Friday, March 29, 2013

Creative Writing From Start to Finish - Part II

Today we continue our discussion on the creative writing process.

When we began our discussion on creative writing, we covered the basics, such as plotting story beats and breakdowns. This time, we’re going to get into the meat of the matter and do some serious writing! We’re going to be fleshing out the skeleton of a draft you have on your hands, by this point.

If your story seems to be flowing well, even before you put little details into it, then you’ll have an easier time of some of the things this blog post will cover than if you start writing and hope to pull it apart and re-align it, later. Short of that, however, you shouldn’t feel bad if a central theme or some of the deeper aspects of storytelling aren’t present just yet. We’ll be covering them, next time.

One thing you can do if you find your story doesn’t have the kind of flow you want it to, or if you think you would like it to be a bit more solid, is to break down your plot points. Most stories have at least an A and a B plot, and often, C, D, and E plots, too. Your A plot will be your central story – it involves the main tale which is being told. B through Z plots are all secondary, and it’s up to you to keep track of them alongside your A plot so the whole of the story can dovetail and make a great ending.

As a general rule, when it comes to content I often allocate 60% of my story to the A plot, then the remaining 40% to my B, C, D, etc. plots. None can be more important than the other in terms of the audience’s interest in its resolution, but the A plot should be more important in terms of what is being resolved, and especially if your story is one piece of a bigger continuity. For example, my A plot may involve my main character going on a journey to recover a hidden treasure, and my B plot could involve secondary characters staying behind and getting into trouble without the main character there to help them.

When you square away your A plot and its subplots, you can begin to do some long-form writing by following your breakdowns and story beats, and fleshing them out. If we talk about the writing process in the same way we'd talk about sculpting something, doing story breakdowns would be akin to setting up armature wire, and at this point we're ready to pile on some clay and begin to give our piece some shape. There are of course, many things to keep in mind as you write and they all go beyond the basics such as spelling and grammar.

Now is the time to decide if you’re going to be telling a plot-centric tale or a character-centric one. As I alluded to last time, sometimes you know which your story will be, right from the get-go. Sometimes it’ll take some feeling-out. Look at your outline and ask yourself if there’s more plot than character interaction, or vice-versa. If it’s even, then you may simply choose one or the other, or go with your strengths.

This should set you up to decide what narrative mode the story will be written in -- again, that is if you haven’t already figured that out. Third-person limited and first-person are often the most popular and I recommend them more than their omniscient counterparts to new writers. You may think these are terms for novel-writers only, but they are equally important for comic book writers to familiarize themselves with.

In my mind, omniscience is key and which person is in charge of it all is secondary. As a general rule, each chapter of a story should not go outside the boundaries of any one character’s point-of-view. In a third-person-limited story, for example, it is considered bad form to allow the audience insight into a character’s thoughts, and then into another’s without a means for doing so from the main character’s perspective. “Joe thought about a purple cow and Jane thought about a chicken.” would be better served as, “Joe thought about a purple cow and he could tell Jane was thinking about a chicken.”  as it does not imply an omniscient point-of-view and clearly marks Joe as the important figure of the tale.

When you’re sitting down to your keyboard, and your first words are flowing, consider focusing on your characters to keep things natural. Ideally, characters and plot work simultaneously, but that’s not something we always see at this stage. Now is the time to get acquainted with the “feel” of a certain character, a setting and a world in general. There will be plenty of time for editing, and we’ll certainly be doing plenty of that, next time, so write to your heart's content!

Not worrying about what you’re keeping in and removing at this point is absolutely okay.  You will write things that neither advance your story or do a particularly good job of defining character, and that’s also just fine. Do try to keep it in mind, but with the understanding that a little fluff won’t hurt you now, and in fact, may inspire you to jot down some really brilliant things as you go.

Writing dialogue is one of the most important tasks you’ll be tackling at this point. I’ll happily admit this: Dialogue or speech is sometimes a headache for yours truly. The golden rule is generally assumed to be this: Write your dialogue as if it didn’t require you defining whose mouth it came from. With practice, you should be able to write a line of speech and have your audience (and certainly yourself) immediately recognize who said it. And this is more than attributing accents or dialects – it gets right down to which words a character selects for their normal speech. As I said, it sometimes takes practice to not give a character lines which would be more akin to the ways you yourself speak, but it’s worth the time to commit to learning this very important skill (and you can indeed learn it)!

Try speaking your dialogue out loud. Does it sound funny to you, or does it sound like something you yourself would say? If you’ve got a good support network, get the opinion of a friend. People are quite valuable at this point in the writing process, if you have some good ones to lean on.

Of course, other people can also bring real headaches to your writing, especially if their critique is not what you were expecting. Go with your gut. If they point out something you yourself thought was wrong, then fix it. If someone has an issue with something you thought was great, then reevaluate it or get a second opinion before you erase it.

It’s always bad to write plot just for the sake of plot. If you go on for twenty, two-hundred or two thousand pages of an outline and get no deeper than, “this happens”, then you’ll bore everyone in your audience to tears. Far better you get used to writing “this happens so that this happens” and better still, “this happens, then this happens, so that this can happen”.

When moving your plot along, it’s also important to step into your protagonist’s shoes. How would you feel if the things happening to them, were instead happening to you? How can you best set up the plot around your character so that their experience becomes the reader’s? Set-ups are made this way: by the simple act of positioning a precursor to a conflict or other action. You may start out by showing a character getting ready for a big date, being nervous, and giving a sense that a lot rests on the outcome, before you show people a marriage proposal, as an example.

Naturally, this part of the writing process is going to take the longest, and you are certainly going to want to take breaks when you feel uninspired or when the dreaded writer's block hits. My best advice for combating writer's block, is this: don't ever waste a good idea. If you get a thought for a great plot twist or something that'll otherwise really grab your audience, don't wait to use it. See how it could fit your block, now, and use it right away if you can. I promise, another idea will come to you, later.

When you've finally finished your manuscript, you are ready to do some editing, which we'll cover in a blog post, next week! Stay creative until then!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Creative Writing From Start to Finish - Part I

Today starts a series of entries on one of my favorite subjects: creative writing. I’ve written on this topic in the past within other blogs, but I figured the Digital Storyteller audience could benefit from a solid, step-by-step system outlining my writing process.
This series will happen in three parts – one today on finding inspiration, one next week on story beats and breakdowns, and a final chapter on time-lining and themes. I hope you stick around and get a little something out of it. Please note that my methods aren’t what I would consider universally good practices, and are simply ways which I myself like to write. You may be different, and you may even think I’m crazy at points, but that doesn’t mean you have to employ my methodology. In writing, as with any artsy thing, there are a million ways to do it right.
So! Where to begin?
Let’s take the question of “where to begin?” to start. If you are asking yourself this without having at least a tiny piece of an idea for a story, you should probably hold off on writing and first consider why you want to write at all. Here are some common reasons cited by people who say they want to become writers:
·         Writers make a bunch of money and I want a bunch of money.
·         I want to write so people think I’m smart.
·         I don’t like my day job and want a different one.
·         The idea of being a writer is sexy to me.
Yikes. You’d think I was kidding, but unfortunately I’m not. If any of the above are primary reasons you find yourself wanting to write, then now may be a good time to put the pen down and call your therapist. You need counseling and a life coach – not writing.
Now, if you instead said you wanted to become a writer for any of these reasons…
·         I have a great story itching to be told.
·         I read a newspaper article that made me think of an idea for a book.
·         My nephew makes me think of a character I’d like to write a story around.
…then you’re in much better shape than the therapy crowd and may just have the chops to do some writing! The key truly is to know that you have a desire to tell a story, no matter how much of it you’ve planned out already.
So, once you have a story in mind, where do you take it? You might find it best to return to the thing that inspired your original idea to do an in-depth analysis of why the story is appealing to you. Perhaps you read a book and thought about a story of your own set in a similar universe or written in a similar style – go ahead and read it again. If it was a friend or family member who inspired you, then you should hang out with that person a little bit and take mental notes. Whatever it is, now is not the time to lose your inspiration, but to build it up.
Once you have your inspiration covered, it’s time to immerse yourself in the world you’re building. Notice situations in your own life which could translate well into your story. Perhaps people in your life could become the basis for characters, and perhaps things you see in your daily life could be situations they find themselves in.
Start figuring out what your story will be about by defining where and/or when it will take place, who the main cast will be, and what conflicts will arise to challenge them. Sometimes, this’ll be clear as day to you. Other times, it’ll take you days, weeks or months to decide. Writing is often like decorating a house. Sometimes you buy a whole set of furniture, knowing it’s all going to come together to be something you love, and sometimes you buy one thing and slowly hand-pick items to go around it.
As I’ve alluded to in previous entries, I myself usually start by writing (and drawing) character breakdowns as my muse starts speaking to me. When you get to this stage, try to define things beyond your characters’ physical appearance, such as their wants and fears, but feel free to leave them vague until you hit a solid hook for any given character, which would make them interesting to your audience and to you as a writer -- and likely affect your plot.
Speaking of your plot, it’s a good idea to start considering it as soon as possible, too. If your story is character-centric, then you may have an easier time forming a plot as you develop your characters, who will be doing most of the “driving” in your story. If your story is plot-centric, then you need to consider a truckload of elements beyond your cast, such as major events, actions, and other outside factors which will push your story along. It may even be that you won’t know if you have a character-centric or plot-centric story at this point, and that too is okay.
One of the best ways to define your story at the very beginning is to see if you can break its plot down into a single sentence. “A boy falls in love with a girl who has secretly come from the future because she knows he is the key to saving her world” is a good example.
One other way you might write your plot’s first draft involves working backwards, starting with your ending. Too, some writers find it easiest to work in a formula, defining the basics of the beginning, middle, and end of the story.
It’s important to note that you needn’t, and shouldn’t, finalize things in one sitting. Invariably, you’re going to get a better idea the minute you walk away from your desk, and you’re going to want to use it. Don’t be afraid of swapping your ideas, especially at the start. Inspiration is your friend and you should never fall in love with your first draft.
On the other end of the coin, if you find yourself having trouble coming up with ideas, you might take a break for a while. I often take months to fully develop my first story ideas before moving into the breakdown phase, which we’ll cover in the next entry. Don’t be afraid to relax and take in ideas until you get something really great.
I consider myself done with the first phase of story-planning when I have these elements defined:
·         Setting: The wheres and whens of the story  -- its backdrop
·         Characters: The whos and whats of the story, not just limited to living beings but also important things and locations
·         Conflict: What is the main challenge that must be overcome, how is it resolved and what is the outcome?
·         Plot Synopsis: When I can tell my story in one sentence, then I know I’m ready to expand on it
You may choose to do more at this point, and you may even choose to do less. Some writers like to plot out their stories with outlines and others simply like to sit down and write, seeing where their whims take them as they go. Don’t feel pressured to do one or the other – as I’ve already said, they are both correct.
We’ll be covering breakdowns in our installment next week. Stay tuned!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How Will You Go to Market With Your Comics?

I think you all should know by now that when I post these "How to do X with your comics" posts, that the word comics could be anything -- a novel, a webcomic, a blog, a fanfiction -- anything at all! To that end, I'm going to try to cater them more towards a broader concept as I go along. Wish me luck - here we go!
To those who aren't used to hearing me talk in business-jargon-ese, when I say things like "go to market" what I essentially mean is "sell". And let me clarify even further by saying that doesn't necessarily imply that people are using money in any way to get ahold of your work. Whether they're paying for it or not, let's talk about the ways in which someone is going to read your stuff.
The thing that got me interested in writing this particular blog entry was the dissolution of JManga. If you haven't heard about it, or you have heard and just need a quick recap, here it is:
Basically, JManga was the result of Japanese publishers getting together two years ago to create an outlet for people to read translations of popular manga titles. They were an online store selling comics from Japan, in essence -- but the way they went about it was a little odd. People couldn't buy their favorite manga from JManga without subscribing. Once they subscribed, users were then given a monthly allotment of points which they could spend on digital copies of manga books. There was of course, one other stipulation -- the customers were not allowed to download the books they were purchasing. They would however, have lifetime access to them for as long as the company was running.
Well, I probably don't need to tell you what's gone on since the company has decided to close shop and thereby take everything, including all the books a countless number of people purchased, down with the ship... Public backlash is one term for it, but I've not really seen a huge outpouring of anger from JManga customers to this point. For the most part, the attitude seems to be one of "Fool me once, shame on you..."
"Fool me twice, shame on me" is how that little saying ends of course, and having thoroughly fooled its customers into buying soon-to-be nonexistent comics from them, it's likely they'll only get support in the future from terribly gullible people. The public is now aware that, without a proper contingency plan; that is, a plan of action should the worst-case scenario befall a company that doles out digital copies of its work for a fee, their money could be lost and they could be left with nothing if they choose to do their shopping with such an entity. More to the point, perhaps: because of JManga, even people like me who weren't ever customers of theirs, are going to demand the ability to download, store, carry, hold or otherwise be in control of stuff they buy, online.
So what does all of this have to do with you, the person on the other end who is creating content for the masses, rather than just buying it?
Consider the problems with JManga's business plan, of which there were many, and try to avoid making these mistakes, yourself:
  1. Don't expect people to pay you before you show them what makes your product great. This is the old "expecting fire before throwing on a few logs" scenario I always allude to. If your service is new, even if its associated products are old and familiar, people are going to want a sample of its capabilities before they buy-in. Without that, it'd be like building a car that steers more like a boat, and expecting people to line up to buy without a test-drive. People who drive cars don't know the advantages of being able to steer one as if it were a boat. People will simply think that's weird until you can prove to them that it works better. This is why we teach giving as much of your comic or story away for free as possible. It gets people genuinely interested, builds trust and word-of-mouth advertising. They'll gladly buy when they're hooked and when they know you can deliver, but don't expect it right away.
  2. Don't force a repeating fee on people. JManga required users to enjoy its comics by subscribing, and then charging a hefty fee (masked by a point system) to see content they otherwise may have been able to buy at a bookstore or, yes, download from a pirating site, for much cheaper. People aren't naturally inclined to subscribe to things period, and they certainly aren't going to do it before they know how often they'll be using the service or if they're not assured that they can't get what they want elsewhere without a subscription. Sometimes it works -- like in the case of Netflix which, I might add, gives you a month to try it for free, gives you limitless "rentals" in a month, is priced competitively and, let's be honest, is a thing many of us have been convinced we can't live without. But be warned that this business model is a hard-sell for most comic book readers who are typically loyal to a handful of books and don't care to buy comics "in bulk".
  3. Don't try to fix a problem that doesn't exist. People can go buy manga from bookstores and comic shops. There are also countless online book and comic retailers with proven business models out there, such as Amazon, which could be easily copied. Why JManga came up with a very strange system of making money and didn't partner with any of these is beyond anyone's guess. Don't feel pressure to reinvent the wheel in hopes of getting a few more bucks out of your work when there are many proven ways to get your stories in front of people that will lead to getting you a paycheck.
  4. You can't miss with a value-added service. If anything, JManga operated on a least-bang-for-your-buck premise: You had to pay for it each month, and then you had to use their points system to buy a book, and those points weren't worth the same value as the dollars being shelled out to buy them, and you couldn't download your book, and you could only read it on a computer because there was no Kindle/Nook/iPad support, and, and and... Operating on the assumption that you're the only game in town is dangerous. If anything, you should give people more for their money if you want to stay competitive. If you don't give people what they want, then someone else will, and in business it's a sure bet that someone's eventually going to come along and do something better than you can, in your market. When that happens, people won't stick around you for long. Remember to always take care of your tribe so they can take care of you.
As ever, most of this goes back to understanding your customers and all of these factors can easily be avoided if you keep the people you're writing for, at the center of your focus. Don't be the next JManga. Instead, be the author that keeps giving back to the people who invest their time and money in what you're creating.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How a Fear of Failure Can Impact Your Webcomic

Last week I talked about the need to be perfect and how it can really hold you back from telling a story which is otherwise really great. This week, I thought I'd delve a little more into one of the points I'd made about why perfectionists fail -- and that is simply, the fear of failure itself.

We've all heard the saying: nothing ventured, nothing gained, and in order to show you how true that is, let me put it into perspective for you:

If you take 300,000,000 people (the population of the United States), and tell them to do something remarkable like walk across America from one coast to the other, you can predict with near-certainty that 99% of these people will not make their goal. Some will start and maybe get most of the way there but run into a snag that prevents them from going further. Others will start and realize it's too hard or not what they really wanted to do in the first place, so they'll quit rather early-on. But far and away, the biggest category of those destined to fail, will be those who never started. The fact is, most people in America will tell you they'd love to walk across the country, but then, most Americans will also tell you that they've not made plans to do so. Ever.

So that should cover a lot of what you're up against, any time you start out to do something new and awesome -- like a webcomic! The same principle applies, and you can always count on the vast majority of people failing at something to be the ones who never started at all.

But what about the rest of the people who didn't make it? What happens if you become one of them?

It's very likely that the first time you do anything, you will fail at it. Two things you should understand about that: #1 -- Failure is good, because it means you are setting high enough goals for yourself, and #2 -- failure is rarely about going down in a blaze of glory and more about having an "a-ha!" moment when you realize you should have done something differently.

In order to do something you really want to do, you need to begin to frame your failures in different ways. Some places to begin are:
  • Looking at failure as a means to gain life-experience. Even if you do go down in a blaze of glory, you can proudly say you've been there, done that and gotten the t-shirt.
  • Considering failure as a way to gain perspective. You may think yourself hot stuff, or you may think the other way and consider yourself not good enough. Believe it or not, both of these assumptions can be hugely limiting, and can lead you away from your true north -- the path you should be on. Failing at something will tell you whether you should try harder, change your course, or do something else entirely.
  • Realizing that most successful people only got to where they are after countless failures. True overnight successes are rare. Most of them are achieved with five or more years of planning, failing, and trying again, which you never hear about. Too, I have heard stories of top-level executives not hiring people or venture capitalists not funding ideas, because the person they are considering hasn't failed enough. It ain't always pretty to go through, but failure is a mark of experience that people will respect when it's over.

Whatever you intend to do with your creativity, don't let a fear of failure keep you from it. Embrace it! Know that when you are failing, you are at least doing, and that's something that not everyone can say they've done.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Waiting for the Perfectionist to be Quiet

How many times have you started something that you didn't finish? How many times have you started something that was really great while you were working on it, but not good enough when you looked at it a short time later?

A big reason webcomics and other large creative projects fail is our tendency as creators to be perfectionists. I'm here to tell you that while your perfect-side has good intentions, it is anything but good for you and the work you are trying to do. You need to stop trying to be perfect or you will risk not getting anything done at all. And that's okay -- we're all geared this way, at least a little bit.

A big part of hushing the perfectionist inside us all is to stop being afraid. I will be writing a bigger post covering the ins and outs of how and why you can lose your fears, next week, but until then you can rest easy knowing that anything that anyone in the world ever released to the public was rarely, if ever, perfect.

A better way of working around perfectionism, I feel, is striving to make something great -- not perfect. Here are some pointers for how this can be achieved:

  • Start writing without fear of failure. You will often surprise yourself when you write quickly and without thinking too much into things. There will be time to edit, later.
  • Standardize your work. I can paint elaborate paintings in a classical style if I want to. I can do wonderous things with pencils and pens that would make you think you were looking at a black and white photograph. I don't do these things when I make comics, however, because of time constraints. I would never finish! Simplify your drawing style to a point where it looks great and fits the theme of your story, but isn't taking forever to finish.
  • Quality over all is very important but you simply must find a way to do the best work possible without forcing your audience to wait forever. If you have a webcomic that takes you two weeks to finish a single update, then your audience is waiting too long. Learn to work far ahead of your update schedule, reduce the number of pages you upload per-week or find a way to simplify your presentation.
  • The best update schedule to follow when doing a webcomic is weekly, but the second-best update schedule is whenever you can get your updates ready, consistently. If you absolutely can't work weekly, try once every two weeks, or once a month, but be consistent and don't drop the ball! Keep at it and keep to your schedule!
  • Don't leave your core audience, your tribe, hanging! Even if you're just going to give mini-updates or teaser pin-up style updates -- an update of any kind is better than nothing, to show your audience you are serious about your webcomic.

Remember -- Perfectionism kills good projects. Strive for perfect, but settle for great!