On World Building – Part 2

Wow going back and reading the previous part, I kind of jumped all over the place. Where’s an editor when you need one? Last week was pretty crazy, and I’m still trying to get into the groove of writing these entries. To review: 1) Exposition is bad, avoid it as much as possible 2) A good way to avoid exposition is to get all of the information written out beforehand, which will help you think of different ways to approach giving this information to your audience. Annnnd that’s pretty much it. So moving on, I want to try to explain some more pitfalls that writers encounter when building a world from the ground up.


I would like, if I may, to share some terrible writing with you…


Eraiyah is a stuck up sword master who knows nothing but her own awesomeness. Although she is only a non-wizard, or Xiamm, she is a respected treasure hunter who has a reputation for unnecessary violence. Uligck is a first rate wizard who has been booted out of his high status for reasons unknown. He and Eraiyah travel from Xiamm village to Xiamm village as they are looking for the buried treasures of Sykel. The Sykel, or high wizards/priests, are in charge of the anything and everything in the country.

Hundreds of years prior, the Sykel used their sorcery to produce items that could cure ailments, bring forth riches, promise a good harvest, etc., etc. In the present day, the few Xiamm who haven’t been forced into servitude, make profit on the hunting of such treasures. One of these Sykel was an alchemist named Fosley Lahmauh. Legend has it he created a serum, called Melethrill, that could be the turning point for society. While it could bring peace amongst the planet, it could also be its destruction. Lahmauh hid the serum before being murdered. Now, the two outlaws, Eraiyah and Uligck, are looking for it. And while they were hired to find Melethrill, each has their own personal reasons for searching for the legendary elixir, but they have agreed on a truce until the serum is found. After that, all bets are off.

Mirrith, who is the leader of the high council of Sykel, is also looking for Melethrill. Her sole focus is the complete destruction of the Xiamm class. Thriving on the energy of dead souls, Mirrith delights in killing helpless second-class citizens. However, in the public eye, Mirrith is a caring leader, loved by both classes. She appeals to the public, calling for a truce between mages and humans.


Yep this an excerpt from a pitch that I wrote nine years ago. In fact, this is the original pitch of the story I am currently developing as a webcomic for later in the year. If you actually made it through the second paragraph without going cross-eyed, then you deserve a cake because oh the terrible.

Let us take a look at why this is so confusing and what to do to avoid when world building…


1. Too many strange names. The characters have strange names that are hard to figure out how to pronounce when read. The castes have strange names that again, on first glance would be hard to pronounce. Not to mention, all of these strange words are thrown at the audience in one chapter. Yes, I did make an attempt to remind the reader what was what, but holy crap it’s confusing for me and I wrote it.

Solution: Simplification. In the process of world building, to give the illusion of some great meaning or purpose, or just to be awesome, a writer will try to assign new names for things that we have in our society now. The problem with this is once you start down that path, you have to rename everything in the world, not just bits here and there. And while you are doing that, your readers must comprehend every new term thrown at them. Now yes, there are examples where this is done well. Harry Potter comes to mind, but if you think back Hagrid and company spent a lot of time explaining wizarding things to Harry. And even then, save for the money, most of the names were easy to understand. They weren’t all invented words. Most of them were English, or had a latin root that was easily identified. Another is the John Carter series. But do you notice a trend? These are all books– not comics. Comics are read faster than books and more information is doled out per page (or at least should be…). They are also examples of a “fish out of water” story, where the main character is out of his element and therefore has other characters explain things to s/he and there we walk a fine line of the exposition monster again. A good “fish out of water” story is possible, but they take great care and crafting to be done well. And even then, simplifying the complication helps both your audience and your main character quickly grab onto their new reality.


Let’s take a look at the same pitch again, but this time take out all the confusing caste names and change the characters names to something a bit more “normal”:

Eraiyah is a stuck up sword master who knows nothing but her own awesomeness. Although she is a non-wizard, she is a respected treasure hunter who has a reputation for unnecessary violence. Erik is a first rate wizard who has been booted out of his high status for reasons unknown. He and Eraiyah travel from village to village of the non-wizard class as they are looking for the buried treasures of the high priests. The priests, are in charge of the anything and everything in the country.

Hundreds of years prior, the high priests used their sorcery to produce items that could cure ailments, bring forth riches, promise a good harvest, etc., etc. In the present day, the few non-wizards who haven’t been forced into servitude, make profit on the hunting of such treasures. One of these high priests was an alchemist named Foster Langley. Legend has it he created a serum, called mithril, that could be the turning point for society. While it could bring peace amongst the planet, it could also be its destruction. Langley hid the serum before being murdered. Now, the two outlaws, Eraiyah and Erik, are looking for it. And while they were hired to find mithril, each has their own personal reasons for searching for the legendary elixir, but they have agreed on a truce until the serum is found. After that, all bets are off.

Meredith, who is the leader of the council of high priests, is also looking for mithril. Her sole focus is the complete destruction of the non-wizarding class. Thriving on the energy of dead souls, Meredith delights in killing helpless the second-class citizens. However, in the public eye, Meredith is a caring leader, loved by both classes. She appeals to the public, calling for a truce between wizards and non-wizards.


Now with the fancy words and names taken out, we see that this plot is pretty simple– in fact with the fancy words taken out, it’s clear just how cliche it truly is (which is another good argument for simplification because it will be easier to spot!).

2. Lack of story focus. Go back and read that all again (if you dare!). Tell me what the story is. You can’t really, because there’s not much there. Two people are searching for a potion, there’s a villain. She’s evil because she kills people. Annnnd that’s about it. True, this is only a pitch– but even a pitch is supposed to grab the attention of potential readers and want them to read more. See what happens to the characters. From that pitch you can already guess the good guys will find the potion, and everything will come up roses. Who cares that it takes place in a society with wizards and potions? YAWN FEST.

Solution: Focus on the story first! Story is the most important element, not world building. Your world should support your story, not the other way around. Have you ever seen a movie that you were really floored by the richness of the world it took place in, but the story was terrible? Avatar, anyone? That’s a clear case where story was not the focus. But then you have movies like Inception where the story is really good, and the world building is there (literally), but its not the focus. The focus is the story of a man who comes to terms with his wife killing herself and how he blames himself. There’s also a heist in there, but that really is the secondary plot. Everything else in the world is there to contribute to the plot and the secondary plot.

As a comic creator, your focus should be on story.

3. My last piece of world building advice, which isn’t really in my pitch, is you need to establish rules in your world. These rules should be made clear early in the story, and cannot be changed. Period. The second you change them, you will lose your readers (oh the cries of ‘deus ex machina!’).

Hagaren is a perfect example of excellent storytelling WITH excellent world building. But you’ll notice, Arakawa-sensei doesn’t try to make her world too strange and unusual. With the alchemy, she has already introduced a different element into the mix and the first chapter is spent making sure that the audience understands how alchemy works in the universe. She establishes the rules and how they cannot be broken (or the cost you pay when breaking them in some characters’ cases). Just about everything else in the story is normal, in an established and understood history that while alternate, is not all that different than ours, even though it takes place in “another world.” She also doesn’t spend the first chapter bogging us down with the backstory of Ed and Al, and instead saves it to dole out it parts after we have grown to care about the characters, which supports my whole “write the backstory out first but then don’t use it literally” notion of the last entry.

Is it hard to follow all of these points? Hell yeah it is. But it’s worth the effort. Think about comics that you love that have really good world building. Go back and read the first books of those series and take note of how they introduce the world. What works? What doesn’t? How would you approach the things that don’t work? Take notes! It really helps, trust me!

On World Building – Part 1

For my stories, I’ve always had a tendency to think epic. It’s best practice to know what your weaknesses are as any type of artist, and that’s definitely one of mine

Back in college, when I was in my script writing class, my professor (the amazing Mark Kneece– hi Mark!) told me frequently that my short stories were too big for short stories. Like I would develop and cram too much into my short stories because I had so much to say. Short stories have never been my forte, and I would be the first to admit that. I think about too much of the universe in the story to keep it short. It’s actually why I started to focus on writing oneshots in my fanfiction writing, because I wanted to try to learn how to tell an effective short story. It sort of worked? But it’s easier to do that within an established fandom, because everyone who is reading it already comfortable with the characters.

But what do you do when everything is original and no one knows any character from Adam?

The question of the ages! Each writer approaches this differently, but here’s my take on it…

In order to address my epic tendencies, my approach is to write, essentially, two different works. The first one is disjointed and would make absolutely no sense to anyone who read it. It contains back-stories, character wants & desires, even reasons for choices in clothing and hair. And if the story takes place in a different world, like mine tend to, the list of things to address grows exponentially. What is the history of the world? What types of technology do they use? What currency do they have? What are normal things to eat? I think of this as building the foundation of the story, and most of it won’t even be used within the actual story– but it’s something as the creator of the world that I should know. It help brings depth to the world and the story itself. I essentially write a guide to the world.

I don’t want to give the impression that I spend years working on this and everything is all typed out and pretty. Most of it is in short hand in my current handy notebook that I mentioned in the last post or in the margins of sketches (which I try to copy over into a notebook if I think about it… which is about 50% of the time ^^;;;). At this point, however, I’m trying not to think too much about the plot. This is the process that helps me get to know my characters and become comfortable with their voices and the environment in which they live. This process can take a lot of time and I think the important thing is to not rush it– but make sure to not use it as an excuse to procrastinate going further into the story. I’m not saying to write the freaking Silmarillion. I know I don’t have the patience to do all of that. But saying that, you need to think about these things and not just say “Okay, these characters live in medieval times with witches and wizards!” I can already feel myself yawning just reading that. Make it your own, just like Tolkien did!

Why take this approach? In doing this, you will get all of the wordy exposition out of your system. Get it alllllllll out. Exposition should be used just like salt– rarely and only to add when it’s needed to make a scene (or cake :D) work. And even then, the more you can subdue the exposition, the better.

If you have it all written out before moving on to writing the script, its much easier to incorporate it into scenes instead of sitting down and having scene after scene of exposition (i.e. the Star Wars prequels). If you haven’t seen them before, I would highly recommend watching all three of the Plinkett Star Wars reviews on RedLetterMedia. Not only are they really funny, but from a storytelling perspective, they are really eye opening. Warning: There is some foul language and really morbid humor in the videos– but they are very enjoyable nonetheless. In the episode III review, how to use the language of cinema is discussed, which is 100% applicable to comics. Framing, blocking, and using visual elements to feed information to your audience is crucial for good comic book storytelling. It’s the old adage of showing, not telling.

In prose it’s a bit easier to point things out to a writer and say “You’re showing, not telling.” Comics it can be a bit more difficult, because the writer can be doing it with the dialogue and not even realize it. This is why I encourage writing all of this exposition vomit out before even thinking about a script. When it’s time to move to the script, you can use what you have written out to think about different ways to present this information using other storytelling techniques, instead of it only being delivered by dialogue.

For example, in the first Scott Pilgrim book we are introduced to Scott, his life, etc. All pretty normal right? And as we are getting comfortable with the Scott character, he suddenly is challenged to a fight via email and just deletes it after reading only half of it. But we as the audience are given what we need– fight to the death and Matthew Patel. Then when Matthew Patel shows up at the concert, and they proceed to fight, the comic doesn’t just pull the breaks and explain the evil exes hierarchy, that Scott is a master fighter, or even why they are fighting. Scott fights Patel and we move on the with the story. Some bits of information are fed to us about the evil exes, but not all. It encourages us to want to read more. The first time I read SP, I remember being like “WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?” for like three seconds when the fight started. But then you roll with it. The fights fit right in with Scott’s established world and don’t break any of the other logic presented to the reader. The story, in the end, is not about Scott’s fighting abilities anyway. Each “fight” in the series can be seen as an allegory for getting over problems encountered during a relationship. The chapters leading up to the fights illustrate the problem, the problem is then presented in the form of an ex, Scott defeats the problem and learns from it.

When working with a medium like comics, every line of dialogue is very important and should move the story along. I was taught in the school of thought that adding dialogue is much easier than subtracting. Keep lines to a bare minimum, but keep the plot moving. It’s definitely a juggle, but making it work it entirely worth it.


The Birth of a Universe in Your Head

It happens without warning. You could be walking down the street, iPod plugs in your ear listening to Spice Girls and enjoying the day when BANG! Suddenly an idea hits you and it feels like a tanker has jumped the sidewalk and crashed into your sorry ipod listening distracted self (because damn who listens to Spice Girls anymore?). It happens to all creative people at some point. It’s a wonderful, yet terrible feeling. Wonderful because YAY INSPIRATION. But terrible because now it’s going to consume alive you until you do something with it.

(Sidenote: Sometimes, when you feel you’re in a dry spell, you wish that it would. Oh to be knocked over onto the sidewalk by an idea 16-wheeler, wondering what kind of epic sci-fri space opera just hit you. But that’s not what this entry is about… I will talk about finding inspiration and dry spells in another post.)

Now you have this idea, and it’s haunting your dreams you’re thinking about it so much. You can’t drink your morning coffee without thinking about what your main character needs to overcome to get the boy and win the science contest while taking out demons that have started to destroy the school’s football field. But oh no, you are already in the middle of something else. What do you do? Drop everything and work on this new thing? Put the new idea off until a later time and hope that it’s just as fresh and awesome two months from now when you have the time to do something about it? WHAT DO YOU DO?

This happens to me a lot. I’m one of those unfortunate people that are afflicted with a terrible disease– story, character and shiny-thing distraction disorder, or SCASDD… okay that was funnier in my head. But it’s still true. The disease is a killer for a writer and twice as damning for a comics creator. What is SCASDD like? Imagine a jumble of worlds floating around in your head, all with different characters, different tones, shouting at you at all times. It’s a little 面倒くさい (troublesome) when you need to sit down and create.

But Aja, you say, why don’t you just work on multiple projects at once? Well I do… to a point. And it’s to that point that I want to discuss. Have you ever tried juggling several series in your head and creating content for all of them at once?

A long time ago, in a faraway land, I wrote a ton of fanfiction. Nope, I’m not ashamed to say it! In fact, from time to time, I still do. I find it a nice outlet to give my writing muscles a workout when I am not actively working on something. Anyway, I was pounding out 4 to 5 pages a day for a large number of stories. At one point, I think I had ten open series that I was working on plus some oneshots– usually all from different fandoms. So yeah, it’s possible. But now ask me how many out of those series I finished? Some, but definitely not all. I still have like 5 or 6 long series that I never finished, and now I don’t even have an interest in finishing them, as I have moved on from that fandom or just as a writer (which makes me feel so guilty when someone contacts me about finishing a story…). I burned myself out so bad while writing, I just had to say “enough’s enough!” and focused on one story at a time.

I keep a folder on my backup harddrive back in the States that has at least 20 to 30 stories that I either dropped halfway through or started but never got very far because of this habit. It’s a folder of shame, basically, but I keep it around. Why? Well, for starters, failed ideas can help create new ones that don’t fail (I’m one of those clingy writers that keeps every draft, just in case that paragraph I deleted three months ago turns out to be a gold mine and I want it in the final draft). But also, I like to keep it as a reminder to never let myself again get too in over my head writing wise. I call it the dump folder.

Because of this experience, it’s now my working hypothesis that I can only spread my attention out so far. Jumping from one story to another can really mess with your focus, and jumble your style if they are vastly different projects. It’s hard to write a melancholy story about a girl losing her boyfriend to demons rampaging a school and then stop in the middle and switch to writing a historical drama about two sisters. Now imagine switching between those stories while creating art for them. The subject matter alone dictates two completely different art styles. That’s enough to drive an artist crazy.

Now I can hear the cries of ‘CLAMP manages it!’ CLAMP is a TEAM. There are four women and any number of assistants (they don’t use them a lot, but they use them). They work together to create a final product. It’s not all up to one person. They also work in clumps. They finish a chapter of one thing, then move to the next, or do they? That’s just their release schedule. And even if they do work on one chapter of one story at a time, I’m more than willing to bet they at least have detailed outlines for the entire story, if not complete scripts before a scratch of pencil is put down. It’s a bit easier to have at least one of the steps completed before jumping to something else. Pro comic writers working on several series don’t hammer out 3 pages of one script and then jump to the next. They finish one script and then go to the next. Key word: finish.

So if all ideas are important, but I need to focus on finishing one thing at a time, how do I work? Well first off, as the new ideas come, I make sure to put them down, either in sketch or note form. It helps combat the SCASDD. At least then I have the idea down on paper, so I know I can come back to it later. In the process of writing it down, it’s like I’m taking it out of my brain to think about later. I know it’s cliché, but I carry a small notebook with me everywhere I go. Luckily, Japan has an insane selection of stationary. I find these notebooks incredibly helpful. It’s small enough to fit into my purse, and the dotted format is visible enough that writing is easy, but drawing on the paper isn’t distracting either. In fact, I drafted this entry and the format for the site in the same book this week.

But to make sure that I stay on target, I make goals! At the beginning of the year, I type out a plan for the entire year. It’s kind of a to-do list. Here’s my goals for the first five months of this year:

Superhusbands fic drafting
30 day challenge

Superhusbands drafting

Reverse BB art
Outline begin!
Superhusbands finishing

Outline finish
Character sheets

Illustration concepts

As I finish, I cross them off my list. However, I try not to chain myself to this schedule. There’s no way to know in January if you get a sweet project dropped in your lap in June. Or, like for me last year, I unexpectedly moved to the other side of the world and pretty much had to scrap the plans I had at the end of last year and start from square one. So, it’s important to come back to your list and change it as needed. I like to come back and reevaluate every two months. If I’m running ahead of plan, then I can move other things up, or if something is taking longer than expected, then it gets bumped down. For example, right now I’m pretty sure I won’t finish the Superhusbands thing I’m working on by the end of this month. I’ve been otherwise occupied by this new site and trying to get other things ready for the outline writing. I still want to get it finished to get it out of my system and help me concentrate on the next project. So at the end of March, I may move some things around on the schedule so I can finish it before moving to the webcomic outlining. You’ll see I don’t really cram things onto the schedule either which makes things easier to switch around should the need arise.

So, do you suffer from SCASDD? How do you combat it?

The Patience of Virtue

Well here we go! After what seems like months of being in limbo, ajamandtoast.net is finally up and running! I’m actually running this entire site using WordPress, which is a first for me. I’ve been trying to learn WP for years, and it’s always been really daunting eraiyahfor me. Anyone who has followed me for any amount of time, knows that I am pretty literate with HTML language. I’ve been making my own website formats for, well, over ten years is all I will admit. I’ve learned html, shtml, and some css and div stuff– but still WP boggles my mind. I think it’s because of things that I know the code for when typing by hand, is really hard to figure out how to do in WP.

It’s all php things that go right over my head and I spend hours trying to figure out how to do something that would take me two seconds in html. BUT I AM TRYING MY BEST. For now, please be patient with my very bare bones format until I figure out customization. I’m going through WP lessons online right now, so hopefully it won’t take me too long to get a hold of it. It’s like I’m in my computer class in high school all over again!

I felt a twinge of sadness when I closed the samuraihoney.net host account today. The URL will redirect you here, so please update your bookmarks!

My goal is to update this blog twice a week. I’m aiming for Mondays and Thursdays, but I’m not sure yet. My schedule at work is about to change at the end of this month, and then I’ll be able to make a solid schedule. I’ll be writing about art ennui, movie storytelling and visuals, things that inspire me artistically, Japan insanity, and, of course, the big announcement– THE WEBCOMIC. Yep. It’s finally happening. I’m only in the planning stages at the moment, but my goal is to have a webcomic ready for launch by the end of the year! I’ve been wanting to draw this comic for years and now I am finally ready to jump in and do it. So please join me in all the hair pulling, all-nighter, coffee driven insomnia comic making in the following months! I’ll explain my process and techniques when it comes to writing, character design, page composition, post, you know– all that good stuff! So, welcome! And please excuse the dust for a little while ^_^