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.

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.

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

No respect for the format

I write my scripts for Rapid City and other comics projects using a free script formatting software product called Celtx.It is the free version of the more popular (and more expensive) Final Draft. Celtx handles all of the formatting stuff involved in making a comics script look like a comics script. Side note: If you are one of those writers who scoffs at formatting software and says "I just do it myself in Word"... you haven't tried it. The fact is it save a lot of time and energy. Establishing clear, consistent, and readable script format is not a part of the creative process. It is a tool. But that's not my point here. My point is that I have been raving about Celtx for years. After a very small learning curve, your scripts just cook. It is very intuitive. I bought the pro-pack that has a few extra writing tool and have subscribed to its cloud service in the past. You might be able to detect that I am about to bitch about this great product. You are right. I am.

Ok, Celtx offers a variety of formats. Movie scripts, stage plays, audio-visual, comics, and radio. Maybe some others. Each format has function that generates a "typeset" which is a complete PDF version of your script. It includes your information on a formatted title page. It is a nice, professional-looking, document.

Every format, that is, except comics. Every other format takes the script as it appears in the composition frame, and pretties it up for the PDF by adding page numbers and such. I know almost nothing about coding, but it would seem that taking something from one format and outputting it in a nearly identical format would be a fairly simple. I know that this must be fairly simple because Celtx does it for (almost) all of their formats.

When you use the typeset function in the comics format it outputs some absurd spreadsheet. It is laughable. Or, if you actually used it, humiliating. I feel bad just thinking about the comics writer who just blindly trusts that the coders at Celtx know what they are doing and submits a great script to a publisher in that silly looking format.

Here's a recent script I wrote in Celtx for which I generated a PDF by printing straight form the script. And here is the same script in their silly typeset format.

I should also add that it is an industry near-standard to include page breaks in a comics script at the end of every comic page. Celtx does not allow you to add those breaks.

I have been bringing this issue up with them for, literally, years. I know that sounds crazy, but I have been polite about it. Just asking if those features might be included some day.

They have a support forum when their staff answers the questions that users have. I posted a question about exactly this problem earlier this month. Most other questions posted around then have view counts as high as the mid-30s. My post hit more than a thousand views. It stops counting at a thousand. I have more views than any post I have seen in my cursory scrolling of their forums. And no answer. Still, no answer at all. I searched the post tags for similar questions. I found some.. and still I found no answers.

So... what the hell? It is hard for me to be objective and take this as anything other than an open disrespect for this medium I love so much. I love Celtx, and I love comics, but Celtx seems to hate comics. So, can I still love Cletx?

Ok, so now I have filled a whole blog post bitching about the shortcomings of a free program. That is weak.

So, here is the larger view. Maybe this is a symptom of a wider cultural disrespect for comics... and the writing if comics. Early in my quest to get Celtx to adopt a more universal format, I was assured by one of their people that "there is no standard for comics". Just because there is no SPECIFIC industry standard does not mean that anything goes. I doubt that anyone would take such a cavalier attitude toward a more respected medium.

This is part of a bigger problem.

Josh Dahl

I hate love revisions.

A look at my writing process. However it comes, I get a general idea of what I want to happen in a comic. Characters meet. Characters fight. Ice blankets the city. Whatever it may be. Then I tease and work those elements together into a story. In the course of doing this, I write and re-write each scene several times. Once they all work together, and do what each needs to do in order to help the story do what it needs to do... the comic is done. The Normally, it sits until it goes to the artist. When the pages come back from the artist, I go through the script again and make sure that it still fits the art. Some parts will need to be expanded, while others can be cut away. Then maybe some touch-ups from the letterer. And that's it.

My current project, Rapid City:Below Zero is turning out to be a bit different. For starters, it was conceived initially as one, single, story. Each plot point, and issue, had its place in the grand scheme. This is restrictive, but it also allows me to have a much stronger handle on the proper function of each story element. What used to be "That is cool! Let's see where it goes!" became "This moves the story forward, but is it doing so in the most compelling way?". Another change in this project is my very long lead time. Extra time, and a focus on plot functionality have really changed the revision process for me. Now that I know what each scene and moment is required to accomplish for the story as a whole, I can zero in and tighten up those nuts and bolts. That part of the process is now much less intuitive, and much more technical. That actually makes revisions much more satisfying. There is more concrete functionality. Then, once the walls and floors are built, I can start adding the furniture and decorations. I can play and make the scenes all pretty now because I know they are doing what they need to do. It is like a wild guitar solo in the middle of a structured rock song. And, that is what I will be spending my snow-day doing!

-Josh Dahl