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.
Developing an Idea
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.
Write it Down
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.)