On Skips

  • Public

By balder Comments (153)

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

  • Kir (Tipped by 1 person!)

    Just a quick suggestion:

    Maybe you could use some help from a writing assistant(s)? Someone to do cannon checks, archives and linguistic research. There might be a few old-timers who would be able and eager to do the 'dirty work' for you. You could really ramp up productivity that way.  

  • mortissimus (Tipped by 2 people!)

    Thanks for the insights in your creative process.

    Sorry to hear about your family situation and your health. Best wishes to you and your near and dear.

    Regarding the skips, from the forum discussion, my impression is that for those it annoys a simple post "skip", a picture of Hamster skipping rope or something else in a dedicated forum thread or Twitter or another channel would do. You don't need to say why, you have already told us to expect around six updates a month. That means some days will be skips, people just need to know if today is a skip or not.

    Oh, almost forgot the best suggestion I saw: use fan work as skip post. Promoted fan work on Tuesday or Friday would mean skip. The downside is that it takes more work than writing "skip", the upside is that it is positive and gives us readers something else when we come around to see if there is a new comic up.

  • Longform

    Thanks, Rob.  Appreciate the post, though we know you don't need to do it.  Just keep taking care of yourself, your family, and putting out your consistently high quality product when able.  

  • MrYar

    Considering the trolling through the archives and the wiki I've had to do when making some of my reaction posts (one which took me a literal 6 hours to write) I can well believe the amount of time it takes to write an actual page and that people can and will tear it apart if it's not up to par. I admire that dedication to quality that not only elicited me to join in on discussions but also got me to sit down, research, and write an argument for them that took most of my day.

    It's great!

    I find it interesting that 285 wasn't planned (it fits well enough to have been pre-planned in my book) and it certainly provides an excellent example/spotlight look into the process of creating Erfworld.

    You (and the whole Erfworld Team) do good work. Best wishes!

  • Salvage

    If you want fan materials, check here.

    Fan Work Index  compiled by the amazing Spicymancer

    Need something with a bit more meat? Check here.

    Serials Archive

     

  • Merilynne

    Hi Rob. 

    The explanation into your thought process was illuminating.  I guess somehow I thought that you juggled all the previous updates in your head, much, much better than I could.  I've found myself reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading the Erf books just because they are so complex and each time I read them, I grasp a little more understanding.  Of course the forum reactions are helping me with that, too, but I have to weed out the "I think this is what was going on" from the actual facts just a bit more when I'm there.  Knowing that every detail isn't stuck in your head is a relief, in a way, but I understand how it makes continuity an issue.

    The reasons behind the skips, however, really aren't necessary.  I mean, it's nice to be more "in the loop," but from what I've read, most people really don't mind the skips themselves.  What they mind is that the skips aren't announced, even if you may know that the update just isn't happening, for whatever reason.  It doesn't require a "why," just a "yep, no update today."  Then we know to bank our expectations for a few days and maybe play around in the forums. 

    Is this important in a customer-service sense?  I think so.  It may not be hugely significant, but since you uploaded this post, the number of pledges to the Toolbox have increased by at least 4 (and by the end of the day, it may be more).  I think that proves that people are more than willing to support this wonderful project as long as they don't feel they are being ignored.  Of course there are the individuals that are more than willing to blow a bit of smoke about how communication is no big whoop and "just do what you have to," etc., but they may not always be the ones that are willing and able to put their money where their mouth is.

  • Xalmaren

    I won't lie. I never even considered registering on this site before. I never felt I had anything to contribute to the forums. Heck, I may never post again. But I feel the need to thank you for all your work and everything that goes into each post, especially this post.  Your dedication to your fans should never be questioned, and no one can ever fault you for your dedication to family. 

  • Istaro

    As a reader, I kinda feel bad that, collectively, we readers have made you feel that you need to explain yourself like this.

    But I guess it is what it is, and given that: this post was well written.  I think it'll have, to the extent that is at all possible, the effect you intend.

     
  • boredgods (Tipped by 1 person!)

    I pledge per update, and I don't care about skips, nor do I care that you don't post notices of them. But Rob you're obviously stressed, so here's unsolicited advice:

    I make my living running a small business, and every time I find myself in your position (every waking hour spent on the business), I know it's time to hire someone to offload tasks onto.  Sometimes temporary help, sometimes part-time permanent, sometimes full-time -- but definitely someone to put hours into the business in exchange for money.

    If you're not bringing in enough money to hire someone, that's a tactical problem, with a few possible solutions.

    If you're not willing to offload any of your current tasks, that's a strategic problem, with no solution other than adjusting your outlook. If you don't offload any of your current tasks, you're accepting that your current workload will never get lighter.  Which is masochistic, IMO, there's more to life than work (even when you love your work, as you do, and I do too).

    I'd suggest hiring a writer/researcher to do some of the stuff you do regarding revisiting old material to check for tone and detail, as well as finding words appropriate to a character's voice.  There are a lot of highly skilled writers looking for work at any given moment.

    But even if not a writer, it sure sounds like you need to hire SOMEONE.  You've done an awesome job with Erfworld!  But you deserve to have a life outside of it.

    I really enjoy your writing, and wish you nothing but the best.

  • bhurin

    Time to bump Erfworld to a once-per-week schedule? 

    I'll bump my pledge up to compensate. 

  • Amur Tiger

    Sorry to hear about the family troubles, I know all too well how much the mere presence of such in your life can crash productivity.

    Mostly though I wanted to note that you're not the only one to struggle with keeping plot under control in their writing. In Grr Martin's now famous Game of Thrones this was on flagrant display in book 5 where one of the main protags has precious little to do before their scheduled arrival in another part of the world. This lead to a book that was full to the brim with the character doing stupid things in a book series known for killing people who do stupid things in part I think just to jin up activity.

    There's no need for you to feel bad about having to wrestle with your plot and even less need to feel guilty about the sacrifices needed to do so, some of the best writers today have the same challenges and in both cases I view it as a sign that both you and Grr Martin have aspired to create something great in spite of the complications and challenges that implies, you should be commended for the effort and ambition, good luck.

  • Lymmothy (Tipped by 3 people!)

    Hi Rob, long-time reader here.

    Please consider adding a “monthly subscriber” option. I love this story and would gladly pay per month regardless of the number of updates.

    I would pledge per update in addition, as a bonus, to declare my undying appreciation of the on-time updates.

    By having both, people can choose whichever option they like.

    ^_^

  • falcore51

    I enjoyed this post but @rob you are the man I love your passion for your project and we are here to support you.  You have always gotten your kickstarters out and you have always produced a killer comic.  I have some $500 worth of smuckers in my account right now and frankly I give alot away and occasionally buy books.  We are here to support you rob and you do a great job.  Team Erf is the best.

  • Jatopian

    Some of the frustration also comes from people who check for the new page ten times a day or more, or at least are left in suspense that whole time. It would help those people if there were a specific time to expect updates rather than a 24-hour window.

  • Jade

    Hello,

    I'm sorry to hear about your family and health, I hope both improve soon.

    Thank you for taking time to explain your process even though you are very busy and dealing with stuff.

    I love this comic and enjoy both the art and storytelling, it is the only comic I support on a regular basis And it is because of the dedication and attention to detail and quality that makes it such a great comic.

     

    I would be in the category of people who would prefer a simple "skip day" message, but if that detracts you from working then I understand. Just please keep doing what you are doing to produce such a wonderful comic, and I will continue to support you.

  • ArtyD (Tipped by 1 person!)

    We wait. We hunger.  But we'd rather know all is well with you first.

    Take your time and do what you need to do first rather than putting Erfworld above all.  I will be here when you're ready to resume regular updates.

  • Treadstone71

    Interesting! I thought 285 was your best writing yet. The clear PTSD war, torture, and this insane world has inflicted on him was handled really well. The exploration of the bracer and how creepy it is was excellent.

  • WestonSmith (Tipped by 1 person!)

    Hi; my 2 cents.

    As a "been there since day 1" reader, I want nothing but the best for Erfworld and the people who make it happen.  Not because I'm a great person, but because I want to see this thing through to the end, and that won't happen unless you can make this a successful business venture.

    I'm sorry to hear about your personal affairs, and I won't complain about skipped updates (I no longer pledge, so I have no skin in the game).  I have no doubt you are doing the best you can.

    Unfortunately, as a "consumer" of Erfworld, I don't see this is a growing business.  I don't know about your personal affairs (nor is it any of my business), but I am interested in the how of Erfworld.  I want to know how you plan on growing Erfworld. I want to know how you plan on reaching more readers.  I want to know how you can avoid skipping updates.  I want to know how you can reduce costs on your merchandise.   

    I don't need an explanation of why an update is missed, because I agree it's unproductive.  But skipping updates isn't a long-term solution if you want Erfworld to thrive.  I just want to know that you are taking steps to improve things for the future.  If that means accepting volunteer labor, great. If that means dropping unproductive work (like updating the wiki, or making 3D character models, etc.) then so be it. 

    Best of luck and thanks for making this comic so awesome.

  • artificeintel

    I appreciate the responsibility you feel to give us a good story. Personally, I love the complexity and the internal consistency of Erfworld and the fact that it has sufficient depth to keep the forums processing and speculating. While I miss the updates that get skipped, I don't mind the absence of a special notice for each individual skip. I am happy to be able to continue supporting Erfworld and I look forward to seeing how the story continues to unfold however long it takes. :)

  • Arboris

    I don't post often, but I wanted to chime in.  I 100% understand the skips, I'm not being charged for them, so all I have to do is be patient and wait for the next update, which is much easier then whatever you are having to deal with that is leading to skips.  That said, it would be nice if you could post "Skip day" with no further explanation required, but even if you can't, I will still patiently wait, and I'm sorry that some others are giving you such a hard time about it.

     

    I hope everything works out as well as it possibly can.

  • squall255

    Rob,

    Thank you for all the work you do.  Family crisis is hard, please take care of yourself and your family.  We will still be here when everything is better.  So will the story.

     

    I would like to piggyback on an idea another poster had for a stoplight indicator on the site.  An alternative could be a "next update on:[date]"  indicator that gets ticked to the next tuesday/friday when you either post, or make the Skip call.

     

    As always, I wish you the best.  Be well.

  • Darkdiashi

    This is very much THE BEST webcomic I've ever read, and its because you put so much effort into it. Am I disapointed when its a skip? of course, who wouldn't be? Do I blame you? No, and shame on those who do. Honestly, going off what you said, I feel like you deserve more time off (though it would suck financially so I know why you don't.)  Anyway, if haters ever get to you, just Remember that there are those of us who truly CARE that you CARE. and Thank You.

  • Fiveiron (Tipped by 1 person!)

    Love and Patience. Live life well as you can. Life goes on and on.

  • Karuberu (Tipped by 3 people!)

    With a story and complicated, witty, and referential as Erfworld, it's really no surprise that it's difficult to get perfect. The fact that so much effort is put into it is one of the reasons why it's so good.

    The handling of skip days is not so good, but the good news is that it's not that hard to fix. As many people have suggested, there are a few different things that could be done to help mitigate the issues:

    1) Set a specific update time, like midnight, and have the update schedule itself to appear at that time regardless of when it's ready. This keeps people from checking in all day and building up suspense for themselves as midnight approaches.

    2) Give the reader something when there's no update. This could be fan works, concept art, fun facts, silly Erfworld jokes, or whatever is easy to produce. Build up a catalog and have an automated system push one out when there's no update.

    3) Assuming the above is too much work, you could also just post a static image or message that says "No update today. Sorry." with replies locked and then just delete it when the next update goes up so that the feed isn't clogged. Complete silence is really disheartening for the reader, so any post at all would be better.

    4) Ditch the concept of "skip days" and instead say "One comic a week, on Friday, with a possible BONUS comic on Tuesday" (and still charge for each comic posted, of course). In other words, flip it from being a negative to a positive. Nothing changes from a production standpoint, but something like this can have a huge impact on how skips are received.

    I urge you to implement at least one of these suggestions, as it would really help the readers and shouldn't affect the production of Erfworld much at all.

  • technojunkie

    My condolences on the Family, Life and Health issues Rob.

    I've been around long enough to remember the glacially slow pace that was book 2 and am still thrilled to see that updates are coming at a steady flow. It saddens me that you felt compelled to post this update; but I suppose that goes with the territory of the webcomic business model.

    As many folks here repeat and rehash... the story feels slow, and details feel heavy, but when you read the story all at once in book or archive form, those things really shine. I appreciate the detail and the story content so much when I have the luxury of reading it as a combined work. That's not something I often get with other web comics I read.  This is truly an early access graphic novel. I understand the pressure of the 'no revisions' approach and truly appreciate the quality that your team can deliver. Please don't let the trolls get to you, I know 'every eyeball on page' adds up but you can't please everybody, and maybe there are some you shouldn't bother trying with...   

    I know it isn't Toolshed money, but my toolbox renewal goes through on Friday and I'm as happy as I ever was to support the work y'all do.