When I start thinking about something and I have a strong opinion about it, I try to write an Uptown Girl story about it. I find this very helpful especially when I can see multiple perspectives of something. It does get a little difficult when I can see both sides of the story.
I’ve been writing Uptown Girl for over ten years now, and the characters are so clearly defined and real to me that writing their dialogue is a breeze. I usually don’t even have to think about what they will say…the words just appear on the paper. It sounds great, right? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the characters say something and makes the story or scene go in a different direction that I had originally planned and all of a sudden the story goes into unplanned territory and it takes on a life of it’s own. When this happens, it can be exciting and I am just as excited to see what happens as anyone else. But it can also go terribly wrong.
“But Bob! Aren’t you the writer? Can’t you control the story and the characters?”
Well, sure. I can…but I can’t ignore their personalities and their motivations. Take this unlettered page for example:
Here we have Uptown Girl talking to her friend Diane at Diane’s daughter’s birthday party. Uptown Girl is talking about something I’ve been thinking about lately. My daughter is six and a half years old and plays with Barbie dolls. We all know what Barbie looks like and what she wears. I sometimes wonder if she should be playing with these dolls. She also likes to read Betty and Veronica comics, and they are also very…ah, shapely. As her dad, I am aware that she is going to be shown certain…perspectives of beauty and appearances and wonder if these toys and comics will have an influence on Sophie’s own expectations of herself and her own self-esteem.
Anyway, in this story Uptown Girl wonders the same thing. The idea for the story was Uptown Girl using her powers as a newspaper writer to start an open dialogue about toys/self esteem. Uptown Girl’s opinion would start to gain some traction and influencing others and creating a bit of a movement. Eventually her cause would gain national attention and ultimately the attention of the toy maker. And then the ending I had planned was going to be pretty funny. (And yes I am aware that there was a ‘Simpsons’ episode with Malibu Stacy that sounds like this but trust me, this was going to be different.) Anyway, after visiting a toy store, she and Ruby stumble upon Candy, the Barbie doll of Uptown Girl’s universe.
Anyway, Uptown Girl starts to wonder if girls playing with these dolls is a good thing for them or not. This is the part of the story where my own thoughts leak into the story…and where seeing things from multiple perspectives can paralyze my thinking and prevent me from ever forming an opinion. Ruby disagrees with Uptown Girl and says that she played with dolls like this when she was younger and doesn’t feel that they influenced her. Ruby has this opinion because both of my sisters played with Barbies and read Betty and Veronica and they are two of the smartest people I know. One sister is a lawyer and the other teaches classes about gender and women’s rights. Ruby’s opinion is her own and feels very much like Ruby would say. So…great, right? The problem is that as a writer I feel I HAVE to have Ruby say this. It’s true to her character. But it also pushes the story from moving forward. If Ruby agreed with Uptown Girl, then the story would have more momentum. But her opinion pushes the story back a bit. And that’s okay. Not everyone agrees with her. She sees her view, but doesn’t 100% agree with her, saying that it’s not the responsibility of the toy maker to build the self esteem of a person, it’s the parents’ job. And I agree. That’s my opinion finding its way into the story again. If I think ‘Call of Duty’ is too violent, I shouldn’t complain to Infinity Ward, I should simply prevent my kids from playing it.
The next part of the story has Uptown Girl bouncing her story idea off of her editor, Mean Mr. Mustard. Here we have another opinion that is different from Uptown Girl’s. And again, that’s okay. Now we have the perspective of a dad and he talks about his own daughter playing with these dolls. He says that his daughter played with them, but he also took her fishing. He talks about how a parent needs to get involved in shaping their kids and their interests. This was kind of a funny scene and is true to both of their characters but again, kills the inertia of the story. If Uptown Girl is going to influence people on a national level, she first needs to win the support of her boss and her best friend. So far, nothing.
Where was I? Oh yeah, back to the party. Uptown Girl goes to the party and starts to talk about this to Diane. Diane says that she totally thinks about the same thing that Uptown Girl is thinking about, but Diane says (trust me, even though there isn’t any lettering, she says this) if Candy dolls were the ONLY toy Rosie played with, then yes, she’d be a little more concerned but she also says she and Rosie’s dad wrestle, she draws, she rides her bike, she plays soccer and has a lot of other interests.
And this is the same for Sophie. Sophie draws more than I do. Sophie can out-monkey bar, out-climb, outrun anyone I know. She knows all the Disney princesses but also every member of the Justice League.
Uptown Girl brings up self-esteem concerns and everything else she’s been thinking about and talking about to Ruby and her boss…and then BOOM. Diane gently says “This is going to sound kinda…mean, but for someone without kids, you seem to know a lot about raising them”.
This is a HUGE line for a few reasons. In the ten-plus years I’ve been writing these characters, no one has spoken to Uptown Girl like that. The line sounds gentle, but trust me, there’s some bite to it. As a parent, I get a lot of “advice” from those without kids and very little of it is helpful. I know they mean well, but they usually have no idea what they are talking about.
Back to you, Diane.
Uptown Girl’s response? “I…yeah.”.
The story comes to a screeching halt. As a writer, I am delighted to see these characters and how well-formed their personalities are. I am also happy to see so many different opinions about such a complicated issue. But as a writer, I have no idea where to go next. Uptown Girl’s story has not been met with a lot of enthusiasm. I suppose I could go back and rewrite the scene and have Diane say “That’s a good point, Uptown Girl, tell me more” but I also feel that Diane has been raising her daughter for years and is pretty smart herself and she has thought about this kind of stuff before.
So, the story is dead. It’s been a frustrating story all around and has been for years. I started this story three years ago and was originally meant for the second Uptown Girl graphic novel, “Little Adventures”. I got 9 pages into it and couldn’t make it work. So I set it aside and found it again. I tried to pick up where I left off but…again, it’s not working. After only 13 pages I’ve had Uptown Girl bounce her thoughts off of three people and it’s not going anywhere. As a writer, I am kind of tired of writing the same thing. As an artist, I am struggling with the art. The first 9 pages were drawn on a smaller size, back when I thought drawing smaller would mean more productivity. But it’s hard for me to draw this small. The pages are filled with mostly talking heads and there’s little room for action, gesturing, backgrounds and all that. When the writing is falling a little flat, I try to draw better to hopefully carry the weight of the story a bit. But there’s no room to really flex my drawing skills here.
There’s something liberating about walking away from a creative idea when it’s not working. It’s kind of like quitting a job you hate or finally tearing yourself away from your village in ‘Animal Crossing’. I am excited to get back to the drawing board – literally – and starting a new Uptown Girl story.