A few thoughts on writing comics

Now that my secret love of comic books is no longer a very well kept secret, I’ve had a lot of people – artists, writers, and readers – talk to me about their work, their favorite titles, and share some great stories about the industry. It’s been lovely to sort of “come out” as a geeky, comic book reading, girl, and not get the kind of dismissive “what do girls know” attitude that made me stop fangirl squeeing in public a long time ago. But …

One of the most common things I hear when I talk to other people about comics is, “Oh, I thought about writing a comic book someday”. Their idea is that writing comics is a) pretty simple and straightforward, and b) still more important that the work of the artist, who (it’s assumed) will just draw what the writer wants. Because I talk about writing here, I thought I’d lay out the facts of the situation, with some helpful quotes and links to other people saying it better than I could. This quick overview is meant to be the beginning, not the end, of the conversation, and assumes you already know things like “come up with original ideas”, “use a spellchecker”, and “edit your work”.

How do you get started in the writing side of comics?

Step one: Read everything.  If you don’t read enough to have a sense of what’s being written, or has been written, especially in your genre, go do that.

“Do not learn to write comic books from reading comic books only. (Nor should you learn to draw comics from comics.) Reading good comics will help you learn elements of form and style, but it is also inherently limiting. You get into the law of diminishing returns, for if you don’t have any reference points beyond comics, everything you write will be derivative. Read novels. Read newspapers. Read non-fiction. Watch foreign films. Go to the theater. Expose yourself to more than what you find on comic book shelves. The more you know about the world around you, the more material you will have with which to build stories. The more storytelling styles you have encountered, the larger your own bag of tricks will be.” – Joe Edekin, Writing for Comic Books

Step two: Be a great writer. Not just a good writer, but the best one you can be. Write short stories, novels, plays, whatever – but be a great writer before you turn your hand to comics because you will need to be a great writer to work in comics. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that that comics are easier just because “you only have to write what happens, not describe everything”. Writing a comics script is more complex than writing a screenplay – which probably is the easiest kind of writing to do – because you will create your script as if you are the writer, director, art director, casting agent, and more, all in one.

“The fact of the matter is that as a comic book writer, you are responsible for everything that goes on the page, just as if you were writing in prose. The artist is your partner, not your substitute. Think of writing a comic book as a collaboration with another writer, one to whom you must give very good instructions!” – Barry Lyga, Writing Comics

Step three: Learn what you like and don’t like in comics. There’s only one way to do this. You have to read every comic you can get your hands on, take recommendations from friends, seek out other work by writers you like, and always check the credits to see who did which part of the book. Who is the writer? Were there multiple authors? Is there a creative team manager overseeing a large crew, or is it a single artist/writer/creative on the book?

Step four: Learn how to write a comic book script. 

“Too many writers think about the script merely as a tool for them. It’s not; it’s a tool for the entire process. It should be prepared as such.” – Comic Related, Learning The Craft: Writing

Step five: Be sure this story is best told as a comic.

Deciding that you’re writing a story told in both words and pictures, an adventure in narrative art, means that it won’t just be your words telling the story. You will need an artist to bring your ideas to life. You have to give up on the idea that the story will be 100% yours, that everything good about it will come from your brain. And, of course, you’re going to need to pay your artist to drop everything and work on your book, even if you plan to submit it to publisher. Even if you haven’t any idea how to get paid for doing this story as a comic, you need to spend money to hire an artist to create it with you.

Because a comic isn’t just words. As Kelly Thompson says in her “Don’t Write Comics” series:

“I know, I know, you’re saying that your story is SO GOOD THAT THE ART WON’T MATTER.  That is great news.  Write it as prose.  Seriously.  If the art doesn’t matter, if your story doesn’t HAVE to be a comic book, then simply don’t do it.  It’s only worth all of this if you know that comics is the right medium for your story. And if comics is the right medium for your story then the art very much matters.”

What do you think?

Links:

The script for Cable #83, with comments from author Robert Weinberg

Dark Horse’s comics submission guidelines, including guidelines for writers and a sample script

Kelly Thompson’s great “Don’t Write Comics: How To Write Comics” series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Dennis O’Neil’s series on writing comics: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9part 10, part 11, part 12, part 13, part 14, part 15 & 16, part 17, part 18, and finally, part 19

Anina Bennett’s list of terms: Visual Language, writing for comics (with a lot taken from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics)

Dear Jackass, Why Did You Quit Your Day Job?

Dear Jackass,

Do we really have this conversation again? Every other day I hear about some who’s “ready” to stop working for the MAN and start working for ART. That’s how it’s always presented; one person, tired of their day job, trying to convince themselves that they’re ready to take all that time they’re wasting on earning a paycheck and instead spend it on writing their novel/screenplay/collection of short stories. Convinced that the only reason they haven’t finished it yet is the 30 or 40 hours a week they’re sitting in an office, as if all of the time they sit at home watching tv isn’t the problem. Having to be responsible, pay their bills, take care of themselves, and, you know, be a productive member of society, well all of that is just too stressful. They deserve to be full-time writers, don’t they?

No. They don’t. And neither do you. No one actually deserves to be a full-time writer, except those people who work their way up to actually being full-time writers on top of their day job, and have gotten themselves to a place where they’d actually earn more money if they focused solely on their writing. That’s the progression, folks. You do not quit your job to have more time to write. You write until you write so much that you a) get paid a living wage for it, b) have savings to fall back on, c) can afford your own health care, and d) have spent so much time on writing that you’re literally doing nothing else but going to your day job and putting words on the page.

When you get there, you can quit the 40-hour week to focus solely on the 50/60/70-hour week that being a full-time writer requires. You do know that being a professional writer means more than just fans want your autograph, right? You have to churn out work, consistently. If it takes you more than a year to write a novel, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. If you’re not creating several short stories a month, all of which are getting published in pro-rate markets, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. If you don’t have the level of fame which makes publishers take another look simply because your name is at the top of the submission, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. Simply put, you will not make enough money and your rent will not be paid and you will starve.

God forbid you have a spouse or children or anyone else depending on you, because you will drag all of them down with you. And don’t tell me that your wife wants to support you so you can follow your bliss. You think she’s not worried about having to take care of you? You think she doesn’t have a bliss she’d rather be following instead of being your ATM machine? She wants you to be happy, sure, because it’s the only way to get you to stop being a whiny jackass.

There is nothing more selfish or more pathetic than someone who’d risk their family’s happiness and security because they want to be something they haven’t actually put the work into being.

I know it’s tempting. Who wouldn’t want to spend their days “researching” on the Internet, or having coffee in a cute cafe with your laptop open in front of you? Being able to have lunch at 3 pm at your favorite Indian restaurant because you don’t actually have to be anywhere at any particular time. Taking long strolls in the park or on the beach, soaking up the sun, letting your brain wander. You know, for “inspiration”. It all sounds lovely, but the only people who can afford to actually do these things, to live a life of ease, are people who have someone else footing the bill. Working writers do not have this life, because they are too busy WORKING. They are not playing tourist in scenic old Downtown on a Thursday. They are not catching the latest blockbuster at the multiplex. They are in their offices, writing words down, chasing submissions, promoting their work, adding up their sales figures, and trying to figure out how to cover the electric bill.

There is a way to work as a writer instead of working at anything else. It’s the same path you take when you want to be a CEO of a major company, or a college professor or a professional dancer. You don’t just wake up one day and decide you want to be that thing. You start at the bottom, you put in your time, you educate yourself, you work your way up, and you take every single step on the ladder. It isn’t easy and it isn’t quick and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be any good, but it’s the only way to be sure that you’re not wasting anyone else’s time or money.

But don’t take my word for it. Let Georgia McBride point out, “you’re either high, stupid, extremely romantic, disillusioned, brave or have a tremendous amount of faith in yourself. Or–all of the above,” if you think you can make a living wage from writing YA novels. Let Carol Pinchefsky tell you that, “A writer of speculative fiction can earn awards, the respect of peers, and the admiration of fans. However, what the writer frequently does not earn is a living wage solely off of spec-fic writing.” Briane Keene will tell you that you’ll need, “The clarity to separate art from profession and business from pleasure, because we are not having fun with a hobby—we are paying the fucking bills on time.”

Chuck Wendig cautions that you need 25 things before you can be a full time writer. “Ahh. The old day-job. When you could, conceivably, rise to the level of your own incompetence and sit around watching funny cat videos all day long and still get paid for it. Ha ha! Sucker. Those days are gone. You’ve now entered into a more pure relationship between effort and compensation, as in, the more effort you put into something, the more work you put out, which means the more money you earn. Fail to work? Fail to create? Then you fail to get paid.”

The only good thing about being the kind of person who thinks they “deserve” to be a writer is that generally, you won’t be a very successful one. You don’t understand how to make that work, and you spend too much energy trying to get other people to support you, to fix your problems for you. You’ll fail, you’ll quit, you’ll move on to something else, and we won’t have to deal with you any more. So you know what? You want to be a jackass, you go right ahead.

I’ll be over here, writing.

PS. A few of the people quoted above talk about the need to have a spouse who works full-time to support you, but let me remind you that if you’re depending on someone else to pay the bills, you’re not working as a writer. You’re playing at being a writer like some people build model trains or walk the mall every Saturday morning. It’s a hobby, not a profession. How can you be proud of that?

What Else Working Writers Do (Besides Write)

It’s been about a year since I decided to be a writer again*. Over the last year I’ve settled into a comfortable balance between my writing life and everything else, and developed habits that have taken me from obscurity to someone who’s appeared on guest blogs and podcasts, gotten good reviews, made friends with writers and artists that I respect, attended conventions, had a pro-level sale, been accepted into the SFWA (didn’t I mention that? Yes, that was my good news this week), and edited a few books. Oh, and built a tiny but respectable little publishing company. In a year.

But it hasn’t been easy, or simple. I spend between 40 and 60 hours a week working on my writing (and, along with that, the editing and publishing that goes into Dagan Books). I spend about 10 hours a week actually putting words on paper. The rest of my time is taken up by all of the little, largely unseen, tasks that make up the life of a working writer:

  • I read every day. I don’t just read books and magazines, and in fact don’t read them as often as I’d like. I do read them when I can, but a lot of my reading is through the (growing) list of authors I subscribe to on my Google Reader. Through them I am introduced to new writers, new books, movies, and music. I am told where to find a recording of Leonard Nimoy reading Israeli author Etgar Keret. I get reminders about upcoming readings, author events, and conventions, some of which I can make it to. When I can’t, I can find a recap of what happened so at least I know what I missed. I get introduced to film criticism as expressed by The Incredible Hulk, whose breakdown of structure and plot should be required reading for new writers. I read what NPR and The Paris Review have to say about books making the NY Times Bestseller list, and what indie book bloggers say about books I’d never have heard of otherwise. I get to be part of a world-wide conversation on what fiction is today, and what it should be, and that informs how I see my own writing. It has changed how I write, for the better.
  • I also read slush for Dagan Books. In fact, I read every bit of it. 200 fish-themed stories for our latest anthology? I read them all. And for each of the two books before that. I read the novel queries too. From these I learn how many terrible ways there are to pitch your novel, and the few good ways. I learn which opening paragraphs sound less impressive each time you read a new author do the same thing, and which sentences always work, every time. I see authors who come across as arrogant, nervous, self-doubting, clueless, and worse, and I remind myself not to make those same mistakes. Every day, I read all of these things, and my writing improves before it even hits the page. Continue reading

The Problem With Pen Names

There are a lot of reasons for using a pen name these days. From wanting to keep your writing a secret from friends or employers, wanting to keep two distinct writing styles separate so that readers from one genre aren’t turned off by the writing you do in another, or preferring a pen name which is less gender/racially specific than your legal name*, the reasons behind wanting a pen name are many and varied and for the most part, I don’t have a problem with any of them. However, I’ve run into a few people whose actions, enabled by the use of a false persona, are running dangerously close to unprofessional or even illegal.

Author Seanan McGuire also writes under the name Mira Grant. It is an open pseudonym, in that McGuire openly admits to using it. From her FAQ’s:

Q: Why are you Mira Grant?

A: I wanted a pseudonym for my science fiction because I wanted to create some “distance” between it and my urban fantasy work. Mostly, I wanted people to judge the Mira Grant books on their own merits, not based on how much they read like something they’d expect me to write. I believe this was the right decision, and I’ve been very happy with my life as Mira Grant.

Both websites use photographs which are actually of McGuire, and while the Grant site has a brief faux-bio blurb, the rest of the information is factual – release dates, book info, and the bio and the FAQs both end with pointing out she’s also McGuire. Author Joe Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, the son of author Stephen King, and felt a need to write under another name in order to be judged on the merits of his words instead of his father. His website and Twitter feed and books all say “Joe Hill”, but the pictures are actually of him, and when he talks about his children or his predilection for pie, he’s actually talking about his own life. These are just two examples of what I consider to be acceptable use of a pen name: you’re changing the name for the purposes of story submission, so you’ll be judged “fairly” when a publisher considers your work or a reader buys your novel, but the rest of your life as it’s presented under that name is close to 95% true.

Submitting stories under a pseudonym without informing your publisher that you have another, legal, name – or much worse, signing a contract under your pen name – can cause legal issues and certainly makes me less likely to want to work with you, but we’re still talking about just one mistake – not disclosing your legal name. I’ve had authors do that, and learn from it, and stop making that mistake, in which case, I’m happy to keep looking at their work. At what point does it go beyond acceptable use of a nom de plume for work purposes and pass into unacceptable, creepy, or disturbing? That point differs for everyone but for me it’s when the fiction becomes not just a mask but a lie. There are authors who use more than just a new name: they create a whole new life. Websites, Facebook pages, even in chatting online with others, they use not only another name, but false images and fake biographies. Posting pictures taken from the Internet, of people who are not you and don’t know you’ve stolen their image, to support your pen name is one example of going too far. Writing lengthy blog posts about the life you don’t actually have, with people who don’t exist, supported by pictures you didn’t take … unless you label the site as itself being fiction, you’re trying to convince your readers that you are someone who doesn’t exist. What’s the purpose of that? If it’s just to support your pen name with what you consider to be a reasonable back-story, then it’s possibly only poor judgment on your part.

What really makes me angry are the people who create this fictional life and use it to prey on others. Creating a persona that is (for example) a young, sex-hungry woman and then using it to flirt online, manipulate others, play games with their emotions … or use it to turn a profit, soliciting donations from others to support what is essentially a hardworking avatar … that’s cruel. It’s a lie, it’s wrong, and when I find out that authors are doing this I will never, ever, accept work from them.

Personally, I don’t use a pen name. I made a decision a long time ago to be read and judged and known for who I really am. I like knowing that my friends actually know me. I feel lucky that I’m not in a situation where I’d be forced to hide my writing, which is so much a part of who I am, in order to get a job or maintain peace with family members. I understand wearing a mask in this business, but you should ask yourself if you really need it. Do you think a white-washed name or a bio photo which is younger/thinner/prettier than you think you are is protecting yourself from being judged wrongly, or is selling more books? Are you honest about yourself within the confines of your persona, or is everything you present to the world a lie? And if it is … why?

* For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not using the phrase “real name”. What that is can be very different depending on who you’re talking to, and no one has any right to decide what’s your real name but you. I’m only interested in the distinction between “legal” (often but not always “birth name”) and “pen name”, a fake name under which you write and publish, which is not the same as your legal name.

Writer Wednesday: 10 Questions with Ken Liu

I’ve realized that I know some awesomely brilliant writers. Whether just starting to make a name for themselves or authors who’ve been working in this field for decades, they have insights into writing that I may never have gotten to myself, and I wanted to know more. I wanted their secrets, their advice, the gleaming nuggets of wisdom plucked from their brains. So, I asked a few questions (10, to be precise), and these wonderful people answered. I’ve decided to share these interviews with you because I learned something about writing and you might too.

First up is science fiction author, program, and tax lawyer (yes, really), Ken Liu:

1. You were a programmer before you were a lawyer, and now in addition to that job you’ve added husband, father, and writer. How has your writing changed as you’ve acquired these new experiences? Can you see the effect of your life on your work over time, or has your style remained constant?

I think the experiences of a writer can’t help but show up in his fiction—mutated, transformed, sublimated, disguised—but they’ll be there. You write about what’s on your mind. I thought much more about parenthood after my daughter was born, and the theme of parenthood became much more prominent in my stories. My ideas about the law shifted after studying it and practicing it for a while, and that change is reflected in my stories as well.

I hope that just as we grow more interesting and wiser over time—a notion that some would question—we also become better writers. So I’d like to think that my writing has improved over the years as I’ve learned more about the world and myself. But some things have stayed constant over the years. There’s a certain lens that I view the world through which leaves its mark on everything I write. I have a hard time articulating exactly what that mark is, but even my earliest stories have the same “flavor” as my latest ones.

2. Because you have less time to devote to writing than perhaps someone who writes full-time, do you have to make choices about which ideas you’re going to work on? If so, how do you decide which stories to breath life into?

When I sit down to draft or edit, it takes a while to get the work-in-progress back into my head before I can be productive. Because of this cost for context switching and the many demands and interruptions imposed by the non-writing life, I usually avoid ideas that have a tendency to sprawl all over the place. But some big ideas just refuse to let me go. I’ve been collaborating with my wife on a novel, and now I’m thinking of starting another one by myself. I need to develop processes that will allow me to work on a big idea through short sessions spread out over a long period of time.

3. What was the first story you ever sold, and how would you have written if differently if you had to do it again tomorrow?

The very first story that I sold, “Carthaginian Rose,” was bought in 2002 by Empire of Dreams and Miracles: The Phobos Science Fiction Anthology (v. 1), edited by Orson Scott Card and Keith Olexa. I still like that story, and if I were to do it again today, I think the main thing I would change is the drafting process. Back then, I wrote extremely slowly (it took me more than half a year to finish a first draft for a short story), and I didn’t understand how to work with critiques—I had a hard time telling apart comments that I needed to think about and comments that I needed to ignore. Writing faster and getting better at making use of feedback are two skills I’ve improved since then. Continue reading

Readercon 2011 Recap: Saturday / Sunday (and we’re done)

I’ve previously talked about the books I brought home from Readercon, some Readercon advice on writing an author blurb, and recapped Thursday/Friday.

Saturday morning was breakfast at Panera, then panels:

11 AM Book Design and Typography in the Digital Era Neil Clarke, Erin Kissane, Ken Liu, David G. Shaw (leader), Alicia Verlager. From this I found out that Ken knows quite a bit about the history of the book and its evolution from scroll to codex to ebook, making him officially one of my favorite people ever. This was one of the most informed panels I attended, and I felt that all of the panelists had useful things to add to the discussion. I only wished it were longer.

12:00 PM Daughters of the Female Man Matthew Cheney, Gwendolyn Clare, Elizabeth Hand (leader), Barbara Krasnoff, Chris Moriarty. I tend to avoid panels on women’s issues in fiction, honestly. I’m of the school that we should promote damn fine writers who happen to be women as opposed to promoting women writers and hoping they’re good. I come from an academic background and am particularly informed by the discussion about women’s place in art history, and the (absurd) question which always gets asked, “Why are there no good women artists?” However this panel was excellent both for it’s suggestions for further reader and for the way it didn’t focus on anything other than good writing by women. Notable for this panel was the absurd statement from the audience about how the panel should have done “a little more work” and created an annotated bibliography to hand out (you know, so we wouldn’t have to read anything on our own).

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Readercon 2011 Recap: Thursday / Friday

The drive up to Boston was easy and uneventful save for the sudden realization that I was actually driving through the Bronx. That wasn’t clear from the directions, which essentially said take 95N from NJ to Connecticut, so you can understand why the first time I drove over the George Washington bridge and into the Bronx I was a little surprised. I stopped in Orange, CT, for breakfast at a place called Chip’s Diner, home to some pretty good buttermilk pancakes. That was my halfway point, and the rest of the drive was pretty but boring. I found the hotel with little trouble, got checked into my room, unpacked my suitcase, fell onto the big, fluffy bed, relaxed in the air conditioning, and very nearly fell asleep.

That would have been bad because I was due to pick Don Pizarro up from the airport an hour later. Logan Airport was only 12 miles from the hotel, but I wanted to be early if possible so he didn’t have to wait. Plus, Bart Lieb needed Don to read at the Broken Slate/Crossed Genres reading Friday night, so he insisted that I get up. I shared the elevator back down to the lobby with another woman – we looked at each other, said, “Readercon?” and both nodded. “I’m going to the gym to try to bike off this headache,” she said. “You?” I told her I was off to the airport. “Oh, at this time? I’m sorry,” she said, as the doors opened, and we waved our goodbyes. I wondered at that, got into my car, and for the first few miles I made good time. Switching onto 93 for the other 9 miles of the trip left me in dead-stop traffic. It ultimately took me 50 minutes to travel those 9 miles, by which time, Don’s plane was due to have landed. I finally pulled in, and called – no answer. I got into the terminal, since I had his flight info I knew where I was supposed to be, called again and … no answer. I checked the Starbucks (we’re writers, of course we gravitate toward coffee and wifi) but no luck. Called again and found his plane had arrived late; he was just getting off it now. Perfect! I wasn’t late after all. We found each other easily after that, got back to the hotel faster than I’d made it out to the airport, and after dropping his stuff off, made our way to the hotel bar.

My room was near the Con Suite, which was not, as directions would suggest, out the 6th floor window.

I did mention that we were writers, right?

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New Sale! (Now with added details)

I’m pleased to announce I’ve sold my story, “Call Center Blues” to DAILY SCIENCE FICTION. It’s going through the editing process now and I’ll post a link once it’s live on the site. This is the sale I was so very excited about last week. At 8 cents per word, this is my first pro-rate sale, and it’s in science fiction to boot! Though I don’t want to give too much away, I will say that this story comes directly from my current day job, working in a tech support call center. While dealing with customers who don’t actually want the features they’ve ordered is part of my daily routine, I wondered what would happen if the unwanted feature was me, or someone just like me. “Call Center Blues” evolved from there.

Thank you for all of your support.

New Sale! Shh!

I’ve gotten word today that I’ve sold a new flash fiction piece to a very respected, pro-rate market. I can’t jump around and squee about it nearly as much as I’d like until the contracts are signed and I’ve been told it’s ok, but you can bet I’m jumping and squeeing quietly over here.

All right. Probably not that quietly.

But, I’m so pleased! Details happily announced as soon as I can.

Dear (Jackass) Writer, Offering Your Book For Sale Every Other Hour Is Quite Enough

Dear (Jackass) Writer,

Yes, I know you wrote a book. Your novel, the first of many (you are sure), is a thrilling/scary/original/erotic/captivating/special story that only you could have written. It is sure to include thrills, spills, and some sort of romance. Probably “paranormal”. Unless you are, dear writer, of the male persuasion, in which case your hero will only find romance as a side note while he is doing thrilling and heroic things, probably including the saving of a romantic/erotic character at some point. Good for you. The world needs more horror/fantasy/erotic/paranormal/romance novels. I have no problem with the fact that you wrote the book. I have slightly more problem with the fact that you appear to have published it yourself, but do not appear to actually have had your novel edited by anyone. Well, that’s a personal choice, and one you’re free to make. I would never judge a book by its cover, as they say, unless of course your cover was created in some sort of computer graphics program, one which manages to make your artwork look as if it was drawn by a not overly-talented 9th grader. In that case, I will judge your cover, since if you can’t be bothered to pay for a professional artwork (or, let us remember, an editor), why should I pay for your book?
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