Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Before you begin plotting…

Yeah, yeah; I’m going on a bit more than I probably should. Nonetheless, they are some things that you need to consider. Before we go on, it should be noted that I’m assuming that you’re trying to do more than just a gag strip, BTW; although a gag strip requires its own kind of continuity, it’s an entirely different kind of continuity. It’s more a continuity of character and not disregarding what has been said more than A->B->C of a serial strip.

Also, you shouldn’t get on some sort of stupid artistic high horse that gag strips have no artistic merit and therefore shouldn’t be tried. A gag strip is somewhat harder in ways because humans look for patterns and try to do things in patterns; it’s thus easier for us to think in patterns and thus in terms of story arcs. A true gag strip, one that is nothing more than unassociated gags, is thus actually harder to do than a serial strip. Now, throw in that a decent gag strip will also have continuity and character development, but absolutely no plot development, and it’s actually harder to do. Keep that in mind next time that you read Penny Arcade and think that it’s easy…

At any rate, there are three things to keep in mind before you start plotting. These are:

1) The outline should adapt to the script, not the script be forced to adapt to the outline.

The first is to bear in mind that the script will quickly get away from your outline when you start writing; this is not only to be expected, but is a good thing. It shows that the script is a living breathing thing, and you need to let it flow rather than restrict it. Use your outline merely as a guide, and adapt it to the script rather than forcing the script to follow the outline.

Be aware that you will encounter issues when you are writing the script that was not foreseen by your outline. Something that looked really cool when you were outlining the script may not be as cool when you start writing it. Also, you may come up with a better solution to a problem, and hesitate to move away from your outline. Remember that the outline is just a guide, not a rule; it was made to be changed!

2) Kill your darlings without mercy.

When you write a script, you will of course write some really cool scene and then realize that it doesn’t fit the script. In fact, it may be the best scene that you’ve ever written. You may even be tempted to rewrite the script so that it fits the scene. Don’t. Delete it immediately or paste into a file for later review; no matter what, get that scene out of your script, and do so without regret or mercy.

The issue is that one scene should not define your script, and it may hard to live up to that one scene. Rather, a script needs to be a collection of scenes that go together, one leading to the next, which leads to the next, and so on. One scene, no matter how powerful and cool, will not make your script; you need a number of them. Therefore, don’t be afraid to cut the scene, and possibly go back and do something with it. At the same time, don’t feel that you have let someone down if you never use that scene or forget about it. Being a great writer sometimes means leaving something behind; dude, you’re a writer, not a marine (even if you are a marine; you’re a writer first, and a scene is not a wounded soldier).

3) Even [insert favorite writer] had an off day.

You’re allowed an off day, and you will have one. The words don’t flow, or that scene just isn’t working out right or whatever; you just can’t write. That’s cool; you can occasionally step away from the keyboard. After all, there are just some times when you need to party and forget the world you were living in.

However, don’t use it as an excuse to take long periods of time off. If you do, think long and hard if you’re a writer. Of course, if you do, you’re not really are you? After all, a real writer would fantasize about a long holiday from writing, think about someplace really, really fun, and then just smirk as he returned to keyboard. Being a writer is the unusual mentality of ignoring common sense and realizing that it’s the best thing you could do…

Hmm....guess it's time to look at plotting...

Don’t be an ice cream truck!

Okay, so I’m called in to this post the other day (so I’m a rent-a-cop; leave me alone!), and I don’t have time to fix dinner. This means that I’m stuck in the suburbs, with no fast food places to grab something quick at.

So, I hear this ice cream truck come by. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t come close to my post, but seems to come really close. That got aggravating really quick. About an hour later, another truck comes by, but just doesn’t stop. Suffice to say, I just don’t like ice cream trucks right now.

So, what do these have to do with marketing? An ice cream truck is a simple business; the basic idea is that you drive a truck around hoping to find customers that buy your product, and stop when you find someone that wants it. Although it can be hard to miss you, you need to be going slow enough so that your customers can catch you, and you need to make sure that you’re in the right place to make some sales. Not to mention that timing is everything; see many ice cream trucks during winter?

A webcomic doesn’t need to be seasonal, but can benefit from it (holiday strips can be very cool!). However, the lesson here is to avoid advertising like an ice cream truck: You just can’t grab attention and then disappear. Also, you need to be available for anyone that wants to read your strip.

You need to have some sort of advertising that works even when you don’t, and this marketing needs to be around a lot of places. In a way, this is why I suggest advertising in your signature in every forum you post in; that gives you a dependable marketing area. Also, link exchanges; by exchanging links, you get your ad on someone else’s site. And if you can advertise through such sites as BuzzComix, do it! And definitely look for other ways to advertise; Comics Day, for example.

More importantly, you need to update regularly. People need to be able to plan on seeing your comic; otherwise, they may look at it a lot, but will stop coming if you don’t put it up according to some sort of schedule. You can argue that your true fans will stick with you, and that not being constrained by regular limits is a good thing, but it’s not as cool as you would think.

In short, buy ice cream from a truck, but don’t be use it as an example of how to market your business…

How big is your comic?

Before you get too serious about plotting out your comic, you need to decide which audience you are shooting for. Your audience will determine a lot about your comic.

Consider that, when it comes to law enforcement, there are several different types of agencies: bureaus, sheriffs, highway patrol, police departments, and security guards. Each one has its limitations and jurisdictions; those define the law enforcement agency, and what it does.

A bureau is the most geographically unlimited agency. At the international level, national, and state levels, they can pursue lawbreakers within their jurisdictions, and can call on a lot of resources that the other agencies just can’t touch. However, it faces two major limitations: First, their investigations must be within their bailiwick (so that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, for example, can only deal with crimes that deal with alcohol, tobacco, and firearms; if the crime involves drugs, they can only notify that agency). Second, they need to worry about things that will affect a lot of people, not just a very local area; if the investigation shows that the crime is localized, they will usually turn it over to the local authorities.

Highway patrols are the second most ranging, but they are limited to traffic crimes; they do have some investigative patrolman, but they are limited to crimes involving vehicles and roads. They have a lot of power in those areas (especially given their isolation), but have limited jurisdiction.

Sheriffs have a lot of power locally, but must bow to the other agencies first. This isn’t to say that they are weak; just very focused on a specific locality. Although there is some competition with bureaus (as some investigations may be under different jurisdictions, due to the laws being broken and scope of the crime), the sheriff usually takes care of crimes that affect the county.

The police department takes care of the rest of the crimes. As such, they tend to deal the most with jurisdiction issues (being the low man on the totem pole, after all), and tend to deal with the most heinous crimes.

Oh, and let’s not forget security personnel; although limited to citizen arrest powers, they do help in some investigations, as well as catching some crooks. They have very limited powers, and extremely limited areas. And they automatically fold when it comes to jurisdiction issues, as they have none.

So, where does you comic fit into this? Most comics are like security guards; they are generally limited to jokes specific to a specific game or genre, and are most funny to your friends and family, but, well, just aren’t ready for general release. These are more in-jokes and other weirdness than anything else. Just post them, and let it go.

Good gaming comics and “artsy” strips (those trying to do something experimental or just more interested in the art) are like police departments in that they tend to be well-known is specific circles, and get a lot of word of mouth, but don’t really get fans. They may get the occasional reader, but have problems sustaining those numbers over a period of time. Some graduate to sheriff status, and actually get some fame, and tend to make a lot of “READ THIS!” lists, but are usually limited to a specific forum or group. Think Jhonen Vasquez strips; although interesting, they have a limited range of fans. A lot of comics at Drunk Duck and Comic Genesis fit these criteria. Most of the income associated with these strips (ad it’s not much!) comes from the donation button.

Highway patrol is where a lot of genre-strips and slice-of-life comics end up. Although they tend to have a specific focus, they tend to cover a lot of ground (this is where Sex Percussions fits in; it focuses on a specific group of people, but tends to make fun a lot genre conventions). Generally, fantasy comics make up the bulk, but there are a lot college strips and other fun stuff in this category. These strips are fun to read, and tend to attract a certain notoriety; tend to think Keenspot or Spider Forest type of comic strips. At this stage, you can add merchandise, and some of it may actually sell!

The majors are the bureaus. These are the strips that just don’t bother with the Top Ten lists (such as Buzzcomix); they have enough readers as is, and even show up in news stories about webcomics. They sell merchandise, get a lot of donations, and tend to have fans that follow the artists around. At worst, they have some notoriety (such as MegaTokyo) or stir up some controversy on their own (such as Penny Arcade or PvP).

At any rate, figure out where you belong, and plan your marketing accordingly…