Bouncing Ideas off Your Future Self

The majority of good writing in the world comes from two camps: those who are just so damn good they don’t need to fuss over the minutiae because they got it right the first time; and us poor humans. I fall into the latter camp and chances are so do you. We can look at the gods of writing and wonder how they manage to be so good, or we can try to match their prowess with our own finished product. The former is easy but the latter gets results.

An extract from the "Nasties!" storyline from The Life of Nob T. Mouse

Spot the redundant dialogue in this Life of Nob T. Mouse strip.

So how do we make our work as good as that of these infernal comic gods? Well first of all, we’ve got to stop comparing ourselves to them right from the start. It’s okay to set out with a goal in mind (something like “I want to write a play as profound as Shakespeare’s!”, or “that last issue of Captain Jawbone sucked! I want to show them how it should have been done!”) but if you’re constantly stopping to hold your work up against theirs you’re quickly going to be demoralized (and also find it takes a lot longer to finish). Save the comparisons until after you’ve written the first draft.

“What’s this about a first draft?” you might ask. Well, that’s really the main crux of this article. If you’re like me, you started your first comic by putting pencil to paper and running with it; publishing the result without going back over what you’d said and done. I found it quickly became apparent that while sometimes you can created something great like that, most of the time you won’t. There’s a reason for this, of course.

First drafts are where we find out what’s going to happen in the story. We get to see the shape of it; we get an idea about who is doing what and where. After this, we need to set the draft aside for a while and then come back to it with fresh eyes. This way we can see all the problems in the writing, which were not obvious before.

This is what I mean when I say you need to bounce ideas off your future self. But what has bouncing got to do with drafting? Well, with few exceptions, great comedy is written by a duo, or even a team. Each person plays off the others, they bounce ideas around and create something better through collaborative effort.

If you listen to a few of the Penny Arcade podcasts, it quickly becomes clear that while Jerry and Mike are very talented guys in their own right, they make something very special when they work together. Similarly, The Simpsons is great on a regular basis (comments about the early and later series aside, for now) because of the combined efforts of the team of writers behind it.

Of course not every webcomic writer has a team behind them – most don’t in fact. There will often be nobody else there to feed lines to and get something back in real time. You’ve therefore got to step back a little and become the other person. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

Everything looks different with a little distance on it; and comics are no exception. When you’ve put your storyline aside for a few days, you can read it with fresh eyes and see the problems that need fixing; or the lines of dialogue that could do with a little tweaking to sharpen them up. This second draft will be much better than the first because you’ve let the work bounce. Now put it aside and let it bounce again.

When I write a comic, I only publish once I’ve reached the third draft. Sometimes it takes until the fourth of fifth draft before I think the idea of the comic is down pat (and even then I’ll cringe if I come back to it in a few months’ time, but can’t we all say that?). By this point, there have been enough iterations of me playing with the idea that I’ve refined it enough to be worth showing to other people. The main ideas from the first draft are still there (usually) but everything generally works better now than it did when I first wrote the idea down.

Of course this whole process goes faster if you’ve got someone else there but the end result is usually going to be the same: the kinks are gone, the gem at the core of the idea is cleaned up and brought to the forefront, and the whole thing just feels much better for it.

If you don’t do this already, why give it a try and see how it works out?

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