I’ve had a post about WRITING THE THINGS knocking around in my head for a few weeks now. It was going to be a bit about my experiences in publishing so far–comics specifically–some tips on getting started, pointers and pitfalls and the like.
Then I got a bit shy about it: who the hell am I to be waxing philosophical about a business I’m only just starting in myself? Takes a bit of hubris for me to do that, especially since I can’t talk about my more recent exciting book thing yet.
But yesterday I came across an excellent blog post by Jim Zub about the difficult pitch process comic creators endure when trying to bring their projects to life. While I was reading it, I started thinking that though it might be silly to post about my “expertise” in the field, it might actually be helpful to share some of the tools I’ve used to learn about writing comics from those who actually are experts, along with the tools I wish I had when I was starting out.
For me it was sort of like cobbling together a sledgehammer from a broken chunk of curb and a stick. What you’ll find below is a fine selection of precision tools. You’re lucky. And because I do have just a bit of ego, I’ll color some of the links with suggestions, notes about my own work style, and my experiences. Because it’s my blog and I can and you can’t stop me nah nah.
A small disclaimer though before we get into the list: you can spend your whole life reading how other people do things in search of The Secret Way To Get Famous And Write Better And Be Loved By Readers Everywhere. I know, I spent years looking for it myself. Wanna know what it is?
That’s it. And reading, of course, but that goes without saying. The number one way to get better at what you want to do is to do it. Make mistakes. Improve. It may not feel like it at the time, but when you look back you’ll be surprised at how much of your own growth you recognize (and groan at, looking at your old work).
So don’t mistake the links below as some kind of Great Secret Grail, and definitely don’t get too lost following link after link into an inescapable pit of perpetual “education” in the field. Learn by watching those you admire, learn by reading all the time, learn by asking questions. And when you’re done with the links below, turn off the wi-fi, unplug your phone, and lock up the PS3 controller until you have a solid, unshakable writing routine. It’s the only way.
Learn by doing.
Now that we’re settled, let’s open up the toolbox and see what we find. I’m going to separate these links into a few categories and try to organize them as best I can. These are all going to be links to free online resources, though there are TONS of excellent books about both writing in general and, specifically, creating comics. You’ll hear about them in some of these links and I might chat about my favorites in a future post.
Want to learn the basics of writing and pitching a comic? Warren Ellis wrote a fantastic three-piece series for Comic Book Resources way back in 2000 that fits the bill. Covers all the basics, from basic tools to concept to pitch.
Writing All The Things
Alright, you’ve read the posts above and STILL really want to make comics? Really? Okay, cool. But how do you turn our brilliant idea into a story? What about writing a script?
There’s no “industry standard” format for scripting, though there are commonly accepted rules and standards out there, and there’s certainly no “right way” to come up with your story, but the links below might help you find your own method to do both.
- The Comic Book Script Archive – a great resource for professional examples of comic scripts from across the industry, including Brian K. Vaughan, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Brian Michael Bendis, Neil Gaiman, Matt Fraction and more.
- My Own Meager Contribution – two of my older scripts, posted with warts intact. One of which, RUSTED: FADED SIGNAL you can compare directly to the finished story here on the site.
- Antony Johnston: My Writing Process – Antony is the writer behind books like WASTELAND and THE COLDEST CITY over at Oni, not to mention working on video games like the DEAD SPACE series and ZOMBIE U. His process is almost identical to my own and, after years of trying to figure out how I work, is where I’ve set up camp. I like making notes and I like planning (to a degree) where I’m going. Most times I veer away from the plan, but having one in the first place gives me confidence to go forward, even when I wind up some place completely different.
- Jim Zub: Rambling About How I Write Comics – Jim is the writer of the rather awesome SKULLKICKERS. That he’s giving away his secrets for free is something you should be grateful for. His essay on writing comics appears in five parts, but each one links to the next, hence the single link here.
- BONUS LINK: Antony Johnston’s “Scrivening Comics” – I can’t tell you how much easier using Scrivener has made my writing life. If you’re a Mac user I strongly recommend you consider checking out Antony’s guide and grabbing Scrivener for yourself.
Selling Your Goods
So you want to try selling your comic, huh? Well, it ain’t easy but it can be done. The key to a solid pitch is brevity: be quick, clear, and get out. Put as much info in as little space as possible – and that doesn’t mean using a tiny font. You have to distill your story into the most concise description possible. Doesn’t matter how much work you’ve put into it, remember that most editors probably haven’t heard of you if you’re just starting out and don’t have time to read a phonebook. You may not get to include your favorite sub-plot about the funny robot’s bottle cap collection, but that’s okay; if an editor likes what you’ve put together you’ll get to tell them alllll about it.
But enough from me.
- Here Comes The Pitch – Jim Zub (that guy again?!) is in the process of posting a series of articles about the pitch process. Only two are live so far, but he’ll keep linking to future entries in each post so be sure to keep checking back.
- Honestly, there’s not too much out there that doesn’t say the same thing I did and Jim does (in greater detail): keep it short, get an editor’s attention with a solid hook, etc. Most importantly, stick to the posted submission guidelines on a publisher’s website. Show them that you went to kindergarten and can follow basic instructions. You’d be surprised how many pitches get tossed just because they don’t fit the posted format requirements. Stand out, by all means, but within the guidelines.
Need an Artist?
Most publishers searching for creator-owned comics (Image, Dark Horse, Oni, etc.) tend not to accept submissions without artists already attached to projects. And unless you have experience under your belt, Marvel and DC aren’t going to hire you yet. So even if your greatest dream is to write superheroes for the Big Two, you’re gonna have to do something on your own to get their attention first. That means finding an artist.
Very quickly before we get to some resources: etiquette and professionalism, people. Remember, as a first time comic creator an artist has no reason to take a chance working with you. What you’re asking them to do for you is a big deal. You want them to give up time and resources to help bring your dream to life. Depending on the artist, where they are in their career, and what they’re currently working on, you need to be prepared to pay them.
Some artists will take a paycheck for the pitch and accept a rights split if the book gets published (they get 50% of any profit, you get 50%) in place of a page rate. Some will do the pitch for free if they love it and you let them be your creative partner rather than a wrist-for-hire, because then it’s as much their baby as it is yours. Some will need a page rate for the whole book because they have families to feed. Always show an artist that you respect their time and skills by asking what their rate is for a pitch in your inquiry email (unless you’re a poor kid that doesn’t know any better, you should try not to approach a potential partner in a public forum).
Be upfront about what you can afford when you’re speaking to an artist. And come prepared with a budget you’re prepared to lose if the book doesn’t get picked up. After your bruises heal you save up and try again with the next story.
But where to find an artistic partner?
- Penciljack – a strong community of aspiring and working comic creators. Good place to find some support, critiques on your work, and a collaborator.
- Digital Webbing – similar to Penciljack, these forums are a great resource for new and seasoned comic creators, particularly if you’re looking for a partner in crime.
- deviantART – more of a free-for-all here, but still a good resource. Do a search for “comic pages,” “sequential art,” and so on. If you see someone(s) you want to reach out to, send ‘em a message.
Lifestyle, Storytelling, Revision, and Inspiration
So you’re sure you want to make comics, you know how to write them, and you’ve got an artist to help with your clear, concise pitch, but you’re having a rough day and need some inspiration, a point in the right direction as you revise your work, or even just a kick in the pants to get you back on track. Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
- Survival Tips for the Newbie Writer- Awesome comic writer Gail Simonedrops some knowledge about what to do once you’ve actually gotten your foot/arm/other expendable limb wedged in the industry door. Important reading for anyone who is, or plans to be, writing as a career and not just a hobby.
- Pixar Story Basics – I don’t care if you love or hate Pixar movies (though if you hate them you can JUST DIE), these rules are the most concise and clear guides to coming up with, writing down, and releasing your story to the world I’ve ever seen. Every writer, no matter what medium, should read these.
- Joe Hill: Pour Me Another Draft – Joe Hill is the writer of two fantastic novels (HEART-SHAPED BOX and HORNS), my favorite short story collection (20th CENTURY GHOSTS) and the amazing comic series LOCKE & KEY. So, yeah, he’s sort of a hero of mine. Here, he walks you through his revision process, which you may find to be way over the top or just right depending on your level of dedication and OCD. I happen to fall in line with this pretty well.
- The Importance of Frustration – “…the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process.” ‘Nuff said. Good to read/watch when you’re feeling beaten down by your story.
- Five Ways Your Brain Sabotages Your Writing… And What To Do About It - I’ve experienced ALL of these. I’ll bet you have too. Good advice and good for a laugh, too.
- Explore.com’s “Writing” Tag – this site is full of inspiration by way of filling your brain with all sorts of amazing, beautiful, and inspirational posts about the world: current events, science, history, the arts. I’m calling out the “writing” tag here because that segregates posts specifically about the act of writing, but I strongly recommend you favorite place the main page and check it often.
So there it is. I may eventually turn this post into a standard page on the site to be updated periodically, but until next week it sits on the front page.
Have some suggestions on additions? Wanna chat about breaking into comics? Found a broken link? Let me know in the comments section or send an email to Nick.Tapalansky[at]gmail.com.