Every day contains a certain number of productive hours. There is always more to do in a day than there is time.

 

Every productive hour offers me a choice: "spend time making Erfworld" or "spend time doing something that isn't making Erfworld." Those are the only two categories that matter. We have gas in our tanks, roofs over our heads, and food in the greasy brown bags next to our keyboards because of per-update pledges. But lots of crucial things fall into the second category, especially lately.

 

Writing this news post is Category 2. It isn't writing Erfworld. But from some bits of feedback we're hearing, I think I need to. So here's the important stuff:

 

1. In late October, something very bad happened to a member of my immediate family. What has unfolded since then is the most emotionally destructive crisis we've ever gone through. This situation is ongoing, it's deteriorating, it is made all the more painful for happening around the holidays, and it's tearing my family apart. I didn't want to have to say even this much about it. You should be aware that when something like this happens to a member of Team Erfworld who isn't me (as it did in the past to Xin), I probably won't say a word.

 

2. Lillian and Xin continue to be brilliant. No part in the skips is on them. This is all me, and they're being booping patient with it, considering that it affects them financially too.

 

3. Despite point 1, I am spending more actual time creating updates than ever. Like, ever. Linda and I have been tracking my dedicated writing hours on a daily/weekly basis for years now. The third week in November was an all-time record, and last week shattered that record by four hours. I'm also spending more time lately working with Xin and Lillian on the art. I've thrown a lot of important category 2 stuff under the bus to free up those hours in the midst of the family crisis. Site things are suffering, business things are suffering, deadlines are being missed, and I owe a lot of people an email (shout out to John Murphy in particular). But these extra hours are not helping us from the standpoint of productivity, because of point 4.

 

4. Erfworld has become a lot harder to write and draw than before. Updates are forever. Our first draft is our final draft (barring occasional Retconjuration). There's a quality mark to hit, and I won't put up a page and collect pledge money for an update that falls short of the mark. We're frequently revising a page all day on the update day, and I don't know if it's "post" or "punt" until the final hour. I don't see this as perfectionism, so much as integrity. Financial pressure shouldn't make us post a weak update. We've set some high standards, and your pledges were made on the expectation that we won't half-ass it.

 

So what "standards" am I talking about? I could write a book. :P But I'll pick one recent example and break it all the way down.

 

Some vague, minor spoilers below.

 

We have a protagonist. You can be sure he's the protagonist because his name is an anagram of the word "protagonist." Throughout Book 3 and what has become Book 4, we've had Parson in a weak, disempowered position. This is breaking one of those cardinal rules of good storytelling. Other characters' choices have been driving the plot for a long time. Characters like Lilith and Bunny and Jack and Wanda and Ansom and Marie and Janis and Maggie have carried the "protagonist ball" as the person we root for, the one whose personal values and choices overcome the obstacles and move the plot forward. They've each had a chance to shine, and that's great. We've also had a lot of screen time for a varied group to carry the "antagonist ball," some of whom (Tondelayo, Caesar, Isaac, Bonnie, Benjamin, Albert, Tramennis) get way more than a "villain's share" of the reader's heart and sympathy.

 

Parson has been on the sidelines so much that the reader can forget who he is, what he's about. Late in Book 4, it's understandable if you've been thinking of him as kind of an ineffectual derp-wad. That's not great for the enjoyment of the story, but it'll be okay, because I know what Parson is thinking and that it'll come across in time.

 

As I was thinking about Roger's arc, with his (and Jojo's, and Vanna's) ploy to trick Parson into casting the GTFO scroll, I was suddenly realizing that the time to communicate some of that stuff is right-the-hell now, or everyone is really going to think Parson is a moron. The plot outline did not originally call for the text that became page 285. Without it, though, I knew the story would suffer. If the next time we rejoin the Transylvito arc, we see Parson standing in the portal room ready to hurr-de-durr his way into Roger's trap, then it tips the scales over into "I can't even root for this idiot anymore. Rob has really lost control of his story." It would be a disservice to the character, the story, and the ultimate bosses: the readers.

 

So I squeeze in page 285. And to write it, I had to touch on a lot of stuff I didn't originally intend to talk about at this point in the book: the Signamancy of the cereal boxes in Book 1, Parson's current opinion on Fate, how Parson questioned the bracer's lies and the falling beam after Spacerock, what Parson's actual gambit was when he told Benjamin "ask it," and why the fact that it worked just confirms the bracer is unreliable. I didn't invent these as "idiot ball excuses" for the update. I knew Parson had thought and done these things in the past, but they hadn't been told yet. Parson's a genius (whether he likes to think of himself as one or not), but the readers needed a reminder at this point in the story, or the story stops being enjoyable. When Parson presents some strong, smart, convincing reasons to disbelieve the bracer but to walk into the trap anyway, then that potentially major problem is avoided.

 

But that's not all there is writing the update. To stand on its own, a page or a text needs to be a complete arc. We can't end a comic in the middle of a conversation. A text has to do everything a short story does (conflict, complications, resolution), plus fit into the story arc, the book, and ultimately the series. It has to advance pieces of the plot, segue to the next piece of the story, tease future problems, and be consistent with all canon.

 

So. I start 285. I outline a page I didn't intend to write. I consider the characters in the room: Parson, Caesar, Roger, Benjamin, Maggie, the Makaleka, potentially even...others. I live in each one's head for a while. I remember what they can do. If I run into something that one of them could and would do, it might blow away the whole idea. Eventually, I get to Roger's Foolamancy and the little stinger at the end of the update. Now I can see that the whole update lays out Parson's high degree of awareness that the bracer may not be reliable. We feel it's a conscious and smart decision to go ahead with the crazy scheme anyway, instead of derpitude. Then Roger subverts that feeling by Fooling the reader. Parson doesn't seem dumb, because the reader also bit on the Fate-makes-the-bracer-lie misdirect. And now the reader feels smarter, because they have information Parson does not. Both the protagonist and the antagonist get a boost from this scene. I worked it out at the time I wrote the text, even though I already knew Parson's thinking going in.

 

But hold on. To write even one sentence about something like Parson's view of the falling beam, I need to revisit and reread (with note-checking and note-taking) the end of Book 2, and make sure I understand what I wrote, so I can riff on it (or at least avoid contradicting it). What does the reader know about this detail, I have to ask? When would Parson have had the time to digest these events? How did it play out? Notes, notes, outlines, dialog snippet, more notes. If I don't do this stuff, then I'm not respecting my own canon. Sharp-eyed readers will call me out on it. I'll call me out on it, the next time I reread Book 2.

 

Anyway, those are the standards I mean.

 

And I am not saying we won't post until it's perfect. Not at all. We had planned an illustration for page 285, where there was a new look at the Stupid Meal from Book 1, with new "facts" on it, which the reader would know were a little squirrely. We got this far, and ditched it for the sake of an on-time update:

 

 

 

 

even putting it on a bookshelf required a canonical decision about whether or not the box depopped with the rest of the trash 

 

It was important. It would have added a lot. Probably 5 hours of my time was spent on a 3D approach. It started with looking for an existing 3D model to buy on Turbosquid etc., then modeling a Stupid Meal myself in Maya, before just abandoning that tack and going with a perspective tilt in a 2D graphics program. The model I set out to create could have been used for future Stupid Meals in future updates (which is not to confirm it's canon that Parson still receives Stupid Meals), or even in the unit collection system when we finally deploy that (it's coming). But when we were out of time to post the update, the question was "does this update hit the target without that illustration?" and the answer was "yes, it's still pretty damn good." We posted.

 

That's how it goes. It's tough. I often can't write a single line of dialog without stopping to consider, for example, how one character would address another. That can be five minutes of querying the archives for the last time they spoke, or (in extreme cases like Jed's Hawaiian or Jojo's Carny lingo) an hour or two of tangential bouncing through Google, Onelook, Visual Thesaurus, Wikipedia, etc. trying to find a term or word that's as natural for the character's mouth as the reader's ear (and which doesn't accidentally mean something horrible that I didn't intend).

 

And there are usually details with the art that are just as fiddly, that require lots of extra time, roughing, reference hunting, and revisions. How long do we spend on a Stupid Meal before it's too stupid? I have to make calls like that a lot more than you might think.

 

Bottom line here is that there's no slack in the process. On this side of the screen, nobody is doing anything less than the best they can. I'm back to working every waking hour unless the family stuff is happening, and I also have health issues that can steal up to two hours of my time each day. I'm not stuck. I'm not lost. I'm not bored. I'm not depressed. I'm not slacking. My attention is not being consumed by anything that isn't Erfworld or my family.

 

Creating this story is just a whole lot harder than you might imagine. Especially under the circumstances.

 

Yep, it's a bummer when we don't update. Yep, it's a lot of money to give up. Nobody feels worse about it than we do, and nobody on the team feels worse about it than me. Lashing out in comments won't help there be fewer skips. Also, derailing Reactions with discussion about skips is a One Rule violation. We haven't banned anybody, but I reserve that right. Saying "Rob needs a manager" or saying that I need to take my job more seriously is missing the mark by a whole lot, and I hope this post will help explain why.

 

Erfworld's fans are loving, generous, and more supportive on an ongoing basis than literally any other readers in webcomics. When the Worst Thanksgiving happened, I remembered to be thankful for all of you. (It's a daily habit, so it was easy.)

 

That said, announcing every skip is still not going to happen. This is not coming from a lack of respect for the readers. I respect the hell out of you guys. Not posting a subpar update just to take your pledge money is how you know that. My writing news posts 20 times a year to say we're skipping will not say "I care about your feelings" any better than just giving this story everything I've got. But it would take up a substantial amount of my Category 2 time, and leave us with a front page full of repetitive bad news instead of comics and community things.

 

Seriously, I care a lot about your feelings. It's why I had to add page 285 in my one (pretty typical) example. The only value Erfworld has is in the heads and hearts of the people who enjoy it. But remember I also then posted 285 without the Stupid Meal, because I care about making the on-time update too. That's the balance. That's our challenge.

 

I really hope this post was worth spending more than half my productive time today, and not getting to the bank to do an important business thing, and missing my old barber who only cuts hair on Wednesday ("old barber" is also an interesting anagram). After thinking it over, I'm going to leave the comments open. Please remember the One Rule. Sock puppets will have their strings cut.

Comments

    • Quarnozian

      I wish there was a way to pledge a flat amount per month regardless of whether updates happen on time or not. I don't think you or the rest of the team should be penalized for exceptional circumstances.

      • balder

        Another book I'm not going to write could be about how much I appreciate what you all said and did in this thread. I read everything, some of it more than once. Thank you, everyone. It means a whole lot.

        • Merilynne

          Thank you for reading it all.  Seriously.  It says a lot that you took the time.