Write What You Know (Because Learning Something New Would be TERRIBLE.)

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

“Write What You Know” is probably the most common advice writers receive, so much so that it is accepted wisdom; and yet this is quite possibly the worst advice ever given to a writer.  Here is what I understand this advice to mean: writers should be lazy and ignorant, and we should never, ever challenge ourselves to try to understand people who aren’t ourselves.

This leads to writers limiting their characters to activities and experiences they’ve had themselves, regardless of whether their own experiences are at all interesting.  Their characters have worked the same jobs they have, pursue the same professions they do, go to similar schools or have similar friends.  Because, according to the rule of “write what you know,” that’s all a person is qualified to write about.

The truth is you don’t need to be a fire fighter to write a story about fire fighters, or a chef to write a story about chefs, or a musician to write a story about musicians.  Nor do you have to have immediate personal experience in those areas.

What you do need is research.  The trick isn’t to write what you know, but to be aware of your ignorance, and remedy it.  Put in the work to attain the information you need in order to make your characters sound and behave authentically. Writing is communication, yes, but that’s not all writing is; it’s also exploration, and that means heading out into unfamiliar territory.  Take as your starting point that you should always write what you want to know—then the process of learning the needed information will be integral to the joy of writing itself.

Of course, there are more challenging consequences to “writing what you know” than just limiting the careers of your characters.  This thinking is also part of what leads straight white males to write exclusively about straight white males, while also setting up the misguided expectation that minority authors will write exclusively about experiences relating to their minority status.  This is a profoundly limiting approach to writing, which leads to a sort of ad hoc segregation besides.  (Author Elif Shafak gave a great TED talk about this cultural expectation, which you can listen to here.)

There are, of course, situations where this advice is given with good intent, in response to a legitimate problem in a writer’s work.  Student writers in particular can be a bit overreaching in their efforts to write a moving story—a middle class white kid from the suburbs who’s trying to write a profound story about the experiences of a slave woman in the deep pre-war south, based only on what they’ve gleaned of slave history in their high school history classes isn’t likely to write an accurate or particularly successful story.  But the problem isn’t that they’re attempting to address an issue outside their experience.  Rather, it’s that 1. They are attempting to address too many issues outside their experience all at once, and 2. They’re assuming they know more than they really do, and consequently, they aren’t doing the necessary research.

The appropriate alternative to this sort of overreaching isn’t to stick strictly to safe territory, but to start there and then move gradually outward, incorporating ever more disparate ideas, experiences, and ways of thinking, while making sure to add to your own knowledge as you go.  Just because you’re writing about someone different from yourself doesn’t mean they can’t have anything in common with you—of course they can, and will!  Find that common ground and you can build from there.

Of course, this is difficult.  Reaching beyond yourself always is.  But that’s the writer’s job.

Write Every Day. Or Don’t. Either Way, Really.

First published on ComixTalk.com, August 2010.

One of the standard bits of advice that gets trotted out for writers, whether in writing workshops, or seminars, or just at author Q&As, in response to the inevitable “what advice would you give a young writer” question is this: write every day. Set aside a particular block of time each day, during which you will write. Even if you have no ideas, you will write. Even if every sentence you type is worse than the last, you will write. Treat it like it’s your job, because it is, and if you give into letting yourself off the hook because you don’t have an idea one day, you will inevitably do the same the next, and the day after that, and so on, ad infinitum.

For some people this is great advice. But for others, it’s really truly awful advice.

Writing every day helps many writers to stay motivated, and to keep momentum going on works in progress. It helps them to stave off writer’s block, because they don’t allow a lack of ideas to stop the flow of words on paper—a tactic that eventually forces them to push through that block sooner than they otherwise would have.

And if that works for you, wonderful! But for other folks (myself included) treating writing like a 9:00 – 5:00 is a complete creative turn-off. For some, sitting down and writing something awful every day doesn’t work through the block, it just prolongs it. For some writers, there is a lot to say for letting the creative soil lie fallow for a season.

The thing is, writing really is work, and like any kind of work, every writer has different habits and patterns that allow them to operate at peak productivity. For any writer to try to dictate to another writer when and how often they should write, and in what environment, is no different from your micromanaging boss insisting that you can’t possibly listen to music while you type up paperwork, because he tried it once and it ruined his concentration, so obviously it will ruin yours too. Some folks thrive on routine; others shut down entirely.

For instance: my own best writing generally happens between the hours of 12:00 and 6:00 AM, when I’m sleep-deprived and heavily caffeinated. I do my writing in binges—a few weeks on, a few weeks off, producing nothing at all for long stretches, then writing dozens of pages in just a few days. Would I ever advise anyone to imitate my process? NO! Unless it happens to work for you, in which case, have at it.

The important thing is to find your own routine. Try writing at different times of the day. Try varying how often you write, or how long you write, or where you write. (I do my own best writing when confined to a very small room. The best office I ever had was a closet.) And know that whatever routine actually gets you writing is the right routine, and you should never feel guilty about not writing as often or as predictably as other writers say you should.

A Writer’s Best Friend: The Editor’s Role in Webcomics

First published in Comixpedia, June 2004

A Defense

As everyone knows, chief among the benefits of producing an independent webcomic is the freedom from any sort of editorial input or criticism. In the absence of the editor’s stifling presence, a comics creator can maintain a pure artistic vision, and is thereby free to reach his or her full potential.

That seems to be the prevailing opinion, anyway. That editors might actually have useful skills and services to offer is a little-considered possibility.

For instance, a good editor might:

  • Proofread
  • Spot continuity errors or inconsistent characterizations
  • Point out plot holes
  • Provide special expertise, helping to keep facts accurate
  • Act as a sounding board for developing ideas
  • Mediate disagreements between the writer and artist
  • Offer a reader reaction, to help the writer gauge whether the story is achieving the desired effect
  • Provide encouragement and moral support.

Ultimately, the involvement of a skilled editor will help the writer to produce tighter, more polished work. Work that’s not only more enjoyable for readers, but that is also more satisfying for the writer. Unfortunately, most webcomickers will never reap the benefits offered by an editor, as the very word “editor” has become practically synonymous with “adversary.” Internet gossip offers no shortage of stories about oppressive editors who view their job as controlling projects rather than facilitating them, regardless of the ill effects on the stories being told. What gets forgotten is that these people don’t simply represent “editors being editors.” They represent “editors being bad editors.”

Within webcomics, the result of this misunderstanding has been a widespread disdain for editing, even among editors. Most take a completely hands-off approach, in the interest of promoting creative freedom. Even editors who believe strongly in the value of editorial feedback are gun-shy about offering their services, unless it’s particularly called for. GraphicSmash.com‘s editor, T Campbell, for instance, comments: “Generally, I just proofread, unless the creator asks for help or I really, really feel the creator needs help to go from ‘really high potential’ to ‘really fulfilled potential.'”

Helping creators to get from “really high potential” to “really fulfilled potential” is exactly what the editor is there to do—something Campbell learned first hand as a writer, through his experiences with his own editor, Greg Eatroff. Eatroff has worked with Campbell since the outset of Campbell’s comic, Fans!. Far from being an adversary, Eatroff is a valued member of the creative team: “Greg…sees every Fans! script before the artists do and makes comments on about every other page…. He probably deserves more credit than he gets for co-plotting some of the stories.”

What’s more, as Campbell demonstrates, webcomics creators have the unique freedom to choose their personal editors. Eatroff’s presence is no accident—Campbell wanted him specifically because Eatroff was particularly knowledgeable about fandom (the chief theme of Fans!), and was therefore able to provide an important perspective that Campbell lacked. The choice was a good one, and over time, Eatroff became as much a part of the collaborative process as the writer and artist.

Of course, not every writer wants his or her editor to be quite so intimately involved in the creative process. But the beauty of choosing your own editor is that the editor works for you, and not the other way around. This means the writer sets the boundaries, and decides just which editorial services to utilize, and how much input to accept. If the relationship doesn’t work out, if the editor doesn’t perform as well as hoped, or if the editor tries to exert too much control, the writer is free to move on.

The only real obstacle is simply choosing the right person in the first place. What qualities do you look for? This person should be intelligent and literate, of course. It should be someone interested in the genre you’re working in, and ideally who is even knowledgeable about your subject matter. It should be someone whose opinion you respect—otherwise the editor’s feedback will be useless. It should be someone who will be honest with you about your work’s weaknesses, but who won’t get offended if you don’t follow every suggestion. But most importantly, this person should be someone who wants you to be the best, most successful writer, you can be. It should be someone who believes in the artistic goal you’re trying to achieve.

If the bad editor is an enemy, then the good editor will be the exact opposite—the good editor is a friend. In the end, the chief benefit of being an independent creator is not that you can work without an editor—it’s that you can ensure that your editor will be an ally, working to help you reach your full potential.

Rethinking the Editor

Editing comics is a tricky business, very different from other forms of editing. For starters, the editor needs to have a solid understanding of both good textual writing and good design, and how they balance and support each other within the comics medium. And when something goes wrong in that balance, the editor needs to be able to tell whether it’s a problem in the writing or in the design. Or whether the problem is somewhere else entirely.

When asked: “Which do you consider to be your primary talent as a comics creator—writing or illustration,” John Barber, creator of Vicious Souvenirs and an assistant editor for Marvel Comics, answered: “Probably that weird part in the middle that sometimes falls to the writer and sometimes to the artist…the part where the story is translated into physical relationships between words and images.”

If it is true that making the translation from story to comics is a unique skill in itself—independent of both the writing and the illustrating—then this is an essential skill for anyone looking to edit comics.

Consider this: A prose editor usually has a good idea of what a novel manuscript is going to look like. A comics editor has no such a luxury. Did the writer create thumbnails? A full script? A Marvel-style script (a plot breakdown, with dialogue to be added later)? As Barber points out, each of these methods divides the “translation” responsibility between the writer and artist differently:

“If you were writing a comic…Marvel-style, then the artist is handling this part completely. The writer may be supplying some part of the general pacing, but the artist’s doing most of the work in this middle area. If you’re doing thumbnails for the artist to follow (and he does follow them), then it’s all you doing this stuff. A full script favors the writer, but the artist still likely has a lot to add to it.”

The editor needs to be flexible enough to adapt his or her editing to any of these creative methods, and to understand how and by whom the bulk of the translation work is being done. Without a solid understanding of the translation process, a comics editor won’t even know which member of the creative team to talk to about problems in the work.

In many ways, the comics editor is less like a traditional editor, and more like a little-known position within professional theatre—the dramaturg. The dramaturg performs a wide array of responsibilities, among them the development of new plays for production. The dramaturg is neither director nor playwright, but works very closely with both. If the writer’s job is to create a work of dramatic literature, and the director’s job is to create a dramatic performance, it is the dramaturg’s job to ensure that the end result is an effective synthesis of the two. This includes helping the director to keep the look and staging in accordance with the spirit of the script. This also includes helping the playwright to identify and rework areas of the script that aren’t working as well as they could.

In other words, it is the dramaturg’s role to facilitate the translation of the script into an aural and visual work that actually expresses the script rather than simply using it as a vehicle—to make sure that the production is not just a good show, but a good show that the writer will be happy with. And when something isn’t “playing,” it’s the dramaturg who needs to be able to tell whether it’s a problem in the script or in the direction.

The comics editor-as-dramaturg makes considerable sense. This person would approach the project as neither writer nor artist, but as someone who can work closely with both, to help each understand the other’s needs. The comics dramaturg would work to ensure that the completed comic is not just fun to look at, but also expresses the spirit of the script to the writer’s satisfaction. This would be a person interested in, and skilled at, the process of translating from words to comics.

In fact, the entire undertaking of editing comics seems much less tricky when viewed in terms of the dramaturg. Both roles operate in the middle of the creative process, shepherding the work from a textual presentation to a visual presentation. And like the ideal editor, dramaturgs are never “in charge” of the production. Rather, they facilitate the creative process when they can, then stand aside to let the creators work.

Putting it in Practice

Once you have chosen an editor and established the degree of input you expect, the next challenge is actually integrating the editor into the machinery of the creative process. This can vary with the number of creators involved in the project, the writing method, and the updating schedule.

The place of the editor within a writer/artists collaborative team is fairly straightforward. For starters, a collaborative team is generally more likely than an individual creator to work with full scripts for complete story arcs. This means the editor will have both a complete view of the work being edited and enough lead-time to do the editing.

Whenever a full script or thumbnail draft is available, it makes sense for the work to be edited before it’s sent to the artists. The more polished the writer’s work is, the less need there will be for changes to the completed illustrations later. What’s more, if there are weaknesses in the overall narrative, it’s far better to identify and fix them before the artist has illustrated the troubled pages. That way, you avoid finding yourself in the position where you need to choose between redoing large sections of artwork or settling for a less than perfect execution.

Once the script is finalized, the editor may serve as a resource for the artists, helping to locate reference material where necessary, serving as a sounding board for design ideas, or simply weighing in on disagreements between the writer and artist. Alternatively, the editor may not come in again until a draft of the artwork is completed, at which point the editor would read the final product with an eye toward clarity, flow, and faithfulness to the writer’s story. Additional dialogue tweaks may also be suggested. It’s worth stressing again, that in all these tasks, the editor is working in an advisory role. The creators may use or reject the editor’s advice—the goal is simply to have a trusted third opinion.

For individual writer/artists who create full script or thumbnail drafts before illustration, the process wouldn’t be substantially different. Again, the most extensive editing would be done at the script stage, with the art edit focusing primarily on locating instances where an idea that’s clear in the artist’s head is not so clear on the page.

The greater challenge is for the creator who begins directly with full artwork, since any major revisions would require major alterations to, or even new versions of, illustrated pages. In this case, it’s a good idea for the creator to share notes and outlines with the editor before beginning work on the art. Through these notes, and discussion of the story, the editor can help spot larger issues, such as logical problems or inconsistencies in the plot, early on. Then, the editor can focus on more detail-oriented editing for the full pages.

Regardless of the method of production, maintaining generous lead-time is vital to making the most of your editor. After all, it’s useless to have substantial, solid feedback if there isn’t time to complete revisions prior to publication. This can be particularly problematic for creators who tend to create new episodes the same day they’re due to update. Unless your editor happens to be someone always available, such as a spouse or roommate, it is essential to maintain a buffer of at least a few days, if not weeks. But that can be yet another benefit of having an editor—by creating an artificial deadline, they can help you to prevent late or missed updates.

Of course, all of these methods are subjective; how you choose to work with your editor should be tailored to fit your own creative process. The goal of working with an editor is to produce stronger, more polished work. Obviously, that can’t happen if you have to change your methods so much that your creativity becomes inhibited. Finding the best way to work with your editor may take time and careful thought, but it’s worth the effort.

The fact is the rise of webcomics does offer creators a new world of creative freedom. But how we use that freedom is up to us. Just because we are unencumbered by corporate stricture doesn’t necessarily mean we have to abandon editorial guidance. Rather, it simply means that now is the opportunity to get the editors working for us rather than for corporate interests—and that means that editors can do more for creators now than they’ve ever been able to before. It’s just a matter of seizing the opportunity while it lasts.

A Practical Guide to Collaboration

First published in Comixpedia, May 2004

One of the most liberating facets of online comics is that it has made it easier than ever for creators interested in working collaboratively to find each other. No longer must writers troll local comics shops and art schools in the hope of finding like-minded artists. Instead, they can go straight to a large community of comics creators, where geography is no barrier. They can get to know the people they hope to work with, and everyone can see samples of each others’ work on their websites before committing to any sort of collaboration. All in all, the internet has allowed for more people to experience more productive and rewarding collaborative experiences.

Rewarding though collaboration can be, however, it does offer a number of obstacles and challenges that must be addressed if the overall experience is going to be a positive one. Fortunately, none of these challenges, from choosing a collaborator to calling it quits, is insurmountable, with a little forethought and some basic courtesy.

Choosing a Collaborative Partner

There’s a theory in directing that the most important task a director performs is simply casting the actors. Choose the right people to work with, and they’ll instinctively know what you need from them, and will quickly respond to changes in your direction. Choose the wrong people, and you’ll waste hours of time trying to shape them into the people you should have cast in the first place or looking for ways to compensate for the things they just can’t give you.

Choosing a collaborative partner for creating comics isn’t much different. Choose the right partner, and collaboration can be a fun and rewarding experience that results in great comics. Choose poorly, and the results will be disappointing at best. Writers who choose the wrong artist will be constantly frustrated that the story they want to tell isn’t coming through on the page. Artists who choose the wrong writer will face projects that simply don’t hold their interest, or that they find too confusing or abstract to visualize.

That you should find a partner whose work you enjoy is obvious; it’s important to remember, however, that just because someone is highly talented doesn’t mean they’re right for a particular project. Sometimes a mismatch is obvious—an artist whose preferred medium is black and white line art generally shouldn’t be paired with a writer who wants to make vibrantly colored kids’ comics. Other times, there are subtler issues; when illustrating a particularly somber piece of writing, for instance, there can be a fine line between melancholy and morbid. Two artists may have very similar styles, and yet one will be right for the project, while the other is entirely wrong. Either way, every project makes specific demands of its creators, some of which simply can’t be worked around. If your partner can’t meet those demands, no matter how good they are at everything else, the results simply won’t be satisfying. It’s essential that you lay out exactly what the deal-breakers are for your project before choosing your partner.

It may be something simple–John Troutman, for instance, has one very straightforward need: “I write comics about lovely young women, so it’s pretty much a prereq that [potential artists] can draw attractive ladies.” Meaghan Quinn fits the bill; after a year and a half of working together on their co-creation, Vigilante Ho!, Quinn has recently taken over art duties on Troutman’s Felicity as well.

Other times, a project’s demands can be a bit more ephemeral. Dale Beran looks for a quality of “hyper-rationality, or uninhibited irrationality that comes out in an emotionally fragile sort of way.” Absurdly over-precise? Perhaps. And yet, one look at A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible reveals that he found exactly what he was looking for in artist David Hellman. Beran knew what he needed and held out for it; the difference this made is plain to see in the work.

Of course, there’s more to collaborative creativity than just technical skills. A collaborator is someone you’re going to be in frequent, if not near constant, contact with. Unless you’re just working on a short one-shot, this is someone you’re going to be talking to for a long time to come. Finding a collaborative partner who is someone you can at least tolerate, if not outright like is at least as important as finding someone whose work you respect. Sometimes it’s best to begin close to home: many successful collaborations grow out of existing friendships. Working with a friend can make the entire process more fun, since it becomes an opportunity to spend more time with a person you already enjoy being around. It can make the successes feel even more rewarding, and can even make it easier to be honest when the project hits rough spots. As John Troutman points out: “…it’s a lot easier yell at your friends and prod them into working since they already kinda like you anyway. As opposed to a stranger, who might say ‘Who does this jackass think he is, ordering me around? I QUIT!'”

What’s more, collaborators who are friends first may find that they are already in synch creatively. For instance, Dale Beran and David Hellman were friends before they were collaborators, which goes a long way toward explaining how they’re able to compliment each others’ unique styles so well.

Either way, whether working with an old friend or a new acquaintance, it’s often best to test the waters of a new partnership. As Gisèle Lagacé, who has collaborated with T Campbell on Cool Cat Studio and Penny and Aggie, advises: “If there’s a fight along the way, well, that might put a halt to things. I guess all I could say is choose your collaborating partner wisely. Don’t commit to a long story at first. Start small and see how it works.”

Short one-shots are ideal venues for testing a new partnership. They let you try out the working relationship in a way that leaves an easy opportunity to bow out if it doesn’t live up to expectations. And if a partnership isn’t going to work at all, it’s much better to find that out in the middle of a minor six page story, rather than partway through a massive multi-year epic.

Communication and Courtesy

Once you have found a partner and planned out a project, the key to keeping the partnership strong and productive is good communication. This begins with simply making sure both partners know what their responsibilities within the partnership will be; you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where an important task doesn’t get done simply because each person thought it was the other’s responsibility. If there’s any doubt—ask. Make every effort to clarify uncertainties before they become problems.

On a more day-to-day basis, there are two arenas of communication where partners need to develop positive habits: the administrative and the creative.

In the administrative arena, the goal is to keep your partner up to date on project status. Are you going to be late finishing the next script? Let your illustrator know. Those last few panels are taking longer to color than expected? Tell the writer to expect a delay. Whenever you finish a major task, let your partner know. Whenever you’re going to be late, give ample warning. If it’s at all possible, try to give your partner an accurate idea of when you’ll be finishing up the next phase of your work. And whenever any established plans are forced to change, make sure everyone is aware of the changes.

This is all just simple courtesy. It’s a safe bet that your partner will have more on his or her plate than just this one project—nobody is sitting around with nothing to do, ready to jump in whenever you’re ready for them. Everyone has schedules to work around, and that means the more advance knowledge you have of when work will need to be done, the more efficiently you can plan for it. As Bob Stevenson (More Fun, with Shaenon Garrity) says, the best approach is to “treat it like business from the start. Don’t miss deadlines and respond to each other quickly.”

In the creative arena, good communication means establishing clear expectations and honest response to each others’ work. This means that both partners need to have an ability to take as well as give criticism. If either side is afraid to speak their mind for fear of causing offense, the result will be a cold and uncomfortable partnership that never lives up to its full potential.

Does the script call for an unrealistic level of detail in a particular panel? Rather than just trying to muddle through, let the writer know that you can’t do what the script is asking of you. Talk to the writer about the best solution. Perhaps less important details can be trimmed. Or perhaps the panel should be split into multiple panels. Similarly, the artist should be comfortable pointing out when bits of plot aren’t clear, or characters are behaving inconsistently, or even if there’s just a more interesting way to stage a particular event than how the script details it.

On the other side, the writer needs to be able to request changes from the artist when necessary. For example, if the action in a panel isn’t clear, or when a panel is focusing on secondary details rather than the main idea, or if the tone just isn’t right. However, it should be stressed that the best way to avoid the need for too many such revisions is for the writer to be clear about what they want in the first place.

Of course, in order for writers to communicate what the want, they must first know what they want. Don’t tell your artist “do whatever you want here” unless you really mean it. Too often, “do whatever you want here” is writer code for “I don’t actually know what I want here, so I’m going to make you do it over and over until you magically figure it out for me.” This is a surefire method to aggravate even the most patient artist. When you find yourself stuck or unsure about a sequence, be honest with yourself and be honest with your artist. If you admit to the block, then you have an opportunity to work through the tough spot as a team. If you try to fake it with insincere offers of creative freedom, you’ll just be wasting your partner’s time.

A final point worth stressing is that for some people, ease of communication is a foremost factor in choosing a collaborative partner in the first place. As Dale Beran explains, “If what you’re saying just doesn’t compute (which happens to me often) then it’s a wreck. It’s sort of how I started playing guitar. A friend of mine wanted to teach me because he needed a guitar player for his band. Never mind I could barely play, and you couldn’t spit without hitting a guitar player at college. But he just figured we shared a sensibility, so he thought it would be easier to teach me from scratch rather than finding some asshole who would do his own thing. The relationship really comes first, then the art and the skill and all that.”

Rights, Contracts, and Division of Labor

In the informal world of webcomics, contracts between collaborative partners are still relatively rare. Of the eight people surveyed for this article, only John Waltrip (Rip & Teri, with T Campbell), has a contract with his partner. Especially since so many partnerships are formed out of existing friendships, asking for a contract can seem superfluous or even impolite. Still, where matters of money are concerned, a formal contract is never really a bad idea. However, whether signing a contract or not, the details of ownership and division of earnings should always be agreed upon before any work begins.

The most common financial arrangement is a 50/50 split, but there are certainly no rules on the matter. Work-for-hire arrangements do exist on the web, as well as a number of other very individualized agreements. For instance, since John Troutman and Meaghan Quinn collaborate on two comics, rather than splitting the income from each comic in half, they each keep all the income from one comic–unless one or the other should take off in a big way, in which case they plan to renegotiate. As Troutman points out, “as long as details like this are to the satisfaction of both people, it doesn’t really matter how ludicrous those details are.”

More complicated than the money issue is the ownership issue. So long as the collaboration is ongoing, an assumed 50/50 share seems logical. But if the partnership is dissolved, several important questions arise: Which partner has the right to continue the work? Is the continuing partner obligated to consult the departed partner on business decisions pertaining to the portion of the work he or she contributed to? Does the departed partner own a share of new material derived from creations he or she contributed to? These are complicated questions that are best answered long before such difficulties actually arise.

The third major detail that’s commonly arranged by contract or in pre-collaboration discussion is the division of labor. Fortunately, this tends to be a much easier matter. The major determining factors in assigning a particular task to one partner or the other are: A: Who’s better at it? and B: Who has the time to do it? When the answers to both questions match, then it’s a no-brainer. When they differ, then it usually comes down to how immediately pressing the task is.

The most obvious division is: The writer writes, while the artist illustrates. Coloring and lettering usually fall to the artist, though there are exceptions. Plotting may be done by the writer alone or as a joint effort—there’s no rule here, just the question of what works best for your particular partnership. Administrative tasks, such as maintaining the web site and publicizing the comic often fall to the writer, on the grounds that the writing tends to be less time-consuming than the artwork. (Though it should be stressed that “less time-consuming” implies neither “less important” nor “less difficult.”) But here again, “often” should not be taken for “always;” division of labor ought to be handled in the most practical manner, while making sure that neither partner is left with an unfair share of the work.

Crisis and Calamity

A student director who was recently working on a production of David Auburn’s play, Proof, at Emerson College ran into problems when she was trying to set up the first rehearsal. Despite several phone calls and e-mails, she was unable to get a hold of the actor who had agreed to play Hal. After a week, she finally managed to reach him, at which point he confessed that he really couldn’t do the play, but hadn’t called her back because he didn’t know how to tell her. So she cast a new actor, only to suffer a repeat of the previous situation: another week of no communication followed by an “I don’t have time, but didn’t know how to tell you” phone conversation. So she was two weeks into what should have been her rehearsal period (and she only had two months to start with), still with no Hal. She could have lost only two days instead of two weeks, if only the actors had simply told her as soon as they knew that they couldn’t do the part.

Nearly every writer surveyed (and even one of the artists) had the same primary concern about entering collaborations–that the artist will bail on the project. This is no idle fear; few writers have avoided the experience of investing themselves in a project only to have the artist drop out at the last minute–or worse, after the project is already several pages underway. And it’s not at all uncommon for artists to simply disappear without a word, instead of saying outright that they can’t do the project.

This is not to say that artists are immune from the problem of writers dropping out. It does happen. But it’s far less common, due to the longstanding perception that writers need artists, but artists don’t need writers. When artists over commit themselves, they’ll usually favor their solo work over collaborations. Writers don’t usually have that option, since all their work is collaborative.

Sometimes it’s unavoidable that you have to back out of a partnership; you’ve committed to too many things, you have a new day job, you’ve had an offer of paying work, you’re having a baby–life gets in the way. Regardless, when this happens, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it backing out. Topping the list of “wrong ways” is simply going incommunicado. So long as your partners believes you’re still working together, their hands are tied–they can’t bring in a replacement until they’re certain you aren’t coming back, and until that happens, the project is dead in the water. Your partner needs to know when it’s time to move on or they can’t continue to work. So if you are leaving a partnership, always make sure to tell your partner; there’s no more basic a courtesy than that. “I didn’t know how to tell you” is never an excuse. Just be honest and direct. Your partner will be much happier for it.

Better yet, try to give your partner as much advance warning as possible. First of all, this will allow your partner to line up a replacement early, hopefully avoiding the need for a hiatus between artists (or writers, depending on the circumstance). And second, advance warning will let you and your partner plan a smooth and satisfying exit. This is especially important if your partner won’t be continuing the project without you, raising the question of whether a major story will be left unfinished, such as when Gisèle Lagacé left Cool Cat Studio: “T had this nice story all written out for Cool Cat Studio and in the middle of it, I just pulled out. I feel terrible about it; for him and for my readers. But what’s done is done. So, to anyone planning a collaboration effort, stick to it and even if things start to get rough, try to pull out gracefully and do a nice finish–you’ll feel better in the long run.”

Of course, this is largely assuming that the partnership is ending peaceably, due to lack of time or some similar issues. If the problem is a matter of personality clash or artistic differences, that can be more difficult. Even in less pleasant circumstances, though, it pays to keep your interactions as civil as possible. Avoid making decisions out of pettiness or spite, or you risk the whole disagreement escalating to a point where everyone ends up miserable. What’s more, do your best to keep such disagreements private, especially if you hope to find new collaborators in the future. Nobody wants to work with someone who has a reputation for hotheadedness.

In addition to the question of how to break off an unhappy partnership, there’s also the question of when to break it off. If the project is something of limited duration, it may be worthwhile to just do your best to compromise and get the project done; at least then you’ll have some finished work to show for it. For a long or ongoing project, it’s probably best to start planning your exit as soon as it becomes clear that your differences are irreconcilable; which is to say, before the situation devolves into one of unbridled hostility. This is especially true if you’re working with a friend. Sometimes good friends just aren’t suited to working together, and it just isn’t worth sacrificing a good friendship to maintain a poor collaboration. Still, so long as the situation hasn’t become unbearably dire, it’s still best to give ample notice rather than quitting in a huff.

Finally, always keep in mind that every team works differently. What works well for you with one partner may not work at all with another. Staying flexible in your approach to working with new people is key. And not every partnership will work; that doesn’t necessarily mean collaboration isn’t for you–it may be that you’re just working with the wrong person. Find the right person, though–someone who inspires you as much as you inspire them–and collaboration can be as fun as it is productive, leading you down artistic paths you might never have discovered on your own.

Expressive Dialogue, Part Two: Stammers, Accents, and Affectations

First published in Comixpedia, March 2006

Last month, I talked about some of the basics of keeping character dialogue distinct, such as by maintaining an awareness of the different sorts of words that different characters would be apt to use.  This month, I’m continuing the discussion with a look at some of the more stylistic choices you can make in crafting dialogue.

It’s very rare that anyone writes truly naturalistic dialogue.  Hardly anyone attempts to capture all the false starts, stammers, run-on sentences, “ums,” and “ahs” that typify actual real-life conversation.  In real life, most of these non-verbal utterances are meaningless space fillers; in writing dialogue, the goal is to convey ideas and personalities, not to make a study of contemporary vernacular linguistics.

Used thoughtfully, though, with an eye toward expressing a character’s emotional state (rather than simply out of the habit of trying to capture “realistic” speech), these tics can be used to add further nuance to dialogue.  A simple “um” can mean a lot of things; it can express confusion, forgetfulness, disdain, shock, or any of countless other causes for being at a loss for words.  What’s important to remember, though, is that different people find themselves at a loss for words for very different reasons and to different degrees.  Some characters are unflappable, always knowing precisely what they want to say in any given situation, rarely leaning on non-verbal crutches.  Others are naturally nervous, frequently losing the thread of speech, falling instead to “um”s and “ah”s in a vain attempt to communicate.  Some intentionally use non-verbal utterances a form of avoidance; for instance, in Spike’s Templar, Arizona, when talking to his abrasive editor, Benjamin uses them to acknowledge the editor without having to actually talk to him.

Just as there’s no reason to capture every little stutter, there’s also no reason to commit every variation in pronunciation to paper (or pixels, as the case may be).  This tells you nothing about who the character is.  Yes, it can signal the reader as to where the character’s from, but that’s a background detail, not a personality trait.  And if the character’s ethnic or geographic origin plays a significant role in who they are, then that will be expressed through their personal values and behaviors, not through the funny way they say “hello.”  In most instances, trying to capture an accent in dialogue is just going to make the dialogue difficult to read, as readers are forced to translate your phonetic spellings into understandable words.  Not to mention the risk you take of alienating readers if your representation is stereotypical rather than accurate.

Of course, none of this applies if you’re talking about an affected accent.  If a character is knowingly speaking in an unnatural voice, there is usually a definable, character-driven reason for it, and so this needs to be made clear to readers.  Take, for instance, Jackie in T Campbell’s Fans, who often speaks with a heavy English accent, despite not being English.  Within Jackie’s long pattern of insecurity and attention-seeking behavior, her false accent is a clear expression of her desire to be a more compelling person than her natural self.  And if the textual representation of her accent seems exaggerated and annoying, that’s because her accent is exaggerated and annoying.  It’s one of the reasons why several of the other characters in the comic don’t like her.

Of course, false accents aren’t the only sort of speech affectation a character can display.  Other commonly seen affectations include characters who routinely misuse large words or characters who never use contractions.  (That last is particularly common for robots—contractions apparently being a more difficult concept for robots to grasp than metaphor or idiom, for some strange reason.)  Often, these affectations are used simply to give characters visible distinctions from one another.  As with false accents, though, if an affectation is to provide a character with something more than arbitrary novelty, an understanding of why he or she adopted that affectation is necessary.

Dialects are a bit trickier, since they combine pronunciation with issues of vocabulary and word choice.  But again, the pronunciation isn’t really relevant to the character.  Authenticity, however, may demand some adjustments in word choice.  If your character is from Brooklyn, for instance, that doesn’t mean you have to spell the number between two and four as “tree” every time he says it.  But if that character walks into a pizza shop and orders “a meatball grinder and a can of pop,” you’re going to strain credibility.  At the same time, this doesn’t mean you have to throw in every bit of regional jargon you can think of.  An overabundance of these superficial trappings can grow tiresome very quickly, especially if they rely on inaccurate stereotypes.  Not every southern woman calls people “sugar.”  Not every valley kid abuses the word “dude.”  Your character might—but that’s a choice to make with some consideration.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of this.  If your story actually is a cultural study, for instance, steeped in the nuances of a particular region, then a closer approximation of that regions dialect is probably called for.  But it better be a dialect you’re intimately familiar with if you hope to create something both believable and respectful of the people you’re writing about.

And then there’s the dialect of one—the stylized speech that comes from the heart of the character, with only incidental origins in a particular region.  For example, I wouldn’t necessarily know where any of the characters in Spike’s Templar, Arizona live if it wasn’t in the title of the comic.  But when Reagan delivers a line like, “G’wan upstairs.  I’m comin’ for th’ both-a you in ten minutes.  She’s gettin’ walked t’class whether she’s ready or not,” it’s not because she’s from Templar, Arizona.  It’s because she’s got a big, brash, indomitable personality, and nobody’s going to make her put a third letter in the word “the” if she doesn’t want it there.  Her dialogue is brimming with personality, and the dialect stems from who Reagan is, not where she’s from.

Expressive Dialogue, Part One: Mannerisms and Word Choice

First published in Comixpedia, February 2006

This past September, I had the pleasure of meeting Ryan Estrada at SPX. During one of our conversations, he let drop an interesting bit of trivia about himself: he has only said the “F” word once. At the time, I didn’t press him on why he leaves that particular word out of use, or about what motivated him to make that single exception, but those questions stayed with me. Given that this is an increasingly common and, many would argue, particularly useful word, the conscious decision not to use it necessarily raises interesting questions about Ryan as a person: Does he take a moralistic view of obscene language? Or does he take the view that cursing is a crutch for those with small vocabularies? Or is this just another of the odd personal challenges he tends to assign himself?

All of which is to say that the small details of the words people use and how they choose to express themselves reveal quite a lot about who they are and what they value. While there’s certainly more to writing comics than just the text, there’s no denying that the writer’s most visible contribution to comics is in the words themselves, especially dialogue. It’s easy to make the mistake of writing characters who speak the same way you do — it’s certainly what’s going to come most naturally. And it can work for certain types of comics: journal comics, political comics, or other comics that are designed to give the author a direct mouthpiece. But it doesn’t do much for developing a story with a cast of multiple distinct characters.

Different people speak differently; they use different words and different syntax. Understanding the individual speech mannerisms of your characters will go a long way toward helping you distinguish them from each other, as well as from yourself. Does a particular character speak in short clipped sentences? Long, rambling monologues? Are they plainspoken, or do they like to use colorful metaphors? Do they use a lot of complex technical jargon?

And perhaps most importantly: Why? Speech mannerisms shouldn’t be arbitrary, unless you’re just playing it for laughs — they should be expressions of the character, revealing more about who they are and how they think than the content of their speech alone would do. For that same reason, when answering the question of why characters speak the way they do, it’s important to go beyond simple stereotype. It’s easy to decide that a character uses lots of technical jargon “because she’s a scientist.” But “scientist” isn’t a character; it’s a background detail. There’s no reason why a scientist must necessarily use constant technical jargon at all. Some scientists also like to read poetry. Or go to church. Or drink beer while watching football. And all of these things will affect the way they speak just as much as their technical background. Possibly even more so in casual conversation. Sure, the technical jargon is likely to fly freely in the lab, but in a restaurant, or a bar, or at a friend’s party, other impulses take over. Our careers do influence how we communicate, but that’s just one of a multitude of factors.

An excellent example of clearly distinguished, expressive dialogue can be found in Spike’s Templar, Arizona. Right from the opening sequence, we see sharp contrasts in speech mannerisms. Mr. Pierce, the cantankerous newspaper editor, speaks in long rambling sentences, punctuated with violent imagery. He employs genuinely sophisticated vocabulary and tough-talking vulgarity in equal measure, and uses both to assert his superiority over Benjamin, the story’s protagonist. (Admittedly, the angry newspaper editor is a stereotype, but Pierce appears to be a minor character, so it’s not as big of an issue.) Benjamin, by contrast, is quiet and non-confrontational. He uses only the most perfectly neutral language, saying as little as possible, frequently not even going so far as to articulate actual words.

Taking the idea of expressive dialogue a step further, not only do people take their speech cues from myriad sources, but they also tend to modify their manner of speaking in different contexts. Most people don’t talk the same way at work as they do at home. They don’t talk the same way with their parents as they do with their friends. We use different words, different syntax, different modes of communication as befits the context and the audience of what we’re saying.

This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the case of vulgarity, an entire classification of words that are considered acceptable in some contexts but not others — though those contexts can vary from person to person. Most people will refrain in a religious institution, out of politeness, if not faith. On the other hand, some people are perfectly at ease swearing in front of their parents, while others would never think of it. And, of course, there are some people who consciously choose not to use these words at all. Or who only curse when they’re very upset. Or only during sex. Or who curse vocally, but never in writing (or vise versa). Some people will curse freely among members of their own sex, but rein it in among members of the opposite sex. Some people use expletives in a calculated way, placing them for greatest effect. Others pepper every statement with expletives, like they’re just another kind of comma.

The important thing to remember is that the particular usage should demonstrate not the author’s attitude toward coarse language, but each particular character’s attitude toward it. Too often, writers treat expletives as a binary, with either no expletives at all, or constant expletives, completely neglecting the fact that everyone has their own personal style of swearing. Knowing when a character is and isn’t willing to use coarse language can reveal a great deal about their comfort level in different situations and around different people. It can reveal the settings they consider sacrosanct, or the people to whom they are deferential or respectful. Even minor fluctuations in a character’s use of expletives can reveal insecurity, or pride, or reverence.

Looking again at Templar, Arizona, there’s Benjamin’s neighbor, Reagan, a powerful presence who takes over any conversation with casual confidence. Like Pierce, she provides a clear contrast to Benjamin’s reticence, but without the hostility. She curses just as freely, but where Pierce used vulgarity as a weapon, Reagan’s cursing is casual and unaffected — it belies an honesty that puts you at ease about her intentions, even when she’s making you do things you don’t want to do (such as forcing Benjamin to go out and see the city, despite his hermitic tendencies).

And against the backdrop of both Pierce and Reagan, foul-mouthed pair that they are, Benjamin’s own failure to utter even a single curse word thus far is glaring. It comes off not as a moral choice, or a matter of respect, but simply another symptom of his insecurity around people. He doesn’t curse because words like “fuck” are stronger than he is. He’s just not ready to handle that kind of language — not in the face of other people, anyway.

Expressive Dialogue, Part Two: Stammers, Accents, and Affectations

The Writer’s Lament

First published in Comixpedia, January 2006

I’ve often heard comics creators lament that so many comics readers will completely ignore incompetent writing for the sake of pretty art. It seems that all too often, smooth lines, slick colors, and dynamic design end up overshadowing the facile dialogue, tired jokes, and predictable or even incoherent storylines that accompany them. Of course, I’ve heard the opposite complaint as well – that too many readers will ignore incompetent art, so long as the story is compelling. Not surprisingly, I’ve mostly heard the first lament from creators who consider themselves writers first, while the second comes from those who count themselves as artists.

And, of course, there is truth in both complaints. Comics are a dual medium, simultaneously a visual art and a literary art, but rarely does a comic exhibit art and writing of exactly equal quality. As readers, each of us has our own preferences for the standard of art we’re willing to tolerate for the sake of good writing, or for the standard of writing we’re willing to tolerate for the sake of good visuals. Naturally, the best works are those where the art and writing are of equally excellent quality, but where that doesn’t happen, we all weigh one over the other, even if only slightly.

Me: I’m a writer. As such, I’m wholly sympathetic to The Writer’s Lament. I came to comics from a background in small press literary publishing. I spent the early part of my life writing, reading, and publishing fiction and poetry. More recently, I spent three years studying playwriting. When I’m reading comics or writing them, that’s the background I bring with me. What I don’t bring is a background in fine art, or illustration, or even much by way of design. (I’ve done a little bit of magazine and web design, but nothing anyone would call professional quality.) As a result, I approach comics as a literary art first and a graphic art second.

Now, I’m not saying that’s how anyone else should view it, and I’m not trying to convince anyone. And I know full well that you can’t master either without having an understanding of the other. But I wanted to make clear where I stand, because when I talk about making better comics – whether in the context of improving the state of the industry, or just my own work – I’m almost always talking about raising the level of the writing. More sophisticated humor, more interesting plotting, more elegant dialogue, greater depth of subtext: these are the things I want from print comics and webcomics alike.

All of which is to say, I want better stories. Comedies that delight rather than just amuse. Adventures that thrill rather than just distract. Tragedies that hurt rather than just sadden. Now I’m certainly not implying that the art plays no role in this – of course it does. But it begins in the writing, because it begins with having a story to tell.

I should clarify here, that I’m not just talking about pure scriptwriters like myself – whether you’re strictly a wordsmith or you’re a solo creator, or even just an artist who occasionally dabbles in the plotting, it’s a rare comics creator indeed who doesn’t have a hand in the writing somewhere along the way. Whether you think of yourself as a writer or not, odds are you’re still writing, and we can all bring something more to the process.

On Experimentation & Collaboration

As those of you who read my comics know, I don’t tend to write very many traditional linear narratives. In larger works, I also tend to steer clear of identifiable central protagonists. I like non-linearity, I like fragmented storytelling (including linked short stories), and I like ensemble casts.

As many of you also know, I’m currently working on a book with Shelli Paroline called The Trouble Is. Trouble Is is different from much of what I’ve done before. Oh, thematically it’s similar—a precocious girl, a spectral companion/competitor, an overwhelmingly incompetent (though well-meaning) parent. A lot of the same stuff I played with in Portraits of Nervous Children and Amy’s Picture Stories. But structurally, it’s a whole other beast.

You see, The Trouble Is is a linear narrative that tells a single straightforward story revolving around a clear central protagonist. There’s nothing experimental about it.

In other words, it’s a huge experiment…because I’ve never done these things before.

I felt much the same way about Panel One. Sure, that strip had plenty of formal play, and metafictional goofiness, the sort of stuff that gets a comic branded as experimental. But for me, those traits were my safety net—to me, the real experiment of Panel One was just the simple act of doing a daily humor strip. That’s the part I wasn’t sure I could pull off. That’s the part I was trying to gain a better understanding of.

But there’s one big difference; unlike Panel One, I really truly care whether or not The Trouble Is turns out to be good. I want this to be a good, fun, rewarding book. I want people to be glad they’ve read it. So it’s not enough to just play around with these traditional storytelling techniques; I have to actually succeed at them.

Now, I’m pretty confident I can do that. I’m pretty confident that I am doing that. But there have been some bumps along the way. My tendency toward ensemble casts gets me in trouble: I wrote in too many secondary characters (I’ve since cut one of them out entirely); I kept the protagonist’s Mom at the foreground of the story well past the point where she should have faded into the background (some reorganization of scenes has mostly solved that); and I haven’t kept my main character active enough in her own story, instead over-relying on the quirkiness of my supporting cast (this has improved, but I’m still working on it).

I’m learning a lot from this project. I’m becoming a better writer. And sure, after this I’m still going to want to do some crazy non-linear experiment—but I’ll do it better for having spent some time honing my abilities in basic techniques.

But just as important as seeing the value of practicing basic craft is this: WRITERS: LISTEN TO YOUR ARTISTS. They may not be writers themselves, but they still know what they’re talking about at least as often as you do.

Because, the thing is, while I’m sitting here pointing out the errors I’ve made in scripting this story, the bits that didn’t work or that went off in the wrong direction, I’m not telling you about problems I found. I’m telling you about problems Shelli found. And Shelli’s been great: she’s honest, she’s critical, and when she doesn’t like something, she lets me know. And sometimes I’m resistant. Sometimes what she’s telling me completely contradicts my own Great Idea. Sometimes I feel like she’s missed my point completely.

But then I go home and I mull over her comments. I sit with them a while. I think about what the consequences would be for the story if I took her suggestion, made a few changes. And usually I realize that the main consequence of taking her suggestion is that the story actually gets a little better. The characters get more interesting. The tone gets less glum. And then I start to realize that my original Great Idea was actually a Pretty Sucky Idea disguised as a Great Idea. And then I go back to my script and start revising, and improving, and reorganizing, and suddenly I have a much better book than I started with.

And that’s really the goal of collaboration after all—to make a really good book by taking the best parts of what each person has to offer. Not just by doing the part we’re good at, but by helping each other see when we’re not doing our own best work.

And that means always being honest.

And that means always listening to criticism given honestly.

Thoughts on my own prose, as I’m revising

So I’m sort of working on a novel. Not a graphic novel—an actually book-length piece of prose. I don’t know if I’ll actually finish it or if it’ll be any good when I do. You may never get to read it, and that may not be any great loss. But I’m working on it.

As of right now, the book is 41 pages, beginning to end. Obviously, that’s a bit short, but that’s typical of my writing method; The first draft of Parens. was only 45 pages, and it nearly tripled in length during revision. My first drafts tend to be the skeletons of my story, which I then hang layers of meat on until it’s fully realized. I also tend to have long stretches of ignoring projects between drafts—this draft of my novel was completed two years ago, and I’m only just getting around to reading and revising it for the first time now.

One of the reasons I was drawn to plays and comics and stopped writing prose fiction a number of years ago was my feeling that I could write some pretty good dialogue and interesting characters, but that I wasn’t that great at narrative description. Sure, comics requires visuals, but I just need to communicate those visuals to the artist—I don’t have to evoke them for the audience. Of course, one of the things I made myself do, once I started writing comics seriously, was create several silent stories that relied entirely on visuals—that was the origin of the Amy stories—so that I wouldn’t become over-reliant on the techniques I was already good at. I wanted to grow.

So now I’m writing prose fiction again. And I’ve noticed something interesting about how my writing has changed since I last worked in this form—I don’t write nearly as much dialogue as I used to. In a lot of my early stories the prose was just a bridge between sequences of dialogue. But now I’ve gone to the other extreme—I find I’m writing practically no dialogue at all in some of my stories. The current 41-page draft of my novel includes only 22 distinct lines of dialogue, including an instance of “oh.” The first, “I’m going to make some coffee” doesn’t appear until page seven, and is the last for several pages as well. And where I do insert longer conversations, the bulk of the dialogue comes very near the end, as the story is just about to wrap up.

What’s more, I’m actually enjoying the prose I’m writing—as I said, it’s been two years since I wrote it, so I don’t have that new project bias that makes writers love their most recent work. I don’t remember a lot of my details, so my rereading allows me to be surprised by what 31-year-old me did with this piece of writing. And I’m finding that my descriptions are more evocative than they’ve ever been, and funnier than I tend to give myself credit for. It’s still a very rough draft, of course—but I still like it. I’m happy with what I did, and am excited to take it further.

All my writing life, I’ve always felt that there is great value to working in more than one form—lessons that can be learned in one kind of writing that will benefit you in another. So much so that you can grow in skill in a form that you’re not even actively working on. My best achievements in one project always happen while I’m working on a different project. And I’m really pleased to discover that this has held true through my absence from prose.

Or, at least, that’s how it seems to me now. I could re-read this piece again next year and discover I hate it. I’ll just have to wait and see.