok, too silly. Reminds me of Moe Howard.
But that’s a spark for:
Not really meant to be Curly and Larry, but vampires as more normal folk. (Admit it though, stumbling upon Curly and Larry sharing the throat of a regular citizen is a pretty chilling thought. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.)
But the questions: Does your personality have to change when you become a vampire? Do you automatically get all dark and broody? Are there any vampires that like to tell snappy stories, or that still love animals? After all, I love animals, but I eat meat. It’s a conflict.
At this point I see two broad ways to proceed: I can turn this whole thing into a comedy, or I can keep it serious but make my vampires more like their human counterparts. I like the second one. The first one could work just as well, and be bloody as all get out, but I like the idea of vampires as ‘jes’ plain folk’ with beastly urges.
My ultimate point, though, is that none of these drawn characters would express the feelings and thoughts in the monologue above in the same way. Another variable.
I also think names are important. I collect them, have a whole file of odd names, first and last, that I find in phone books or in a magazine. I never use a real person’s name, though I don’t think that there’s any law that says I can’t, as long as I don’t malign that real person. But I like to mix and match.
I keep names that are funny, evocative, unusual, really anything that strikes me, but nothing that is just weird for weirdness sake. One of my all time favorites is an animator from the 30s up to the 60s named Jam Handy. There’s a Stunkard Park in town, named after alocal family. I have no idea where I came up with Munsford Jackey for the priest in LIM, or whether it is even a real name. It just popped into my head one day, and, because I listen, I knew it was the priest’s name, and it helped me define his character. You are just going to have different experiences if your name is Munsford than if your name is Larry or Mike.
Disagree? I offer these as arguments: John Wayne/Marion Michael Morrison, Elvis Costello/Declan McManus, Sherlock Holmes/Sherrinford Holmes. Same people either way, but don’t you find your repsonse is different when confronted with their original names, and not just because you’re used to it?
Names are symbolic, iconic. They make a statement. The impact is not so great in real life, though I can imagine that people with names like Ricky Pigg and Starshine Madilla spend a lot more hours explaining or defending their names than I do. Would life be different for them if they were Ricky Pitt and Sharon Madilla? i think so. Not necessarily better, just different.
Artists, politicians and movie stars develop their names like Campbell’s Soup or Johnson & Johnson. Blackwater’s name ws so tarnished they changed it to Xe. Names are important, and if you listen, your character will tell you their real name. And it will be perfect.
Last bit of advice, which you are not going to follow: never fall in love with your characters. As your story evolves, you may have to kill them; you may find they really don’t belong in the story; you may find out that they aren’t who you thought they were. And they may take your story in a completely different direction, and you will fight it and resent it and feel betrayed, while forgetting that it is their story, not yours.
Have a good weekend.
So you want to do your own webcomic. What are you, nuts?
It will consume most of your waking hours, fill you with frustration over deadlines and technical issues, and, should people like it, shackle you with living up to whatever standards you’ve set. Seriously. No, really, seriously.
And didn’t I say this last week?
Yes, I did. It’s a point I don’t often see addressed when writing about webcomics, but believe, me, you need to know this stuff. Otherwise, you are in for a world of hurt.
There are, as far as I can figure, the following reasons for doing a webcomic: Self-Expression, Attention and Hoping to score big with a movie deal or at least selling merchandise. Let’s look at them one at a time:
1. Self-Expression. No doubt, the web makes this easier than it has ever been in history (ok, except maybe in the advanced technological world of Atlantis). It’s a definite motivator. Is it enough?
I’d have to say no. First, you have to have something you to express, and too many people don’t spend enough time working that out. (See last week’s post). The notion that artists just “let it flow” and whatever comes out on the page or canvas is thereby worthy of attention is nonsense pure and simple. Even the most abstract artists, be they Gertrude Stein, Jackson Pollock or Robert Wilson, put a lot of time and effort into their seemingly random efforts. Bruce Springsteen rehearses a lot in order to seem spontaneous.
There’s also the issue of whether you have enough to express to sustain a continuing strip. It may seem glamorous, but filling that blank page week after week can quickly become a bronze-cast albatross around your creative neck if you don’t have some long term idea of where you are going. Even at that, you are going to run into roadblocks along the way. The best way to get around them is to be prepared.
There’s a famous and possibly apocryphal story about James Joyce. Someone once asked him how much he had written that particular day. “Seven words,” said Joyce. The questioner was startled. “It took you all day to write just seven words?!!! Joyce reportedly replied, “Oh, I knew the seven words this morning. I just didn’t know what order they went in.”
That, if you will, is self-expression.
Or as Mark Twain said more directly, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”
Secondly….well, that leads us to:
2. Attention – You don’t care if anyone reads your stuff, you do it just for yourself?
Sure you do.
To the degree that’s true, save yourself a lot of pain and sorrow and just daydream your stories.
For the rest of us, there’s no point to self-expression unless there is at least one person to which we can express ourselves. Whether it’s a coolness factor, or the need to be admired or the need to push the envelope or even disrupt society, you’re going to 1.)want and need readers and 2.) keep readers.
This will be your major cause of headaches.
But again, is this reason enough to do the comic?
Again, no. If all you want is attention, go to the mall and do Three Stooges routines by yourself, very loudly, in the middle of the food court.
3. The Big Score – Ah, now we get to it, don’t we? Greedy little dickens. You stand revealed as your true self, like Don Quixote facing the Knight of Mirrors.
Well, think of it this way. There are may be 7.000 webcomics out there right now. How many of them have been turned into movies?
In other words, it’s a big bet at long odds.
So my thought is that the reason to do a webcomic is a combination of self-expression and the need for attention, along with any one of a number of psychiatric disorders that compel you to do a lot of work for no money.
These gifts are a curse that doesn’t come cheap.
-You need to get a domain name. There are dozens of registration sites, all will charge a fee (and an annual renewal). I paid about $60 for LIM; the annual renewal is cheaper. And don’t whine because the domain you want is taken. It happens, so be prepared and have some alternatives ready. I use Hostek and am happy with them. This service will be your host site, where everything will be stored. If you have a lot of memory hogs in your posts, you may have to pay extra for more server space.
-You need to find a place to present your comic. You can pay someone to design a site from the ground up, or you can ruin a friendship by getting a friend to do it for you, or you can wade through that mire yourself.
I use WordPress, with the ComicPress plug-in. I am happy with this arrangement also, BUT it can be as confusing as all get out to set-up and make changes if you don’t already know HTML and CSS. WordPress claims it has a five minute install. Like hell they do. If it weren’t for my pal Eric, I would never have gotten the site set up. The instructions assume a certain level of knowledge about web page programming that I still don’t have, so the terms are meaningless. The forums are useless. I believe WP now offers a service where they will install remotely if you are comfortable with someone else being able to access your box. (Let me just add as an aside that the book WordPress for Dummies is of little help. Try one of the others.)
WordPress is also confusing because there are two flavors: WordPress.com charges and will host your site, while WordPress.org is free, but you have to have a host (this is the option I use.) It also has more plug-ins and features, but less, if any, support from WordPress.
Alternatively, there are some sites like Keenspot, Drunk Duck and Palace in the Sky that present a whole “line” of comics. I never looked into how they work, as I didn’t want Lovecraft is Missing appearing with a bunch of other comics that might detract, either competitively or inappropriately. But that’s your call.
-You’ll need to promote your site. Constantly. Press releases to relevant sites like Digital Strips, promotion to other sites relevant to your topic or genre, contests and promotoions on your site, freebies like wallpaper and possibly paid advertising through Google Ads (expensive) or Project Wonderful (far cheaper, but less reach) or the like.
You can also list your comic on a number of dedicated comic sites, the best of which is Top Web Comics.
Obviously, all this material –ads, posters, press releases– has to be created and distributed. It can take a monstrous amount of time to do this, taking you away from the actual work of making your comic. And the more narrow your subject matter, the more time you’ll spend researching who to distribute to and how.
It’s not a one time deal, either; you ignore continual promotion at your peril. Add it to your schedule.
-Additionally, you will need to educate yourself in the mysteries of SEO – Search Engine Optimization. I’ve read a whole book on the subject and still don’t have a good grasp of it, but it involves the keywords that Google and others use to rate and rank your site.
-And just know that the way you name your pages and posts one WordPress or whatever other site you use will also affect how the site is indexed and ranked. It can make you or break you. Again, there are whole books on these topics, so I can’t even begin to explain it here. But the material is out there, some of it free, some of it costing a good chunk of change.
We all share the frustration of going to a site of interest and finding it hasn’t been update since dirt was young.
Do you ever go back to those sites?
Ok, so do you think YOUR comic is going to be any different? If you do, get over it. It doesn’t matter how many excuses, even REASONS, that you can offer up, readers are not going to stick with a site that doesn’t update regularly.
The good news is that YOU get to decide what regularly is: daily, weekly, monthly, twice a month, every two months. Doesn’t matter. It’s only important that once you announce it, you stick to it. If you have to make a permanent change, be up front about it, preferably in advance, and no one will hold it against you.
This means that you need to really evaluate what kind of material and how much ofit you are going to post AND – I can’t stress this enough – how much time per week it will actually take yo to do this. Get that number, then double it, and you should be in the right ballpark. (And don’t forget to include the time for promotion mentioned above.)
I have changed my schedule for each issue of LIM, due as much to experimentation as schedule. I’ve only missed a few posts, and always knew it in advance, so I let people know. For book 3, which just recently wrapped up, I was psoting two blogs and a comic page per week. For the previous issue, I posted two comic pages per week and only one blog post.
That may sound like I lazed off on issue three, but blog posts like this one can take 4-6 hours to write well. If you have to do a lot of research, there’s another hour or two per blog; if you scan a lot of pictures, it obviously takes a lot longer.
For the comic, I spend a week or two total on the script; each page takes 6-8 hours to draw, and 12-15 hours to color. A lot of strips aren’t as complicated. There’s nothing that says you can’t do three panels in black and white.
Some webcomics are MORE complicated. The limits and goals are all set by you.
And that, my friends, is the scary part of any independent creative project: there’s no one to tell you what to do. I think it was SF writer David Gerrolds who said “Commitment is the act of doing what you said you’d do whether you feel like it or not.”
Commitment is mandatory if you want to do this seriouosly and not as a lark.
The comic is not going to make itself. There will be plenty of times you’re too tired, too bored, too busy or you just plain don’t feel like doing it…but you still have to produce the comic. Think long and hard about that fact. If you want to have any success at all, you are going to have to absorb that attitude into your DNA.
The only advice I can really offer in this area is work ahead. Don’t be in such a hurry to post your comic that you don’t have a good backlog stored up. Newspaper comic strip artists generally work six months ahead so as to not miss that daily deadline. If you have ten weeks worth of strips and posts ready before you put the first one up, and keep that advantage more or less constant, then there will be times you take the harness off for awhile. If not, when a crises comes, you miss a date. It’s happened to me a time or two, and I’ve learned my lesson.
One last time, I’m going to emphasize that I am not kidding about any of the above. If anything, I’ve understated the case. Re-read this post once or twice more, and if you’re still ready to cowboy up, then be here next week and we’ll talk about characters.
Have a good weekend.
I’m down to finishing the page for the week the night before it goes up. Bummer. That probably means that I’ll miss a few weeks in the near future. It takes so long to do a page that I really need to be a few weeks ahead.
Don’t miss the series on How I Make a Webcomic which will be running every Wednesday for the next month or so. If you want to make your own, or if you’re just curious about the process necessary to produce one, I think you’ll be entertained and enlightened.
Have a good week.
So you want to do your own webcomic. What are you, nuts? It will consume most of your waking hours, fill you with frustration over deadlines and technical issues, and, should people like it, shackle you with living up to whatever standards you’ve set. Seriously. No, really, seriously.
But then, I’m nuts, and Lovecraft is Missing is also the most liberating creative experience I’ve ever had. The limits are pretty much only those I set for myself. It’s likely that if you are reading this, those two factors will outweigh the previously mentioned obstacles.
‘Tutorials’ is a way too technical and organized term for what I’m going to do in this series of blogs, but I will be detailing the steps I go through, the tips I’ve learned from experience, and the way I do things in general. I’ll cover the whole process, from developing the idea to marketing. A lot of it is just my opinion, but it is opinion based on experience. It’s certainly not the only way, it won’t work for everybody, and I know I still have a lot to learn. But even if you disagree, what I have to say might help you figure out your own path. That said, let’s get on with it.)
When it comes to the storytelling arts (novels, movies, comics, etc.) just about everybody thinks they have ideas. They seem to think that because they have a.) seen a lot of movies and/or read a lot of books and b.) at one time consigned a coherent sentence to paper, they necessarily have the chops to produce a workable story idea off the top of their heads at a moment’s notice.
Most of them are wrong.
I’m not judging the quality of the idea here, just noting that most people have a fuzzy notion of what actually constitutes an idea, at least insofar as it relates to story. After all, writing is easy, not real work. Kinda like singing or painting.
In their actual life, people would never think that “grocery store” was an idea; call it a thought, a concept, a notion, whatever, it lacks any potential for action or conflict, and fails to solve any problem. “I’ll go to the grocery store” is is at least action-driven, but without knowing why, or what obstacles might lie in the way, it’s just an item on a checklist of daily tasks. Just going to walk around? Low on Egg-os? Cute new check-out person? These might be germs for a story, but if you think any of these are dramatic –full of action and conflict– we need to get you out more.
However, the same folks have no trouble telling you they have an idea for a novel-m0vie-comic and when you ask what it is, they’ll say, with a straight face, “zombies.” If you press them further, they get flustered, hem and haw, act offended.
Sorry, not an idea. No offense to zombies.
But you have to start somewhere, so the subject should definitely be something that is of great interest to you. It’s not about what’s hot, what’s cool, what’s trendy. By the time you get your book out to the public, all that will have changed anyway. I don’t care how dull or mundane the subject may seem to be to others, it has to be of great interest to you. It’s your job as a writer to make it interesting to the rest of the world.
Let’s stick with webcomics as our medium and zombies as our subject , and we’ll go a step further: “Zombies take over the country.” Let’s pretend that this hasn’t been done to death, and we can still see that it isn’t really an idea. It’s too vague, too broad, the conflict is only impersonal and implied.
An idea is what will be carrying your webcomic for as long as you care to make it, whether it is a gag-a-day style strip or an adventure comic or something inbetween. It has to have muscle, endurance, tenacity, fortitude. (And let me be clear, I am not talking here about the Hollywood notion of being able to sum up a story in a single sentence. I think that’s shallow crap, and as evidence I offer the low quality of most high-concept movies like 2012. Everybody got so jazzed about the one sentence they forgot to fill out the other two hours of the movie.)
So, what would make “Zombies take over the country” into a workable idea? Well, “Zombies take over the country and it’s a GOOD thing” takes us a step closer. It’s a bit of a twist, it makes me curious as to how something like that would work. How would zombies be good for the country? Haven’t a clue at the moment, and that’s ok, but the notion inspires conflict on the level of C-SPAN programming. Need to up the ante.
So, howzabout “Zombies take over the country and it’s a GOOD thing, BUT there are still roving rebel bands of humans that will fight against them.” Ok, a bit of a twist in making the humans the bad guys, some conflict, though kind of mundane.
What makes it mundane? To me, it’s the humans. Guerilla forces always arise when there’s a coup, even if the coup is for the best. Also, too easy to fall into political statements and comparisons with real wars. Yawn.
In a situation like this, I like to turn on the spigot, make the longest list of alternatives I can in the shortest amount of time – say, ten minutes. No editing, you never have to show it to anybody, and the crazier you get, the more alternatives you can think of, the freer your mind will be to stumble upon something really creative. It’s like uncorking a bottle of champagne – a little bit of work and then oh my, look out.
For example, at random here, I could replace the humans with yams, cows, dogs weighing less than 25 pounds, random electrical discharges, soda, frogs, Bigfoot, Donald Duck, John Malkovich’s puppet from Being John Malkovich, E. Coli, suddenly sentient mushrooms, and so on. None of these may be in the least workable, but it’s important to get your mind freed up, to turn off that editorial voice and just brainstorm. You can toss the whole list in the trash when done.
I kind of like Bigfoot, but I don’t see any inherent conflict. Unless you want to radically rewrite their whole mythology, Bigfeet generally keep to themselves. But as long as we’re talking mythical creatures, what about vampires?
Ok, there’s some possibility here. With humans on the wane, nourishment for the vampires is getting low, and it pisses them off, especially since zombies are very similar -they bite you, make more zombies. Competition. Vampires don’t get anything out of biting zombies, because zombies have no blood. But what happens if a zombie bites a vampire? Do the vampires exist on sheep and pigs until they waste the zombie army? Since vampires are largely indestructible and have no need for weapons, would most of them be unfamiliar with firearms? Knives? Explosives? Would the internet still be up if the zombies work through some kind of a group mind?
Now again, I’m not saying this is a good idea, but the first clue you’ll have that you are in real idea country will be when questions start popping up spontaneously, suggesting relationships, inspiring characters, posing situations, inviting conflict.
Right now we have a conflict with some potential for unusual action, but it’s still kind of ordinary. What will make it different is how we handle the charcters, a subject we will deal with more in a few weeks. But even at this point, there are some things to consider. Are thses vampires the Ancient Royalty kind, like Twilight? Or the beasts on two feet of 30 Days of Night? Or can we find some new angle on them? Or maybe we step back and make THEM the good guys, whom the remaining humans turn to to stop the zombies (who maybe are no longer a GOOD thing – you have to be flexible.) Whatever approach you choose is going to affect the whole tone of your strip, so your idea has to have some feel for what that tone is going to be.: funny? romantic? gut-wrenching buckets of gore? personal statement?
Same with the zombies. If they are still going to be a force for good, how is that going to work in a general sense. Is there a grooup mind? Does someone have control over them? Aliens have finally executed Plan 9 from Outer Space? Are they Romero zombies, or 28 Days Later zombies, or zombies from Stephen King’s Cell.
That, my friend, is up to you. It’s your idea we’re talking about.
At this point we come to an absolutely crucial step in the development of an idea:
write it down.
Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, character names, just get the facts down. It doesn’t have to be in any readable format, it can bounce around chronologically, shift from character to plot to whatever; it only has to be intelligible to you when you read back over it.
Once it’s written, you can stretch it, morph it,sculpt it, invert it, do whatever you like, but on that inevitable bad day, when you lack enthusiasm and energy to write, or have gotten so involved with the intricacies of what you’re doing that you’ve lost your way, having the written copy will help you refocus and recharge. Write it down with that passion you feel when you are just setting out, and it will serve as a battery later on.
An idea does not have to be epic in length. It can be a page of handwritten notes. My original pitch for Lovecraft is Missing was 8 pages, plus 6 illustrations, but it was for an animated TV series. It set up the major characters, Win and Nan, and gave an outline of the world and overall story arc. It took a couple of weeks to write and polish.
Ten years later, I started the webcomic and was I glad to have that pitch, even though I tossed the majority of it. But the foundation was there and I didn’t have to recreate it from scratch, trying to recall what I liked about the idea in the first place.*
In ten years, times changed, I changed, and the medium changed, all of which necessitated changes in the pitch. A television show, animated or otherwise, has to tread water some of the time so as not to run out of story in case there’s a second season. A comic book, on the other hand, or at least one I am doing for free when I should be working, at least needs finite story arcs. I used my pitch as a springboard rather than a millstone.
I actually found this liberating. As i developed my webcomic story, I threw out a lot of the pitch; a minor character was promoted to a significantly larger part while others were dropped; plot points changed, were abandoned, were moved, were added. You’d recognize the basics from the pitch, just as you’d recognize the relationship between a chimp and a lemur while knowing they are different animals.
There is no “finishing” point to an idea; there is only the moment when you decide you have enough to move on to developing the characters and story. Determining that point is difficult, but mostly I see people making the mistake of moving on too early rather than too late. We’ll talk more about this when we get to the posts on characters and plotting.
For now, let’s summarize thusly:
1. The subject has to be of great interest to you. It’s your job as a writer to make it interesting to the rest of the world.
2. Turn on the spigot. Entertain the wildest, most obviously ridiculous, outlnadish concepts, as it will be easier to rein them in than to make them fly.
3. You are in real idea country will be when questions start popping up spontaneously, suggesting relationships, inspiring characters, posing situations, inviting conflict.
4. Know what your basic tone is going to be. It can change, but you have to start somewhere.
5. Write it Down.
NEXT WEEK: The Decision
*(Which brings up another point about ideas: you don’t always get to execute them when they first occur. Another good reason for writing them down.)
Did HPL ever send Valentine’s Day cards? Those few years he was actually in school, did he drop them in the brown paper bags of the cute girls? Did he ever give one to his mom, or his aunts?
And that’s the sum tota; of my thoughts for this week.
Next week I’ll start a rerun of my “How I Make a Webcomic” series for those new folks who missed it last time around. And in a few weeks I’ll have another Occult Detective review up, featuring Andrew Latter.Who?
Have a good weekend. (And though I don’t beat this drum much anymore, feel free to vote for LIM at Top Web Comics and Like us on Facebook.
I’ve wanted to do a Semi Dual piece ever since I started this series of reviews. He was a pulp regular for over twenty years, appearing in 30 serials and short stories. He was usually cover featured. He is well known and well regarded among pulp fans. I was stymied, however, by the fact that, despite this seeming popularity, none of the stories had ever been reprinted. There were no hardcover collections from the 1920s or 1930s, and, up until this year, no reprints in paperback or in fanzines. I have a few odd parts of some of the serials in Argosy, but anyone who collects Argosy knows how hard it is to put together all the sequels that you want without just collecting the full run.
Fortunately, Altus Press has remedied that by reprinting the first three Semi Dual stories from 1912 in a trade paperback, the first of a series. With these in hand, and Robert Sampson’s examination of the character in vol. 2 of Yesterday’s Faces: Strange Days, I feel I have enough to finally move ahead.
Semi Dual is unique (frustratingly so) in many ways. His real name is Prince Abdul Omar, a Persian prince, son of a Persian prince and a Russian noblewoman. It goes without saying that he’s powerfully built, master of all relevant skills, and incredibly wealthy. He is a pulp hero, after all. He reveals in the third story, “The Wistaria Scarf,” that he is several hundred years old, kept alive by his sheer will until his soul-mate comes back around on the wheel of Reincarnation. This news is accepted with surprising calmness by his associate, Gordon Glace, so much so that the idea is apparently never broached again in the course of the series.
Although he has an elaborate palace in Persia, he has made his home in the United States on the roof of the Urania Hotel (the finest in the city), building a splendid and beautiful and likely impossible garden and a tower from which he works to advance good and redress evil in the world, to lead mankind to that next step of evolution in mind thought and deed. The interior rooms are adorned with Persian rugs, tapestries, pillows, statuary and an occasional desk. His valet, a Japanese skilled in the martial arts, attends his every need.
The name Semi Dual has at least two explanations. Robert Sampson relates the most common one: the prince’s solutions to crimes have two aspects, the real and the spiritual and they are often at odds with one another. Except for the fact that none of the three novels in this collection bears this out, it is as good an excuse as any.
In The Significance of the High ‘D’, the second story in the book, another explanation is offered by Gordon Glace, the reporter-turned-investigator who does most of the leg-work in the series:
“You see, his father was a high-caste Persian and his mother a Russian princess, or something like that, I believe, but Abdul didn’t like his name. Said it attracted too much attention to his oriental blood, so he dropped the ‘b’, shuffled the ‘a’ around a little bit, and got Dual as a result.
“His first name,Semi, he took because, as he explained, he was only half Abdul to begin with, his mother being of a different race, and there you’ve got the whole thing.”
Perhaps more plausible; definitely ridiculous.
Even with the other issues that we’ll get to, it’s hard to take seriously a man who has chosen an essentially meaningless name. It’s not the the term doesn’t exist. For instance, Semi-duality is a part of Socionics, a kind of personality typing;
Relations of semi-duality are similar to relations of duality. Semi-duality occurs between partners who lead (by leading function) each other’s dual-seeking (5th) functions but lack each other’s creative functions (to assist their mobilizing functions). As a result, both partners often perceive elements of duality from the relationship but feel the other partner is misplacing the correct emphasis; as semi-duals will be able to help their partners with their dual seeking functions but both have the least confidence in the same area of the psyche (thinking, feeling, sensing, or intuition).
Relationships of semi-duality can become very close for moderate periods of time until correspondence is broken indefinitely. These relationships often begin, or rekindle because of mutual interests or friends held in common.
To which I say, “huh?”
If we break the name down into its parts, we create other issues. “Semi” refers to a ratio of 1 to 2, or ½. A semi-monthly magazine comes out twice a month. That ratio is the essence of the Sampson explanation. “Dual” in math means “a notion of paired concepts that mirror one another; if the dual of A is B, then the dual of B is A.”
But wait, there’s more, It denotes a reference to two, as in “consisting of two parts or elements or having two like parts” as well as “having a twofold, or double, character or nature.”
So does that mean there are two meanings to the cases every other time?
And did I mention he is several hundred years old?
Telepathy is one of his primary tools; he’s always ordering Gordon Gace, the active protagonist of the series, to come to the tower. In fact, Dual (or Semi, or Semi Dual) is a benign manipulator to an almost offensive degree. However, this power is never used on the bad guys.
There’s a spot of that instant hypnosis so favored of popular fiction magicians, where a wave of the hand causes elephants to appear or threatening foes to think they are in another place altogether. Again, it is under utilized for such a powerful weapon.
Primarily, though, Dual is an astrologer. His position atop the Urania allows for instense study of the stars, city lights not withstanding. Unlike the newspaper horoscopes, Dual’s are 100% accurate, unerringly picking ut the villain and the various parts of the coming adventure—provided he has the proper birth dates and relevant other information. Yet all too often, he waits until late in the case to reveal that he knew it all along.
Remember, these first stories are from 1912. At this time there were only a small handful of pulp magazines; the dime novels were still the dominant delivery system for cheap popular fiction. If the writing style of these early stories is a few steps above the dime novel standard –but only just—the characterization is less so, and the plot, with all its coincidences and amazement at the most obvious of clues would be a comfortable fit for Nick Carter or Old King Brady. “Simplistic” is an overstatemt. Clues conveniently manifest themselves at convenient moments –a strand of hair seen from across the room, handwriting on a scrap of paper found by accident years ago and filed away, and, of course,the influence of the stars. The reader, however, can’t help but feel superior to Dual, as it is obvious from the first page who the villains and what their motives are. Poor Dual might have to wait until page 15 or so to get all the information he needs.
Ultimately the undoing of Semi Dual as an occult detective is that the crimes he solves, except possibly for a brief cycle of stories in the 1930s, are mundane kidnappings, forgeries and murders. There is nothing occult about them beyond a few flourishes with a star chart or a mind reading trick here and there.
The Significance of the High ‘D’ provides the best example. Though the set-up is convoluted, the story is clear: young bank teller loves a young woman who has a ne’er-do-well younger brother. Young bank teller also has a flamboyant entrepeneurial older brother who makes and loses fortunes on a regular basis. A forged check drawn on the older brother’s name is cashed at the bank, and certain convenient coincidences place the focus on the Young bank teller. The solution involves a trip west for Gordon Glace, working undercover. But the key to the mystery is the handwriting on the forged check, in particular the peculiar way the writer makes his (or her) ‘d’ higher than other letters. Seeing this check in person is one of the few objects able to draw Semi Dual out of his white and purple robes into a snappy suit, and out of his roof-top paradise to the world below.
Dual, among his many other interests, is fascinated by handwriting. So much so, in fact, that he routinely files away any unusual examples he comes across. Fortunately for the bank teller, Dual had once had mining interests out west, in the very town that all the key players are from. While there, he found a scrap of paper on the street, a fragment of handwriting, one with a peculiar high “d.” It was filed away, forgotten, until Dual saw the check. He immediately calls the scrap to mind, and though much moving and shaking must be done to bring the case to a satisfactory conclusion, Dual knows the true villain almost at once.
The last story, The Wistaria Scarf, is a break from the formula that is already apparent in the first two stories. The bank teller-young woman-older brother team returns, headed for Europe on a honeymoon/vacation. Dual has a bad feeling about all this. Sure enough, he soon gets a telegram that the young woman has disappeared. When last seen, she was in the company of another Persian prince…who just happens to be Semi Dual’s arch enemy.
Eventually, Dual concludes that the girl has been kidnapped and all is feared lost. That is, until Dual spots a tiny strand of thread from a rare scarf he had given the young woman as a wedding present. Then, it’s game on. Dual suddenly morphs into, if not doc Savage, then at least JimGrim. He and Glace head for Persia, where Dual tracks his enemy to various large palaces and cave complexes before finally rescuing the girl and saving the day.
So there’s not much occult, the stories are weak; is there anything to Dual as a character that would account for his longevity in the land of the pulps? None that I can find. He is smooth, I’ll grant you, but know-it-alls are always unpleasant to be around, and one who willfully manipulates his friends is not bad enough to be an anti-hero, and not good enough to be a hero hero. In Persia, Dual treats his servants as the wretched curs he feels them to be. I can’t help thinking that his calm air of superiority is just the same attitude toward his American co-workers refined for a “more civilized society.
Of all the occult detectives we’ve covered in this ongoing series, Semi Dual is the first I would say doesn’t even belong in this company. I’m glad his adventures are coming back into print, but I won’t be buying them. I’m sure the reasons are buried in my horoscope somewhere.
For those interested, here is a complete list of all the Semi Dual stories and series:
There have been a lot of interesting links this last two weeks that are related to Lovecraftian concepts without being in themselves Lovecraftian. But the old gentleman’s notions about time and space and creepy things seems to be validated by modern science. Here are my favorites:
This is older, but one of the best. A new kind of photography can take pictures of a photon packet bouncing around inside a coke bottle and see around corners. And they have film to prove it.
This next week I’ll have another Occult Detectives entry, taking a look at Semi-Dual.
Have a good weekend.
The covers of the 1904 Aldine series, especially that of issue number 2, are the most common on the net. In fact, they are usually coupled with information on either the earlier versions or with rehashes of the urban legend.
In a way, it’s fitting that this is the best known image of Spring-Heeled Jack, because it’s far and away the best story of the lot. As mentioned last week, the 1878, 1885 and this 1904 version were ostensibly the work of one man, Alfred Sherrington Burrage. John Adcock at Yesterday’s Papers disputes this. And though I wouldn’t have known any of the history John narrates, I have to agree simply on the evidence of the writing style. Although going into a stylistic analysis is not the intent of this series, it seems really clear to me that at least the story in The Boys’ Standard and the one in the Aldine series were written by two different people, the first being an inferior writer.
The Spring Heeled Jack Library is advanced in style even over its American contemporaries, almost but not quite reaching the level of decent pulp writing. Coincidence is still prevalent, but the manner in which the story unfolds is far more sophisticated than one would expect from 1904 popular fiction.
It also has a more modern pace. The whole conflict is set up in the first two pages. Bertram Wraydon has recently come into his father’s estate; he is leaving to return to his post during the Napoleonic Wars*. His cousin, Henry Sedgefield, stands to inherit the estate should Bertram be killed. At that same moment, Col. Manfred arrives with a squad of policeman. He has found evidence that Bertram has been spying for the French. Despite his protestations, Bertram is taken to jail and sentenced to hang. Only the intervention of his lawyer, Philbrick, allows Bertram to escape.
Sedgefield settles in comfortably at the Wraydon estate. All believe Bertram dead, but rumors soon start to circulate that he has been seen in the villages nearby. And in the forests, travelers are beset by a mysterious phantom who leaps from the shadows then disappears again.
Here’s where the author really distinguishes himself from the preceding authors. The dark figure is never seen directly, only in shadow and mist, or caught moving away from a window. He doesn’t make a clear physical appearance until halfway through the first issue. This oblique approach builds tension and anticipation for what is to come.
As his laughter rings out through the night:
“Laughter! I call it a howl. It’s some animal as has got out of it’s cage.”
As he is glimpsed in the fog:
A form, dark and shadowy, coming from where no one could tell, just topped a wheel and flew over the coach, alighting with a curious spring sound on the other side.
A military man, Tench, who is an associate of Col. Manfred, is on one such coach.Jack’s appearance startles the horses and as they run away, Tench loses his valise.
The runaway coach horses are stopped by a mysterious gentleman in black, who joins the party. Later, when Tench returns to the scene to look for the valise, the stranger accompanies him. As Tench’s back is turned, the gentleman whirls around, and Tench turns to see someone…else:
His eyes were no longer soft and kind but gleaming with a fierce light. His face had become fiendish with painted eyebrows and stiff bristling mustache. His hands had grown larger and the nails of his fingers were long and hooked.
He also has bat-like wings. Rather than kill Tench, he carves the letter ‘S’ into the soldier’s forehead.
Within pages, the whole vista comes into view. Bertram Wraydon has indeed returned, along with his friend, Denis Stocks, whom he rescued on the battlefield. David is the inventor of the two and has developed a bullet proof vest as well as the spring heeled shoes. They make their headquarters in a crumbling churchyard, from which they sally forth not only to avenge the wrong done to Wraydon and restore his fortune, but to fight against the French espionage ring that headed my Manfred and Sedgefield.
More so than any previous version, this Spring Heeled Jack is clearly an early prototype for a thousand heroes to follow. A great personal wrong, a strong sens of justice, a costume, a secret identity, a secret headquarters, a calling card, unique gadgets (including a flaming gas grenade)… and he strikes fear into the hearts of evil doers (and everybody else.) What more could you ask for in Batman or the Spider or the Shadow?
The author doesn’t stop there. He introduces subplots and new characters deftly, building a larger world. Soon Townsend, the top detective of his day, is on Jack’s trail, and closing in. Manfred’s loyalty to the French cause comes under suspicion and Sedgefield seeks to do away with him. An old friend of Wraydon’s is blackmailed into carrying papers to the French, and in saving him, Wraydon is forced to undertake the journey himself. New allies are made, new enemies are discovered.
Spring-Heeled Jack is not above killing people, giving him a little glimmer of Richard Wentworth. Astonishingly, in issue 10, he actually kills his nemesis, Sedgefield, in cold blood, cutting the man’s throat with a knife. By this time, though, there are new villains in the guise of Beau Brummel (!) and Sir Whitaker Wedge. It’s clear that Aldine intended this to be a long running series, not a serial. They couldn’t continue to tread water in the same story forever.
The author doesn’t shortchange the atmosphere, either.
Night had fallen over London….In those days the safety of London was left principally to the decrepit old men who went wheezing and coughing, swinging a lantern in one hand and thumping a staff with the other.
A strange, lopsided looking man entered the room, crab-like, with his arms hanging straight at his sides.
Sadly, just as the new story arc was getting underway, the magazine ceased publication. Although four more issues were announced, number 12 was the last one that made it to the stands. Why is anybody’s guess, but what intrigues me is that if they got as far as announcing the next four issues, it’s likely that one or two of those stories were actually written. Where are they? Finding them would not only be an amazing piece of popular fiction history, but might actually solve the riddle of who wrote the series.