A creative process

Dear people!

New report on Of Love and Tall Ships: I met with my publisher yesterday and we spent hours going through the script for part two. We cut two pages, one of which was a scene with me talking to dead people. It has been an open question for a while if the dead-people scene should be allowed to continue its existence into the finished version, but eventually ot was decided to cut it out. Another scene was also deemed superflous, but I had already drawn it and it contained an awesome three-panel merge of a forest which justified its existence. However I have mentally added at least one and maybe two pages, plus two to part one, so it doesn’t really reduce the page count too much in the end.

Current page count: 36 of 120

I have, however, started taking the first baby steps towards a new comic project. You might think this is taking water over ones head, but I disagree for several reasons.

  • Wong Kar Wai, the genius Cantonese dirctor, described the making of his two movies In The Mood For Love and the subsequnt 2046 (loosely related but quite different) with that “one must have started the new peoject before finishing the old, or else you go crazy” or something to that respect. This makes much sense to me. Of Love and Tall Ships lives with me, it is my baby of sorts, pretty much every single day I sit down to work on it, and I have done so for close to 2,5 years now. If I don’t have even the slightest clue as what to do next when it ends, I will be a victim of the dreaded “post-production depression”.
  • Also, the process takes time. I count the beginning of the making of Of Love and Tall Ships to be in September of 2013, because that is when I sat down and wrote the script for it. I count its birthday to be on November 16, because that is when I had finished the script and sketches and started with the artwork. But actually, the process started as early as the fall of 2012, when I was living in Maine and discovered the Ampersand brand of scratchboard, which is when I decided to draw a comic using scratchboard. Then, the process kicked off.

The Birth of an Idea is stage one! The very conception of a project! A desire, a longing. A vision, an idea. It is important to stress that not all projects make it past this (or the following steps), but that is all good and well. People who are not into making stuff are often discouraged when trying to make or do something, and it never reached the finished stage, and then they write themselves off as incapable of creating things. This is not the case! One should see ideas as baby turtles, where a mama turtle lay around 200 eggs, and among all the baby turtles who crawl down to the sea about two will reach mature age, and the rest will be eaten by sea birds and fishes and other animals. Maybe your success rate won’t be as low, but think of all the ideas one conjure up in ones head, like “I shoud open a café!” “I should hike the length of the Great Wall of China!” “I should draw a comic book!” etc., it really isn’t that big a deal if you never take them to the next step. Often it isn’t even the point of these ideas. If dead baby turtles are too dramatic a metaphore, think of it as applying for jobs. (I guess in this methaphore the ideas are th ones applying to you to get created, or something).

The Transformation into the Material World is stage two, when you have decided your idea is worth at least attempting to pursue. In the case of comic books, which is what we are focusing on here, this process involves writing things down. (Disclaimer: everyones creative process looks different! But if you want to create a longer comic and are struggling as how to start, this might prove helpful at least as a guide.) Even for shorter stories I start by writing down the story I want to draw. For OLATS, I kept a moleskine journal in which I wrote down, chronologically, everything I could remember from the time and story I wanted to focus on. This involved a lot of “and then he said, and then she said” sort of text, and it had little to none quality in its own. This, however, is more to create a timeline. I suppose you could apply the same principle to works of fiction as well. 

Creating a timeline is step three. Maybe not totally necessary but sure helpful to straightening out the story. For OLATS part one I had decided on a chronologically cut-up narrative, where there were two timelines that ran paralell with the chapters alternating between the timelines, and in the end you were at the point where timeline one ended where timeline two started, which was the beginning of the story. Kind of like some cut-up circle. If you mess around with weird things like this it is extra important to keep things in order, but I’m going to assume your narrative is nice and strictly linear. Divide the story into chapters or sections. Write down what will happen in each chapter. Like: “Chapter One: Karin returns to Stockholm from the Caribbean. Hangs out in the archipelago. Cold, dark. She feels lonely, remembers the Caribbean.” Do this from beginning to end. When this is done, you enter into the delicate world of…

Script and Sketches! Probably, through all the steps above, little ideas of snippets of scenes or images or lines have come to you. You need to save those! The story won’t knock on your door the minute you sit down to write the script and present itself to you in its splendid entirety, ready for you to write it down. It will come to you in bits and pieces. To be able to recieve those, you need to put yourself in the right mindset. This is done simply by thinking about your comic constantly, the characters, the things that happen, how it felt, what you were thinking, what you were doing etc. If you train yourself to do this (and I’m sure it works for other creative processes that comic books) you will notice that what we call “inspiration” will hit you more and more frequently. Sometimes inspiration will indeed hit you like some freak squall gust from nowhere, but first and foremost it is a matter of training your brain to know how to recognize and process it. Again, people not used to this way of thinking and creating will complain that they “just never feel inspird” or “never have any ideas” etc. Not used to what inspiration feels like, they assume one simply wakes up one morning with a complete script and all the motivation in ones head, then go and draw the damn thing over the course of a few weeks or months, and then have a comic. The truth it is involves only hard, consistent work and using the tools in your brain to recognice and use you inspiration. How do you train your brain? By thinking frequently about the scenes of your comic, you will notice how maybe you imagine a scene to look a certain way. “I think this person will say this as this happens” (write it down), “I imagine she is turned away as she recieves those news” (sketch it down) “I remember having this dream just the day before”, “we were always listening to that song”, “I had this feeling that I wished it would never end”, “we ate that bread that was so amazing” etc. Write all of that down!! And for images, try to simply freeze your head as you imagine a scene taking place. Then sketch that down. It may sound banal, and maybe it is, but I’ve drawn my entire book, and all other comics I’ve ever made, using this technique. Of course, as you grow more used to the medium, you will be able to apply certain tricks to make it more alive. How to learn those ticks? Read a lot of good comics. You can also watch movies to see when they chose to zoom in on details or use panoramas, etc and what effect that creates. If freezing and copying an image in your head sounds weird and impossible, think of the word “horse”. Do you get an image of a horse in your head? What color is it? Is it facing you or turned away? Where is it, outside or inside? etc. Then, assuming you have some familiarity with drawing, draw that horse! It will most likely not look exactly as the horse you imagine did, and this is where many newbies get discouraged and deem themselves worthless at drawing. But it is like assuming you would be able to pick up a guitar and without any training be able to play the Bob Dylan song you have in your head exactly the way you remember it. As time goes on, you will get closer to your mental image as your skills improve, but most of all you will get to know your style and “know what to expect” of a drawing, and thus have a more realistic idea of what it will look like and also adjust your mental image to reality.

As you start to build up a bank of these scenes, images and texts, place them chronologically in the story where they need to be. You need, for the sake of consistency, to draw and write from beginning to end. This is not to say that if you get a vision of a scene towards the end of the book, you shouldn’t keep that. Keep everything! Save them like little building pieces. Sometimes you have so many of those for a section of the story that all you have to do is to “fill in the blanks” and find a way to weave them into the story and connect them to each other. If a scene you like just simply doesn’t fit in, and you have to take detours to connect it, you may have to kill your darlings. Sad but true. 

What I did was to fill in the chapters with ideas of scenes and images and soforth, then sit down and write it. As I did, I forced myself to re-live the feelings and all that happened. This wasn’t at all pleasant at times, but it is neccesary to be extremely emotionally present and engage in order to connect to and channel those feelings. 

But as you conduct this archeological excavation of the mind, memory and heart, it is important to remember that what you are writing is a story, not a logbook. It is a fine line to balance. You want to include what is real, because to be even worth the while, it needs to be real. (Not real as in factually correct, but as in emotionally engaged. Fiction can be just as real.) Even if the main character is yourself, it is still a character. You will never be able to represent reality with all its detours and grey scales in a way that isn’t totally confusing and overkill. You need to simplify, and you need to emotionally distance yourself as you do this, but at the same time have that precense. 

In the vey detail of it, write down for evey scene what is to happen. For example, you may have a list of scenes you want to include in a chapter. You have an idea of the order you want them in. For each scene, make sure it connects to the previous either by being merged into it, or that the previous is well finished, and you start anew. This can be done by little tricks such as it being a new day, people wearing visably different clothes, being in a new place etc. Write down the narrative and the dialogue just plainly, beginning to end. Then divide the dialogue into panels. Take into consideration the length of text, the flow of the pace over the pages. If you need to “fill out” a page, you can pause the text by inserting panels of no text and just images, or you can make two panels into one, or two into three if you need that. When you have divided the text and dialogue, draw pictures and insert dialogue. This is no place for details and art, just sketch it well enough for you to understand what you were going for years later. You can write little cues, too. See example below:

The sketch and the finished panel. Notice the simplicity of the sketch, and the words “dark, menacing skies” that describe the feeling of the picture.

When you have done this for your entire story, you will have a much better idea of what you’re dealing with. Sometimes comics grow to be beasts. Like a cute little piglet that you take into your house, you may wake up with a 400 kg sow one fine morning. I did. My comic was planned to be around 75 pages, and it was only by furiously pulling the reins that I managed to keep it below 300 pages and end at 266. The next step is to force your work upon people around you. The main problem here is to get people to stop being nice. If you show it to friends and family they are bound to say “oh it’s so nice!” as they mistake your need for second opinions as a need for compliments. It sure is nice to get those, too, so make sure you find some nice friends to complement you and keep you motivated and reassured, and some who won’t blow sunshine up your ass who will tell you what works and what doesn’t work. If you press people lightly they will tell you what they liked most and what maybe they didn’t follow totally, or what dragged out too long etc. Toss your ego aside and be grateful for this feedback, and really take it to heart. It might be difficult because you may be really fond of the things they want you to change or cut out, like I feel about the scene where I talk to dead people, but keep in mind that what might be totally clear for you might not be as clear for other people. You may want some time to pass, then return to it and attack it with fresh eyes. Cut! Cut text! Cut pages that are exessive! Show no mercy! Especially with autobiographical works, it is easy to get sentimental and keep things that really don’t contribute to the story. Remember, this is a work of fiction now. Based on reality, but still fiction. Your story needs to make sense. It needs to pick the reader up at the beginning, gently guide them through the it and put them down at the end. Have a clear storyline. You may make little excursions from it, but it needs to be there all the time, like the baseline or drum beat of a song. A good story is kept together, it ties loose ends together, it is full and complete. It may be circular or linear, but it needs to have a clear beginning and end. This is especially true for longer projects.

Last step: Draw the fucker. DON’T GIVE UP!!! You owe it to yourself and all the hard work you’ve already invested to follow through. If you doubt yourself, trust yourself enough to trust the good judgement you had when you decided this was good enough to continue with. Also, your comic has a life of its own now, and just like you owe your pets and kids to house and feed and raise them, you owe this comic to draw it, and to finish it. Integrate drawing into your schedule. Make it a habit. You may take breaks, but Don’t Quit, and Don’t Give Up.

Then edit. Then publish.

Good luck!!

2 thoughts on “A creative process

  1. Thank you Karin for this monster task of analysis. How to work through is a hard pattern to establish… and I don’t work as a professional. Extra point of interest for me – I currently seem to be basing my own blog on conversations with my “dead” mother. Why were you discouraged from talking to dead people in OLATS 2?

    • My publisher thought the scene didn’t fit into the whole, since th dead person wasn’t a character that had previously been introduced. I can see the point, and might try to keep the dialogue but change the person into someone who’s alive instead. Your blog sounds interesting, I’ll check it out!

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