SPREY Log #12 – Hunting for a theme

Okay, before we dive back into dry writing craft, I have realized something.

I’m feeling young again. I’m feeling a specific feeling of youth I’m surprised I still remember. Many years ago I was an actual literature nerd, actually interested in reading, literature history and the technical and practical aspects of the craft of writing. Then I got a taste of literature how it was taught at the university I studied at. Not saying all universities are bad. That one probably was. It made me lose all passion and interest in pursuing writing and reading at all within a year. If that was “real” literature I didn’t want to do anything with it. Now I feel this is gone again, finally, after many years and I’m back to where I was.

And just to be clear, I’m not blaming the university, after all no one held a gun to my head and told me I may never read a book again. Everything that happened, I did to myself, in my head. I just needed the wisdom of many years to come to realize it and undo it. I would even go so far to say I dumbed myself down from then on, further manipulating my further endeavors for the worse. How could or should I ever succeed with any writing if deep inside I didn’t want to do anything to do with it?

I consider myself very lucky that I got behind it after all. Now I can deal with everything I must deal with in peace and without self-manipulation. Writing and literature should have always been a part of me, to whatever extent. I think this will improve my art, not distract from it. And just as a general reminder, me and you do not need anyone’s approval to pursue literature and writing and learning about it. The knowledge is out there, not discriminating, it’s there for everyone. And it wants you to learn about it and use it in your own writing as you see fit. And as anyone can publish books today, truly no one can hold you back but you. Apparently you have to be confident but humble. Confident, so that you don’t give up when you don’t get anyone’s approval first, and we’re talking years possibly, but always humble so that you don’t stop listening and working on your craft.

And now back to writing SPREY.

After last blogpost I made myself a list of bullet points what I have to establish in order for the story climax to work. And fascinatingly, I got a complete looking list of what belongs in the first and second act. This is spectacular to me, as writing had been an incredibly difficult cascade of guesswork for me before. The distance to bridge between first and third act seemed to be impossible. Never did it occur to me that not all story parts are equal, independent from each other, just boxes to tick to hit the “right” act structure. Pretty much everything before the climax is dictated by the climax. There is no guesswork. And now I see how this structure is the bones that hold the flesh of the story together. I was just sculpting the flesh before. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a scene where Rich is about to get sacrificed but then is saved by Willard? Isn’t that villain monologue lovely? I can still have ideas like that and see whether I can work with them, but they can never substitute the underlying structure.

But how can it be that I have SPREY current state now with it’s working structure without knowing my theme yet? Shouldn’t the theme sit one level above the climax and govern it? I’m starting to have a suspicion that I was just assuming a new structural model for my works again without fully understanding it yet. But through research I found a new clue. Theme is not message! A theme is asking and describing a difficult to answer problem or question about the human experience, a message is offering an answer to it. By design, the message can only be flawed, as the most interesting problems about being human absolutely have no easy answers and no matter how educated you are, your own perspective will never be a hundred percent and always right. Also, people tend to not like being preached to. Luckily for me, it doesn’t seem to be the job of a writer to solve existential problems and the human nature once and for all. It is my job to unveil that a problem exists and what makes it so hard to solve it in the first place. And that is what theme does. Which questions do I ask and look at about being human through my characters and what’s happening to them? I can absolutely have a clear theme, but it is not me saying something is so and so, it is rather me asking things like “If love always wins, what is about the villain who is also loved and loves? Is his love not good enough?” That is actually hard to answer and I would have to look at multiple cases or facettes of a case within my story. If my climax is the story core and tangible backbone, my theme is the soul. In a way it is ethereal. And yes, you can absolutely ignore it and create something down to earth without dealing with any of this. But I guess the best stories, those that stay in your memory, do ask those difficult questions.

With SPREY my struggle to find one red line might also stem from just throwing a lot of things together that sounded entertaining and interesting by themselves. But this also results in a mashup of themes, leaving us with no clear winner or direction on that front. Let’s take a look at what we got:

1 Love as a terrifying force

If you think about SPREY from an inverse perspective, a whole biker gang gets killed because they didn’t account for selfless sacrifices made out of love. Willard and Rich each get into mortal danger to protect each other, another character dies for people who aren’t even present. That is terrifying from an outside view. Love, that is regarded as a “soft” power actually lures people into death overriding their instinct for self preservation? Love gets people killed who stand in the way of lovers? Well, unfortunately the slashers are pretty bad people themselves, so in this specific case it will be hard to feel sorry for them.

2 The individual versus the group

Maybe I should rather go for the individual vs group angle. A human is a creature that must exist both as an individual and as a member of a group or groups to be happy, but in actuality humans are never happy. We get extreme cases like Rich who is a struggling lone wolf or on the other end of the spectrum the slashers who literally operate like a hive. And then there’s Willard who finds his own balance as someone who wants to be part of a group, any group, but just doesn’t seem to fit.

3 Are humans trying to domesticate themselves into a functioning civilization since the beginning of time

The slashers themselves as a concept ask a very difficult question. We think bounding together to a tribal group was what helped people drive civilization forward. But here a group has formed that actively undoes civilization, rejects rules anyone outside of them made and uses group synergy to harm and kill people. And they build nothing up of their own, they just destroy. Are they a mirror of us when we can’t get over our selfish desires to build a society that works, a failed civilization? This is a tough one.

4 Man vs (human) nature

And what about good and evil and how being amongst some of the most evil people imaginable teaches Willard to be a better balanced human being? As I said, theme is ethereal, doesn’t give easy answers. Ha, wait, maybe this is a good one – the slashers are everything we do not want to have in our modern, civil, urbanized society. They are a form of nature’s revenge. But it is not the environment that comes for us, it is the parts of the human nature that we don’t want to acknowledge or deal with, our own potential for evil. It comes back to haunt us, no matter what we do to shut it out. And Willard is us, he is very cultivated and civilized, first in utter disbelief about facing actual and unapologetic evil, then part of it, then out of it. Rich isn’t that severely affected because he grew up amongst evil already, there is nothing to be disillusioned about.

I will think about that.
See you next blogpost!

SPREY Log #11 – Testing SPREY’s story

I keep working through “Invisible Ink”. This time around I’ve learned about how the best stories have a balance of external action and internal development of the characters, a glimpse into their emotions and inner life. And I’ve learned what a climax of the story actually is. How can this book tackle all and every problem I ever had with my writing? And why do the explanations work so well for me?

I have heard about the climax of a story before. I was under the impression that the climax of the story is it’s most important, most dramatic, most action rich scene or moment. It changes everything and the whole story builds up to it. While this is not wrong, it was not precise. It could have lead me astray in some cases. In fact, the climax of the story is the test whether your protagonist has changed or not. Not every protagonist is changing, and not every protagonist is changing for the better, but the climax is a test of whether they did, usually a decision they make in a dire situation. And everything that happened before is necessary to establish why it’s a big deal. It does not matter whether the protagonist is about to save the whole world, their relationship with their child or just make peace with themselves, which nobody may even see from the outside. It is your job as writer of that story to craft it in a way that makes the reader care.

DANGER, SPOILERS AHEAD. Don’t read if you want to experience that in SPREY yourself later.

SPREY’s climax so far has been Rich sacrificing his life for Willard. This is a reversed mirror to the beginning of the comic where Rich just can’t bring himself to commit to a stable relationship with Willard. Rich is afraid of getting his heart broken later. He also doesn’t like the prospect of having to arrange himself with a partner. He is so used to fend for himself and do what he wants the way he wants, it seems like a huge disadvantage to give even a bit of that freedom away. But then he is ready to give his life.

This is also an inversion of the whole plot of Willard leaving his old life behind to save Rich. Willard’s arc actually is over already when the climax comes up. The slashers taught him that he has a chaotic side and a potential for evil, but they offered him a very flawed way to deal with that. Willard would have had a choice to become a slasher, for real and fully, but he did not give in to that and went with Rich, saving a lot of lives on the way out.

I’m surprised to find that it does not matter whether Rich and Willard survive in the following, at least not for the climax. The climax is just about putting their character development to the test. I think I have to correct myself, Willard is tested twice. So he does not become a slasher. But now that that is gone and that Rich is gone… he has to make another choice. There is a very slim chance that Rich is still alive. Rich has distracted the slashers who were after them away from Willard’s tracks and has probably been badly injured when they got him. But he could still be alive. Willard would be free to just go, return to the normal world as a changed, more balanced man. Instead, he goes right back to grasp that last straw and save Rich if he can. Willard is in for a battle he cannot win and he knows it. But he does it out of love. And now he understands why Rich was afraid of it. This is Willard’s sacrifice.

I don’t intend to break my own heart entirely and will let the lovers survive. I’m not entirely sure how they make it out of there in one piece, but that is a detail question compared to decisions about the underlying story structure and it’s workings.

SPOILERS OVER!

But wait…that is just the climax. That is not a theme. Remember? SPREY still got none. But at least the beginning matches the climax, which is a huge win already. And the climax is strong! Maybe the theme will reveal itself once I worked further through “Invisible Ink” and also did more writing work on SPREY. What do I want to say with SPREY? I don’t know yet. But what I got already stands at least a basic test.

See you next blogpost!

SPREY Log #10 – Rebuild Rewire

You should have seen me! I told you I would read on and practise my writing. I breezed through the pages like a tornado, stopping only to think about what I had just read, what I had just written, what it meant and what I still don’t see. I feel like a new human. A new creator. I can basically go back and read all books I have ever read before again, this time checking for theme(s), implications and other invisible armatures.

My prediction about my old writing turned out to be true, too. Most of it does not pass a simple theme test, few characters don’t even pass a transformation test when they are meant to go through their personal hell and transform into a better version of themselves. The more I wrote and looked into things, the more I destroyed, as I unveiled the flawed concepts for what they were. And the most miraculous thing about it was that it didn’t even make me sad or upset. I was just thinking good that I realized it now and not even later. I owe it to my creations that I make them the best I can. I will still create them flawed, because I’m human and I have limitations, but maybe it’s not going to be as flawed as before and much more interesting to experience as a viewer and reader. Also, I’m sure I will find ways to use and reuse a lot of my old material or parts of it. So it’s not lost, it’s transforming.

SPREY is only moderately broken. It just lacks a theme so far. I’m almost sure I will rather cut things from it that were interesting but are not compatible under one theme than having to come up with new things.

I was relieved and amused to find that my main characters have pretty standard arcs. Relieved because it can’t be too hard to craft them well when they are so well known and rich with examples. Rich can’t let go off the past and thereby endangers his present and future. Also, he is not a team player and guess what he has to do to survive. Willard has a typical “an honest cop” arc where he seemingly has nothing but disadvantages first for sticking to his principles and then finds himself on the criminal side. The last thing he would want to do.

But before I talk too much about it, a character arc makes no theme. That one is still missing, but I’m working on it!

See you next blog post!

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!

SPREY goes into Repair Clinic!

(SPREY Log #08)

Dear readers!

I might have mentioned it already, I had to divert much of last week to my health and other art unrelated things. Now that I’m easing in into my work again I come back with fresh eyes, like after a long needed break. And I see things that seem obvious now but absolutely haven’t been before, because I was too close to them!

SPREY needs an emergency reconstruction hiatus starting immediately. It is so ironic! Making this comic has taught me so much about comicmaking that it’s impossible to continue working on it like I was working on it so far. SPREY 1st draft offed itself because it was actually successful. It was successful in teaching me the basics. And I first had to understand that I need to take this hard step and that I must change and keep changing.

This does not mean SPREY is over though. SPREY does not go to the backburner, not for a single minute. I am working on it like before, you will just not see new pages for a while, which might look like inactivity from the outside.

Here’s what’s happening in that time:

Today(16.August 2021) – 16. December 2021

  • Writing a new, proper and complete script for SPREY
  • The set and definitive format is a printed comic
  • I cannot tell whether everything fits neatly into one volume yet, but I don’t want to go beyond a maximum of two to three.
  • I will still later upload the finished pages on my website and possibly other webcomic sharing pages
  • The lore DOES NOT CHANGE. What you read in the webcomic so far stays in and is canon, it will just receive a visual upgrade and might just have some more context added or have it’s place in the narration changed depending on what the new script says.

1. January 2022 – 1. August 2022

  • Making a dummy. I will draw the whole comic in thumbnail form, all the pages from start to finish, doctoring on visual storytelling and pacing, color keys unless I decide to leave the comic black and white (I prefer finishing it during my lifetime) and whatever else comes up.

2. August 2022 – 16. December 2022

  • making the final designs for all characters, environments, props etc. in the comic,
  • if necessary figuring out a style bible

And then?

The next phase is drawing the final pages and I honestly can’t make any prediction at all how long that will take, as I haven’t drawn like this before. But my guess is you will read all and any edits to this plan in this blog as soon as they fall.

Why are the announced times so ridiculously long?

I read if you are inexperienced with something, it will take you four times longer than you think it will take. Now look at my numbers again and see what I hoped it would take. For some things I do have actual evidence from my own experience working on SPREY so far. For example, I wasn’t able to just draw my way into a consistent visual style or actually finish designing any character looks or environment on the fly between drawing pages, that doesn’t seem to work (at least right now).

Of course I do not intend to work as inefficiently as possible, but I will probably only know what is efficient and what isn’t afterwards. Also, there is more stuff than SPREY going on in my life, I have accounted for that in the numbers, too.

If there are changes to the schedule(and there will always be changes) for example if I finish a thing a month faster or need an additional month, I will update you about it on my blog.

Last words

Finally, this blog will not shut up. Far from it. I might provide you with regular reports on how things are going, possibly also tossing in some sketches from time to time. I stopped being scared, now my projects should be scared of me.

See you next blog post!