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<   No. 3218   2012-03-11   >

Comic #3218

1 {photo of an ancient Egyptian stone with hieroglyphyic writing carved on it}
1 Caption: Writing together

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The project team
The Darths & Droids writing team.
Writing is a very easy thing to do. All you need is your brain and something to write with, be it a pencil and paper, or a computer. Writing something that people think is worth reading is another matter entirely.

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on writing, but there's a particular field of writing in which I have some experience and which may be interesting to some of you. I've written a lot of comic scripts. These are short pieces of comedic fiction, which often string together to make a more or less coherent story.

I've talked a bit before about how I wrote Irregular Webcomic! At first it was an irregular (ha!) process, but over the years I honed it into a routine. I have about a half hour train ride in to work every weekday morning (it used to be a 45 minute bus ride, until the new rail line opened in 2006), and I took a notepad and pen. That time was my thinking and writing time. I'd scrawl down comic ideas, usually fleshed out as complete scripts of dialogue. Hopefully by the end of the working week I'd have at least eight new scripts, which was the number of comics I'd typically photograph and assemble on the weekend - a week's worth plus an extra one to increase the buffer size. Some weeks I'd write more, some weeks I'd struggle and write fewer, letting the excess scripts from prior weeks take up the slack.

I maintained (and still have) an ideas file, into which went loose gag ideas and script snippets that didn't work with my current storyline. That's also where the many reader suggestions for strips went. Occasionally I'd trawl through the ideas file for inspiration and pull pieces out for use. Over the years I used many reader suggestions, but about 90% of them are still in the ideas file, so don't feel bad if I never got around to using yours[1].

Reviewing a strip.
And sometimes I'd set up on a Saturday morning to take photos for a batch of comics, and I wouldn't have my quota of eight new scripts ready. That triggered panic mode, when I'd write new stuff as quickly as possible. Throwaway gags, horrible puns, and ideas solicited from Internet chats with familiar acquaintances. But for the most part the writing of Irregular Webcomic! was a solitary affair: just me on the train or bus with my notebook.

Darths & Droids is very different. I write it with a group of friends, during one lunch break a week at work. Ideas often come at other times, in which case we record them on a shared document system - we use both a wiki and Google Docs. We discuss ideas over e-mail and in person, and record the outcomes. Then during the writing session we use a projector to display a document on the wall as we discuss further, argue, and write.

The arguing is an important part of the process. When you write something by yourself, there's no input from people who disagree with you. When you write in a group, you get the benefit of more ideas, and the benefit of people disagreeing. The disagreements help the end result because it means that no idea, no snippet of dialogue, can get into the final product without being scrutinised, challenged, and ultimately either justified or rejected. It's a check on consistency and continuity of story, characterisation, and style.

Discussion point
A difference of opinion.
There are some things that always come up the same way in our disagreements. I like to keep dialogue short and sharp. I write, and then I cut words out. I shorten sentences. I cut whole lines. Mr Shellshear, on the other hand, likes to expand dialogue. He writes, then he embellishes. He adds lines. He adds conversational exchanges. Sometimes he adds entire strips. This difference in approach creates a tension in how we handle things. But it's a good tension, in that we both have to have a good reason if we want the other person to listen. Many of our writing sessions involve head to head debate between me and Mr Shellshear on whether the dialogue needs to be shortened or lengthened.

Some of our arguments get a bit heated. But not often. This is usually the result of one of us having a very good reason for wanting to do something one way, and not being able to explain that reason well enough to convince the rest of the group. When this happens and we reach stalemate, the best thing to do is go off and do something else for a while, so we can cool down.

When we return, we either have a way to explain our reasons, or we realise that we don't really have a reason other than "I just want it that way". And we recognise that that in itself isn't enough. If the other person has a reason in terms of plotting or story or characterisation, that trumps it. We compromise. But it's not a compromise in the sense that neither of us gets what we want. It's a compromise in the sense that we all understand the other person's position and that there is a strong reason behind what we eventually agree to do.

Presenting the case
Calmly presenting a justification.
The details of the story and plot are of course up for discussion as well. We brainstorm ideas, we hash them out, we get excited about cool things, and we converge on something that we all like, more or less. With half a dozen people involved, there will always be differences of opinion, but we generally toss things around and build on them until something becomes compelling enough that we start to agree it's the best way forward.

This process of active tension, argument, justification, and compromise brings to my mind what it must be like to be in that other great example of a collaborative creative enterprise, the band. I think I have a better understanding now of how the Beatles (for example) managed to produce such innovative and influential music, and also of why they eventually split up. At some point the necessary compromises must have became too difficult as the band members started to make and defend their creative justifications more vigorously. Perhaps because they were all coming up with stuff that could be defended well. For the first time I think I really understand the oft-cited concept of "artistic differences".

Our comic writing group doesn't seem to be in any danger of breaking up any time soon, thankfully. We've discussed our writing process at this meta level and made interesting observations about what works for us and why it works. We need the creative tension in order to pull the best contributions out of everybody, and then identify from amongst all the ideas what really are the best ones, to snap them into place. This is the process: pulling and stretching our boundaries, then letting them snap back. As long as we don't pull past the breaking point, it works.

Writing the scripts isn't the end of the creative process. The next step is assembling the comics. In both cases, Irregular Webcomic! and Darths & Droids, this is a solitary affair, done by a single person at a computer using a graphics editor. Early on, the load of creating the Darths strips was shared around, but nowadays I pretty much do all of them. (That's not a problem - I like doing them.) While assembling the strips, creative decisions need to be made about what images to use and how to do the layout. Sometimes that drives tweaks to the dialogue, and sometimes I just think of changes that I think improve it. If I make changes like these at assembly, I discuss them with the co-writers to make sure nobody disapproves.

The argument
Reaching a compromise.
In fact we do a post-assembly read through of the completed comic strips, again in our group writing sessions, with the strip projected on the wall. This is the chance for proof-reading, and also for people to suggest any changes or (*cough*Mr Shellshear*cough*) additions to the dialogue. Often there are small tweaks - swapping one word for a synonym because it sounds better, or restructuring a line to make the grammar more conversational. Occasionally there is a change that requires a change to the layout, in order to fit in significant new dialogue. A few times we've actually inserted an entire new strip into the story at this stage of the writing, resulting in incrementing all of the strip numbers downstream by one (by the time we're reviewing assembled strips, we've written and possibly assembled up to a half dozen or so later strips already).

Lest I be seen to be criticising Mr Shellshear's approach to our writing, I've recognised over time that it is motivated by the desire to explore the characters and their motivations, and to make sure that at least some of that is revealed to the readers. He wants to know the state of mind of the characters and to make that apparent in the dialogue. My approach is usually to just assume that readers can figure that stuff out - I don't like to explain too much. Sometimes he pulls me forward and says, "The readers will have no idea what's going on here. We need to slow it down and make it clearer." And sometimes I pull him back and say, "This is too explicit. We're telling the readers what the characters are thinking, rather than letting it come through naturally." And this is where the justification and compromise comes in - sometimes we go one way, sometimes the other. But in each case, we now understand why we've made that decision.

Darths & Droids writing session
A less formal writing session. ;-)
Writing in a group is complicated. It's not "everyone tosses out ideas and you just stick the best ones together". It takes time, and disagreement, and argument, and justification, and patience. A single strip of Darths & Droids can take anywhere up to 4 or 5 hours of brainstorming and discussion, spread over two or three weeks, to finally come together into the single comic image you see published three times a week. The end product is what you see, and is something we're proud of, but it's the process of writing it and putting it together that has taught us about creativity and has really enriched us, the writers.

Many of you reading this are no doubt aspiring writers to some degree. Maybe you write fan-fics, participate in NaNoWriMo, or have your own webcomic. Maybe you just have a dream to write something one day when you find the time. Here's an idea: Assemble a group of friends and make some time together. You probably already do this for other reasons: to have parties, to play games, to eat lunch, just to hang out. Now dedicate that time to writing something as a group. It doesn't have to be too ambitious. Start with a single short story of some sort: a 30-second film script, a comic strip, a comedy sketch. Just do it together. Throw out ideas, record them, modify them, argue over them, justify them, compromise. Do this with friends you can trust not to get mad at one another. State up front that disagreement is okay, but anyone who raises their voice has to leave for 10 minutes. See what you come up with.

By the end of it, hopefully you'll have something worth producing, and an idea of how group writing might work for you.

[1] Here's a random snippet from the ideas file. I just opened the file and scrolled to a random location and this is the very first thing my eyes fell on:
Meeting Hitler's brain:
Wow, this is a jarring experience.
He's certainly in a glass by himself.

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My comics: Irregular Webcomic! | Darths & Droids | Eavesdropper | Planet of Hats | The Dinosaur Whiteboard | mezzacotta
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Last Modified: Sunday, 11 March 2012; 03:11:02 PST.
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