SPREY Log #09 – A lucky strike

So it’s day one of the time of silent work. Day Ones tend to go well, but then comes the rest of the marathon where you are actually tested.

Seeking for a clue what plagues my writing…and then actually finding it

I started out with a good idea: What I have been doing so far doesn’t seem to work. So why not take the time to look into a book about writing before immediately jumping back into what I have been doing before?

Stephen King taught me nothing trumps sitting down and writing when it comes to learning and doing your writing. Unfortunately I took it literally and bravely ignored any and all materials on writing for a while. This makes you pretty relaxed as you don’t fear on missing out on anything anymore. I intend to keep this relaxed attitude up and expectations for books, workshops and other materials I tackle 0n a low healthy level. But not reading about the craft of writing is not the way when you realize you hit road blocks that cannot be solved with just more writing.
If you build a house and it collapses…and you build it ten times more and it collapses ten times more…maybe you should look up how to actually build a house. You might have become stronger over time in your house building efforts and maybe learned some practical tricks, but you still haven’t built a house. So when you lower yourself to read how to build a house, only then do you have a chance to learn about “invisible” building blocks like actually placing a foundation first before you build on top of it. You cannot observe this from just looking at finished houses made by others, if you don’t know what you are looking for. That’s about the experience I had when reading the first third of Brian McDonald’s “Invisible Ink”. I didn’t do anything wrong per se in my writing. I was just ignoring some “invisible” building blocks you cannot see in the writing of others, if you don’t know they exist.

One disadvantage of being self-taught that can be overcome if you are willing to learn

I was also impressed how McDonalds describes people like me who purely come from the self-taught, practical side of things. He compares us to a sculptor, who can sculpt really well, but somehow the sculptures soon melt and fall apart. This sculptor has never learned about the armature you build first, that looks nothing like the finished sculpture and that holds the final work together later. You cannot observe that from outside if you don’t know it exists. It’s still there. I think that is one of the biggest strengths of McDonalds’s book. He doesn’t just talk about how we people love stories, he keeps telling us little stories and situations like these to make us understand and memorize what he wants us to see and understand. It is incredible. I would actually call that storytelling magic. And I’m incredibly grateful and happy I got to learn about armatures after all. I will look out for them in the future, not only in writing. What else is there, for example in art, that is invisible if you don’t know about it and that disappears under the finished painting, yet defines it and holds it together?

Writing and theme

My big enemy or unknown writing armature is theme. I went through all my writing life without knowing what a theme is until this year I think, but even then I thought I had grasped it but I actually hadn’t. I’m still not sure, but I will reread passages of “Invisible Ink” and maybe look to some other sources if curiosity strikes again. I couldn’t tell whether “sacrifice”, “red”, “mayonnaise” or “not accepting loss only makes it worse” are valid themes and I had a hard time bringing any of this into my work. I know the three act structure. I can write something that looks like something with a three act structure. But without a theme it has no core. I was curious to find out that you don’t just write and build and write until you have enough words and the plot ended. You work out your theme first, then you write anything. And anything you write is written around that theme. Armature and sculpture on top again. I was only writing all the time.

Theme is hard to see and judge. You can see and judge whether a work is kept in a three act structure pretty easily. But you usually can’t openly see the theme. The protagonist does not have to step out of the frame and tell you “not accepting loss only makes it worse” in your face. What if you just read a story about someone who just can’t let go off a past humiliation and just completely destroys his life and that of the people around him pursuing revenge? Or an old couple that recently lost their only child is so desperate that they consider necromancy to bring it back…but the result is worse than living with the original loss they suffered. Both ticks the theme box. And I’m sure any theme can produce countless works that seem vastly different but are built on the same core. And to answer one thing, a single word like “sacrifice” or “red” is not a theme for writing. It doesn’t say anything, does not give you any direction what to build on and around it. That was like when I learned that you don’t just place shadows by guessing or intuition, but that a shadow is actually a consequence of light not being able to access an area. So shadows and their qualities are the consequence of the qualities of the specific light(s) hitting the forms depicted. There is no guessing. I can promise you I was guessing in my writing a lot as well.

And SPREY?

I did try to throw a theme on top of SPREY, but I did it in an adorably backwards fashion. I understood it that it is part of the etiquette to have a theme. I had my plot and everything I wanted to do with it first and then thought, what would sound good as a theme, a message out of this all? I came up with a single word (of course I did), transformation, change. Everyone in the story has to change and for one way or the other either rejects it, runs from it or only reluctantly and under extreme pressure does it. This is not a theme. And it is twofold not a theme because people and things changing is like a natural law. All that lives, changes. Maybe some of the characters or their dynamics are memorable enough on their own so it’s not a total loss, but in the end, it’s a loss. Something like that will not stick. Don’t repeat my mistakes. Learn about theme early.

Guess I’m starting from scratch

I have no idea where things go from here. Of course I want to understand theme and make it the core of my future writing. I’m aware I probably have to throw out anything I have written so far ever, but I’m not even mildly startled by it. It didn’t work, so why should I mourn that loss? Is it a loss? I might also have to cut some things I wanted to bring up in SPREY should they serve no purpose anymore. What I don’t know is how long it will take to grasp theme and apply it correctly. I will write. I might even do some good old fashioned humble writing exercises to practise this before trying to brute force a SPREY theme and subsequent script. My mind is completely blown right now. But you know what, this means there is hope for the future, hope for a functional SPREY comic and other works, better than it could have ever gotten before.

See you next blog post!

100 Days – 86, 87, 88

The last days of comicmaking were so wild that I didn‘t even have time to blog about it. But now that „the worst“ is over, have a report on what happened, what problems I faced and what I did about it.

I have massive problems drawing environment heavy art. That probably kept me from really going into Corvus, the other comic project, in the beginning of the 100 days of making comics challenge. Looking back Corvus has crazy ambitious even harder to pull off environments that require things I don‘t know yet.

So I was already expecting I would need a bit more time on the environment heavy establishing shots of chapter 2 of PREY. And the first days of working on the first shot were terrible indeed. I have my script, I had two versions of the thumbnails ready, but then the first problem was an empty head when it came to translating the simple compositorial view to a sensible fleshed out urban environment.

A well-meaning friend gave me a perspective grid. I don‘t know about you, but perspective grids never helped me. They do not help against an empty visual library. Empty visual library means that you have researched, done, ingested so few of a topic that you have zero ideas about it if you are to draw it relying on your memory and competence alone. The moment I realized that my empty head came from that rather than from perspective problems (there‘s room for these later down the road, I‘m sure of that), I started studying the sort of urban neon lit synthwave-inspired environments I want for my comic like crazy. In the end, I needed 16 studies over 3 days to get anywhere.

So this brought us from empty canvas to something on the canvas. But what about the composition of the shot, the composition of the scene and further requirements for the setting such as hitting the right mood? If things weren‘t ugly enough by now, they got ugly here.

I have a floor map for the scene with paths my character might want to take. I had massive problems translating floor plans into something that is fleshed out in the past. It is surprising to me that I never concluded I‘m just incompetent. You can become competent by experience and that means doing things repeatedly and learning from what doesn‘t work. The empty visual library together with sheer inexperience is a perfect storm of not getting anything done and not knowing why you have no ideas and can‘t. Whatever changed me during the 100 days challenge made me look through that within less than a day.

But understanding what is wrong unfortunately isn‘t enough to make something good over night. You always have that gap of some time that must pass, until the new thought passed down into your hands through mileage in drawing exercise and back up to your brain again as your new standard of what you can reliably expect of yourself.

The next step was a compromise. I am ambitious by nature, but I have built up enough experience already to know when it‘s time to cut corners, and to cut them dirty, to get the job done. My original schedule was having a shot done per day. Inexperienced as I am, I of course had the ambitious idea of composing shot 1 and 2 together, showing a bright, marvellous city core in shot 1 and then sinking down to Rich‘s reality in the bad part of the city in shot 2. I liked that and I imagined I would sketch out both and then render the first one on day 1 and the second one on day 2. Day 2 took 2 days in the end and got the feedback it looks empty. I will not argue against that. Let me just say I had no idea what I was doing and hoped to get it into a presentable form at all.

That is the curse of beginners that people do not stress enough. First of all: you can be a beginner at any subset of things, even within a set of things you are actually good at. Second: if a beginner puts 100% of their energy into something, even to a point they almost self-destruct, the best result they can get out of this is mediocre at best.

That is not meant to discourage anyone. On the contrary! Did you ever give up on something because the first, second, third try looked like garbage? You shouldn‘t give up. You get a better energy to result ratio over time and with more practise. My two shots are okay but for what I was actually aiming, I missed it by miles. The bad part of the city is dirty and run down. I just didn‘t have enough time to learn how to express that and draw that onto the canvas. I have a street. And that is okay for now. If I did not know that even with the 120% of energy I gave and almost self-destructed, my result is normal and to be expected, I would probably feel much different about the result, even be disappointed in myself. Instead I‘m glad I‘m through that and will work my behind off that the next shots, the next scenes will get better and better, always a little bit that I can stem in a day. On a very basic level my planning and execution did work. I composed two shots together and they look good together as one piece. I just did not have the means to express everything that could have been expressed or that I might have wanted to be expressed here. And again, that is okay as a beginner. I trust myself that I will get better following my training regiment.

And just as a footnote: I wanted to make a training plan to work on more of my fundie weaknesses. I did so and tested the first plan. Didn‘t work out for the moment, at least at first try. So I‘m still planning and testing. At least that got me to do some different warm-up exercises than usual. Have an example page:

I think I‘m good with the urban studies for the moment, they cover a lot of what I need more exposure to. Also I‘m currently reading into Burne Hogarth‘s Dynamic Light and Shade again. That is the only book on this that ever reached me. I can lean back, being right as in always drawing realistic shadows is not as important as being able to create the right emotional athmosphere for your artwork. Those overlap most of the time, but they are not a 100% the same thing. The same goes for other fields such as anatomy by the way. Creating something that looks believable does not equal making it hyperrealistic.