Technology Challenges the creative Mind – and the productive partnership

Cartoonist Howard Tayler recently wrote a series of tweets about the challenges he’s faced since completing his 20-year cycle of the Web comic “Schlock Mercenary“, and how new technology has disrupted his productivity. As writers, I thought we might all learn something from what he’s experienced – and how his wife has experienced and responded to it as his “creative partner” and “emotional support person”.

Here’s an excerpt from Howard’s string of tweets, stripped of extraneous material courtesy of Threadreader.

Some people step out of the gate so incredibly self-aware, so “procedurally woke,” that they are perfectly justified in holding things up while they define and refine all the processes.

Some people.


In my case, I made a daily comic strip for TWENTY YEARS using a process I defined, refined, and streamlined over the first decade or so.

But I’m not making comics that way anymore. I’ve introduced completely new tools at EVERY STAGE. And until very recently, they weren’t right.

Old process:

Script in MS Word
Layout panels/gutters/dialog in MS Word
Pencil and ink directly on laser-printed MS Word output
Scan at 600dpi b/w
Send to colorist, with notes on what I’m expecting
Crop and webbify the colorist’s work in Photoshop

It may seem like madness, but it was *fast*. There were days when I penciled and inked THREE WEEKS OF COMICS. In one day, yes. The process had flaws, especially w/re to dialog bubbles and the paper I was using, but it was too fast to let go of.

The new process:

Script in Scrivener
Layout panels and dialog in Clip Studio Paint.
Illustrate digitally, with raster colors and vector inks.
(↑ this step is still a mess of other steps ↑)
Export flattened TIFF
Use Photoshop for CMYK conversion for print

One of the things I realized very recently, is that even if I create a document with a given dimension in pixels (say, 1600×1200), the resolution (72dpi, 300dpi, etc) makes a HUGE difference with regard to all the brushes, because those are measured in millimeters … Ironing out this thing about pixel density and brush size is CRITICAL, because few things will kill my workflow faster than an ongoing feeling that I’m just a hamfisted hack who can’t correctly shape a simple line.

. . .

… the fastest way to arrive at the point where you’re not just aware of your processes, but aware of where they’re broken, and how to fix them, is to WRITE STUFF DOWN.

Time yourself on common tasks. Allow yourself to have periodic “contextual inquiry” sessions with yourself, where you pause after every task to scribble a note about how it went, and why you think it went that way.

When your industry, your creative domain, your niche space suddenly gets invaded by disruptive and wonderful new tools, you’ll be one of the first to see how they’ll fit what you’re doing, and whether or not it’s worth it for you to change to fit the new tool.

And maybe the disruptive new tool is as simple as a new studio space with room to roll your chair around. Maybe it’s a larger table. Or a bigger hard drive.

I dunno. And neither will you unless you’re paying a little bit of attention (like “dues”) to how you make stuff.

There’s more at the link.

Sandra Tayler, Howard’s wife, has offered her own perspective on the changes in her husband’s creative processes.  Here’s Threadreaders’ consolidation of some of her points.

As a creative partner whose livelihood depends on Howard producing work, I want to talk about this thread of Howard’s and how to support a creative person who has become stuck. First read Howard’s thread.

From my perspective, all of Howard’s tooling and fiddling looks like Nothing Happening. It looks like Howard being down. It looks like lots of video game hours. This is where communication is important.

Through years of practice Howard and I have developed nuanced communication skills where I can ask him what is going on in his head, share what is in mine, and then we can be frustrated *together* with the lack of progress.

Him and me vs. The Thing is much better than Me frustrated with Him. It saves tension and upset in our marriage, and it prevents relationship tension from adding additional layers of stuck to the creative process.

. . .

As a support person it is really easy to lose track of which things I’m dealing with are symptoms. It is easy for me to get bogged down in imagining “What if this is just the way things are now?” which means fatigue has created some depression in me too.

When I’m tired, I get unkind and unhelpful thoughts in my head. It is easy to accidentally become the person who says “just get over it” when I KNOW that isn’t helpful. I’m just so depleted that I want to push back on any emotional support task.

So a major feature of being an emotional support person is knowing when to step back, step away, leave the person to muddle with their own struggle and do something else for a while.

So while Howard was doing his weeks of staring at blank pages, I would check in every week or two to assuage my anxiety that he was just constantly distracted instead of mulling. Then go back to the work I can control without waiting on him.

And I would rejoice in ANY creative effort that happened. Even things completely unrelated, because any creative flow has a chance to break the large block free.

Again, more at the link.

I’m willing to bet that all writers can learn from Howard Tayler’s experiences.  If we get stuck while creating new work, is it worth trying new technology or approaches to “unstick” the process?  Or is the fact that we’ve already done so part of the problem?  As for writers’ partners, they may well be able to learn from Sandra Tayler’s observations.

14 thoughts on “Technology Challenges the creative Mind – and the productive partnership

  1. Ah, now i have to look at my own work process and…shudder…it’s not fun.

    Initial writing gets done in Google Docs (this was because I was writing it at work, partially not to go crazy). I write the story first as a number of “checkpoints” that I want to reach for the story, then I start writing. Each chapter is a separate file, and I keep a “cut” file for story bits that don’t work or don’t help get me to my end-goal.
    When I’m finished, I cut and paste all of the separate chapters into a single document, and download the document in Word to both my computer and a separate flash drive.
    Editing, revisions, and the occasional “okay, that didn’t work,” are all done to the main document, saved in daily order.
    When I get to the point of being “ready,” I get the cover (Daz3D or a JPEG), do all of the other layout work and final page setup in Kindle Create,
    Do one last run-through in Kindle Create, take a breath, and upload to KDP.
    Then, get started on the next book.

    There’s probably things I could do a lot better…

    1. Maybe his color person retired, or his tech no longer Played Well With Others. The latter is generally the only reason I can be dragged into using something new to do what I’ve been doing with an older program or device.

      1. Yep. I hate new tech. Especially the new “cloud” craze. No, sorry, it needs to automatically save to my computer. And a backup to the cloud is fine. But it’s the backup, not the primary.

        1. I’ve been very leery of “cloud” stuff since G–gleDocs slipped the “All your files are belong to us” line into their ToS some years back. I back up on a portable hard drive, and into a remote account that I pay for. The latter is not my primary back-up. That’s the hard-drive.

          1. Agree. If you don’t have physical control, you don’t have control. I want backups on my own shelf. And in the safety deposit box.

      1. ^YES^

        I am still in the process of making sure that my absolutely required old tools will work when I bring up the new Windows 10 machine next month. (I refuse to “subscribe” to the new Office – as there will inevitably be some people like us that suddenly find access to our tools of the trade for daring to use them to disseminate wrongthink. I seem tor remember a story about that happening a few years ago, in fact.) Knowing myself, I’ll probably still find myself missing old games that I haven’t actually played in five or more years…

        One thing that isn’t mentioned in the workflow changes that happen – and probably only old fogy developers like myself remember – is the changes that happen when your machine speeds up. I remember the days when you would start up a development tool, and would have a nice waiting period where you could finish organizing your thoughts about what you were about to do (also get a cup of coffee, visit the restroom, and rotate the cats). That disappeared years ago.

  2. I realize this is completely tangential, but since it was mentioned on the MGC Blog when Baen’s Bar was taken down for review, I’d thought I’d pass on that Toni’s had it put back up, but at, & technically not open to everyone anymore (current rules are “made a purchase from Baen in the last 12 months” & “posted in the last 12 months are grandfathered in”).

  3. Very useful post, Mr. Grant! I will share it with my writer, of course But huge for me. Thank you!

    What I wouldn’t give for a community like MGC for visual storytellers where I wasn’t in the closet.

  4. unfortunately, what we can learn from Howard Tayler is also to not get too close to Mary Three Names.

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