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Editing in Errant Story

Okay, I’ve rested up, and now I’m ready to talk about some of the other weird things we’re doing when it comes to editing and lettering Errant Story. Remember before, when I said the thing you needed to know is that Errant Story is all in-house? Well, that goes double for this part, because we’re definitely not doing this stuff “right.”

And here’s why: Errant Story is put together backwards. Also, it’s alive.

See, Errant Story is a finished webcomic, and on the web, it’s even already been published. But that didn’t happen in a clean step by step process the way it does for print comics, it happened one page at a time over a period of ten years. Poe took shortcuts, learned things on the fly, and made things up as he went along. In effect, Errant Story wasn’t made, it was grown.

Now, however, we’re trying to take this organic, pulsing thing, and put it into books. And it didn’t grow for books, though it’s obvious that’s where it should be. It grew on the web, for the web, and some of the things Poe did way back when… they don’t work anymore. So in editing Errant Story for print, we’re not starting from scratch and building forward the way regular comic books do, we’re starting with a giant, fully-grown tree and trying to prune and replant it so that it comes out still looking like the same tree. Just better, and in a different spot.

What, specifically, are we doing differently?

Well, Step One of any comic should theoretically be a script, but Poe never wrote one. Instead he thumbnailed panels and jotted dialogue down in a sketchbook one page at a time, drew the pages, and then typed up the dialogue and lettered the comic roughly an hour before posting a page. Worse, he overwrote the dialogue in the same file every single time he lettered a new page, and for many years rasterized the text into pixel data in the art files, making it impossible to simply edit. This created a problem, namely that printing Errant Story would require relettering every page, and that leads to the first backwards step in our convoluted process. We had to start by creating a brand new script from the existing pages. We have a few amazing transcribers who painstakingly copy down the text from each original page into the script (did you know that there’s about 17,500 words per volume of Errant Story?), and the result is the base script that gets chopped up for all the editing.

In a way, this is also the first thing we’re doing wrong (aside from kindof the entirety of Poe’s initial approach to lettering). The industry standards for formatting a script vary between the major houses, but they consistently want you to output a script in Word. Guess what we did not do? Instead, I found an amazing program, called CeltX. I love this program, it has features that as an editor I simply could not function without. Formatting is done automatically with key commands, it recognizes pages of the comic as units and has a view where pages act like index cards that you can actually shuffle and rearrange, it offers color coding by plot arc (or in my case, by chapter, since that’s how I prefer to use it), it handles multi-script projects, and has built-in management for script elements like characters or settings. It can export as text, and can automatically reformat the script (which looks more like a movie script when you’re in editing mode, which is good for me because that’s what I’m most familiar with) into a PDF chart that breaks down each page by panels. I cannot fathom why anyone would ever want to script in Word when they could be using CeltX instead. It is now the only thing we use in-house, but, if we ever wanted to work with anyone else in the industry, we’d have to take all that lovely functionality and toss it in favor of a script formatted by hand in Word. That’s the price you pay when you need to be able to standardize across an entire industry… it’s very slow to adapt.

We, on the other hand, are small and flexible. So, once the script has been created in CeltX, it’s time for the next backwards thing. I go through the script and make corrections to the text, note formatting issues, and basically make the text letterer-friendly. On the face of it, these are fairly normal things that usually happen to a script before it goes to the artist, but that’s exactly why this is backwards. All this text is edited in relation to existing art… mostly.

It’d be nice if this process were that simple, but in addition to the basic cleanup, there are some more editorial decisions being made at this juncture. One of these is that Poe wants a more focused approach to the story in the books than happened when the story grew as a webcomic, so I’m shuffling some of the scenes to keep the main storyline at the forefront throughout each volume. This means that page counts and chapter breaks are changed. In a normal process, these decisions should definitely be made before any art is created, because the artist will justifiably kill you and defile your body if you attempt it halfway through… but that isn’t the case for Errant Story, home of the runaway text. Many of the pages don’t actually have room for all the text Poe originally crammed onto them, so unless we want to start hacking away dialogue, they have to be split. That means finding a natural break in the dialogue, determining how the existing art should be repurposed on the new pages, and deciding what new art is needed and where it should go. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of time to get a good feel for how Poe lays out a page, so I’m able to keep this fairly consistent with his style as I visualize the finished pages. I also try to keep in mind which side of the book each page will go on, so that scenes break in ways that make sense within a chapter. Combined, these changes amount to approximately thirty extra pages of art per volume (which is why attempting this with any artist who isn’t the original creator would result in that artist defecating into your open wounds after slicing you up with a rabid koala).

Having finally wrangled the wily scripts, though, I do yet another thing backwards. I reformat the original art for print, make whatever edits and page splits are called for, and letter the page despite the blank space where new art will go. After all this editing is done, I then I print the page on bristol paper so that Poe can work on it using the same tools he used for the original pages. How is that backwards? In a normal book, writing and editing goes first, art second, and lettering comes last, but Poe is very resistant to understanding that words take up space. Giving him pages where the lettering already exists helps him to account for it when he creates the new art, and puts the new art in context with the rest of the page it will appear on, which helps keep it somewhat more consistent. Remember, some of these pages are a decade old, and it’s really hard to go back in time as an artist, so the art guide helps reset his eyes for his old style.

Oh, and this is yet another thing that we’re ultimately doing wrong, because all of that editing happens in Photoshop despite there being a million better ways to do it. I would love to learn to use those tools and switch, but Photoshop is comfortable, the files are already formatted for it, and we’re short on time so don’t want to spend a lot of it needlessly converting the pages to a format for tools we’re less adept at using. For this project, we’re just going with what we know, and since we’re working in-house we can get away with that.

Ultimately, after all this backwards process, we end up with page after page of revised lettering and art, all divided into new chapters and new volumes. If we’ve done our job right, most of those pages won’t appear to be much different at all, and a new reader would never know we’d done anything. So why go through all this? Why spend all this time and energy doing absolutely everything backwards and wrong? Because when we do, Errant Story comes out right. This method would never work if we were creating new books from scratch, everyone involved would be going insane, but for Errant Story and the kind of evolution and growth we’re trying to bring out of it, this is the approach that takes what the comic was, and turns it into what it wants to be. To us, that’s worth it.