Si Spurrier Reveals His Writing Process

11 November 2014

Plenty's been said about the processes that go into writing comics.

Every writer tackles it differently, of course. There's no rule book, no Right Way. Still: you'd be amazed at how often the broad strokes match up. Modes of preparation, arbitrary routines, recipes for procrastination...

The problem is that even though the finished product will ideally be fantastically beautiful and nerve-shreddingly dynamic, it's difficult to be entertaining about the methodology itself. Hard graft, self-abusive levels of discipline and a gratuitous amount of distraction: these do not a gigglefest make.

So let's try and be arty about it instead of amusing.

To my mind you can chop the creative processes behind comics roughly into two schools of thought. They can be described – very imperfectly – as analogous to either watercolour painting or sculptural carving.

I'm about to overextend some metaphors here: brace yourself.

“Sculptural carving”, I mean, in the sense that you start with something big and lumpy and crude, which abstractly contains the perfect fiddly form you're after. An amorphous granite lump of an idea, if you like. The wonderwork is slowly exposed from the mass, chip by chip, with chisel and patience.
Into this category I'd lump teams who use the “Marvel Method”, in which a broad plot document is whittled down into scenes, pages and sequences, then submitted to an artist (to try and make some sense of it all), then returned to the writer for dialogue, effects, fiddly details, etc...

Chip, chip, chip, chip.

Oooor “watercolour painting” – and you can already see where I'm going with this – in the sense that you start with nothing then build layer-by-ethereal-layer towards something which gives the appearance of completion. Frankly I'm somewhere in the middle (as I suspect most writers are). I tend to start with that big ugly block, hack away at it to expose some semblance of a shape, then pick up my watercolours to try and paint a picture of what I'd like the bloody thing to look like – rather than the ragged mess it actually is.

Wow, this metaphor's feeling pretty tortured – sorry.

Anyway, my process is very regimented. I wrote a looong blog about it – amongst other things – right HERE, but the TL;DR version is that I've normalised a weekly routine round a basic unit of about 20-24 pages, or “one monthly episode”. On a normal week (which, hahaha, never happens) Mondays are spent dividing a plot into pages and sequences (cracking open the block of stone, if you're still listening to the shrieks of that tormented analogy); Tuesdays are about dividing those sequences down into their constituent panels (still favouring the chisel over the brush at this point...); Wednesdays are all about applying dialogue to the panels (which I guess is actually jumping ahead to the end of the watercolour phase to do all the fiddly shadows and highlights); then Thursdays and Fridays are spent writing panel descriptions and making it look pretty (that is, splashing big diaphanous washes over the page).

The metaphor's dead. Long live the metaphor.

Sometimes there are additional things to take into account, and this is where I get to actually show you some stuff. Like this:

What you're looking at there is a hyper-neurotic set of page breakdowns relating to a creator-owned series I'm not allowed to talk about. Sorry. Expect more details on this very soon, including a very exciting artist...

The gimmick with this particular story is that the narrative takes place across three different time periods (broadly: flashbacks, present day and flash-forwards). In order to differentiate between these threads, and in order to manipulate the reader's perception of pace, I've given each timeframe its own standardised layout.

For the flashbacks (in blue) it's a grid of 2x4 panels, which suits the claustraphobic, dense nature of the story at that point. For the present day stuff (in white) it's a grid of 2x3, which speeds things up a little while emulating a sense of space (this part of the story takes place in a desert). For the flashforwards, in red, it's a grid of 4 full-width panels, which (counter-intuitively) keeps things slow, and gives us plenty of space to introduce the psychedelic, trippy stuff going on in this part of the story.

Fiddly stuff, right? I have no idea if the artist will use it, and that's important. I mention all this only to give some sense of how the writer's mind might seek to impose order and pacing upon a story. As long as he or she never forgets the artist is by definition better at this stuff, and hence can/should/will/MUST ignore all advice they don't like, then everyone wins. When you enter into a collaboration you're also signing an invisible contract. You take responsibility for your own part of the creative pie, but for anything else: you merely suggest.

Comics collaborations are not for people who think they're The Best at everything.

Anyway, there's one part of the whole grisly process people rarely talk about. Writers like to say things like “I can script XX pages in a day!”. Or “I can do XX books per month!” We define our productivity in terms of the tangible output – the fingers hitting keys, the comics hitting shelves – which somewhat devalues what is, I think, the most critical part of the whole thing.

Do we dare return briefly to that awful analogy from before? If so, the process I'm describing would I suppose be the long, difficult, tedious journey that the block of marble has to take between the quarry and the artist's studio, long before he picks up his chisel. To illustrate this mystical operation – because FP has asked for some dynamic visual reference in this article, which is always a dangerous request when dealing with writers – I present here some instructive photographs to lift the lid on the most secret and under-discussed part of the scribe's tradition:

Thinking. That is: thinking until your head hurts. Grabbing every spare moment. Thinking even though nothing happens. Thinking and thinking and thinking until you've got something worth writing down.

Listen: ideas are cheap but oh-so-very expensive, all at once. Plots and arcs won't calculate themselves. The creative mind gurgles with guilt at the slightest pause in actual productive processing – hands are not moving! art is not being made! money is not being earned! - but that's a guilty voice that must be stifled and stamped-down whenever it rises.

People who don't take the time to think tend to start an awful lot of projects, but don't finish any.

There's a neat little fiction that ideas are somehow free-floating entities, distinct and self-motive, which go tadpoling through the ether until drawn towards the gravity-well of a convenient Writer.

“Where do you get your ideas?” people ask – like there's a secret supermarket. Or a mineshaft. Or a hunting ground. It's all nonsense. Ideas are what you get when you watch and listen and read and learn. Ideas are cumulative, not discrete. Ideas don't hit you by magic nor lurk in the undergrowth awaiting your stealthy attack. Ideas aren't really plural at all, but continuous and contiguous. “An idea” is really just a muddle of proto-ideas. Observations you've tweaked and skewed, thoughts and faces you've borrowed, interactions you've postulated, scenarios you've mutated.

Layers and layers of influences you've wrapped one around another.

In fact, if you're after a bottom line for all of this, ideas are what happen if you sit and think long enough, and hard enough, and often enough.

In other words: you don't get to be a writer until you're prepared to be a patient thinker.

It may not be the most fun part of the writing process, but it's the only one that really matters.

Si Spurrier is the writer of X-Force for Marvel, Six-Gun Gorilla for Boom!, Crossed: Wish You Were Here for Avatar and several batshit prose novels like Contract and A Serpent Uncoiled, using Real Actual Words And No Pictures. He tweets via @sispurrier and is secretly lovely.