Thumbnailing

After writing comes possibly the most crucial stage of all. Thumbnailing takes the script I’ve written and turns it into a very rough draft of what the entire book will be.

I start off with the script infront of me, working through it page-by-page to establish how the pages will lay out in the book. Unlike a prose book, where text flows from page to page without any thought by the author, comics are paced panel-to-panel and page-to-page.

What this means is that while in prose a sentence may be split across a page-turn without any effect on the reader, in comics the page-turn is a significant part of the reader’s experience. In comics, page-turns are often used to help signify a change of scene or time, and most artists attempt to hold back any shocking visual reveals until after a page turn. There’s no tension in looking at a character on a left hand page when in the corner of your eye you can see them getting eaten by monsters on the right hand page.

In the case of my non-ficiton work, I try and pace pages so that each page spread covers one topic, and so that any page turn moves us on to the next part of the argument.

Of course, the scripts I’ve written don’t always play along with this idea. It’s my work at the thumbnailing stage to break down the script so that the pace of things is satisfying, and so that pages that belong on the same page-spread end up together.

Sometimes that means adding in big splash pages, while others it means splitting a page in two. Fortunately in this case, I rarely had to meddle too much – sometimes simply starting the chapter on a left or right hand page was enough to establish the right pacing so that every page ended up facing its natural mate.

From here I began work on actually visualising the book. In a sketchbook I would measure out small versions of the page spreads. Then begins a visualisation process, involving further research into the time-period, locations and people I’ll later be drawing. It’s a fun process, and with this project it was great getting to research a number of iconic 20th century eras for fashion and decor ideas, as well as all the evolving technologies of the era.

It’s not just the visual content either. I also need to work out roughly how the panels will sit on the page – how many I’ll need, and how they run together in relation to the text. It’s really important to get this to a satisfying level now. The further down the line you realise panel-to-panel or page-to-page pacing isn’t working, the more work you’ll need to redo.

At this point in the process I’d often find myself stuck trying to lay out a page. A realisation I quickly came to was that if I was having trouble visualising the page, then there was likely something wrong at the script level. I’d often find that this was the best way to spot a flaw in an argument or a point where I was repeating myself – in trying to draw it all you quickly realise where your words are failing to do their best work.

In all it took two months to thumbnail the book. It felt like a mountain of work, but it was hugely satisfying to see it come together. Words becoming pictures, the book becomes more real in my mind. I can see all the places where I made decisions I wasn’t sure would work. All the places where I struggled to get things right. And now with pictures in place (rough ones that now need fully realised) I can see how it all works, how those decisions were the right ones. It’s a good feeling.

Writing Complete

Writing was slow, difficult. I got to the end of the writing process exhausted. A little lost. The first draft clocked in about 40 pages too long. And it seemed like a mess. The structure felt incoherent, repetitive, rambling. And yet everything seemed immovable. A chaotic house of cards that I didn’t want to disrupt in case it came tumbling down.

I sent it off. Took some time away from the book.

And when I came back something had changed. I thought it was going to be impossible to cut 40 pages: everything seemed so crucial and intertwined. But these fresh eyes saw something different – I felt free to cut whole swathes of the book, juggling sections with ease. I’d been too close before. a mechanic wedged between the cogs of this monstrous machine. Now I was seeing it from the outside – a surgeon more than willing to lop out a spleen if it would make the patient better.

It felt good. Within a week the book had shed 40-something pages. It was lean now. The things I’d cut were never missed. And I’d even had a chance to add stuff. Details worth sharing, ideas that had floated loose for too long now finding a home.

Summer’s over and I’m back at this thing again. It’s finished, although it’s not. At least I know the book will work.

Now I just need to draw the damn thing.

 

A little update

The last few months have been some of the most creatively challenging of my career so far, but finally I have a first full draft of the Gamish script to show for it.

At the start of the writing process back in around May 2017 I had only an idea of what interested me in game design and theory, a decent idea of the book’s structure, and an optimistic view that I could be finished a first draft in a few months.

But finally sitting down to research and write, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be a lot more challenging than just producing a video game version of Filmish. While video game history is just decades old (even if we’re generous it’s still only half the age of cinema), and video game theory still in its infancy, the history and theory of games and play goes right back to the dawn of humanity and beyond.

In the first weeks of writing I was taking myself on a guided tour of Neolithic archeology. A month later it was ’60s tech counterculture, ’70s entrepreneurship.

Every book and article I researched opened avenues to new ideas and thoughts, and quickly my plans for a swiftly written first draft disintegrated. After about three months I was hit with a huge bout of writer’s block – losing the will to write as all I could see was endless research ahead of me.

But I listened to my better instincts, and after a few days of banging my head against a wall, I stepped away from the computer to recharge myself. I spent time with family and friends, went for some walks and even built some Lego.

I came back mostly recharged and plowed on, but still it was slow going. The details of this thing were immense. Week on week I was having to delve into new fields of research – history, neurology, psychology, philosophy. It was exciting, but with every new set of ideas I’d have to spend hours or days reading around to get a grasp.

Towards the end I was flagging, leaving gaps to be filled later, my structure becoming a muddle to be sorted later. But I know that I needed something complete. Something that would let me step out and see it from a new angle. To get some perspective.

And that’s where I am now. It’s off with my editor and a couple of test readers. Soon I’ll be doing rewrites to plug the gaps, fix the structure, beef up the number of games referenced.

Sometime later this year, I’ll be able to begin drawing, and a whole new adventure will begin.

 

Project Update: Time and Space

One of the biggest personal challenges I face as a creator is giving myself enough time and space to work on things that might not lead to any specific outcome.

When I sit down to write or draw or research, it often feels like what I’m doing at any given moment must be essential to the outcome, or it’s not worth it. I find it really hard to step away from the frontlines of work and just spend time thinking.

This drive to produce outcomes can be creatively draining. Not only this, but it prevents me from examining the work I’m producing and the decisions I’m making. When you’re in the trenches focussing on a series of very small problems, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re wanting to achieve.

By stepping back and spending some time reading around a subject, playing with ideas and approaches in my mind, and letting myself off the hook for not completing another few pages of writing, I actually do myself and my book a lot of good in the long term.

Writing on Gamish is now well underway. I’ve reached the point, around the 1950s and 60s, when computer scientists were programming the first games. I think I could learn something from the programmers of that era. Employed to develop software for multimillion dollar computers, they spent their free time in play, seeing if they could make these machines into toys or musical instruments.

With a sense of play, and a lack of pressure to produce results, this is where some of the best ideas come from.

I need to step back, and let my mind play for a while…

The Origins of Chess

One of the areas I’m fascinated to explore in the book is the way games have been a part of human life throughout history. While they are often seen as merely entertainment, for me the strongest testament to the importance of games is that they have endured as an artform throughout human history. A game like Chess has spread across the world, crossing numerous cultural boundaries along the way. This game spoke to people like nothing else could – and it has survived for around 1,400 years because of this.

You can easily imagine two people with a knowledge of chess, but separated by language, religion, culture, and even by a span of hundreds of years, being able to sit down together for a game of chess, and instantly connect through it.

This fascinating map shows the spread of chess across the globe after its invention in India around 600 AD. The game evolved as it moved, the pieces gaining their current powers in Spain during the 15th Century. It’s also thought that precursors to chess spread to India from the East and influenced the creation of the game.

Map showing the spread of chess throughout history