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Writing Excuses 8.48: Long-Form Storytelling with Sam Logan

Writing Excuses 8.48: Long-Form Storytelling with Sam Logan


[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 48.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, long-form storytelling with Sam Logan.
[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] And we have Sam Logan, another wonderful web cartoonist. I'm really excited to have Sam on. Say hi to everybody.
[Sam] Hi, everybody.

[Brandon] I've got actually a fun story about Sam, because when I first published my very first book, Elantris, way back when, they sent me 20 copies of the hardcover, the publisher did. I decided I was going to give these out to people who had meant something to me in my storytelling and in my writing and things like that. So I gave one to some of my teachers, I sought out old friends, and I actually wrote Sam Logan and said, "Your comic is an inspiration to me. I'd like to send you a copy." This was 10 years ago or so. He said, "That's great. I don't read this stuff, but I'll give it to my girlfriend."
[Sam] I think what I specifically said was that I was wary because I was afraid of a book that would have... Have the potential to have a four-page description of the parts of a saddle.
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Sam] That was the specific thing I told you. And you told me it was largely saddle free. It was true.
[Brandon] So I sent him a copy. Now I get to have him on my podcast. So I'm geeking out a little here.
[Mary] Now he does the four-page descriptions of saddles.
[Brandon] Yes, now we get... I'll start rambling about saddles.
[Howard] Four? He can get it done in four?
[Sam] There's a lot of parts to the saddles.

[Brandon] So, longform storytelling. Sam, you have been telling a story over many, many years?
[Sam] Yeah. 11, I think I'm up to now.
[Brandon] 11 years. And you're... For those who haven't read Sam and Fuzzy, I'll give the promo on this. It's fantastic. Amazing art style, great storytelling. It actually reminds me a lot of Bone by I believe Kevin Smith is his name. Is that his...
[Sam] It's Jeff Smith.
[Brandon] Jeff Smith. That's right. Kevin Smith is the movie guy. In that it starts out very kind of humorous, quirky, kind of joke a week, and it is transformed into a massive epic about ninjas and this secret underground and it's still funny. So, well done.
[Sam] Well, thank you.

[Brandon] When you started, were you planning to take it as epic as it went?
[Sam] No.
[Sam] See, because as much as I am kind of like known as the guy who pre-plans everything now, when I started that particular comic, it was for a university newspaper and it was like... I'd always done story-driven comics and longform stories like ever since I was a kid, but there was a college newspaper. I was like, "Ah, I'll do a gag strip because I'm a cartoonist and I am going to the university, so why not?" Then that was Sam and Fuzzy and when... Once I had been doing it for a little while, I was like, "Eh, I guess I should put that on my website," because that's what everybody is doing these days. Then when the website started to pick up steam and I had been doing it for a while, it was kind of like, "But this isn't actually the kind of comic that I enjoy doing the most." So it just sort of morphed into the kind of work that I prefer to do. It was like...
[Howard] In other industries, we call that bait and switch.
[Sam] Bait and switch. Yeah.
[Sam] It was... It was... It was a kind of gradual process, like the period of time that stories would be planned over kept getting longer and longer. Like first I started telling short kind of sitcom-esque episodes, and then I started plotting like arcs of episodes, and then it started being more like plotting books. Now we're basically at the point where I do like a plot like something that will be like a set of like six books or something, with an arc that goes over...
[Howard] This is sounding... No, this is sounding really disturbingly eerily familiar.
[Sam] Yeah, I thought it might.
[Howard] Yeah. Well. Okay. I just want to listen to him talk about what I did.

[Brandon] So, I'm going to... Let's do it in reverse. I have some other questions about where... How you got here, but right now, what's your plotting method? How do you build this, knowing it's going to take years to tell this story?
[Sam] Well, yeah, I don't know. It's kind of like a weird hodgepodge that just... My method of having done it for so long, the kind of like formula that came into place. What I do now is, I'm currently in the middle of what would be book four of a six book series. So it's like there's the overarching plot of the six books, and there is like the kind of individual arcs of the individual books, and then within the books, there are chapters which tend to be kind of like TV episode style short stories. So from like the top from like the full series arc to the short little stories, it's like they're planned less, the smaller the story is. So like the big arc is very planned out in terms of like all the major plot events, all the major character arcs and character beats. That right from before I started the first book, I had that gridded out. Then the individual arcs for the individual books in terms of how they contribute to the overarching one are somewhat planned, but there's a lot of room to flex on them. Then the actual individual chapter stories? Those are almost kind of like, kind of like built to fit. Kind of like I look at where I'm at in the story right now and where the characters need to be, so I will craft little stories that somehow call attention to or reflect or initiate some sort of important character change that is required to take it where it needs to go.
[Brandon] Okay. Awesome.

[Mary] I'm curious what that actually looks like. I mean... Because it is... Although a lot of the parts of the process sound familiar from the noveling side, is it... Is it an outline, is it... I heard you say the word gridded out, I'm like, "Is that a literal grid or..."
[Sam] It's... I don't write anything down. Like at all. It's conceptual. It's like there's a certain amount of information I'm confident in my ability to remember in my head as far as plot stuff goes. So it's really largely there. Things that I'll...
[Howard] Okay. You need to only ever cross the street with the signal.
[Howard] No, I mean this.
[Sam] No. I've honestly... Sometimes I thought maybe I should write it down just in case I'm hit by a bus or something. Because it would be like really frustrating for people who are reading the comic. They would just never know what was going to happen.
[Howard] Ursula Vernon... No, was it... I think it was Ursula Vernon talking about Digger said she had a panic attack one morning and she ran in on her husband when he was showering and told him how the whole thing ended. Because it was all in her head and she said, "Somebody besides has to know.
[Sam] I thought I might put it in a will that like a big central mystery of the comic is there's this ominous pit that several characters like referred to in very vague terms and it's like what is in the pit is a big mystery. So sometimes I kind of think in my will I should just put like, "And this is what's in the pit." Like this is the end.
[Brandon] And this is what [garbled] really looks like.
[Mary] In the horribly depressing and morbid things that can happen to you that are not death, a concussion could actually wipe the story out.
[Sam] That's true. And I mean... I guess it's...
[Howard] So the notes could be for you.
[Sam] The notes could be for me. Like mementos style...
[Brandon] I just have to say, as someone who spent the last five years dealing with the work of someone who didn't... Please go ahead and write it down. Just the thoughts and stuff.
[Mary] Or at least...
[Brandon] To tell me...
[Mary] Talk into a tape recorder.

[Sam] Record it or something. Well, I mean, it's interesting because it's just like my actual writing process, like even on the individual strip level, like people often ask, is it more like... Is it driven by the art and what you want in the panels and then you write the words to fit or is it that you kind of write a script and then you craft the panel [layout?] around it? For me it's always been like a cohesive thing. It's like... When it's time to do a new two-page strip, I'll go for a walk and I will think about what words and what pictures and what layout like all at once, like cohesively. Then I just come home and I quickly jot down what the words were so I don't forget them and I immediately start thumbnailing out what the panels will be like. It's like there isn't... It's not like an either/or kind of situation. So like sometimes I don't feel like I write a lot of notes because... I don't know... It's hard to describe. It doesn't feel like it's in words and it doesn't feel like it's in figures.
[Brandon] You get lots of practice and you know what you can do and what it requires to do... What requires you to set up and things like that. Howard, did you have something earlier that you wanted to throw in here?
[Howard] No, he actually answered the question I was going to ask, do you start with the words, do you start... Are there times when... This is really the question. Are there times when you are doing this grander outline, this grid, where what you have in your head is not a textual plot point, what you have in your head is a picture, some sort of iconic moment, some sort of tableau that you are shooting for?
[Sam] Yes. Absolutely. Like I'll... Even though I don't like script out the actual story lines like page by page the whole way through, there are always like as I'm conceiving like the big plot like key moments where I just... I see the finished comic like in my head. Like one... I know Brandon will remember it... Like the sequence where Crush shaves off his beard. That's the big reveal. That just like came to me when I was first writing that whole story. This is a big reveal of a character's hidden identity in the comic. It's just... I don't know... It's part of the picture. It's like when this event happens, this is how it will look and this is what the feeling will be.

[Brandon] Yeah. So. Let's do our book of the week. Sam, you're actually going to talk to us a minute about Feed by M. T. Anderson.
[Sam] I mean, this is probably just because I'm traveling, my wife who is a young adult writer loads me up with the next batch of really important to her young adult books that I have never read. It's been taking me years to work through them because there are just so many. One that I just read very recently that had like... One of the ones that had the biggest impact on me is Feed. It's just... It's funny now because it's a few years old, but it was written about a hypothetical future. It's kind of based on the idea of everybody having a feed to the Internet built right into their heads. Even though in a sense it should feel very dated, because that technology has changed so much in that time, it actually just feels like really creepy like in its predictiveness of everything. I mean not the literalness of it actually being in your head, but like in terms of the targeted advertising and data tracking and everything like that. I mean, it's all like real Google-type stuff that we have now, only it hasn't taken it quite to that science fiction level yet, but I just thought it was like a really powerful book.
[Brandon] Awesome. My wife read it and loved it too. Howard, how can they get that?
[Howard] Head on out to You can pick up Feed by M. T. Anderson narrated by David Aaron Baker for free for starting a 30-day free trial.

[Brandon] All right. I have another question for you, Sam. One of the challenges that Howard has expressed about writing web comics is balancing the idea that you want to move the plot forward, you want to seed things that you can pick up later, but at the same time, each day you've got to have a daily pay off. This is different from maybe writing even a regular comic book or graphic novel in that each page needs to do something that makes it... You feel like it was worthwhile to check in that day. How do you personally balance this? What is your strategy?
[Sam] I mean, as far as the strategy of it goes, I kind of cheated because what I did was made all my comics twice as long.
[Sam] When it was originally...
[Howard] Yeah, I'm not going to do that.
[Sam] Well, the thing... I only do three updates a week, and originally it was just a four panel gag strip. At some point, especially when it started to become my job and I was able to put a lot more time into it, there was the option to up the update pace, like to do more comics, and I chose instead to just double the length of the comics and keep it as three days a week. Which is not the best strategy from a business perspective in terms of generating ad impressions, but I feel like in terms of delivering the narrative... Like... For me, like when you're writing a serialized story, it's like every comic needs to have... Like get some sort of emotional reaction out of the reader. It doesn't necessarily need to be a joke, although a lot of times the joke is the easiest thing to do in such a short amount of space. But like something that makes them surprised or frightened or angry is a good one to tap into a lot of the time or whatever... Something to do that. To have enough space to delve into a plot that says complicated as... I just felt like having extra pages to work with.

[Brandon] Okay. Now let's say our listeners are trying to do this. They want to start their own web comic. How... Do you have any strategies that you can suggest to them about how to go about doing the writing? How to go about making this balance and payoff work? Any little... Any tips?
[Sam] I mean, honestly, like the biggest tip that I would have is, especially if you have kind of like dreams of doing the like really humongous stories like that I've been doing is don't start with them. Especially if you have one in mind that's like your baby, you're really big story is like... Start with short stories, where you can really get a handle on how to deliver all the like important parts of the story in that kind of like page by page process and learn that way. Because for me, it's just like by the time I got to doing these big stories, a lot of it is just... I don't know... Like I guess it's just instinctive or something...
[Brandon] Right. You practice long enough. We talk about the same thing with novel writing, actually. Don't write your baby first. Practice something else.
[Sam] The number of people I know who they had their... They started a web comic because they just had this one story that they've always wanted to do. It's their big epic. So they get into this horrible like lock pattern, where they do the first 30 pages of it over and over and over again forever because they learn so much in those first 30 pages that then they look back at the first page and like, "This is terrible. This can't be the first page of my greatest work." So then they just go... But then nothing. They never get finished. So all they really ever do is practice writing the beginning of things, which then...
[Howard] I've made about $65,000 selling the first pages that I hate.
[Sam] Yep.

[Howard] I would not have made that if I did not have current pages for people to read. If I had it to do over, I would do it differently and I would probably fail. Which is terrifying. When people ask me, "What's your advice for a starting web cartoonist?" I say, "I started 13 years ago. The strategies that I used, the tools that I used, the things that were available on the Internet are part of a ship that not only has sailed, but I jumped off it onto an island that I don't know where it is and that ship has sunk. I don't know how to get off this island, and what's Facebook?"

[Brandon] No, that's really kind of interesting to point out. You guys both and Jeff
who we had on a while ago, have been doing this for a long time. You started like when web comics were this new thing. When someone like myself who wanted to read them is going, "Well, where are the web comics?" Well, there were only a few that looked and wrote professionally and were updating regularly. Those became these awesome things years and years later, but people who are starting out now, it's kind of like... It's like 100 years have passed in a genre like novel writing or things like this, because it moves so fast on the Internet. Wow, it's gotta be just a weird, weird place for new writers right now.
[Sam] It must be. I mean, like... Howard I'm sure will relate to this... When people come and approach you and back in the day, like when you were first starting, they'd be like, "So you do a web comic like an ongoing story? Like that's really weird. It's not like a newspaper style gag strip?" Because like nobody did that eight years ago. Whereas now, I would say that's like the dominant form of web comic stuff. These things change very fast.

[Mary] I have a question actually regarding the long form. How much retention of information can you expect people to... Like when you plot something, how long can you expect them to retain it?
[Sam] I feel like you can't expect them to retain it at all. So fortunately, when you're doing an update, you can... You have your news post area below it to remind people of stuff that they might have forgotten. To an extent... Like you don't want to put too much of it into the comic itself because there are people who do remember. You don't want to feel like you're constantly like badgering them with old information. And you don't want to do that old school like Marvel comics thing where you have the editor's box where it's like, "Smiling Stan says see issue 346," or whatever. So it's like you have the... For somebody who's like they read the comic and they're like, "I don't really remember who this character is. They haven't been in the comic for several years." Like, I'm sure their first instinct will be to scroll down to the news post where you can be like, "Hey, remember this character? Here's the story they were in and here's why you should remember them."
[Howard] The forums, the Schlock Mercenary forums, the Facebook group... I do know what a Facebook is. I have one right here in my phone.

[Howard] To use the metaphor we used earlier, all the time, somebody will say, "Hey, wait a minute. Where'd that gun come from?"
[Mary] Out of Schlock's mouth.
[Howard] What I have to remember is, it's not my job to say, "I put it on the mantle on October 13 of 2006." It's my job to sit back and hope that one of the other readers says that. When they do say that, I feel very smug because I get to feel smug. But it happens all the time. I can't trust people to remember in this form.
[Brandon] I really do like Sam's posts underneath. It's something you do a really good job with. It's not giving us the gun. It's remember this character. Then you go back and you read three or four weeks worth and you remind yourself and things like that. I really like it. Something else... Since I am a fan boy that I'll point out that I really like about the comic before we get done here is I love how you have this gag-a-day sort of thing. Part of the gag is that there is a talking, anthropomorphic teddy bear basically who feels like... I don't know the back story, but it feels like it was thrown in there because it's funny. It's just a silly thing, a contrast. A taxi driver and this bear that everyone just expects and accepts as part of the world. Years later, as we were talking about with what Jeff did, you took that and made it a plot point. All the things you toss in the air even kind of accidentally early on, you said, "Now I'm going to turn this and I'm going to use this in all sorts of different ways to expand the epic scope, to expand the humor, to expand the world building." So it's not just a random bear, it's now part of the lore in very deep and interesting ways. I think that's part of how you made this whole transition work is things that we just assumed were silly little jokes became important aspects of the storytelling. You did a wonderful job of that.
[Sam] Well, thank you.

[Brandon] I want you to tell us... You have 10 years of continuity. Is there a starting point you would suggest our listeners pick up your comic at?
[Sam] Yeah. If you go to the website right now, it encourages you, like on the new reader button, to start at a point from just a couple of years ago which was the start of the third major arc of Sam and Fuzzy. I encourage people to do that because I feel like it's the strongest work and it also stands on its own, to the point where you don't need to have read the first two. So it's like you don't have to read 10 entire years of comics to get caught up.
[Brandon] But you really should [garbled]
[Sam] You should. I meant to say...
[Brandon] But you can start there and then you can go back and get all the back story.
[Sam] Exactly. Read the... And if you like it, there are two whole other arcs that you can read to get caught up.

[Brandon] All right. We need a writing prompt. Do either of you have something off the top of your head you could suggest to our listeners to get them jogged into writing for this week?
[Sam] I don't know. I can give it a shot. Like for me, I can't write unless I am... I mean, it's not literal writing, but like conceptual writing. I can't do it unless I get out of my house and completely separate myself by going for a walk. That is how I've written the script for every Sam and Fuzzy for like over a decade. It's just because as soon as I sit down somewhere there is a device in front of me that I can be doing instead of that. When you're outside and you're on your feet, you're moving, there's nothing to do but just think about the plot.
[Brandon] Okay. So go for a walk. Great writing prompt. Thank you, Sam. Thank you, audience at GenCon, by the way. I haven't thanked you in a while. Yes, you can scream. Howard's not here.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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