It’s a funny thing, this creativity malarky. You can have an idea for a story locked up in your head for years, but when you try and get the words out of your head onto a sheet of paper they just refuse to make that journey from idea to script. It’s most disconcerting.
Even when the words will come, it is genuinely astonishing how much time the whole process takes. Not so long ago, I rather naively assumed that when you had a story in your head, writing was a lot like taking transcription – the words were in your head and you just wrote them down. That’s certainly how I remember it being when I used to write stories at school, and that’s certainly what it’s like for me to write this column. The words that get tapped into my computer are pretty much the words that I’d say if I was talking to you.
Somehow, writing the script for Sunset, the comics series I’m working on with the artist Paul Green* has been a very different experience – it’s certainly been a much slower one than I expected, I’m currently just finishing off issue three of four, which means I’m currently working at a rate of just under one issue per year.
Damn. That really is slow.
What’s worse is that at no time have I ever had writer’s block – so I can’t even claim to have been intellectually tormented like a proper writer should be. The whole story has been sitting, perfectly laid out in my head. Words, pictures, the lot. That’s not the problem. No, the problem is twofold.
Firstly, writing a story down fixes it, much like developing a photograph**. Once it’s written down, it’s there, unchanging, easy to refer back to and check. And that’s when the plot holes start showing up.
From a writing point of view, I have nothing against plot holes. Going back and closing them up can be quite a diverting exercise, well worth the “aw heck” moment you get when you realise that something you’ve just written that you’re really proud of utterly contradicts something you wrote twenty pages ago – which you can’t change because it’s a key plot point and it’s tied in to something else that happened twenty pages before that.
But every one of those “aw heck”*** moments leads you to a new train of thought that ultimately makes the story better. There’s real joy in the intellectual puzzle of plot hole fixing – a joy that if I’m honest I wish some of the real professional writers would allow themselves once in a while – but doing it properly can take one hell of a lot of time. After all, not only do you have to make changes to fix the plot hole, you also need to make sure that your fix doesn’t create even more plot holes or contradictions.
I don’t know whether other people find this sort of thing easy, but it’s totally alien to me. I am not, in the general way of things, what you might call a planner. But in the process of producing (almost) three issues of comics script – sixty six pages worth – I’ve produced many times more pages of notes about characters, their backgrounds, histories and all sorts of other petty, minor details that almost certainly that no reader will ever know, or ever need to know. But because I know, hopefully there’ll be fewer plot holes and contradictions in the future****.
But have you got any idea at all how much time this all takes? I certainly didn’t.
Again, this is perhaps something that other people don’t have a problem with. But for me, the sheer weight of cross referencing and compiling this stuff is massive. I mean, I’ve spent more time doing that than actually writing the thing!
Which brings me to the second problem.
I have a pretty fundamental problem with time. My basic problem is that there are only twenty four hours in a day, and you’re only allowed seven days in each week. I have no idea how real writers do it, I really don’t. I mean, a few weeks ago I told you about Terry Willey’s Verity Fair. Like me, Terry has a day job. Yet somehow he also manages to turn out his comics – that he both writes and draws, so he has a massive amount more work than my little script writing duties – regularly. And Terry’s not the only one – I could mention the Etherington Brothers, Andy Winter, hell, pretty much every comics creator I’ve ever featured in this column.
The more I work on my own comic the more respect I have for these people, and for anyone who manages to turn out a comic on a regular basis. I can only presume that they simply never sleep, because I find that for a lot of the time I just can’t manage to fit the comics writing into my day, amongst all the day job and family stuff. And while I’m the first to contradict the popularly held view that teachers only work between nine and three and get thirteen weeks holiday, I’d have to admit that my job does provide me with more opportunities to sit down and concentrate on writing than most regular jobs might. It’s true that a lot of work gets taken home of an evening, but even so.
Now I suppose you might be wondering why I’m telling you this. Well, firstly I guess I made so much of a fuss about Sunset when we first signed the contracts I’m beginning to feel a need to justify why you haven’t had a chance to actually read a copy yet. But it’s also a long winded way to share an insight that I’ve gained in the time I’ve been working on the Sunset project. Again, this might not be a revelation to anybody else, but it’s been kind of a surprise to me.
Writing requires discipline.
A lot of discipline.
It seems that what I have to do to get Sunset finished is make time. It turns out that as a writer you – or at least I – can’t just sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. Nor can I just sit down and write my magnum opus in sections whenever I have a couple of spare hours. This is annoying for a couple of reasons. For a start, I’m not the most disciplined of people. I’m also not the most organized of people, so while it’s very easy to tell yourself that you need to just sit down for an hour every day and write, however busy you are with other stuff, it’s a damn sight harder to actually balance everything so that you can spend that hour writing and still get the other stuff done.*****
I think I might be getting there. This is, after all, the second Fool column in a fortnight that has turned up more or less on time so who knows?
What I do know is that all those pro writers I’ve bad-mouthed over the years for their erratic work rate are getting an apology. It’s not that I’m not still irritated when comics don’t turn up when they should, and I still don’t think that you should release a limited series until the final issue is complete – issue one of Sunset was completed three years ago after all…
But you know what? This writing thing is a time consuming business and sometimes, life just gets in the way. The skill in writing is not, perhaps, the ability to be creative. That’s talent, or imagination, or whatever.****** No, it seems to me that the real skill is the managing the time to make sure that the ideas that are in your head make it onto the paper. Whether I like their work or not, every single comics creator who ever managed to do that gets my salute. Next time I use this column give a creator a hard time about punctuality, please feel free to call me on it.
See you in seven!
*Best known for his work on Arden Press’s Flash Gordon and Markosia’s Starship Troopers.
**One of those old fashioned photos that actually used film…
***Actually, the word is very rarely “heck”…
****What that future might actually be, or indeed whether there even is a future for Sunset beyond issue #4, is a topic for another time perhaps.
*****This failure to organize in the face of “a whole load of stuff that needs to be done” has been partly responsible for the erratic production of Fool over the last couple of years. Like I said, all this “stuff that needs to be done” has been a real pain in the arse.
******Not that I’m making any claim to have talent here you understand, that’s for other people to judge if and when Sunset ever hits the stands.