We all have those nights.
Which is most actually probably a lie. Something we tell ourselves so we have safety in numbers. I am certain the titans don’t get this problem. I can’t see Kirby stalled, unable to move to the next panel. I don’t imagine Jason Aaron has an issue with synthesising his new idea into the page. But the rest of us, well, sometimes it’s just not our night.
And you have to know when that’s happening.
When the writing gets hard, like you are trying to fill a toothpaste tube with honey for your getaway before the bees with island gigantism return, and time seems to be lubricated from head to toe and you suddenly know, with certainty, you are going to lose your night and not get anything done and go to bed angry at yourself for scrolling the Facebook machine vidya-feed for just one more lol, and you know you’ll be insufferable to all humans and most animals tomorrow, and you also know tomorrow’s just going to suck as hard because you left the office stuck so you are only pressing pause on the quicksand, stepping out to attempt to do the adult stuff and then you’ll be clocking back on for your demise in 18 hours. Well, when the writing gets like that then it just plain sucks balls.
So what do you do?
Actually, before that, lemme tell you what not to do. Do not sit and stare at the blinking cursor and wait for the line to come. Writing is not immaculate conception, it needs sweat, and grunting, and curled toes, and coffee, and maybe just a little romance to occur. You won’t do enough of that strapped into your captain’s chair in the word boudoir. So when the next line/scene/beat isn’t coming, step back.
Sometimes literally, just stand up, stretch your back, let the blood flow.
Sometimes you need to do something else. You’ll constantly hear about writers doing the following to help unlock some back brain mojo: riding their bike, walking, mowing the lawn, showering, eating toast [okay, that last one was me]. Sometimes you have to let the automatic front brain get busy, and get turning, and then all the cogs move. Whether you are watching and realising it or not.
But sometimes that doesn’t work. Gah. Then what.
Well, my memory tells me there’s a quote where Warren Ellis said [and I paraphrase with confidence], sometimes you aren’t the right person to write that scene that night. My google fu can’t find me the quote [this is the closest I could find- ed.] so let’s not guarantee Ellis said it, hell, attribute it to me now, but the only thing that matters here is that you consider those words.
You’re writing a break up scene, but you are crazy distracted by your taxes, or the squirrels outside, or another script that’s also due…perhaps this isn’t your night to nail that emotional scene in any genuine manner.
It’s time for an intricate action sequence that totally matters to the theme of the piece, but you are dog tired and it’s 3am and you keep missing the letters in front of you and losing your fingertips in the human DNA dust down between your keys. Yeah, you aren’t going to be sharp enough to make the action flow AND mean something.
Sometimes, that night isn’t your night. Sometimes, you’ll be smart enough to recognise this. So you’ll pick a different scene – because you are not beholden to write in sequence at all – and then no doubt off you’ll go racing. Four pages for you Glen Coco, you go, Glen Coco.
Match yourself to what you are writing. Where possible.
And I know many of you are thinking, “Jeez, man, c’mon, quit it with the precious muse act. This is the job, do your damn job. Hack.” And I agree with you, to a degree. I also think that if you map yourself out well enough, especially in your early days, then you can give yourself enough time so you aren’t pulling double all-nighters just to get the damn job done. Doing your damn job doesn’t have to be in one bloodshot 72 hour period. Give yourself time to craft the scenes, to find the right angles and voices, and still get it in on time. It can be done. Sometimes. Maybe.
I’ve known plenty of times that there’s a crucial scene and I’m just not the man on that night to write it for whatever reasons. So I come back the next night, or whenever it’s up at bat again, and then it flows.
Our brains are crazy machines and we know not anywhere near enough about them to think we are properly fuelling them or even getting them out of first gear.
I have also found that writing something else can be a good thing. And this time I am backed up with a linkable quote from Warren Ellis saying as much. He says get the words flowing, trick your brain into believing the wheels are spinning, and then knock the back blocks out and burn rubber, baby, burn, burn.
It’s why I’m here writing this column while still also working on an issue for one artist and a pitch script with no artist. This is productive procrastination.
It’s why I write a weekly newsletter. It’s why I write for my site, and most recently did a post a day for Noirvember. It’s why I’m tinkering with a novella at the mo. It’s why I self-publish stuff, because then I’m not sitting around with my dick in my hand waiting for someone to give me permission to make the thing I love. Always having something to write means always having words come out of your brain and that’s a crazy good habit to get into.
So just give yourself something to write.
I don’t think Facebook applies. I kinda do think Twitter does, but I’m huge Camp Twitter4Lyfe so take this one with a pinch of Himalayan pink rock salt. I mean, Brian K Vaughan told the world that you shouldn’t write on a machine that can take you to the internet. And he’s so right. I know a mate of mine, who is prolific, and capital G Good, and he writes on a small laptop he calls the Typewriter because it doesn’t connect to the internet. That’s a smart move.
You can say Reddit is just research all you want but all I hear are excuses. None of it is making the work come out.
I’ll also advocate for going back to paper at times. Your notebook doesn’t have an ALT+TAB function to get to the internet. It also opens up a great new mental way of thinking, in all directions, and in an incredibly messy fashion, and that’s great. Not all of this game happens by the glare of our thin monitors.
Though my final thought is one that took me years to realise. I discovered that if a sequence is difficult to write it’s because I no doubt broke it wrong, and it’s already boring me, and I need to come at it from a whole new angle. Could be new POV, could be new location, could be new everything. I ask myself what the scene needs to do, thematically and for the story, and then I rebuild from the ground up.
Herein there lie some tips for those nights when you aren’t feeling it. Know the feeling, and react to it. Get off the internet. Write something else. Maybe get some ink out and pages and graph your story.
But I will say this – there is no final draft without a first draft. You have to put something down in order to have something to make better. So write, shiny and chrome, y’know? Write a scene, do what some peeps call a Vomit Draft. Get the damn thing out, and then push it around with a stick and see what’s salvageable for soup by the light of dawn.
The more you do this, the more you know your process.
Personally, I’m an internal editor. I’m not good at sweeping drafts of the whole thing, I just kinda micro-manage the pages and captions and panels as they come out. By the time I ‘finish’ my Draft One, each page has undergone at least 3 drafts. I don’t know if this is the ‘best’ way to work, but I do know that we find our own way through this mess.
When I hit a block, I ask myself a tonne of questions. What is it I’m trying to do? Why does it matter? How does this sequence connect to other things and can I play on that? I ask away, sometimes in the office, sometimes braving the blood thirsty sky commanders we call ‘magpies’ as I mow the lawn, and eventually I see what’s going to slide into that page well.
Just recently, I struggled with a page. I couldn’t get this right page turn working. So I did all of the above, I went into other writing, I tried to close some tabs and programs, and I even went back to the paper. The line I needed eventually came around 11pm and I threw it in and then two more pages just flowed. And that suddenly vindicated my night. Which is a wildly unhealthy way to keep your brain in check. But I’m a writer, I didn’t sign up because I’m mentally balanced or healthy or sensible.
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 ordirectly through Dark Horse.