ymmv .20 – thoughtballoons
What do you write when you’ve got nothing to write?
I mean, we’ve all always got ideas. There are always things you ‘can’ write, but what do you write when there’s nothing you ‘need’ to write?
When you first start writing especially, you will fall into times where there are no deadlines, no projects alive, and no collaborators to sit in this darkness with you, scratching for the light.
There will be times when you’ve got nothing to write. Not really.
There are ideas you’ll poke around, and maybe a collaborator is kicking something along with you, but it’s probably just pitch pages, or a short, so you’ll have that squared away in no time and then there’s nothing on the dance card.
This leaves you with options.
Just keep writing what you want to make, pitches, scripts, the usual.
You can keep creating ideas to pitch, keep workshopping them, keep mapping them out, and then keep filing them away as you can’t find creative teams to fill the holes you need to make the actual pitch [or comic] happen [which is its own real problem when starting out, and the solutions are varied and most likely for another column]. You can do this but it starts to feel like filling little bottles with very big messages and then punting them into the foam licking at the side of your slowly sinking ship.
I want you to know I’ve been here, I’ve filled notebooks with ideas [I’m doing the crazy #366stories experiment right now], and I’ve put together exhaustive documents, bibles, tomes about these stories. But I always found it hard going, after a few, before it starts to feel futile. You are just putting these stories away, in the proverbial trunk, to do what? To wait until later? Because you can’t make a comic as only a writer, and you could make it solo as prose, but if you are like me then you probably already saw this story in panels, and comics is the playground in which you want to climb to the top of the monkeybars. So you have to sit tight, and, I guess, just keep on writing.
Here’s a brief, and hopefully helpful, interlude:
When my editor at Dark Horse finally asked me if I had any ideas, I sent him a whole email full of them. But near on all of them were NEW ideas. I wasn’t going to waste his time on things from 2009 because those old ideas were stale, they were crafted by a lesser writer. The new hot takes were what were going to sell– and this was proven because Negative Space was very new and it was the one selected.
So when an editor calls, it’s important to have material, and new better material. So it’s only by sitting there writing stories and outlines and pitch docs on the hopes an editor will ask for them that you’ll have them when they maybe are asked for. Maybe. Yes, don’t worry, I know that can feel wildly illogical, and downright depressing. I can’t do it. Well, not for long, not in isolation. I do it but I need to have an outlet, so, let’s consider Option Two.
Take a break. Recharge. If there’s nothing to write, well, write nothing.
Before I even unpack this one, or explain it further, allow me to stop myself. Because this is a shitty idea. Of course, take breaks, stretch your legs, have a night off, a weekend away, do all of those things normal people call ‘living,’ this should just be part of your routine. But don’t do them in a big stretch.
Taking a week off? I, personally, don’t know how you do it, but right on. Taking a month off? I can only assume you will be in the jungle studying the gigantic pygmy people, yes? With no wifi, or notebooks, or time at all. Otherwise, what the hell are you doing? Don’t take a whole month off, don’t go six months on the couch waiting to get inspired. Nope.
Ignore that option, it blows, look at this shiny new option instead.
Write small things that matter and that you can close.
In a perfect world, these are 5 page shorts where you assemble a team.
However – and I’m sure many of you already know this– assembling a #makecomics team is a treacherous endeavour. You have to get the right artist and colourist for the project, and that also work well together. You have to coordinate communication, file sharing, and you’ll probably pay for it if you’re a writer.
Making shorts, even 5 pages, 2 pages, can be difficult to do. And they can be weeks/months of set up, so you’re throwing into your horizon, and sometimes it’s all only to see it all fritter away. These are the risks of depending on others. They are offset by the thrill of collaboration and a shared vision reaching the page, but it’s important to consider the alternative. Making something to finish and having it be dependent on others can be counter productive.
So what I mean is, set your bar lower. Write a one-page script.
And then just enjoy it for the script it is.
It was six years ago and this thought popped into my head. I had been soaking myself in the ComicTwart sound and I loved their mojo, their get up and go. They picked a character and for a week each of these amazing artists provided pin ups about that character. It was wild, it was Twitter originated, and it produced some phenomenal art.
However, writers can’t do that. We aren’t allowed to play with the toys of others so freely, and who would want to watch us do so anyway? No one, that’s who.
But in the early days you can’t be writing for the masses. You have to write to get better, you have to write what’s real, and you have to write for yourself.
As such, thoughtballoons was born–
thoughtballoons was an idea I had early in 2010. It was a complete rip off from ComicTwart, so it was a bunch of writers who took a prompt each week and wrote a one page script around that prompt. Each writer, in fact, got a posting time/date within each week and you had to hit it, that way everyone got time at the top of the chain for a solid day, or so.
These one page scripts could be a complete done in one story, or an opening splash page, or just a random scene/moment. It could be the end of an imaginary issue, or a new take on an old moment. Basically, anything goes, but keep it to one page.
I gotta be honest, I had no idea what I was starting when it began, but I knew it sounded fun and that I wanted to do it and that I had to do it just to be doing something. And initially another handful of writerly mates joined me and so we set off boldly, which is really the only way to explore.
The beauty of thoughtballoons, for me, was that we got to stretch our boundaries a little. Everyone took turns picking the prompt, so you’d end up writing characters you didn’t know very well. You couldn’t just rehash the same genre every damn week so suddenly you’d branch out into wild new worlds of tone and meaning. You worked on splash pages, hyperdense 16 panel grids. You thought about tiers, and page ends, and whether they were page turns, and how much action you could fit in each page in a 9 panel grid. Or when you should break the grid, or break panel borders, or just shut up and be silent.
And you did all this without wasting an artist’s time drawing your sophomore shit.
It was freeing because it didn’t really matter, but it mattered as much as you made it. You gave it your all, but also knew it wouldn’t be on the shelves embarrassing you. And you could experiment, just to see if something would work. I once used a page structural concept in my tb script [it was having a twitter feed down one side as a modern Greek chorus of sorts] to see what feedback was, and people dug it, so I included it in my script for the Oxymoron anthology.
Oh, yeah, because we got feedback. Each post, especially at the start, when we were all hungry, was full of comments from each other, talking about what worked and didn’t and why. That collegial nature, and ability to bounce all kinds of strategies and tricks off each other is one of the reasons I credit my two years at thoughtballoons with making me a better writer.
For two years, I didn’t miss a deadline. I wrote 104 one-page scripts [and change, because some characters gave me multiple ideas that I’d work on and pick the best from at the end] and not all of those scripts were winners. Of course not. But getting the chance to push myself to produce every week was a mental exercise, it was a challenge, it was fun, and it was a hugely necessary step in myself as a writer, and a great opportunity for growth.
These days/weeks/years, from 2010 until my first one-shot in 2013, were a time that I couldn’t stop. But I had no idea where I was going. I just knew this is what I was going to do and I had to find a way to do it. I had to make my own way. So that’s what thoughtballoons was. It turned me into a self-starter who hit deadlines, who understood how much editing your own work improved it immensely, who didn’t hold his work precious but instead shared it and waited for the glory or the slaughter. It was yet another step where I declared that I was a writer, and did so by doing the damn job even when no one was asking me to.
You can’t wait to make your writing a priority, or for someone else to, and you can’t expect a creative team to assemble just because you done wrote a thing. You can’t expect yourself to be good yet because you’ve barely started to walk and yet you’re trying to sprint.
Getting yourself out of bed to train with no race even booked can be hard, but it’s crucial.
I often tell people they have to write 10k pages of hot garbage when they start out as a writer. They have to burn off the thick doughy layer of gluk before they get below to the good stuff. The great stuff, eventually.
So you have to find ways to make this happen, and you’ll usually have to find ways to do this yourself. No one is soliciting for Amateur Hour Mediocrity.
I look back on my years hitting the mines weekly on thoughtballoons as some of the most exciting and eye-opening times of my lives. Figuring out when a character worked for you was such a stupendously great feeling, and knowing when you just didn’t get it that week but something had to go out was annoying but you knew the next week began right then so you stepped back up to the plate.
If you want to be a better writer, write. And if you want it to be your best writing, give it purpose.
Find your own thoughtballoons, set your own deadlines, don’t ever stop, and goddamn enjoy it. Because once the deadlines start, it becomes work. Granted, you’re clocking hours at the best job on the world, but it’s work, and that early stuff will be the notebooks full of memories, and your best friends in the business, and the lessons you’ll take to your grave, via some Big Two titles and a miniseries, or two, that you’ll be proud of until the moment you finally take a day off writing.
Ryan K. Lindsay is a comics writer who has logged time at Dark Horse, Monkeybrain, Vertigo and other esteemed publishers. He currently writes Negative Space, a comic we here at Loser City love quite a bit. You can (and should) pick Negative Space up from your local comic shop or directly through Dark Horse.