My writing process is always in flux. But I have hit on a method that works for me. I’ve been writing this way for several projects. Most of the bugs have been worked out. This is how I work. I hope someone can find something useful for their own work. This is the second post in my series about my new graphic novel, The Walk. You can read about the origins of the project here.
Pound the keys
My original process for writing comics and graphic novels was based on other writers. A typical writer uses Microsoft Word to construct their scripts. The script format varies from writer to writer, but many of them use a screenplay format. When I have collaborated with writers as their artist, this is the format I would receive.
When I started creating my own work, this is how I thought you should write comics. I would spend a long time pounding the keys and writing a script. I’d print out the script for edits, and I would start the process of drawing it. This is crazy.
Don’t get me wrong. It is perfect when you are working with an artist. In my case though, I am the artist. It felt like I was adding an unnecessary step.
Ideas come unexpectedly. If I’m on the move, I want to be able to capture the idea before I forget it. Evernote is my best tool. I can jot down a note from my phone and tag it for later reference. It’s free to use and everything syncs to the cloud. It has excellent mobile, tablet, and desktop applications.
I’ll review my ideas and see if there is anything worth exploring. If I find one, I’ll launch Evernote from my iPad. I add more thoughts, pictures, and links to research. When I’m ready to get serious, I fire up Evernote from my laptop and start setting up an outline. I’ll determine the length of the story and I’ll divide it into fourths.
The Walk is one part of a collection of stories that will be released as standalone material. I’m a big fan of 48 page stories. It keeps me from decompressing. I can craft a tight story within that page count. If I divide the page count into fourths, I know that my first plot point is around page 12. That’s the end of the first act. My second plot point is page 38, which starts the third act. I have the bones of the story.
After I’ve determined the plot point markers, I will set up a blank outline:
Page 1: Page 2: Page 3: Page 4: Page 5:
I group the pages like that so I can determine spreads and page turns. Each page has a sentence about what happens on the page. I keep it loose and general. This part takes the longest time. I’ll sweat over what I see in my mind over what appears in the outline. I listen to movie soundtracks during this part of the process. Something that fits the mood of what I’m writing. If it’s an adventure story, I’ll listen to an action movie soundtrack, for example. Anything that doesn’t have lyrics will work. My current favorites to write to are:
- The Social Network
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
- The Homesman
- And of course, Mad Max: Fury Road
Time to grab my pencil.
Step away from the computer
I have a thumbnail template set up as a PDF. It is letter sized, and it has two “pages” on them with hash marks for a nine column grid. Jason Lutes gave us this template at the Center for Cartoon Studies and I’ve used it since.
I’ll print off enough copies of the template for the story. This is where I’ll begin to write. I create a thumbnail draft for the story. I’m not concerned with how everything looks. The templates are too small to get concerned with details. I’m looking to combine words and pictures and see what happens as quickly as I can.
When I get a draft done, I throw it in a drawer. I don’t look at it for a week. After a week has passed, I scan the draft with my ScanSnap. It compiles it all into a PDF up to 50 pages at a time. I’ll send it to a few of my peers and ask them to take a look at it when they have time. I will also read it myself.
I make my notes on the initial draft, including the criticisms from my peer group. Time for another draft. Sometimes I get it done in three drafts. For The Crippler’s Son, I ended up with 9 or 10 drafts. The Walk was a bit different since I had drawn the story before. I had two thumbnail drafts.
What I look for on a second draft is to tighten up the visual flow and to look for themes that I can carry through the story. If I draft quickly, I can start to see patterns. They are unconscious. I’ll repeat this process for as long as it takes. A thumbnail draft takes me a week to produce. It’s exhausting. I get into a zone. It is all I can think about during that week. What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that? Should I change the gender of the character? The race? The sexuality? What does that add to the story? What does it subtract from it? Is it funny? Is it sad? How does this build on comics before it? What am I really trying to say? I pace. I walk all over my home muttering to myself. The dog follows me everywhere. It’s exhausting for her also.
When I think I’m done, I do a final gut check with my peer group. Now the hard part starts. I got to draw this damn thing.
If you are writing the script for another artist, I highly recommend trying this out. The language of comics is through the art. You can see inconsistencies with your writing by drawing it, even if they are stick figures. Your artist will love you. Beginning writers will often have four actions going on in one panel, for example.
Panel 1: Man stares out of the window. The phone rings. He walks over to answer it. He answers the phone.
That’s four panels, not one. If you already have 9 panels on the page, that gets complicated for the artist to figure out. If you want to write a novel, write a novel. Seriously, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. To me, it shows that you aren’t really serious about writing comics. I work hard at this. If you want to do this, you should to. I’m not saying you have to thumbnail it all out, but study how other writers do it. Reverse engineer a comic script from an existing comic that you like. Collaboration is a two-way street, and it can be wonderful. I’ve had a lot of fun and success working with Kevin Church. I don’t know if he’s thumbnailed a comic before. But he’s serious about comics and his scripts work.
Taking it to script
If I’m writing for another artist, I will go through the exact process for writing comics. Nothing changes. My next steps though are to take the final thumbnail draft and do another scan through the ScanSnap. I transcribe my thumbnail draft into a script. I write in Pages and export a Word document. The only reason I use Pages is that it comes with OS X. I have Word, and the new version of Office is amazing. Microsoft has outdone itself with Office365. But I use Word for work, and Pages for personal. They are both great word processors and both sync to the cloud. But I like siloing projects with apps.
If I had my druthers, I would write in text editors. That is a post for another day.
After I have the script in Word format, I’ll send the artist (or editor) the script and the thumbnail draft.
Drawing the pages
My next post in this series will be about my drawing methods for The Walk. I suspect it will take some time between posts since I’m in the middle of that process. As I mentioned in my first post, I’m recovering from open heart surgery. I have great days, and I’ll have four bad days in a row. No energy. Crippling depression. Those closest to me might be surprised to read that, but I hide it. I’m aware of it and know that it is temporary. They watch for that level of depression with heart patients. We all have that in common. It’s hard to know that you should be dead. Hell, 40 years ago, I would be. Natural selection would have weeded me out. But I’m alive. And every day I try to make the most of it.