Iteration (Panels in Progress #1)
It bears repeating
Welcome to Panels in Progress! This is the section of my newsletter about the process of making comics (as opposed to News and Notes, the section about my series updates and fun facts/research). The section archive also includes posts from my old blog, about how much all this frivolity costs, and tips on things like running a Kickstarter or doing a convention.
I also plan to publish conversations here with other people who are writers, artists, colorists, letterers, editors, and anyone else who works to make comics appear about how they work and think about making comics. This is 90% self-interest: I like learning from people, and understanding how other people think about their work will help me get better at what I do.
If you’re a fellow or aspiring comic-maker, I’d love to know what you’re interested in talking about or learning more about so I can gumshoe around! Leave a comment here, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are a few things I think are important to keep in mind when you’re writing comics, and those will be the topics of the first few of these letters.
I’m making needle-felted rats for the Kickstarter campaign for Part 2. This was one of my “How hard can it be?” endeavors. I expected the first rat to look pretty bad, and that I’d be able to fix my mistakes in the second, and by the third I’d be making perfect replicas of the friends I count on my subway rides.
This did not happen! The first rat actually came out better than I expected — pretty cute, but the proportions weren’t quite right, and I wanted more detail on the little paws. Many YouTube videos later (there are no tones more dulcet than those of the nice people who explain fiber arts on the internet, if you’re in need of new ASMR tracks) I’d figured out how to build a better rat paw. I looked at a lot of pictures of rats, drew their basic shapes, and was indeed able to fix the proportions on the second one. And I was so high on how much faster I was able to work, and preoccupied with the body and the pelt and the feeties, that I wasn’t paying as close attention to the tail length, or the scale and shape of the head. So #2 turned out to be a lunkhead who’s lost a few fights.
Point is, improvement takes repetition, but it isn’t a linear process. Over a long enough period of time, your skill at anything you practice will look like a fairly smooth line that goes up-and-to-the-right, but in the short term you’ll sometimes make something that’s well below your skill level. I’m starting to believe that the trick is giving yourself room to screw up, and being patient enough to observe yourself and adjust. That process means trying a lot of different things and embracing the feedback you get as you do.
Iteration through form
I don’t think I’ve ever written something in just one format and had it work perfectly the first time. I’ll usually take a crack at a story as a poem, a short story, maybe a novella if I’m feeling really self-flagellatory, and then, more and more often lately, as a comic.
New Rat City followed that path exactly: it started off as a long, weird poem about a kid who gives himself a tour of 22nd century Manhattan the day they let the floodwalls crack, but isn’t able to get out of the way of the water in time. It did not work. Step 2 was a short story; better, but again, not happy. Step 3: novella, rinse, repeat. And now here we are — the story was supposed to be a comic. But for me to see that I needed to have worked out some kinks via those other formats.
I also had to write Andraste first. New Rat City is a constructed world, with from-scratch characters. I think the reason I wrote that story so many times was that I wasn’t ready to tell it until recently.
By 2020 I knew what it was to do research, format a script, and build a team. I wasn’t starting off with 100% unknowns; I was at about 75/25. That familiarity was enough to try a more ambitious* kind of story.
*One might argue that Andraste, being 12 issues long and involving multiple planes of reality, is actually more ambitious. But I think that writing shorter pieces is in many ways much harder than having lots of time to spool out a story, and I also had Boudicca’s life as a ready-built foundation.
Iteration through collaboration
Getting back to comics, and, ahem, the point of this newsletter:
There was an interesting conversation on Twitter (weird, right?) the other day, about handling feedback from collaborators:
My answer (along with most of the people who replied) was that I love when that happens! That’s how you make the book better. There’s a reason I’m a writer and an artist, but even if I were up to scratch as a sequential artist I think I’d still want to collaborate, because someone else will see opportunities I won’t. In the case of New Rat City I often wrote in the script “Lay this out how you think is best, I trust you, do your worst.” George was able to add details and humor and creepiness as he works that aren’t in the script — that’s why he’s good at what he does. The same goes for every artist I’ve worked with on a comic.
In that sense, the process of making comics as a team is more like the oldest form of storytelling: you tell the story to the artist, and then they tell it again with their own flourishes, and on it goes.
I get how that can be scary, but I don’t think comics are the best medium for writers who need a lot of control: as a writer you spend a lot of time constructing something in your head, translating it into a readable format, and then you’ve gotta hand it off to someone. The changes that happen in artwork and coloring and lettering accumulate, so you end up with something very different than what was in your head. (This also happens when anyone reads your work, you just don’t see it!)
This was how the script for Page 2 of Issue 3 of New Rat City read when I sent it to George:
And this is the page with George Quadros’ art, colors by DC Alonso, and letters by Lucas Gattoni:
George made a bunch of subtle decisions here: we aren’t overhead in panel 2, but more at Felicia’s level, because this is her memory of her mom. I love that the two of them are in silhouette in panel 4, like we’re seeing them with the bright sun behind them. It looks pretty and nostalgic in a way that contrasts with how we and Felicia see the city in the present, because again, it’s a little girl’s treasured memory. When I saw the artwork I adjusted the script to leave a little more room in that moment in the grass, and it became a better page.
17 ridiculously quick tips for getting really good at anyth-
Yeah, no, none of that! I don’t have any quick tips on how to get better at iterating on your work, because I don’t think it a quick process. I believe you owe it to yourself and whatever you’re trying to make to give yourself time and room to grow. I do have a couple of not-quick tips as you try and try again:
Get comfortable with your first draft looking like hot embarrassing garbage, shoving it off the desk, shaking off the smell, and trying again. You will come to the point where Draft #1 is just kind of funny looking, and that’s a pretty good feeling.
Get comfortable taking feedback.
You can do this with a workshop group: Find friends who will read your stuff and tell you, honestly, what they think. Ideally this will happen with the same people for a long time. The thing that has led to the most growth and momentum for me has been a writing group that has been meeting monthly for over 3 years (We have had stickers and pens made. Pretty official stuff!). There will ideally be someone in this group who keeps new meetings on the schedule and tells everyone to “make it weirder!” in a supportive way.
Workshopping also means you’re regularly reading other people’s work and giving them honest feedback, too. If you don’t have a group to do this with, take notes while you read, and gather your thoughts like you were going to hand them off to the author.
You can also find an editor you can pay to be somewhat brutal with you about what they think. This is a different kind of relationship than the one you’d have with workshop buddies, and it’s incredibly valuable. Resist the urge to push back on everything: steelman their questions and arguments instead, and see where that puts you.
Not all feedback is helpful, but everyone’s reacting to something when they tell you a sequence isn’t making sense or they missed a detail. It’ll benefit you to figure out if it’s you who missed a beat.
If you’re feeling stuck, try a different format! Write the story as a piece of flash fiction or an epic poem or a haiku or a short film script and see what shape it takes.
If you’d like a copy of New Rat City Part 2 and a felt rat, you can get both of them on Kickstarter starting April 18th! Sign up on the prelaunch page here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/honorvincent/new-rat-city-parts-1-and-2
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This was great!
I'd love to hear more about determining issue/story length.