Pride in the Blank Page

Writers and artists talk about the fear of “the blank page”.
It is the anxiety of getting started. That sea of white perfection staring back at you waiting for you to fail. Before it is begun, the project is a perfect concept existing in the brain-o-sphere.
And every pixel or drop of brings the concept closer to reality… and potential imperfection.
The un-begun page cannot be flawed.
Every mark is a potential flaw.

That can be a pretty frightening prospect, especially if you are unsure of your ability to realize this projects potential. The cure is to train yourself to believe that getting it done is better than getting it perfect.
And, the more you get it done, the more you will trust your ability to get it right (not perfect, right).

Recently, the confidence I have gained from conquering the fear of the blank page has led me to its opposite, pride in creating the blank page.

Last week, my Rapid City Below Zero artist, Shawn Langley, submitted a completed page on which he had not drawn a single line. He did nothing but fill the entire printable area with blackness. He was happy to get his usual page rate for a page that likely could have been completed with about 4 mouse clicks. And I was happy to pay him to do it. He nailed it. That was exactly how I wrote the page.

Because that is what the story called for right then.

Nothing to see here, folks.

This is the actual page 3 from Rapid City: Below Zero #1

A page of blackness.

A less confident writer might reason that a reader is paying good money for 22 pages of writing, and a blank page is not delivering. A less confident artist might also worry that blank pages are not what readers are paying their money for.
What I know is that readers are not paying for every individual panel and word. They aren’t even paying for every individual page.
Readers are paying for 22 pages worth of story.
Handing over that three dollars is a way of saying “I trust you to tell me a story”.
And showing that blank page… that all black page… is my way of assuring that reader “I’ve got you. I know what I’m doing. I’m going to tell you a story.”

I am not trying to say that my confidence in that moment and that technique is fully earned, I am just saying that I feel it.

And, apparently, Shawn feels it as well. He cares about this project and this story, but when I told him draw a page by literally drawing nothing he happily obliged. And, not just for the easy page rate. He gets the power of the blank page.
It is similar, in the world of comedy, to the pause before the punch line. It takes real confidence to own that stage and let that set-up just float out there over everyone’s heads. And it is scary. Because if it doesn’t work then it’s just wasted time, or wasted page space.

Is it? We’ll see. But until then I am proud to have written it, proud to have it in my comic, and proud to have paid Shawn for a page on which he didn’t draw a damn thing.

The Below Zero page 20 breakdown.

This is the latest Below Zero page form artist Shawn Langley. And it is a big one.
Below Zero is a twelve issue revenge story. The forward movement of those twelve issues is powered by the pain of loss which happens in the first few pages.
This flashback page shows the two villains falling in love.
This is the start of what they had, that when taken away is the driving force behind the revenge. So this page has to work.

Up to this point, in flashback, we have seen that young Icicle has never felt a connection anyone in her life. Her own family is indifferent at best. On this page we see (I hope) her connections to the criminal underground take root.
So let’s take a look.
Page 20Panel 1. Here Icicle physically enters the criminal under-world. Shawn initially drew the wall at a 90 degree angle. I suggested slanting it slightly. I think it has made a big difference. The situation seems unstable, but also draws her forward into it.
Panel 2. Part of the script for this panel reads “Piledriver is smiling at her and reaching for the bottle”. I saw it as an implied romantic connection. Shawn drew her facing us with her back to him. This makes her still feel isolated and his gesture is much more proactive. In my vision of it, it was a shared bond. In Shawn’s final product it is him intentionally drawing her out. He is taking action and giving attention that no one had ever given her.
Panel 3. This was just intended to show her having fun with her friends. I think it does that.
And panel 4. The kiss.

Will Eisner Week workshop today

Today, find writer, Josh Dahl (Rapid City: Below Zero), teaching local kids how to write comics, as part of a week dedicated to comics visionary Will Eisner.
Million Year Picnic and The Cambridge Public Library host a series of workshops teaching young artists and writers what it takes to make comics.  The workshops run today, Saturday March 8th 2014, in the downstairs space at the Cambridge Public Library.
Josh Dahl has been invited to instruct on character generation and story elements.  By guiding this workshop, Josh hopes to show kids how fun it is to create comics while giving them real-world skills for storytelling.
The workshops start at 12:30pm and will be followed by signings at Million Year Picnic from 3pm-6pm with local pros and comic creator Gregory Benton. If you know kids that  love to write and draw stories, bring them over to join Josh and everyone, at the Cambridge Public Library, today!  

Networking vs Not Working

I was at a con a few months ago talking to an artist who I had met a few times before. He had a booth and I was just walking the floor, and we were sharing our impressions of the show in general. We both agreed that the turn-out was not very good.
He asked me about who else was on the show floor. I shrugged and said that I was not too impressed. A few nice looking projects, but mostly I was just going around talking to the other creators so that they would know who I am.
And then there was that awkward pause…
“Like we are both doing right now.”
And we laughed. We are both relentless self-promoters. We were networking.

Everyone who knows how the comics business works will tell you that it is who you know as much as it is what you know. The exact ratio between them varies from person to person, but you need both.

Someone who does not network is not going to work.

Beware, however, of the allure of putting the cart before the horse.

Working, on your own, in seclusion, and for no pay, must come before networking.
This work that you do toward perfecting your craft must come before “getting your name out there”.

The reason that this is important to point out, as opposed to being completely obvious, is that seductive allure I mentioned above. It goes like this…
I know that networking is essential to a career in comics. To move forward, I must network. Networking effectively takes time and energy. This time and energy I am expending is going toward my career in comics. I am good it, as evidenced by my many contacts and associates in the comics field.

Can you tell how good that feels?
I get the energy of meeting new people and finding what they are all about. I get attention and praise. I get contacts! And it feels, because everyone has told me how important it is to network, like I am advancing toward my dream!
Advancing without the arduous labor of actually making the stuff. Without the emotional risk of putting myself behind a creative endeavor. Without the loss of hours and hours at the drawing (or writing) board. Without the Without the risk of wasting all of that on a project that goes nowhere.

All of the benefits and none of costs!

Except that if you don’t do all of the real, hard, work, when your networking finally pays off and the editor of your dreams shakes your hand, looks you in the eye, and asks “what have you got for me?”…

all you will have is “a bunch of great ideas” or “some pin-ups and commissions”…

or, as it is known in the comics industry: “nothing”.

Absolutely get good at networking, but not if it means not working.

-Josh Dahl

Writing dialogue, how I do it: A numbered list

Writing good dialogue is hard.
In comics, that is the writing flaw which shows up the fastest.
If you know nothing about character development or plotting, those will take a few scenes to surface. Dialogue, however, can sink you in a single panel.
I think that I am pretty good at doing dialogue… though I do fall into the same traps again and again. But this is true of even the best writers. Every person has only one view of the world, despite how well they may take on other views. In some way or another, all of my writing is going to sound like me.
But, to work as hard as I can to avoid repeating myself, I have gleaned a few tactics from the reading and experimenting I have done. Here’s a bit of it.
These are some guidelines I follow when I am writing dialogue. This is just my approach, there are many others that work very well for lots of pother people.
Usually I start by vomiting out huge passages of rambling, repetitive, chatter that generally gets out what is going to be said. Then I run it through these filters.

1. Show character.
This is not just words on a page. this is a person opening their mouth and letting others know their thoughts. This means something. Basically, I ask “how would THIS person say this?” Is she shy? Academic? Bold? Stupid? How can those qualities surface in word choice? In speech pattern? This is the first level, where it starts to look like that person in general.
If it isn’t quite coming through, I have another trick or two.
1a. Base it on people you know. Or, failing that, actors.
When it comes to how they talk, I base almost all of my characters on people I know. Or if I can’t think of someone I know, I think of an actor I know of who could pull it off. Once I have that character model in mind, I take the raw dialogue I wrote above and strain it through this person’s mouth. How does it sound with him, or her, saying it? This will change a lot of the word choices and cadences. With flat. stock, or background characters, this is often enough.
1b. Don’t show off.
This is more a warning against bad dialogue than a rule for good. Don’t try to sound like a scientist or a cop or whatever. Sound like a person, and then add some cop words on top of that. Don’t try to write great dialogue. Write natural dialogue in great scenes and it will seem great.

2. Show background.
Realistically, you can’t use this one every time. There are some situations where an individual’s background simply does not surface in their speech. However, if you dig you will get more mileage out of this filter than you think. Essentially, you ask yourself how this character’s unique background would affect what they are saying. At the shallowest level, this is accents and regionalisms. What does he talk like? Deeper than that, look at the position life has given your character. Someone who has worked in restaurants their whole life is going to ask for help in a different way than someone who has only even been waited on. Someone who is ashamed of their ignorance is going to speak differently than someone who is fundamentally curious.
This is not a mandate “You MUST show background”, but rather an opportunity “how can this background come through in what is being said right now?”.

3. Show perspective.
Ok, this one is more like a mandate. Especially when page space is limited. If you are not showing some unique perspective, then shut your mouth and let someone else talk.
Perspective is related to background, but it is more specific. Background never changes. It is who you are. Perspective, on the other hand, changes from moment to moment. It is how the world looks to you right now. When you are relaxed and comfortable, you have a very different perspective from when you are terrified. When this guy says this thing at this moment, what does it mean to him?
“What do you want for dinner?” can mean just that, but it can also mean “I Still love you and your well being is important to me.” That depends on the character’s perspective at that moment. For this filter to work you have to really get inside your character’s head.
This is where great misunderstandings and unanswered questions can come from. A character who is feeling shaken from a previous interaction may take a simple question as a flagrant challenge to his authority. Or a character who is giddy on the high of a new relationship may completely gloss over relevant details.
This is similar to showing motivation. Every writer has a slightly different approach to finding this level.
Again, not every line of dialogue is going to reveal this level of depth. But if it isn’t, that is a good red flag. If you are not showing perspective, do you need this line?

4. Less is more.
This is a tough one for me. I like my dialogue. I like the way my characters talk. A tend to want them to just talk and talk. But space is limited, and a little goes a long way. People in comics do not talk like people in real life. Don’t try to make them.
One stammer in an acre of word balloons is enough to let the reader know that this person is insecure right now. One dropped ‘r’ is enough to show a Boston accent. Let it go. Trust your reader.

And to demonstrate that less really is more…

-Josh Dahl