On Experimentation & Collaboration
Submitted by Alexander Danner on June 10, 2009 - 20:47
As those of you who read my comics know, I donâ€™t tend to write very many traditional linear narratives. In larger works, I also tend to steer clear of identifiable central protagonists. I like non-linearity, I like fragmented storytelling (including linked short stories), and I like ensemble casts.
As many of you also know, Iâ€™m currently working on a book with Shelli Paroline called The Trouble Is. Trouble Is is different from much of what Iâ€™ve done before. Oh, thematically itâ€™s similarâ€”a precocious girl, a spectral companion/competitor, an overwhelmingly incompetent (though well-meaning) parent. A lot of the same stuff I played with in Portraits of Nervous Children and Amyâ€™s Picture Stories. But structurally, itâ€™s a whole other beast.
You see, The Trouble Is is a linear narrative that tells a single straightforward story revolving around a clear central protagonist. Thereâ€™s nothing experimental about it.
In other words, itâ€™s a huge experimentâ€¦because Iâ€™ve never done these things before.
I felt much the same way about Panel One. Sure, that strip had plenty of formal play, and metafictional goofiness, the sort of stuff that gets a comic branded as experimental. But for me, those traits were my safety netâ€”to me, the real experiment of Panel One was just the simple act of doing a daily humor strip. Thatâ€™s the part I wasnâ€™t sure I could pull off. Thatâ€™s the part I was trying to gain a better understanding of.
But thereâ€™s one big difference; unlike Panel One, I really truly care whether or not The Trouble Is turns out to be good. I want this to be a good, fun, rewarding book. I want people to be glad theyâ€™ve read it. So itâ€™s not enough to just play around with these traditional storytelling techniques; I have to actually succeed at them.
Now, Iâ€™m pretty confident I can do that. Iâ€™m pretty confident that I am doing that. But there have been some bumps along the way. My tendency toward ensemble casts gets me in trouble: I wrote in too many secondary characters (Iâ€™ve since cut one of them out entirely); I kept the protagonistâ€™s Mom at the foreground of the story well past the point where she should have faded into the background (some reorganization of scenes has mostly solved that); and I havenâ€™t kept my main character active enough in her own story, instead over-relying on the quirkiness of my supporting cast (this has improved, but Iâ€™m still working on it).
Iâ€™m learning a lot from this project. Iâ€™m becoming a better writer. And sure, after this Iâ€™m still going to want to do some crazy non-linear experimentâ€”but Iâ€™ll do it better for having spent some time honing my abilities in basic techniques.
But just as important as seeing the value of practicing basic craft is this: WRITERS: LISTEN TO YOUR ARTISTS. They may not be writers themselves, but they still know what theyâ€™re talking about at least as often as you do.
Because, the thing is, while Iâ€™m sitting here pointing out the errors Iâ€™ve made in scripting this story, the bits that didnâ€™t work or that went off in the wrong direction, Iâ€™m not telling you about problems I found. Iâ€™m telling you about problems Shelli found. And Shelliâ€™s been great: sheâ€™s honest, sheâ€™s critical, and when she doesnâ€™t like something, she lets me know. And sometimes Iâ€™m resistant. Sometimes what sheâ€™s telling me completely contradicts my own Great Idea. Sometimes I feel like sheâ€™s missed my point completely.
But then I go home and I mull over her comments. I sit with them a while. I think about what the consequences would be for the story if I took her suggestion, made a few changes. And usually I realize that the main consequence of taking her suggestion is that the story actually gets a little better. The characters get more interesting. The tone gets less glum. And then I start to realize that my original Great Idea was actually a Pretty Sucky Idea disguised as a Great Idea. And then I go back to my script and start revising, and improving, and reorganizing, and suddenly I have a much better book than I started with.
And thatâ€™s really the goal of collaboration after allâ€”to make a really good book by taking the best parts of what each person has to offer. Not just by doing the part weâ€™re good at, but by helping each other see when weâ€™re not doing our own best work.
And that means always being honest.
And that means always listening to criticism given honestly.