Adventures in writing

April 27, 2017 | Blog

A few years ago I made the decision to update my illustration skills. I have always had a sweet spot for the illustrative side of design, and I wanted to improve. So I assessed my weak points, and took action. I subscribed to an online digital painting course, and I started to write. I started experimenting with colour and style and narrative.

I need personal design projects to keep me balanced. Something where the problems are new and mine to solve. I had created a handful of short comics over the years, and I like the narrative structure of them. I wanted something more substantial, so I decided to create a picture book.

I might as well have said “I want to fly, so I’m going to build an airplane, even though my entire knowledge of aeronautics is from Saturday morning cartoons, what could possibly go wrong.”

I had, and continue to have, no misconceptions about this work ever being professionally published and distributed. There was way too much stress, potential disappointment, and absolute rejection involved to even start down that road. I salute all those with the fortitude to do so. I’d do this for me, and share it with the internet, and if a publisher showed interest, well then what an amazing turn of events for me that would be, but if not I still made a book.

That, kids, is called a vanity project.

Over a couple of years I burned through something close to 59 drafts before I ended up with the story I’m working on now. It’s tentatively called Wrenched, and is the story of a girl who rediscovers her creative confidence while searching for a wrench.

Here are a few of the story ideas I threw away after hours of working them:

  • Girl has to save the Sandman after accidentally sending him to the moon, in order to restore sleep to the world. They travel through the dryer! That’s not remotely safe!
  • The moon is an ancient machine, on the brink of failure. A young girl, and a mysterious space custodian team up to save it.
  • Something about selling monster deterrent kits to neighbourhood kids. This might have just been a business idea for me.
  • A girl and her dog crash land on the moon, discover an ancient sentient machine buried beneath the surface, and travel the universe. This one had vr sharks!

Thematically, these stories all have something in common, beside the sci-fi conceits and being terrible. They were either stupid complex, or just broken. I wanted a story based around a simple premise, a reason for existing that wasn’t pounding you over the head, and a smattering of silly. I’m fond of silly.

I also wanted a story that was uniquely me. My voice, my sense of humour, a blend of my experiences. I realized I was including kid story elements I’d read lots before, which was terrifying. Like clever dog sidekicks, misunderstood friendly monsters, and destination the Moon.

Another lesson I learned on this little literary adventure – the internet can’t tell you how to write a story. It can drone on at some length about the theory of story structure (it’s very proud of itself in this regard), but that can be suffocating to someone finding their writing legs. In the end, the only thing that can teach you how to write, is the act of writing. Ironically, I also learned that on the internet.

I tried to apply some design principles to the process of writing, such as requesting early feedback. Yet, of the half dozen or so friends and family I asked to critique my story, only two gave me any significant feedback, one of which was my wife. Most people didn’t reply back at all. So a couple things here – one, I have the wrong network for creative feedback of this sort, and two, I came to realize my designer instinct, my gut, was giving me exceptional feedback, but I was ignoring it.

Sideline. A couple years ago, I shifted gears at work, and decided to say yes to everything, regardless of what it was. I was bored mostly, and in a rut. “Bring it all on!” I said. My gut was telling me no, but I did it anyway. I took career advice that I disagreed with, from people I thought I could trust. I found myself frequently out of my depth, which can be fine when you have a semblance of control over it. I didn’t. I had stopped listening to my instincts, I lost what control I had over work related things, and it in no small part contributed to my being tagged for lay off the following year. So now I was doing the same thing with my book. Once I understood that, and although I was out of the practice, I immediately started giving my instincts the attention they so dearly needed. The project benefitted immediately.

Another sideline. You’re instincts might suck. Know yourself.

Anyway, the story I requested feedback on I eventually ditched. The little feedback I got was positive, but my instincts told me it wasn’t working. So in conclusion, your gut – listen to it.

I finally landed on this story, Wrenched, and I liked it for the most part. I liked my heroine, the peripheral characters, and the setting. I liked that it was a kind of amateur sleuth story. We watch a lot of PBS. I liked that it became increasingly ridiculous. I liked that if you want to look for it, there is a lesson in there but it’s not explicitly said.

The bits I was unsure about I fiddled with, and fiddled with some more, until I had to stop and tell myself to move on. Not because I didn’t want the story to be the best I could make it, but because I was splitting hairs over single words, or phrases, or word count, at the expense of moving on with the project. If my experience with design has taught me anything, it’s that a design isn’t finished until it ships. Except with software, but this wasn’t that. As far as this story was concerned, I knew the artwork would probably change the writing, the choice of words. In order to finish I had to keep going.

I was right.

Next week I’ll talk about storyboarding Wrenched, and how that affected the story. In the mean time, you can follow the progress of Wrenched on the project page, and any of my social media accounts.

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