Where to Stick This Knife?One fine morning a little over a year ago, I set up a silly poll on Twitter. I asked everyone, since we were all thieves in a treasure room, which item to steal. About thirty-seven thieves weighed in and decided upon, among other things,...
Retrofitting Dinosaurs for the Future of Humankind
RAWR! Dinosaur Friends started out as a webcomic concept, one that I wasn’t initially intending to pitch as a proper graphic novel. The first iteration was a slapdash, punk homage to the natural history museums I loved to visit as a child. The humor was derived from a style of internet humor called (sorry for the swear word on a middle-grade publishing blog) ‘shitposting’. I thought the combination of dry scientific concepts and casual style of writing would spark interest. The computer used grayscale tones so that it would be cheap to print. My computer was not able to handle brush strokes in Photoshop so I built it with vector shapes in Adobe Illustrator.
These comics were drawn with bezier curves and agony.
The first few comics were quite rough but I managed my expectations. If no one read it, that was fine. I could continue making it for my own enjoyment and that was enough. Making these comics made me feel like a small, safe child in a natural history museum. I posted it to a few comics and dinosaur forums and to my surprise, readers came out of the woodworks. I think I hit about ten notes and felt very happy.
One of the best responses to my comic was a polite inquiry about which dinosaur would be the most impressive to ride in a parade for a queen, and T. rex was a little too cliché. My response was to go for a gorgonopsid or a quezalcoatlus. Which resulted in…this.
And yes, I’m still friends with Andy Purviance, to this day. Who wouldn’t be?
A Taste of Attention, and Then: The End
This is the first comic I made that reached a larger audience than normal, to the tune of about two-thousand notes on Tumblr. I hesitate to call this ‘viral’ in an age where actual virality can rack up hundreds of thousands of interactions, but it was still an affirmation that hey, maybe something about what I was making was there, resonating with more people than I could ever know in my lifetime.
I brought my comic to an end in 2016. One factor was that I was an armchair paleontology fan and the space was increasingly hostile towards those who weren’t updated on the latest in paleontological finds, especially with anatomy. Another factor was that my comics, like much of social media that purports to be educational or historical, were being used as sources…and they most definitely were not researched enough to be considered educational. The final factor was, I felt like I was not challenging myself with the artwork or writing. The types of jokes fell into a few broad categories (Animal comparisons, simple stories that span millions of years and thus have unearned gravitas, mockery of pop cultural ideas about dinosaurs, gentle corrections of dinosaur facts, etc.). I also had better equipment than I did in my little un-air-conditioned 1-bedroom in Berkeley. I wanted to really draw some stuff and not be restricted by, well, restrictions that I had set up for myself to accommodate my unusual prior situation. I worked on a longform comic project called Warlock’d for a bit. Making a complete longform project is a lot different from rattling off one-shots every week. When I shopped Warlock’d around local publishing groups, I started to realize exactly how heavy and complex it was.
I wanted to, again, chase that high of rattling something silly off and getting a big, broad response. I was also getting more involved with my local comics and writing communities, and was being encouraged to create pitches to sell to publishers. RAWR! Dinosaur friends returned to my mind.
This was easily the most popular thing I had ever created. I understand that internet metrics are worthless, but 4000 notes must mean something, even if it’s just Tumblr.
I poked my little dinosaur comics blog with an updated, colorful version of ‘that horseshoe crab comic’, just to see what happened.
It exploded. The full-color version sits at around 14000 notes, currently. That je ne sais quoi from six years ago must still be there. Then I checked my purchase history of when I formed a zine out of my dinosaur comics. Apparently I had sold about 500 copies of these zines. I wasn’t sure how impressive this was until I told other writers. They assured me that 500 copies is not a large number per se, until a person factors in the lack of wider distribution. Then, 500 copies is mildly impressive.
My first attempt at rebranding, trying to keep a reference to my grayscale zine roots.
I shuffled RAWR! Dinosaur Friends, as a full-color iteration of the same anthology-type format, around to a couple of portfolio reviews. The response was that the middle-grade market currently only wants longform stories. Short stories and anthologies don’t do well. I restructured it as a large ‘story’ composed of hundreds of characters across all 15 geological eras, but still no dice. A graphic novel needs a story. It needs a main character, preferably one that 7-10 year olds can relate to. It needs a plot arc. It needs character development. It can’t be a friendlier version of a textbook for kids. Other than that, though, dinosaurs are a good, sellable topic for publishers to pick up, especially in the middle grade graphic novel space. So, what I was looking at was, small things that worked, a broad topic that worked, but an overall structure that did not work. Oh, and one small detail…
I also received firm pushback on the style of how dinosaurs speak. The compromise is to style the dinosaur speech bubbles to seem ‘screechier’ than the textbook writing. I’m not happy about this but I will do it so that parents and teachers don’t, in turn, screech at me for exposing their children to bad grammar.
Converting Short Stories into a Long Story
The other thing I set out to do was create some sort of main character for readers to follow through billions of years. I know that in most natural history textbooks, I was wont to skip to the dinosaurs. For my natural history book, I never wanted readers to feel like they needed to go find ‘the good stuff’. The whole book should be good. I talked to a comic artist and came across the concept of the ‘super-companion’, or character who experiences stuff in scicomm stories and can explain concepts to the audience. I’m not entirely sold on having a character who breaks the fourth wall to lecture the audience about themselves, but the concept as a general thing seemed do-able.
My first main character was actually the moon! I loved this concept of the moon looking down on the Earth and narrating what it saw. However, the moon’s not really a character, undergoing challenges and changing. If anything, the moon is fairly un-changing.
I developed a new outline based on geological periods and threaded small adventures into an overarching story about hunting for T. rex through billions of years. This second character concept, Risa the Chrononaut, is meant to be an ‘audience step-in’ type of super-companion. She doesn’t turn to the audience and lecture them on anything, but she experiences situations a person could never experience in real life, such as tracking dinosaurs in the wild. She’s cloaked in a helmet so that the reader can imagine themselves more easily as her. She knows some things about natural history, but not everything. Risa does research on-the-fly with a magic glove that contains tools real scientists use in the field. She has her assumptions challenged as she progresses through a story about traveling through time and helping animals. Most of the assumptions I gave to her are ones I imagine some readers might have, such as mistaking ichthyosaurus and pterosaurs for dinosaurs (they aren’t!). She also learns that T. rex is a very late dinosaur which didn’t necessarily interact with a lot of the more well-known dinosaurs!
My non-storytelling goal was to make a book that causes kids to read through, and care about, natural history outside of just the millions of years that contained dinosaurs. My first outline focused on promising a T. rex in hopes that kids would understand the early geological periods were stepping stones towards the T. rex. When bounced off a trusted friend, this strategy resulted in the sensation of ‘suffering through’ the early periods to get to the dinosaurs. After the point of the story where Risa finds the T. rex, the rest of her story also suffers this way, reading like an extra-long epilogue as the age of apes peters out and what’s left over is humanity. That’s not fair to amazing time periods like the Cambrian, the Carboniferous, and the Paleogene. There are so many cool creatures to spot and takeaways that are applicable to modern human life. It would also negate all the science fiction worldbuilding work I was doing to make it so that kid’s didn’t skip to the dinosaurs!
This told me a few things. One, a T. rex is a compelling goal for my character. However, I don’t have to oversell a T. rex, since it’s naturally intriguing. My solution for draft 2 of my outline was to give Risa a greater variety of goals related to specific time periods. When I think about nature I think about survival stories. Each time period should challenge Risa to survive. I shared my revised outline with my former reader and she felt like there were improvements to the overall flow.
I passed the outline off to a different trusted reader for a fresh take, and the notes on reader interest were quite different. Instead of big lulls in the story where there were no dinosaurs, instead there were little spikes and falls of interest. This is probably a better way to tell a story, to have ebbs and flows of tension.
I’m going to write a rough draft based on this second outline, but I’m still going to seek out readers of my target audience age to see what sorts of things they like to see in stories about time travel and dinosaurs. If readers have an expectation from natural history, I want to fulfill that expectation. My plan is to have a full manuscript, twenty sample pages, and character sketches ready for a pitch. I’d love to find a publisher who is hunting for their ‘Dinosaur Book’.
Soliciting Effective Critique with an Outline
I’ve been in a few critique groups and portfolio reviews, and one thing I’ve noticed is that outlines give me more useful one-off critique than full chapters or writing samples. Imagine: Everyone in publishing is very busy, whether it’s reading, writing, editing, or drawing. Would you have the patience to browse full stories from someone who might not be very good at writing yet? Let’s try thinking about the person on the other end of this for a second.
Critique groups are often unpaid. This means it’s a bit rude to resolutely shuffle a chapter per week to a random group of strangers. If you’re doing that, you’re better off hiring an editor. However, some groups may allow this. I avoid groups where this is the norm because it means, for every meeting, I’m reading 4-5 random chapters from ongoing stories where I might not get full context and will feel quite useless giving feedback. There are also times when someone’s long story is somehow unpleasant for me to read so that can be tricky to navigate. As a result I’m quite paranoid about making sure I value my reader’s time.
Enter the outline! A full story that requires no further context, stuffed into a bite-sized document. Now I can get feedback on important concepts such as character development, plot arcs, and settings. Nailing these upfront makes writing them out easier. I can also chunk the outline into parts to keep the workload interesting.
A good outline:
1. Immediately portrays the story’s concept.
2. Shows the main character and the arc and transformation that they go through.
3. Describes just enough of the setting to support the main character’s arc.
There are some writers who prefer to write without outlines, but they are generally already confident about their writing. I think outlines are the ideal way to share stories early, although they might not be part of everyone’s process. I get so much more out of reactions to an outline than I ever did to individual writing samples and chapters.
Care to read more?
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