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.
I appreciate your candor in this post and I hope everything works out for you and your family. That said, please consider that even a "No Update Today" as soon as you know you can't make that deadline is a client-focused approach that makes it transparent that you are aware people might be disappointed and broadcasts your interest in communicating about the status of the comic with transparency.
Please be well, I love the story and skips aren't the end of the world (like, at all) but the more communication you have with your patrons with regards to the status of the comic, the less complaining you'll see (and the more defense you'll get vis-a-vis the complaining that does come in).
With the amount if weird in-jokes from all over human culture, I've always suspected writing Erfworld is a bit of a nightmare. Keep up the good work man. Writing the best webcomic out there is tough but I appreciate it. This high praise may be hyperbole but I really can't think of any other webcomic with such a high standard of storycraft, universecraft, and humor craft.
Even professional shows on TV, blockbuster movies, and a lot of media will have fluffy filler to pad out content. Almost nothing in Erfworld feels like filler. All information is relevant. And I can appreciate all the work that goes there. Thanks.
Take a page from most TV shows and have a flashback episode! ;)
Seriously though, if you ever do a flashback episode, do a not-quite-flashback one like Stargate SG-1's 200th episode.
I don't mind the skips but lately Facebook is being annoying and not always letting me know when an update has been posted... so I'm back to having to actually check the site to see. And I'm sliding back into checking repeatedly. Anyone know a way around that?
Supporting you all the way, Rob! The content here is excellent, and we appreciate all your hard work! (You too, artists!) As a university lecturer, I tell my students that priority #1 is take care of themselves, while priority #2 is to do their work. Keep looking after yourself, or we won't have this to enjoy for too much longer!
I've been reading Erfworld since the beginning on OOTS. I've participated in the Kickstarters. I've been meaning to join, but kept putting it off until today. The honesty and openness of your post was the final push I needed. Thanks and keep up the excellent work!
I will echo Camarath's suggestion that you consider posting a "No Update Today" or some other indicator when you know there won't be an update. I like this idea, because otherwise, I'm refreshing the page over and over until noon the next day. I suspect I am not the only person who does this. (When I see a new Erfworld comic, I put everything else on hold.) I do not expect (or need) a reason, but a notice would help clear an item off of my Tuesday-Friday routine and I don't worry that the Archons have spirited you and Team Erfworld away.
One example of an indicator would be a little traffic light somewhere near the top of the front page. Green would let us know to expect an update (or one has been posted), red would be a skip day, and yellow would be for those days when it's a strong maybe (check back in the late evening). Just a thought. Whatever you choose, I'm in it for the long haul. Thanks!
People shouldn't be complaining about the update timing in the Reactions thread. Pretty simple. It's chum in the water and doesn't add anything productive to discussions about the comic. If anything, it detracts.
A forum mod could (should?) move that sort of stuff to a more appropriate area, or delete it entirely. That'll bunch some panties, but, too bad.
IFF (if and only if) people were being charged for the comic to be presented at time X and it wasn't, then, you should expect tearing of garments, wailing, gnashing of teeth, etc. I am a paying supporter and haven't seen that to be the case. If I'm wrong, I'm sure I'll hear about it. ;)
While many of us do wait with baited breath for the comic, Rob, you've been very clear that we are not likely to be alerted if there's going to be a skip, and have been pretty clear that they're going to happen with some frequency (I vaguely recall two a month). People should know that going in, and, well, frankly, be more understanding. This isn't a comic that one can just crap out. That's part of the draw.
Quality >> Quantity.
Keep up the good work, Rob et al. Please don't sacrifice the quality we've all come to expect to try and shoehorn in a sub-par comic just to hit a deadline that we've all been informed has some stated flexibility.
@radagast I have an RSS feed for it. So it's pumped into that with all of my other web comic updates.
@balder Communication is the key. When you announced the idea of skips I was okay with the idea. Everyone slips schedule from time to time. No biggie. But since things came back to a regular schedule it "feels" (no definitive numbers, nor am I willing to go look them up) feels like you've missed more than shipped. It's the radio silence that is the issue. I backed this in Patreon because this was the only comic I wanted to see regularly and feared it might go away. Everyone misses deadlines. But like most good bosses, we can deal with it you just have to communicate. And please don't feel like you need to lay all of the life issues out for us. Not our place. But maybe a quick post like "Life Stuff. Sorry"
That being said. I'm very sorry to hear about the family issues.
It makes me really sad to learn that there were people who got upset about the skips. Erfworld is one of the most skillfully, deliberately and thoughtfully crafted works of fiction I've ever seen, easily beating out works with vast writing teams and vaster corporate budgets behind them. And Erfworld is written by one person, and paid for by the generosity of fans. The fact that you produce as much as you do is already astounding, as is the lack of perspective required for someone to complain that your labor of love is somehow not enough. I'm sorry to hear that you've been struggling with family issues, and I'm even sorrier to hear that you felt the need to violate your own sense of privacy in order to justify a downtick in production. Humans are not machines. Our ability to create waxes and wanes unpredictably, and no one should ever be able to demand you justify that wax and wane. Please take all the time you need to face - and recover from - this family issue, and any other issue that you face in the future. Good luck, and best wishes.
Look, when you have to do other things, you have to - you owe no one anything when that happens. But please consider creating a 'skip' page that can be posted quickly when you are going to skip (and it's not an emergency, obviously) - and doesn't have to be adjusted for each event (Technical difficulties, please stand by ;) ). Not to spare anyone's feelings - not sure why anyone gets that excited over a missed update - but to not waste other people's time. I personally, and I suspect most folks, don't mind checking in once when there's a skip but since the updates aren't firmly scheduled, it's hard to tell a skip from 'we haven't posted yet' - and having to check back is a time waster.
I've suggested this before and I think it might be a good idea to consider. With production values as high as you wish to keep them, you're going to miss more deadlines than you will like - and possibly more than you can afford. The next time you have time to 'take off' and have the strip on hiatus, give yourself enough time to regroup - and to actually get ahead. You should be posting last month's work, not this week's. That buffer will let you produce the way you want at a pace you can live with and still hit target deadlines. From a purely business standpoint, you are going to need to be ahead of the curve.
Anyway, thanks for the wonderful work - and I will be praying for your family.
First off, I hope everything goes well with your family, I recently had a major life change too and it's rough when those things hit home. To be honest I've been away for a while and I don't monitor Erfworld as closely as I used to... seeing the updates come in now is actually a nice surprise... other people may benefit from stepping back a bit too. Instead of treating Erfworld like a life-sustaining meal maybe they should realize it's actually a wonderful dessert. And honestly you shouldn't eat dessert too regularly... but when you do, take the time to enjoy it!
The tidbits of info on your process in this post really blew my mind. Even feeling some of the subtextualized exasperation (which I may or may not have made up in my own mind, haha), I'm impressed that you keep all those plates spinning. You are an excellent storyteller.
I'm also wondering now if there is some sort of keyword program that you could feed the comic and text pages into and create a reference database... Erfworld has grown to such a complexity that research must take up a good bit of time. Would love to see you benefit from some sort of technology that would help make life easier.
Everything you said here was helpful, fascinating, and well-written. And to be honest, none of it comes as a surprise to me, because along the way, you've dropped enough hints (and sometimes outright statements) that people who've been following this comic as well as what you've said about it would be able to figure it out. But it has been a challenge to communicate that effectively and civilly and credibly to those who are either newer or haven't been hanging obsessively on every meta post that you've ever written. ;)
So sorry to hear about your family situation, you have my best wishes and prayers, and thanks for writing the best story on the Internet.
I am really sorry to hear about your family. I wish everyone involved the very best. And everyone else's families too, while I am at it.
As for not posting Skip news, yeah they would clutter up the web page. You are aiming for two skips a month at the moment. That would be 24 Skip news posts per year. By know the old timers should know that if there is no update after the deadline there won't be one until the next update day and a skip has occurred.
As for communication here are some ideas, maybe one of them will help.
For new readers, you might want to edit/update the toolbox description to include the possibility of Skips and the fact that updates won't be posted if they are not on time and appear on the next update day instead.
Maybe Red could implement a countdown on the web page? If the timer reset and there is no update everyone can safely assume a skip has been called. It might also help clearing up timezone related confusion issues that crop up from time to time.
With these on-going problems, maybe you should put out a call for reader submissions. Then increase the publishing rate for them until you're back to 100%. That's assuming you have someone you trust to whittle them down for you, so you're not taking time from the comic to approve what's going up, of course.
Page 285 was a good decision. It reminds me a lot of ASoIaF book 4, where we finally get to see Cercei's insane thought process. Without that, when she does a certain thing I won't spoil, you're not left wondering how the hell she could do something that stupid despite have gotten so far in the series without dying. I can say that without page 285, if you'd just had Parson agree to use the scroll, I'd have been wondering if it'd skip past retconjuration and go straight down the Memory Hole instead.
I've posted this before, but I don't think any reasonable person should be upset with the concept of skips. This is an artistic production, and is going to take however long it takes to get made. Pile on Life Balance stuff (I basically missed work most of November due to a family emergency so I understand how that is) and yeah, your schedule is gonna be unpredictable.
My only frustration has been the unannounced skips. I've basically went to rarely checking for updates and just getting caught up whenever.
That said, thank you for sharing your perspective on announcing skips. I've not really considered how the front page would look, and I finally could see things from your point-of-view. I'll try to be a more reasonable person on that.