The thing I'm least happy about with the finished story is how cramped it feels. Honestly, the idea that I picked was a bit too complex for ten pages. But I didn't have time to think of a simpler one, so I had to go with it. As a result, some pages are overcrowded. Pages 2 and 3 are both nine-panelers, which is seriously pushing it.
Working under a length limit was good for me, though. Spilling over to an eleventh page was not an option. (Good thing, too, given how long ten pages took.) It helped me learn to think of dialog as a limited resource -- you can only squeeze so many lines into a page, and only so many words into a line. But there's so much that needs doing! Backstory exposition, character development, plot advancement, expressing conflict, telling jokes, etc etc. Spread that duty across the limited lines of dialog and every line has to be carrying a lot of weight. Double or triple duty.
I don't think my dialog in this story is particularly great, but at least I've eliminated all needless lines. Dialog is almost always better when it's shorter.
It's not good to go through life with one "master" story you're perpetually "working on". Because then every idea you have wants to get into that story. They have nowhere else to go. All those extra ideas clinging on to the sides of the story like refugees on the last bus out of town, making it unweildly, weighing it down. The story becomes too big to finish, so you're always doing it but it's never done.
Cough, Yuki Hoshigawa, cough. (The irony is that Yuki Hoshigawa was itself originally supposed to be a quick project to do for practice before I got into the big story I really wanted to do, which was my Epic Space Opera.)
It's better to have multiple smaller stories so ideas can go into each one as they fit and no one story gets overly bloated. I only thought of "We Can Regrow That For You" a few months ago, and now it's done! That's a good feeling. I haven't had to give it years of rent-free lodging in my brain.
Me and Sushu are still figuring out how we work together on creative projects. We've tried to do some before which kind of fell apart. But I think we're starting to figure out what it takes to make it work: We have to know which one of us is in charge of the vision. The other one just helps with the execution. In this case, the comic was my baby and Sushu helped me execute. The Chinese learning game got a lot easier to work on once we accepted that it's Sushu's baby and I'm just executing.
Sometimes collaboration creates something mysterious. Sometimes Sushu saw something in my sketch while inking it that I didn't mean to put there. I didn't mean to give the waitress on page 8 a huge ridiculous bow tie, but Sushu thought she saw one, and somehow it works, so there it is. Who created that bow tie? Neither of us did! It's spooky.
Fiction Is Just A Fancy Word For Lying
Like, duh, right? Fiction is made up. But it still surprises me how fake everything about my story is.
Most of the writing I've done in my life has been nonfiction -- blog posts, argumentative essays, lab reports, expository technical writing, etc. There's a set of facts which are the fixed stars in your firmament; your task is to put them in order and explain them in a coherent and maybe entertaining way.
And when you read fiction, if it's any good, you experience it like a true thing. Like you're peeking into another world where all this stuff is really happening. It seems like there's a fixed set of facts there, and the author is just guiding us through it. And fanfic writers sure do care about getting the "facts" of their canon right.
So there's a misconception I had when I started trying to write fiction that it would be like this: there's a world in my imagination, I open a channel to it somehow, observe events there, gather a set of "facts", and then guide the reader through those "facts" in a logical way.
But no. Everything about telling a story is artificial. Everything. There's no facts. There's no alternate world. There's just me, drawing a bunch of lines, and making a bunch of decisions about what I want my lines to express.
Nothing is sacred. Every time I catch myself thinking of a certain plot point as fixed and necessary, I'm wrong - there's always something else could happen instead. The order of events is flexible. Characters' personalities are flexible. Basic assumptions about the setting are flexible.
It's like sculpting with mist. There's just nothing solid there.
If the end result resembles naturalism, if the reader believes for a moment that the markings on paper represent a consistent alternate world, it's only because the magic trick worked.
This means that the writer's experience is never going to match the reader's experience. The writer doesn't get to have the reader's enjoyment of discovering this world - no more than a a magician can be fooled by a trick while they're performing it.
The Character Just Took Over, Man
Speaking of magic tricks: Sometimes authors talk about a character having a mind of its own and telling the author where the story should go.
I'm not sure what's going on there, man. Maybe if you're writing a new entry in a series and have some long-established characters and you need to stay true to them. But when you're writing a character for the first time? You decide who the character is. Whatever you make them do, that's who they are. For any given character there are infinite possible interpretations, which you narrow down with each word or action you give them.
I do think that sometimes you write a line for a character and suddenly the character clicks, like you just discovered who they are. That's happened to me a lot. With role-playing game characters especially. But the character still doesn't have "a mind of their own". It's just that you discovered a characterization that works for you.
That said, consistent characterization is really fucking important. Nothing ruins a story faster than character motivations that don't make sense, or that are plain missing. Bogus science can be hand-waved, but if your people don't act like people, nothing can save your story. So out of all the magic tricks, "this character has a mind of their own" is the most important illusion to create.
Most of Writing is Rewriting
The reader experiences the story beginning to end, as a series of fictional events. The writer experiences it first draft to last draft -- as a series of decisions to be made, blanks to be filled, plot holes to be fixed, etc.
The story would ALWAYS be better with another rewrite. But at some point you have to call it good enough and start drawing. One good thing about working under a deadline is that the deadline forces you not to be a perfectionist about the rewriting.
My original idea changed a lot in the development. Like, the first draft was just Zach and assorted background characters. Julia and Pedro didn't exist yet.
I rejected my original ending for being all talk with nothing interesting going on visually. I think this was the right choice. Repeat it with me: Comics are a visual medium. If you have a whole page of talking heads to draw, something is wrong with your script.
After I wrote a better ending, I realized I had some empty roles to fill, so Julia and Pedro were invented to fill them. I think it's a way better story with them in it.
The original idea, the inspiration, is what gives you motivation to start working, but don't cling to it. You'll have other ideas. Sometimes the original idea is just a stepping stone to something better.
A lot of story problems are the result of seams between different drafts -- this page will be at revision 5 and this other page at revision 6, as it were, and they don't quite line up. Sometimes a page is full of holdovers, stuff that was needed in revision 5 but doesn't matter in revision 6. Sometimes the holdovers stay in for a while before you notice them. It really helps to have someone else read it over and point out the seam for you.
Like, in the first draft, it was important to show Zach interviewing for the job and getting hired. That took up page 1 and part of 2. The interview stuff stayed there for several revisions before I finally realized that it was a relic. There was no need to see the interview: I could tighten things up a lot if Zach wasjust already part of the company when the story opens. Several panels on the finished pages 1 and 2 were originally drawn for the interview scene and then repurposed -- that's how late in the process I figured this out.
An unexpected benefit of drawing comics is that it makes you look more carefully at the world around you. Because you might need to draw anything. Random everyday objects you've never tried to draw before, that would not usually be a subject of art: there they are in the background of a panel! Better find one and figure out how to draw it.
Walking around town when my brain is in "comics mode", I see things I wouldn't normally see. A person with a cool hairdo that I want to swipe for a character. A neat old building that would look good in the background of a panel. The shape of a tree. Etc.
On Science Fiction
The science fiction that interests me most is what-if stories about social change. Which means you need four parts:
- the what-if: the new technology or whatever and the rules for how it works
- the society: how does this new whatever do to affect the tangle of unspoken rules and assumptions we call culture
- the characters: what do the changes to technology and society mean for the characters
- the themes: what are you trying to say about, you know, the human condition and stuff. Hopefully something more interesting than just "oh no, this technology/social trend is really bad". Write a blog post if that's all you want to say
The themes and characters are what the story's about. The what-if and the society belong in the background.
A lot of really shitty science fiction has been written by writing the what-if and the society and ignoring themes and characters.
Balancing themes, characters, and world-building is really hard! It's hard enough to get one of those things right, and when you try to do them together, sometimes they fight each other. Science-fiction fans, including myself, love to nitpick stories where the world-building isn't quite consistent. But trying to do it myself has given me a newfound sympathy. I'm starting to think it's a valid artistic choice to favor the emotional impact of the story over the consistency of made-up science if the two are irreconcilable. Nerd heresy, I know.
Will The Audience Get It?
There were a lot of things I wanted to say in "We Can Regrow That For You". Themes and ideas I didn't have space to explore in depth. So I just hinted at them. I have no idea how many readers will pick up on the hints, but they're there.
Readers hate being bashed over the head with something obvious, right? I figure it's better to hint at things and let the reader feel smart when they figure it out. Instead of telling the story directly, you describe the edges of a story-shaped hole and let them fill in the blanks.
That's what "Show, Don't Tell" is about, right? It's really more like "Show them one thing by telling them another thing"
The story, in my head, is a cloud of marvelous possibilities. I hope that in the reader's head, it becomes a cloud of marvelous possibilities as well. But in between, it has to be flattened to pass through the narrow, limited, linear medium of scratch marks on paper, that can only hint at the story I imagined. I can only hope that whatever story the reader creates in their head, inspired by my scratch marks, is meaningful to them.