So you want to write comic books? Welcome to the hardest gig to get in comics. There are a lot of people out there who might disagree with me, but it’s the truth. When it comes to penning the adventures of corporate characters, you have to work extremely hard to even get the opportunity to pitch a story, and that’s the way it should be. So what is the proven path to becoming a comic book writer? Well, there isn’t one, really, but I hope to shed some light on the subject for those who really want to.
Much like I said in the previous article on breaking into the industry as an artist, you have to be honest with yourself. If you want to write, but haven’t taken any classes, then you need to start. Now, I’m not saying that you have to go get a Master’s degree in English, but you need to learn the fundamentals of the craft. Unlike other creative fields in comics, there’s little to no room for changing or breaking the rules. You have to know howto cross your T’s and dot your I’s. There is no room for debate here: learn how to write correctly, or you are going to be finished before you start. I use several programs to help me edit my stuff, and then I send it to a copy editor afterward. Many people who are starting out might think that’s not necessary, but I highly recommend it. When you edit your own work, you already know the story in your head. When you read it, it makes sense to you, but it might not come across clearly to someone else.
So let’s say you’re doing all the right things in training yourself on the proper use of the English language and its rules; what next? Learn the lingo, and learn how to format a comic book script. To do this, there is no better tool than Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It will clue you in on what a splash page is, what a bleed is, and other cool jargon that will have you speaking like a pro and, well, understanding the way comics are made. Now, as a writer, you might think that you don’t need to understand all the other terms and processes that go into the art, but you’d better have a good understanding of what you’re asking your team to do. Another good book is The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. It’s a simple and straightforward guide, and one that will give you an insight to the “Levitz Paradigm,” a way of plotting books with big casts and multiple subplots, named after one-time DC Comics publisher Paul Levitz. In addition, I suggest that you get your hands on the Panel One series of books, which collects scripts from well known writers, so you can see how the pros do it. In addition to that, you should visit The Comic Book Script Archive to see a ton of other scripts, and some good advice from Jim Zub.
So that’s the practical stuff. Where do you go from there? Well, there is no single path that you can take you from point A to point B, much less a straight one. To get an idea of what I mean by that, go and Google how your favorite writer got into the business, and you’ll see what I mean. Gail Simone got noticed by writing articles, while Ann Nocenti started her career as an editor. If you have great ideas, then you can try and get your own books produced, which is not an easy feat. Having an idea and a script is one thing, finding the artists and other creators to turn that script into an actual comic is another. You have to find the creators to collaborate with, and most of the time pay those good people to produce it. Then you can shop it around to publishers that accept submissions. There are a lot of places where you can find artists, inkers, colorists and letterers, the two largest websites for that being Digital Webbing and Zwol. The good news here is that the industry has tons of publishers willing to take a look at what you’re doing these days. Image Comics helped to make this phenomenon a reality. This might not sound easy, but this is probably the easiest way to get your name in print and to start building up that oh-so valuable resume.
If you’re planning on breaking into the industry writing for Marvel or DC, forget it. You have nearly no shot. They will not accept your submissions. If and when they’re interested, they will come to you, not the other way around. The same goes if you are wanting to write Conan, or any other well-established character. You have to be able to prove to them through your past work that you can do the job, which is kind of hard to do if you haven’t done anything.
So, what is a poor writer to do? Well, besides creating your own books, the only other thing to do is look for people in need of writers. You can find them at the same places that I mentioned for finding artists, but be prepared to keep checking these pages every day, because those gigs are few and far in-between. You see, most people out there think they can write, at least a little bit. So many people are not looking for them. On top of that, there are probably more aspiring writers than any other kind of creator in comics, for that same reason. My recommendation is to write anything for anyone. You can’t be picky when looking to build up your resume; you have to take what you can get, because having a resume full of things that a perspective employer can’t check up on is the same as having nothing in your resume at all. No matter the genre or the format, if they are willing to give you a shot, take it, and write your butt off. Just like artists, you can’t be above doing things that you feel are beneath you. I personally have trouble writing Steampunk. It’s a concept that I get, but when it comes to me actually penning a story about it, I turn out stuff that isn’t Steampunk enough. But I will take a shot at it every time I get an opportunity.
Another problem I find with writers is their lack of willingness to write stories and share them with others. I constantly hear about writers being afraid of having their ideas ripped off. My response to that is always the same: get over it. If that is the only story you’ve got, then you’re not a writer. A writer is someone who can take ideas, twist them around, and wring out a story from them. If you only have one story in your quiver, and because of that, you don’t want to share it with others, then you should consider looking into another career. I have written many stories for others that have died in production, and those ideas are now tied up in dual ownership that prevents me from doing anything with them. I don’t care, because I know I have a limitless well of ideas to tap into. If this is a problem for you, you will never write for a larger publisher, and if that’s you, then your only alternative is to produce your own work.
My last suggestion for becoming a comic book writer is networking. Get your name out there and in front of other people. Join all the forums where you can share your ideas. Send letters to editors and publishers about what you like, or even dislike about what you’re seeing in their books. Of course, make it polite; don’t blast them and be rude, because this will have the exact opposite effect to the one you intend. Why do this? To build up your network of people you know, and who know of you. If you go to a convention, find and introduce yourself to anyone and everyone you can. You might be surprised at how many of them might end up knowing you the second time you run into them, and if they know who you are, they will be more willing to hear you out.
I realize that everything I’ve mentioned might seem hard to do, and that would be right. It is. Becoming a comic book writer isn’t something to be done without a lot of the proverbial blood, sweat, and tears. Don’t take the rejections too personally, but listen to them, and hear what they have to say. Buried under all the criticism is a lot of good input that you can use to help you become a better writer.