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Part 1 of our conversation (episode 017)
NB: This transcript has not been checked for accuracy. I apologise for any errors.
Karen Beilharz: Welcome to Hiveminded Podcast, an occasional and seasonal podcast about the creative arts and the people who create them. My name is Karen Beilharz and I’m coming to you from Sydney, Australia.
During this mini season of the podcast, we are focusing on comic creators. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down all the conventions and zine fairs where I would normally see my friends in the Australian comic scene, I thought instead it would be fun to catch up with them and interview them about comics, and ask them all the little niggly questions I’ve always wanted to ask them about their projects and their creative processes.
This episode contains the second part of my conversation with comic creators Queenie Chan and Ryan K Lindsay.
If you’re not familiar with them, Queenie Chan is a manga artist and comic creator, known for her Picnic at Hanging Rock-inspired horror trilogy, The Dreaming; her collaborations with Dean Koontz and Kylie Chan; the fairytale-inspired fantasy adventure Fabled Kingdom; and a series of children’s non-fiction works about famous queens throughout history.
Ryan K Lindsay is an award-winning writer known for such works as Headspace, which is set inside the mind of a serial killer; Negative Space, in which his main character goes to pen a suicide note and gets writer’s block; Beautiful Canvas, a crime miniseries about a hit woman trying to reconcile her profession with her role as a mother-to-be; and Everfrost, a science fiction miniseries about a woman on the brink of death who comes face-to-face with the son who died in her arms as a child.
Whereas in Part 1 in the previous episode, Queenie, Ryan and I talked about our comic creator origin stories, the genres and tropes that we are drawn to, and how we actually go about writing comics, in part 2 of our conversation, we discuss where we start with a project, how we think about stories, how we keep going when the going gets tough, the things we’re good at and the things we’d like to improve, and the projects that are currently obsessing us.
We hope that you enjoy it.
KB: So just thinking when you get an idea or a character—I guess you’ve talked a little bit about this—but how do you go about fleshing it out and working on it? ’Cause I know that, Ryan, you talk about breaking stories: how do you go about doing that? Seems very violent! [Laughter]
Ryan K Lindsay: It’s certainly a laborious—I find I just—so once I really sink my teeth into a character or a story and want to develop it and commit to it, I commit a notebook to it, and then I just go through and write down question after question after question, and then answer them and draw arrows back, and I cross stuff out. And I just feel like I end up writing a dozen versions of different possibilities. And then just start cutting off possibilities that aren’t getting me excited about the story or that don’t fit or make sense anymore the more I explore and unpack it.
So, yeah, it usually stems with me having a character and me being, “What are they like?” or “Who’s around them who matters to them?”—all this sort of stuff. And then, “What problem are they facing?”, “Why is it a problem?”, “Why can’t they overcome it?” And I find the actual act of writing the question down so that I can then write what the answer will be is much better than just sitting there and trying to do it in my head. I find that that—I don’t know; it just doesn’t yield a result. For some reason, my brain just seems to work well with pen and paper.
And so, I do that for the character and the character, and then I start going, “All right, well, who are some of the other main characters?” Maybe, some locations. Maybe some MacGuffin-y-type things. And then I just start writing plot out. The moment the plot stops flowing, I’ll ask a question: “Well, what could they do now?” and I’ll write down three options of branching narratives, and go, “All right: well, this is the one I’m going to go down.” And sometimes it’s the wrong one and I’ll dedicate ten pages to that, and then go, “All right. Well, that’s dead” and have to sort of like scrub it out. But I might steal bits out of it. But, yeah, just becomes lots of writing and writing and writing and writing.
And then I’ll try to do, like, a diagram. And so I’ll try to map it out over, like, a five-act structure. And I’ll do that over two pages and I’ll draw out the arc and start to arrow in where different moments should occur. And that’s sort of, I guess, my way of checking that what I’ve done is working or makes sense. I don’t like starting with those plot diagrams, but I find they’re just ingrained in us: we know them from childhood. We understand how stories work, and we understand why they’re satisfying, and we understand when they’re being broken up into different things and for reasons. But to actually consciously do it, I find that it’s good to use it almost as, like, a quick measuring lens of what I’ve got. ’Cause often it will show me one act that’s just a bit lacking, and I’ll go, “Oh yeah, that is thin there” or “Oh yeah, it doesn’t quite set up the broken climax of the character so they can get to the proper climax.” And so there’s different elements like that that go into that.
But I don’t know if it just comes from a history of constantly in my head doubting myself and questioning everything that I’m doing, and so that’s my process—of just asking again and asking again, and just getting stuck in a loop. But this time, externalising it into the notebook—whether that is what works. But even then, I’ll find, once the plot works, I’ll—much like I do at the start of the notebook, where I’ll write the character and I’ll just write down all their information, I’ll do a new page for the character and then write it down again, because it’s almost updated. There are certain things from the character that’s half a notebook ago, and some of those pieces I’ve retconned out of the story and don’t fit. So I write the new character down and it helps me f—like we said before, like, polish it—things away and bring things to the fore.
So, yeah, it is just this manic John Doe in Seven-style diary entries of just [Laughter] insanity and—and then hopefully, it—what I get to is a point where I can say, “All right: I have, like, a four-page synopsis in my notebook. I can type that up into about two pages and it’s clear and concise. And everything else that matters is either still in my head or if I’ve forgotten it, it’s probably not important to the character or there’s something.” If there’s a great thing that’s going to happen, it should be so good that I won’t forget it.
Yeah, I think, years ago, I remember Stephen King saying that if you have a good idea and you need to write it down, well, maybe it wasn’t that good, because it should have stuck with you. Which I disagree with a little bit, ’cause my memory is terrible for just everything. But I think after a while, if I’ve been living with this story for six months in a notebook, I should know the parts that are going to pop. And I have done this, where I’ve gone back into notebooks and gone, “Oh yeah! I did say this thing was going to happen, but I didn’t put it in the script, and I didn’t something better.” That thing wasn’t important as long as I got the story arc. It’s like if you were rewriting Hansel and Gretel and you just wrote the plot down, when it comes time to “Do they leave breadcrumbs or do they tear leaves off or snap branches?”, that’s just polishing the chassis. You could do that however you want, and hopefully you’ll come up with the best version of it, whenever you write it. But as long as you know the structure, I think that’s what gets me to plotting versus pantsing. I very much have to plot it out. But when I sit it down, I still want to be excited. I still want to have moments of discovery. And I want to be allowed to break away from that form, so I don’t want to have a plot that’s so laboriously written out that it really is just everything, and then I’m transcribing it. I think that would take away—
Although, in saying that, when I sit down to write the comic script, sometimes I just want to discover how it will translate to the page. So I want enough of the story existing in my head or in a notebook or in the synopsis, and then I can sit down and go, “All right: how do I best use comics to make it pop on this one page?” if that makes sense.
KB: Interesting. Yeah. So do you gravitate towards the five-act structure? Do you mix it up and use different ones for different projects?
RKL: That’s usually the one that I find, even if I haven’t been thinking about it, my stories have lent themselves to that anyway. But I find that structure just really clear and it really delineates—I mean, it’s just—it really is the same arc as the three-act structure, but I really just break it down a little smoother in my head. And it also helps with comics if you’re selling, like, you know, a miniseries, you can usually do the first two acts in the first issue, and then each other issue is Acts 3, 4 and 5. So it kind of does generally, roughly speaking, balance itself out.
KB: Yeah. And so, where would you put yourself on the pantser versus plotter continuum—or gardener? [Laughter]
RKL: I definitely think I plot more than anything else. I’m happy to have happy accidents along the way. But I won’t pitch a story to a publisher unless I really know what’s going to happen. So a lot of my discovery is in the plotting and in the synopsis and stuff like that.
And I think I then have the benefit of when I’m writing it, I mean, you hear about writers who say, “Well, I already know the story now and I’ve already written the synopsis; what’s the fun of writing it again?” But I get it to write it in this way where I’m setting it up for an artist, and so I’m thinking about every tool that comics had in its war chest to bring it to life. The analogy, I think, that would be best is like saying a director doesn’t feel like, “Oh well, I guess I’m just filming the script; the story already exists.” They’re bringing it to life! And I feel like the comic script gets to do that and the artist, then, really really does that. But before I get there, I definitely need to know that I have confidence that I can tell the story to a satisfying conclusion. So I plot plot plot plot as much as I can.
And then, you see what happens. I know with Headspace, again, there were eight short issues in that. And I had this beat at the end of Issue #6, and we’re really starting to lean into those final two acts. And I had this beat at the end of Issue #6 and I scripted it, and I sent the script off to Eric, and as I did, he’d sent me an email at the same time, and he was, like, “Ooh, you know what should happen at the end of Issue #6 is this totally different thing!” [Laughter] And I was, like, “Ohhh, no, he’s right!” [Laughter] “It’s such a good idea!” So I was, like, “Well, ignore the email you just got from me. This script is going to have to be fixed.” And I rewrote the second half of it. And ultimately the story structure became still the exact same thing, but we just tweaked it in this one beat to do something different. And that was really fun and exciting.
And I think collaborating with artists is cool because they come with that knowledge of story as well. So they’re going to have their input as to what goes on. So that part’s pretty exciting too. So I never feel bored, even after I’ve plotted it out fairly intricately.
KB: Mmm, yeah, I love that—that they make you better [Laughter]—whoever you’re collaborating with, which is fantastic.
RKL: Every single time!
KB: Yeah. Queenie, how ’bout you? Where does it start with—if you’ve got a story idea, what do you do with it? How do you break it down and flesh it out and run with it?
QC: Wow. I think I’m going to be different to everyone, because I actually don’t brainstorm on paper. Everyone else I know does. I’m just, like, brain—sit there and brainstorm in my head. Everyone’s like, “How do you remember this stuff?” And I have no trouble remembering it, so I don’t know what my secret it. [Laughter] I’m not sure if I have one! [Laughter]
I think for me, is that—oh look, I’ve written a lot of stories—some long, some short—and if you’re talking about how do I plot, it’s just very simple: like, these days, if it’s a short story and the same if it’s a long story, is that I just go, beginning, middle, end, you know? A very, very general idea of where the story’s heading. And sometimes these stories are very, very simple—on a simple emotional arc.
While we’re on the subject earlier, I’ll talk about the game that I’m making. It’s like you’re trying to rescue your grandfather from hell. Like, it actually happens partially in the afterlife. And so, this guy who raised you, who you always thought to be a great human being, turned out to be imprisoned in hell. This is Chinese hell, so it’s not a Christian hell. And you don’t know why, because he never really talks about his past. But you’re able to be free—to free him from his imprisonment, which is partly mental and emotional: you have to find out what it is—his one greatest regret in his mortal life was. It’s like it’s simple beginning, middle and end. One of his regrets turned out to be something to do with a very good friend of his. So that is it. And it’s all the other details that happen—all the people you meet; all the random stuff that happens; all the weird, crazy stuff that happens; all the murder mysteries that you run into, or whatever—it’s like they’re just things that you hang along this particular emotional journey, and this clothing line, basically, of the plot. And so, that’s where I make plots these days. I start off with something very simple and then just randomly hang stuff on the clothesline just like they were pieces of clothing.
And I think this works a lot better than some of the other stuff that I’ve tried. It’s like I find that when I plot too much on paper, it’s that I often don’t end up using a lot of the stuff. And it’s just like, “What is the point?” Like, why am I writing out all this stuff and then a lot of it just doesn’t get used? All that energy and time I could have spent drawing it out or doing something else, it’s like why write so much? ’Cause I find that things change all the time in stories. You know? Characters that you thought you were going to do something and they turn out not to be doing something, and so on and so forth. So I just don’t take that plotting out method so much these days, ’cause I find that, end of the day, the emotional arc is what really matters.
And of course, things have to make sense. It still has to be good, and people still got to still enjoy your story, and they still got to, you know, make sense in that way—particularly with the mystery story. But because of that, I just go by feeling more so than by plotting.
And I find that it works for me as well. And this is for both long and short stories, but for long stories particularly, I deliberately don’t write anything down, because I think when it comes to long stories—stories that can go on for quite a while—is that it all comes down to the characters and whether you even, as a writer, want to spend time with them. I think about how much time we’re spending with these people in your head. You know, do you even like these people? Like, are they all that interesting? And that’s the thing: I find that with really long stories where the characters actually are going to be around for a while, it’s really, really important that I leave them alone in my head without writing anything down until they come across to me as almost like actual people. And your impression of them is so strong that you don’t need to look at notes or—and I try and do a character design for them, so I have an idea of how I might picture them in my head if I see them sitting in front of me during a scene or talking to someone—it’s like what they would say, what they would do, any weird mannerisms they might have. And it’s like I feel that by the time that, years later, and sometimes it happens years later, you get a grasp of who these people actually are—like, impressions of them. I think being an artist really important, here, as well, because I have to draw them. And whatever their mannerisms are, that has to come across in the artwork as well. So once you get a strong enough impression of them, they kind of feel like friends to you. And I think that is really helpful, because then they become fully three-dimensional in your mind, and they have likes and dislikes, and they want to do certain things. And it may not be what you want them to do, but because they much grown a third mind in your head, it’s like you then just sit them there, ’cause you have such a strong impression of who they are and how they might interact with certain kinds of people—just dump them in a room and see what they do.
And very often, they do entertaining stuff, because they’re often entertaining people. They may or may not be annoying, but if you at least like them enough to actually want to sit down and watch them do their thing. So that’s probably how I do my longer stories, the ones that sit in my head for years, because if a character’s boring, you know, no matter how awesome the plot that you’ve created for them is, it’s like you eventually swap them out for someone else who’s more interesting. So I find that having a really strong impression of your characters that lives entirely in your mind is incredibly important, because then your impression of them becomes so strong that they can actually go from story to story, and they’ll still be an interesting person, no matter what the setting is.
KB: Yeah. Interesting.
QC: So this comes right back to my character thing, where I think characterisations is probably the most important thing, ’cause that’s how you—well, you create characters that people love and want to hang out with.
This is especially a problem when you’ve done a lot of stories, and they may or may not—’cause I’ve written so many stories and I’ve worked on other people’s stories, and it’s like, “Can I remember accurately each of my characters’ impressions when they’re from a long story, short story?”, blah blah blah, so on. ’Cause it is very easy: you know who the forgettable ones are, after a while. And so you try and avoid these kinds of qualities.
So sometimes some characters are written, because I need a short six-page story and here you go, here’s a character. She’s a, you know, stand-in for all twelve-year-olds, or whatever [Laughter] like that. And that happens from time to time. But then that gives you a good grasp of what is it about this character that isn’t interesting versus this character who is interesting to you?
KB: Does the character, once you’ve drawn it, does the character become more real or does it not matter, whether or not you’ve drawn it yet?
QC: It absolutely helps. Sometimes I create characters based on character designs, ’cause they look so interesting. And it’s always a challenge in manga—I mean, there is this stereotype that all manga characters look the same. But the truth is, all superhero characters look the same as well. [Laughter] It’s not like Western-style of art is definitely a lot more interesting than manga-style. It’s just that this is how a human being looks like, right?
But sometimes you do come across character designs that are just cool-looking, for whatever reason. And when they’re expressive enough, sometimes you just develop a character for them. Like for example, I remember this one character who I was developing. And she looked pretty normal—until, because of a relationship she had with someone else, I gave her a really, really big and loudmouthed personality. And she’s just one of those people who just won’t shut up—just go on and on and on. And I just—eventually that caused me to give her a really, really massive mouth. Like, larger than usual mouth. [Laughter] And you can do that with, if you exaggerate character—depending on their style, obviously if you’re doing realistic-looking characters, it won’t look—it will look very strange. But with manga, you can kind of stretch these qualities, and suddenly you have a unique character design, whereas previously, the character looked kind of boring, because she wasn’t meant to be a main character, just someone who appears at certain times in the story. And now I had someone who suddenly had potential, because she had such an unusual-looking face that is different to all the other characters I’ve designed. You know, so sometimes things like that can happen—is that characters can grow from designs alone, and grow personality traits. So I definitely do try and do character designs.
And interestingly enough, my character designs don’t change much. As a designer, that’s how it’s always been. You know, there’s a lot of people, when they do character designs, they do a wide range of stuff—they do three, four, five, six—and then they choose someone—a character that they like from that, or just—they show it to other people. I’ve actually only ever designed one to two characters. This includes people that I’ve worked with as an illustrator: here’s a brief (?) description, create something, and so [I] was like, “Here’s my one character design for your character.” And they’re, like, “Yeah, that looks great! Yeah, go with it.” [Laughter]
QC: You know? So I’ve never had an issue where people didn’t think my design suited the character unless I really was wildly off the mark—like, completely wild—as in, “This person’s meant to be a handsome 23-year-old man and he looks like a middle-aged, bearded angry guy” [Laughter] and it’s like, “Okay, so he’s meant to be a handsome 23-year-old man, as opposed to a middle-aged, angry, bearded guy. Fine.” Or maybe this guy’s supposed to be a—one of the characters for my Dean Koontz book, in the original book, he said he was a wrinkly sheriff with sagging jowls, and I drew someone—an ugly dude that basically looked like a bulldog. You know? He was fat, balding and, literally, drooping jowls, and it’s like, it turns out he’s meant to be a handsome, 50-something-year-old guy—like Kurt Russell or something [Laughter]. It’s like, “That’s wildly off the book’s description, man! The book said he’s like a 50-year-old guy with sagging jowls.” It’s like “What did you expect me to think?” But, no it turned out to—you know, “Not that kind of sagging; the good kind of sagging!” [Laughter] You know. [Laughter]
KB: “The good kind of sagging!”
QC: So it’s like it’s always—you know, that’s the funny thing about working with prose writers is that from their descriptions, you assume someone is … a character actor, [Laughter] if you want to be nice about it. [Laughter] And then you ask them—it’s like, “No! He’s meant to be … handsome!” [Laughter] “He’s actually really handsome. Just old!” [Laughter] It’s like books and prose novels are obviously full of really good-looking people who are very sexually attractive. You’ll never know from reading their descriptions, but from talking to their authors, everybody is very hot. [Laughter]
KB: Of course!
QC: Yeah, that’s the joke. But I definitely think character designs can go a long a way.
KB: Yeah. So it’s interesting: so what you’re doing for other creators is a little bit different from what you do for your own characters, because it sounds like, from what you were saying, you have a particular idea of your character even before you draw them—
KB: —and the modification’s afterwards are, in a way, that’s pantsing/discovery thing, where you discover something about them in the course of using them and writing them, like your character who, all of a sudden, had this big mouth and stuff. So—
QC: Yeah. That doesn’t happen often, though. I would argue it’s an interactive process. ’Cause sometimes you get ideas from other people’s amazing character designs as well. And so, you do [your] own riff on them, and then entire worlds are born. And that’s got nothing to do with anything that I came up with: I just saw this cool character design by some person and you come up with a completely different story based on that purely. I’m like I’ve had that happen. A lot of these stories don’t hold up, because, at the end of the day, a character design isn’t compelling enough for them to be born an entire universe. There has to be else there that is interesting. But I would argue that, generally, an interactive process is that it goes from back to front—though there are characters that are pretty much born whole cloth with their character designs intact already.
And I guess it does come down to the importance of the character of the plot as well, because with character designs, you do want the main cast have the most interesting and attractive and easy-to-recognise designs, and the secondary cast to be whatever. And there is a way to design characters that look like they would be NPCs [non-player character] and characters that look like they would be the main character in a story, because they have that distinguish—that X factor. It’s just like real life: it’s like some people, you pass them in the street and it’s, like, you don’t notice them, ’cause they’re so average-looking, and other people, it’s like, they may not be conventionally attractive, but they have that X factor. [Laughter] You can’t stop looking at them. And character designs are the same. Like, it’s a very, very hard thing to get right, in my opinion.
But when you do get it right, you can actually attract a lot of readers, because of the power of aesthetics, I suppose. It’s like when you’ve got a really good-looking guy and people think that [he’s] conventionally good-looking by cartoon standards and really easy to remember, and it’s like people do remember you.
And the thing about character designs is not just about the way a person looks; it’s about how they meld with that entire cast and that entire universe. So everything comes into it—the architecture, the clothing, the way that things look, the clutter that you have in a room—that sort of thing all comes through the universe. And there are some career artists who are really, really good at doing that. I think I’m just completely average at doing that. I don’t think I’m great at background design at all. If you look at other artists who do that kind of stuff—how much of their personality they can bring to a character from what their room looks like—that is all part of characterisation as well. But I’ve never been good at that. And I don’t think I have the patience or attention to detail to be good at that, unfortunately.
KB: Can you talk a bit more about—you were saying earlier, when you think about story, you’re hanging all these things up on a washing line, in a way. Like, how do you know what to hang—what would stay and what you might reject? Because Ryan was talking about how he asks questions about his characters and what they might do, and then rejects certain possibilities. And then, also thinks about how the story fits on a five-act structure, just to make sure he’s hitting certain beats and establishing certain things. How do you do it, Queenie?
QC: I go from just more internal rhythm, I guess. After writing for a while, you get used to a certain kind of rhythm. But more importantly, well, I think the real challenge is not finding things to hang on your clothes line. You’re going to have a million things that you want to hang on your clothesline. And some of them are more interesting than others, so obviously you just take the most interesting stuff.
Obviously that’s still a lot of stuff. But the real hard part is juggling all these bits and making sure that that particular piece of clothing gets to the end of the story arc intact, and doesn’t implode halfway. Story threads, when you start them, as in new questions about these characters—new questions about the universe—new questions about the murder mystery that you’re going into—all these story threads, they’re very easy to open up. It’s very easy to throw a big question mark in the middle of a story, or at the beginning of a story, make your readers go, “Oh!”, you know, “This is not what I thought it would be.” It’s very easy to do that. What is hard is sustaining it and giving it a good resolution.
So I think that is the major challenge: it’s easy enough to find stuff to hang on your clothesline, but how do you resolve it? And how do you tie it up with all these loose strands in your story? How do you resolve it up to the point that the reader is satisfied? ’Cause sometimes you do need to leave story threads open just so you can have a sequel [Laughter]. Or just so you can write it in your notes, “Yes, I did think about that. So it’s not like I didn’t.” But the challenge comes from being able to put everything together in a neat little package.
And there are some story threads that you can’t resolve. And you do it—when you hang a bunch of stuff on your clothesline—your best, most interesting story threads—that’s the stuff that’s going to make a reader go, “Ah! Oh my God! I’ve got to find out what happens next. I want to know more about this mystery.” It’s easy enough to come up with stuff like that. But if you can’t resolve it, no matter how entertaining that story plot started, you gotta nix it. And that’s sad, but maybe it might belong in a different story—like, whatever amazing plot twist that you’ve just thrown in there. ’Cause there is a plot twist graph as well through your story, if you’re going to do the plot twist thing. At some point in time, that plot twist is going to come and it’s going to have the right kind of payoff. Because if you have a plot twist and everyone can see it coming from a mile away, then that’s not much of a payoff. Or if it doesn’t make sense, it’s not a payoff either. Or if it’s not emotionally satisfying, it’s not a payoff. And so these are the hardest things to do. And if you cannot carry a storyline—a random story thread—to its best ending, then you just might as well drop the whole thing. And that happens a lot.
And sometimes unexpected emotional moments come from plot threads that intersect with others. And suddenly this thing that you didn’t expect appears—like, this emotional entanglement suddenly happens, and you weren’t expecting it, but it happens and you’re like, “Wow!” you know? “I thought this plot thread was a total mess and that it wouldn’t work out, but then it intersects with another plot thread” or some other element from your story, and then it’s like, “Ta da!” A new twist on the ending, or a—not a completely different ending, but a different angle to do the ending from. So suddenly it subverts your own expectations, despite you being the writer—
QC: —of a particular story. So I guess that’s how I figure out what I want.
And it’s a complicated process. And it takes months and months to get a good, satisfying story. And it comes from your own personal experiences as well—what you’re going through at that time. Maybe you go out, you meet someone, you see something, you watch a movie, you get some new ideas, and it’s like, “Oh, I can put that in my story. Oh, that’s one way you could tackle an emotional moment like this.” And so on and so forth.
KB: So it does seem to happen more in your head—the pruning—as you—
KB: —explore certain possibilities and then reject them and go with others.
QC: Yeah. Like I said before, I find it’s more of an emotional process for me, and there’s an internal feeling about something. And if I’m not emotionally satisfied, there is no way a reader’s going to be emotionally satisfied. If you don’t believe in the power of your own story, there’s just no point.
And that’s—maybe that’s why I don’t write things down, because I feel that it loses its power when I’m reading over my notes—is that doesn’t feel the same way [Laughter]. So if something is goddamn amazing and mind-blowing, plot twisty awesomeness, you’ll remember it. You don’t need to write it down, ’cause it is so “Oh!”—mindblowing to even you.
And if you can’t impress yourself a lot, then don’t bother trying to impress your readers, ’cause they’re not going to be impressed.
KB: That’s interesting. So I feel like I’m a bit more on the plotting side in that I need to know the end, but I don’t always know how I’m going to get there. And sometimes the writing part is a bit more like just colouring in the bits that I’ve already established. But I feel like—well, this novel that I’m working on at the moment, a prose novel, I know that there’s going to be about roughly 16 chapters, I know exactly what’s happening in each chapter and even the breakdown of some of the scenes, but I don’t always know exactly how some of the scenes are going, if that makes sense—or how they’ll unfurl. And that unknown part, I guess, keeps me interested, instead of—like, I know some people who go, “Oh, I know the end. What’s the point?” I don’t quite know how it’s going to unfurl; I just know that it’s going to unfurl this way [Laughter] in a way. I know the end result and what’s going to happen. But that’s interesting.
When you’re in the middle of a project and you’re in the saggy middle, how do you motivate yourself to keep going? Ryan?
RKL: I’ve often found writing a first issue is pretty fun and pretty easy, ’cause you’re asking all these questions and you’re introducing all this awesome stuff. I often find, though, the second issue, I’m usually really satisfied with, and that I start to capitalise on what’s set up. I actually quite enjoy—it almost worries me sometimes that I feel like I do some of the best or better stuff in the second issue, and I’m like, “Oh, I wish we could have put that in the first and made it more of a hook.” So perhaps I need to restructure things going forward, I don’t know.
But the middle of the story: I don’t know. I find—and maybe it’s because I have a lot of the plotting worked out, so if I think about when I’m plotting the story and I’m not getting that churn towards the end and it’s not coming together, I think putting down a really terrible version of what’s going to happen is my path forward, and just going, “All right, then they’re going to do this and this and this and that gets them to a really unsatisfying end. Awesome!” And I close the notebook and I walk away, and I do something else for like a solid fortnight. And then I come back to the story and those notes, and really start to analyse, “All right: what’s boring? What’s not working? What are we missing at the end?” And then sort of reverse engineer it a little bit, and sort of fix it back up to go, “All right: well, we needed to sow some seeds here or this whole detour in the third act is rubbish. It needs to do something else with the character. It needs to get us to another place for the plot.”
So I think it’s just doing something terrible. You can’t edit a blank page. You can’t improve upon it. It’s just going to continue to be what it is.
KB: Yeah, it makes me think of that quote by John Swartzwelder: he was the head writer on The Simpsons, and he was interviewed about how does he write his scripts? And he said, “I have this trick whereby, well, I find writing really hard, but rewriting’s relativity easy”, so on the first day, he tries to get out the worst draft possible of his script for whatever episode—
KB: —he’s working on. When he comes in the following day, at least it’s been done, and it’s like these crappy little elves have come and done all this really crappy work [Laughter] and all I’ve got to do now is fix it.
RKL: Nice! [Laughter] And—and that—that becomes the thing, and I hate rewriting, but I know it’s where the best stuff comes. The writing part—the writing is flowing and it’s fun, even when it’s maybe not the best, at least stuff’s, like, coming out. It feels like painting with a roller, and then the rewriting is like, “All right, I gotta get nitty gritty, or I gotta get the goggles on with the extra zoom-in goggles, and I gotta get the single horsehair brush and fix little things.” And it’s where all the big mistakes can happen. You can’t make mistakes with a roller; you just slam it on there.
But I also find most of the stuff I’ve done has been four-issue minis, and I always find the first script, I will do ten to a dozen full drafts on that first issue. And then as I go through each issue, usually the fourth issue is one draft, maybe—I mean, one draft, for me, is usually a vomit draft to fix and then what I pretend is my first draft. So it’s probably three drafts. But the first issue is a lot, and I find I’m taking this story that I’ve concocted and actually applying it and going, “All right. Well, you said you can do it. What does it look like? What does it sound like?” And I’m trying to find the best format, and because I’ve done all the working out there, each subsequent issue becomes easier to do, because I’m building on all the voice, all the tone, all the science, all of the setups, all the seeds. And so it all sort of comes together really well, and I usually find my final issues do not take as long. So I think it all comes back to how much of that plotting that I do in just getting terrible.
It’s really interesting to go back through old notebooks and think to myself, “Oh my goodness! This story: there was an iteration where it went this path. How terrible would that have been if that’s where I left it!” And I think it sort of comes back to what Queenie was saying in a lot of regards: is it satisfying? Does it pay off? ’Cause I think anyone can write a story that begins and then resolves. But is it any good? And just because the pieces fit, doesn’t mean they match. I always think about really cheap jigsaw puzzles are all cut with the exact same grain. And so, someone had figured that out and they would put together a train puzzle, but then they would find the cat puzzle and they’d put the cat’s face in the middle, and it would just fit. Of course it would fit. But it didn’t quite match! And I feel like that’s really quick, terrible story writing. And I know that because I do that in my first draft when I plot stuff out! It’s quick and it’s terrible, and the cat head goes right on the train, and then I have to fix that and get nitty gritty with it as to whether it’s figuring out how to get the right tubes that actually do put a cat head on a train, or whether it’s removing that cat and figuring something else out.
But, yeah, I find, much like when I break a story and I’m asking questions and just writing answers, it’s just getting something down. It’s just keeping momentum going. And giving yourself the chance to be terrible. I think if you can be terrible before it gets to the public eye, that’s the best time and place to do it.
One of the other things I have tried is talking to people about the story. I don’t like it as much. In telling it, you start to make excuses for the terrible parts that you haven’t worked out and I start to feel really bad at what I believe is my job, which is writer. But it does help. I’ll do it with my wife, where I’ll be like, “And then this happen and then this happens.” And invariably all she says is, “Why?” And I’m like, “Uh, uh, uh, because all trains have cat heads, stupid!” [Laughter] But we sort of realised [Laughter] “Oh. You know, what if this happened?” And then you have a bit of a dialogue. So, again, it’s just another question and answer process. So I think that’s usually my best process for that—that terrible middle where you have to actually do the grunt work to lead to that sweet finale.
KB: But do you ever lose motivation or drive on a project and you feel like giving it up? Is there anything that stops you from giving it up?
RKL: Oh no, there’s heaps of stories where I’ve tried to, like, plot them out, and sometimes they just will not wind together. And I just shelve them forever or for a long time. But usually I get that done before I would ever pitch it. And I think that’s why I only pitch stuff where I have plotted it and resolved it and know that it will work. My biggest fear would be to get a publisher on board something and then I sit down and go, “Oh. Uh. I don’t think I know. Oh. Do I know how to do this?” And I’m not sure if the story’s genuinely going to work, or if I can do it in the right amount of time.
I think any writer, given enough time, can make brilliant stuff. But when a publisher’s footing the bill and they want the wheels to turn, you go, “Oh, oh. I need to do this on a deadline.” And knowing the writing is my—not just second job, but very secondary job, compared to a full-time teaching load, I can’t get guarantee that I can turn things around from nothing to awesome in the way that I would want. So I try to do all of that before it would get anywhere. So there’s heaps of stuff that I have completely shelved and just gone, “Hmm, it’s not coming together.”
But I try to keep—like, I’ve got probably about four ideas on the go at the moment that I’m breaking. And I’m just sort of rotating between those notebooks, so I keep coming back to them. And sometimes it is coming back to something that might be two years old and going, “All right: let’s have a look at it with fresh eyes—fresh perspective—fresh experience”—and seeing what can come out of it.
But I think sometimes, and maybe this is a problem: once I’ve plotted something out and I’m like, “This is great. I’m going to pitch it.” And it doesn’t land anywhere, and it’s too big for me to conceivable do it completely independently. I’ll set that story aside and I’ll never even want to go back to it. And that way, if I get an in at a new publisher and they say, “Do you have anything to pitch?”, I invariably won’t go back to those really old pitches that I completely worked out. I think the fire’s gone. I think I told the story in the synopsis and I would have a chance to apply it, but now it’s just very cold embers. I might strip-mine those stories for a MacGuffin or a character that could be in a new setting—a new problem—but, yeah, they sort of disappear. But I’m more than happy to let—if a story is not clicking—I’m happy to let it die. ’Cause I’d rather that than put myself into a position where I just have to finish it off, ’cause I got myself stuck into a commitment that is beyond my control, I guess.
KB: Yeah. How ’bout you, Queenie? What helps you to keep going with a project and make it happen?
QC: I think when it comes to motivation, it’s always an issue when you’re a writer/artist. ’Cause with art in comics is that, unlike writing prose fiction, you could just rework it if you don’t like it: just add an extra paragraph, delete a few sentences. You cannot do that. You cannot do that with comics. It’s like once you’ve drawn the art, the amount of time and investment—the hours that you put into finishing this particular panel—it’s like, “Oh God”: if you had to re-do it, it’s like—
And age comes in with it as well. It is incredibly taxing when you get to a certain age. I cannot draw really long comic stories anymore, because my health is—my health is fine; don’t worry [Laughter]. Nothing’s happening, like, to me. But the days where I could sit down and grind out a page—eight-hour, ten-hour marathon sessions of drawing, those days are gone. And they were never that great to begin with anyway.
So if I’m going to start a story these days, as in draw it, and this is the same for—working for other people’s a bit different; that’s just work for hire. You know, I’m not emotionally involved in that sense; I’m just bringing someone else’s work to life. So I have a completely different feeling and motivation when it comes to stuff like that, ’cause that’s just work. But when it comes to my own stuff, unless I feel really, really, really strongly about an idea, I don’t even attempt it, because there is no time. I have no time to work that way.
So whatever it is that I’ve decided to create, if it’s not a job, then it’s because I feel really, really, really strongly about it. And that, at least, helps you when it comes to motivation, is that this has been around, often, for years, and I’m going to make it happen, because this mob has taken permanent space in my head. It’s rented a room there. It’s constantly making a lot of noise 24/—I mean, it’s paying rent. But [Laughter], you know, it’s constantly there and in the background. And it’s compelling that I can’t evacuate it from my head. I have had long—entire universes in my head just leave after a while, because I grow older; they’re not as interesting anymore. I mean, that happens. You change as a person; what you find interesting is different, so you don’t feel the same way about these characters that you once loved to death.
But there are universes that stay. And when that happens, it’s like, “Okay, then I’ll do it.” And that kind of passion for something that’s been around for a long time, because you’ve changed and it hasn’t, because it doesn’t need to; some things are timeless, and you know you’ve got a really, really good story there. And it’s something that you absolutely care about, because apparently you can’t let it go. And for that reason, to make sure that I don’t fall into the trap of doing something that I feel really unenthused about is that whenever I get any new story ideas, and I’ve got—I say I don’t write the stories down, and that’s true. But this is more or less the same process: you could just keep it in your head—park it in your head for a while, leave it for about two months—and I’ve had story ideas that I thought I was—really awesome, and then two months later, I come back and I think, “What the heck was I thinking? This is so stupid.” So spur-of-the-moment ideas are never great to work with, if you’re going to develop it into a full-blown idea—a full-blown story.
I always suggest people to just sit on a story and then wait for a while and see whether you still feel the same way about it [in] two months’ time—three month’s time—a year’s time—two years’ time—five years’ time. Depending on what else you’re doing in your life, it could actually go on for quite a while. And the thing is, if you care enough about something, that’s still going to be there in five years’ time. But once the fire’s gone from that, then just leave it. You know [Laughter]—unless you’ve already written—I’ve written story pitches that are still sitting around somewhere in my house—that I just completely don’t think about, ’cause I’ve completely forgotten about most of them. And that’s it: if it’s not compelling, then you won’t even remember it.
And I think it’s so important to have that passion for a story and let it sit for a while and see whether you still feel that strongly about it after a certain amount of time. Because sometimes people create things based on circumstances in their lives, and that was so compelling to you at that time, but when those circumstances pass, it’s like, “Why do you still care?” Often you don’t care anymore. And that’s why the fire just goes. And so, I try and avoid these situations like that by sitting on stories that I really want to do.
Once you’ve started it, it’s just a matter of putting it out. Like, seeing something through to the end. Motivation is always hard, but motivation to exercise is also really hard [Laughter]. So as far as I can tell, like, with exercise, it’s something I have to do, so I don’t die prematurely. And it’s the same when I actually get to sit down and work on a project: it’s like, “Okay, I’ve started. I will see it to the end. It’s not always going to be fun. It’s going to be pretty much like a job.” So even though when I’m doing my own work, and as opposed to working as an illustrator for other people, that’s a job plain and simple—when I’m doing even my own work, something I really care about, and I’m hitting that wall that you always hit when you’re doing exercise [Laughter] and you’re just like, “I want to go home,” it’s like you just plough through it. I mean, that is the only advice I can give. I wish I could tell you: it’s like, how do you do the magic motivation injection and suddenly find the motivation to get through this really difficult, un-fun part of the story that you need? It’s like I just treat it like a job.
I find that it’s not always going to be fun, and you have to come to terms with that and make peace with that. And sometimes it’s going to be really sucky. And your motivation is to finish this thing and boot it out the door [Laughter] so you can work on the next thing. And a lot of the time, I find myself thinking that way, when I’m trying to get through a really boring passage or something.
QC: Yeah, just do it and never ever leave it and then work on a more interesting part. [Laughter] I find that if you do that, it’s like you are never going to go back to that boring part—particularly if it’s really important. That is the worst thing you can do. So I work on something fun, I—“Oh no, here comes a boring part”—work on the boring part [Laughter] and then get back to the fun part. I find that if you do the thing where you work on the easy parts first—the fun parts first—then you’re going to end up with a massive workload at the end that you don’t want to do. And that is a massive obstacle to finishing everything—anything at all.
So, a lot of people find it hard, because when it comes to creative work, people think that it should be fun all the time—constantly. And it’s like, “No, it’s work.” Work, no matter how much you love it, it’s going to be 50 per cent fun, 50 per cent awful. And that’s just life, unfortunately. It’s just something you accept.
KB: Yeah. It’s good that you have those intrinsic motivators that, as you said, this idea has been taking up space in your head for so long [Laughter] it has to come out. It just has to. But also—
QC: Might as well, right?
KB: Yeah. I like how—
QC: It’s not going anywhere! Oh, it’s clear. [Laughter]
QC: It’s not leaving my head. So.
KB: I like what Ryan said as well—like, in a way, you’re beholden to other people and that’s a big motivator. That, I think, has been a big motivator in the past for me is, “Oh: other people are relying [on] me to get this thing done. I can’t quit!” [Laughter] Yeah.
QC: Yeah. I guess that’s where it comes in when I’m working for other people as an illustrator. ’Cause then it’s just pure work. It’s like so-and-so is going to pay me $X amount of money to get this done by a certain date. So get it done by a certain date so you can get paid.
KB: Yep. Yep. [Laughter]
QC: So that’s it. You know? So sometimes it’s really fun to work on other people’s stuff. A lot of time it is.
QC: But if you treat it like a job, then it doesn’t really matter, ultimately. You are doing this for someone, and you have to do it by a certain deadline, and that—that’s about it. That’s all there is to say. [Laughter]
KB: Yep. Yep. Okay. So we’re down to the last couple of questions. What is something that, as a comic creator, that you’re good at and also something that you wish you could improve. I should also say I stole these questions from Antony Johnston’s podcast, Writing and Breathing—
RKL: Oh, yeah, yeah!
KB: —because I really like them.
RKL: Nice! [Laughter] So I guess it’s like what do I bring to comics—what do I bring to my writing that people, I guess, are coming for—that they’re coming for because it’s done well, or that they can’t get somewhere else. I hope it’s maybe a marriage between trying to write about genuine emotions or actual character motivations. I try to delve into that a lot with the characters that I write in the stories that I write. Whether I do it well or not, I don’t know. I don’t think I could ever say that I do.
One thing I certainly try to do well that I think maybe I do do well is use the comic form as part of the storytelling. So really consider, within my script and within my relationship with my artists, how we’re going to use everything that we have at our disposal to maximise moments of tension, to maximise the frenetic nature of a moment, to maximise the story points—whether it’s as simple as a page turn or a panel size, or whether it’s elements of image-free static moments within storytelling, or whether it’s using the—I love using the gutters, especially, within my stories to control time, because then you are controlling the pacing of something. Or at least telling the reader how they should think about controlling it, ’cause they’ll skim it as fast or as slow as they want to, with their eyes. It’s not like film, where you are in charge of the timing. That’s definitely something that I think about a lot. And so I think, hopefully, it does come through well in my books and within my stories.
Something that I’d like to improve upon: I think one of the challenges that I’m sort of setting myself at the moment is—I don’t know, it’s to sort of simplify my stories a little bit and keep them as emotionally resonant. So without having to sprawl too much. I find I put a lot into my stories and thinking specifically of more recent ones like Everfrost and Beautiful Canvas, they have a lot of moving parts and a lot of strangeness and a lot of working elements within them. And I want to see if I can dial that back to something that’s a little more simplistic in its view, I guess? Even if it is within a fantasy world or even if it is within some sort of dystopian sci-fi noir story—to really strip back that character arc and then dive deeper into it, I think would be something that I would like to look at—to make sure that everything is clear for the audience, I think.
’Cause in general, when I’m writing, I’m a big fan of not explaining everything. I think the audience either doesn’t need to know certain things, so I’m not worried about explaining what the power source is of a vehicle. But I also don’t mind them having to dig for elements that still drive the plot. I want the readers to be active. I want to them confused at times, because they’ll figure it out later. I want them to reread my stuff. That’s by design. But I’d be interested to then flip that and go, “All right, well, let’s lay something so there’s not as many pieces hidden within each issue and it’s all just there, and you still get that sort of kick to it.” So whether that’s a straight-up more singular character-driven story, or whether it’s a really stripped back old-school pulp crime story engine that just sort of rockets forward, that’s something I would like to improve is just having it all there and then making sure that I’ve structured it and shown it in a way that is completely clear, but still offers moments to completely wow the audience as things occur.
And I love to throw a lot into a story. I love a melting pot of strange science, and strange locations and characters, and really strange moments. And it would be cool to try something. And one of my stories that I’m mapping out at the moment is very much that me trying to, whenever my story twists and turns, mine the past of the story to keep it a really streamlined spear, rather than the sort of meandering six-headed sentient arrow that I seem to shoot into the world when I come off of these things [Laughter].
KB: Fantastic! What about you, Queenie? What’s something that you think you’re good at and what’s something that you wish you could improve?
QC: I don’t know about the writing part, because there’s certainly different kinds of audiences, and people seem to at least like my work. So I don’t want to talk too much about how you emotionally connect with readers, ’cause there’s so many different kinds of people out there.
But in terms of as an artist, I guess it’s—that’s easier to quantify. I think I’m good at doing character designs—bringing a certain personality to a particular look—to a particular personality—and making sure that these match and making sure that you can distinguish the primary cast from the secondary cast. And creating an environment—or at least drawing in a way that makes it looks like that this person actually belongs in this environment. Because artists can create characters and backgrounds that are very detached from each other. It’s like they don’t even look like they’re in the same universe. I mean, that would be bad. But that’s a problem that I’ve never really had. So I think, at least, when it comes to the worldbuilding aspect, I think I’m okay in that, at the very least.
I’m not great; there’s people who, I think, does it much better. But do I think that it’s an important skill for me to want to have? I don’t think so. I think I’m adequate [Laughter] and I’m good with just being adequate [Laughter]. Yeah, I think I’m fine with that. I think other things are a bit more important when it comes to building the story—like the emotional resonance and particular character arcs or a particular moment; I think that’s more important. So I think I’m going at that. But I … don’t really look to improve on that, like, interestingly enough. I think I’m fine where I’m at.
I guess I’m also good at trying new things. Like, doing the experimentations that I have. I’ve got a good idea of what I want to do. So I’m not sure whether I’ll find an audience. Who knows? It seems that, at least for Fabled Kingdom, nobody seems to care about the format it came in; people are just interested in the story and that’s it. So I think that’s good news.
But ultimately, in terms of things I can improve, I think I could have more patience [Laughter]. Yeah, sometimes I think I try and churn things out too quickly. And not at the beginning—like, never with my ideas—but I think when I’m getting to a point where it’s really boring, sometimes just want to cut corners. And the drive to do that is very hard to suppress. That’s where you get sloppy as an artist and you end up churning out work that isn’t so great—or, at least to your eyes, it’s not great; but who knows who’s looking at it? Some people just think it’s—they can’t tell the difference, really. But to the trained eye, you definitely can. And I wish I was less—like, I had a bit more patience to pay attention to the small ideas—like, some artists are really, really good at that. I am not. I just lose patience if I spend too much time on a single piece of artwork. And with comics, it’s so grindy, then what can you do?
So other things I’d like to improve: probably I like to work more with other people. I think you can learn a lot from working with others. And I think as someone who writes and draws, you don’t need a collaborator, and I think attitude’s not really a good one. I feel I could collaborate more with other people and learn new things that way, or maybe encounter new ideas and things, and so that’s what I’d like to do a bit more. I wouldn’t say I’m bad at it; I’m not difficult to collaborate with, or anything, or at least nobody’s complained [Laughter] in the kind of collaborations that I’ve worked with. But I think opening myself to more of those experiences is good for everyone involved.
KB: Yeah, agreed. It’s—you learn so much from the people that you work with, and if it’s working really well, you also spur each other on to better work, which is really, really cool.
QC: And I am collaborating with people on a number of things. But we shall see!
KB: Yeah, yeah. So let’s talk a bit about what you’re working on now, if you can talk about it, ’cause I’m always interested. Queenie, you mentioned you’re doing your PhD and you’re doing the game engine story. Do you want to talk a bit more about that and how it’s going?
QC: Oh! Sure. The game is pretty much a game, so I won’t really talk that much about it. I’ve mentioned it a little bit earlier, at least, from a story writing perspective, and I think I’ll stick with that for now.
In terms of the comic that I’m working on that is in a game engine, it’s going to be a story about class differences. And I think when it comes to comics and video games, a lot of people start off making video games and then they use comics aesthetics in it. And that’s fine. But these are games that borrow from comics. Which I think is very interesting, but I don’t see things going the other direction very much—comics that borrow from games. And I think in my PhD, I have to make that distinction is that there is a difference between video games that have Biff! Boom! as sound effects when people punch out each other, or portray their game play in a series of comics panels. And these are interesting games who do that—who borrow a lot from the language of comics. But these identify as games first and comics second.
What would the approach be if you start off with comics first and then move into games? How would that approach be different? I would say the approach, in terms of differences is actually kind of negligible, because at the end of the day, if you’re using a games medium—a games engine to create something—people are going to consider it more of a game, just by the nature of the tools being used.
But part of doing what I do is push back against that way of thinking. Intent matters. The person who’s creating and what they think they’re doing matters. So if I’m saying that this is a digital comic, even if it uses a game engine, then it’s a digital comic, because I say so. But how can I keep the idea of comics within a game?
One element that I really like to work with is the idea of comics is that you can see every single panel on a page at any point in time, no matter which panel you’re supposed to be working on. ’Cause the time in comics is entirely a creation of the reader: you present an entire page to the reader and the reader can see everything—past, current and future in this page. Where they are at in point in time is up to where their eye is, and that is controlled entirely by the reader. So I do want to add that element to this digital comic, I guess, because I think that is unlike video games or movies—film, in other words—or prose, which is not visual. I think comics is unique and that is a unique element of comics—about being able to see everything—like, there’s time—whole timeline in one go; it’s just a matter of where your eye is at a particular moment. And so I think presenting the comic story in that format is quite important for me for this project.
So I’ve an idea of what I want it to look like, but it’s not going to be easy. But like I said, interactivity, it can go any way you want. And so it’s going to be interesting to see how it goes. But we shall see! But talking back to the more technical aspects of what makes a comic a comic and why’s it different to an illustration or a series of illustrations.
KB: Yeah, definitely.
QC: So bringing that into the comic that I’m doing is going to be a bit of a challenge. Yeah, anyway, might as well talk about what’s the theme of it is: it’s going to be capitalism/parallel lives. And so, you are going to be controlling a character that you choose, who’s either going to be rich or poor. You’re going to have two lives that are going to be running parallel to each other—one rich, one poor. And the idea is you can choose the character, but there’s only one control; it doesn’t matter. Both characters behave exactly the same. It’s just that what differs is their environment and how the environment reacts to them.
And so, that is the basis for the PhD in that you are talking about how—’cause I guess Neoliberalism, it isn’t economic structure that we live in now. And a lot of the rhetoric that comes with it is the the idea that, if you work hard, that you’ll succeed. That’s almost like a slogan—a Karl Marx slogan of the times that we love in is like if you’re not succeeding and winning at life, then it’s because you’re a lazy person. And if you work harder, you’ll be like Bill Gates [Laughter]. That is the general idea behind some of these slogans for Neoliberalism. And it’s very easy to debunk.
And my game, out right of the bat, just debunks that. Because at the end of the day, you can have the two exact same people—one who grew up in a rich family, one who grew up in a poor family—and the environment reacts very differently to them, even if you do the exact same thing. And as you go through your life, what you have accumulates. So if you start with a lot, then you’re going to get more; you start off with nothing, you may not be able to get that much, no matter how hard you work. It’s not a matter of working hard at some point in time.
So, I mean, there’s a lot of academic stuff in that as well. It has to do with a lot of academic arguments about video gaming as well, but I won’t go into that. But that is the general gist of the story. It is meant to be a digital comic, even as it borrows many elements from video games.
KB: Fascinating! I’m looking to that coming out.
QC: Yeah, it’s going to be pretty weird!
KB: It will be interesting!
RKL: It sounds awesome!
QC: Yay! Social activism now! [Laughter]
KB: How ’bout you, Ryan? What are you working on now?
RKL: At the moment, it’s a balance of all these little things. So I have no singular focus, which kind of sucks. ’Cause that’s like the best spot to be in when you’re just in the grind on one thing. But we’ve got Everfrost that I’ve created with Sami Kivela coming out through Black Mask. We’re prepping the trade, so we’re just getting everything sort for that. So there’s lots of little tweaks on that and we also have Black Beacon that I’m creating with Sebastián Píriz at Heavy Metal that has the last two issues to be finalised, and then we’ll start prepping the trade for that. So I always sort of factor that in because it does take time, when I get in the office, to tweak all the things here or there, or check things out.
But then what I’m looking at, moving forward, is the next volume of SHE is finished with the script and so now I’m chatting with the artist about it and looking at all the logistics and timeline of it, now that it’s finally all in its final draft and form, which is really good. I’m watching art come in for a short graphic novel I’m doing with Louie Joyce, who you both know really well, and is both lovely and insanely talented. So I’m in a really lovely spot of just watching art drip in on that and it’s looking amazing. We’ve been looking to do this book together for years and years, so it’s nice to see a lot of traction happening now.
And then beyond that, looking forward, I’m sort of working on breaking a bunch of different stories. One is kind of like a sci-fi/strange futurescape story of a young woman who finds herself with a very large problem thrust upon her, and she’s trying to figure out a solution to it. And so, that’s coming along fairly well. It’s breaking fairly well. I just need to find the right home for it, I guess.
And I’m also, then, putting together another story that’s a fantasy novel—almost DnD-inspired story that is very much about how we look at characters and how much we take our read of a character based on what they look like or what they can do, as well as what they actually do, and whether it’s our perception of what they do that makes them the sort of character we think they are—sort of looking at archetypes of good and bad—things like that. I’ve not really done a lot that’s full-on fantasy, and it’s fun to use that landscape and the way that we code characters so strongly in that.
So I’m trying to figure that one out. And so those two are fairly well plotted out, mostly. Certainly the engine of the story’s definitely in place. But then there’s a third one—a crime story that I’m tinkering with that I’m trying to figure out exactly how it goes together. I’ve probably been sitting on this one a year now and keep cycling back to it. And this is where a lot of my stories start: it might have a really great high concept, but that’s not a character and it’s not a character arc and it’s nothing else. So I’m trying to get it in a way where it’s really satisfying. So far, I’ve written, I think, three versions of the plot that work, but they’re very much cats heads on trains [Laughter]. And so I’m trying to fix that and make it pop. But I really, really love a lot of the characters in it, and I love the concept. And I feel like I’m waiting for that extra element to click into it to mash up.
But, yeah, they’re all the things I’m working on, and so I’m in this really annoying pocket of time where I’m not currently really heavily scripting anything. And I hate that. That’s the dead zone for me: you’re waiting on either publishers to pick something up, and that’s out of your control, or you’re just waiting on things to finalised, so I’m likely waiting on an artist, or, again, a publisher to stitch things together or blah blah blah. And again, it’s out of my control.
Whereas, when I’m sitting down to write scripts, that’s my job. That’s what I do. And so, I know all the other stuff I do, writing is about 10 per cent of the job, and the rest is the emails and the meetings [Laughter] and the story breaking. But I love the writing part, and it feels like you’re doing work. And I never give that credit to all the story breaking that I do before I write. That feels like something that should be quicker and easier for me, so I hate how laborious it is. But I’m very much in the thick of these three different stories mostly, and there’s a fourth one that I’m sort of very nascently toying with, putting all of those things together.
So I feel like, as well, I’m spread really thin. I actually sat down yesterday while we were watching a movie as a family and just started to map out on an A4 sheet of paper what are all the different projects that are currently happening. And it was 11 or 12. And I thought [Laughter], “Oh, God. No wonder I feel so scatterbrained!”
But once I got it on paper, I was like, “All right: well, Everfrost is done: I’ve written it and we’re just prepping the trade. All right. That’s in a neat corner.” And then I’m like, “All right. I’m trying to break this crime story. All right: that I need to give a bit more time and a bit more focus and more energy to.” So I need to work out where to put my efforts. But I’m really just waiting on whichever story gets picked up so I can push everything else aside and say, “All right: you are the thing that now gets me for”—I usually set aside a solid season—a solid three months to write something, ’cause I’ve done all the hard work. So I’ll see how it all comes together.
But I actually am in a situation right now where I’m doing a very big change with my day job of teaching.
KB: Oh wow!
RKL: So I probably shouldn’t feel like I’m stuck with deadlines. I need to reflect that I actually think this happening for a reason. I need to focus a little bit on the day job, and if I knew an artist was writing on script too, I’d be freaking out and that would be no good.
So I feel like the right story will pop through at the right time to allow me to do it in the right way. So trying—very much the word—trying there, but trying that zen approach of, “All right: just handle what you can at the moment and see how it’s coming together.
KB: Yeah. Wow. That is a lot of things, Ryan! [Laughter] That’s amazing.
RKL: It’s a little manic. It’s probably not the smart—if I had more of a through line of knowing what would get picked up, I could focus on a story, pitch it, get it picked up and write it, and it would be a linear path to my brain. But, man, it is the shotgun approach, unfortunately.
What are you working on, though, at the moment?
KB: Oh, I’m still working on a prose novel. It is a YA fantasy thing. I shifted gears a bit: I started this three-POV [point of view] novel last year and it wasn’t working, and I realised I really should learn to walk before I run—start with one POV.
KB: So I’ve taken one of those characters, and the story’s about him and it’s just set about three years earlier. And it’s his origin story. So it’s set in a fantasy world, which resembles Edo-era Japan, and essentially—[Laughter] the pitch I always have is “It’s about samurai magicians at magic school, basically.” And so, he is from the very, very lowest class of society and is discovered to be a seer: he can “see” magic and can manipulate magic, and is taken to the Academy to be trained. But in the midst of that, all these other things [are] going on, because the way he was discovered was that he tried to rob another seer who was quite high up in the government, and landed in prison. There’s a thing going on there, which hasn’t been revealed yet.
So I’m about a quarter of the way through, but it’s very slow-going, and with lockdown, it’s just been hard, because home learning [Laughter] has been dominating—home learning and my job!
KB: But it’s slowly getting there and, I figure, at least I’ve been writing when I can, and when I have writing group once a month, that’s the big kick up the pants to actually do something. And so the John Swartzwelder method of the crappy little elf has been working well—
KB: —I feel like I’m making very incremental progress on two fronts: the crappy elf front [Laughter], where I write it badly and then the revising front where I try to—
KB: —write it better! [Laughter] Yeah.
Okay, to finish off, where can people find you online?
RKL: Mine is just “ryanklindsay” with anything else that you need on it: throw a dot com on it, put an “@” sign at the front for Twitter, whatever you need: @ryanklindsay is where I’m most active on Twitter. I have my own site. I have a Patreon where I write flash fiction and I deconstruct stuff and I share scripts and do a bunch of that sort of stuff. And I have a newsletter, which would be ryanklindsay.substack.com, where each week, I send out a brain dump of just either what I’m working on or how I’m working or what’s going on. It’s like people who like to watch train wrecks, that’s the place to go: you can just watch me [Laughter] slowly fold myself into an origami unicorn for your sickening pleasure. [Laughter]
KB: [Laughter] How ’bout you, Queenie?
QC: My website’s at queeniechan.com. I’ve had it for years and you can buy some of my books there for free shipping. So if you’re from the US/Australia, you can get it for free shipping and that’s on my website.
I’m not on social media very often—I don’t get much time to go on social media and chat with people. But for whatever reason, “queeniechan” has been taken on social media, so I’m “queeniechanhere”, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. I want to go on social media a bit more often [Laughter], but it’s just, “Ah, my God! All the stuff that I do.”
If you want to see what I’m doing any given month, I do try and update my website every month or every second month, so I can let people know what I’m doing and what I’m working on, and all that. But thanks to COVID, things have been kind of crappy for a while. So nothing much has happened. All the cons have been cancelled.
I’m still doing a fair amount of work and so the lockdown has been okay for me, and I’m working on my PhD as well and doing all this other stuff. So it’s been okay. But I guess I’ve been a bit slow on the social media because of the lockdown. It just motivates me to not update stuff or look at what other people are doing [Laughter]. It’s just, hmm, kind of depressing.
But anyway, that’s where you find me, and by all means, there’s a form that you can contact me with on my website. So that’s probably the ideal way to contact me, because I always pay attention to email. Sometimes people contact me through social media and sometimes I miss it, ’cause I’m not on it often. So I always recommend email’s the best way to contact me.
KB: Great. Thanks, guys, so much for your time and for this chat! It’s been a lot of fun.
KB: Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Hiveminded Podcast! For links, show notes, a rough transcript and some free comics, head to hivemindedness.com. Audio editing and production was done by me. Our theme music is “I’m going for a coffee” by Lee Rosevere (which is slightly ironic, because I don’t drink coffee). Website design by Ben Beilharz. And special thanks as always to Rebecca Jee and Guan Un of the Hive Mind, whose undying support has made all this possible.