Strange Animals 15apr2019: Words Count

Another week of travel with very little work, which I’m happy about. When I travel, I feel like I have permission to not work, because being outside my home city = “vacation time”, even if that’s not really the case. I’ve always had a much healthier relationship with work and leisure when I’m travelling. On the other hand, “vacation time” also means eating anything you feel like and not exercising, so I guess you win some, you lose some.

In other news, Fleabag ended this week, and I reiterate my recommendation from last week – this was my favourite comedy tv show in a good while, and there were times when it was pretty much just a great drama. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s writing made me jealous, in the best possible way, where I need to investigate the things that I can bring to the table in terms of writing about people. So. Fucking. Good.

One

Writing comics is a bit trickier, format-wise, than almost any other medium of storytelling. Like screenplays, you’re writing a blueprint of what the thing will be rather than the thing itself (like prose), but you’re also giving a lot more input than in a screenplay on how the thing will be laid out visually. Further, you’re usually working based on a page budget (20/22/24 pages) that you can’t change or edit down to after the fact, unlike, say, a 22-minute sitcom where you can shoot long and shave off minutes in post-production.

You’re also going to be covering up actual space on a page with your words, so you have to strike a balance between underwriting, where you’re letting the art shine but giving the reader an unsatisfying read, and overwriting, where you might create a satisfying chunk of story but present the reader with too many walls of text.

Back when I first started writing comics, I tried to do a word density count with some of my favourite comics, and it was helpful in terms of how one can pace a comic, so I thought since I’m getting back to it, I’d do the same thing once again.

The inspiration came while I was reading Crowded #1 (Sebela/Stein/Brandt/Farrell/Rae), which is a dense reading experience in 24 pages without ever feeling cluttered or infodump-y like some older comics do. Here’s the math:

Crowded #1
No. of Pages: 24
Avg. Panels/Page: 6.7
Avg. Words/Panel: 14
Avg. Words/Page: 96
Highest Word Count: 151
Lowest Word Count: 28

It’s quick math, so the numbers are not precise. The average number of words per panel doesn’t tell you how many panels were silent, and the average words per panel is a straightforward division of total words by total panels rather than on a per-page basis, but I don’t think the numbers would change that much.

The lowest word count here is very much an outlier, with almost every other page hitting 100 or higher. This means that almost every page takes time to read. The word count is split between narrative captions and dialogue fairly evenly, which means characterisation and information go hand-in-hand throughout.

I thought I’d continue the exercise with some other comics I felt were dense, satisfying reads, and since the nine-grid is never far from one’s mind, I tried this with These Savage Shores #1 (Ram V/Kumar/Astone/myself) – also, I had the script document for this, so I didn’t actually have to count words. The results were a bit surprising:

These Savage Shores #1
No. of Pages: 28
Avg. Panels/Page: 6.7
Avg. Words/Panel: 10
Avg. Words/Page: 65
Highest Word Count: 161
Lowest Word Count: 0

For a book on a nine-grid, Ram’s been remarkably flexible with the panel count, ranging from 2 panels to 10 panels, ending up with the same panel density as Crowded #1, but spread over a larger range than that book’s range of 4-8. He’s also used silence a lot, with 6 pages that have a single-digit word count, of which 2 are entirely silent.

The book, though, still reads as dense, partly because it has something in common with Crowded – that’s the narrative captions, epistolary letters in this case – and partly because it has a slightly higher page count than most single issues. Also, a lot of the worldbuilding in this one is being done purely through the imagery, leaving both the captions and the dialogue to focus on characterisation and plot, which also means the silence does a lot of work.

Two

Out this week with my lettering were The Long Con #8, written by Dylan Meconis and Ben Coleman, drawn by E. A. Denich, coloured by Fred C. Stresing, edited by Robin Herrera, from Oni Press, and the second printing of Little Bird #1, written by Darcy van Poelgeest, drawn by Ian Bertram, coloured by Matt Hollingsworth, designed by Ben Didier, with a new cover by Tradd Moore, from Image Comics.

I’ve also started populating the new blog with actual material. Over time, there’ll be certain things only the blog will have (like articles I wrote for magazines and stuff, my current reading/viewing, and so on), and some stuff only the newsletter will have (like the weekly recommendation and the commonplace book entry), but everything I write here that’s “for the ages” will be reposted there at some point, though not immediately.

I’ve started that process with two pieces:

One is a short story called ‘A Photograph of You’ that I wrote last year, which – if you like this, it’s possible that you’ll like the other stories I’ll be coming out with in the near future.

The second piece is an essay called ‘Right Now Nothing Is Happening’, which I’m still rather proud of. It’s an essay about religion and storytelling that I wrote as an indirect conversation between Alan Moore and Nick Cave, with words pulled from various interviews they’ve given over the years. I wrote this right after I’d watched One More Time With Feeling, which is quite an intense experience, and made me look back at some things that have been important to me over the years.

Three

I do have a specific purpose for doing this word count thing beyond basic pacing stuff.

I’ve lettered and edited thousands of pages of comics at this point, so pacing isn’t as alien a concept to me as it was when I first started writing. On the other hand, I’m now so painfully aware of real estate on the page, that I’ll often try to minimise the number of words I’m putting on the page, occasionally to the detriment of the actual story. I’m trying to have a better relationship with both dialogue and captions, and this is a way to train myself in finding the balance between subtlety and exposition.

So I thought I’d continue the exercise with a bit of a throwback – Alan Moore’s single issue on Majestic, in which he essentially creates an entire universe to destroy it by the end, all in 24 pages (I could’ve sworn to you before I took a page count that this was something like 32 pages, based on how dense it reads). So here’s The Big Chill (Moore/D’Anda/Friend/Oliff/Olyoptics/Heisler), featuring Majestic at the end of the universe:

Wildstorm Spotlight: Majestic
No. of Pages: 24
Avg. Panels/Page: 3.2
Avg. Words/Panel: 38
Avg. Words/Page: 121
Highest Word Count: 205
Lowest Word Count: 8

This has the highest average of words per page in this current iteration of the exercise, and the highest average of words per panel by miles. On the other hand, the panel count per page is the absolute lowest. So what’s happening here?

Well, Moore’s not actually relying on the artist much. There’s a fuckton of story in this issue, but very little of it is told visually. Moore’s not only doing a ton of exposition through the captions, he’s also just telling you stuff that happens between panels that never gets depicted. There’s also occasional exposition through dialogue that wouldn’t happen in most books in 2019, where information is being conveyed not for the other characters’ benefit but solely for the reader’s. So while this is a pretty dense comic, in some ways it’s not true to the medium – the words and pictures aren’t always working together. And while I’m definitely stealing some tricks from this, it’s also a throwback in the sense of how freely it deals in exposition without even trying to be subtle. (To be clear, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all, just maybe not entirely useful for my purpose.) My biggest lesson from this one though is the trickery – it’s fine to convey information that never gets visually depicted if it lets you move on with the task at hand without wasting time and space.

The final book in this round is a good counterpoint to that, because it, again does a lot of worldbuilding in 24 pages, uses a lot of exposition, but does that while reading as much more modern. It’s another book I happened to have the script to, having worked on it – Maxwell’s Demons #2 (Camp/Astone/myself):

Maxwell’s Demons #2
No. of Pages: 24
Avg. Panels/Page: 4.5
Avg. Words/Panel: 22
Avg. Words/Page: 99
Highest Word Count: 215
Lowest Word Count: 19

The interesting thing about this is that the high word count (the highest being the very first page) not only helps with the worldbuilding, it’s also providing multiple story elements through the narrative captions, which play a very direct part in the story more than once.

Having set this up, the word count reduces as the need for exposition lessens, but the lowest word count is still an outlier, with almost every other page edging to a hundred or above. The other lower word counts are clustered around one sequence towards the end that actually takes place closest to realtime, where most of the words are dialogue, whereas most other scenes take up a lot more time and use captions to do the heavy lifting. Deniz uses the fact that every panel gutter can signify a vastly different amount of time to his advantage, stretching and squashing scenes as needed.

There’s obviously no one right way to do this, but since doing this exercise, I’ve been a lot more conscious about the different ways in which I can use more words more effectively while being aware of their relationship with the images, which was the point of the thing.

(Both the books of mine that I mentioned are concluding serialisation shortly, with Maxwell’s Demons #4 in shops April 24, and These Savage Shores #5 releasing sometime in May.)

Four

A few weeks ago, I recommended an app – Ulysses, which is my primary writing app (and what I’m writing this in). The other app I use frequently and have found genuinely useful is Day One. Once again, this is primarily a MacOS/iOS app, so if you’re on a different system, you might want to skip this one.

Day One is a journaling app, for which it’s pretty great (probably the best one around), but it can also be used for a lot of journal-adjacent activities, which is where it stands out for me.

I’ve been journaling for around eight years now, and used Diaro for a couple of years before I ported everything over to Day One. There’s my basic life journal, in which I maintain my diary of sorts as well as my lifelog – mainly text, but a few photos, and some audio entries, all of which it handles very well, and it maintains geotags, so I can track where I wrote what.

Then there’s my interstitial journal, which I’ve recommended here before, which is how I track my work on any given day. This is actually the most frequently used journal, because I open this up when I sit at my desk, and it stays open till I close up for the day. It’s not meant for posterity, but I like knowing how frequently I do this, because it’s a habit I’d like to maintain.

My morning pages and my commonplace book are also maintained in Day One. These could technically be maintained in Ulysses, but I like knowing when I did these, and Day One does that quite well, and also, they’re not actual writing, so I don’t want them cluttering up Ulysses, which is for expression rather than introspection.

And finally, since Day One added audio entries, there’s my Ideapad, which, along with the interstitial journal, is the most useful thing about Day One for me. I have an iOS shortcut mapped to creating a quick audio entry every time I have a new story idea. I’ve always found myself too lazy to actually write these down on my phone, so being able to ramble to myself about an idea, explore it, at a moment’s notice, is incredibly useful. I then write the good ones down when I’m at the computer, or I can just ignore them, and they’re still there. I’ve lost a lot of story ideas to sheer laziness, and this has helped me on that count.

The one complaint I had about Day One was its woeful selection of fonts, but in the latest version, they’ve added three fonts from Hoefler & Co. – Ideal Sans, Sentinel and Whitney – which make it a pleasure to use.

Like Ulysses, Day One is now a subscription-based app, and you can get it here.

Five

I’ll make an exception this time by quoting multiple people from my commonplace book talking about art that affects people.

First, from a 2018 article about the conspiracy surrounding Andrew W.K.’s identity, here’s Andrew W.K. talking about David Lynch:

He’s created an access point to a certain feeling that is very intangible, but everyone can relate to it one way or another, even if you don’t like it. Perhaps what we most get out of his work is his giving form to the formless, and giving shape and expression to the otherwise inaccessible but very present aspects of life that we don’t get a chance to really interact with that much. We know they’re there – it’s that most real fundamental type of horror, where we realize that we’re only experiencing a very small fraction of whatever really is going on.

And second, here’s Nick Cave, quoted by someone else (I forgot to source this one):

The lovely thing about the unsayable is that it is unsaid. As soon as it is said, it is sayable and loses all its mystery and ambiguity. Art exists so that the unsayable can be said without having to actually say it. We cloud it in secrecy and obfuscation. The mind is free to roam and all things can be imagined under the cover of darkness. How nice that is. The unsayable. How tired we are of having things explained to us. Having things said. How nice it is when people just shut the fuck up.

Filed under #writing and #art.