Popular phrases stay within the zeitgeist for a reason. There are simple truths within them, and meanings that one can easily arrive at without much effort. Everyone has heard that “writing is rewriting”, even people who don’t write could probably give you this advice. It’s a nice little package of knowledge that I believe promotes the greatest rule for your career as a writer. But what does rewriting your script entail? What exactly are you looking for in the 3rd draft? Does writing 5 drafts actually mean starting over from the beginning and writing everything all over again?
What I love about writing is that the process is fully open to interpretation. There is no one way about it. It isn’t a math problem on the chalkboard. There is no concise instruction manual that can tell you one way to set-up your story. The only constants for me are two easy rules:
1. Show up every day.
2. Writing is rewriting.
And I think that’s it. I’m sure there are folks out there who set up strict rules for themselves and they have a very sterile process that they follow to the “T” every single time. To each their own. For me writing is messy, and while all the steps are there, I may approach them differently from the last time. One thing that remains consistent for me is that my stories always start in a notebook.
When I say that, I do mean that I write the entire rough draft there. Since I write mostly comic scripts and blogs, I think this is a bit easier. But when I used to write short stories I would do it this way as well. Now you may ask “Doesn’t this take a lot longer?” Probably. I don’t think I would write a novel in this style, maybe not even short stories anymore, but for the projects that I work on it feels like a good fit for me. Typing is definitely a much faster process. It lets you get your thoughts out in a more streamlined fashion, and you don’t have to re-type every single word. Going with the notebook is tedious, and I may only do it because I’m stuck in my ways, but I don’t think that’s just it. I think I have some good reasons.
The first to me is that you don’t have to focus so much on structure. Panel descriptions and dialogue come faster to me just writing them in a notebook. I use screenwriting software to write my scripts in the computer, but that process seems more difficult while typing, making sure that the structure maintains. I like that a lot better for the rewrite where I focus more on what is happening than in my sloppy rough draft.
The more important reason is that it takes me away from the computer. Doing webcomics means a lot of time in front of computer screens. It gets old, and it’s because there are so many other things on top of script-writing that I have to get done while in front of a computer, sometimes I need a break. I really need a scenery change once in a while, even if it is just staring at a notebook in another room in my apartment. It helps.
Besides it just being my preferred style, I think that I really enjoy writing my second draft into the computer from the work I’ve done in my notebook. Yup, this all means that I actually have to write everything over again line by line. Some may think of that as a wasteful process, but I tend to think of it as a great way to edit my work. I can immediately write better dialogue, put in greater detail when describing panels or action, take out extraneous writing, and set a better tone for when my writing gets overly dramatic. I’ve also written so many notes between panels I often know what to do right away when it comes to adding details earlier on in the script, or even for when I have to switch scenes around. For me, it’s a much easier way to see the whole thing right off. But is it the best way to do it? I can only say that for me it is, but then habits are hard to break and this is how I have always done it. Maybe when I finally sit down to write a novel I’ll better understand the benefits of writing straight into the computer. For now, I’m notebook guy.
No matter how you do your rough draft, lets talk about what to do when that is complete. Most likely you aren’t on a deadline, you don’t have to finish by a certain date, so you want to put your work to the side and leave it alone for a bit. How long? Maybe a week, maybe two, maybe a month. You’ve been in this project for some time at this point and I’m guessing that you won’t be able to take much of a critical look at it just yet. That’s why you should just let it go and instead think about and do other things. Write a few articles for your blog, get some reading done, brainstorm some new ideas to explore when you finish the current script, or maybe now is a good time to do some maintenance on your website. Whatever you do, don’t stop working or using your time wisely. Writing and creating comics is a huge endeavor and you should never step away from your creativity. Every free moment away from your big project is a prime opportunity to start a new big project. It’s really important to always have something lined up.
For myself, i usually don’t step away for too long, just enough to help unleash my inner critic. I also like to keep moving because I’m pretty much always burning with ideas and have a project that I can’t wait to get to next. Now this is obviously coming from the POV of a writer. If you are the writer and artist on your work, it is obviously going to take longer to get to that end point, even if you are burning with ideas. I can’t imagine the discipline it takes to tackle a concept on your own. Speaking from my experience in creating comics, I would say that if you are the artist, it would be a good idea to maybe just pencil your work, or pencil & ink it, and hire other to do colors and lettering. Plenty of people do it all alone and do a fantastic job, but don’t feel that you have to do it alone. Don’t be a control freak. This goes for writers as well, but that is a later article that I will get to.
The next step after stepping away is of course picking it back up and doing a reading. I highly recommend doing this on a paper copy, not only to step away from the computer, but for making extensive notes. I say this because you don’t really want to get hung up on the changes just yet. You want to read from start to finish so that you can see the big picture. You don’t want to get stuck deleting and rewriting. The paper copy allows you to sit down with your red pen and find grammatical errors, make notes in the margin, fix small mistakes, and cross out extraneous material. I’m sure there are plenty of programs that help you do this sort of work on a computer screen, but I’m more comfortable with the physical editing. I like crossing something out and knowing that it isn’t permanently deleted just yet. It’s like I have to see what I’m doing before I commit, and since I’m doing this in a notebook first, I actually print out the second draft for my really detailed read-through. I feel like at that point I’m really beginning to hone in on what I need to do. I accept that you may think that my process is absurd, but I’m okay with it because I’m sure yours is as well.
For me my first critical look is coming from the first print-out, which if you’re paying attention is my second draft. I don’t focus too much on the details during the outline or the rough. I like to get it done and worry about all that later. As I’m blazing through that first draft all sorts of new possibilities come to me and I usually just go with instinct. Having the first draft as your real outline for what you want to do seems so helpful to me. Half the work is complete and I know what path I want to take. The basic structure for what I will end up with is in place. My characters aren’t complete, but I have a better understanding of who they are. I may not know every fissure in my world, but I have a good idea on how to get around. Story, plot, and themes? Probably a little flat at this point, but man there are some great ideas ready to break free from under the surface. All of these are reasons why I love to get the rough out-of-the-way. The drafts to come are where you get to build the walls and place the roof on this foundation and it is where the real fun in writing is.
My rough drafts are not pretty. It may especially be so because I write in long-hand. I’m not sure many people could even decipher what is happening in them because my handwriting is so awful. During the notebook read-through I’m going to do a bunch of writing in the margins, trying to find some of those holes early on. I start getting to know my story well and some of the biggest changes come instinctively as I write. I also take time to break the scenes down on index cards. This way I can see in a more concise way what is happening in the story. I like to find the importance of each scene and how they affect what comes next. If they don’t really do anything to affect what is happening next, I have to question whether it is even needed. It is crucial to break down each scene and figure out where they fit within the whole. It is also good to not only break down scenes, but figure out where your acts end and see how they work in the whole as well. Bringing each scene or act down to a few lines on a card will show you a lot of what you have, and a lot of what is missing. I definitely recommend doing this before your second draft because breaking these down will also show you where you can move things for better pacing in your story.
The second draft, the one which goes into the computer, is where I do a lot of smoothing out of chunky scenes. Typing it in helps me edit on the fly, but also makes me pay attention to how I word description in a way that will help the artist have a stronger picture in their head of what is happening. I get this sense of being more active within the scene now that I have to write it again. I feel that I’ve gotten more depth when it comes to atmosphere. My locations are better detailed. And since I know what my characters are doing at the end, I get a better idea of what they should or shouldn’t be doing in the beginning.
After it is all in there and I can print it out, I have a new set of details to pay attention to, the first of which is dialogue. The best way to work with your dialogue is to read the script out loud, another famous suggestion that people tell you to do because it works. I like to do this twice. The first time I read the entire script, and the second I read only the dialogue. When reading the entire script out loud it will help you find more awkward wording and mistakes. It doesn’t help so much with the flow of the work as a script with panel descriptions doesn’t have the same type of flow as an article or story. The greatest help of reading out loud will come to the dialogue, and that is why I read it again without all the action and description. Speaking your dialogue and acting it out will help you better understand how it is going to come off in other people’s heads. The pacing of the conversation will come out strong in the forefront, and you will more clearly see what is not working because it sounds too silly or dramatic. I love reading the dialogue out loud because when something really clicks, you feel a great sense of accomplishment. This technique is so helpful to me that I read everything aloud that I write, including these essays.
What you do at this point is really up to you. I go over my script again and again, really focusing in on what is missing and what I need to edit. Sometimes it’ll be a character’s motivations for doing something, or it is a plot hole that needs filling. This is when I really look at the details and figure out whether I need to research a particular aspect of the story because it obviously doesn’t sound like I know what I’m talking about. This is really what all those drafts are all about, getting to the fine details of the script and making sure that everything is in place. There are no mistakes anymore. The dialogue sounds great. All your description and pacing is smooth. The more you look over a script, and the less you do, the closer you are to being done. if you don’t bother putting all this work into your scripts, people will notice.
How do you know when you’re done? It is often said that when you leave it alone, and it leaves you alone. It really is as simple as that. How many drafts does that equal? As many as it needs, but not so many that you fall into an obsessive mode. If that happens, just like after the first draft, it is time to step away again. You don’t want to overwrite the thing. If you step away for another few weeks, maybe even a month, and you come back to it and you just don’t really find anything wrong, I think you’re in a good place.
But then again, with comics the editing process may go on still. You will always have that last reading of the script pages before you send your finished panels over to the letterer. Sometimes you’ll look at the artists work and see new places to cut dialogue, or you’ll look at their art and it will inspire you to add a new line. This is sometimes where I come up with my best stuff because I can now actually see my characters speaking the words. This is my last chance to clean up the script before it is final.
Out of all the tools you will use to write, I really feel that time is your greatest benefit, especially in webcomics. I got to a place with The Black Wall in 2013 where I felt I was ready to hire an artist. Michelle started work on it in 2014. In the beginning of 2015, I decided to give it another read. It was around 312 pages at that point. I hadn’t given it an in-depth read since 2013 so I had a lot of time away from it and was able to look at the story with a keener eye and cut a lot of heft from it. Knowing how she worked out panels also helped show me how I can combine and excise panels to make a much leaner story. For the first time I felt like I was a good critic of my work and had achieved a better, leaner script, getting it down to less than 300 actual comic pages. I plan to read it over again in 2016 to do the same as we will only be through the second chapter at most. Who knows what I will see then. Maybe nothing, and I’ll just leave it alone because it’s leaving me alone.