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On Experimentation & Collaboration

As those of you who read my comics know, I don’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, I’m currently working on a book with Shelli Paroline called The Trouble Is. Trouble Is is different from much of what I’ve done before. Oh, thematically it’s similar—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 Amy’s Picture Stories. But structurally, it’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. There’s nothing experimental about it.

In other words, it’s a huge experiment…because I’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 net—to me, the real experiment of Panel One was just the simple act of doing a daily humor strip. That’s the part I wasn’t sure I could pull off. That’s the part I was trying to gain a better understanding of.

But there’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 they’ve read it. So it’s not enough to just play around with these traditional storytelling techniques; I have to actually succeed at them.

Now, I’m pretty confident I can do that. I’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 (I’ve since cut one of them out entirely); I kept the protagonist’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 haven’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 I’m still working on it).

I’m learning a lot from this project. I’m becoming a better writer. And sure, after this I’m still going to want to do some crazy non-linear experiment—but I’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 they’re talking about at least as often as you do.

Because, the thing is, while I’m sitting here pointing out the errors I’ve made in scripting this story, the bits that didn’t work or that went off in the wrong direction, I’m not telling you about problems I found. I’m telling you about problems Shelli found. And Shelli’s been great: she’s honest, she’s critical, and when she doesn’t like something, she lets me know. And sometimes I’m resistant. Sometimes what she’s telling me completely contradicts my own Great Idea. Sometimes I feel like she’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 that’s really the goal of collaboration after all—to make a really good book by taking the best parts of what each person has to offer. Not just by doing the part we’re good at, but by helping each other see when we’re not doing our own best work.

And that means always being honest.

And that means always listening to criticism given honestly.