Digital art of a caterpillar attaching itself to the stem of a milkweed plant. The style of the illustration features crisp uniform outlines, some colored and some black, as well as stylized cel shading. The point of view is from underneath the milkweed plant, up at the caterpillar under the nearest leaf. The caterpillar is curling around itself, dangling from a bit of 'glue' it used to hang itself upside down. The milkweed plant towers into the sky.

Cocoon Year: A Retrospective of Drafts

I really wish this wasn’t already halfway through the year. I’d hoped to have gotten started on the art part of my project instead of languishing on writing like I always do concerning Warlock’d.

For both weeks, I decided to do a retrospective of past Warlock’d drafts and see if I could glean anything for use in my latest draft.  I’ve had eight major changes in story done, on and off, through the years.

Draft 1

My very first foray into this story was an outline I wrote in 2016 on my small Macbook Pro. I had never plotted or planned a story out before. The initial idea was a fantasy world where demons operated according to Asimov-like, “I, robot” rules, to set up mysteries that the reader could think about and solve while reading. Demons also conferred magic according to their sinful natures. It had a demonologist, a magical bird, and a knight. The setting was also random forests, random fields, all bland stuff I don’t really enjoy seeing in fantasy but was all I really knew about.

My motivation was, freewheeling fantasy adventure seemed like something people wanted in a longform story. I liked demons and wanted to flesh them out, make them make sense beyond typical horror film tropes. I had drawn nothing but user interface elements and simple dinosaurs over the past years and wanted to expand my drawing skills. The demons would give me wiggle room for exploring creative designs, and the human characters and settings would require me to return to fundamental drawing and coloring skills I’d been neglecting for years. All of these things were what I wanted from a project, if not money.

I looked into demons in a shallow way, turning up the assortment of names from the Victorian occult revival. I liked the idea of finding something different about them from further back in history, before movies and video games made demons into a particular rubbery, goat-hoofed entity. The Ars Goetia is a touchstone for a lot of investigations like this. I also looked into angel names because demons are fallen angels in literature. Again, a lot of this gets portrayed in Victorian revivals, often invented in the 1800’s but said to be a lot older.

The research wasn’t ever to be super accurate or academic. I knew so little about anything that actually interested me, and hadn’t ever seriously delved into any particular topics before. I had nothing in me to write about. It really felt like I was reviving something dead inside of me all by myself. I knew it was bad so I decided not to share it specifically with anyone, but I also chalked it up to being a beginner and not totally understanding what I was doing anyway. No reason to be even harder on myself. The way I learn is to do it the wrong way first and then see how other people are doing it.

What I learned from this draft when I started talking about it with people at writing meetups, very casually and not sharing anything, the sin-as-magic aspect had already been explored by other media. It wasn’t that unique or interesting of a concept. One person expressed absolute horror that magic would at all be evil or have some sort of cost. They chewed me out for exploring the idea. However, based on their fantasy writing sample that they chose to share, I think that person was going through some personal stuff so that may have provoked such an extreme reaction.

Draft 2

I decided to turn my outline into a badly-drawn comic, just to see where I was in terms of skill level. There is this concept of ‘ashcan’ comics, which are cheaply printed because people are going to chuck them after reading them. I decided, to remove the blockade of perfection, I would view this draft as chuck-able when I was done, and see what I’d learned. I also wished to avoid the common pitfall of a webcomic’s art changing as the pages progressed. I like looking at projects as a whole, complete thing — just working into the ether means I lose track of where I’m going.

I remember feeling like ideas were random, collecting like lint on my characters. I’d go out walking and think through something, then return home and add it into the comic. My story drastically wandered away from my original outline. Characters obtained traits that didn’t build into any sort of story, but exploring messily is kind of the best way to figure them out. I eventually learned that I wasn’t able to hew strictly to an outline, anyway.

The idea of a trilogy airily presented itself, but I wound up with a full book and the beginnings of a second book. There could be a ‘demons’ book and an ‘angels’ book, I thought.

I shared the finished product with trusted friends and learned the truth. In the end, my overall skill level was very low and no amount of edits could have saved this draft. The structure was fundamentally un-sound. My layouts were fine, but the writing didn’t work at all. There was no sense of buildup or conflict, or even an idea of what was going on. It was for the best that I did not invest much in the artwork. Some individual ‘moments’ were coherent, but it really meandered.

One comment that sticks with me is, to make a story, you make a character, then you give the character a goal, and then you put entertaining obstacles between the character and the goal. I felt so embarrassed for not realizing this.

A really important specific thing that I learned is that it’s not actually pleasant for magic to have a huge psychological cost — at least not when I’m making something that’s kind of more sincere than a lot of Dungeons and Dragons type stuff. I think some people can write this sort of tone enjoyably but I guess I wasn’t jaded enough to pull it off. The setting, the characters, the plot — it was at once too much and also weirdly empty.

At this point I’d spent a whole year creating this ashcan comic. It was time to start seeing how other people made their longform stories.

Draft 3

This is the draft where I started to read more. While it’s recommended to read current fiction, I was reluctant to go dive into contemporary fiction that was like what I wanted to write. The oddest thing I learned, as a child growing up with well-loved Narnia and The Last Unicorn and Catwings, is…that I actually don’t like fantasy as a genre that much!

Subject matter? Absolutely adore weird forests, dragons, heroes, mythology, spirits, old castles, everything.

But presentation? It’s rough out there.

I remember, at the age of fourteen, thinking I was definitely reading through a massive book with a castle and stained glass windows and maybe a mage on it, but I don’t remember what the book was called. I was outside on a lawn during an intermission of Twelfth Night and I remember just, understanding absolutely nothing that was going on in the book. I’m not sure if I finished that book. It had characters in it. They were doing stuff! A plot was happening. I wasn’t sure how I could have a college-level vocabulary reading score (according to my school) and still not understand this book. It was a total mystery to me and ever since, I rarely pick up books in the genre.

So what makes fantasy so poorly-written, or maybe just poorly-comprehended to me? I imagine because it isn’t written for other people. When someone writes a fantasy, they, too, are escaping, and I think fans of the genre are (necessarily!) forgiving of that. Story structure and familiarity is not a priority in fantasy fiction, nor should it ever be expected to hew to popular fiction norms. Typical story structures are also eschewed in a lot of sci/fi/fantasy communities, too. That’s totally fine and nice. Being creative and making something, and someone finding enjoyment in that despite rough edges? That’s not fantasy, that’s straight-up real magic. I love that connection between a writer and a reader. Writing the odd things and loving the odd things. I have absolutely no problems with that joy.

The point, though, was that I didn’t think I should reference other fantasy books, even if what I was writing felt like fantasy. I dug deeper into the general genre of ‘writing’ as well as medieval life. I don’t want to make something that’s only for me, or only for a specific (and extremely forgiving, or at least tenacious) audience.

For this draft, I switched up my software. Everyone said ‘Go Scrivener!’ and in the age of cloud payment plans this was a one-off purchase of $30, so that was an easy purchase to make. I explored it first on my own and found sectioning bits of story off into their own chapters to be helpful. Having nothing to reference, I arbitrarily set up a story in ten parts and wrote it all out. I had a lot of ideas for demons and magical birds and a rival for my demonologist investigator, but nothing coherent.

Mostly, I felt very alone during this draft.

Draft 4

This draft I ported out of Scrivener and back into Google Docs. It, of course, became a different story as it went. There was some subplot about a demon with a mirror for a face, and a cavern full of gold, that weren’t working out at all. I had all these clever ideas for setups and payoffs but nothing was materializing into anything read-able.

What I really wanted was a space for sharing my work and finding readers who could maybe do an equivalent exchange of reading and critiquing. I tried a general writing meetup but it was mostly nonfiction writers, so I felt uncomfortable sharing a silly story about demons. I turned my attention towards adjunct learning…something with a low barrier to entry. I typically don’t like courses geared towards beginning creative skills since they usually require generating new ideas to participate. However, when I landed on a course at the local community college that seemed geared towards existing long-form work, I decided to give it a try.

Little did I know, my skills were so inept, all I would do was annoy the instructor and force everyone to suffer through a lot of pointless drafts about an inn and a bird suffering from a broken wing and very little intent. I lacked an understanding of how story events build into each other and feed on each other. I stopped going out of shame.

My next try was the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. There, I found a writing group. It lasted for a year until COVID killed it and there I learned about kidlit publishing, but I think the subject matter and age range was so wide it might not have been as helpful to my writing as it could have been. I didn’t know that some part of writing culture was to be part of some ‘cool kids’ group or else I’d have left earlier. I got encouragement but I definitely didn’t feel right about my writing, at all. The group wasn’t very focused on craft, mostly on socialization/support, and the type of books people worked on varied too widely. I mean, there was even a rule in the group’s bylaws that a draft could only be presented once to the group, then never return — and that’s not how writing works, at all. I need to be better about identifying social situations where I need to duck out sooner. In retrospect I was probably not helpful to anyone in there and for that I apologize. (They seem like the type to snoop so, hello. Sorry about everything. I’ll leave you alone, I promise.)

The one group that offered me a gem of advice was a local science fiction and fantasy group, regardless to my previous aversion to reading fantasy. There was a person there who suffered through my draft and then, with all the brilliance and clarity of Aristotle describing the rules of logic, said that what my story was actually missing was motivations for the characters.

Oh! So a character can’t just sit there and be described in a setting?

That made way more sense.

Make a character…Give a character a goal…Put entertaining obstacles between that character and the goal…

I deeply regret that I could not keep up with the regimen of reading other people’s drafts in that group. Fantasy is not a genre I enjoy reading, for its lack of structural tropes, or on the opposite end, its weird adherence to The Hero’s Journey. Then again, if the group had been more exclusive, I’d have never met that one person who clarified things for me so simply. So, it’s the double-edged sword that all students encounter. Someone who wants to learn something, wants to be around other people learning that thing, but also wants other people to be better at them at that thing. Still, I think everyone in that group was probably better at writing than me. I just lack character and tenacity!

Draft 5

This draft transformed into a romp through Paris.

It all started with an online zoom course through Push/Pull run by David Lasky. It was a shortform comics class. Several people in the class wanted to continue their studies, so we signed up for a six-month course called a Graphic Novel Intensive, which I have written extensively about in the past.

I used Trello and a system of google docs to put this script together. I felt very pleased with myself, like I’d made something worth reading. This draft made it all the way to lettering and then layout phase.

What killed the story wholesale was attempting to explain a scene involving football to my patient spouse. Medieval football always kills me, and my stories. I’m not sure if I want to elaborate further, but it was bad.

I put Warlock’d away for a long time after this failure.

Draft 6

Having had a very successful SAWgust in 2022, culminating in a 48-page graphic novel, I decided to try my hand at Warlock’d again. This time, I made an outline centered around something I thought might have been enjoyable about my story — The relationship between a demon and a cleric (formerly a demonologist). I trimmed the story down to barer bones.

(Not bare enough, but that’s later!)

Problems arose:

The cleric had a name (Pierre) that sounded an awful lot like ‘Prévôt’, which is the title for a mayor-like figure in charge of Paris. I changed Pierre’s name to Stone, specifically Cleric Stone. There’s something that resonates with me about this name.

People couldn’t tell what Stone’s motivation was.

All this time I’d sort of neglected to investigate Stone and figure out what made him tick.

The ‘buddy movie’ beat sheet wasn’t quite hitting the notes I wanted to write, either.

This is a story about demons, about the backwoods of human thought, about things that were cut from the original codex…They’re not cops and they’re not on a road trip.

Draft 7

I made a pitch during a pitch event that gained some interest, positing the story as Murder, She Wrote, but in 12th century Paris, and with demons. I gained interest in it from a few people, but I worry that the Black main character may have been misleading as to who was writing it. Ultimately I have chosen to self-publish because I fear taking a publishing ‘slot’ from someone who might need it more than me.

This outline is the one that I started out with for my Cocoon Year. I thought for sure I was ‘there’, that this would be the story I could finally commit to a layout. I ran it through friends. It basically went like this:

“CLERIC STONE’S student, a girl named MARGOT, is found dead on the grounds of Notre Dame. A demonic barn swallow named MARGO approaches Stone. She swears she’s Margot’s lost soul, and her mother (BRIANDE) did not murder her. Stone must figure out who truly murdered Margot to clear Briande’s name. Briande owns an inn in a lucrative part of town. As a widow who inherited the property from her late husband, Briande’s ownership of it is vulnerable.

A lost pilgrim badge at Notre Dame leads Stone to wonder who dropped it. Was it Briande’s loyal bouncer, LEBEAU? It could also have been Lebeau’s twin brother, FERRAND. However, both twins still have their copies of the badge. They point Stone to their uncle, LIEUTENANT GRIMWALD, as all three of them picked up matching badges in Genoa.

Grimwald hates the way Briande runs her inn, and is also missing his badge. Stone escalates his investigation up to the ROYAL PRÉVOT. The Prévôt is like a king-appointed mayor of Paris, and Grimwald is his top lieutenant. The Prévôt refuses to entertain Grimwald as a suspect. Margot had been living in the Prévôt’s fortress for a few months because he wasn’t sure if she was his daughter. Margot was found dead of poisoning. The Prévôt didn’t want news to break out of a poisoner in his fortress, so he ordered Grimwald to hide the body somewhere.

Stone investigates Margot’s room and finds a smudged chalk circle there – an attempt at necromancy! Was Margot the subject of a curse? Stone finds Grimwald’s name written as the subject of the curse instead. When Stone is overly familiar with a nearby grimoire, the Prévôt suspects him of foul play. The Prévôt throws the book into the fireplace and kicks Stone out of his fortress. His ultimatum: Find the poisoner, or be accused!

Margo dives into the fire after the book, but is too small to drag it out of the flames. She rips out one page from the book and frantically double-checks it against the spellwork in the room. She complains that she did everything ‘right’, but the curse isn’t hurting Grimwald at all, just her mother. Margo flies to Stone’s side and demands he chew out the demon in charge of the curse. She takes Stone directly to Hell, where they meet the demon DEHYDEMES and its magic orrery that it uses for watching people on Earth.

Ferrand dies in a brawl with a living nativity scene, right in front of Briande’s inn. To determine Briande’s fitness to run her inn safely and morally, the Prévôt reluctantly calls for Judicium Dei, or trial by combat. Lebeau represents Briande. Grimwald represents Paris. Lebeau cannot afford to fight the only authority figure who somewhat accepts them, and forfeits, which means the inn’s deed gets signed over to Grimwald. Grimwald, still grieving Ferrand, disowns Lebeau for their display of cowardice.

Stone and Margo dismantle Dehydemes from overseeing the curse, and return to the inn to help Briande. Briande’s inn lies under siege by Paris’s own Night Watch. Briande burns the inn to keep Grimwald from seizing it for himself. Inside of the burning inn lies the drunk Lebeau. Dehydemes meant for Lebeau’s death to torment Grimwald with unresolved regrets. Stone convinces Lebeau to take a heroic last stand instead. Lebeau kills Grimwald.

Word spreads that the inn is protected by unearthly forces. Briande is allowed to retain its ownership. Margo gives Stone the missing page from the book. It reveals that Margot wasn’t savvy enough to omit a booby-trap ingredient in the spell, and died of aconite poisoning. Stone feels obliged to keep Margo around, not only as a reminder to walk his students through dangerous magic more carefully…but also as his friend.“

I made a beautiful pitch packet with meandering writing because while I made the pitch pages I hadn’t quite nailed down the above outline.

This came so close to becoming a full script, but there was one glaring problem that I’ve been omitting from my past cocoon year posts:

It wasn’t any fun to write.

I passed it around to a couple more people to check it out and my ‘expanded’ outline (where I described various scenes) was also a bit much. I feel like there are elements in this story that are interesting enough for a sequel, but…So too did the previous drafts have elements that would have been good in a whole series.

One thing at a time. Just this one book. That’s what I must create.

Draft 8

The current outline has been stripped down even more. Stories are made of simple scenes. It is about Cleric Stone and why he works with demons, the true nature of demons (not evil!), and medieval folk spirituality, which is so much different from Christianity it’s pretty much not Christianity at all. I’m going to give each esoteric concept enough time to breathe and develop.

I’m still allowing myself to dart around the story to different points if I need to skip a difficult section, but I’m no longer writing the whole thing out of order. This feels better, although I’ve already walked back several scenes and forced them to build on and expand particular themes.

Stone was the main character all along. I’m ashamed that I was trying to make him mysterious by not developing him. I will fix this in this draft. He will have hopes and dreams. He will even be a little naieve. But by the end of the story, Cleric Stone will be the closest thing 12th Century Paris has to a private investigator.

Care to read more?

Cocoon Year: Weeks 19 & 20

Cocoon Year: Weeks 19 & 20

Cocoon Year: May WoesI keep saying I'm not going to restart the outline, but I wasn't having any fun writing my rough draft and I think that's a sign. Re-simplifying the story should help get the finish line closer.   Cocoon Week 19 I wrote many scenes in Warlock’d...

Cocoon Year: 17 & 18

Cocoon Year: 17 & 18

Cocoon Year: April into MayI re-did my outline and dismantled my trello, just to set it up again for more writing madness. I have a definitive list of 20 scenes that I’d like to have in my story and now I’m going to see how they look all fleshed out.   Cocoon Week 17...

Cocoon Year: Weeks 15 & 16

Cocoon Year: Weeks 15 & 16

Cocoon Year: April SummaryThese weeks, frankly, saw a loss of focus, some deep questioning of what I’m doing, before ultimately returning to progress as normal.     Cocoon Week 15 My Troubled History anthology submission continues through the sketch and lineart...

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