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Writing Excuses 8.35: Digging Yourself Out Of Holes with Jeph Jacques

Writing Excuses 8.35: Digging Yourself Out Of Holes with Jeph Jacques


Key points: The first step in getting out of a corner is admitting that you have a problem. Then take steps to get out of it. One approach is Oblique Strategies.  Change focus, use a different viewpoint, add someone else to the scenario. Throw it into the box, shake it up, and see what happens. Novelists and short story writers can go back and put the gun on the mantle. Often emotional fireworks precede recognizing you are in a corner. Make it a feature, hang a lantern on it! Sometimes, you can stretch the time between foreshadowing and use by inserting another thread. Keep your eye on the emotional beat you want from the scene. See if you have already done something useful.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 35.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, digging yourself out of holes with Jeph Jacques.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard.
[Brandon] We just fall all over ourselves when Dan isn't here. I'm really excited to welcome Jeph Jacques onto the podcast with us. For those don't know, I'm a super nerd about two things. One is Magic: the Gathering. The other is web cartoons, web comics. I am super excited to have more... Another webtoonist on with us. So Jeph, tell us about Questionable Content and about stuff that you're up to right now.
[Jeph] Okay. Questionable Content is a long-running, serialized five days a week, Internet comic strip. It's part sitcom, part relationship comedy, part light sci-fi about a group of 20-somethings living in a college town in western Massachusetts, trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and at the same time, there are little robots running around everywhere kind of causing havoc and creating problems and things like that.
[Brandon] I heard it once described as Hipsters In Love.
[Jeph] That is a really good way of putting it. I often put it that the comic is about people who want to kiss and then don't.
[Brandon] It's really quite good.
[Howard] And robots?
[Jeph] Yes. And robots.

[Brandon] I've read it for many years. Jeph's art style is one of these interesting things to watch evolve into many different shapes and forms. It's a fantastic comic. Y'all should go read it. Questionable Content. He is going to be talking with us about how to dig yourself out of holes because Jeph, you are what we call a discovery writer, right?
[Jeph] Yes.
[Brandon] You figure it out as you go along.
[Jeph] Absolutely.
[Brandon] Is this scary?
[Jeph] Oftentimes, it is very frightening. I've found... I've been doing the comic for just over 10 years now, and it does get less scary the longer you do it because you gain more confidence. Okay, I've been in this situation before, I can work my way out of it. But there definitely is that fear of the unknown, where it's like I don't necessarily know what I'm doing with the story next week or tomorrow or tonight or four hours ago when I was supposed to start working. So you do run into those moments, and I have figured out strategies for dealing with it and working within that over the years.
[Howard] I've got a question for you, Jeph. As a fellow web cartoonist, what do you start with? As a discovery writer, how far ahead of the... Starting on the picture, starting on the words, do you have the idea that is going to become that strip?
[Jeph] It really depends on what stage of idea you're talking about. I tend to think in terms of long-term plot points that I will aim for over time. But at the same time, most of like every strip I do is kind of made up on the spot the day it has to go up. Occasionally, I will kind of get a wild hair and go on a tear and write five or six comics in the course of one day, but that is definitely unusual for me. Most of the time, it's just one comic one day, start over again the next day.
[Howard] Okay. The second part of that question is when that idea genesis happens, are you leading with words and story, textual sorts of elements, or do you have a picture that you really want to draw, really want to drive towards?
[Jeph] For me, it always starts with text. I can't... I'm not one of those blessed cartoonists who can just write something and then add words later and have it makes sense. I have to have a script either complete or close enough to complete that I'm happy with it. That extends to the plot things too. It's always a thing that happens, a narrative of some sort that I get to rather than oh, that would be a really cool thing to draw, I want to aim for that. It's great when I get to draw cool things, but for me, the text has always been the more important starting point.

[Brandon] The topic of this is about digging yourself out of holes. I think this is going to be a very important topic for our listeners even... I'm not a discovery writer. I am what we call an architect. I build my story and then I start writing it, but every writer I know, even the most architect-y of architects, you come up with new things as you're writing. You decide, "Oh, I really need to do this instead." Your instincts tell you to go with it. Then you get into these corners. You have to get out of them! It can be really hard. What I want to talk about are strategies. What's your primary strategy? You're in this hole, you're like, "Oh, no, I have no idea how to write my way out of this without just waving my magic fingers and saying it was all a dream." What do you do?
[Jeph] In my case, for starters, I used to worry about this, like actually keep me up at night, for years. The first probably three or four years of my comic were I know I'm painting myself into this corner and I don't know what I'm going to do when I get there. This was early on, when pretty much the whole plot of the comic centered around the Marten and Faye romance and the whole will they, won't they of that. It was getting to the point where they'd been doing will they, won't they for so long that I was like, "I'm going to have to resolve this sooner or later or the comic is just going to stagnate and die." At that point, I literally woke up one morning, it was like Thanksgiving break, I was visiting my wife's parents for the holidays. I just woke up one morning and I was like, "Okay, it's time to deal with this." I just sat down and I kind of just stared it down and started writing and just went to see what would happen. It was not pure discovery writing in that I didn't... I wasn't just like, "Whatever happens is great, that's what I'm doing." There was definitely calculation involved behind it. I was like what will be best for the long-term? But I found that when you find yourself in a corner, often the first step to getting out of it is to admit that okay, I'm cornered. I can't just pretend like this isn't a problem. I have to take steps to address it. I think depending on your situation, there are a lot of different ways to do it. I'm a big fan of Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies. I don't know if you're familiar with it, but it's this deck of cards with random almost like gnomic phrases on them. You just draw one from the deck at random, flip it over, and it will say something. You try to apply whatever it says to your project. It was designed for working on albums when you get stuck in the mixing stage, but it works for any kind of creative thing. It can be something as simple as "Try it backwards" or "Turn it around" or "Go for a walk." It's really good for kind of jogging your mind as to okay, how am I approaching this? What if I tried something completely different?
[Howard] Why have I not heard of this deck of cards before? That sounds fantastically useful.
[Jeph] It's brilliant. In fact, there's a web app for it now, where you can click a button and it will just generate one. It's called Oblique Strategies.
[Howard] Is there one for my phone where I can shake the phone?

[Jeph] I am virtually certain that there is one now. It's absolutely indispensable. Even if you don't use the actual strategies themselves, I've found it's a great way to approach problems because you think, "Okay, I'm just going to step back and try something new." In the case of my comic, I have the advantage that over the years, the cast has broadened and the stories become more broad, so if I find myself getting to a point where I'm feeling stuck, I have the option of saying, "All right, let's just switch focus for a little while and see if that changes this." Or approach it from the viewpoint of a different character. Or introduce a different character to this scenario. Throw them into the box, shake it up, and see what happens. I find that that often, if not completely solving the hole I've dug myself into, at least shines some light on a different cranny of it that I can kind of explore and see what's there. As I was saying earlier, I think not being afraid of it is the biggest step and hurdle that I've had to overcome. Once you get to the point where like I can deal with this, suddenly you can deal with it.
[Brandon] Right. That's... That requires just a lot of practice. I've often described writing to be more like a performance than a lot of people that don't write a lot think. Like when you sit down there and you stare at the screen, you're going to perform for a few hours. It's something you've trained yourself to do. Yes, you can go back and tweak and change, but...
[Mary] That's the thing that's been occurring to me, listening to this... To... To...
[Howard] Jeph.
[Mary] Jeph. Sorry, I was like...
[Jeph] Totally fine.
[Mary] I was reaching for the last name, and I was like, "No, no, no, no." Is that one of the big differences between what you're doing and what a novelist or short story writer does is that you can't go back and retcon and insert things.
[Jeph] Oh, the angry email I would get if I ever did. It would be very bad.
[Mary] That's one of the ways... That's one of the strategies that I run into when I'm writing, is that if I write... Discover that I've written myself into a corner, I'm like, "Oh, well, I just needed to put the gun on the mantle in the first act." I can just go back and add it, which is a great strategy for me, but not for something that is already set in stone.
[Howard] Not one I can use either.
[Jeph] Yeah, not really. Not so much.
[Mary] Ha, ha!
[Brandon] Let's stop for...
[Howard] Luxury.
[Brandon] Let's stop...
[Jeph] These writers have it so easy.
[Brandon] Yes, we do. Howard tells us every week. He really does.

[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. Jeph is actually going to talk to us about one of Iain Banks Culture novels.
[Jeph] Yes. One of my favorite of Mr. Banks's novels of all time is set in the Culture series. It is called Player of Games. It is about a professional game player in the Culture universe who is regarded to be one of the best, if not the best player of games in this entire galaxy sprawling empire. He can play any game and beat anybody at it. He has like superhuman focus and ability to figure out how to play things. At the start of the novel, he's basically won everything there is to win, and he's getting to that crisis of okay, now what? At that point, the Culture's... Essentially CIA comes to him and says, "Okay, there's this crazy backwards civilization that we've run into this diplomatic conflict with. We need you to go there and play their game that is part of their national culture and religion and it suffuses every aspect of their lives." It's ridiculously complicated, it's so complex that he never even actually describes it in the book, it's just a series of scenes. This guy has to go and figure out this game that the people on this world spend their entire lives learning how to play and he has about three months to figure it out and hopefully try to beat their best player in the world.
[Brandon] Wow, that's awesome.
[Jeph] It's a really great book because it's got a super tight plot, almost like a thriller in a sense. At the same time, it's set in this utterly fantastic far future super super like hard sci-fi... Hard sci-fi to the point where it's almost a fantasy novel setting. I just really love it. It's a really tight read. It's a great introduction to the Culture as an overall setting.
[Howard] I think it may have been his first?
[Jeph] It was certainly very early, if not the first.
[Brandon] Howard, how can they get that?
[Howard] Head on out to You can start a 15 day... Er, 30 day free trial membership. Pick up Iain Banks Player of Games as recommended to you by Jeph Jacques, and I'm going to second the recommendation because I love the book.

[Brandon] So, Howard, what's your strategy? You've written yourself into a corner...
[Howard] All the time. The advantage that I have over Jeph is that I work 2 to 3 weeks ahead and sometimes... I say sometimes. I think it's happened twice now, I will realize... I look at the scripts I have written, I'm getting ready to write something new, and I realize there is something wrong. Usually... And we didn't talk about this yet, the recognition that something is wrong arrives after you feel anger and despair and frustration and blockage and all kinds of emotional things completely unrelated to this. Then you pull back and realize, "Oh. Oh, I'm having a bad time because I forgot to put the gun on the mantle." My subconscious is telling me, "You need to fix this, and actually, you should have fixed this yesterday before this strip aired."
[Mary] That's current Howard being angry at past Howard.
[Howard] Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
[Brandon] Man, that past Howard guy is just... He's a jerk.
[Howard] Oh, man. What's even worse...
[Mary] Drops the ball all the time.
[Howard] What's even worse is when inking Howard is mad at penciling Howard. Oh, man, he is such a slop. Anyway, the... So I would lay the strips out in front of me and look at the problem and try and figure out how much time my colorist needs to color the thing that I am about to draw, so where can I put the fix? I gotta stick a fix in here somewhere, where can I... That's happened three times where I've had enough time. There have been several times where the ship has sailed, and I look at it and say, "Oh. That is a legitimate in-universe problem." I got the physics wrong. I need to hang a lantern on this and own up to it. I'm not going to retcon it, that would be silly. I've done that a couple of times.
[Brandon] You make it a feature instead of a bug.
[Howard] I make it a feature. There have been times when I looked at the plot that I've done, and I realize, "Oh, this is so broken. I can't hang a lantern on it." I need to change points of view. I need to introduce another thread here, so that when we come back to this, the thing that I'm introducing here will feel like it's been foreshadowed for long enough that I can... Which is one of the reasons Schlock Mercenary have started getting longer, because I need more of those fixes.

[Brandon] I really like something that Jeph was talking about and how he fixes it. It relates to one of my methods, which is actually I search out and ask myself, "What is the emotion that I'm wanting from this scene?" Like I've written myself into a corner, I know I've got to fix it, but the problem usually is that I'm trying to fix it in a way that is going to cause the wrong emotional beat for the scene. I have to back up and say, "Ah, I need this to be X, Y, or Z." Often what I'm doing is I say, "I need this to actually be a twist, not just a patch." I need this to be a feature instead of a bug. Or I need to have this end in a way that's tragic rather than hopeful or whatever it is. Reducing it to my goal, reducing it to what the scene is trying to achieve can help me figure out the fix because often for me, like Mary, the fix is going back and tossing that football into the air so that then I can catch it 20 chapters later. But if I don't know what the emotion is supposed to be when it lands, I'm not going to be able to make the fix.

[Mary] The other thing that I use that is related to that, but actually something that you guys could use, is that I look back at the things that I've already done and see if there is anything that is useful in the past.
[Jeph] Oh, absolutely. I do that all the time.
[Mary] Figures.
[Brandon] You look like a genius, don't you? When you're like...
[Jeph] Not at all. But other people think I do.
[Brandon] Yeah, you look like one.
[Howard] No, see, that's the point. You have people come up to your booth and say, "Mr. Jacques, you're a genius. How did you plot this so..."
[Jeph] That's the beauty of working in a serialized format, is that I can do a random one-off joke, and then if I remember it 300 strips later, that's not a one-off anymore, that was brilliant foreshadowing that nobody could have predicted.
[Howard] Never throw anything away.
[Jeph] Ever. Never ever, never.

[Brandon] Yeah. Well. We really liked having you on, Jeph. There's one more thing you're doing that you wanted to talk about. You have a Kickstarter going on?
[Jeph] Yes, I do. I have just recently launched a Kickstarter for the next Deathm0le album which is my instrumental heavy-metal project. We are going to for the first time ever be going into an actual recording studio and having it actually professionally recorded, mixed, and mastered and all of that. The Kickstarter is already funded, it's doing extremely well, it's something like 500% over target right now, but the more money we get into it, the more cool stuff I can do, including more music and more editions and things like that. So if you want to check that out, that would be absolutely great.
[Brandon] It is questionablecontent dot...
[Jeph] net.
[Brandon] dot net.

[Brandon] We need a writing prompt for our wonderful listeners that... To jog them into doing something. I'm going to say go back to whatever you wrote most recently and come up with a different solution to whatever problem came up. You don't have to change your story. It's not like I want you to rewrite your story. But I want you to imagine, "Okay, I've got to solve this problem and I can't use the tool I used last time." Solve it in a different way, and write out that scene to see how it could change the emotional beat for what you've already pitched into the air. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

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