Strangeways – Behind the Scenes – 04
Right, so we’ve more or less established the cultural touchstones for STRANGEWAYS, last week for those of you just getting here. There’s a missing piece of that puzzle, but you’ll have to wait until Friday to get that piece of the pie.
All that I needed was an idea for a story. And, like most writers, I probably can’t tell you exactly where those come from. I mean, it’s a definite, palpable thing. There’s a moment when it just hits you. That’s the easy part, probably because I’ve long since given up on trying to exert control over that. I can control how much I work on a particular idea, but where it comes from or how it comes to me? Yeah, it’s like that proverbial handful of sand, easier to hold onto loosely. In fact, it’s harder for me to winnow out ideas and to keep things coherent, or at least reasonably close to that. It’s no longer “where do ideas come from” but “how do I shut these damn things off?”
Mostly because these things that are coming to me are esoteric, or un-commercial or belong to properties that are not mine to write. Still, I end up indulging some of those, writing story beats or plots that I understand will not ever come to pass. But sometimes they need to be exorcised before I can move on. So I’ve got a menagerie on my hard drive (and backups) of hermetically-sealed glass jars filled with curiosities pickled in formaldehyde. Maybe one day they’ll be let out where they can squirm or flop their way to some semblance of Darwinian success. But for now, they line a dusty shelf.
Kind of unfair, but one has to be realistic and work on projects that can get done. And in truth, I’m probably doing this whole comics-on-a-shoestring wrong. If I had a lick of sense, I’d be doing shorter stories, projects of a much more manageable size instead of self-contained graphic novels. But then, doing single indie issues these days doesn’t seem particularly fruitful, either. Of course, Maxwells as a whole seem to revel in doing things the hard way (Hell, we sided with the Spanish in 1588, so: contrarian or stupid? You decide.)
But nooooo. I have to develop stories that run in the 100-120 page range. I’m a graphic novelist!
This is the part where I mash my palm to my forehead.
Back to it. The idea isn’t important. Well, it is, but it’s not anything that gets sweat over. The sweat comes into wrangling it into a form that makes sense, and in the case of comics, one that translates down to a sequence of pages. Remember, the page is an unbreakable unit, or container. You can change the size of your pages (but that means you’re either doing a digital comic or you’re going to be paying much higher printing bills for the non-standard format.) In terms of my process, that means writing the story out in a hybrid prose/notes/unreadable gibberish form.
Here’s the original, original notes for most of Part I of MURDER MOON:
Part I – continued
The Wolf, having crippled the stagecoach, starts its attack on the passengers, and is only driven off by a concerted effort between the passengers and Collins. During the fight, the beast is wounded with a silver knife. It appears impervious to Collins’ best efforts with his rifle.
Collins goes off to recover Webster. He finds that Web’s been knocked-out from his fall and has been bitten on his hand. Collins takes him back to the coach.
When he returns, he’s confronted by the wolf, who erupts from the remains of the wagon, having killed everyone inside and partially eaten them. Collins again tries to take him down with a shotgun shell at point blank range.
The wolf is merely knocked over and then lopes into the night.
Web recovers from his fall, and seems well enough to make it into Drytown to get help and fresh horses to move the wagon again. This is part of his regular run and he knows the territory as well as anyone. This much, at least, seems routine.
Collins broods about his failure to keep the passengers safe while Webster goes for help. Worry and guilt keep him up the rest of the night.
The next morning. Webster is long overdue to return. Collins is frazzled from fatigue and the night’s terrors. And now the wagon is being approached by a bunch of armed strangers. Collins sets up to defend the coach as best he can, one against many.
At the last moment, the party reveals itself to be from the town, sent in by Web, who’s apparently collapsed. The Sheriff and his men set to the grisly task of burying the dead, when Collins protests. They deserve a proper burial. The Sheriff relents.
They return to town, where Collins collapses after logging in his arrival at the express office. Hours later, he’s awakened by the Sheriff. Apparently Webster has taken a turn for the worse.
Collins and the Sheriff go over to the local Doctor’s office, where they see Webster strapped down to a bed, raving and drooling, apparently convinced that he’s the Wolf, and that he’s going to eat them all tonight.
Aw geez, did I really plot for a page of ‘brooding’? Put a bullet in my head now, please.
If you’ve already read the OGN, then you can see some similarities. Most of the structure of the plot is already there. A lot of the touches got changed around, some of the character relationships got edgier, more tense. Oh, and there’s almost no explicit dialogue, though the content of it is mapped out. That’s something that’s changed, since more and more, I’m writing the plot with dialogue and the directions behind it are all up in my head. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. I suppose as long as I can still get the script out on paper for the artists to read over, then that’s okay.
One thing that I try to do when I’m hammering out the story at this point is to break it into page-sized chunks. That’s the trickiest thing, really. Once you’ve written a story, whether it’s for a novel, movie or comic, it’s all pretty much the same at this level. Story is story. The trick is adapting it to the form that you’re delivering it in. I’m not going to pretend mastery of that. MURDER MOON is cramped in comparison to most of the other comics out there. Some of it story and some of it is just stuff that didn’t get explored fully or illuminated enough for it to stand on its own.
Learning what to balance on a page is a tricky thing. I’m actually looking at doing breakdowns for the third book once I’ve got the story ironed out. And by “breakdowns” I mean stick figures with blocks and shapes, not like a breakdown that you could hope to ink anything from. This just so I can see how things weigh on a page before I commit to putting something in script that really shouldn’t be there. The way I work, however, I bet I won’t have time to do that.
Once I’ve gotten what feels like a decent of page beats together, it’s time to script. Once you’ve got the beats together, scripting is fast. Very fast, even. With that in place (assuming I don’t deviate too much, which does happen,) I’m looking at five pages or more in a (short) work day. Just that getting there takes a good deal of work.
Here, I’ll put out the page beats for something a little more familiar. Let’s do the first part of THE THIRSTY.
The Thirsty Dead (title later truncated).
PART I – Drytown
1 Cedar Creek Inkeeper and husband fighting. Night, late. She’s cut him off and is berating him for being his own worst customer. He’s drunk, telling her he doesn’t have to take that from his wife, that she should be a good wife, give him what he wants. She says she’s a good wife and is giving him what he needs. Douses him with a bucket of water and boots him out the door. He reels, drops to the ground. Don’t come back ‘til you dry out, she warns.
2 He curses, wet and muddy, yelling uselessly at the door that’s been locked in his face. Behind him a shadow moves. He notices it. Who’s there? What do you want? You got a drink for one of the downtrodden?
3 His own wife cut him off. Got a drink? Hey, this isn’t funny. Come on out. A shadow rises up behind him and then falls upon him, consuming him.
4 Early next morning. Collins comes across Drytown. Semi-deserted, though the inn has a Vacancy? Sign in the window. He comes through at high noon or thereabouts, shadows straight up and down. Feels like he’s being watched but he can’t place it. Need establishing shot on water tower. Mirrors in bar and lobby broken. Windows are blacked out.
5 Strange exchange with the desk clerk (Harbaugh), and the offer that he’ll pay Collins two bits and more to stay the night. Free hooch (the townsfolk don’t drink no more) at the bar. He’d be made to feel right welcome. Collins swats at the flies in the air, but doesn’t get any. Harbaugh is unbothered by them. Collins wants a drink. Come to the right place. Whiskey aplenty in the bar. No, just water, thanks. Something really doesn’t feel right to him. He leaves, and behind him, Harbaugh just watches, slams his hand on the counter and then licks the fly off his fingers.
6 Collins sees an abandoned stage, with a canvas thrown over it, parked not far from the hotel. Odd. On the way out of town, Collins sees what he guesses is a widow, for she’s all dressed in black and in a veil, but for the life of him, he can’t figure out what she’s doing out there. She gestures towards him from a shadowed eave and he comes closer. When he gets in close, she hisses and leaps at him like an animal.
7 He only just barely gets out of the way in time. She’s shaking and twitching like a drunk and the light seems to bother her. He tries to calm her down, but instead she leaps at him again, and this time her teeth are bared, he can see them sharp and yellow under the flare of her veil. Collins rips the veil from her head. She slashes his arm with her long claws and snaps at him.
8 but with her veil removed, she quails in fear and runs to a door and hammers on it until it opens up. She darts inside. Behind the door, he can hear hushed voices whispering and more of the awful smell. He then notices that all the windows are boarded up or curtained or otherwise obstructed. He’s torn between trying to find out what’s eating her and just staying the hell away. Then he hears voices behind the door. He’s fresh, I tell you! We could take him for ourselves before the Master knew! Then there’s an argument that devolves into hissing. Collins stupidly asks if she’s okay. She tells him to come in and help her. “Get your friends to help you. I heard them inside.” “No. No friends here. Come on inside. I could use you. My friend the Deacon could, too.”
9 Collins just moves off without speaking. The vampires within curse and hiss at him and the door moves as if being pounded from within. Collins steps up the pace and gets out. Collins turns to get on his horse, reverse shot on the building across the street. Again, it’s shuttered. Collins gets looks, and we can see a shutter being snapped shut just out of his sight.
10 He’s being watched, but we don’t know by whom. There’s a sound of a struggle inside, and then the door bursts open. There’s a man on a tether. He’s haggard, thirsty, hungry and tired, but he’s still alive. He’s making a run for freedom, towards Collins. Collins is shocked, but does what he can, offers the guy a hand up, not noticing the tether. The man is desperate, and is weakly saying something over and over. Collins can’t hear it. The man eagerly takes Collins’ hand and tries to get a boost up to the horse. Collins finally figures out what he’s saying. The man is saying “run” over and over. Like he wants to get away. Collins doesn’t notice the tether until it’s too late. There’s a sudden jerk on the tether.
11 Collins and the man are unhorsed. Collins spills to the ground, wrenching his shoulder. The man starts screaming about being taken back in the shack and he won’t go, and he’s desperately clinging to Collins. The man is being PULLED inside. Collins sees the other veiled forms huddled in the shadow at the doorway. And the smell is just like before, only worse. They’re hissing and laughing and gleeful, talking about how they’ll get to drink tonight and they’re not going to share it with anyone else. Not even the Master. Collins is entangled in the poor sap and being pulled to the door. He gets his gun loose and some warning shots off. The vampires are unconcerned. Even when the warning shot passes and turns into a shot aimed right at one of them. The pulling slackens for a moment as the vampire is knocked back by the shot.
12 But then he gets up, in pain but trying to laugh it off. Collins sickly comments about déjà vu all over again. “Goddamn useless gun.” The vampires resume pulling and Collins figures that they don’t like light else they wouldn’t do any of this. He tries to extricate himself from the man on the rope, who seems only to be a pawn (as he isn’t bothered by the light and is just scared.) Collins and the man are nearly within the doorway before he gets half-free.
13 Collins and the bait pull back, and Collins thinks they’re safe. One of the vampires leaps at them, beginning to cook in the sunlight, raving about how they won’t let him get away, their thirst is too great. Collins drops and makes ready to throw the vampire further in the street and sunlight.
14 The bait weakly kicks free and makes for Collins’ horse. The vampire isn’t fooled by Collins’ attempt to throw him. Teeth are coming close to Collins’ neck, but he’s holding the creature off. Standoff. The vampire asks for help, that they’re so close.
15 The other vampires hesitate at jumping outside into the sunlight. Collins hammers and slams the vampire as best he can, not really hurting it any more than the sunlight is. Finally, the vampire can wait no longer, skin blackening and sloughing off his arms. The bait is being dragged back inside and the blackening vampire falls upon him, thirstily drinking from a bite in his neck.
16 The other vampires shriek at this and one of them leaps forward, in spite of the sun, to get his share. Collins hammers on him with the gun butt and grabs a chunk of wood from the ground and hits him again. As the vampire drinks, it heals. Collins notices but can’t believe it. He’s unable to save the guy, as he gets dragged inside once more and the door slams shut.
17 There are sounds inside as the vampires fall over one another to get a bite. Collins gets up, angry and horrified, determined to save the Bait. Collins shoulders into the door, knocking it off its hinges. The vampires scatter and scream. He opens fire, just to make himself feel better, more than anything. Collins hauls the Bait out as quick as he can, but he’s pretty much done for.
18 And worse yet, there’s more people, or bodies, hung up like sides of beef. He can’t save them alone and takes what he can get. One of them asks for a gun so that he can kill himself. Collins can only save himself and the bait, who’s been badly bitten.
19 Collins hauls him up on his horse and beats feet out of town, shocked and appalled by what he’s seen. According to the map he’s got, there’s a town called Cedar Creek that’s a short ride (but would make for a hell of a walk) away. He heads out for there, all possible speed. The guy keeps whispering “please kill me” over and over before he lapses into unconsciousness, blood caked on his throat. Collins says he’ll make it. Just hold on. I’m not going to kill you.
20 Collins gets into Cedar Creek right around noon, desperate to get this guy some help. Townsfolk offer help and ask questions later. They say that the doc’s in the bar, run him there. When asked where they came from, Collins says “Drytown” and the townsfolk exchange worried glances.
21 They rush him into the bar, cleared to a makeshift infirmary. Collins is badly shaken. Doc, who’s in there drinking, pronounces him dead. Townsfolk are asking what happened as the body begins to sit up.
22 The doctor pulls back, but too late. The newly-born vampire is ripping into the doctor’s neck.
I’ll tell you right now that part 1 went to 26 pages. And my original 4 chapters got shuffled around into 5. Some of this was letting scenes breathe a bit (or trying to; there’s still some that make me cringe more than a little when I look at them again.) Look at some of those page beats above. There’s some with plain too much. But still, I didn’t call for another page until I actually did the scripting and ended up in the three pages of script per page of art range.
That’s too much. I did a lot of that in MURDER MOON and knew that it wasn’t going to work again. Particularly if they were dialogue heavy. Then there’s packing too much action. One action to a panel. You can fudge dialogue if you have to, but if you try to illustrate two sets of actions, you better be a master or you’re just going to confuse the reader (or yourself while you’re at it.)
I’ll note that this process only works because this is a self-published project. Otherwise, I’d be looking at 22-page chunks and they better work come hell or high water. You can talk about three acts for your story, but the reality is that it’s six acts, with five major story turns coming at regular intervals, because if you’re not ending on a story turn, you may not be reeling in your readers for next month.
Oh, and one other major difference between THE THIRSTY and MURDER MOON was building in splash pages. In MURDER MOON, there ended up being one, but I’d written it differently and Luis changed the way it came out. I didn’t argue the point. It worked. When it comes to the artists, I’ve been very lucky in getting good work out of them. They change things around, but, frankly, I don’t worry about it too much, because those changes have always been in service of the story. Which is still what it’s all about.
Back Wednesday for beat to script comparison, and some sidetracking about lettering I think.