Strange Animals 10jul2019: Ideals

Back after a few weeks’ break. Some weeks, there are so many things happening that one or two things have to fall by the wayside. This time, that was the newsletter, and also my workout routine, and I’m definitely more bummed about the latter, because I know you folks would understand.

Up top: Matt Ligeti (The Comic Book Yeti) featured this newsletter in his list of 9 Must-Read Comics Newsletters. I find myself in august company, and highly recommend subscribing to the other newsletters on the list, all of which are well worth reading. New readers arriving from the list – Hello! And Matt’s not kidding when he says this comes out irregularly. (See first paragraph.)

1. Weeknotes

Over the last few weeks that we missed out here, I lettered ~250 pages, which misses out on how intense some of those pages were, and how many hours a day I ended up working some days, but that’s the nature of this sort of numerical mapping of commercial art – you just hope it all averages out and other projects compensate. In contrast, this number includes wrapping up the ~350-page graphic novel I was working on for writer/artist/colourist Sloane Leong, and that was some of the most fun I’ve had lettering. I’ll be posting about that when it releases – you will want to check this one out.

Writing was another thing that had to take a backseat, but I did finish a second prose short story last week, called ‘Dragon Lady’. This is a strange one, as it’s weirdly personal, but might not read as such. It has no plot to speak of, so I have to hope my execution carries it through. This is one I wouldn’t dare to send out anywhere without having it go through my first readers.

I also wrote fifteen pages of a comic, and an 8,000-word history of the setup that the comic occurs in. This one (let’s called it, hmm, PROJECT STRANGER) is going to be my substitute for the novel I wanted to finish this year. It’s a six-issue sf series I’ve been thinking about for the last year or so, but certain things fell into place this month that made me realise I could actually write this now and have it work. It’s an ambitious one, and I’d be quite proud of it if my intended collaborators and I pull it off.

Books that came out over the last couple of weeks with my name in them:

June 19: Little Bird #4, from Image Comics.
June 26: Isola #8, from Image Comics, and Punks Not Dead: London Calling #5, the finale, from Black Crown.
July 3: The Long Con #10, the finale, from Oni Press.

Finally, as I write this, it was announced that Dark Horse will be doing a wider release of Grafity’s Wall, the graphic novel by Ram V and Anand RK that I hand-lettered last year, and this release will include an all-new sketchbook section from Anand. This comes out March 2020.

2. Inspiration

Sometimes a big change can sneak up on you. It happens bit by bit, and you think it’s several small changes, but then you look back at some point and you realise it was just one big one. I think I just went through one of those.

As I mentioned in a newsletter or two before this, I’ve been writing a lot of fiction in the last few months – more than I have in years. Some of it I put down to switching to writing longhand,* some of it to finally being clear on what I want to write about, and some of it to wanting to have fun while writing once again.

* People keep asking me about this, so – longhand just means writing with pen on paper. Originally, I believe it meant cursive or joined-up writing as opposed to writing with pen lifts, but when I first heard about it as a kid, it was longhand as opposed to shorthand, which was the stenographers’ method of symbolic writing that would later be typed up. Note: Just writing all of that made me feel old.

It was, of course, all of those things, but there was a recent catalyst that helped me see the bigger picture, and while I’ve mentioned him in my conversations with my friends, I don’t think it occurred to me to write about him till I came to realise that my pantheon of writing inspirations had an addition as I was on the threshold of turning 34.

For one thing – you don’t expect that. Your late teens and your early twenties tend to be the period when you’re soaking up inspiration like a sponge, and this is where your interests as a creator tend to ripen. But that’s not the case for everyone, and in mine, it was hampered by the fact that I had, sort of, known what reaction I wanted to elicit through my writing, and perhaps even large parts of what I wanted to write in the first place, but I hadn’t figured out how I wanted to write.

Over time, I’d cobbled together a process, but it never fully worked. I would imagine my way through a broad outline, and then start filling out bits, and do draft after draft. That last bit was great – the multiple drafts definitely made things better – but there was something about how I got to the first draft that always felt wrong.

In the last year, step by step, I’d tried to get back to the roots of what had originally brought me to writing, and to essentially start from scratch. I was in the process of this when I watched Deadwood, and something broke open. As I do every time I’m enamoured by a piece of creative work, I looked up interviews with David Milch, the creator and showrunner of the show. I devoured them – text, audio, video, his writers’ strike lectures, everything – over the period of a week or so.

Nothing he’s said was exactly unknown to me. I’m sure I’d heard all those things at one time or another, but that’s the thing about it being the right time to hear something – as Milch is fond of quoting from August Kekulé, visions come to prepared spirits.

So here’s a few things he’s said that I’ve taken to heart, paraphrased from various Milch interviews. Now, Milch is a far more spiritually oriented person than I am, so you might find that I’ve stripped some of that in my interpretation. Also, it’s not stated outright anywhere, but like a surprisingly large number of my favourite writers, there’s an element of the huckster to the way Milch talks about his work, how he repeats certain stories regardless of context, how he implies that he and the audience are putting one over the people who let him do this stuff. Thankfully, there’s the work to back the talk up.

“Any time spent thinking about writing is not writing.”

This was the most important lesson I took. Like a lot of writers, I would do a lot of writing in my head before I sat down to actually write. This was always the fun bit – coming up with the story, seeing how it fit together, even concocting conversations – but then as I sat down to write, that conception would become ephemeral, and it was frustrating work trying to recapture the spark I’d felt attracted to.

This solved that. I still dream up stories when I’m sitting around, but the moment I come up with a concept, I note that down and stop till I’m actually sitting with my notebook – then, everything that comes can be written down fresh rather than warmed over. I’ve stopped working out story shapes while I’m waiting to go off to sleep in bed – and especially conversations between characters. The short story I mentioned above came from a single image that I held on to for a day till I sat down and the story came pouring out. But you might notice that this doesn’t leave you much time to work out story mechanics. That leads us to …

“I do not outline.”

That’s Milch, as a tv writer and showrunner, saying he doesn’t outline his stories. Apart from being a rather brave thing to do as a tv writer (see above re: putting one over people), it’s also an act of faith. It’s scary not to outline, not to know where your story is going before you write it. And obviously, this is not meant to work for everyone. This is Milch talking about himself – but it works for me. Here’s why:

My characters speak to me when I let them talk. What I find a lot more difficult to do is figure what choices they’d make unless I actually put them in a situation and “run the simulation”, so to speak. And outlining is trying to predict those choices without having the characters speaking yet. I know there are writers who can do outlines and then throw them out if the characters choose to do something else. That’s not me.

And paradoxically, the act of faith of writing directly on the page and letting your characters move through you takes away the pressure of having to get it right. If you get it wrong, you can toss it out and start over. Nothing stops you. Outlining adds efficiency to this process, but I don’t need the kind of efficiency that stops me from writing. So out it went, and I found myself able to breathe.

“I do not outline.”

Yes, that’s repeated on purpose, because there’s a further implication here – a big one to do with structure. According to Milch, his only obligation is to the scene he is writing and its relationship with the scenes that came before. Not what will come in the future. Again, an act of faith. Occasionally, this does lead to failures like the bicycle/horse accident bit from Deadwood Season 2, but that’s at least partly because of the high wire act of writing a show as it’s being shot. I, on the other hand, not being a career writer, have the luxury of writing the whole thing and retracing my steps when something doesn’t work.

This also means I’ve stopped writing out of order. This is something I’m trying, not something I’m as yet bound to, but I’ve always struggled with writing connective tissue between existing scenes, and this lets me actually ruminate on why I don’t feel like writing a particular scene. A couple of days ago, I ended up throwing out an already-written scene and coming at it from scratch, because I realised the scene after that, which I’d been trying to write, had actually been messed up in the one before it. This is something that gets more and more difficult to see if you write out of order.

“Visions come to prepared spirits.”

Quoted from Kekulé and expanded on by Milch, this means a few different things to me. For one, there’s a method of writing that speaks to trying out different things – iterating, as the techbros put it – and testing each one and discarding the ones that “don’t work”. The act of faith in writing goes the other way. It speaks to doing the work without knowing if it’ll eventually succeed. Letting the work speak back to you and tell you if it’s working or not. It’s not as efficient, but that’s alright, not everything has to be.

This also means the work of writing needs a space created for it – maybe it’s an actual space, or maybe it’s a ritual, or, as it is for me, the act of turning everything else off and opening a notebook. The work of writing needs to be respected enough to be given its own circumstance, and it needs to be treated as important.

As I get older and try to move myself away from a constantly distracted life, I’ve attempted to give things the space and time they deserve. As someone who does creative work, I’ve attempted to respect creativity in others by not being distracted when experiencing those things – whether it’s a film, a book or an audio drama. So I’ve stopped watching things while I’m working, or looking at my phone while I’m watching something. I hadn’t quite realised it, but I needed to do the same for my own creativity.

There is an urgency to this, particularly if, like me, writing’s not your main activity for the day. If I’m trying to write, in my head or on my phone, whenever I’m free, like some people recommend, then it’s devalued to something that fills the time available. If, on the other hand, I’m only allowed to write in specific conditions, I must create those conditions, or I don’t get to do this. Which makes the time spent writing the only available outlet for this energy.

Now, none of this is to say that you can’t have good writing outside of this kind of process (that’s patently not the case), or even that I agree with Milch about everything. This is just what I personally took from his thoughts. It is entirely possible that you might go through the same interviews that I did and find an entirely different set of interesting principles. That is the nature of the thing – we are all of us trying to find organising principles to spend our time in the world, and some will speak to us more than others.

3. Recommendation

Given that David Milch was the focus of most of this newsletter, I’d like to recommend the Deadwood tv series and the concluding movie that came out this year. It might not change things for you quite as extensively as it did for me, but it is genuinely one of the best shows you will watch, with fabulous performances and writing ranging from very good to exquisite.

It is also a thorough repudiation of most currently accepted precepts about writing. It eschews three-act structure, it does not have traditional character arcs – or even story arcs, particularly – it has no hero’s journey, and yet it works, and it works far better than it would have if it had any of those. For a show that lasted only 36 episodes and change, it’s remarkable how many characters stay with you afterwards, but then, as Milch said in one of his interviews, Deadwood has no incidental characters, which is another precept I’ve tried to take, but more on that elsewhere.

4. From the Commonplace Book

Poet Les Murray, in a 2005 interview with The Paris Review:

We have three minds, I reckon, one of which is the body, while the other two are forms of mentation: daylight consciousness and dreaming consciousness. If one of these is absent from a work, it isn’t complete; and if one or two of them are suppressed, kept out of sight, then the whole thing — whatever it is you’ve created — is in bad faith. Thinking in a fusion of our three minds is how humans do naturally think, at any level above the trivial. The questions to ask of any creation are: What’s the dream dimension in this? How good is the forebrain thinking, but also how good is the dream here? Where’s the dance in it, and how good is that? How well integrated are all three; or if there is dissonance, is that productive? And, finally, what larger poem is this one in? Who or what does it honour? Who does it want to kill?

Filed under #writing.