And then we unleash the volcanoes!

Today’s ramble does actually more or less fit in the whole how to theme we Mad Geniuses are running. Of course, it’s a Kate-fit, which means I haven’t found the damn box yet.

It’s kind of fitting that the title comes straight from Girl Genius  because if you want to look at carrying a plot over a long and apparently disconnected series of short pieces, the better web comics are a good place to look, and Girl Genius is one of them.

As always the medium dictates the best way to impart the message, and shapes the message to some extent: I don’t know the writer who could describe the expressions in the good web comics, and it would be a really bad idea to try. That’s not where the payoff is in a book.

So, a few quick Kate-finitions (like definitions only weirder). The payoff is what, in a web comic has a reader coming back regularly to check for new content and buying the merchandise and so forth. In a book, it’s what keeps the reader turning the pages and brings them back when they have to put the book down. And convinces them to buy the next book by that author. It’s the delivery of enough pleasure mixed with anticipation and suffering to tease the reader into coming back for more.

The medium is a bit simpler: it’s the way the story is told. Web comics are a mix of visual and verbal. Books are verbal. Art works are visual. Theater is aural and visual. And so forth.

The message is even simpler: it’s the story (not to be confused with Message which is something preached at the poor reader from an authorial soap-box and should not be forced into anything. If you feel strongly enough about a topic it will find its way into your stories – but it will feel natural there because it will slide in as part of what one of your characters believes). Some stories work better in an all-verbal medium. Others do better in a mixed medium.

Web comics (the good ones) have an added advantage: the best ones have been running for years with an ongoing plot line, characters who change and grow, and payoffs if not every strip then most of them. It’s kind of like writing a novel a couple of hundred words at a time, with a mini-story each episode, and doing this for years. I’m not joking about years, either – Sluggy Freelance has been running since August, 1997. Schlock Mercenary since June, 2000. Freefall started in March, 1998. Like Girl Genius – which started in November, 2002 – they all have a payoff in most strips, plot arcs that can seem disconnected, but ultimately get woven into the main storyline, and on top of that you can see the way the authors/artists grow over the course of the stories. I’d personally rank Sluggy as the weakest of the collection – it’s the one most prone to fillers that don’t link in to anything and the quality of the different story arcs can be weak. The good ones can go from laughing to tears remarkably quickly.

It’s worth taking the archive dive if you haven’t already and reading through all of these (yes, that’s a lot of reading – and these are only the four I consider the best of the ones I follow. There is a reason the act of hooking a person on a new web comic is an act of rat bastardy extraordinaire (and why the person who does the hooking smirks when the hookee gives the traditional acclamation of, “You rat bastard! I didn’t need another web comic habit.”) If you’re remotely a pantser you’ll absorb a metric shit-ton of good storytelling in the process (not to be confused with the regular US shit-ton, which isn’t as large or as odoriferous).

I should mention that good storytelling isn’t necessarily the same thing as good plotting. A good storyteller can make a paper-thin plot compelling (but you don’t want to do that). The art lies in doling out the payoffs just often enough to keep the reader following with tongue hanging out, like Eliot leaving the M&M trail for E.T. Too far apart, and the reader gives up and stops chasing. Too close together and the reader doesn’t see a need to bother looking for more. Get the mixture right, and they’re yours for as long as you keep trickling out those payoffs.

Oh, and the volcanoes? Save them for the big confrontation near the end, where they’ll have the most impact. Never unleash the volcanoes too early.

36 Comments

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36 responses to “And then we unleash the volcanoes!

  1. Y’know, when I first saw the title, I thought ‘Ocrap who annoyed Kate this early in the day?!’ and yes, I did envision you unleashing volcanoes, Agatha-style.

  2. First, Eliot left Reese’s Pieces, not M&Ms. It was their introduction to the world. Second. you’re not getting me hooked on a web comic. I’ve got no time for such a deep dive into archives to get up to speed. I know better. I’ve been hooked on things like this before and it ain’t gonna happen again. But thanks for the heads-up. Now I’ll know what people are trying to sell me when they push one of these at me!

    • And the guy at M&M/Mars who turned down the product placement lost his job, according the legend.

      And now Product Placement is so rampant in films that they may as well be commercials.

    • *giggles* I was wondering how long that’d take!

    • Kate Paulk

      In my defense it’s been something like 20 years since I last watched that movie, and I was in Australia when I watched it – and neither M&Ms nor Reese’s Pieces were sold there at the time.

  3. Pat Patterson

    ATTEMPTING (!) to return to reading and reviewing today. I think I’ve caught up on all promised reviews, which included at least one non-Amazon work.
    However, a quick scan of MGC members leaves me sad and pouty. In order to review on Amazon, I need the book to be either offered through Kindle Unlimited, OR to be published by Baen.
    I know at some point there was some desultory conversation about whether the decreased revenue ( 1/4 of regular sales) was offset by increased readership or led to higher sales figures because of increased exposure, but I don’t think anything a conclusion showed up and identified itself.
    At any rate, Kate, I’m sorry, but I can’t find any of your work in Kindle Unlimited. Do you have anything there under a pen name?
    Today, I’m starting Amanda’s for Nocturnal Serenade, the second book in the series. And although I reviewed the first, Nocturnal Origins, as ‘A blisteringly erotic LGBT allegory.’ I’m going to do this review straight.
    (Unless Amanda asks for another skewed perspective – author requests come first!)

  4. Yanno, Somewhere along the line I stopped reading Sluggy, and Girl Genius for that matter. I don’t think it had anything to do with the strips themselves, but I didn’t feel like digging through the backlog after I’d been away from them for so long.

    One thing that can really help is if a site uses cookies to automatically bookmark the last strip you read (“Sequential Art” uses automatic, “Zap in Space” used a manual one).

    As for going too long between irregularly released content, I think the champion there would be “Megatokyo”, which somehow maintains a certain level of popularity in spite of frequently going months between updates. But that can’t go on forever.

    I think balancing the rate of the story and the rate of release is a difficult thing. There are comics that come out once or twice a week that only do a few panels and barely advance the story. Those ONLY work when you do an archive dive.

    And if you REALLY want to kill your comic, hold your updates for ransom via the tip jar. One bad filler strip and you are stuck in the ditch.

  5. sabrinachase

    Oh, you need more webcomics 😀
    Spindrift http://www.spindrift-comic.com/
    Wilde Life http://wildelifecomic.com/
    Beautiful art, intriguing and consistent storylines. Yer welcome….

  6. sabrinachase

    sniffle. I need a moderator for a comment. It’s just two links…

  7. The webcomics I read (and am up to date with) are the Order of the Stick, Erfworld, Girl Genius, Freefall, The Adventures of Dr Mcninja and Ninja Nun. My first sale is a serial in the Sci Phi Journal, so I’m really having to work on keeping my transitions between major scenes as brief and interesting as possible.

  8. Robotech_Master

    You know, I’m constantly amazed at webcomic artists who are able to do what they do year after year. I mean, whenever I write something long, invariably I’m telling a slightly different story by the time I finish from when I started, and I end up having to go back to the beginning and revise. But web cartoonists can’t do that. They’re writing a years-long first draft, in public, for the world to see.

    (Ursula Vernon’s “Digger” is another brilliant long one, though it’s over so no more updates, alas.)

  9. WereGeek is a really good GENTLE comic strip to show development– you can go back and figure out when the author decided that it was going to be more strongly rooted in reality… maybe. 😀

  10. I recently found “Ensign Sue Must Die” http://interrobangstudios.com/comics-display.php?strip_id=989 Looks in the vein of manga, in the sense that it’s *going* for a firm ending and that ending is almost here. (Unless they break the promise of “trilogy” and keep going, I guess.)

    Otherwise, I check up on Darths and Droids every few months and am mired hip deep in the archives of a few others. Don’t have much time to keep up with such things. @_@ Have dozens bookmarked because I want to read them, though.

    Girl Genius is one I know I must get into considering a lot of people whose opinions I respect count it as a favorite – but it’s the whole Firefly issue again! Any time someone brings it up, I pretty much want to shelve it so I can sneak in and watch without feeling like I’d let people down if I don’t like it. xD (I did, for the record, enjoy Firefly when I finally snuck in to watch it. Doctor Who, however, may never get watched.)

  11. hlvogel

    One minor nit. Girl Genius originally debuted as a black and white print comic. The first issue was released in February of 2001. The comic ran for 12 or 13 issues before going online.

    My first professional writing credits are in comic books, which I wrote through the 1980s. Of course, my stuff was self-published for the first seven issue before a small publisher took over the grunt work (i.e. paying artists, dealing with printers and distributors, etc). Yes, I was Indie before Indie was a thing! (Okay, it was a ‘thing’ back then, too, with books like Elfquest and Cerebus and, yes, my books (Southern Knights and X-Thieves, in case anyone here read b&w comics 30 years ago), being referred to as ‘independent’ comics.

    I really miss writing comic books, but with my artistic talent extending no farther than ‘basic stick figures,’ there’s nothing I can do about that without an artist. Since I can’t afford to hire one, I’m stuck unless I find an artist willing to work with me for co-ownership of the property and a split of any profits.

    Strangely, web comics gave me the inspiration necessary to get past my inability to finish a novel. I now post 1000 to 1500 words of whatever novel I’m currently writing online every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I haven’t really tried promoting the site beyond posting the link to the latest chapter online, so my readership numbers in the dozens. But lots of readers isn’t the goal, anyway. The goal is having an obligation to post new material on a deadline. The short time before new material is due also keeps me from starting to rewrite the novel before I finish the first draft.

    Since starting the project two and a half years ago, I’ve written four complete novels (one published, two sequels written and under contract to a micro publisher, with the fourth in the hands of my beta readers). So I consider it an incredibly successful experiment.

    Okay, I guess this wasn’t much about web comics, but it just struck me as a semi-topical response to Kate’s post.

    • Hey! I remember Fred and Bianca!

      There was a lot of good stuff during the Black and White explosion, but alas even more really awful stuff that led to the subsequent implosion.

      Since eBooks aren’t going to leave retailers buried under truckloads of unsellable, unreturnable crap, I think the eBook explosion will settle out a little differently, once people realize they still need to write WELL to make money on an eBook.

      • hlvogel

        The problem leading to the crash wasn’t just the awful stuff that was released — and you’re right, some of it was truly terrible. It was also the retailers’ tendency to order any black and white comic book first issue in the hopes of finding the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Cerebus. When they got burned badly, rather than adopt a discerning approach to ordering comics, the retailers simply stopped buying anything but the top-name black and white books.

        Regardless, it’s nice to run across someone who remembers my books from long ago!

        • True, It was greed all the way around. Between start-up indy publishers who though they could basically print money by putting out junk to the Retailers who got greedy and over-ordered everything and ran themselves out of business. The only one who really benefited from the explosion was Diamond, since they got money from the publishers to list their comics, and got paid by the retailers for unreturnable merchandise. (Note that the other main distributor to non-comics shops, Curtis circulation, which only handled Marvel and DC DID allow returns, so that was Geppi’s greedy policy.)

          That’s what’s different about eBooks, in that it doesn’t particularly cost anybody anything for them to exist. The only downside is if they get a rep for being hard to find anything decent. That is one parallel to the Implosion, when a lot of good books got taken down by the market-destroying dreck that flooded the shops. But at least with things like Amazon and Goodreads (although Amazon owns Goodreads now) is that there are ways of finding out what’s good, or at least popular, before you spend money on it. Nobody’s going into a purchase blind.

          • hlvogel

            I obviously agree with you about ebooks, since my novel (soon to be plural) made most of its sales in a digital format. And, yes, there certainly is a lot of stuff coming out digitally, but it’s easier to sift out the crap. Between reviews and the ability to download samples of books, it’s much harder to get stuck with a bad book. Not impossible, but definitely harder.

            If only digital comics had been around in the ’80s, my books might have had much longer print runs.

            • The current business model for digital comics needs work. Right now the big two are either charging a dollar premium for a download of a digital edition of the paper comic you’ve already bought, or there are various pay-to-download sites, which still put the customer in a bit of a pig-in-a-poke situation. Then there are pirate sites which spread free scans of recently published comics, with free viruses to go with them.

              Web comics give away the content and make their money from advertising impressions, and selling fan merchandise, eventually including print editions, but only a select few are getting enough money to support themselves.

              (BTW, one of my favorite bits was Hunk’s increasingly futile efforts to keep one of the greatest lockpicks ever locked up.)

              • hlvogel

                I am also appalled at the prices the big companies charge for digital comic books. I know those suckers aren’t cheap to produce, but the costs to print and distribute physical comic books represents a much greater percentage of the overall cost of a comic book. I keep watch on Comixology for good sales and only buy at that time. Translation: 99 cents strikes me as a pretty reasonable price for a digital comic book.

                If I could draw, I’d be doing the Knights of the X-Thieves as a web comic. Alas, I can’t and the artists I know can’t afford the time to work for free how and hope for a payout later.

                (Hunk issue side note: The issue with Hunk contains one of my favorite lines, when Fred admonishes Bianca that sometimes “You have to stop and steal the roses.”)