How I Write a Comic Strip

How I Write a Comic Strip

Jul 11, 2023

Hi, there -

Jesse here. I'm sharing this with the private community for now but may make it public later. Thanks for being a supporter.

Someone recently asked me to explain my writing process for TEX. I'm happy to share my process here, but I'm a firm believer that there are multiple paths to writing success... or maybe I should clarify... there are multiple paths to writing completion. I've never felt successful after a writing session. I've often felt finished. Donzo. Annihilated. But I've never once finished a writing session, leaned back, and proclaimed, "BAM! I'm the Writing Kid and this stuff is MAGIC!"

I haven't discovered a secret formula. If you have one, please keep it to yourself as it most likely only works for you. The world is full of writing tips, but the real advice stops there. Too many tips and not enough specific advice. Because all of the specific advice, is just that - it's too specific to apply to anyone's unique situation so talented writers resort to high-level, hand-wavy suggestions like "just sit down and do the work."

So please, don't be that idiot that logs onto the internet and shares your writing tips with random strangers...


But we're not strangers, we're friends! Right? Right?!? Feel free to stop here and just go about your business staring at your phone or yelling at a cloud.

I've observed that people who seem to write well, often write a lot. That appears - to me, anyway - to be the common denominator of successful writers. Healthy people do healthy things. Business people do business-y things. And writer's write stuff.

Oh, and they finish writing - because that's ultimately the goal. Being a thing and doing the things that the thing does is a self-selecting bias because you're that thing (can someone fix that sentence for me?) By definition, writers are writers because they finish writing stuff. They also don't tend to use words like 'thing' and 'stuff' as often as I do. But I'm a busy person! I don't have time to go back and fix this crap.

And let's be completely honest here... I don't know what I'm talking about, so there's that. I encourage you to seek the opinion of someone smarter than me like Neil Gaiman.

And Ira Glass speaks about closing the gap by finishing a huge volume of work. There's that pesky word again.

That said, I've read a lot about the subject of writing and making art. There are countless terrific books on the subject, many of them saying the same thing over and over again. But, as many smart people say, "take what you need and leave the rest."

If you want to be a writer, sit down and write some stuff and see if you like doing it in the first place. Lots of people imagine themselves living the life of a writer - sitting alone, sipping on a cup of freshly brewed coffee, staring out the window when inspiration suddenly strikes and magic words appear on the page. However, lots of folks are faced with the reality of writing once they sit down to do it every single day.

The reality - at least for me - is that writing is hard. Very, very hard. It takes me a lot of time to write anything. This blog has been on my to-do list for months. And writing is scary. It gives me a headache. And then I complain about it, which only makes things worse. Every time I finish a writing session for TEX, I tell my wife, "Well, that's it. I ran the well dry. Nothing else will ever come out of this brain ever again." And then I stare into space for a good hour or two while rubbing my aching head.

Writing is wasteful. I go down lots of bad roads to get a little but further along the trip. Writing is at the expense of other activities or investments of time. Writing takes a tremendous amount of energy and psychic resources. Tapping into the well is exhausting. And I often don't know where to hunt for water.

But every time I sit down to write, something weird happens. I can't tell you what it is, or where the words come from, but stuff just happens and words are placed on the page. The result is often broken and fragmented, but it's clay. It's tangible. And - best of all - malleable. Word-by-word a scene is constructed and Tex and his family say things. And word-by-word, I can deconstruct and reconstruct the scene as needed. It seems to me that the act of putting my butt in the seat and sitting down to write is the most important part of my process, because well, if I didn't do this then nothing would get written. A practice of sitting and writing is important. "That's the key, kid! Now go and be a writer," I say in my best old-timey voice.

Everywhere I go, I carry a blank-paged Midori A6 journal with me. It is often accompanied by a Blackwing Pearl pencil, Blackwing 602 pencil, or a Drehgriffel pen. This is my capture journal. It's messy. It's random. And it's there when I need it. It's for the nonsense. I like nonsense. I need the nonsense. Not only do I carry it everywhere I go, but it is out and in front of me at any given moment. It is not hidden away in a bag or stuffed into my back pocket... it is in my right hand. At all times.

I never use my phone to take notes. I never store my thoughts on the cloud. Every single digital note I've ever taken in my life is now gone. Deceased. I have no idea where these thoughts have disappeared to - they no longer exist. A tangible, analog journal is right next to me. It exists. It's real. And that's very important to my process.

However, if you were to ask Stephen King - arguably the most successful, prolific writer in the known Universe - about keeping a notebook, he would say, "I think a writer's notebook is the best way to immortalize bad ideas." And he's probably right. Sure, whatever, I'll admit it; STEPHEN KING IS RIGHT. I have a lot of bad ideas. And that's ok, because I'm about to do something cool in the next paragraph. Watch below and hear him talk about keeping a writer's notebook. He continues, "My idea of a good idea is one that sticks around." I agree with this.

The problem - for me, anyway - is that I still have too many bad ideas. I'm not STEPHEN KING, PEOPLE! Seth Godin has written about Stephen King before. In his blog, What Kind of Pencil Do You use, he writes, "The person who fails the most, wins." I agree with this as well. This is how I reconcile my act of immortalizing my bad ideas. I'm still working through them. And I imagine I will be working through them for a very long time.

Seth Godin continues, "...if you have enough bad ideas, you’ll have absolutely no trouble having enough good ideas. That’s what people who create do, they let the ideas out. They sit and they do the work and the ideas come." There's that word again... sit.

To sum, the little, blank-paged Midori A6 is for general ideas. Little general, bad ideas.

Then I listen to Stephen King... sometimes some of these ideas and themes pop up more than the others. They want to grow. They want out in the world. That's when I curate.

Again, Seth Godin:

"Bad ideas, good ideas, it is not yours to judge until later. Right now, your job is to only produce. After you produce, you can curate. You can select. You can censor. But now, have bad ideas. Lots and lots of bad ideas."

This is my TEX Idea Capture Book. It is a larger, lined Midori A5 - moving from a blank page to a lined page is a little more structured. This book takes all the random nonsense I see in the world and focuses the lens on the TEX universe. This is Tex's interpretation of my world and the things I see and experience.

We're getting closer, but we're not quite there yet...

Again, Seth Godin:

"Once you’ve got the best that you have you must ship it, interact with the market and engage and see what happens."

Now that I have a TEX menu, I get to select what I want to eat. Every step along the way, I imagine Stephen King whispering in my ear, "Pick the crap that pops up the most" - which is super creepy, by the way. So sometimes I use this book and sometimes I don't. I "pick the crap that pops up the most" and then I run with it. Now is the time to write the scene. It's time to sit down and execute.

I use Arc Studio Pro to write each TEX strip. It's screenwriting software. There are lots of options, but this is the one I use the most. The software isn't the important thing here - it's the fact that I'm making decisions now. I'm curating. I'm crafting. And I'm shipping.

I also picked up a 1964 Hermes 3000. Look at her!

Next, I write the scene. This is the part where I'm going to get a little hand-wavy. I sit for an extended period of time, generally 2-4 hours and write scenes. The characters say stuff and I write it down. Sometimes I do it alone, sometimes I do it in public - but there are no scented candles or magic phrases involved. There's no ritual, no special chair, and no sacred process for me to pass along to my children... I hack through the crap. Writer's advice is often filled with sacred themes or special rituals to put people in the mood. Maybe I'll graduate to that someday, but at the moment, I just gotta sit down and get the bad ideas out of the way... and it's a bit messy.

Here's a screenshot of Arc Studio Pro - speaking of messy, look how dusty that monitor is! Yuck.

Here is a screenshot of a rough draft of a scene. Again, please pay close attention to the dust on the screen. It's important to me that you see how filthy it is.

Then, I assemble the rough scenes into a monthly calendar - with a legend helping me track the scene from beginning to end along the production cycle.

dot = rough idea complete
p = pencil rough complete
i = ink master complete
s(1) = scan complete
c = watercolor master complete
s(2) = watercolor master scan complete
checkmark = uploaded into the GoComics system

I use this book to pace out the schedule, building storylines, planning for holidays, etc. Similar to idea capture, this is not a digital process. I want to see this stuff right in front of my eyes and have the opportunity to write, erase, re-write, etc. This is another analog experience.

The finished scenes are printed out and I begin the editing process. Sometimes the words are close to final. Often, they are not. I cut words. I add words. I make the scene better. I make the scene worse. I lump dialogue into panels. Whatever happens, happens here before I sketch a single line.

Words first. Drawing second.

Sometimes these scenes move into final production. But they often don't.

Take it away, Seth:

"After you produce, you can curate. You can select. You can censor."

So, again, I curate. I choose the scenes that work and I put the others in a stack for a rainy day. I plan to re-visit this stack someday. But - for the time being - it sits. And it grows.

Once the scene is complete, I move the strip into art production. I rough the strip, then I ink it, then I scan it, then I watercolor it, then I add textures and final inks, then I scan it, then I crop and tweak the curves in photoshop, and finally I export it and upload it onto the GoComics servers. I'll write about the art process someday.

Once I'm finished writing the scene, the digital PDF gets archived and the printout goes into a neat little green folder.

I tend to clump my writing time into fewer, longer periods of work as opposed to frequent, shorter periods of work. An entire strip probably takes somewhere between 2-5 hours, all-in.

Finally, I pace around the house telling my wife, "I'm out of ideas. WHAT DO I DO? WHAT DO I DO?!?"

And then somehow the process starts all over again - in a little cabin, surrounded by scented candles, sipping a cup of hot coffee, while the muse whispers sweet nothings in my ear.

Thank you. That is all.


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