In the last article I said there are two general rules involved with writing, one being show up every day, and the other that writing is rewriting. A more personal rule that I adhere to is that I must always finish my work. From beginning to end, just finish the story, even if it never makes it passed the rough draft stage, and definitely finish before you get an artist involved. This can mean different things to different people. Perhaps you write a gag-a-day comic, finishing your work may mean having enough gags written for a months worth of posting. If you create a long-form story with no end in sight, finishing your work may simply mean completing story arcs and having fully written scripts for one or two of those while having an outline for the next few ready that cover the next hundred pages.
Me? I write long-form stories with definite endings that may go for 10 pages to 300 pages (or more), and in producing these stories to completion, I’ve learned that you should always complete your script before actually starting to publish it online. There are plenty of good reasons for this, but the three that stick out are to finish for yourself, finish for the artist you will eventually hire, and finish for the readers. I haven’t always lived by this credo, and we’re going to talk about that, but first, the reasons.
A script is a whole, it is not pieces. If you are working chapter by chapter and handing off what you feel are complete sections to your artist, you really aren’t. The beginning of your script isn’t complete until the end is complete, and the first person you’re cheating by publishing an unfinished story online is yourself. People just will not know how good of a writer you actually are. And if they don’t know that, it’s because you’ve cheated yourself out of a good script. You are not putting out your best work, but writing that is half-assed and incomplete, a first act that has no 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or 5th. You have no idea how this story is going to work and one of the most important aspects of a story is how its later parts interact with its earlier parts. Maybe you’re a better writer than me and you don’t have to understand what is happening in Act 3 to feel that you have every detail in Act 1. Somehow I doubt it.
What if you’ve started a storyline that has worked through Act 1 & 2, but by 3 you’ve forgotten about it because it no longer has a place, and by 4 you realize that the character or storyline is unneeded for the greater plot. But the first two acts have been drawn by an artist and published, now you have to either see that extraneous storyline through, or just drop it altogether, both of which may result in some seriously shitty storytelling. You may also find yourself in a later chapter and find that the perfect place for some details to make this a much stronger arc could go in chapter 2. But it’s too late. Already published. Think about novels, do people put those out chapter by chapter? Not generally, although there are cases. They don’t do this because it would be an awful idea. If it doesn’t make sense for a writer of novels, it shouldn’t make sense for a writer of graphic novels.
Finish your work because it will make you a better writer. Don’t cheat yourself from having a great story with great pacing and great characters. You have to figure out what finishing your work means, as I mentioned already there are many levels to completion, but once you do, stick to it because you don’t want to hand an artist something unfinished that will take hours of their life to complete. Saying hours is actually far from the truth. That’s one page.
If you are going to hire an artist to make your ideas into reality, do not waste their time, and do not waste your money. Respect both. It is pretty well-known that it is going to take an artist a much longer amount of time to draw a page from your script than it took you to think it and write it. So why would you give them something that is not part of the complete story? Why would you give them extraneous pages or panels to work on that may not matter in the larger scheme of things? If you are starting work on an unfinished script you don’t even know the final length. Why would an artist sign onto something that could be 50 pages or 300 pages? If the script ends up as the latter, not everyone can pull that off.
Art takes time. Like success, it isn’t created over night, in fact it will take you years to see one story to completion when making comics. From thinking it, writing it, rewriting it, getting it drawn, colored, and lettered, publishing it, all the way to selling it, this is a long and expensive production process you’ve taken on yourself. So why wouldn’t you take the time to write your script to completion before getting things in motion? The writing phase is a prime time to start saving money because it is going to cost you. Don’t worry about hiring somebody, worry about being able to pay them when you do.
So while the most important reasons to have a great script is for yourself and the artist as this is your endeavor and your names are on it, the next good reason is for the reader. Very simply, we are readers too, and we don’t like wasting our time on bullshit. You know how it feels when you’re reading something that is sloppy. You know that when you put something down that you did not enjoy that you feel like you’ve wasted a ton of time. And I’m not saying that just because somebody wrote the hell out of a script and finished it that it must be good, it could turn out terrible or sloppy anyway, but at least you know that when you have a script in your hands that you’re comfortable with, it wasn’t laziness that hurt the story. You can’t blame a half-assed process for your uneven story, and you’ll have to look elsewhere for reasons. The readers and critics who are ultimately going to judge your work count in all of this, not because of their opinions necessarily, but because you are putting a piece of art out there for consumption. Don’t waste anybody’s time.
Lets talk about my failures in this area. When I started Coffee Time and Across The Way I really didn’t know what I was doing. Of course I still don’t fully know, but back then it was all learning on the fly. The style I was writing Coffee Time in was as a series of episodic gag comics that took place in a café. Both Tobias (the artist) and I decided to start our comics career with something simple and close to home, rather than one of the grander ideas that we had. We came up with some loose ideas together and I just started writing short scripts that weren’t really connected. We both started this without any other aim than to make a fun comic. Over time though, stories and characters started to connect in different ways and some very basic story lines came about and brought us to a clear ending. It took us about a year to do the first volume and it was some fun learning that brought us to a greater understanding of the process. Volume 1 of Coffee Time was a bit of a mess, it was a largely improvised story that could have been so much cleaner if I had understood the writing process better. It still would have been a pretty simple comic based around relationships, but it would have connected in a much stronger way if I had focused on the whole and not the episodes.
For volume 2 I still didn’t understand that I needed a whole finished script before publishing online, but I was getting there. I at least understood that this time rather than improvising the entire story, I had to have a better understanding of every character and their individual storylines and how they would interact with each other throughout the entirety of the volume. I had an outline this time and knew the direction that I was heading, but even still I don’t think I actually knew the end game, so the improvements in my comic writing wasn’t fully improved yet. To further complicate everything, Tobias and I decided to do a second comic at the same time so we can explore something a bit darker. This was of course Across The Way, and while I had knowledge of where it should go through an outline and a wider grasp of the characters, I still didn’t know where it would end. I was again improvising ATW’s one story and CT’s multiple stories as I went. This made things complicated. I’m not going to lie, I think this was a fantastic way to push myself creatively. Although I better knew my story, I really had to work hard to keep things on track without going too far out-of-bounds. Even though ATW was newer, it was a bit easier to do this because I had one big story, but with CT I had to work extra hard as it had so many characters and at least 3 main stories going on at one time that would all converge at the end. I look back and I’m proud of that year in our comic career. Sure, nobody was paying attention, but Tobias and I really put ourselves in the trenches putting out 4 pages a week of two separate comics and doing a pretty damn good job of it at the end of the day.
Don’t let me pat myself on the back too hard though, because I would never want to do things this way again. It was still a disservice to the story, and it was a disservice to Tobias because he had no idea how many pages those comics would end up being. I would say they were both a modest size at the end, and I knew back then that I had to make sure I kept things tight and didn’t let them get out of control. I didn’t allow myself the time I needed to have at least a finished rough before we started publishing. This was mostly because I didn’t want too much space between the first volume and the second volume of CT online so we had to get cracking. But in reality, there wasn’t really any hurry, was there? We weren’t a popular comic at all. It’s not like there was a horde of people waiting for volume 2 of CT. If you aren’t well-known in the webcomics world, you have to remember that the person most anticipating your comics arrival is you. It’s important to do your work in a timely manner, but just because you need a few more months for a better script doesn’t mean you aren’t sticking to a schedule, you’re making sure your art is the best it will be. When I write a story to completion and work on it again and again, I get to a point where there is nothing I would go back and change. When I look at CT & ATW, I would change a lot, but I’m not going to because sometimes you just have to move on and let those early projects be what they are.
One of my big goals in writing future webcomics was to never again publish without a finished script. This mistake should have never been made again and I was on my way to resolving this issue, but then a new idea intervened. Tobias and I had taken a long break from creating webcomics. I was working on a script for something we considered our dream project as well as The Black Wall when Tobias came up with a new idea that would eventually become Tales of Hammerfist. He felt maybe we should do something else before getting into the big project. Something a little less serious. When he presented me with the idea I really got into it. I had been writing two very serious scripts heavy on the drama and needed a break. Hammerfist was episodic. Short exciting reads. Fun adventures. Unconnected. BUT I JUST CAN’T DO THAT!
A few scripts into Hammerfist a thread between the episodes began to form and I just had to go with it. That’s not the problem. It’s ok for ideas to change. The problem is that Tobias already started drawing what I thought would be separate episodes, I was writing other scripts and stories at the same time and not focusing all of my energy towards Hammerfist, and we had already set into motion when it was going to be online. The momentum was going and I would once again start publishing an unfinished story. So instead of just going with fate this time and improvising my way through the world of Teufeldorf, I busted my ass and started to outline the story in a more detailed way than I ever have before. I had to understand this story from beginning to end down to the details and mechanics of how it will all work. I had a few episodic stories that had to make sense in the bigger world of the story and needed to work with ideas that wouldn’t spring up until later. After I outlined the story I started writing out the full five acts so that it would be done before we got too far with pages.
This is not the way to write. There is a lot I would change about the first act if I could, but it’s too late because I didn’t listen to myself. Not only did I start publishing without a script, but I was giving myself way too many projects to work on at one time. That’s another rule to finishing your work. Working one project at a time and getting it done is where your focus should be. I’m not saying don’t work out ideas for other stories, hell if it is something shorter you can probably write the entire thing between drafts, but just focus on one thing at a time. As I write this, I’m giving myself a two-week break before finally putting the finishing touches on Hammerfist. I’ve got all 5 acts in the computer and now I can go over the entire thing and make sure it all works together. I wrote the rough for Act 5 over a year ago. Between creating websites, working on Ham-Fisted Tales & The Black Wall, and a few other stories for the printed versions of my current comics, I can finally get around to finishing Hammerfist, something that should have been done long ago, but due to me not following my own rules, isn’t.
Tales of Hammerfist will be my last story told in the episodic fashion it is told in. I don’t write that way. I write in chapters. I also write best with finished scripts, not when improvising along the way and wasting the artists time. If you aren’t writing complete storylines, I guarantee that you aren’t writing to the best of your abilities. If you aren’t finishing your novels or scripts from beginning to end, even if you don’t plan to do anything with them, you aren’t learning to write better. You are only learning to be scatterbrained and lazy. See your work through. Get the rough draft done and put it away. How do you know an idea is worth a damn if you don’t see it through? How do you expect to be a competent writer if you can’t finish anything? Most likely if you stop writing something, it’s because you’re at a block or it is too hard to finish. You’ve got to get passed these things. I’m sure there are times you simply think an idea is worthless, but the more you write I feel the more you trust in your ideas. The more you finish, the more you’ll know how to get by these blocks. See your ideas through. You have to know your weaknesses as a writer. You also have to know what you’re capable of. To be a writer, you must write. To be a storyteller, you must tell stories and all stories have endings.
To be successful at what you do, you must get to the end.