a story about process

I had another blog post in mind for this week, but then this one came to me based on a post by Martin over at writeafirstnovel called “Ways of editing,” about all the different ways there are to go from a blank piece of paper to a finished work.

Thinking about that, I thought I would tell a story about process.

Most comic books are produced the same way. A script is written, then a series of artists take over. One pencils the issue, then another inks it, then another colors it, then another does the lettering. Sometimes the same person does more than one step, but each step is completed for all of the pages in the issue before the next step is begun.

Dave Sim, who wrote and co-drew and published the comic book Cerebus, would do each page from beginning to end. He would pencil and then ink (another artist, Gerhard, did the backgrounds) and then letter, and when that page was completely done, they would start to think about the next page.

In doing this, in working in this very idiosyncratic way, they created one of the great works of art of the 20th century. Cerebus is a 3,000 page graphic novel, published in monthly installments for over a quarter of a century.

Before Cerebus, a successful independent comic ran a handful of issues, usually on an irregular schedule. Early on, Sim announced that Cerebus would run 300 issues, on a regular monthly schedule, and tell one long story, ending with the death of the title character. Which is what he did. This would be a pretty incredible achievement even if it wasn’t all that good, and it was very good indeed (and at times it was great).

So, does this mean that everybody else is doing it wrong? Of course not. But the lesson I take from it is that he did something extraordinary, and it was probably a factor that he figured out a way of working that suited him. He said that the thought of penciling a whole 20 pages in a row, without doing anything else for variety, would have bored him to tears. It would be hard to imagine him persisting, bored to tears, for over 25 years.

I’ve been thinking about process because I have two ideas for the next story I’ll write, and the fact is that I’m not getting very far with either. I think it’s because I’m not posting them. As I talked about here, I need a deadline to wake me up. So, I think I’ll get the mystery stories edited as quickly as I can, so I can start posting again. With one of the stories I seem to be writing it from the ending first, so I guess if I decide to work on that one I’ll have to tell the story starting with the ending.

Well, that always worked for Orson Welles.

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4 Responses to a story about process

  1. Alexis says:

    I’ve always been interested in comics and their production. True, I’m a comic fan, but it’s mostly because I’m interested in collaboration. Comics and graphic novels seem to be the most collaborated on, as far as story-telling goes.

    I started a novel a few years ago that I realized would be best told as a graphic novel. Because I’m a cartoonist, I plan on illustrating it… but the appeal of the graphic novel really lies with the collaborative effort. I’d love to get other writers’ and artists’ perspectives because I think that way, the story will evolve into it’s finest state.

    However, you make a good point here… If I was only responsible for one aspect of its production, I think I’d be utterly bored. If I decided to just write it, or just letter it, or just color it… well I’d hardly call it mine. But I suppose I don’t want it to be solely mine.

    In one interview, Robert Kirkman (writer, creator, co producer of The Walking Dead) talks about how TWD has evolved beyond his own creation with the adaptation of the comic into the television series. He admits to being happy that TWD has a greater audience, but sad that he can no longer call it his.

    I guess that’s the catch. We want to share our work with the world, but it’s a personal process. And often a unique one, as you point out.

    My mantra for being a mom is “whatever works.” Because every family is different, it’s impossible to accurately judge parenting styles and personal decisions. The same is true for writing. Mr. Sim’s process is an example of how anything can work out successfully if it works for the individual.

    Good luck with your next stories.

    • When I decided to (re)focus on writing after years of being a musician, I was pretty fed up with collaboration. šŸ™‚

      I really wanted to be able to follow ideas that caught my attention without having to explain why (a question which I usually couldn’t answer even if I’d wanted to). So, I admire people who can work collaboratively, and I’m interested in various different processes, but I’m happy to be flying solo.

      “If I was only responsible for one aspect of its production, I think Iā€™d be utterly bored.” I think this is one reason I write the way I do. I hear about people taking years to write a first draft, or even an outline, and I know I couldn’t do that. I write a section, edit it, proof it, post it, then I’m on to the next. Much more variety.

      Your reference to Walking Dead makes me think of the movie Let the Right One In. The author of the book, John Lindqvist, wrote the screenplay for the movie, but still many things were changed when it was adapted. And I love the movie so much that I doubt if I will ever read the book. As a writer, I’d hate to that in that situation. šŸ™‚

  2. Alexis says:

    When I hesitate to watch a movie based on a book I enjoyed (or vice versa), it’s usually because I don’t want anything to mess with my perception of the story. If I love it, why would I want to risk ruining it?

    But then I realized, as a creative individual, that the two stories are not the same. Even if one is adapted from the other, it’s an entirely different experience because of the difference in medium. So even if the story stayed relatively the same, or the characters were perfectly cast and on point, the one can’t mirror the other.

    So then I figured, well, if I love the premise of something, the idea of something, I should at least give it a chance in another world. The world of film or text, depending on where I discovered it first. Besides, if you love a movie, the writer of the book deserves credit, and if you love the book, the people passionate enough to work together to adapt it for the big screen deserve credit too (even if the writer steps out of the process.)

    But then that’s probably just my natural curiosity for collaboration. It just seems to me that great things can be done when people work together, and if they decide to work together based on one writer’s work, that work is likely to be great.

    The odds don’t really play out like that, of course. But there’s always the possibility for greatness in either medium, and I can’t stand remaining ignorant of the “what if.”


    Musician! Wow. I didn’t know that. I come from a musically inclined family. What did you play? What did you do? What kind of music? šŸ™‚

    • In general, I agree. I had no trouble reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and seeing both movie versions, and with seeing Les Miz on both stage and screen (I might even consider reading the book if it wasn’t so darn long šŸ™‚ ). And I enjoyed Lord of the Rings on the screen and on the page (and I was not one of those people who complained about the differences).

      Let the Right One In is sort of a special case, just because of how it affected me. For another example, McCabe & Mrs. Miller (probably my favorite film) was based on a novel. which I’ve never wanted to read. (Of course, based on how Robert Altman worked, the movie probably doesn’t have much to do with the book anyway.)

      As for music, I was in a few bands, rock & roll and reggae. Many, many years ago. I played rhythm guitar, plus some flute and sax. My main asset to the bands was always my songwriting, though (so, I guess writing was key even then). By the way, I wrote a long post a couple of weeks ago about song lyrics and poetry: u-town.com/collins/?p=3928

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