What to do with those weird little questions: An interview with Kay Aspden

June 11th, 2018


Indie comics creator Kay Aspden chats about her process of developing characters and writing stories, and how she wrestles with world-shattering ideas.

If we were knocking back some beers in a bar, how would you describe the project you’re working on right now?

My current project takes a little explaining, and I haven’t perfected the “elevator pitch” yet, so bear with me.

I’m writing a horror/fantasy script for a comic. The protagonist, Josh, is thrust into a situation that pushes the boundaries of human imagination and fear.

Basically, the earth tilts on its axis and falls into a polar winter. Because the earth tilts, communication goes down, people start to fear for their future. Some people start to plan - some to keep the town going, some to raid other towns to support their own. Of course, they don’t know it’s only a short time until the sun rises.

It’s a journey into fear and the human mind, anxiety and the toll it takes on people in unknown situations. I’d love to put a tutorial on how to dry food for storing, or how to create a two month storage of food for a shit-hits-the-fan scenario at the back of the comic. Hmm, that might be a good idea.

Do you already know Josh’s journey - how he is transformed by the end of the story?

Josh is responsible for an invading town taking or destroying a large amount of his town’s supplies - think of Negan in The Walking Dead, taking what is “rightfully his” from Rick Grimes and his gang. But Josh is also responsible for planting caches of supplies throughout the hiking trails around the town, which allow the town to recover.

He’s still a work in progress, along with the story as a whole. The framework has been written, and his full character will develop as the story gets filled in.

You see, every scene is written with a goal in mind, then I go back to fill in the details and dialogue. At this point in time, I’m not fully dedicated to any single decision or action Josh will make in regards to challenges and questions that arise.

I’ve written a few stories before where the character takes a total and unexpected turn from my original plan - it’s what they tend to do. I hope Josh isn’t like that - he wants to do the best for everyone, but he finds the popular way is not what will work.

Where did its original idea come from? As you’ve been writing notes and drafts about the story, how has that idea evolved?

I actually got the idea from my son - we were driving along one night, and he asked me “What would happen if the moon didn’t give light?”

We know that the moon reflects the light of the sun, and I started thinking about what would happen if the sun just turned off - stopped giving light.

If the sun did go out, we’d all freeze to death in a week or so. So then, in the realm of fiction, what would happen if the earth tilted on its axis, and thrust us into a polar winter? Most communications would falter, but there would still be light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak.

I now carry a small A6 notebook and pen with me at all times in case inspiration strikes like it did in the car that night.

That reminds me of something in Warren Ellis’ Orbital Operations newsletter recently -

Writing a 22-page comic in a day. I've done it from scratch a couple of times. An early *TRANSMET* episode, "Another Cold Morning," was written in a single day, from a few lines of notes written earlier. It's not good for you, and it usually makes bad comics.

Due to the nightmares of conflicting deadline cascades and commercial demands, in order to get ahead of the game on a contracted project, I really needed to get an entire script done yesterday. Which I did, in about thirteen hours.

But I wasn't starting from scratch. And herein lies a lesson about this sort of writing work. Also, why I bang on about always carrying a notebook.

I feel like many indie comics writers kind of hope their first take on a story idea will be the only draft. Is that something that resonates with you?

I would love for it to be that easy! I wish the first take on this story idea could be the finished script for the comic so I could get started on it straight away. The simple fact is that the first take of this idea was shit. I’ve been working on this idea for over a year, and it’s still not at a place I’m totally happy with.

I’ve started it about five times. And with every single one of them, I wanted to start the art straight away. I wouldn’t be surprised that by the time I’ve finished the final draft, I’ll be up near the 15 mark.

(chuckling) I’m laughing because with my upcoming book, Kun-ghur: Kuma’s Hero, I certainly wanted to rush from the first draft of the story into drawing the art. And then once I’d finished a first pass of drawing up the book, then I realised I was missing a bunch of storytelling structure… whoops!

There is nothing worse that realising that there are things missing! We all want to get past the script writing and layout and get straight into the art. We all learn the hard way that it just doesn’t happen like that - much to our disgust! And if it does - teach me how!

Ha - my past few books certainly taught me to avoid gonzo comic-making. I’ve got too many ideas floating around to waste time doing unnecessary re-draws.

You know the other thing I found? If I write a script using words, then I can hand it to people for them to review and give feedback. If the script is just all thumbnail scribbles or thoughts in my head, I won’t get meaningful feedback.

That’s exactly right - being able to have a finished draft (even if it’s not the final draft) to offer someone to gain feedback is such a valuable way of seeing if you’re being successful in your storytelling.

I’ve seen you using Dan Harmon’s Story Clock to map out the plot for your project...

I was actually looking at the Story Clock the other day to see if it would match the story outline and plot points. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t work with this particular project. With the Story Circle, the protagonist starts out in a comfort zone, has a need or desire, and heads off to fulfill that need or desire.

With the idea of “starting from a comfort zone” - Josh is presumably living a normal (for him) life before the start of the story? Even if you do a cold open into the chaos of a catastrophic polar winter, he’s still starting from his comfort zone, even if the audience doesn’t see it..?

It’s not as simple as Josh deciding he needs to protect his town, and then goes off to do that. He needs to have obstacles and challenges to overcome in order for it to make sense why he is doing what he is doing. This is why I am using a three-act structure, where Josh can be thrust into the action and have to overcome obstacles.

Of course, I do have an idea in mind that will be great to use with the Story Clock once this project is finished.

Have you heard me rave about Robert McKee’s book Story? There’s some stuff in it which delves further into the structure of a story. So we hear plenty about the three-act structure… McKee delves further into that.

He talks about the ‘value changes’ which form the building-blocks of every single scene. For example, a character must change from “not knowing” a piece of information to "knowing"; from “trusting” to “not trusting”; from “lowest point” to “stands a chance against the antagonist”. That was a revolutionary way of thinking about scenes for me.

It sounds like an extremely valuable tool to have in my library. As the writer, we know the storyline of our projects, what the character starts out with, and what they will end up with, and it’s difficult to make that transition in the story believable and not forced. This book will be my next purchase!

One of the challenges I am facing with this story, that Robert McKee’s book would address, is that no one in this story realises what is going on, and I want to keep the audience in the dark as well. I don’t want to reveal that it is only a polar winter. I want to keep them guessing, just like the characters in the comic. Do you think that McKee’s book would help me overcome this challenge?

Actually, yeah there are passages where he talks about the genre rules, including existential-crisis horror, which often depends on hiding the truth of the situation from an audience. I’ll see what I can dig up for you.

You’re currently writing your next story - will you draw it too? What is the appeal for you (or not) of being a one-person creative team?

I’ve had plans from the first inklings of this story that I will want to draw it too. I have the scenery, backgrounds, places, faces all in my mind, so I know how I want it to look. I’m just not sure of the medium I wish to use. I’d love to use watercolour, but I think that might be a shade too gentle for this type of story.

The only thing I’m not looking forward to is formatting it ready for print. I am not a technological person, and I get frustrated when I’m on a deadline and I have to work with technology.

Guess who’s a process nerd - the page setups are my favourite bits of making a comic. (Facepalms at self)

I kinda like being a one-person creative team. I’m responsible for myself and if I don’t get the work done, it’s on me. I don’t have to chase people up, and I can work when I like... which is usually 10pm - 3am.

Some drawbacks on not having others like a penciller or a letterer is that it is a long process, and while my name will be the only one on the finished product, it will take a lot longer to release subsequent issues should they happen.

See, that’s really interesting. We hear all about artists being so full of doubt. I see working with others as a way of offloading the bits that I feel I’m not good at. Even then, I’m taking on the writing role on Kun-ghur until I feel I can get the characters and the world expressed clearly enough that I can hire a writer.

Being on a budget and not being able to afford a letterer or penciller is a great way to be a one-person creative team.

What is it about the comics format which appeals to you?

I love that there is so much work put into the art and story, but it only takes a second to read and flick to the next page. I enjoy it when my eyes linger on a panel a little too long and I realise the work that has gone into this panel is immense, and I am so thankful that someone has created this. Am I being too over dramatic?

Grab your preferred music device and set it on random - what are the first five songs it plays? No cheating!

This is embarrassing...this is NOT my writing playlist...

  • All Around Me - Savage Garden
  • Ghostbusters - Ray Parker, Jr
  • Jump in the Line - Harry Belafonte
  • My Name Is - Eminem
  • Billie Jean - Michael Jackson

What is it about Harry Belafonte this week? You’re the second person who’s been playing his music - and it’s been songs other than the Banana Boat Song!

Kay, thanks so much for your time and the insight into your process and practice. I hope Josh continues to behave himself as your writing develops!

Folks, you can find Kay’s work on Facebook and Instagram.

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