Podcast: inSanity, AZ

The Dish


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Let's get to it and start by introducing your latest project Sanity, AZ.

in Sanity, AZ is an anthology of sorts. All four of us travel, for both business and pleasure. As travelers, we often drive through various deserts. It's almost impossible to drive through the desert without stumbling across small clusters of old and dilapidated buildings - some that are still inhabited! in Sanity, AZ is the story of a small town, not unlike those eerie building clusters found out in the middle of nowhere, that came about in an ominous fashion and continues to function outside mainstream civilization. The people in this particular town live by their own rules and social mores. They don't set out to be creepy or horrific, but as a detached society, they inevitably function quite differently from the rest of America. And since they dwell almost autonomously, nobody stops them because nobody really knows what's going on. So this collection is a series of stories, following some of the more flavorful characters, as they go about their daily lives. Each story involves a different degree of horror or tension, depending on the narrative. There are twenty-eight stories, seventeen artists, four writers, and one terrifying experience.

This project started three years ago, tell us how that all came about.

The four of us have been friends for the better part of ten years now. Each of us has spent the greater number of those years studying writing to some degree - Michael focused on theater, Marcel has been obsessed with anglo-saxon literature and poetry, James has been working on short stories and comic books, and Joe dwelled in film.

In the summer of 2009, the four of us happened to be at a MeetUp for James's publisher, Keyleaf Comics, when we broached the topic of co-writing a book. As James brought up the idea, he suggested an idea he had been mulling over involving the descendents of an overrun insane asylum from the nineteenth century. A few months later the four of us were locked in a cabin, scribbling away on in Sanity, AZ.

Since then we have collaborated on three more comic books (The Get Up, Con Jure, and RUE), a short film (Mistake), and an animated television pitch (BEAN). We've got a great deal more coming down the pipeline, no to mention each of our independent projects.

What are some of the themes that you're exploring in this story?

When we sat down to discuss our horror book, we all agreed that we wanted to avoid some of the more popular subjects - no monsters, no aliens, no science fiction, and no contrived plot twists in the third act.

Once we laid out what we did not want to do, we delved into what horror meant to each of us. The common ground was quickly established: to the four of us, horror is strongest  when it is both plausible and morally ambiguous. In other words, we wanted to write a story that was fantastic but possible, and one wherein the characters were not actively trying to be scary.

Perhaps the greatest unifying theme that we did agree on was the concept of "sanity." What is it to be sane? Who decides who is really sane and who is crazy? With those questions come the idea of social normality and the idea of common behavior. What happens when the social norm is tweaked or bent? What happens when the rules of a dominant, mainstream society are purposefully or accidentally cast off? Throughout the vignettes in the story, we constantly challenge assumptions of a defined "normal" while striving to create answers to the questions above.

Ultimately, this created a template for each of us to explore various themes according to our own desire. We deal with race relations, the idea of right and wrong, the role of youth in society, the treatment of the elderly, and even personal gratification and the inherent taboo that comes with certain desires. And yet, somehow, the tales stay scary. These characters are simultaneously terrifying, pitiful and lovable. They are trying to do the best they can. If left alone, they'd probably be fine. Unfortunately, they are not left alone... 

Why did you choose these themes?

We all come from different worldviews. Instead of forcing one another to create with an agenda, we allowed our individual beliefs to seep into the stories through the characters. James may write about race relations because it is important to him, while Marcel creates a story that focuses on the mistreatment of the mentally ill, Michael touches on the concept of moral objectivity, and Joe drafts a tale of law and order - these are very different subjects, yet they are important to the creator. Working together, we are able to remain independent while greasing the stories enough to slip into line with one another.

We also all have different ideas about what scares us. The demon that terrifies Mike will be different from the one that terrifies James, which is different from the ones that terrify Marcel and Joe. By allowing these different demons to (pardon the pun) bleed into each other we're hoping that our stories will resonate more strongly with readers.  

Could you elaborate on that project?

We had three days to write one hundred and sixty pages - forty pages each. The rules were simple, yet unyielding: 

  • Each writer had forty pages to play with. No more. No less.
  • Everything had to be in comic book format; in other words, intended to be drawn.
  • All stories were subject to the editorial judgment of the other three writers.
  • No story could be isolated. Each had to involve characters that crossover and coexist within the over-arching tale.

We would start every day with writing warm-ups. These exercises got our creative juices going after a hearty breakfast. Once the exercise was done, we turned on some music, sat in our corners and got to writing. There were smoke breaks, and a brief pause for lunch, but we spent all day from morning to night writing.

Then there was dinner and a reading of the day's accomplishments. We would read our work to one another and critique the work as a group. This was a great way to meld the short stories into a single book, criss-crossing a few plot lines and allowing certain characters to go in and out of stories. It allows the narrative to feel as though it is happening in a small town.

And throughout all three days there was perpetual drinking of wine, rum, vodka and gin. That helped as well.

Three years is a long time to shelf a project, what made you decide to do something with it now?

Funny enough it was never actually shelved.

On the day we left the cabin, we grabbed a cup of coffee together in a small town named Julian in the Cuyamaca Mountains. In that meeting we decided that we would self-publish the book.

Over the next few months we fine-tuned the scripts through email, putting the scripts in a place wherein we could begin to seek out artists.  Months later we had locked in a couple artists. Almost a year from our experience at the cabin, we realized that we needed to get a publisher for the funding. It was just too expensive to create the way we wanted to create. Enter Keyleaf Comics.

Ben (the then editor) picked up the book and took over production. For eighteen months Ben worked with us, signing different artists and actually produced one-third of the book. And then Keyleaf Comics went under. The company ceased to exist. in Sanity, AZ was halted indefinitely. We tossed around a few ideas and ultimately decided to try crowd-funding. We re-signed the most of the artists that Ben had signed, added a few we wanted to work with, and began to ramp up to our Kickstarter campaign

Have any major changes been made to the work since the inception of the project? If so, what were they?

Thankfully, no. There have been a few small edits to favor consistency and co-dependency on the other stories, but the narrative itself remains unchanged. Though this was our first collaboration, we believe we put something special together. Three years after writing it we stand by the experience it can create for a reader. With in Sanity, AZ, we've been able to stand by the original work. Every other collaboration has gone through never-ending rewrites. Maybe we need to go to the cabin for everything... 

Have you noticed a change in the way you approach new project than you did in the past? If so, explain how.

The only thing that could have made our experience with in Sanity, AZ a bit smoother would have been an outline before going to the cabin. With that book, we did everything in three days. All we had when we got there was a concept. It worked, but it was rough. Nowadays we try to do a bit more outlining before tackling the actual writing. At this point our process is pretty streamlined. 

There are four of you who are responsible for the creation of the project. Let's take a moment to share with our listeners a bit on your background and professional experience.

Michael Drace Fountain first entered the creative world via theatre, where for the past fifteen he's worked as a company member of Shakespeare Orange County both onstage and backstage. Michael's foray into writing began when he penned a series of one-act plays for the Wha' Happenin' Play Festival. He enjoyed himself so much he went on to write several full-length plays and short films. Recently, Michael began work writing on several comic properties, including Drace GreyThe Undergrounds, and Rue. He currently lives in Orange County.

Marcel Losada is primarily an English teacher. He has studied English literature and education for years and has a BA, teaching Credential, and MA in English from CSULB. He currently teaches English at the American Cambridge Institute. Marcel enjoys writing and editing works of fiction and has been involved as a creative writer for The Undergrounds and Rue. He is currently involved with several comic projects that are scheduled to be released in 2013. He is also a fourth level ranger (3rd edition) who enjoys motorcycling as well as talking to women.

James Ninness is a writer of fiction. Though he primarily writes comic books and short stories, he dabbles in film and television as well. After getting his degree in English: Creative Writing from Cal State University Long Beach in 2007, James moved to San Diego where he currently resides with his wife, daughters and dogs. From 2009 until Fall 2012, James created and developed six properties through Keyleaf Comics, including MYTHOISim-IDUSTThe Heaven’sDrace Grey and The Undergrounds. Most recently James released the short story collection, Macabre Rising. It features six horror stories: "Cosplay", "Know Jack", "Like It Or Not", "Self Less", "Snipe Hunt", and "Stages". James has also written a few short films, including AMIRA, which he co-wrote with his brother and received the Gold Medal for Musical Excellence in a Short Performance Film at the Park City Film Music Festival in 2011.

Joe Pezzula is a writer, people-watcher, and coffee drinker. Currently living in Los Angeles, he works in television and film production as a writer/director, and also as a comic book creator. You can find his short filmsMaking Friends and Tarantula available via Vimeo or Youtube. In the land of comics, Joe has previously been published as the writer of Sim-I, and co-writer of The Undergrounds and Rue. Up next is the original comic book "Where the Witches Lurk", about a family of witch hunters trying to save a small town from the rise of an evil darkness. Stop by his blog of random short stories when you have a moment at www.joepezzula.com.

You have a rather large number of additional contributors for this project. Was this intended? If so, why?

Sort of.

At first the plan was, we think, to have a single artist complete all one hundred and sixty pages of the book. At some point, in all the writing and drinking and arguing, we realized that we wanted to inject a feeling of freshness from story to story. It was then that we agreed to grab a different artist for each story. Some stories are broken up into parts and maintain the same artist throughout their parts.

The problem we ran into was a feeling of solidarity. Though we wanted to give each story a breath of its own, we needed to bring the stories together somehow, from an artistic perspective. That was when we made the decision to use only one colorer. The hope is that the art will function to serve the individual stories, while the colors work to bring everything together as one world. In this was we are able to attack the artistic side of the narrative in the same way we fashioned the writing - individual stories that stand on their own merit, yet exist in a single universe as one work.

In thinking about this and the main theme of the book that we identified earlier, having multiple perspectives on the work helps to break down the idea of a "normal" story that is told through a singular artist's perspective. The multiple people working on this project come at the work from their own unique perspective adding to the breakdown of normativity and challenging the reader's expectations at every turn. 

How did you co-ordinate your contributors in to producing this final piece?

That was all James. As he has the most experience with comic book, he took on the mantle of "project organizer". While all of us had a say in which artists would be used, it was James who negotiated terms, executed contracts, maintained schedules, and oversaw production. All of the decisions are made as a group, but James is the one who puts everything together for the rest of the group to say yay or nay.

It's a lot of work to collaborate on a single comic with a writer and an artist. In this case, we have to balance four writers, seventeen artists, a letterer, a colorer, a kickstarter campaign, and all of the marketing. Thankfully, James knows what he's doing enough to get us through all of that. He balances the ego with the work.

What did you do to market your comic?

The Kickstarter campaign will be the primary marketing mechanism to get the word out. Hopefully people get excited about what we're doing and we can build a bit of anticipation around the book. Once it is completed, we'll use Facebook, Twitter, and any/every other social media outlet we can find to push people into picking up the book.

The digital marketing will be first, as each of the three issues will be available as only digital. We may take out ads to build word of mouth, but at the end of the day, it is word of mouth that will make or break the book. Conventions will be a huge part of this as we get table after table at as many shows as possible to push the work.

When we get to the trade paperback, we'll have to adjust our plan a bit. The goal is to get the book in stores. To do this, we have to do a bit more pavement hitting and less keyboard smashing. We'll need to get on the road and push the book, talk to retailers, and (hopefully) get distribution through Diamond, or something similar. All of that will be, once again, managed by James who is already putting a few plans in motion.

What monetization options have you set up the project?

The Kickstarter will be the first stage. If we get funded, we will have paid everyone involved in the production - except us. If the campaign is succesful then all of the writers, the letterer, and the colorer will get paid. At that point, we will work to sell the book and make a bit of cash for ourselves.

What platform are you using to sell the comic and short stories?

In the beginning, the book will be available on James's website (www.jamesninness.com) with our other book, RUE as a PDF. We may explore alternative means of distribution, but for now we want to push people in the direction of our other work.

When the trade comes out, we'll offer it through James's site and through select retailers. We've got a few committed, but we're looking for more.

Do you plan on continuing this series in the future? Or is it completed with nothing more to tell?

Maybe... We don't have any plans at the moment. It'll depend on how this book does. If we meet any level of success, we could go back for more. The town is ripe for stories aplenty. It could be fun to give other writers a chance to play in the sandbox. We'll see...

What are some of the major lessons that you've learned over the course of this project?

Writing with others is one of the most challenging ways to write. It includes some intense challenges, primarily the compromise involved - writers are a controlling bunch. It also offers some of the greatest rewards. This story is more polished because there were eight eyes on it. We push each other to do better.

Some other things we learned:

  • Don't give Joe too much rum or he'll run from the cabin and into the woods.
  • Mike never really knows where he is.
  • James is not a fan of clothes.
  • Marcel is terrifying when he's drunk and loves his shotgun.

Take Away: How to increase the chances of completing your project with phenomenal results

As James mentioned earlier in this podcast, solid planning means that you're less likely to redo your work.

As a creative writer for both fiction and educational material, I always start my project with a project outline. It's very important especially with educational content that I know what subjects that I'm meant to write on. I use a similar process for fiction work, only the outline is called a story arc and that's created a little differently and requires a lot more brain storming and creative juices than just going with it.

My experience with just going with it has always ended up with landing me in the soggy middle where I kept changing my mind and kept re-writing the story. Sure I'd get a chapter or two ahead by the time I got back to the middle, but I would have re-written it two or three times in the process.

With planning it out I'm able to get through the first and second drafts with very little difficulty. My biggest concern at that point is continuity: making sure that my characters are the same and that my story plots make sense.

The next point is that you should only be working on one project at a time. I have conflicting opinions on this one, on account that I tend to have two major projects going at any one time. I tend to use the second project as my thinking ground. What I would advise for this one is to have one primary project and dedicate the bulk of your time to this project. If you need the time to think on it, then go to a secondary project, but make sure that it's a short project.

Which brings us into the next point: Book time to just work on your project.

James and his crew locked themselves in a cabin for three days. You can take a similar approach if you have that sort of access. Realistically you are going to have to create something of a rigid schedule. For a writer it's the typical set aside and hour of uninterrupted time to work on your stuff. You're also going to have to figure out a way to avoid your distractions like Facebook and other social media, and that's the hazards of working off of a computer.

The last point is to receive honest critiques.

You need to be part of a community of writers or friends whose opinions you value and who can support their arguments with more than just a gut feeling. When it comes to my work, I have a group of four people who I call my beta readers. They read my work, if there are any questions or if anything is unclear, they'll tell me. If they feel a description is off, they'll let me know.

Part of that is being able to support my arguments in terms of what I've done with my story. If I can argue my point and my beta reader still says "that's not what's coming across" then I obviously need to change something.
Choose a group of people whose opinions you trust and who are naturally predisposed to reading your type of work.

That concludes today’s episode. Thank you so much for joining us. If you have comments or questions, please feel free to leave them on the podcast interview page and one of us will get back to you.

All links mentioned in this interview will be listed on the aired podcast page at: www.evilink.ca

Evil Ink is always interested in interviewing freelancers and creative individuals. If you want your project or comic featured with us, drop us a line at info@evilink.ca or fill out our contact form.

Links:

Website: jamesninness.com
inSanity,AZ Kickstarter

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