Strange Animals 30dec2020: Live in Hope

And here we are. Final edition of the year. I’ll be honest, I’ve been trying to write this one for a week now, and it ended up much longer than I’d intended. But since it’s the last one of the year, I hope you’ll indulge me.

Anyway, I wanted to do 52 newsletters this year, and fell well short of that. I hope you folks aren’t too disappointed. 52 for 52 next year? We live in hope.

I do love having this newsletter. It’s the closest thing I’ve got to my early days of the internet when I had a blog with a tiny but dedicated readership. I love how many people reach out with a reply after most editions, just to share their thoughts. Not everything is for mass consumption. Some stuff is just for you and me.

So I’m looking forward to keeping this going next year, and I hope you’ll come along. I might rejig the format – it’s good to rethink this stuff occasionally. Keep things fresh.

1. Notes

Quick health update: I’m doing much better now. My back and my heart rate are back to normal. I’m getting a lot of rest. My hip’s still janky, but my physiotherapist assures me I should be able to go running again in another week. Fingers crossed. I had a full-body checkup done the other day, and I’m currently waiting for the results on that.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working light since my last update, and Friday the 18th was my last working day of the year. I’m taking a proper break, and watching movies and reading a lot. The good stuff.

I was going to try and do a comprehensive work update here, but … there’s been too much of it. A bunch of my books came out since I last spoke with you. But also, there was a ton written about the books I worked on this year, and many of them ended up on various best-of lists, including Afterlift, Blue in Green, The Department of Truth, John Constantine: Hellblazer, Giga, Wynd, Coffin Bound, Lost Soldiers, Barbalien: Red Planet, A Map to the Sun and Home Sick Pilots. In fact, I might have missed a few. It’s been quite a year. I can never look on my work with much favour, but I can at least say I was lucky enough to work with some astoundingly talented people.

I did work far too much this year, though – 600 pages more than any other single year before this – but my current terrible health can testify that I gave it my all. I even managed to hand-letter another graphic novel. 2021 needs to be less about work, and more about rest. I had to give up a few amazing books that I’d agreed to, but it was a necessity, and I don’t regret putting my well-being first. Fortunately, my lovely collaborators were incredibly understanding, and continue to be so.

Some news though, to close out the year. once again put me on their list of the year’s Best Letterers, and this time I’m tied for the #1 spot with the amazing Clayton Cowles. It’s a great list to be on, and it came with a lovely write-up about each of our work. In other thrilling news, John Constantine: Hellblazer won Best Comic Book Series of 2020, and Blue in Green won Best Limited Series/OGN of 2020 at the IGN awards. In addition, Ram deservedly won Best Comic Book Writer of 2020.

I was once again nominated for the Broken Frontier Award for Best Letterer. Additionally, Ram was nominated for Best Writer, Anand and Dani were nominated for Best Artist, Brad Simpson for Best Colourist, Coffin Bound for Best Series, and The Department of Truth for Best New Series.

Writer/podcaster/tastemaker David Harper wrote about my work in his 2020 SKTCHD AWARDS roundup of his favourite creators of the year. Here’s how it begins:

I was reading the Expanded Edition of Grafity’s Wall, a rerelease of Ram V, Anand RK, and Aditya Bidikar’s excellent graphic novel that dropped this year, when I came across two pages from Bidikar explaining his hand lettering process for the series (which you can see part of above). It reveals both why and how he decided to go that route. It’s a fascinating breakdown of a letterer’s process, and honestly one of my favorite parts of an already very good comic. But it’s relevant to this award not just because it’s one that goes to Bidikar, but because of how it showcases the thought that goes into each and every one of his projects. Grafity’s Wall isn’t the exception, it’s the rule to his craft, even if not every comic Bidikar letters is done in that way.

And in 2021 news, after this year’s Legend of the Swamp Thing Halloween Spectacular and the upcoming Future State: Swamp Thing 2-issue miniseries, Ram V and Mike Perkins are launching a 10-issue Swamp Thing series that begins in March, and I’m thrilled to continue onto this series with Ram, Mike, and incoming colourist Mike Spicer. Even more thrilling – this series introduces a new version of Swampy. From the solicit:

Swamp Thing returns in a new 10-issue series that stars Levi Kamei as the next Guardian of the Green. Unable to control his transformation into the monstrous Swamp Thing, Levi is thrust into the harsh, unforgiving mystery of grisly murders committed by a supernatural desert legend. Levi must revisit past events in his homeland of India and face the deadly reality of a ravenous new villain in order to comprehend what he is truly, and horrifyingly, becoming. A new era of global action and horror blossoms here, and Swamp Thing will be at the root of it!

Look at that gorgeous cover from the two Mikes:

2. Organisation (Part 2)

I started this section a few times, but couldn’t make it work. Each time, it came out either too personal, or too functional and boring (or both).

But I’ve been talking to some people who have a more rough organisation to their work, and I decided it’d be useful for a few people to hear the issues I’ve faced and how I’m tackling them.

In my previous post, I described the various processes and bottlenecks that can make lettering a stressful job, and a large part of this is down to lettering having a flexible starting point – based on where everyone else on your team is – but a hard endpoint, which is the print deadline. Secondly, letterers are usually working on more books at once than any other member of the team (because we take less time per book, but also get paid a lot less). So, let’s just say we need all the organisation in our lives that we can get.

As I said at the end of the last post, I started this year with a single spreadsheet and a Trello board. The spreadsheet looked like this:

The first several columns are details of the book that get entered the moment I know the book is coming. The status column tells me my next step for each book, and the invoice number is so that I can cross-reference the book in my invoicing system. Some companies send me their vouchers to fill out, and for those, I create a dummy invoice. (This last bit has saved my ass once or twice when companies forgot to pay me and I wouldn’t have realised but for those dummy invoices.)

I’ve been using this system since I started freelancing five years ago, though the invoicing system was added last year – before that, I rendered PDF invoices, and the payments and exchange rates etc. were logged in this worksheet itself. It was a pain.

The Trello board I was using back then had seven columns. The first four, which I still use, look like this:

  1. This Session

  2. Today

  3. Soon

  4. Someday

These are the actual tasks in front of me. When I know a book is incoming, I plunk it in the Someday column, then when I assign it a due date, it moves to Soon, and then Today, and finally, at the beginning of each session, I move things from Today that I want to focus on into This Session. Any other tasks – revisions, rendering, style options and so on – are added where relevant.

The final three columns were ad-hoc project management. These contained the project names, and were titled Awaiting Action, Ongoing, and Future. The names here are self-explanatory. By October, though, I deleted those columns from my board.

This May, I’d just come out of the lockdown-induced slump of March and April, and I realised that I was doing a lot of pages over the next couple of months, and I had no way of knowing precisely how many pages I was working on in which month, and no way of keeping track of any particular book other than marking it in my worksheet as completed.

I was cribbing about this on Twitter, and like a godsend, fellow letterer Jim Campbell passed on his worksheet that tracked precisely that. His lettering sheet lets you keep track of exactly how many books and pages you’re doing each month, and you can get them off your desk as you finish them.

You can get my (slightly tweaked) version of Jim’s template here. I’ve populated a few of the columns so you know what each of them does.

With this, I now had an overview of each month, and I could know if I was doing either too many books, or simply too many pages. I knew that for the next couple of months, I didn’t have an option but to do too many pages, but I could use the more granular knowledge to plan out future months.

This is when I first tried to use a calendar to organise my projects. Because I knew I was overworked, I allotted myself approximately 15-20 pages per working day, and tried to move things around so everything landed a few days before its deadline.

This, though, was when I realised one of my bigger problems. If you’d asked me how many pages I could do per day, I would’ve answered you with 15-20. 24 on a good day.

Except, I’d been listening to Cal Newport’s podcast, Deep Questions, and more and more, I was coming to realise that was way too optimistic a number. Newport talks about how we’re wrong at estimating how long things take us, and how we think we’re more efficient than we are.

I decided to apply that to my work. First, most lettering styles I use are more complex than the standard digital style. So I couldn’t use that baseline as an estimate for every book. And secondly, that number assumes that I only letter on any given day, and that’s not how my workday goes (more on this in a bit).

Plus, not every hour of your workday is a good hour. You can’t estimate the same output for every working hour. Clearly, I was estimating wrong, and had been accepting far too many books, and then wondering why I was overworked.

The next thing to do was to count. For the next week, I counted how much time each page took me. And the reason I counted for seven days (which made for 150 pages) was that I wanted to find a genuine average that I could extrapolate from.

I found that a page could take me 15-20 minutes on average. Some would take less, and some would take more. But that was the average.

Next, for a month, I counted how many pages I was getting done per day. Not on average (which Jim’s worksheet could tell me), but on specific days.

What I found was that there were 20-page days that didn’t tire me out, but some 10-page or even zero-page days were tiring.

That’s when I realised that anything from a fifth to sometimes half of my day can be spent doing revisions, emails, stylesheets, and administrative tasks, none of which I’d included in my estimates. (Blue in Green took me four days of revision by itself, and I’d only planned for two of them, like an idiot.)

Revision’s one of the dirty secrets of digital lettering. Sure, it might take you two days to letter a book, but you might spend two more days revising it because the editor and writer rewrote big chunks, and you have to find those days somewhere.

Finally, I went back to Newport’s Deep Work book, and asked myself how many good hours per day I felt I had. I landed at four – two sessions of two hours’ worth of focussed, deep work.

So I knew that on average, I should be working on 12 pages a day, because after those four hours, the quality of my attention reduces drastically, and it takes me more time to do the same quality of work, which is further impeded by any revisions/miscellaneous tasks I might have. Overwork breeds overwork.

At this point, I’m gonna begin sounding like a Cal Newport commercial, because at this point I started time-block planning. I’ve linked to Newport’s site here, where he’s selling his book. But here’s the thing. You don’t need the book. You just need to watch that video. Time-block planning is an incredibly simple method of time management that allows you the flexibility of having consistently less-than-perfect workdays while getting stuff done.

The first thing I’d do every day was block two blocks of two hours of deep work every day – just lettering, no phones, no email, no music, no podcasts. Just me and the next bunch of pages.

Next, I made a rule for myself. I would aim for 12 pages a day. If I didn’t finish those in the allotted four hours, I’d work till I was done with 12. But if I finished the 12 before my four hours were up, I could go on till either the four hours were done, or 16 pages were lettered, whichever was earlier, and then I’d stop.

Minimum 3 pages an hour. Maximum 4.

The remaining hours of work would be allotted to everything else.

And now I came back to my calendar, and realised how badly I was overworking, because there was no way I could fit all the books into the time available at 12 pages a day. This time, I didn’t just schedule books, but I noted how many pages I was allotting myself every day. 

Till October, this was far too many, so I kept overworking. But now I’d first schedule 12 pages a day, and then I could strategise when I would do the rest of the work. So if I had too many pages, there would be no revisions or administrative work. And if I had lots of revisions, I’d tap out after 12 pages.

By November, I had things under control. So it was time to start planning for the future.

Here’s another thing I realised in this period that had been holding me back. So far, I was scheduling books when the writer/editor would email and tell me it was due. This gave them a lot of control over my time, and I needed to take that back. So I started emailing them and asking for the next bunch of deadlines, because, as noted in my previous post, those are set a few months in advance.

Once I had those, I could schedule my calendar a month in advance rather than just a week. Of course, this was tentative, and stuff might still need to be moved around, but I knew when each book needed to go to print, and I could bug people a week in advance to check when their book was coming in.

This was why, when I had my health scare on December 4, I had a complete reference of which books I’d scheduled in December, which of these had to go to print in December, and therefore which books I could push to January. It took me about an hour of emailing to get everything off my December plate that I could, and to schedule four days of downtime before I had to get back to work.

I’ve been on break since December 18th, and the only work I’ve done in that time is to populate the entirety of my 2021 (with estimates, of course) and realise thereby that I was already hitting the top limit of a healthy schedule. If I am to have a schedule with a lot of rest, I needed to cut down by a surprisingly large number. And that’s what I’ve been doing all week.

You’re going to see me on a lot fewer books next year, and even those books, hopefully, will be a lot smoother for me to work on.

Here’s my current set of tools. It might look like a lot, but if you’re working a ton, every bit of management saves you a little decision-making, and it adds up quickly.

  1. Trello board – this now has just the first four columns, and I use this to make sure I don’t forget any daily tasks.

  2. Lettering worksheet – the OG worksheet where I manage the next step for all my books.

  3. Page management – my monthly and annual overview of how many pages I’m doing.

  4. Timelines – this has the deadlines for the next few months, and I use this to populate my page management sheet and my calendar. This also has release dates so I don’t have to look up new releases every week.

  5. Calendar – I can look at this and know which book comes next, and how many pages I’m doing each day.

  6. Time-block planner – this is a paper notebook in which I block out each day, usually at the end of the previous workday.

Hope some of you get some use out of this.

3. Sundry

This week’s linkblogging:

  • My constant colleague Ram V. did a fantastic writing workshop for the online Thoughtbubble convention this year, and it’s a corker. I’ve heard Ram talk about most of these things over the years, but it’s great having them all together like this. Ram’s grounding in why certain things work the way they do is invaluable, and he’s got a good crowd asking well-informed questions. Have at it.

  • This was something I read last month that’s solidified some thoughts I’ve been having recently about how we aren’t systemically concerned with productivity, but lean on personal productivity. I’ve sung enough of Cal Newport’s praises in the previous section, so you know this is valuable.

For this month’s reading, you get two months’ reading, and since I’m back on Twitter, I’m gonna paste this from my reading thread (of which there will be a new one next year):

  • Shady Characters – Keith Houston: Incredibly well-researched and well-written history of punctuation and obscure characters in the Latin script. Recommended for nerds and non-nerds alike. Houston’s blog of the same name is a great companion to this.

  • The Magic of Terry Pratchett – Marc Burrows: A well-written biography, evenly divided between Pratchett’s life before and after he became a full-time writer. Nothing particularly surprising to be discovered here, but an enjoyable read.

  • Marvel Comics: The Untold Story – Sean Howe: Essential reading for comics fans. A picture of the industry as it grew and matured, and the terrible practices that got enshrined over the years. Incredibly well-researched, and could’ve been twice the length and I’d still have loved it.

  • Fantastic Four: Road Trip – Christopher Cantwell, Filipe Andrade & Chris O’Halloran: Slight but fun one-shot. Thoroughly worth it for the Filipe Andrade art – great sense of the grotesque, and a lovely facility with page design – with O’Halloran’s excellent colours.

  • I Pledge Allegiance to the Mask – Christopher Cantwell, Patric Reynolds, Lee Loughridge & Nate Piekos: Rather enjoyable outing of The Mask as political satire. This is the old-school ultraviolet version of the character, which I’ve always enjoyed as a device. The superhero as grand tragicomedy.

  • Steeple – John Allison, Sarah Stern & Jim Campbell: Allison’s facility with cartooning and dialogue make this a fun read, but it does feel there’s simultaneously too much and too little going on over the five issues. Might’ve been better served as an ongoing for pace.

  • Happydale: Devils in the Desert – Andrew Dabb, Seth Fisher, Laura Allred & Bob Lappan: As confounding a read now as it was when it first came out. Fisher’s art is frankly incredible – he was a legend in the making – but the story has lots of interesting details without actually becoming anything solid.

  • The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist – Adrian Tomine: Devoured this in one sitting. Frequently hilarious, with some excellent cartooning, and immaculate production design. I’m not usually a Tomine fan, but I was all-in on this one. Highly relatable for anyone making comics.

  • Cthulhu 2000 – Jim Turner (Editor): Fantastic anthology that modernises Lovecraftian horror and diversifies the kind of characters and stories that can be associated with it. I’d say more than half the stories are proper corkers, and the rest are at least enjoyable.

  • Rocket: The Blue River Score – Al Ewing, Adam Gorham, Michael Garland & Jeff Eckleberry: Space heist! Ewing and Gorham serve up Ocean’s 11 in space, but funnier, and use Cosmic Marvel in the best way possible. If Ewing’s Guardians of the Galaxy run is anything like this, I need to get on it stat.

4. Recommended Typeface

It’s an odd thing to recommend, since it’s not even a comic-book typeface, but Zilla Slab has been a part of my life this year to a ridiculous extent, and it bears remarking on.

So – I read a lot. Not just books: I read a lot of short stories, essays, articles. And I do most of my reading between my phone and my Kobo rather than in print (I feel the best reading device is the one that’s within reach). And I’ve always used software that allows me to customise which typeface I use for my reading. Till last year, my love was split between Tiempos Text and Whitney, but this year, I started using Zilla Slab in all my reader apps, and honestly, it’s an astonishingly good typeface for reading.

I don’t know what precisely it is about Zilla Slab, but for one thing, I find slab-serif fonts to be very handy when it comes to reading on screen. Other than that, it’s something about the clarity and differentiation of Zilla Slab’s letterforms, and the readable-yet-whimsical italics, that just make it a great font for fluid reading. It’s good-looking, but it also disappears, and it lets me take in the text I’m reading in a very transparent manner. With Zilla Slab, I read faster and with less attention to the typeface than ever.

If I had one complaint, it would be that the monoline quotation marks make opening quotes and closing quotes slightly too similar to one another, but that’s mainly an issue with the medium weight, which I only use on my Kobo. Everywhere else, I use the regular weight, and that doesn’t have the same issue.

The best thing is that Zilla Slab is free, open-source, and in continuous development. It’s made by Typotheque (the same people who make Fedra, Greta, Brenner, Typonine, and other great typefaces) for the Mozilla Project, and it’s based on their typeface Tesla Slab, which is near-identical to Zilla Slab, but has a few distracting elements that have been shaved off for Zilla Slab. To me, it feels like Zilla Slab is the perfected version of this already-excellent typeface.

You can download Zilla Slab from Google Fonts, and you can read a detailed article about its creation based on Tesla on the Mozilla blog.

5. From the Commonplace Book

I’ve run dry on the commonplace book. There’s a lot of stuff left, but it’s all either research material or personal inspiration – nothing I particularly feel like quoting here. I might actually shift into just jotting down interesting research material, but it’ll look a bit different from the current version of this section.

So let me close the book with two things I noted down as writing inspiration.

The first is paraphrased from a video by a channel that I later stopped watching because it started giving me pick-up-artisty vibes of manipulating people, but I feel this is interesting from a writing point of view:

People always think about what they want. People shout their desires out into the world and don’t pay attention to those of other people and still expect what they want to happen, when they’re not paying attention to what another person wants out of the situation.

So you gotta listen, because people will tell you what they want all the time.

And the second is a Tennessee Williams quote that I try to remember when I’m sitting down to write:

Don’t you think there is always something unspoken between two people?

I think these two things put together make for some good writing advice. Filed under #writing.

That’s me for 2020. See you folks on the other side.