Advice for aspiring comics writers
 
A thing came up on my twitter feed in which an aspiring writer asked an established one if he had any advice, and the established one answered "write comics!" This struck me as smarmy and unhelpful.  Granted, I don't know the context in which this was written... established guy may have been answering two dozen asks in the airport, and only had time to be pithy. But it struck me as a missed opportunity for a pro to offer hard-earned wisdom to a future peer, and I got pretty sour, and started writing a tweet that I felt was out of character for me, so I decided instead to write up my advice for aspiring comic writers.

(This advice presupposes that you, aspiring comic writer, are already a competent writer and are well-versed in the medium. I try to always assume that anyone asking for advice is at my level or is better than me and needs predominantly logistical advice that I was lucky enough to be taught by generous peers or have learned along the way. If you're not already a competent writer, read a ton. Not just comics. Read short stories.  Read plays.  Read essays. You can't be a comics writer just because you like comics and can't draw and that's what's left, you've got to have a passion for storytelling and the words that make it possible. And, like the man said, write!  Write a lot. It's okay that it's for yourself).

Okay, aspiring writer strategy:

  • NOBODY wants to read comic scripts (that’s why writers have it tougher than any other creative talent in the medium, breaking-in-wise). People can glance at pages, colors, lettering, etc; scripts are a chore, and an investment on the part of the reader. Make a comic. Not just write a comic, make a whole comic.  A good one.

 • To this end: WRITE A REAL BANGER OF A SHORT STORY. Cap out at five or six pages, and make it really good. Is that hard? Absolutely! Short stories lay bare your faults far more obviously than longer things, but they also require a minimum reading investment and are easily disseminated. Write one. Does it suck? Probably! Write another. Keep at it until they don’t suck. Read shorts to get a handle on them (Papercutter anthology is great for stand-alone comic stories, read anthologies, read short webcomics that spring up). Watch short films (McSweeney's WHOLPHIN anthologies have tons of good stuff, go to a film festival). Read two-minute play scripts. Listen to old joketellers. Listen to storycorps. When you get a handle on short, write short.  THIS DOES NOT MEAN DO THE FIRST CHAPTER OR A PREQUEL OR AN ISSUE ZERO FOR A LARGER THING YOU WANT TO DO. Stand-alone, done-in-one, never-touch-again short story (this saves you from having to explain that the artist is not part of the pitch, eliminates need for IP ownership nonsense, etc).

  • Once you write a good story, hire an artist to draw it. The good artists, by and large, want to work on 1. Work that pays, or 2. Their own stuff. Nobody wants to draw your story for free for exposure, and they shouldn’t. They put in however many years of study (and you’ve got a good chance these days that they went to school for it and paid out the nose to do so). Plus they’ve got to spend however many hours or days drawing each page. Want to showcase that you have 1/10th as much invested in getting your career going as they do? Put in extra hours at your day job, or pick up labor work at the home depot parking lot, or sell your plasma. Work your tail off to get up a stake of a grand or two. Sound like a lot? It is a lot! But guess what? If you’re working like a dog to get that money together, you’re going to be making sure that script is A+ perfect, because you’re investing a ton of time and effort into it. You’re gonna make that thing sing, or you just threw away a couple grand.

  • HIRE AN ARTIST. When you’re able to pay, you suddenly have a whole lot of options. Make an effort to hire your ideal artist.  You’re not going to get a bestselling a-lister, but think of the folks that you like. If you’re familiar enough with the medium to have a shot working in it/doing good work, you’ll know more than just a-listers, and most of us are folks who probably have to stretch to pay the bills at least every once in a while. If your short story is good (and it should be), and short (and it should be), then a lot of us will, schedule permitting, consider doing it if our schedule permits and you can pay a page rate that is comparable to what we might make elsewhere. Think $300 a page or somewhere thereabouts.  If artist wants to make changes, hear them out.  This is your baby, yeah, but you hired them because you like their work.  For all you know, they might have story input on every comic they've done (guess what? pretty much all of my favorite artists do). If they can help you make it better, let them.

  • When it's done, MAKE THAT COMIC AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE IMMEDIATELY FOR FREE. Don’t try to sell it, and don’t try to save it for some big reveal, etc. Give artist permission to post process stuff, put the full comic on their site/tumblr/whatever. If artist has a following, give them the option to post it, and you reblog it. Don’t get sore if artist doesn’t; they may not dig the story. But most folks are proud of their work and want to shine a light on it.

If it’s good, it’ll be seen by the right people (other writers, artists, publishers, editors, readers). It makes it a lot easier to 1. Reach out to publishers when you’ve got good finished short comics work they can immediately read (I wrote a longer post a few years ago that includes some of this in it, and it has more details about reaching out to publishers), and 2. Reach out to other artists and writers who can read said story, see you’re legit because you and whoever the artist was banged out a great comic, and build friendships/peer relationships that might lead to a decision to pitch a project together down the road.

Anyway, that's my if-you're-good advice for breaking in, which is a long and slow process but if you have a strong swing out of the gate it certainly gives you a leg-up.

Oh! Some technical advice? 

• Keep panel descriptions to a minimum. Folks will be inclined to skip anything that isn't dialogue, keep your descriptions so minimal as to make it harder to skip than to read.

• Avoid art direction 99% of the time. No calling shots unless it's got a clear plot-centric reason (yes, yes, you've got thematic reasons... cool it, that's the artists' job.  You're the screenwriter, they're the director. Let them execute the story according to their talents, instincts, and craft, you hired them/teamed with them because you believe in their work. Let them bring their A game, don't try and three-leg it when you should be passing the baton).

A CHORE TO READ: 

Panel 3: Over the shoulder shot of Jim as he puts his hand on the desk, looking at Suzy, who stands over by the window, glowering at Jim with catlike rage. The window has venetian blinds and the light comes through it, casting a patterned shadow across Suzy. 

Jim: You thinking about jumping? It'd save me some trouble,

Suzy: You'd like that, wouldn't you?

OKAY TO READ: 

Panel 3: Jim talks across the desk to Suzy, by the window.  Lighting feels like an old noir movie.

Jim: You thinking about jumping? It'd save me some trouble,

Suzy: You'd like that, wouldn't you?

Anyway, there's some starter advice.