In my last column, I talked a bit about the genesis of my Malay Mysteries series and what motivates me to write it. I’ve been surprised at how much interest an unexpected and, for most of my readers, obscure subject—Malay folklore—has generated.
I’ve also been guilty of the most unpardonable sin a writer of episodic fiction could be hauled up for: taking forever to get a few of these books out. So some of the genesis of this fifth book in the series is a simple decision to stop fussing with a story that was getting so unruly that it delayed the book again and again, and to go with something simpler to keep the series moving along.
Two books in the series so far—Island of Glass and Ashes and Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories, the third and fourth books—were the worst culprits, or rather, I am, by taking so long to write them. Island of Glass and Ashes took longer just because I spent a huge amount of time on developing one character’s backstory. Much of that development isn’t visible (yet; it will be later in the series). Sita’s Shadow was a massive and possibly overambitious undertaking, because it was illustrated by not one but four artists and one photographer, one of whom vanished half way through the process, leaving more than a third of the book hanging in mid-air until I could reassign the work. Happily, the artist that stepped in to finish the titular story was fantastic, and I couldn’t be happier with the result, though it did delay publication by very nearly a year.
I also promised to cover a bit more about my writing process. There’s some trepidation in doing this, since, as I hinted in the last installment, my methods are non-standard, to say the least. There are many (perhaps overly) strong opinions in the comics world about “how it’s done.” Still, I’m proud of the overall results of the process I use with this series, and it works for the artists I’ve chosen to illustrate it. Moreover, the effort involved in creating these stories with artists who live across the world, sometimes involving preparing materials in two different languages, required some unusual solutions.
I’d mentioned in the last column that the original concept for this fifth episode in the by now well-established series was much more grand than what I wound up executing. In the journal in which I’d jotted down Malay Mystery story ideas, I’d made a note to do something about the court culture of Jogjakarta, the seat of one of Indonesia’s ancient monarchies. Jogjakarta—or Jogja, as many call it—is shrouded in supernatural lore. The legacy of the sultans who’ve occupied its throne is filled with mystical events, and the Jogja rulers retained astrologers, magicians, clairvoyants and every manner of mystical practitioner to aid them in the business of running the sultanate. Even the textiles worn by royalty and courtiers—the beautiful, labor-intensive batik cloths in which each symbol and color had heraldic and mystical significance—were suffused with a supernatural quality.
My original idea was a sort of Orient Express whodunit-type mystery in which the Sultan’s heirs were getting picked off one by one through some sort of witchcraft. My main characters would be drawn into this intrigue while innocently passing through a Jogja-like city, unable to resist solving a supernatural mystery. The miscreants in this case would be five women working in the palace who had all been subjected somehow to the sultan’s philandering, and used magic to exact their revenge and change the succession to the throne. Any three of them at once could work the necessary witchcraft, so our detectives would be thrown off when each of the five (at separate times) would have ironclad alibis.
While this may have eventually made for a good story (or perhaps not; we’ll never know), for some reason, I had an awful lot of trouble marrying up my historical research with the general tone of the series and I was having a hard time putting my characters in the courtly setting. Also, the solution to the supernatural mystery proved either really hard to pull off simply enough to surprise or wound up being glaringly obvious, so I was struggling with the basic puzzle at the core of the story.
I’m rarely practical when it comes to my creative work. If a story needs more time, I try to allow for that and not force it, hence the long stretch writing the third and fourth books in this series. This time, though, I felt like I’d hit a wall. Every time I sat down with my notes, it seemed like the plot was full of holes, too derivative, or in need of scrapping and starting over. So that’s what I did.
One of the things I liked best about Sita’s Shadow and Other Stories was that it took a break from the main story arc of the series and used a proven formula of multiple characters telling stories (which, in turn, explored and reinforced a set of core themes). Sita’s Shadow is the longest book in the series so far, clocking in at 200 pages, more than double the length of the first book, Garlands of Moonlight.
So I distilled down the core themes that I wanted to write about, combined those with some spine-shivers I’d gotten as a matter of chance, and folded it all together in a simple, straightforward little story that I leave hanging at the end. This formula worked well enough for the first book in the series, so why not return to it?
The key image in the original idea was batik. The presence of this Malay art form is hinted at in the end of Sita’s Shadow, when one of the main characters has a prophetic dream in which batik features prominently. There’s something magical about this art to begin with. Wax is applied to cloth, and then the cloth is dyed. The dye is taken up only by the parts of the cloth left exposed by the dye-resistant wax. A delicate stylus is used to draw the intricate designs on the cloth using molten wax. In the hands of true masters, the designs are unbelievably fine, and a dozen or more colors can be used to create the final effect.
Quite by chance, while mentally wrestling with what to do with this story and researching the properties of the wax used by batik artists, I was shown some images of beehives gone terribly wrong: a woman had discovered that bees had entered the walls of her home and started to make hives there, and when professionals came to clear it out, they discovered that the hive had very nearly taken over her whole house, undetected. There were other such examples. Bees are on everyone’s mind these days, since they’re dying out in droves thanks to our indiscriminate use of pesticides. Normal bee colonies will only grow to a certain size before splitting off to form other hives; this is a natural part of how bees regulate themselves. Disordered by chemicals, baffled by the industrial structures we build, and generally fighting for survival, instances of abnormal hives and bee populations are on the rise. This dovetails perfectly with a core theme of Malay folklore, the idea of nature going out of balance, invariably resulting in awful consequences.
Batik is made with wax; what if that wax came from some unnatural, corrupted source? Here was the genesis of my newly streamlined story. Malay folklore is filled with examples of immoral human acts disordering the healthy flow of nature. What if a murder was committed, and a hive somehow used to hide the crime, and this resulted in abnormal bees?
So in the new story, my characters pass through a city (much like Jogjakarta) and meet a batik artist, who relates a story that was told to her by a mystic. This mystic encountered an abandoned village, and received a series of visions about the strange events that had taken place there. A woman named Madu, a beekeeper, did away with her good-for-nothing husband, and chopped up his body and hid it in her hives. The result was unnatural bees that were corrupted by the presence of the corpse of a murder victim. As I did in the first story in the series, Garlands of Moonlight, I left the ending ambiguous, though the characters do speculate about what actually happened (or if the whole thing was made up altogether). The story is short, but it feels tightly wound, suspenseful, and, the way I hope all the parts of the series feel, a little weird and disorienting.
I reached out to the main series artist, M. Reza Aribuwana, and sent him the treatment. He gave me his blessing on the concept and said he was available to start working on it immediately. (I don’t for a moment take for granted the ease of starting this part of the process with an email: I’ve spent as much as five months searching for suitable artists for other books.) I went from the treatment to a spreadsheet I use to plan out the books in this series.
You read that right: a spreadsheet. The idea of using dowdy, financially oriented software for creative writing must seem strange, but it works for this series. I can move whole scenes around quickly, make sure the pacing is right, plan out the number of panels per page and keep track of the length of the overall story, making determinations about what to cut before I get into the laborious process of writing the script itself. It also helps me keep track of when I’m going in and out of flashbacks or tangential stories (this was particularly useful in Sita’s Shadow, which was comprised of three characters’ stories woven in with a framing story, each of these drawn by a different artist).
Working from this rough blocking of the story’s plot, I then write the script. This is based loosely on a tried-and-true comic book script format, which is in turn based on screenplays. In it, the writer describes the action, composition (panel by panel), making note of major shifts in perspective and other compositional elements, the characters’ positions, and any other details that should go into the artwork. The dialogue—or, as is often the case in my work, captions that carry the narration of a flashback or retold story—is treated the same way as it would be in a screenplay.
From this script, the artist works up rough sketches, to confirm the main elements of each panel, mainly the composition, scale, and point of view. The sketch, once reviewed, becomes pencils, then is inked, then shaded, to become the final artwork that’s included in a composed page.
I actually lay out my own books, something I can do thanks to skills picked up in various past jobs. This gives me the opportunity to do any rewrites or, as is most often the case, condensation. I’m a very wordy writer, and deliberately chose a tiny, 7” x 5” format for these stories. Precious little text fits on such small pages if one doesn’t want to cover up the images (and I don’t, given the talented artists I work with). So for me, the process of laying out the pages is also one of editing down to the bare minimum, often discarding text altogether when the images tell the story best by means of “silent” (textless) panels.
The Dark Colony is coming along very well indeed. Reza has already illustrated almost a third of the book in just under a month, which is astonishing considering the detail and precision with which he draws.
Next time: a bit more about how the story evolves after the scripting stage, and some more previews of the work in progress.