I always knew I wanted the text in Lighter Than My Shadow to be in my handwriting. Not a font of my handwriting, but every word handwritten. I had a few people tell me that was a crazy decision, but it surprised me that it turned out to be a lot less work than I thought. I kept the book’s text as sparse as possible, only adding words where absolutely necessary for dialogue or clarity in storytelling. The result was all the writing in the book fitting on less than 40 sides of A4 (although I do have very small writing…).
Unlike the drawings which were made at actual size, I did adjust the scale of my handwriting. Because all my life I’ve had complaints that my handwriting is too small, I enlarged it slightly, by 16.6%.
Setting the text happened in batches, usually 12 pages at a time at the end of a week’s drawing. I created the speech bubbles from the textured paper background, lightening it a little to stand out on the page, and I drew the tails in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet.
…and that’s it! Apart from the beginning of every week, when I finalised the storyboards into pencil sketches, I was very simply a drawing machine. I continued like that, 12 pages a week every week for 14 months like clockwork.
Well, not quite. Because I am not a drawing machine, I am a person. And the story I was working on was not exactly something I could detach myself from. My plan was to work at 12 pages a week, every week for 14 months, and the book would be done just like that. Instead it was unlike anything I could have anticipated at all.
When I was working on Lighter Than My Shadow, I mostly followed a very strict and orderly routine according to the wallchart. This was necessary to constantly remind me that as long as I kept on top of what needed to be done – week by week, day by day – I could deliver a 500 page book within the deadline.
Roughly, I drew 12 pages per week for a little over 14 months. This rate was possible because I opted for a pared down visual style, and also because I’d spent the better part of the preceding three years planning. I no longer had much creative thinking to do, I just needed to draw.
The first stage in creating a page of finished artwork was to translate my storyboard to a full-size pencil sketch ready for inking. Often at this stage I would make some changes if I had an idea for a better composition or panel progression. I was also incorporating the last round of editorial feedback so the last storyboards and the final artwork often diverged a surprising amount. These changes I planned as very quick thumbnail sketches that were only understandable the day I drew them – looking back they make very little sense, and I can only sometimes match them to the corresponding finished page!
Technical stuff. I drew each double page spread as a single piece of artwork at actual size (390 x 255mm). I drew on A3 recycled xerox paper but I wish I hadn’t. I chose it because it’s cheap, and therefore less intimidating. I get very frightened by using posh paper, and afraid to start work, but if I’m using something like xerox paper which is so cheap it feels disposable, I’m a little less precious. It also happens to take Pigma Micron pens (size 01 and 005) very well. The downside of this cheap paper is that it’s non-archival, and, let’s be honest, downright flimsy. When I was deep in the process of Lighter Than My Shadow, the last thing I was thinking of was exhibiting or even selling artwork. Now the slog is behind me, I have 250 original pieces that I’m sure people would love to see, but they’re on cheap, rapidly yellowing paper that wouldn’t look nice hung on a wall and certainly isn’t saleable. I plan to get more comfortable with expensive paper in future.
I pencilled 4 pages – 2 double pages spreads – at a time, which would usually take a morning, giving the afternoon and evening for inking (that’s tomorrow’s post).
Though I started at the beginning and finished at the end, for the most part I worked on Lighter Than My Shadow out of sequence. Why? Well…
In truth I don’t know how many drafts I went through. Perhaps four or five of the entire book, but some sections were certainly reworked much more than that. Some sections have changed very little from that first draft, others are unrecognisable.
Perhaps I don’t need to tell you that I’m a perfectionist. It goes hand in hand with anorexia (though I’ve recovered from one, I’m not sure there’s any hope for the other). With that in mind, I’m sure you’ll understand that I was never going to feel ready. To go through one final draft and decide “That was it, it’s finished, now I’m ready to start drawing,” was never going to happen.
I know that’s how my brain works, but still, I was expecting the final draft to be more…done.
What decided the final draft, in the end, was time. I wanted this book to come out in 2013, the year I turn 30, and therefore I needed to set pen to paper in 2012. Or perhaps earlier than that, but it was 2012 already so that would have to do.
With the time for
faffing drafting and redrafting over, I had to find a way not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of drawing ahead of me. I used a very simple formula: divide the number of pages that need drawing by the number of days I have to draw (allowing myself the occasional weekend, and a week’s holiday halfway through). The number I came up with was 12 pages a week. So long as I could stick to that target, I could stop worrying about the whole massive thing and worry only about 12 pages at a time.
This wasn’t quite enough to settle my nerves, so I made a wall chart breaking down exactly when I would tackle each section. Seeing it all laid out in front of me, with clearly enough space to hit the deadline, felt very comforting.
It’s perhaps important to acknowledge that this extreme level of meticulous planning is not dissimilar to the way I used to plan my meals when I was anorexic…
The first time around, I found the experience of being edited…uncomfortable. I handed over a massive chunk of work that I wasn’t really happy with (not to mention how personal it was – there were parts of the story in there I’d never even told my therapist). The person reading it was someone I barely knew but, being an editor at Jonathan Cape, someone I had great reverence for. I left the pages with him, and I waited.
In the time between handing over the pages and our first editorial meeting, my imagination got to work on dreaming up all the possible negative feedback I could receive. Surely Jonathan Cape were now going to realise what a big mistake they’d made, and tell me they were sorry, but they longer wished to publish the book.
As I travelled to London and walked into Random House, signing my name on my visitor’s name tag, I felt like an imposter. This was something real authors did, not me. Then my mountainous first draft was placed on the table, covered in post-its and green (thankfully not red!) notes…
And my editor told me he liked it.
That’s how I remember the beginning of the professional relationship that really shaped my work on Lighter Than My Shadow. To have that input right from the earliest stages was incredibly valuable. Though it terrified me at first, he was always sensitive and professional, discussing the book almost as a work of fiction, yet never seeming to lack in empathy for it being a true story. Though it made me squirm to listen to and read comments on work I wasn’t happy with, it got easier. I came to appreciate the help and support in working towards something I felt proud of, shaping it into the book I’d started imagining almost ten years beforehand. In time, the relationship became (or perhaps always was, I just misunderstood it) less pupil-teacher, more mutually respectful. A collaboration for the best interests of the story.
Over the following two years we exchanged multiple drafts and redrafts, poking and prodding at the story here and there, taking out entire chunks and sometimes putting them back in again a few months later. Always I got nervous. Always the book got better.
I understand from a recent article written by mine that editors like “to remain invisible, for the work [they] do to be untraceable to the reader; for the book to appear, as Martin Amis has put it, ‘a transfusion from above’, direct from writer’s pen to reader’s eye.” While I value this and agree entirely that’s what a good editor should aspire to, I also think it’s a shame. I don’t like it when people are unappreciated for doing great work, and it’s impossible for me to talk about my creative process without talking about the value of the editorial input I was fortunate enough to receive.
The first time around, I found the experience of being edited uncomfortable, but draft after draft it became easier, and I looked forward to receiving that feedback and support. In the end it was a great pleasure and privilege, enabling me to craft a piece of work to a level I never could have managed alone.
I felt really embarrassed by my first draft.
First of all, the drawings! People are often amazed when I say I knocked out a first draft in three weeks, but that was only possible with the most basic, gestural drawings. I was mostly only drawing for myself, and I knew which characters were which, so they had very few distinguishing features. It was really just about getting the bare minimum on paper to give the sense of the structure and pacing of a scene. There was no point in spending any longer on what were, essentially, disposable drawings. I conveniently forgot I would have to show them
to one of the most prestigious publishers in the country!
The best parts of it I could only just tolerate to read. For the most part it made me cringe. It was clumsy, obvious, clichéd and lacking the subtlety and emotional depth that I wanted to create. I sound like I’m berating myself and being incredibly harsh, but actually the process was just coming to accept that this is what a first draft has to be. As Graham Linehan said (in an interview for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe), the first draft is just toilet paper.
In addition to the (large) bits I felt were complete rubbish, there were the bits I left blank. So much of the story had been unbearable to sit with, I’d just about managed to get a sense of how long those scenes took in the story. I’d not been able to to plan to any extent beyond that, to even begin to draw what had happened. There were panels, pages, and even great chunks up to 14 pages long that had no drawings on at all.
So in February 2010 I sent Jonathan Cape 500 pages of work that made me cringe, and prepared myself for hearing feedback on work in such a raw state that I would never normally show it to anyone.
This post is the last in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.
At the end of three very challenging weeks, after a lot of sketching and stressing and screwing up paper, I did indeed manage a first draft.
Jonathan Cape were not going to know what had hit them.
What happened during those three weeks tested my stability in recovery. The flashbacks, which I’d had to induce by choice, were indeed overwhelming as I had feared, and I was completely alone with them. With my mind finally going to the places I needed to write about, I couldn’t run away, distract myself, eat (or not eat) as I always had done before. I had to sit with it, sit with it, sit with it.
And write it down.
This post is the fourth in a series about a writing retreat I took in 2010. Please click here if you’d like to read from the beginning.