Monday, January 4, 2010

Guest Article - Learning To Write Through Webcomics

This is from a good buddy and longtime internet associate Eric who does a few things on the Internet, Eric. I am drawing a blank on his site but he wrote a enjoyable article nonetheless.

I’ve been a buddy of Koltreg’s for a while, so I was honored when he asked me to write an article for his blog.
I love webcomics, I really do. I’ve been getting back into normal comics (Transmetropolitian, Deadpool, Batman Confidential to name a few), and while that’s a neat little monthly adventure, I enjoy loading up Firefox at midnight, and checking that day’s bookmark folder. (Yeah, I have ‘em broken down by update schedule). Whenever I want, I can stroll through the archives, and chat with fellow fans for the always pleasing price of free.

One of my best memories associated with webcomics was earlier this year. I was working on a short story, getting maybe 100 words a day in. On my usual check ups, I load up Horribleville. With the night still young, I decided to read through the archives. For the uninitiated, Horribleville is the brainchild of K.C. Green, and it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad look into his creative process. All the breakdowns, the anxieties, the rewrites, are filtered through a demented art style that manages to be sketchy yet sharp at the same time. If you’re ever feeling uncreative, read it.

Then I finally make it through the guest strip month. Out of the blue, I decided to check out Fred Sherbet’s Dead Winter. I plow through the zombie action, with Coheed and Cambria blasting on repeat. I come to the last strip in the archives, and sat there in lament that the next update is only two days away.
My imagination was kicking at the base my skull, I felt like I was going die tomorrow, and if I don’t finish this story by tomorrow, I’d have nothing to show for it. I put on a pot of coffee, and got to work. My favorite part to mention of this story was that I had three songs on repeat for the next 6 hours: “Sympathy For The Devil” by The Rolling Stones, and both version of “Desolation Row” (Bob Dylan and My Chemical Romance).

The point I’m trying to make here is that good writing is good writing, regardless of the source, and you can always tell where things went right. Now, while I don’t have a webcomic of my own (artists inquire at ericdigiwriter@gmail.com), I still love to tell stories, whether it was my short story, writing articles for my school’s paper, or in webcomic form, so I’m here to teach you all some tips on how to be a better writer through webcomics.


Live.

Seriously. You know the old mantra, “Write What You Know”? Then get of the computer (after reading this, of course) and do something for a while that you’ve never done before. Go out with some friends. Meet new people. Take a trip to a place you’ve never seen. Peoplewatch. Take up a new hobby. ANYTHING. If you go out and experience life, then you’ll have all the more stuff to draw from.
Want to know the difference between your average “LOL [RECENT GAME HERE]” comic and the greats like Penny Arcade, PvP and (to a much lesser extent) Ctrl+Alt+Del?
Those people have done shit with their lives. Gabe, Tycho and Kurtz are married with children. Buckley is doing house renovations last time I checked. They’re living. Look at your average gamer comic: do you really see these guys doing something other stereotypical 18-25 male “gamer” stuff? That’s why the same jokes are beat into the ground over and over again, creating a barrier for those who just want to read something funny, instead of wanking off over the “THE CAKE IS A LIE” of the day.

As much shit as he gets from the whole miscarriage scene, Tim Buckley had the right to do the infamous “Loss” strip. He went through one of his own, and knows how it feels. All that anticipation and buildup, all those expectations of a new life shattered? That’s a powerful moment. The reason why it’s so hated and mocked relentlessly is because A. Three strips ago we were having silly comedy, and have had the wackiness for the past 5 years, making it the worst possible place to do it, and B. Ethan and Lilah are more archetypes than characters, so the moment has no weight. Speaking of Archetypes:


The Double Act
You might know this as the “Wacky Guy-Straight Man” thing, but it refers to any comedy where the jokes are derived from the uneven relationship between two characters, and the play off their personalities. Felix is neat, Oscar is messy. Adam Savage is very loose and friendly, Jamie Hynemann is reserved and professional. PC is stuffy and in denial, Mac… doesn’t really do anything. Usually in a webcomic this plays out where one guy is a sarcastic eye-roller, paired with a man so wacky that he mails bobcats to strangers ( http://xkcd.com/325/), eats paper bags ( http://www.cad-comic.com/cad/20091202), and beats up his Dreamcast in a drunken stupor (http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2000/9/8/)


The most recognized double act is between Bud Abbot, who was usually a schemer, and Louis Costello, who was normally a man-child, and former always tried to play the latter for a fool. Sounds familiar, right? However, consider the average webcomic to this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lo4NCXOX0p8


Cool, right? Costello (the fat one) was wrong, but at least knew enough in his own weird way that his solution was possible. He isn’t really stupid, he just thinks in a different way. In the usual “GamerDorks” or “ROFLiends”, Abbot (the tall one) would punch Costello in the face and call him a retard, then cross his arms and go “Heh”.


I’ll give you a more contemporary exampleof a good double act: Homestar Runner. Yeah, Homestar’s the dunce, and Strong Bad is the “smart” one, but at the very least, they’re still their own people. The different peripheral characters have their own associations with either one. Marzipan tolerates Homestar, but hates Strong Bad, and Bubs’s “sales tactics” work better on the na├»ve H*R, whereas Strong Bad gets screwed more indirectly. The important thing here is that this play on personalities is an act, and not the sole motivation behind the characters.

3. Going back on the whole “experience” thing, Read.
Not just blogs either. But books. Did you know that Hunter S. Thompson, the writer of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, re-typed “The Great Gatsby” ad verbatim for practice? He wanted to get a feel for Fitzgerald’s writing. Or, as he put it, “to know what it’s like to have those words flow through him”. Since webcomics are a more “minimalist’ medium, you don’t need as much prose, but books can definitely serve as an inspiration. Read different styles too. Even read the newspaper, just to see all the different ways people can convey information and put a picture in your head. To counter that:

4. Read shit as well.
Just so you know what NOT to do. I think something like Sonichu servse as an example of how to do it wrong in every way possible, from writing dialogue, to telling a story, and even life in general. Just try reading it, as well as any bad webcomic aloud. Doesn’t it feel awkward to say? Aren’t you left with frustration wondering who the hell thought having someone say that was a good idea? Good. Now go back to your own work. I’ll guarantee you’ll be looking out for poorly written walls of text. (http://cogsdev.110mb.com/cwcki/images/9/98/SchuComic9P92.jpg). It’s even worse when the author gets really pretentious about it and yells “YOU JUST DON’T GET IT!!”, like in the infamous Broken Mirror, a comic John Solomon soundly thrashed in his blog.


I’m serious, the bitch writes like an English major desperate for validation of her liberal arts degree. The most infuriating instance of this is when a punk rock looking chav says: "Shouldn't I furtively thrust a wad of fifties into your palm before heading to the sewers… clandestine, intent on pursuing my perilous trade?" instead of “Shouldn’t I slip you some cash, then sneak off into the sewers with the other crack heads?” Who the hell use furitively in casual conversation? I know what those words mean, but they belong in the mouth a pretentious douche, not a druggie. It’s a sound lesson in giving each character their own voice. Which brings me to:


5. Remember, you’re writing for ME.

At the end of the day, you need to get your idea into my head. Because it’s the internet, there is some leeway as far as your audience. You don’t have to use stock jokes and appeal to the lowest common denominator. Penny Arcade assumes you keep up with video game news. Theater Hopper assumes you keep up with the latest movies. Some comics, like a regular read of mine PhDComics, assumes that its audience has at least gone through some post-undergrad work, or at the very least is college educated. However, you have shit like XKCD which goes too far in that direction, with some strips assuming that I look at random physics entries on Wikipedia just to get a half-assed pun.

Or anything Kate Beaton, that makes me go back to the nightmare that was High School Global History. However, she at least jokes that can be amusing outside of the historical context of the strip. Same goes with Penny Arcade: you might not get the reference, but you can get the joke.



Those are only a few of the ways webcomics can teach us some valuable lessons about writing. Oh! One more important lesson:

6. Set a schedule.

I was super productive during NaNoWriMo because I had a deadline to work with. All good webcomics follow a strict updating schedule, to keep in the habit of writing. While something Lackadaisy Cats is the exception to the rule, the author does have multiple page updates that are of professional quality. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a VGCats-like scenario where you’ll get something meh every other month that ends in a Y.


But really I brought it up was because Koltreg wanted this by Sunday, and instead I masturbated and played Team Fortress 2.


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