Progress Report: Project Trio

For the last couple of weeks, Trio has been my focus. As I said in my year-end update, I had around 30 pages of scribbles, 25% of an outline, and nothing solidly written on this.

By today, this has blown up to 50 pages of scribbles, 25% of an outline, and still nothing solidly written. Except it’s 25% of an entirely different outline, so there’s that.

When working on complicated writing projects, an outline can be your best friend. It lets you test ideas and throw them out as required, and I’ve been doing a whole lot of that. There are threads that either don’t work at all or need to go in an entirely different direction, and an outline lets you play them out without getting too attached because of the sheer work you’ve put into the writing.

Stylistically, Trio is supposed to be freewheeling, digressive, and quite chatty, but in practice, it has to be quite densely plotted, containing, as it does, around five different storylines that intersect and diverge at various points.

The first thing I did when I determined that I was going to be focussing on this book was to move as many of my scribbles as possible to Scapple, which is a rather wonderful app that lies somewhere between a mind-mapping tool and one of those conspiracy-tracing boards you keep seeing in tv shows with all the threads connecting different organisations and/or suspects (aka a real-life mind map, I suppose).

Scapple’s advantage is that it supports anything from a two-word scribble to a page-length character synopsis and allows you to treat these with as much or as little weight as you like. The best thing about it, though, is that it actually lets you make different kinds of connections between ideas, and you can play these out in your head to whatever point you feel like before rolling them back if they don’t work. (Once again, quite like an outline.)

Don’t get me wrong – large tracts of Trio will in fact be written entirely by the seat of my pants; the way the book is structured (about which probably more when I’m actually writing it) demands it. But considering how complex I’ve made this book for myself (and that’s something I almost always do), I need a good reference document in which I can see at a glance where I am and where I need to go.

2016 Year-End Update

All attempts to update this blog regularly have been dismal failures, but I can’t really complain, because this was on account of me writing other stuff I have no desire to make public just yet. More on that below.

Still, a blog is a weird little beast to maintain. It takes a writer’s ego to imagine I can make stuff up and people will be interested, but it takes a bit more than that to say I will not make stuff up and people will still be interested in what I have to say. About actual things. It’s something I did convince myself of for long years through my early twenties, but which I find difficult to take as a given now. More on that, once again, below.

(That last paragraph is why I have no inclination to comment on 2016 in general. You don’t need me to tell you how you feel about it.)

Work Report

This was my first complete year (i.e. Jan-Dec) working as a freelance comic-book letterer, and it went well. You can see a near-comprehensive list of my past, current and upcoming projects (apart from a few rather exciting books coming up soon) on my portfolio page here.

Some things that are not on there:

  1. My Bartkira collaboration with artist Anand Radhakrishnan.
  2. Gangs of Malaya for Live Mint by writer C. G. Salamander and artist Sunando C.
  3. More Chakra the Invincible short stories for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which you can read here along with the ones we did last year.

A list won’t convey how happy I was to get to work with some of my favourite writers, artists, colourists, designers and editors of recent years, and to see a new Indian comics scene emerging with Black Mumba and its associated projects, many of which I’m lucky enough to be a part of.

I’ve also been working on my craft, and have now moved almost entirely to drawing sound effects by hand rather than manipulating fonts.

I’ve also begun creating my own balloon fonts for use in future comics, as you will be aware if you follow me on Instagram.

Sitting Duck was my attempt at making a clean, mainstream font of the sort used in superhero comics. It was mostly a way to teach myself how to make fonts, and it worked for that. It stands complete at v1.2.

Mighty Mouse is my attempt to make a bouncy, eccentric font to use in more Indie-style comics. It’s nearly done, with some cleanup left on the italics of both weights.

Gillain is my tribute to Eurocomics lettering, and is inspired by the hand-lettering of Jijé (for whom the font is named), Moebius, Dave Taylor and the like. I had intended to finish Gillain v1.0 by the end of 2016, but my decision to add another weight (bold italics) and to take a 15-day vacation in early December (more on which below) put paid to that goal. Currently, I’m hoping to finish a workable version by the end of January. It’s not, frankly, a font that will be complete for a long time given my intention to load it with autoligatures (85 and counting), but it should be usable in actual comics within another month.

No Smoking

I quit smoking on 30th September this year, coincidentally exactly a year after I quit my job (I guess it was just time for me to do something new). So at the end of 2016, I hadn’t had a single puff for 92 days and 8.5 hours.

This was my third attempt to quit smoking, and the first one to feel like it might work long-term. Each time before this, there would come a point when I’d convince myself I had control over the habit, and that a puff or two wouldn’t hurt. This time, the trick was to convince myself that I didn’t have control and that the only way to throw off the addiction was to admit that and quit nonetheless. So far, so good, although I’ll have to accept the constant hunger of something being missing, and being five minutes from my next cigarette forever.

Bike Trip

One of the highlights of 2016 was a 4500-km motorbike trip I took with a friend in early December. Our main destinations were Agra/Fatehpur Sikri and Amritsar/Wagah, apart from which our goal was to ride as much as we could (twelve full days of long-distance riding rather than the nine on our last bike trip).

A very enjoyable trip overall, about which I might write more on the blog soon.

2017: Writing

In a fit of reckless optimism, I have decided to make it my goal in 2017 to return to writing fiction properly. I had already spent the last few months compiling ideas for two possible novels and a comic, but I have hereby decided that shit must get real. Since all three of these have terrible working titles, I’m going the Warren Ellis route and assigning them codenames.

  1. PROJECT ANNIVERSARY: This book is intended as my love letter to tobacco, and I’d like to finish a first draft exactly a year since I quit smoking, hence the codename. Current status: 20 pages of story notes, 60 pages of research, 1.5 chapters (out of an estimated 30) written.
  2. PROJECT TRIO: This is an attempt to amalgamate three sff books that I came up with at various points over the last few years, which I recently realised should actually be one book. That is, however, not why the codename is ‘Trio’. Current status: 30 pages of scribbles, 25% of an outline, nothing written.
  3. PROJECT TWOFER: This is a 6-issue comic book I outlined in my early twenties and left cooking precisely so that I could come back and script it when I felt better capable of handling the tone. I have no idea what I’ll do with it once it’s scripted, but I’m leaving that thought for later. Current status: Nearly ten years of thinking about it, nothing written.

The intention is to finish a workable first draft of each of these by the end of 2017, and then decide whether to do anything with them or to dump them in a metaphorical drawer and forget about them.

I’ll be writing each of these for a week or two before switching to one of the others when I get bored, so I hope to be posting weekly updates with a few more details on the shapes of these books. No wordcounts, though, because a. I don’t know how long these novels will be and b. wordcounts mean nothing in comics. Plus, this is supposed to be fun.

2017: Colouring

I’ve been taking a couple of online courses on colouring comics over the last month, and I want to get decent at it this year.

I have no plans to move into colouring comics – the intention is to use the knowledge to improve my use of colour in my lettering beyond simply picking from the palette of the book.

The general theory here is that the more I understand about the other aspects of making comics, the better-equipped I will be to do my job. I’m already familiar with writing, editing and production; this felt like the logical next step.

Also, I did promise myself at the age of 25 that I’d like to write, draw, colour and letter an entire comic by the time I’m 35, so with four years to go, I need to learn how to draw and colour well enough to do that. Thought I’d start the wrong way round.

2017: Travel

I would quite like to finally travel outside India this year. I’d wanted to do this in 2016, but work made me a lot busier than I’d expected, and I had to choose between general travel and the bike trip, and you know which one I chose.

Separately or combined with this, I also want to attend a big comics convention outside India. I’m currently scoping out which would make the most sense. I’ll (hopefully) keep the blog updated about that.

2017: Blogging

Finally, I’m making the rash promise to myself that I’ll post to this blog at least three times a week. And that’s not on average, that’s supposed to be per week.

This is the only legitimate New Year’s resolution in this post, because everything else is stuff I’ve already started.

I love the idea of blogging regularly, but tend to be too precious about things I want to write about. I’ve started and abandoned too many epic blogposts when maybe I should’ve concentrated on finishing smaller ones.

Topics will likely vary between progress reports on the three books, lettering and font design, adventures in learning how to colour stuff, and anything else that comes to mind. Probably, given the beginning of this post, not current affairs.

Have a great year, folks!

Slicing a Story

(Reposted from the previous version of this blog. Thought this was useful enough to keep around.)

Take a scene change in a novel. The transition between, usually, one chapter and the next. There is a gap in between, wherein the writer shifts time (usually going forward) and place, and possibly characters. Usually, this gap contains the irrelevant bits, the bits that are excised to make a story readable. Sometimes, this gap may contain relevant information, but mostly the writer brings you up to speed as soon as possible.

This is slicing the story. There are pieces created and kept next to each other, and the writer tries to make you not notice when you skip across these gaps.

These gaps are essential. Not all information is necessary or relevant, and it would be tedious if you followed characters through, say, a long, silent car ride for no reason.

This is an expansion of the most basic level of gap, the one created by, for example:

She got up from the sofa, reached the door, and let the dog in.

We’re skipping the fact that she walked from the sofa to the door, and that she opened the door. The reader fills in these gaps without needing to be told, because they’ve been trained through the act of reading.

This happens all the time in comics. The space between each panel and the next is a gap which is filled in by the reader. Scott McCloud calls this closure. It ranges from the basic (a. the doorbell rings while I’m on the sofa, b. I have opened the door) to the quite complex in the hands of an ambitious writer (see something like Watchmen or much of what Grant Morrison does).

In a comic, additionally, scene changes tend to look exactly the same as panel changes – they are both a gap between two panels – and the reader has to make the deduction that the action has moved, an example of how comics (as we might talk about at some point) can entice the reader into making the effort to close very large gaps by making them look like small ones.

Coming back to prose, in the basic storytelling model (where style is supposed to be invisible), the writer tries to require a minimal amount of closure from the reader. All relevant information is contained on the page.

If the writing maxim ‘come in late, leave early’ is being followed, the gap is larger, and the writer has to work hard to make the reader commit a greater act of closure without noticing that’s what they’re doing.

Or, a writer could lean into it. Slice the story in a way that the reader notices it’s being sliced. This creates the basis for non-linear storytelling.

A simple version of this can be seen in many of Stephen King’s books (for example, The Stand). The writer skips between different characters without skipping around in time too much, and when they come back to a particular strand, time has passed, stuff has happened, which is explained as the story moves along.

A slightly more evolved version of this can be seen in George R. R. Martin’s Ice and Fire series, where each character’s story progresses in a linear manner in itself, but skipping between strands involves jumping into the past and future. To make this clear: Chapter 7 involving Character A might be taking place months after Chapter 8 involving Character B. The amount of information being exchanged between two strands, however, is minimal, as guaranteed by the lack of communications technology on Westeros.

But lean even further into it, and you reach what is generally called non-linear storytelling. Stay with the character, but skip back and forth in time. (See Slaughterhouse-Five and its descendants.) So information conveyed in Chapter 7 will give the reader an extra weapon to interpret the information conveyed in Chapter 8 which chronologically takes place before Chapter 7.

Used by a smart writer, this can be built on to provide two progressions, one chronological and the other thematic – one the story-internal order in which events occur, and the other the order in which events have been presented.

So now, if I’m reading Chapter 8, not only am I using information conveyed about the past and the future of these events, I also close the gap between Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 by interpreting why these two chapters having been placed next to each other.

And if this is used in conjunction with multiple characters and multiple strands, I’m also creating a thematic (or maybe even purely story-based) dialogue between the scenes based on the chosen juxtaposition (as seen in, say, movies like The Prestige).

So far, so obvious, but I thought writing it down might be useful.

Having Something to Say

Here’s something that might be a surprise to people who read this blog (all four of you), and to people who follow me on social media. Contrary to all appearances, I write every single day.

Most of what I write is not meant to be seen by anybody, which is why you don’t find out about it. And it’s mostly unstructured: little snippets or ideas I feel like playing with, observations I want to record and remember, interesting perspectives from people with different worldview from mine.

Some of this goes into the journal I’ve erratically maintained for the last three years or so, but most of it lies strewn around in text documents in whatever note-taking app I’m using at the moment.*

* This has been nvALT for the last year, but Terpstra’s now stopping development and making something else called BitWriter.

For the last five years, since I quit trying to make a living off writing, I’ve been trying to figure out what writing is for. So I write whatever comes to mind and sounds interesting, mostly so I can look at it later and shake my head.

Drawing randomly from one of my documents:

Because sometimes you don’t want to kiss people just for mouth-water.

A man who has garbled tunnel syndrome. Passed through a tunnel once and lost his powers of coherent speech.

I have no idea what was going through my mind when I wrote either of those.

Sometimes people say funny things and I ask them if I can use them, such as:

“I’m not staying in a five-star hotel room and not having sex in it.”

“That you get along with us should not be a source of comfort.”

Vague story ideas:

Guy who doesn’t want to cheat on his partner, so creates a substitute activity that he does with other women instead of sex.

I might still do something with that one.

There are even a few lines which sound like story beginnings:

When I first heard that people were randomly falling up into the sky, my first thought was – would I get to see anything. Then, when I realised that all I’d see at best were panties for a few seconds before they disappeared, and that’s not a good enough reason to be happy about people dying.

I seem to remember that someone else wrote a story about people falling into the sky, so I probably won’t be doing anything with that.

I doesn’t trouble me that most of my writing goes nowhere. Not only am I not writing for publication, I’m not even writing to be read.

Every time I narrate an idea to a friend, I preface it with, “I don’t know if it’ll go anywhere.” Mostly they don’t, and that’s fine by me.

The most fun part of writing, to me, has always been coming up with an idea and playing with it, and I still do that to my heart’s content.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I can’t or don’t finish things. I’ve had a few short stories published over the last few years, I’ve written a few comic scripts, and there are some finished short stories in my writing folder which I might throw on the blog.

I’ve also taken a running start at a couple of graphic novels, and I’m currently a quarter of the way through a prose novel that has been steadily accumulating for the last many months. I’ve no idea what I’ll do with it if I finish it, but I’ll continue writing it while it entertains me.

The question is bigger. There’s no urgency to writing anymore, no hunger. So I can now look around and examine what I have to say through my writing, and so far, I’ve come up short.

I enjoy writing. I’ve liked writing the stories I’ve completed, and I’m reasonably proud of some of them. But mostly they’ve been attempts at learning how to write, or at looking at ideas from different angles, or at shaking ideas up to see what falls out.

None of these are bad reasons to be writing. I’m just not sure they’re good enough reasons for me to write. And now that I don’t plan to write to make money, I have the luxury to abandon ideas when they stop interesting me.

At the moment, that feels like a perfectly fine thing. But I wonder if, when I grow old, I’ll look back and regret not doing anything with these ideas while I had the energy.

What I like, though, is that I can think about writing itself, without everything else it came with. The struggle to get published, wondering if people liked what I wrote, trying to figure out how to make my writing less esoteric without compromising what attracted to it in the first place – I like that these are not factors anymore.

So at the very least, I know that I still love writing, that I’m not tired of it, and that I’ll continue doing it even when I don’t stand to gain anything from it. What to write, though, is still a big question.