Friday, July 22, 2011

An editor's agony

(Image unrelated. I made it for fun!)

I've been reading through some Get Fuzzy collections recently, and I haven't exactly enjoyed it. I know it's generally considered one of the few good newspaper comics left, but I found the collections I read to be more miss than hit. Some of it comes from its tendency to fall back on gross-out humor and that not being my thing, but a lot of the misses felt more like half-baked jokes. Darby Conley was phoning it in.

That is the big consequence of doing a daily comic: The time restrictions mean you can't possibly sit around and nurture all ideas until they blossom into greatness. Sometimes you have to force things to meet your deadline. Every daily cartoonist is allowed the occasional misfire, as a return to glory is always only a day away. The problem is when you fall into constant, "well, of course it's rushed! It's a daily!" mentality. What I perceived in these Get Fuzzy books was the work of a creator who was throwing EVERY idea he had out there to fill space until he could hit upon a new story that would inspire him.

For example, there was one Sunday strip where Satchel brought a friend back from one of his dog support groups, a police dog. The police dog spent most of the strip being overly officious, spouting regulations. Then he saw a cat and shuddered, because he has a problem chasing them. The end. There's no flow at all. He created a character, made the character do things and tacked on an ending unrelated to build-up. (I can give him credit and say he was *trying* to show a strong character had a weakness, but that's not how it read.) The strip feels like he got an idea, started fleshing it out and hit a brick wall - but ran it anyway.

I notice this stuff because it's a trap I've certainly fallen into before. I rationalize that I can always right the wrongs the next day and run strips not made with the care they deserved. I was at my worst probably when SCAD was taking up all my time, and my readers certainly were not pleased with it. My low point probably came with strips #621 and #622 - when I chose not to draw the interior of Kaitlyn's house because it was too much work, result in kids wandering through a blank panel and me just telling you what had happened in the titles and alt text. Lazy. Lazy. Lazy.

And that's just the pitfalls on the art side. Another downfall of a daily cartoonist, which I saw often in the Get Fuzzy books, is the reluctance to reject strip ideas. Deadlines always loom, and the idea of scrapping one strip, much less entire stories, is incredibly risky if one doesn't have more ideas to use as replacements. Telling every little detail is great for the cartoonist, as it keeps the material flowing, but it can easily turn to arc fatigue for the readers. Again, I certainly stretched some stories out in this way to keep pace with the daily demand. A lot of times you can even get away with it - but do it too much and you risk losing an already highly-fickle readership.

Recently, I've tried to edit myself a lot more than usual. After two very long arcs, I set myself a goal of telling stories over the course of one week. It's harder than you'd think to tell something from start to finish in seven daily strips. You can't stray too far from the point, and most detours have to be excised. I have no idea how successful I was at this venture, but it was certainly a good experience for me. Almost all of the week-long stories could have stretched out a week or two longer - and sometimes readers got angry that I didn't expand on things - but I'm glad I stuck to my guns.

The current "Compensated Endorsers" arc was originally meant to be another week-long story, but I decided enough time had passed that I could indulge myself in expanding it. Even so, the first of the arc can easily stand on its own separate from the rest. In fact, I originally planned on breaking up the story and inserting a random week-long story between them. (Maybe I should have gone through with it?)

With the decision to expand the story into an arc, I started planning things out and jotting down ideas. I mapped out motives, plot, characters and all the fun stuff. I looked at the natural progression of things and got a good sense of the story. Then I took a chainsaw to everything, and I couldn't be happier about it.

I looked at editing this current story from the approach of editing a 45-minute TV show. A show of that length is long enough to run something of substance - but maybe not long enough to run it with as much detail and depth as a writer would like. I think of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series DVDs, where watching deleted scenes suddenly gave otherwise random scenes some context. With the time limit, some edits are brutal. Minor plots that made it into the shooting script are hacked away for time. It can bug you a little, but the sacrifice was made so the MAIN story could be told. I'm not saying it's a GOOD thing, as ideally you write concisely to get it ALL in, but I'm proud of myself for making the tough cuts when I needed to make them.

Why did Dionne act friendly with Bud? We never really find out, because plot points related to her motives were axed. (You can ask me about it after the arc is finished if you want.) Shouldn't the casting guy get a proper introduction and name? Maybe, but the plot doesn't suffer at all with me cutting right to the chase. There were WEEKS of material I could have covered dealing with the other kids angling for the role and the owner of the bakery - but all those characters were wiped away. They were distractions to the story, and thus not important enough. The end result is a 22-strip story in place of one that could have run for 50 instead. It's tighter. It's stronger. It's better. (And, for the record, the 22nd strip is only there because I edited the next week's scripts down to only six days of material.) I'm not sure this arc will ever enter into the top tier of Precocious stories, but I'm proud of it anyway.

This is still an evolving process, and I'm sure I'll be annoyed that I didn't fine-tune the strips further after a few months. I'm still making mistakes due to the time crunch. I'm still not always as sharp with my writing as I'd like to be. I still struggle with backgrounds and complex scenes, often resulting in me reverting to a cheap close-up that takes much less time to draw and color. Some days I have no choice but to show a bunch of talking heads against a background void. I have a long way to go. Point is, I'm learning from my mistakes and I care about getting better. I have no intention of coasting through my updates just to get them done. Precocious is my life right now, and I want to make it as good as it can be. Editing myself means I'm far more rushed at the moment that I could be, but my archives should be a much nicer place because of it.

(Yes, folks, I'm aware of the irony in writing a long, rambling blog post about how vital it is to edit long, rambling stories.)

1 comment:

Greg said...

I've never said to myself, "I wonder when this story is finally going to end." So, call that a success!