Open Q&A: Greg on ideason June 10, 2012 at 11:49 pm
Following up on my conversation with Rick on the very abstract subject of “ideas,” here’s a Q&A with Greg on the same topic. Feel free to leave your own questions in the comments section below!
I’m not sure if it’s more of a joke or an annoyance for writers that one of the most often asked questions is, “Where do your ideas come from?” But for me, this has always been the least interesting of the five W’s and H to ask about. If you’ll indulge, here’s a set of questions about ideas that I thought you could maybe answer generally, with perhaps specific examples surrounding the process of creating Lady Sabre. “Ideas” is a sort of abstract concept too, so feel free to stretch the definition in whatever direction you want.
What form do your ideas take when they come? A setting? A situation? A line of dialogue? Do some concepts arrive more fully formed than others? Do you always hold onto the essence of that original idea throughout the creative process?
It’s remarkably inconsistent, honestly. Most of the time, the ideas that are the most powerful or “resonant” with me – meaning the ones I’m most anxious to pursue beyond anything else I may be working on – tend to arrive as an image, a moment or a scene. I see something in the mind’s eye and latch onto it, something about the people, perhaps, or the place, or the action. But that’s not to say it’s the most frequent means of arrival.
I think most writers get their ideas anywhere they can. It’s part of the job, to keep the mind open and fed with new ideas and concepts. I’ve been watching and reading a lot about physics lately, for example, and I know that’s fueling stories, but I’ve no idea what those stories will be as yet. By the same token, the whole economic broohaha has led to a new project, this one more concrete, that I’m just starting work on. Other times, like I said, I see something clearly – it doesn’t have to be contextual at all – just something that I imagine and think, okay, that’s neat, I’d want to know why that happened, I’d want to know what happens next.
I also work from theme a lot, I think, so in that, yes, there’s a consistency, a through-line to anything I’m trying to do. What happens more often than not, then, is that whatever thematic story I’m working with, or working out (more precisely) links up with an image, a moment, that I’m picturing in my mind. And then I’m off to the races.
When do your ideas come, in relation to the other projects on which you’re working (e.g. Does inspiration strike when you’re knee-deep in something else? Does the process of revising and submitting one project trigger the formation of new ones?), and at what point do you shift gears to focus on new projects? I often wonder about writers who…I don’t want to say multi-task, but at any point in time since I’ve known you, you’re working on a comic or three, a novel, now Lady Sabre, and probably two or three other things to which I’m not privy. How do you make room on the creative plate for everything? How do you prioritize which ideas to work on at any given moment?
Oh, the pain of it is that most new ideas come in the middle of “the other thing I’m doing.” Which can be aggravating, because in the main, I trust my instincts, and I want to hold onto those new ideas, you know? I end up quickly jotting something down or noting it in Evernote or whatever. But when I’m on a particular project, the bandwidth gets narrow, as the saying goes, and I need to keep my focus. So invariably I have to shove distractions aside – even if that distraction is a story shouting, “me me me!!!” Deadlines don’t care how creative you are; they just want to be met.
I don’t actually multi-task very well, frankly, certainly not as well as I used to. What I can do well, I think, is hold different ideas in my head at the same time, and that makes shifting gears relatively easy. I’m working on Lady Sabre scripts right now, but I’ve got piece of my mind on BRAVO, and another chunk focused on Punisher. That’s actually not difficult for me, and it might – perhaps – be a benefit, because it allows for cross-pollination, in a way. I enjoy being able to jump from one moving train to another, if that makes any sense; it’s energizing, and one of the biggest problems I have when writing (and especially when the writing is hard) is in maintaining momentum and passion. It ebbs and flows, so anything I can do to keep myself charging ahead is good.
I don’t like… how to put this. I don’t like not rewriting. I want to revise. I want to pound out a draft as quickly as possible, because to me, that’s raw material. That’s the lumber and the nails and the screws, and maybe it’s foundation, maybe it’s the building frame. But it sure as heck isn’t a habitation, you know? It’s not until I can actually roll up my sleeves and work with what I’ve got that I feel I’m doing the real work.
That becomes a Catch-22 when I’m on multiple projects, though, because – again, deadlines – I can find myself in a place where there isn’t enough time to do appropriate revision. It happens more often than I care to admit in regards to mainstream comics. One of the nicest things about Lady Sabre, honestly, is that I can go back and revise, and even revise in progress (though I’m sure Rick wishes I wouldn’t do that quite so much…).
How do you…I don’t want to say catalog, because that sounds scientific…how do you go about writing your ideas down, so they’re somewhere other than your brain? I’ve known writers who used journals, .txt documents with random lines, chains of post-it notes on office walls. What does your jotting-down process look like? And at what point do you sort of make the idea separate from yourself by writing it down? How long do you let it simmer / cure / ferment in your brain beforehand?
To tell the truth, I’ve always been very, very bad about putting the ideas “outside” of myself. It’s only been in the last couple years that I’ve begun to actually record nascent projects and ideas on paper or, more often, on computer. So, yeah, I end up with single-line text documents littering my desktop, or multiple Evernote notebooks. The big step – the moment I know I’m committing to something – is when I’m opening Scrivener, honestly. I barely use a fraction of the programs capabilities, but I love it for its ability to be a virtual three-ring binder. Lady Sabre, for instance, lives in a huge Scrivener doc that I’m always adding more and more to, ideas as they come to me or details about the world or the technology or the characters.
As for how long I let it simmer… there’s nothing consistent there, either. Some ideas wait for years, patiently counting down until they’re called to duty. Others go from concept to launch remarkably quickly. And others find themselves called up only to be sent back down again, because the idea stalled or petered-out or was in some other fashion not ready to be realized. Half of that can be the idea of the story itself, how it’s developed, but sometimes it’s simply a matter of what else I’m doing, and what opportunities have presented themselves.
Who do you share your ideas with, and at what point in development? I’m interested in how you and Jen do or don’t involve each other in your creative processes, and I’m also interested in whether you share ideas with your children as you work. At what point do you involve an artist when you’re doing comics? At what point are you sharing with an editor? Are you ever protective of ideas, and is this a general condition, or triggered by certain kinds of people?
When we were younger, Jen and I would throw ideas back and forth all the time. Especially when I was working on a novel, the end of the day routine would be me taking that day’s work and reading it aloud to her, looking for her thoughts and feedback, and, frankly, also using that as a proofing process, to catch stupid mistakes and typos and the like.
These days, two kids, work and social obligations, there’s just not the same amount of time for that exchange. We still do turn to each other when we’re against the wall on something, and a lot of that is as much hearing what the other one is saying as it is our need to just air the idea aloud; I find, personally, that speaking the story, saying the words out loud, ie, “This is what I’m thinking…” helps to crystalize and refine what I’m working on enormously. This is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about having a good editor, if only to have someone who knows how to listen. A good editor knows when to speak and when to stay silent, and will know when to nudge and when to sit back. There aren’t a lot of them out there, honestly. You can end up working in a vacuum quite easily.
With the kids, it’s different, because Elliot – at 12 – is only now at a place where I feel comfortable really sharing with him the majority of what I write. Dashiell is less interested in the work, but has always, always been far more focused on narrative. Both of them have, for that matter.
Working with an artist, it’s so contingent on so many variables. If it’s an artist I have a relationship with, friendship or professional or whatever, I’ll try to work with them as early as possible, if only to make it clear what it is we’re setting out to do, what the story is. On Lady Sabre, Rick and I have known each other for years, so a lot of the scripting is simply executing ideas we’ve tossed around for over a decade in some cases. Working with someone like Michael Lark, say, I tend to write the script first, then want to discuss it with him once he’s got it in hand. I never, ever, want to find myself locking the artist into anything; my medium is prose, my expertise is in the words, and thus I’m very open about the visuals in general, and even more so where visual storytelling is concerned.
As for being protective of an idea… I’m probably not as protective as I should be. I’ve shared ideas with people I shouldn’t have, only to see them write the story their way – sometimes badly – and leave me sucking wind. It’s unfortunate, and it can be depressing, but at the same time, you can’t be precious about creativity. Or, to put it another way, the manufacture of ideas needs to be constant. If one idea goes, there should be another on the way to take its place somewhere in the pipeline.
Why do ideas lend themselves to different media, and at what point do you say, “This is a comic,” or “This is a novel,” or “This is a video game” or “This is something different”? How often do these ideas cross-pollinate, e.g. something that you came up with for Queen & Country turns out to work better in The Punisher?
I’ve got an incredible luxury, in that I can write a novel, I can write a short story, I can write a comic, and each of these things I can do reasonably well. I’ve dabbled with stage plays, screenplays, so those forms are open to me. It becomes easy to marry an idea to a means when you’ve got so many options.
Most of the time, I end up making the decision on both efficiency and efficacy. I want a story to have an effect, to have a result for the audience – I want an emotional response, or a thought, and that doesn’t mean either has to be particularly deep, but the story should provide some sensation, if only pleasure, if only amusement. So an idea that is intensely visual, for instance, is going to be better suited for comics or another visual medium. Ideas that may appear, at first, to be visual but are instead far more internal, character-pieces, may work best in prose.
But there’s no hard and fast rule. For better or worse, a lot of what I do, I end up doing on instinct.