Writing Process Tour

My friend and sometimes tablemate Tyrell Cannon asked me to participate in “My Writing Process Blog Tour,” online tour of creators’ writing processes. Never one to turn down a survey (he promised I’d be entered to win $1,000,000), I accepted his challenge. Here we go!

1) What am I working on?

For the past eight years, the main thing I’ve been working on is Falling Rock National Park. It began its life as a comic strip and, as of January 2013, is an ongoing comic book series. In between issues of Falling Rock, I’ve been working on a new graphic novel. Progress on that is slow but I feel that on longer stories with characters I’m not familiar with, taking my time actually improves the resulting book. The longer I have to ruminate on an idea, inevitably the better it comes out.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It’s different in that I’m working in a paradigm that saw its peak in the 1950’s and is largely forgotten now. There aren’t a lot of people making funny talking animal comic books these days. I’m not sure why; I find it allows me to talk about whatever I want and the world my characters inhabit is almost endlessly malleable. As a writer, there isn’t much more you could ask for. As a reader, it strives to make you happy. Seems like a win-win.

In the 1950’s Falling Rock would have been one in a crowd competing at the newsstand and drug store. The work of Walt Kelly and Carl Barks are my signposts. They made great comics and I hope Falling Rock can be considered in the same tradition as those fine works. Falling Rock is a print comic in a digital world, a relic in both style and format. But fashion goes in cycles, so why not comics?

3) Why do I write what I do?

I grew up loving adventure, science fiction, and comedy stories. I love the excitement of different worlds, of weird-looking characters and bizarre plot developments. All that said, what I loved most was the humanity behind all that strangeness. I can talk about my own problems and issues through a creature who looks like a giant slug wearing a fedora. I find that exciting and magical.

I’ve never been interested in telling realistic stories about human characters. I guess I’d rather be drawing lizards or owls or zombies or spaceships. Autobiography is out as well. Since everything I write has me all over it anyway, why make myself a character in the story? It just seems too on the nose. Plus I’m not all that interesting to draw.

4) How does your writing process work?

j I am strange among cartoonists in that I am a writer first. There are many, many excellent artists out there. I am not one of those.

I write big ideas first, usually just a list of words or phrases. When I find a topic I like, I begin writing dialog. My earliest drafts look kind of like a screenplay. I sometimes accentuate my dialog with little doodles of a scene or facial expression that I don’t think I’ll remember later.

The writing process can take weeks, depending on the story. When I was doing the comic strip, I’d write until I had about 30 strip ideas. Then I’d reread all of them, revise the ones I thought had promise and discard the ones that seemed boring or derivative or just not salvageable.

Sometimes my revision process changed the strip completely. The kernel of an idea has a million different ways of being expressed. I was only looking for the funny way. I’d look at it from different angles, try different pacing, start it from different points in the story. When I had about 20 good strips, I’d start drawing them.

Now that I’m doing a book, this process has changed somewhat. For the longer stories, I’ll start with a topic. (So far this has been Uncanny Valley, Ghost Town, Alien Abduction, and Bigfoot.) From that Big Idea, I’ll go narrower. What do I want to say about this huge topic? There’s always something. I like to take on these topics that have well-worn precedents. It doesn’t worry me that many writers have dealt with these topics before me. I want to see what I can say about them that is different.

Like the comic strip, I start by writing dialog. I let my characters talk and see where it takes me. I’ll just write and write until I have finished a draft. Then I go back and see if I’ve covered what I wanted to cover. Usually it is lacking, so I’ll do a full rewrite. I add more jokes. The Simpsons taught me that no story can be funny enough, that there is always room for more jokes. I’m not trying to make Falling Rock as jam-packed as The Simpsons (a fool’s errand!), but at the same time I hate wasting even a single panel. Every single panel should be interesting.

Once I’ve rewritten, I draw it in very sketchy form. This helps me decide panel layout and pacing. Once I have the story in this form, I begin drawing the final pages.

Time to tag the next three contenders for “Writing Process Tour.” They are: Reid Psaltis, Katie Chase, and Hannah Blumenreich. I hope they can all participate!

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