Strange Animals 09aug2019: Complicators

Hi! I’m writing to you after close to a month, having made my peace with the fact that this is now an irregular newsletter. There’ll likely be one or more every month, but I’m not putting a schedule to it any longer.

July’s always a weird month for me, because I get a year older at the end of every July, and it’s a time of taking stock. Poor saps whose birthdays are in December or January get only one of those every year – I get two!

I just turned 34, and if turning 30 felt like something of ambiguous value, 34 feels entirely positive. I’m in my mid-30s now, and there’s no more time for idle desires that will not come to pass. It’s been a month of taking stock of all the things I really want to get done in the next five or ten years, and letting the rest fall by the wayside. That leaves some amount of renewed energy for the things that are important.

1. Weeknotes

In short, this time. Wednesday saw the release of Coffin Bound #1, the debut issue of the coolest comic you haven’t read yet. It’s by Dan Watters (writer), Dani (artist), Brad Simpson (colourist), Emma Price (designer) and me (letterer), and you really want to be reading this one. Warren Ellis called it “a damned joy”, and other folks have been calling it (I’m paraphrasing) grindhouse Sandman.

I’m really happy with the style I came up with for this – it’s got shades of Alex Toth and Workman (and I totally stole the idea to do the EarthEater callouts that way from Nextwave), but I had to come up with certain logics I could propagate through the comic that’d apply to any future environment Dani might draw, and I’m happy with the solutions I came up with.

And for all its apparent simplicity, it’s probably my most time-consuming style (at least among my digital work), so I’m happy to see advance reviews speak positively of it.

Dan went on the Comic Book Commentary podcast to talk about the book, so if you’re interested in process stuff, you’ll want to check this out.

2. Complicators

I’ve been writing quite a bit in July. PROJECT STRANGER, which I was just getting started with when I last wrote to you, is now an issue-and-a-half deep – halfway up the shins and rising. The second issue is till in first draft, and quite volatile, but the first issue has gone through three drafts so far – all of them on paper – and the shape of it seems solid, if not everything within it.

Of course, there’s a lot left to be done even on the scenes I’ve written. Issue 1 stands at around 40 pages (down from 50), which is flabby and needs to come down to a lean 25-30. I’d originally wanted to have each issue land at 24 pages (because being very thoroughly a Vertigo reader in my youth, comics for me are 24 pages long), but you don’t have to do that anymore. There’s still a lot of stuff in there that I needed to write to get where I was going, but that no one else necessarily needs to read in the final sum, so there’s work to be done.

The biggest thing I haven’t touched yet – that’s in the scenes I’ve already written and the scenes I’m yet to write – is the narration, which I’m leaving to be done once I have a basic draft of the whole book. I’ve bits of the narration written in my initial notes for the project from last year, but at the moment, I’m sticking to writing the actual scenes with characters interacting, because I first need to get the whole book at the right page count before I start writing the narration since that’ll determine the pace of the whole thing, pretty much.

Another reason I’m not writing the narration just yet is that it’s one of what I’ve come to call the complicators for the project. There’s a bunch of those on PROJECT STRANGER. Issue 1 has narration from a character that runs in parallel to the depicted story, and issues 3-6 have excerpts from in-universe books that have relevance to the happenings (I think that’s vague enough to not give anything away). Plus, every issue has multiple design interstitials that’ll deepen stuff and fill in certain expository gaps I’ve decided not to soil the actual dialogue with.

If I was editing someone else’s writing, I might have suggested to them that they write this stuff along with each issue – at least the narration – because clearly it’s intended to be integral to the story itself and not just garnish. But I’m not doing that because I’ve always had a complicator problem.

Complicators are essentially everything that’s not “this happens” and “this person says”. Non-linear storytelling, narration, formal stylings, meta-fiction elements, graphical overlays – any sort of intervention, so to speak.

At their best, complicators are additive – they either accentuate the emotional impact of the story, or make the world of the story feel deeper, which indirectly accentuates the emotional impact of the story. My (self-diagnosed) problem in my prior career as a writer was that complicators were always front-and-centre for me, to the detriment of the actual story. There was a lot of jiggery-pokery, but not enough honest storytelling.

The reason’s simple – I was always averse to delving too deep into my emotions in my writing, and complicators are a good way to avoid emotions, because they’re fun. Both to read and to write. Most of my favourite stories in any medium have some variety of complicators going on. But they can’t be the whole of the story, and at their worst, can render your writing hollow.

So, in this, my second attempt at a writing career, I’ve been peeling back the layers and not allowing myself to indulge in the complicators till I’m solid on the actual story, which is what happens to the characters and why that matters to both them and to me.

And it’s made me nervous, I’ll be honest. The short story I wrote a month or so ago – ‘Dragon Lady’ – is the first story I wrote (at least as an adult) without any complicators. A story about things that happen to one person, told in the order they happen. Writing it was a thrill, but it was terrifying to send out to my first readers, because it actually means a lot to me. (Thankfully the one person who’s responded so far loved it.)

But I enjoyed that thrill of reaching into myself and coming up with something that didn’t need adornment to be fully itself. As David Milch put it (I swear at some point there’ll be entire editions of this thing without a mention of Milch, but that time is not now) – writing is a matter of turning your personal fancy into a collective imagination. The fancy is what makes you want to write it, the imagination determines how well you communicate it.

I have no intention of giving up complicators – they’re a huge part of the thrill of writing for me, and will remain what excites me about a lot of my ideas – but they’re no longer coming first.

3. Recommended Reading

Writer Toni Morrison passed earlier this week. In her memories, here are five poems written by her – seemingly the only poems she ever published. They’re quite beautiful.

4. From the Commonplace Book

J. G. Ballard on the novel:

The essence of the traditional novel is in the formula ‘that’s what happened’. I believe that today it’s necessary to write in a more speculative way, to write a kind of ‘investigation novel’ which corresponds to the formula ‘this is what’s happening’ or ‘this is going to happen’. In an enterprise of this kind, the author doesn’t know in advance what he’s going to produce.

Filed under #writing.