My latest mantra is, ‘WRITERS ARE MADE, NOT BORN.’ It takes a whole lot of work, a whole lot of deliberate practice before you get good. Inspiration and genius do not simply descent in a constant stream on those who I admire. They work for it.
‘Deliberate practice’ is the idea that nobody is born supremely gifted, and that people who are ‘experts’ in their field are only so because they’ve spent a dedicated amount of time sweating over what they do.
I really admire people who realize this, and try to dedicate myself to a exercise program for my writing similar to that for my body. Time, sweat, tears, it all needs to go in there. One of my favourite deliberate practice projects was Christopher Currie’s Furious Horses, where he started a blog where he wrote a short story every day for a year. Let me say that again: a short story. every day. for a year.
That’s some awesome dedication. In a similar show of awesome dedication and bravery in putting himself out there, comic artist Tohm Curtis has started the blog “Twelve Moments“, which posts comics Tohm has created in collaboration with writers. These comics are restricted to twelve cells. The project itself is a deliberate practice mission to get “200 bad pages” out of Tohm’s system, having heard that “Every comic artist has 200 bad pages in them before they produce 1 good one…”
So I talked to Tohm about the project:
Can you explain the project?
The project is called Twelve Moments, it’s a webcomic that is collaboratively created. The premise is that other peeps write the comics and then I produce them (draw, ink, colour, letter and publish) and the sole restriction is that they have 12 pictures (or panels) to tell the story in. It came about because I was watching an interview by Bobby Chiu with Tim Sale. Bobby Chiu’s interview series with artists is great by the way because illustration is a lonely profression (much as I imagine writing is) and these interviews sort of bring a community together, particularly for peeps like me who live in Australia with no access to comic cons, particularly ones attended by people like Tim Sale and Bobby Chiu. Anyway, every artist Chiu interviews has the same advice ‘Do the work.’ Tim Sale quoted somebody in his interview ‘Every artist has 200 bad pages in them before they produce one good one. That number either defeats you or you say: I better get to work.’ Literally as I watched that interview I concieved of doing Twelve Moments and emailed my friend from the same computer to get my first contribution. The aim is to get to 200 pages at least. I still have a long way to go, it’s early days.
Would you call this a deliberate practice project?
I must confess I’d never heard of this term ‘deliberate practice’ until you introduced it to me and it took me a while to track down exactly what it meant on wikipedia. But yes, that’s exactly what I’m engaged in as it turns out and yes, I’m very much into this developmental model.
For me its sort of one and the same as my creative process. I guess the first example of deliberate practice I can remember was reading some articles on playing bass guitar online when one guy suggested exercises such as playing an Oboe part with your bass and trying to reproduce the sound, or trying to reproduce the sound an animal makes. In anything I do versatility is an appealing quality to me, so naturally this developmental approach appeals to me.
I actually wound up in the comic medium though through a trial and error phase. I really wanted to write some screenplays and TV scripts for like low budget Community Television stuff or webisodes. The thing was that while I could write the scripts, I simply lacked the networks and contacts to get them made. Everything I wrote actually got scaled back in terms of its production demands, less locations, less props, sets, less movement, less exterior shots… I still couldn’t get anything made. Then after having an emotional breakdown sparked by reading Noam Chomsky’s ‘Deterring Democracy’ on the streets of Rotterdam I decided I wanted to make a parody of old school sci-fi horror alien invasion flicks, and I concieved of ‘Fear Of A White Planet’. The thing was that that moved in the opposite direction. I decided though that since I could draw (sort of) I should do it as a comic, and the amazing thing about that medium is that it takes just as much effort to create the illusion of two people sitting in a cafe as it does a far fetched fantasy city of the future with flying cars. This isn’t the case working in film. I guess it’s also the case with writing, but I wanted to include a lot of violence and action, and it’s much easier to draw action than write it.
So I wrote the script for that comic in like two weeks, it was one of those in the zone moments, then I tried to do prep work to draw it, and that blew out to like 10 months. The thing that appeals about deliberative practice is that one of the difficult aspects when you are self taught is that you just don’t know what you don’t know. In the end I had some time between contracts with the work I was doing at the time and decided to just sit down and draw it. I’m proud of that work in one way which is that it chronicles how steep the learning curve was for me. The supposed ‘talent’ I had for drawing that encouraged me as a child and the lack of probably discouraged many more, bought me about a ten page advantage I think compared to somebody who had never drawn a comic. But as you flick through that comic my progress and development is obvious. On the other hand I find the drawing so bad on a personal level I can’t bring myself to look at it anymore.
The thing with Twelve Moments is that it helps me develop by throwing stuff at me I would never choose to or concieve to draw myself. Doing a 100 page comic book before hand, not only did I learn a lot about what I could draw and what I couldn’t I unfortunately learned what I didn’t like to draw as well. That makes me lazy when writing my own comics. For example, I hate perspective, I hate more than 3 panels to a page, on a good day I can draw 5 pages in about as many hours, but whenever I had a page with 6 panels on it, it might take me one or two days just to draw that one page. I just find it unpleasant for some reason. Probably because I measure my progress in pages.
Now I’ve cheated a bit with Twelve Moments because I’ve restricted the number of panels to twelve. Worst case scenario is that somebody asks me to draw a one page story with twelve panels on it, and I can live with that. But I am of the school that says ‘the artwork serves the story’ and although I want to be really good at drawing, the story comes first and I pick the style to suit it. Thus Twelve Moments as deliberative practice is great, for example ‘Arachnophobia
‘ I drew on Bill Presing
‘s work to determine my visual style and to a lesser extentWade Furlong
for the spider-webs. The story ‘2020 Vision
‘ I was drawing on Bruce McCall
, and the golden era comic book artists like Kirby.
Doing so many one-shot comics forces me to create so many settings and characters and pick and choose styles and colour pallets that I am literally learning from every stroke, every line I throw down on paper. I learn even more from the ones I then have to erase. It is demanding, but I am in a position where I can look back at stuff I produced last month and just be embarrassed by it. That’s how fast I’m developing which is probably as much a comment on what an amatuer I am as the merits of deliberative practice.
Do you usually work collaboratively like this, and if not, has this changed anything in the way you work?
Collaboration is new to me, but not to comics. I also give Tim Sale most of the credit for inspiring Twelve Moments, but my frequent collaborator H-Wang who wrote 2020-vision actually inspired me because he used to do this e-zine project where he invited his friends to contribute something relating to a theme and then he would do all the design work. He’s like a creative ad-man that works in print media so it was much more ‘design’ based than comics per se, but that definitely was an influence.
In the comic world currently you have two spheres competing against each other the Japanese comics that follow a tradition of ‘artist-as-writer’ and Western comics which are in the professional realm at least almost always a writer and artist collaborating. If you watch the progress of Japanese titles taking up shelf space at Boarders, then the western model appears to be losing out. I think collaboration though offers this neat efficiency, a good writer can work on multiple titles at once and with the artist that best suits their narrative. An ‘artist-as-writer’ model like is common in Japan means that a good writer can only work as fast as he/she can draw.
Furthermore with comic book adaptations dominating movie box-offices I was pointing out to my brother that aspiring screenwriters should move into comics. My brother pointed out that that was harder than it sounded because comic book artists particularly at the amateur/independent level are usually preoccupied with their own stories. This is largely true, and if I’m to defend western comics based on their tradition of collaboration I thought I better actually follow suit.
In terms of changing the way I work, it’s made me less lazy. I remember working at Honda they gave us like a book of wisdom from company founder Soichiro Honda where he talked about working as an auto-mechanic prior to WW2. He had this amazing attitude towards his customers because he knew that they would be really proud of their car and heartbroken when it broke down. So he always did the repairs and then cleaned the car and showed the customer what had happened and how he’d fixed it. That story sticks with me and I try to bring a similar attitude when I’m working on somebody else’s story. Even if it’s a story I would not normally be enthusiastic about, I want my contributors to be enthusiastic about comics and I try to make it as good as I possibly can. The story ‘Deus Ex Machina
‘ I got out late, this was partly because I lost a week to exams but largely because when I was doing my least favorite part of the process – coloring I was trying something new, that was colouring the line work and then filling. I spent three days doing the first page and when I looked at it I just felt it looked terrible. So I scrapped three days of work and started over with a simpler technique I’d used before. It wasn’t a total waste of time trying something new I learned a lot, but I don’t want to a single contributor to think I did a half-arsed job on their comic.
The last thing I’ll say on collaboration is that comics and writing are lonely professions, you (usually) don’t do your work in some cool bar in the presence of your friends but some home studio/sweatshop slowly losing your mind. Collaborating brings somebody else into your work and that’s a big thing. Just to have somebody who knows about it, knows it exists and involved in decision making before the publishing date goes a long way. Although I hunger to write my own stuff again, collaborating is definitely the most rewarding work I do.
What has the project involved – any major hiccups or set-backs?
The biggest set back was just designing a site to publish it on, that I could update easily and so fourth. There’s stuff to consider like ‘Can I actually use it?’ since I’m not too programming literate, to questions of the medium like ‘how do I keep people from reading ahead? reading backwards etc.’ It’s currently published on a blog so it’s less than ideal but I’ll fix this when I have that magic combination of time + money. Shouldn’t be too long.
The other challenge is just getting contributors. Not to draw gender lines but it was really hard to get female contributors. Even though invitation wise I kept it pretty balanced, because I wanted to introduce peeps to the wonders of the comic medium, the ratio of contributors is still way to one side. It’s strange because my female friends are often my most vocal and enthusiastic supporters. I guess they live more fulfilling lives than the guys I know, who have time to sit around writing comics?
Otherwise, the big set-back is one of motivation. I have called drawing a two step process – figuring out, then colouring in. 90% of the effort is in figuring out how to draw something, I’ve gotten better/more efficient at this over time, but it’s funny some days for no reason at all I will just get stuck. It took me ages to draw Arachnophobia because I had to figure out these perspectives that allowed a tiny spider to talk to a full grown woman. The solutions weren’t necessarily hard, I just didn’t like the process of coming up with them. I did like a panel a day which is ridiculously slow for pencils. But then it was a breeze to ink and colour. Go figure.
What do you hope to get out of the project, and are you seeing some results yet?
I literally want to produce that one good page after 200 ‘bad’ ones. I’m proud of the work I’ve done thus far, but it’s strange for a lot of them I drew them like 3-4 months before colouring and finishing them off and I really hate my quality of line, or use of space or whatever. I stop myself short of redrawing them, but it’s nice to know I’m developing so fast that I’m viewing stuff I only drew a few months ago as not up to my current standard. Switching styles too, I’m starting to develop my own style.
You can’t see it much in Twelve Moments output and you probably won’t for a while, because I’m deliberately imitating other artists in order to develop but when I draw something spontaneoulsy without reference all these different solutions are creeping in, like I’ll draw my knuckles like N8 Van Dyke, and do my facial features and anatomy like Humberto Ramos but my lines all straight and jagged like Lazy-Mills. Its still messy but the minute adjustments are starting to blend the different styles together into something more my own. This is really exciting for me and I hope to start simultaneously producing my own title in my own style.
I also as mentioned before am hoping to ignite something in my collaborators. I want them at base to be excited about creating something, more excited than they would be consuming something. Then I hope some of them get really excited about comics as a medium to write for. Unfortunately I can only offer them 12 panels, which is more than most independent artists do, but I realise is frustratingly small space to work with. Some of the things that work best in comics over any other medium – like time transitions and action sequences I know my collaborators just don’t have enough space to set up in 12 panels. But some of them have emailed me and said thanks for getting them to create something again. That’s the best result I can hope for.
My major challenge now is the same as anybody who creates anything has. Getting feedback. I have a lot of friends who are muso’s and while I do envy them their musical abilities and social nature of what they do, it is much easier for my friends to follow a link than it is for me to head out in the rain on a Saturday night to see them perform. It must be like throwing a party every week and wondering who will turn up. Having said that, how do you get peeps to comment? crit? give feedback? That’s the big mystery. I get more nourishment from feedback, or even a ‘Like’ on facebook than I do from most meals I cook myself (the sad thing is, I’m not even speaking figuratively). I wrote more extensively on this on my own blog, but peeps you got to realise we write/draw/play for you, you are an integral part of the creative process just by bearing witness. So don’t be shy, comment. It means more than you would guess until you’ve been in the same situation. Get down to those local gigs too, check out peeps’ photo blogs, comment on your friends blogs. It’s like the nicest thing you can do easily next to walking your dog. (Hey, a pet is a responsibility).
A huge thanks to Tohm for talking to me about this project, I look forward to seeing his work develop as the project moves along.
Also, sorry about dodgy formatting in this post. I’ve spent all my patience trying to fix it, and I’m out.