The Creative Conference was a lot of fun despite a case of the jitters right before I went on. I was feeling sick so I got up there later than I'd have liked and only saw two other speakers. Both of these speakers had multimedia presentations, which I did, but then I decided that I'm a writer and anything I could show wouldn't be very exciting anyway. "Yeah, so there's another shot of me at my desk. You know, writing..."
The talk itself, I'm told, seemed to go well. I say, "I'm told" because I sort of blanked out after I started the talk and only came to after I said the last line. Honestly. I was mostly aware of the fact that my mouth was really dry, I had a cough drop stuck to the roof of my mouth and, despite having water that I kept picking up and setting down, I wasn't actually drinking. But a lot of people came up to me after the talk and told me that they liked what I had to say a lot, so I'm going with, "it went well."
For those of you who wanted to know what I talked about but couldn't be there, I'm going to paste in the essay I wrote and used as a guide through the talk. I know I went off script on a few occasions, dropped some portions,added others, but this is everything I meant to say. If anyone who attended the conference is reading this, maybe you can tell me how close the talk was to this essay:
Hi. My name is Adam Gallardo and I'm a comics writer from Salem, Oregon. Just to give you an idea of what I've done professionally and why I'm standing up here talking to you: I've written Star Wars: Infinities—Return of the Jedi for Dark Horse Comics; I've also created and written two creator-owned series: Gear School, also from Dark Horse Comics; and 100 Girls which just came out this Summer from Simon and Schuster's Young Adult line, Simon Pulse.
When I was asked to speak about my creative process, I had two reactions: the first was sheer terror because the last time I spoke in public was back when I was in speech in high school. The second feeling was a new wave of sheer terror, but for an entirely different reason: it was because I have never examined my creative process. I always just trust that it will work when I call on it. And I worried that examining it might cause it to stop working, like when you dissect a frog—you might figure out how it works, but it's not going to be in any shape to hop around. Thankfully that hasn't happened.
I'm going to address a question I get fairly often, as I'm sure does anyone who works in a creative field. At any signing or convention I attend, I get a few people asking me where I get my ideas. I think this question has an underlying supposition. That being: “If I know where you get your ideas, I can go there and get my own!” The answer to that question is probably frustrating since it's either very mundane or so esoteric as to be nearly unreproducable.
Not to keep you in suspense: Here's the short answer to where I get my ideas. They come to me in one of two ways. Through lots of hard work, or from a very nearly religious blast of inspiration. I suppose it's easiest to say that I approach ideas and creativity in general as a problem solving proposition. In just a minute, I'll give you examples to show you what I'm talking about.
But first, I think it'd be worth it to give you some personal history, set the stage a little bit. And, trust me, this will pay off later.
Unlike more than 90% of those currently working in comics, I didn't read comics as a kid. To me, comics were things you got when you went on a road trip with your family—distractions meant to shut us up for the ten hours it took to drive to my parents' hometown every Summer—or they were something I got on days I stayed home sick from school. I always enjoyed them, I don't want to give any impression otherwise, but apart from those two very specific circumstances, I never thought much about them, even though I can recall specific issues I'd read: Captain America and the Falcon, Uncanny X-Men, Thor, The Avengers. It was always a crap shoot, whatever my parents brought home with them. Also, I only read them singly. It never occurred to me that the stories in them continued in other issues of the same title, or even in other titles altogether. Continuity was a foreign concept to me and that may explain my disdain for it today.
The point here is that while I was aware of comics, they didn't really figure into my development as a story teller. By the time I started to read comics with a passion, I'd already fallen in love with sci-fi novels, with movies of all types, and with TV dramas. The memories I have from my formative years are all related to these media. This is another way of saying that they had their hooks in me long before I ever thought about writing comics, and even before I thought about reading them.
In fact, I never thought about writing them until I was in my early 30s and working at Dark Horse Comics for the second time. The first time had been a job to get me through my years at community college and I worked in production there. It would take my leaving, getting my degree, discovering that the real world of employment sucked and returning to the fold to figure out that I wanted to take a stab at comics writing. Up until that point, I wanted to be the new Raymond Carver, writing introspective, literary short stories in which nothing much happened. But the short stack of rejection slips I carried around with me for a time told me that the world liked the Raymond Carver it already had and didn't really want a new one. It was only after reading a lot of comics scripts that I had one of those "eureka" moments. In my case, the moment came when I was reading yet another comics script and I thought, "I can do this, too!" I really haven't looked back since then.
My first published comics work was for Dark Horse Comics and it came out in 2003. Star Wars: Infinities—Return of the Jedi is part of their Infinities series which can best be described in geek-speak as similar to the old Marvel What If...? series, but set in the Star Wars universe. What if you changed one aspect of the original Star Wars story lines? How would that one change affect the rest of the story? Dark Horse had already done series based on A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and there was a considerable lag following the second series.
Now, at the time I was working in the Internet department at Dark Horse and one of my responsibilities was to read all of the incoming email from fans and readers and either answer it myself or else pass it along to someone who could answer it. For a while, the question we got most often was to ask when Return of the Jedi would be given the Infinities treatment. For the most part I just forwarded those email to Randy Stradley who was the Star Wars editor at the time. After a while, however, I started to become curious myself about where the next series was. So I marched myself downstairs and I asked our managing editor, Davey Estrada, "People keep asking about Return of the Jedi, Infinities, what should I tell them?" And he told me to tell them that as soon as Dark Horse received a story idea they liked, they'd get it into production. I asked a few more questions and discovered that Dark Horse had solicited stories from several professionals and the editors hadn't liked any of them ( I never found out how many or from whom—knowing that at the time would, I'm sure, have scared me so much that my next move would have been unthinkable).
I'd been itching to write comics for a little while, and had even started to put together the concept that would eventually become 100 Girls, but I hadn't yet pitched anything of any kind to an editor. But after that talk with Davey, I went home that night and I sat on the couch and thought. And for the benefit of the uninitiated, that's part of the hard work. Sitting and thinking. Staring off. Reading a magazine in a listless manner. All of these are weapons in the writer's arsenal. It might look like goldbricking, but it is work. Anyway, I sat there and I played the movie back and forth in my mind. I'd seen it easily half-a-dozen times so that part was easy. And as I watched it play on the screen in my mind I actively worked on the problem of what moment exactly would be the best to depart from the original. And I should point out that since I didn't know what any other writer had turned in, I had no way of knowing if I'd strike on the same idea as someone else. Some time later, I hit on what I thought was the perfect moment, and then I fleshed out how that one alteration would change the rest of the story.
For the sake of this talk, I'll give away what I came up with, though I'm usually loathe to reveal it to anyone who hasn't read the comics. The scene happens early in the story, Leia is disguised as a bounty hunter and confronting Jabba the Hutt. C-3PO translates. In the film, The negotiation ends amicably, if somewhat tense, but in my version, I had C-3PO become incapacitated, With no one to translate, Leia must reveal herself and the scene devolves into chaos which results in Boba Fett escaping with the still-frozen Han, and the deaths of both Jabba and C-3PO. I thought that was a pretty neat little turn.
The next day I walked into Randy's office and asked him if he still had no story for the next Infinities. He said they didn't and I asked if I could pitch him a story. He regarded me for a minute—and I should mention here that Randy is a big, imposing guy, and he has this way of fixing you in his gaze that is very nearly reptilian. I was already nervous, but being appraised by those half-lidded eyes made me shake. He told me to fire away. I did and again he regarded me—that same reptilian stare— then he told me to go home and write up the pitch as a one-page document and bring it back the next day. Which I did, of course. Giddily. I think I was actually giddy. Now, I'd like to tell you that the moment I came back to his office and handed that document to Randy, he told me he loved it, then he gave me the assignment and I was heaped with comics glory. But actually, months passed after I turned in the pitch. Months in which I heard no mention of the pitch. In fact, so much time passed that I figured Randy had decided not to give me the job and telling me that fact had slipped his mind. But one day, as I walked past his office on the way somewhere else, he yelled out at me, "Gallardo! When are you going to write that script?" And that was how I found out I'd been given my first professional writing assignment.
The point of that little story was to show how I approached the problem of coming up with an idea. I had a problem, what's the best possible moment to have the original Return of the Jedi story go off the rails, and what would happen after it did? And I worked hard at finding a solution. Of course, after I had that initial idea, Lucafilm got their hands on the story and had their continuity people go over it, which meant that I had to rewrite the original pitch several times before they were happy with it. A lot of people assume that I must have hated working with the continuity people at Lucasfilm, but to be honest, I never had any problem with them. I recognized that they had a very valuable property to protect from the likes of me. I mean, honestly, I was an untested, first-time comics writer who wanted to get my hands on one of the most recognizable properties in the world. If our roles were reversed, I'd be a little nervous, too. I didn't resent any of the changes for which they asked as an imposition, I just saw them as new problems to solve. I'd say, "Okay, if Lucas doesn't want me to have Leia fighting Vader in issue 4, what else can I do that makes sense with the story I'm telling and is a satisfying plot point?" In this way, I could move from beat to beat until I had a completed story.
This is, admittedly, a pretty unglamorous means of getting ideas. It means an awful lot of sitting in front of your notebook or your computer and just pounding away at a given problem, but that's how it's done. I should also point out that one needn't wait for a problem to drop in their lap like I did to get to work. You can create your own. Maybe there's an artist you want to work with and you know they like a particular type of story. Maybe you want to find a way to talk about a given political or social situation. Maybe you want to explore an episode from your past, but you want to find a way to fictionalize it to make it a bit more bearable for yourself and a bit more palatable for an audience. Or maybe you just notice that the market is lacking a certain kind of story that you'd like to see more of.
My comic, 100 Girls, was a solution to that last kind of problem. I'd noticed a dearth of comics that featured strong central female leads and I set about creating one that I wanted to read. Honestly, that's my favorite kind of problem to solve: what do I want to read that isn't currently out there? Great, why don't I go and write that?
Okay, one more example, and then I'm going to switch gears a little bit.
A couple of years after I stopped working at Dark Horse Comics, I was visiting the offices and stopped in to talk to an editor buddy of mine, Dave Land. I think I was giving Dave a current issue of 100 Girls because Todd Demong, my collaborator on the book, and I had put a caricature of him in the issue. Anyway, Dave and I were talking for a while before he started telling me that he wanted to start up an informal line of sci-fi comics in the same way that editor Scott Allie had done with an informal line of horror comics. I told him that sounded like a good idea, which was the truth. Sci-fi has always been my favorite genre in comics. He then asked me if I had any ideas I would be interested in submitting for a comic. I told him I might have a few.
The truth is that I have notebooks full of ideas, most of them in the sci-fi genre. Keeping some kind of notebook counts as part of the hard work you need to do to be creative. I try and capture every idea that flits into my mind. It doesn't matter if I like the idea, or if I can immediately see the potential of an idea. None of that matters. Just get it down. No matter how dumb it may seem at the moment. Armed with your notebook, you can respond to an editor asking you if you have any ideas with an unequivocal "yes." And the notebook also represents a less specific, very general type of problem solving: it's solving the problem of what kinds of ideas you want to work on. The good ideas, the ideas on which you want to spend a lot of time developing into a full story will eventually make it out of the notebook while the ideas that aren't as good will just sit there, forever trapped between it's pages. I don't know of a single creative person—and I'm lucky to know quite a few creative people—who doesn't keep some version of a notebook. What the diary is to the junior high girl, the notebook is to the creative personality.
Anyway, I went through some notebooks and this very short entry jumped out at me. It read: Gear School—Harry Potter meets Mobile Suit Gundum! Since writing it down in the notebook, I'd forgotten about it (that's one advantage of the notebook—once you write down an idea, you can forget about it and free up some mental space for other things), but that line intrigued me. I eventually changed that tag line to Degrassi High meets Mobile Suit Gundum and that one change seemed to allow for the emotional depth and the interpersonal relationships I wanted to explore. I feel compelled to say that normally I don't generate ideas in so crass a manner—pop culture reference A meets pop culture reference B—but in this instance it did help me get in touch with the emotional flow of the piece. Basically, it would be a melodrama set in a high school where kids were taught to fly giant fighting robots. And, frankly, whatever helps me work my way into a story is what I'm going to do. Crassness be damned!
My notebook also yielded four or five other ideas. Four or five out of a lot. There's always a moment of anxiety as you try and figure out what an editor would like. It's like games theory. Just because I like something doesn't necessarily mean the editor would like it. And even if they might like it, they may not like the way you write it, the exact presentation you give it. But this is just more problem solving. What do I know about the editor? What do I know of the other books he's edited, and how can I tailor my ideas to fit in with his temperament as I perceive it. Once you take all of these factors into consideration, all you can do is write up the piece and hope the editor likes it. And that they had a good night's sleep the night before they read your proposal. That helps, too.
Of the five or six ideas I sent to Dave, Gear School was the one he liked best and he asked me to develop it into a full fledged pitch. The initial story I pitched to Dave was more of a character piece and he asked me to ramp up the action. I did so, but I lost a lot of the character development that had appealed to me in the first place—it sot of became a two act story with the second half being a big fight with a scary alien. Thankfully, I was able to use that original story line in the second volume of Gear School that I just finished writing. That's another thing I've learned: never throw anything away. Just because I didn't use the story for the first volume, I knew I'd use it sooner or later.
The second volume of Gear School differed from the first in a significant way: I had met the artists who are drawing the book and I was able to write it with their personalities in mind. In this day and age, it's possible to work with an artist or an artist team without having ever spoken to them. Oh, we emailed back and forth, but that's different than meeting someone face to face. In the case of Nuria and Sergio, the artists on Gear School, meeting them took some doing. They both work and live in Barcelona, Spain. My wife and I traveled to France last year and, having an American's understanding of geography, I said, "why don't we just pop down to Barcelona for a couple of days to meet the artists?" The arduous train trip was worth it, however. They turned out to be great people and it really informed what I did with the second volume of the comic.
Something very similar, and maybe even more profound, happened when I met and became friends with Todd Demong, my collaborator on 100 Girls. The back and forth I have now with Todd has led to us being compared with an old married couple more than once. It's a comparison I find I'm unable to refute.
Okay. Now is the time when I switch gears.
So, I talked a little bit about hard work, which you'll recall is one of the ways I generate ideas. I said that the other way I get ideas is through flashes of inspiration. These are those instances when an idea just pops into my head, seemingly from no where, maybe from some higher power. I can never predict when these flashes of inspiration will come. I can be working on a grocery list, driving across the country and staring at the horizon off in the distance, taking a shower. I seem to get a fair number of ideas in the shower, actually, as I stand there, washing, and singing off-key. I certainly can't force a flash of inspiration, I just have to capture it when it comes.
So if that's true, what's the use of talking about this? If inspiration is so capricious that you can't predict when it will happen, why even mention it? Because, while you can't predict when inspiration will hit, you can cultivate it. How? Easy—read everything, watch everything and listen to everything you can. And for the sake of brevity, I'm going to say "read" a lot, by which I mean "consume media." Consuming media is how you feed your creative machine. And when I say everything, I mean everything. I try to be as widely read as possible. I don't limit myself to just sci-fi. I read biography, history, literary fiction, mystery. And I make sure that I read outside of my area of concentration as much as you can; that being comics. You never know when something you read will morph into an idea you can exploit. I have to admit that I read very few comics these days. I follow a few writers I like, I check out comics that get a lot of buzz, I read comics that are given to me by zealous friends, but for the most part, I'm off reading prose of one variety or another. And don't even get me started on comic-book movies.
I've been asked a few times by aspiring comics writers what one book I would recommend they read as a text. I always have the same answer: read E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. The look I get is also always the same. They are dumbfounded. Don't I think they should read McCloud's Understanding Comics? Eisner's Sequential Art? Claremont's and Byrne's Dark Phoenix Saga? My reasoning is that if you're into comics, you're going to read those books whether I tell you to or not. Reading Forster, though, is something they wouldn't normally read and something they should. In fact, every storyteller, no matter their medium, should read it for it's insights into how to tell a story. But I digress.
As creators of fiction, we have no primary documents. By that I mean, if I was a scientist and wondered why, for example, the planet Venus sometimes appears to travel backward as it moves across the sky, well I could do a little research. I could watch any number of documentaries, read astronomy texts. I could even go back to the tables of planetary motion kept by Tycho Brahe to discover the mystery behind this seemingly impossible feat. But as a fiction writer, presented with a problem, there are no documents to which I can go for answers. Instead, every document becomes a possible source of inspiration, and so you must read everything you can. Once you read something, it goes into the hopper inside your head and it swirls around with everything else you've read and it ferments. And if you're very lucky, then one day it'll spill out when you really need it and it'll be something you can use. And, more than likely, hopefully, when it comes out of the hopper, it'll be unrecognizable from when it went in.
This is why I mentioned my own history of comics readership earlier. By the time I came to comics, my storytelling sensibilities were already set by other media. I am able to apply lessons learned from writers of novels, films, plays, and others, to my writing for comics. I think we've all had the experience of watching a film and thinking that the people who made the film have never done anything but watch and study other movies. Because of a lack of experience on the filmmaker's part, their film comes across as a pastiche at best, and, at worst, an out and out rip off of some other film. Please believe me when I tell you that I have experienced this phenomenon more than once as I've read comics.
I think that even the experiences I described previously—those of meeting the artists I worked with—fit into this structure. You could expand the dictate "read everything" into "experience everything." Be open to new experiences and adventures and be willing to let those experiences seep into your unconscious and be repurposed in your art. It's through this process that art takes over your life, that you become, finally, an artist.
I think the worst criticism I or any artist can have leveled at them is that they're unoriginal. Especially when it's so easy to avoid.
So, there you go. The answer to the hypothetical aspirant's question from the beginning of this talk. That's how I create, that's where I get my ideas from. I read everything I can. I put in a lot of hours in front of my notebook. And, every one in a while, I get a flash of inspiration.
Beyond that, I'm just waiting for the next problem to solve.