Corvus Returns

…and so did a lot of older works. I’m tackling things differently this year. As many other creators do, I have a universe in my head. I do not feel the need to shine a light on any and every single pebble, any and every interesting thing that ever happened there or once might happen. Still, if I want any painting, any short story, any comic out of the source of my stories AND the quality shall be more than a lucky hit or miss, there is a lot of work ahead of me.

I’m taking the time to make one or a couple of lists with older works of mine. Many are what I would consider „dead“ but some I can practise storytelling with, everything in the service of SPREY. The goal is the same as last year, write down a functioning, complete version of SPREY, from start to finish, then draw it out as a comic. The middle part is still a bit too nebulous. But I think my chances of finishing are good this year. I still have a lot of writing and some resulting growing to do though to get there.

Corvus seems like good material to practise structure.

The old story went like this:

Corvus is on the verge of being expelled from the mage academy for bad grades. He is tricked into stealing a secret book on necromancy for one of the professors, then has to stop said professor. A lot of people get hurt or killed before the professor’s rampage is over and Corvus has to live with that guilt, although he was able to stop the professor in the end. A superficial love interest for Corvus exists, their story just isn’t that terribly important for the plot except for a magic McGuffin given to him by the love interest that helps Corvus survive a deadly blow by the professor, when the professor betrays everyone after receiving the book.

The new story that emerged after some exposure to the Schumann writing craft book is this:

Due to a mixture of personal shortcomings, bad luck and academy politics Corvus has just been expelled from the mage academy for bad grades. His magic powers are taken from him permanently. Before he even has time to cope with it, he learns that a group of fellow student mages manipulated him and other people for their own entertainment and is now setting their eyes to new targets of harassment. Corvus takes a job as a gardener to be allowed to stay on the premise and starts working in the shadows to protect the new targets and bring the group down. While Corvus has a positive impact on the lives of many, despite having less tools to do so as a gardener, he is a nuisance to few but powerful political actors at the academy and is pushed out as a troublemaker in the end. He is not winning against the group or the academy. And Corvus is definitely not winning against life, as health problems caused by him forcefully losing his magic powers are increasingly catching up with him. His life after his time at the academy might be very short.

The side arc love story exists, but has quite changed, too: This time around Corvus has a love affair with a freshly arrived foreign lecturer. The lecturer is target of the boldest bet of the student group yet. They want to know whether they can drive even a lecturer into suicide through a buerocratic loop of death and social isolation. While Corvus helps the man to get over the very rocky start at the academy, he must watch how his beloved lecturer slowly transforms into a member of the academy establishment that wants him gone.

The lecturer wakes up to what has happened in the end, immediately quits his position and rushes to make amends to Corvus. Other people are waking up and leaving, too, which forces the academy to change.

I don’t know about you, but as a reader I’d be more interested in the second iteration than in the first one. Now that I’m rereading the text I am still worried that the scope is too big still. How many good deeds to how many people can Corvus really do before he’s out? The middle part does hold some uncertainty here, but not as much as my current version of SPREY. I am at least convinced my structure will dictate enough so that I don’t swim in endless possibilities.

SPREY Log #23 – New Horizons

I’m treating this day as a harbinger of things to come.

Yesterday I took the time to thin out some of my social media. I left Twitter and Mastodon outright, Instagram got on the chopping block for a massive content reduction and almost got deleted, too. I swear, there must have been two or more occassions where I thought about deleting Insta before and I honestly can’t tell you why I didn’t. It’s probably the network effect in action. It feels like a far bigger loss than it actually would be. I will keep my Twitch to watch and comment on other people’s streams, but I do not plan on streaming myself anytime soon.

Why am I doing this?

I want to reduce the background noise in my mind. Every platform I’m on requires care and content updates from time to time, actually. In a true Pressfield sense I will not tolerate the urge to update my social media as overshadowing my urge to sit down and actually create things. That is…distraction. Also I noticed a mismatch between my mental image of my social media usage and reality.

Social media is not evil and not a bad idea. It’s actually a great idea to have tools and platforms where you can promote your independent creations outside of the classical gatekeepers of your respective industry. It’s also a fantastic idea to have open places on the web where you can converse with people and learn about more perspectives and ideas and keep up with people you otherwise would lose touch with like relatives that live far far away. But as usual the execution is the part that pulls the experience down.

I feel, in order for anything to make sense, I must also touch on something else that is uncomfortable to think about. Humans are hackable. People can manipulate your mood and behavior, people can manipulate your tastes, people can and will manipulate how and what you think. Movies and advertisement are pretty good at it. Any junkfood that is bad for you but tastes better than it has any business to taste does it. Casinos do it. And social media do it, too. You will be influenced by something, anything, almost all the time, while you think you are the ruler over your own mind.

Now bringing it together: so you have these idealistic ideas about social media and join a platform. It is free to use but must make money to sustain itself. If it cannot make money from subscription fees or other direct payments by it’s users, what to do? Well, then it must take something from people that even someone with zero money can give. Time. Attention. Making people watch advertisement that someone else paid for. If a social media platform would openly advertise itself to waste your time, nobody would use it. Nobody sets out to waste hours of their day to scroll random information. Instead you hear about empowerment, networks and networking and how you MUST use it so that other people can discover you and your art.

So there’s pressure to join and use, the fear of missing out. But what happens then, is even more unsettling. You are in a system of loops. The users, as inmates of the prison that don’t know they are in a prison, happily engage with each other, feed the platform with content to discover for others and reward each other by liking, commenting or otherwise approving of what they are offered. This is another case where technology has far outpaced human evolution. You are wired to seek social approval. That was the only way to survive in the past. And your brain cannot distinguish the quality of that approval. You get a dopamine kick whether a random stranger on the net agrees with you or your spouse sitting on the other end of the breakfast table. This is another fascinating as well as terrifying case where your brain cannot distinguish between reality and illusion. It just fires the chemical reaction. The social media company doesn’t have to do anything, people entertain themselves, hunting for more dopamine, both by being validated or just being thrilled by random new and interesting information and pictures they can find. And the platforms do want to make it easy for you to spend a lot of time doing that. In come the algorithms, machine code to ensure content that is interacted with a lot is seen by even more people. It must be either especially good or more often especially outrageous. The algorithm doesn’t judge. It just promotes what seems to be popular to more people. Also, in the case of platforms like Instagram, algorithms also ensure you toe the line as a „creator“ and don’t let your audience down. If you dare to post without buying ads to promote your works, then post daily or perish, be not shown to anyone. Nothing is left to chance in this system of loops. Also don’t think if you give in and do buy an ad you’ll have an easier time. You have fed the beast and now you’re marked. It knows it can extract money from you so you’ll get hit with invisibility double as hard once your ad runs out so that you buy more. And by that point you are probably so far in that the dopamine kicks you don’t get feel like actual punishment and pain to the brain.

And now for me, my situation.

I’m making art and at least for some time, I have been creating things to share almost religiously. But I do not make outrageously good or outrageous art and do not have outrageous takes, so of course it doesn’t stick. I burned out several times, but always stood up and came back, trying again. I just didn’t know any better. While I’m doing everything to improve the quality of my art, I finally realized I cannot „beat“ the algorithm. Not by definition and also not by trying to morph myself into something it might like more. I would betray myself and drift even further away from SPREY or anything else waiting in my drawer. No one is asking for SPREY or any original creation actually, but still, I have to do it. I also cannot create „more“ for the sake of pleasing the algorithm. It is not sustainable.

I even wisened up and understood, while you show up for work every time, you are not entitled to have something finished or ‚shareable’ every day. Especially for long term projects it will be natural and to be expected to have streaks where you create and scrap multiple days or weeks of work because it just doesn‘t come together immediately. It is normal. Sometimes you even have to make several drafts. That’s when things take years to make, but they still get done in the end. I have tricked myself into thinking that this should be otherwise though, that it’s bad to let people down and make them not hear from you at least once a week, even if you have nothing to say and nothing to show. Documenting the journey excessively gives the illusion of actually travelling even if you actually didn’t move. I was actually stressed out by failing to feed the platforms repeatedly. With the context of the things I talked about earlier it was a lot of fuzz about nothing though. Other people who aren’t artists seem to be able to look through this easier, how they don’t care whether you create daily, they can lose interest in you anytime.

As my knowledge about creating art expands, I’m seeing that there are parts to the process that are ‚invisible‘ such as studies, research, writing scripts and drawing thumbnails and storyboards (not the braggard ones, the actual chicken scratch ones) and therefore not that great for sharing online. You don’t see them much and people don’t understand them. Beginners who don’t necessarily know about them are incentivised to skip them entirely in favor of better shareable pieces of work. I realized, the types of content that I want to make, aren’t very daily share friendly and long term.

That is not things that are encouraged or very visible.

I was worried I’d be wasting my time writing all of this instead of just drawing or doing anything for SPREY. I’m actually pretty scared of the pain of returning to it. But after thinking through all of this what I have written down…I’m even more adamant that a social media break is good for me. I don’t have to worry about it right now. I should first focus on creating something that is actually worthwhile, then I can worry about making people aware of it. Trying to document it in a way pleasing to algorithms does not work. I finally have accepted that. And I finally have accepted how my reality as the creator of my works looks like. I must live with long periods of no validation, but compared to never finishing anything that is a price I am willing to pay.

See you next blogpost!