02 June 2010

Week One Down

by guest columnist Mike Elrod.  Follow him on Twitter.

What I’ve learned with my writing this week could fill a book. But, I’ll try and keep it to a few paragraphs. As you may know, I’ve begun a ten week-long work schedule that is a practice in what I called the discipline of letting go. The purpose of which was to have by the end of these ten weeks the rough draft of my first graphic novel finished and ready for revisions.

I thought that by the end of the first week I’d have something to say about the discipline of sitting down each and every day, ignoring any and all distractions, and letting myself fall into the world of All That Lives. Well, honestly that wasn’t the hard part this week. I suspect laziness will rear its lethargic head soon enough and make me contemplate, quite seriously, the merits of couch sleeping or cartoon watching over the prospect of finishing this goal I’ve set for myself.

The hard part however was what I wasn’t expecting it to be and, it’s one that may not seem to fit into this part of the process for those of you just joining in. I actually entered into a phase of editing in my first week. Now, this wasn’t a self-editing mind you, but an editing by an outside source. For those who don’t know, I’ve been working on this graphic novel for quite a while and have finally begun to piece it together issue by issue. I’ve had people look at my scripts before but the story has changed so much since then that I’ve needed to start over quite a few times. I think however, that this is a piece of the larger problem that I had to begin facing over this past week.

It’s the lack of focus in my writing.

Now, I know what you’re saying; “Mike you write so well, and there’s never a misspelled word or unfinished thought in any of those magically-brilliant pieces you write.” Believe me, it’s a shock for me as well.

The truth is though that it’s been quite a while since I’ve had any eyes, except for my own, on the script for All That Lives. For some reason, where I was willing to have others look at my work before, these newer iterations of the characters and plot have been something I’ve kept to myself hoping to make them as good as they were going to be amazing before anyone read them. Of course, that’s completely missing the point of a rough draft. I’ve talked a lot about it with my friends and especially with Mike Carpenter (the artist for the book) but I’ve barely shown them the work, which is exactly the reason I’ve lost some focus along the way.

If holding the story in your head or on spare pieces of paper and word documents works for you then do it. However, there comes a point when, as Mike said to me, “it has to congeal.” And for me, that can only come through having others look at it. The story is there and alive in my head but as it comes out the pieces don’t always fit together as well in reality as I see them myself.

As my friend Mona looked over the pages I had sent to both she and Mike I waited with the typical nervousness, like anyone in my position would, for her response. However, instead of editorial on what sections worked for her and which ones didn’t I got something that was even more valuable at this point in the process.

She asked me what the timeline for the story looked like.

In other words, she needed perspective on why these events were important and why they were where they were in the rough draft. What I found as Mona, Mike, and I sat down was that the events I was working so hard to use, needed to be broken down and put into a visual format so that I could actually “see” the sense that the story needed to make. The timeline placed the events of the characters’ lives into context with the environment and each other. It seems like a simple task and one that’s inherent in writing, and it is. However, when a world lives inside your head long enough without any outside perspective this natural part of the process can quickly become muddled.

For two hours or so we sat there placing the events of the story in order across a twelve issue arc. The fundamentals, much like what my high school basketball coach taught me, became essential once again. But there’s still more to this than just placing the events in order on the page with a few lines and numbers.

This piece came from Mike Carpenter himself.

I realized that I’ve developed a habit of saying I’m not “married” to anything in the story. I want the process to be something that we both contribute equally to, and so, out of fear of taking over completely and ignoring Mike’s input, I had gone the opposite direction. I’ve been operating out of a sense of non-commitment to the ideas in my head and on the page in order to not step on the toes of someone whose interest in the story is as great as my own. Why I approached it this way I don’t know. I try to find a good middle ground in most groups I work in, so why should this be any different I’m at a loss to explain.

As Mike put it, I need “to be married to some of this.”

Without commitment to the parts you believe are essential to the story you’ll never have the focus to complete it. This isn’t to say that these parts aren’t up for debate, but debate shouldn’t be avoided either. Commit to the story and it will be better for it. Don’t allow the plot to become so malleable that it never has a backbone with which to support everything else. This is your story after all. If you can’t tell it the way you see it happen what’s the point in putting it down on the page?

It’s important to always work with your partner on a project. But, in order to do so you each have to take responsibility for and ownership of your respective duties. Trusting one another to do each job is essential. Always thinking of your work in non-committed terms just means you’ll never get it done and that what you do end up with is just going to be mediocre at best. Debate is healthy for a creative project, don’t worry about avoiding it, embrace it. If you can’t argue over it, why would you expect your audience to do so once it’s finished?

With this in mind I’ve moved on into the second week of this process a little farther behind because of a need to rewrite what’s already been laid to page, and with a better focus for the discipline of letting go. Now that I’m looking at the story in concrete terms I think I can actually observe it and report it on the page. So the question is; how messed up is this story going to get? I could tell you, but I just know where it’s headed and how it’s getting there. The depth of these events is found in the process.

Mike Elrod is an instructor for a small college in the North Georgia Mountains where he spends his days helping students research their papers as he pines for the city. By night however, he reviews the show Supernatural for Pulptone.com. He also writes a graphic novel, All That Lives, along with Michael Carpenter - who produces amazing artwork -  about growing up and the zombie apocalypse in the South.


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