Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Roasting my 2011 Webcomic. Part 2: What I Wish I knew

The best thing I can say about my 2011 webcomic, Plumis is that I learned a lot.  These are the techniques I wish I knew when making my first webcomic.

Disclaimer: Keep in mind that these techniques were created for plot-based multi-chapter webcomics, not gag of the day or slice-of-life comics.  Although some of the advice can apply to any form of media.

1. Have a story you want to tell

This first tip sounds pretty obvious, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure it out.  All of my failed webcomic attempts have one crucial thing in common:  I didn’t care about the plot, or they didn’t even have plots.  Plumis wasn’t created because I was really interested in the story of a huge cast of characters on a quest to find a magic feather, it was created because I was more interested in the huge cast of characters.
I could tell you everything about their salad preferences,
but nothing about their motivations

Yes, there are stories where you as an audience member are more interested in the characters than the plot.  But you are not the audience.  If your story doesn’t grab you, you have the power to change it accordingly.  And you should because if you’re going to be writing a story for a long time, it should be a story you want to write.

With Plumis, scenes or even entire chapters only existed because I had one cool or funny piece of dialogue that I wanted to shove in.  There were some characters who only existed because I wanted them to exist, not because they made sense in the story.  Build the scenes and characters from your plot, not the other way around.

Sometimes, you have to trim the fat.  Does your main cast have over 100 characters?  Cut it down to 10 and have the other 90 be minor characters (or remove them altogether).  Does your story have 50 interrelated plot threads and subplots and B plots and one-shots and tangents?  Trim the fat.  Get down to the essence of what your story is and tell that.  It’s hard, sometimes you have to let go of your favorite characters and scenes.  But not only will the end result be easier for your readers to follow, but it will be easier to write.

Start simple, grow more complex as the story goes on.  Maybe later on you’ll have room to add that scene or character you loved so much, but when you’re starting out you should just know what your main story is and why you want to tell it.  Which brings us to…

2. Know your story, know yourself, know your limits

Okay so you boiled your plot down to its essence.  But how do you start building on that?  I have a problem with spending all of my time focusing on my characters (down to the most mundane details) and then forgetting about the plot or setting.  So, let’s start with that.

Before you start (or when you’re in the beginning stages), it’s good to know where your story is going.  You don’t need to set it in stone, just have a good idea.  For the outlining process, I use this website called WorkFlowy.  It’s a 100% free cloud-based service and I find it extremely useful if you work better with bullet point outlines than mindmaps (which I do).

This plot outline is my map, not my GPS.  I know the basic order of events (which will probably be changed later), but I keep it as vague as possible.  I know what point A and point B are, but I have yet to know how to get between those two points.  If you keep track of all the major important plot details, this will help you avoid untied plot threads or deus ex machina.  When I wrote Plumis, I knew about major future events, but I didn’t write it down.  I was going in blind most of the time because I had so much faith in my ability to memorize these complex plot points.  Sure when you’re just starting out you may have a good grasp of what goes on in chapter 7, but what happens when you actually get there?  Will you still remember it after working on chapters 1-6?  Will it still be relevant?  What if something relevant in chapter 7 had to be introduced earlier, but you forgot?  When in doubt, write it down.

Since comics are a visual medium, it’s a good idea to know how to draw your characters.  No I don’t mean getting the anatomy perfect, I don’t even mean you should draw your character exactly the same way each time.  Your art style will change as will the details in your characters. But I recommend getting a feel for certain patterns when you draw your characters.

Let’s go back to Plumis.  Ignoring the sub-par artwork, I find these designs to be rather bland.  Not just because of the anatomy or the muted colors, but there’s no rhythm to them.  In Shai Away, I have them broken down into specific shapes and angles.  

Ahmose is mostly made up of 90 degree angles and horizontal lines.  Omid is made up of curves and round shapes.  Luca is made up of acute angles and isosceles triangles.  Aminah's design tends to have a lot of diamond shapes.  Do they always look consistent from panel to panel?  No.  But even if I drew these characters in a simplistic style like this without any clothing or other details, you’d be able to pick them out.  Not only does this make your characters more recognizable, but it will also help you draw them faster.  Unlike Plumis where I was so obsessed with getting the anatomical details right, here I can just draw a bunch of triangles and bam, it’s Luca.
Having a simple style can also make
it easier to get really expressive

While we’re on the subject of art, it’s good to know your strengths and weaknesses before you start.  A lot of art tutorials like to preach about “breaking out of your comfort zone” and...I’m not gonna say that.  Oh working out of your comfort zone is great for independent study, but for a personal project you’re spending a lot of time on?  Take it from me:  drawing outside of your comfort zone sucks and it can really bring down your confidence.  So when doing a comic, do what you love.  

Do you love drawing complex poses but you don’t like drawing faces?  Do an action comic and have the main character wear a mask or something.  Do you dislike drawing complex machinery?  Maybe you should put that sci fi comic on hold.  Do you have more experience with drawing animals than humans?  Make the characters in your comic animals.  Does the idea of drawing sex make you uncomfortable?  Perhaps the world of erotic webcomics isn’t for you.  As you develop your craft, your range of skills will grow with it.  Maybe as you go on you will develop the skills to draw that sci fi comic.  But for now, there’s no shame in writing what you know and love.

My earlier mantra of “when in doubt, write it down” goes beyond the plot.  If you have an idea, whether it’s for a character or the setting, write it down.  Is it relevant?  Who cares?  I keep a separate outline just for setting trivia.  Everything should come from your universe.  Your plot should form from events that happened within your universe.  Your characters should be shaped from the circumstances in your universe.  

I have it written down that in Akhari, the underground society in Shai Away, fresh produce is practically non existent and only those who are in high society have access to it.  Sounds simple enough, but then we have Ahmose, the main character who was raised in a society with these obvious class differences and being lower class in this society is what shaped a lot of his backstory and personality.  What happens when we remove him from Akhari and put him above ground?  

Spoilers: He doesn't take it well
What if he starts eating poisonous berries because he doesn’t know the difference?  The most simple of plot details will not only make your setting feel more alive, but it can open the door for many different scenes and character traits.

So keep note of the rules of your universe and your character’s daily lives.  If it feels like your characters have a life outside of the main plot (even if the plot throws them off schedule), your story will feel more believable.

3. Just start

This one was my biggest fault when working on my previous projects.  Because before you start your comic, you have to draw a lot of stuff right?  You need maps so you know where everything is.  You need floor plans so you know how scenes play out.  You need model sheets, turnarounds, diagrams, spreadsheets, covers, inside covers, oh my god where does it end?

It got so bad that in Plumis, I was making promo art for a project that I didn’t even start.  Believe me, I would have loved to work on the next page...but you see, first I have to draw what the characters looked like genderbent.  Then I need to draw them as steampunk characters.  Don’t forget the numerous portraits and expression sheets.
this was very essential
to the story

Practicing drawing your characters is one thing, but every moment you spend not drawing your comic is another moment your comic isn’t being made.  And here’s the thing about model sheets and turnaround: they aren’t necessary.  Remember that thing I said about getting into certain rhythms when drawing characters?  That’s really all you need.  It is useful to keep color swatches or keeping note of those little details you might miss, but those fancy turnarounds with tons of detail made by the pros?  Those sheets are made by larger productions with more people working on it.  When you have more than one person drawing the same character, it’s even more crucial that the character looks on model--especially in a medium like animation.
Closest Shai Away has to a turnaround
Also made well after the comic started
You know your characters and you know how to draw them.  Maybe they won’t be 100% on model and their designs will change down the line, so what?  You’re not doing this for a major production studio, you’re doing it for yourself.  And if you really want this comic made, it’s not going to magically create itself while you’re trying to figure out what your main character’s head looks like at a 45 degree angle in overcast lighting.  Don't waste your time drawing future merchandise, making complex turnarounds, or writing drawn out webcomic tutorials *cough*.  Just pick up your pen, open your program, and do it.

4. Don't just start

Actually, hold off on that for a moment.

Comic production doesn’t start with drawing the first line on the first page.  Earlier I suggested keeping a rough outline of the major events in your story.  Well, now we’re going to build on that.  What I do is I take the outline for chapter 1 and I write the first script.  Actually, script isn’t the right word.  It’s like the halfway point between a script and an outline.  All I do is write the dialogue and briefly describe the action.  I like to format it like a chat log so it goes by faster.  This is so you know what’s being said, how it’s being said, and what happens, but it’s not your script.  Embarrassingly enough, this is where I used to stop.  See this?  
This is the “Script” for a scene in Plumis.  What page is this on?  How are the characters positioned in the panels?  How many panels are there?  I wouldn’t even script out the entire chapter.  I would script a scene like this, draw the pages, and repeat.  I still have no idea how I planned chapter 1 to end, because I never wrote the ending.

When you finished outlining your chapter, this is where we get serious.  Here is the script for chapter 1 of Shai Away.  
Not only do I know how many panels are on each page, but I know what I’m drawing in each panel.  Also, I know how many pages this chapter is going to have so I know how much progress I’m making.

Now that the script is done, let’s go over making the actual pages.  With Plumis, this was my process:
  1. Script the scene
  2. Draw the panels on a page
  3. Thumbnail the page
  4. Sketch the panels
  5. Ink the page
  6. Color the page
  7. Add text and effects.
  8. Do this all again on the next page.
This. Process. Sucks.

It’s a wonder that I even stuck with this comic for as long as I did.  How frustrating is it to finish one page, but nope you got 40 more to do? Or at least I think you have 40 more to do, but you didn’t even script out the rest of the chapter.  Could be 40 pages, could be 400.  Who knows!

Treat your pages like a cake.  When you’re frosting a cake, do you start with one tiny corner and add all the icing and sprinkles on that section before moving on?  No.  You frost the entire cake and move layer by layer.  With Shai Away, I did the panels for all of the pages at once.  I used a program called Medibang which allows you to make panels very quickly, but you can use whichever process you think fits best.  After that I thumbnail all the pages.  After that, I divide the chapter up by scenes.  Sketch out the pages that take place in one scene, done.  This makes the process go by a lot faster, but it also helps keep your scenes consistent.  Not only that, but this method will make you feel a greater sense of accomplishment.  Because 50 pages sketched out feels a whole lot better than 1 finished page and 49 you don’t even have files for.

5. Sticking with it

This is the part I feared the most.  Even if you have a story planned out, it’s very easy to lose inspiration.  There’s no clear way to avoid this, but I found one technique that helped me so far:

Do not upload as you go.  Instead, have a good chunk of pages done before you start uploading.

When I uploaded the first page of Shai Away, I was already 80% done with the rest of the chapter.  As of now I have 2 weeks of completed pages waiting to be uploaded. With Plumis, I uploaded the pages when I was finished with the page, which made it easy to slack off.  Even if I didn’t want to work on the next page of Shai Away, I still have a 10 page buffer.  Which brings me to another point:

Have a schedule.  I upload a new page of Shai Away Monday through Friday each week.  It’s easier for me to keep track of, and it’s easier for my readers to keep track of.  Plumis had no upload schedule.  Some pages only had hours between their uploads, some had months.  Readers didn’t know when to check in.

And here’s the thing: people want to read your story.  This idea was the hardest for me to comprehend.  Harder than outlining, drawing, or anything else I covered.  If you put time into something, you will have an audience.  Maybe not a big audience, but an audience.  You just need to make your comic accessible so people can read it.

What if you don’t finish it?  It’s still great drawing practice and you will still gain something from the experience.  As much as I talk down Plumis, I doubt Shai Away would even exist if I didn’t create it.  Maybe Shai Away is just a warmup for a different project.  I don’t know.  But what I do know is that I’m happy I started this journey and I’m happy that people are coming along for the ride.

6. ???

Also draw your characters naked from time to time.  Breaks up the monotony.

Part 3: Plumis, What Went Wrong

Roasting my 2011 Webcomic. Part 1: Introduction.

Way back in 2011, a 15-year-old me attempted to make their very first (original) webcomic.  Despite having enough artistic talent to barely fill a thimble and not having a lot of experience with comics in general, I was fairly confident that I could make this happen.  And thus, Plumis was born.

*Insert Price is Right losing horn*

Each of the 25 pages were lovingly crafted in Paint Tool Sai with the stabilizer set on 0.  Gradients and canvas textures were used in lieu of actual dynamic shading.  Even when not taking the art into account, the story was a bloated disaster that wasn't coherent enough to be readable, but not interesting enough to be an enjoyable train-wreck.

It holds a special place in my heart.

It's very easy for me to point my finger and complain about every mistake I ever made in this experiment (which you'll see plenty of later), but part of me can't help but be thankful that Plumis even exists.  Mainly because it helps me feel so much better about my current webcomic attempt, Shai Away.

Shai Away was created in April 2016 and at nearly 200 pages at the time of this writing, it's by far my most long-running project (not that there's a lot of competition).

Between 2011 and 2016, there was this dark period where I would start webcomics, only to drop them well before the first page was even thumbnailed.  This was for a number of reasons, but mostly it was because I didn't have a process.

This is why I'm making this series of posts.  Because I know there are plenty of artists who want to make a webcomic, but they don't know how.  They may know how to draw a picture or how to frame a story, but I came to discover that there's way more to webcomic production than that.

So to properly explain my current process, I'm going to detail how my process back in 2011 was just wrong (for me, maybe it would work for you).