I’ve been wallowing in nostalgia during the pandemic, which has manifested itself in trying to reproduce the kinds of aquariums I kept as a kid in Dallas. So here I am in New York City at the age of 52 with a tank of sheepshead minnows like the ones I used to catch on family road trips to the salt marshes of South Texas.
I love these little fish. They’re uncommon in the aquarium trade, but very common among scientists (they’re used in water quality/toxicity experiments) and incredibly common in the wild all up and down the East Coast and along the Gulf Coast. They’re called minnows, but they’re technically killifish in the pupfish family (Cyprinodontidae), closely related to the famous, endangered Devils Hole pupfish. They’ve got stocky, sturdy little bodies and they’re little scrappers with tons of personality. They like to chase each other — males in particular get territorial when breeding. But they seldom do any real damage to each other and they’re just fun to watch as they kind of helicopter/hover around, eyeballing me and each other in between bouts of sparring and feeding.
So why am I going on about them on this comics writing Patreon? Because last night I wound down by drawing some sheepshead minnows, and I realized that the act of drawing made me notice things I hadn’t fully figured out before.
Specifically, when it came time to draw the fins, I realized the sheepshead minnow’s pectoral fins (the main fins along the sides of the fish) are much lower on their bodies than those of a molly, for example. And I realized that that’s one of the reasons sheepshead minnows are so adorable to me — because those little pectoral fins look more like feet or paws when they’re situated that way. They woggle them around when they’re hovering in the water, and it’s super cute.
I also found myself studying the fishes’ eyes and head more. I grew up drawing mollies all the time and feel pretty confident drawing their sleek, sharp, missile-like profiles. But sheepshead minnows have more of a snub-nosed, eye-bulge-y, underbite-y, bulldoggy kind of look. And they have vertical, smudge-like black markings that run over their eyes, with a kind of smeary mascara effect. It’s all incredibly endearing to me.
I often say writing is thinking. I sometimes don’t know quite what I’m thinking until I write it all out.
A corollary of that might be that drawing is seeing. I learned a lot more about what I was seeing in these fish when I sat down to draw them.
And now I’m better equipped to write about them.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that any method of closely interacting with a subject can improve our writing. Not everyone draws; I’m not saying that’s the only way to go here. But I’d guess that photography or music or gardening or heck, sometimes just going for a walk can generate direct experience and observation that improves our writing immeasurably.
A big note up front: Everyone has a different process! This is just what works for me, right now, for the most part, most of the time. Be sure to check out what other writers do as well — here’s a fun thread from Tim Seeley describing his process, for example. Then figure out what works for you and do that.
So here’s what I do:
1. Outline the whole thing. This is an entire topic unto itself. But if my outline is really working, it nails the big plot beats as well as the big emotional turning points and thematic brushstrokes — all the essential things that make the story work and matter. A great outline means the scripting goes MUCH more smoothly.
2. Break the outline down into pages.
3A. Break pages down into panels first, then add dialogue.
OR, depending on the scene and how I’m feeling:
3B: Hammer out some dialogue first, then break the pages down into panels.
NOTE: When determining panel breakdowns and page breaks, I always try end a page with some kind of mini cliffhanger. A question, a half finished thought, an action that gets completed on the next page. Gotta keep people turning pages!
4. Write from the beginning, but if I get stuck, skip around and write the easier scenes first.
5. Go back and write the harder scenes, which are easier now that I’ve done the rest.
6. If I’m really stuck on a scene/beat, call up my editor and talk it out. Editors are awesome. Sometimes they just nod and say “uh huh” and let me blab until I work it out. Sometimes they ask just the right questions. These calls ALWAYS help.
7. Rewrite the easier scenes now that I’ve written the harder scenes and know my story better.
8. Revisit the harder scenes again now that I’ve figured out what I needed to tweak in the easier scenes.
9. Go through and edit everything multiple times, paying special attention to little details, making sure I’m explaining what needs to be explained for the artist, and making sure that if, during revisions, I’ve added some detail or bit later in the script, I’m properly setting it up if necessary earlier in the script.
10. Turn it in when I run out of time.
11. Enjoy that fourteen minutes of calm you get after turning in a script.
12. Get feedback from my editors/creative collaborators and work on revisions.
13. Figure out what it’s REALLY all about and make the subtle dialogue and action tweaks that bring out that deeper theme/emotional thread.
Hardest parts of writing a script:
The beginning (particularly working in exposition seamlessly in a serial story).
Pages 14-16 or so. Those beats before the climax.
(p.s. it’s all hard, sorry.)
There’s an interesting mechanical aspect to writing a script. Where you come up against page count limits, for example, and realize that helps you make decisions that work. For example, every once in a while, I’ll have a three page scene that’s hard to crack. So I’ll write everything that precedes & follows it. And suddenly I discover that there’s only a page left for the tricky scene — and that’s all it needed. Or maybe I don’t really need it at all.
(Relatedly, more than once, when I’ve had a huge amount of trouble figuring out how to crack a scene, I ultimately discovered that I didn’t need the scene. I had trouble cracking it because it didn’t belong.)
Two general notes to myself that always seems to work: Give your characters quiet moments that dramatize character, especially early in the script/story, and give the big emotional beats time to play out. Let it breathe when it needs to breathe.
There’s a kind of unspoken, panicky pressure, particularly in superhero comics, to blow something up pretty quickly. Understandable. Gotta grab people’s attention in five page previews. But action without emotional drama falls flat. Gotta take the time to build character and emotional drive.
Other ongoing activities essential to the writing process:
A. Drink a glass of water.
B. Get enough sleep and food.
C. Acknowledge that whatever you’re writing this very instant isn’t perfect, but you’re gonna revise it and make it better and “perfection” is an illusion anyway.
Finally, if you’re looking for more comics making advice from yours truly, please feel free to check out MAKE COMICS LIKE THE PROS, a how-to book I co-wrote with the great Fred Van Lente with amazing art by Colleen Coover.
And finally finally, if you like this kind of advice, please do subscribe to my revamped email newsletter, where I’ll be sharing this kind of thing regularly, along with all kinds of other sneak peeks and bonuses!
If this kind of info is helpful to you, please feel free to check out my Patreon, which is packed with practical articles about the craft of comics writing!
From time to time, folks have asked me for a format template for writing a comic book script. I finally took a few minutes to prep one — so download the MS Word template here!
This is the format I use every day, a variation of the version the great Fred Van Lente introduced me to when we were co-writing Incredible Hercules back in the day. It’s a simple MS Word document with two custom formats — ACTION and DIALOGUE. The dialogue in the script is formatted using the “DIALOGUE” format, shockingly enough. Everything else is formatted using “ACTION.”
I wrote up some thoughts and examples of other formatting things I do in the body of the template.
And while you’re at it, please do consider picking up MAKE COMICS LIKE THE PROS, the how-to book written by yours truly and Fred Van Lente with illustrations by the great, Eisner-award winning cartoonist Colleen Coover.
1. Make sure you understand Kickstarter and are ready for everything that running a project requires.
One of the best things you can do to prepare for running a Kickstarter is to back a bunch of Kickstarters and follow them for a few months. First, that will show that you’re committed to the idea of crowdfunding and community building. Backers can be very suspicious of creators who have never backed another Kickstarter, sometimes rightly so. A creator who’s backed multiple projects before launching his or her own is more likely to understand the culture of the site and the expectations of other Kickstarter backers.
Second, you’ll learn a huge amount about the general life cycles of Kickstarter campaigns as you read the updates about the trials, travails, and triumphs of the creators whose projects you back. Running a Kickstarter is a massive job — it requires a total commitment to the creative project you want to make as well as the ability to budget, run a production, manage customer service, and handle publicity and marketing. Make sure you understand the scope of the undertaking before you plunge in.
2. Make sure your project belongs on Kickstarter.
This is a tricky one, mainly because the glory of Kickstarter is that the conventional wisdom about what there’s an audience for gets overturned every day on Kickstarter. So on the one hand, don’t let anyone tell you there’s no audience for your project — your job is to prove there is! At the same time, don’t walk into this thing blind. Study similar projects on the Kickstarter website. Think through what made them successful. Consider their quality, their ability to get press and attention, the reasonableness of their budgets. And take a look at your own project and think hard about where you fit in and what your realistic expectations might be. If your project doesn’t match up in terms of quality, think about how to improve it before launching. If your project can’t be described in a simple hook, think about how to pitch it better. If you don’t have enough material to show off for the launch, take some more time to create more and better art. If there are a hundred very similar projects on the site already, think hard about what makes your project unique.
3. Get pros to handle the legal and accounting stuff.
Hire a good lawyer and a good accountant to handle that stuff. That’s a job for the pros.
4. Budget thoroughly and add 10 percent to your major costs.
I’ve gotten cold sweats while looking over some seemingly successful Kickstarters that have raised tens of thousands of dollars — because I can see what they’ve promised to deliver and I know they’re going to end up in the red. This is what you desperately want to avoid. Budget for everything your project will require, including your postage and fulfillment costs. I highly recommend talking to actual fulfillment houses if you think you’ll need to send out more than a couple of hundred packages. Get actual quotes from your printer and every other vendor you’re planning to use. Ask lots of questions. Talk with friends who have done similar projects and find out all the hidden costs. Create sample packages and weigh them at the post office to determine how much they’ll actually cost to send across the country or overseas. Always assume the worst in your budget so that you won’t be surprised. And repeat this process every time you add a new reward or stretch goal.
5. Tell the story of your project in both the video and the text description.
People absorb information in different ways. So you can’t expect the video to do all the work of explaining your project — you need good, written text and static images, too. Also, I recommend getting a clear description of your project and what makes it awesome as early as possible in your pitch. Past credits are useful for helping folks determine if they’re going to back the project, but potential backers are only going to get to that stage if your initial story pitch has wowed them.
6. Show as much of your project as you can.
The Princess Who Saved Herself children’s book, based on the classic song by Jonathan Coulton, began life as digital stretch goal for the Code Monkey Save World graphic novel Kickstarter, also based on the songs of Jonathan Coulton. So when Jonathan and I launched the Kickstarter to make physical copies of The Princess Who Saved Herself, we had the huge advantage of being able to share completed pages. In fact, we delivered the complete digital version of the book to our Code Monkey Save World backers the day we launched the PWSH Kickstarter. The book itself was the best advertising we could have had.
With the ABC Disgusting Kickstarter, my team had four or five great pages that we were able to show off when the Kickstarter launched. Artist Takeshi Miyazawa, colorist Jessica Kholinne, and letterer Simon Bowland have been working on the book as the campaign’s progressed and we hope to share a lettered preview of a good chunk of pages in the next week.
Of course this could be a risk — there’s a chance we might lose existing backers if they don’t love some of the new pages. But we’re running the Kickstarter because we believe our project is awesome. So we’re showing as much as we can without spoiling the experience of reading the actual finished book.
7. Make sure your base reward actually delivers the project you’re creating and that it’s affordable.
I’d guess that the average backer of a comics or publishing Kickstarter is willing to pay somewhere between $20 and $35 for the basic finished book. If your Kickstarter doesn’t provide the thing you’re making for a price somewhere around there, you’re probably going to run into trouble (unless you’re offering a spectacularly massive reward like the great Tom Tomorrow’s current double volume set).
If you’re charging a huge premium for a smallish book, you’re looking less for readers and more for patrons — folks who are willing to give you TONS of money, overpaying for your art. That’s possible and I’ve seen a handful of projects survive that way. But not many of us have enough fabulously wealthy patrons to draw on for that strategy to work. I think it’s a much stronger move to get the actual project into the hands of a much larger number of people for a lower average price.
8. Have a reward for every level of backer.
So you’ve got that basic $20 level covered. But some backers might only have a few bucks, and others might be willing to spend much more money. With all my publishing projects, I’ve put in a $3 or $5 level for stickers, a $10 or $12 level for a digital version, and higher levels for signed copies (or copies with signed bookplates) along with a few very high levels for special things like the backer’s likeness drawn into the book. I’ve also found that rewards of multiple copies of children’s books do well — people with several small children in their lives often want to buy each of them a copy of the book.
9. Don’t overdo it with rewards that will be incredibly hard to fulfill.
With the Code Monkey Save World Kickstarter, we went a little crazy with T-shirts and mugs and posters and challenge coins. All of these items were awesome and we loved making them. But every new physical object you add to your rewards increases the amount of time you’ll be devoting to fulfilling the ancillary aspects of the Kickstarter instead of actually making the main thing the Kickstarter’s all about. I have zero regrets about all those rewards — they were a blast and totally added value to the rewards those backers chose. But we made a conscious choice to scale down a bit with The Princess Who Saved Herself, which we just needed to print and wanted to get out to backers as soon as possible. At the same time, special rewards can be absolutely critical to getting smaller Kickstarters over the line. Right now, the “Likeness” rewards in ABC Disgusting have been key to nudging us up where we need to be to hit our goal.
10. Don’t ask for too much for a first-time project. (Or a third-time project, for that matter!)
We’ve all been dazzled by Kickstarter projects that rocket into five figures on their first day. But that’s rare — and almost vanishingly rare for first-time creators. If you’re launching a Kickstarter for your very first project, it’s a great idea to aim low — pick a project you can complete for just a couple of thousand dollars or less. Then build on the experience and audience you get to go to the next level, and the next. Even for established creators, it’s smart to keep the “ask” as low as possible without shooting yourself in the foot.
That being said, I highly, highly recommend budgeting to pay your collaborators. Both because it’s the right thing to do and because projects that don’t plan to pay people often don’t get made.
11. Build your audience for months (or years) BEFORE you launch your Kickstarter.
This may be the hardest piece of advice because the whole point of crowdfunding seems to be to open the doors to folks who have great ideas but haven’t been able to get traditional support to make them come to life. But the reality is that Kickstarter backers are smart and choosy and will only support projects they fall in love with and that they think will actually get made. So successful Kickstarters tend to come from folks who have already done enough work to start honing their craft and building an audience. So if possible, it’s a fantastic idea to get some work out into the world before you launch that first Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a great place to build audience. But it works best for folks who are able to bring some audience along to prime the pump.
12. Plan your launch dates and end dates carefully.
I’ve launched each of my Kickstarters on Monday mornings and ended each on a Tuesday or Wednesday. I launch on Mondays because if I’m getting press to coincide with the launch, I want a full work week for that press to have a chance to work its magic. Launching with press on a Friday would be a terrible waste because so many people zone out from Friday afternoon until Monday morning, and then that press cycle is dead.
It’s also smart to be aware of what holidays fall during your Kickstarter dates. We launched ABC Disgusting the Monday before Fourth of July weekend, which in retrospect might not have been the best idea — people were likely to be leaving on vacations early that week and were almost certainly online less. But we weren’t ready to launch before then, and launching later would have put us in direct competition with the San Diego Comic Con, so you do the best you can.
13. Reach out to everyone who’s ever supported your work to promote your Kickstarter — but don’t spam.
If no one knows about your Kickstarter, no one will back it. But emailing or tweeting dozens of people you don’t personally know with the link to your Kickstarter isn’t likely to help. Kickstarter is based on trust, and people who don’t know you personally or by reputation aren’t likely to help you spread the word about your project because they have no idea of the project’s quality or if you’ll actually finish it.
So start with the people you know, or the people who know your work. If you have pre-existing work, contact the folks who have interviewed you or reviewed your work in the past to see if they’d be willing to write about your new project. Post about your project — frequently — on your social media sites, particularly if you’ve been using social media for your professional work. Change all your bios to include the link to your Kickstarter. Change your email signatures to include the link to your Kickstarter. Don’t be shy about reminding people about the project from time to time, but strive to find new things to reveal or talk about each time you do it.
In general, I’m also a big advocate of casting my bread upon the water when it comes to crowdfunding and creative projects in general. Back other people’s projects. Spread the word about other people’s great projects to your own networks. Do it not because you expect an immediate tit-for-tat, but because you love that work and want to support it. That’s the culture you’re buying into when you launch a Kickstarter. Embrace it.
14. Figure out your niche and reach out to it.
Many of the most successful projects on Kickstarter are projects that big companies might pass on because the target audience seems too niche. But the internet thrives on niches. There’s a community for just about every interest. So if your project relates directly to a certain niche, figure out how to reach it. Ideally, before you launch your Kickstarter you’ll have spent months or years building relationships and joining communities that let you reach your niche. Code Monkey Save World is a pretty extreme example of that — its niche audience was Jonathan Coulton fans, and Jonathan clearly had the best ability of anyone on the planet to reach them directly, so we definitely had that going for us.
15. There’s a reason anthologies have great success rates.
Just food for thought… comics anthologies are incredibly hard to sell in the traditional marketplace. But they’re consistently successful on Kickstarter. It makes perfect sense when you think about the number of people involved in creating an anthology. Sometimes fifty different creators can contribute. That means fifty different people will be sending updates about the Kickstarter out to their personal networks.
Sometimes you may have a project that involves tons of people. Sometimes it’ll just be you and a few others. Each project needs to be what it needs to be for its own creative mandate. But if you’re thinking about crowdfunding, be aware of the power of collaborators — both creatively and in terms of getting the word out.
16. Don’t use Facebook ads.
I keep getting tempted by those dumb things, but I don’t see any new backers when I use ‘em. If anyone has ever seen actual Kickstarter numbers increase as a direct result of using a Facebook ad, I’d love to hear. But it hasn’t done anything measurable for me.
17. Try to do actual events in physical spaces.
During the Code Monkey Save World campaign, Jonathan and I did a number of events in New York City that absolutely helped goose interest, get press, and bring out more backers. Of course, we had a huge advantage in that Jonathan’s an internet superstar musician who actually performed at those events. So this doesn’t necessarily apply to every project. But if you have the chance to do signings or panels or events during your campaign, I highly recommend doing them and plugging your project. Reaching more people is always going to be a better plan than not.
18. Think about how to get attention at different stages in your campaign by providing new art or announcements at key moments.
Most Kickstarter campaigns start off with a nice spike, then dip down, come close to flatlining a few times in the middle of the campaign, and then end the last few days with another nice spike. So a big challenge is figuring out how to maintain and grow interest in the middle weeks of the campaign.
Sometimes you’ll have some nice built-in announcements — if you hit your goal before the end of the campaign, you can announce stretch goals. And if you have great stretch goals, you might be able to get more excitement and even some press for them. During the Code Monkey Save World campaign, we came up with a stretch goal of making a digital children’s book based on Jonathan’s classic song “The Princess Who Saved Herself.” That garnered a huge amount of attention — we had a number of backers say they were more excited about that bonus book than about the main book!
But not every campaign hits its stretch goals so quickly. Right now ABC Disgusting is halfway through its campaign and 82 percent funded. So now we’re working towards releasing a gorgeous, lettered preview of the book, complete with never-before-seen colored art. That’ll hopefully help us get new eyes on the project to help goose things in this middle stage. And if we’re lucky, we’ll hit our goal and be able to announce some stretch goals and get another bit of attention before the final stretch.
19. Answer questions from backers and potential backers quickly and be upfront about any problems, miscommunications, or schedule changes.
We live in an age in which people are used to getting fast answers via the internet from the companies they buy from. When potential backers message you via Kickstarter with questions about the campaign, it’s a great idea to answer them as quickly and courteously as possible. Same goes for answering backer comments. You can also learn a lot from those messages and comments — there was a point during the PWSH campaign when I realized a LOT of people wanted multiple copies of the book. Listening to those requests and adding rewards with multiple copies helped us move a lot more books.
For funded projects, creators have the additional responsibility to communicate about any problems or delays to the schedule and to stay on top of any problems backers might have during the fulfillment and shipping stage. If you’re managing a Kickstarter, you’re signing up for customer service. Embrace that job and do it right.
20. Always say please and thank you.
Crowdfunding isn’t just another way to sell your product. For backers, the campaign itself is an experience and a community, a chance to be part of something exciting at the ground level. As a creator, your dreams are coming true because of the excitement and generosity of your backers. Thank them sincerely and frequently, because they’re making it all happen, and if you do it right, maybe they’ll be back for the next crazy project you throw out into the world.
21. Don’t be afraid of failure.
Your Kickstarter might fail. That sounds terrible. But I’ve heard Kickstarter’s Craig Engler say multiple times that success rates for people’s SECOND Kickstarter projects tend to be very high. Creators often take all the lessons they’ve learned from their first, failed Kickstarter to rework their budgets and scope. And many of their original backers come back on board to support their second try.
22. Adjust on the fly and never give up.
If you have a 30 day Kickstarter campaign, you’ve got a lot of chances to figure out what’s working and what isn’t and adjust accordingly. Study your project’s stats on Kicktraq.com. Pay attention to the referral data on your Kickstarter page to figure out what kind of outreach is working best. And if things aren’t working, you can add better art. Replace your Kickstarter video. Come up with more attractive rewards. Rework your project description.
I was recently a contributor to the Broken Frontier comics anthology Kickstarter. Given how that campaign was going, it seemed pretty destined to failure. But it had the most mind-blowing finish I’ve ever seen for a Kickstarter. Just check out this daily chart from Kicktraq.com:
That late surge is almost unheard of. But it happened because the dozens of people involved in the project rallied and spread the word and put it over the top.
So that’s my basic Kickstarter advice in a nutshell! Hope it helps and best of luck!
In our book “Make Comics Like the Pros,” my co-writer Fred Van Lente provides some spectacular advice about how to work a comic book convention. This year at the New York Comic Con, I took Fred’s advice seriously and did my Artists Alley table up right for the first time. And I had my best con ever! So here’s what I did:
1. I’d printed up the “Code Monkey Save World” banner last year. But for the NYCC, I ponied up a few bucks to print a second banner featuring gorgeous Aaron Kuder/Wil Quintana art from our current “Action Comics” run. I figured folks who don’t know me probably know Superman, and might pause a few more seconds at the table if they saw his face. And they did!
2. I got vertical! In “Make Comics Like the Pros,” Fred writes about the need to stand out in a crowded con by raising your stuff up into the field of vision of passersby. So I went to Staples and bought a few clear magazine holders, which worked beautifully for displaying single issue comics and bigger books. The three-level magazine holders in particular provided a great way to catch folks’ eyes with the titles of a variety of books.
3. I sat down for an hour or two and printed actual labels for everything. At past cons, I had handwritten labels with prices of things. That’ll work, but I think the clearly printed labels helped make everything feel more professional and encouraged sales. The clear label over the “Code Monkey Save World” books reading “Based on the songs of JONATHAN COULTON” saved me from having to explain the book as often as I’ve done in the past. Multiple Coulton fans read that label and bought the book without my having to say much at all.
4. It’s a little hard to tell from the photo, but that little black box is a portable speaker through which I played Jonathan Coulton music whenever I was sitting at the table. Bouncy music subtly encourages people to linger and buy. And multiple Coulton fans heard the music, then discovered the table and bought the book.
5. For the first time this year, I brought a short box of single issues of some of my work-for-hire comics, which I sold at cover price. I ended up selling all but one issue of “Action Comics” and every issue of “Storm,” “Doomed,” and “Batman/Superman” that I brought. The experience reminds me of advice a friend gave me about Kickstarters, which was to have a reward at every price point. At my table, I had the $20 “Code Monkey Save World” and the $23 “Make Comics Like the Pros” books for the big buyers. But I also had a bunch of $3 and $4 comics for casual browsers who might just like a little something to remember the con by.
6. Fred told me that after he did a panel about making comics at a small convention in Maine, he sold all of the “Make Comics Like the Pros” books he had within a few minutes. So I ordered what I figured would be too many “Make Comics Like the Pros” books to sell at the NYCC. And I sold them all. A big part of moving those books was doing the “Make Comics Like a Pro” panel and the Nerdist Comics Panel, where I shamelessly plugged the book. Some folks bought the book from me right there after the panels; many others found me at the table later to buy the book.
7. Sets of individual comics sold pretty well. I had a few sets of individual comics of a few miniseries I did, which I bagged together and sold at a slight discount. All of those sets sold. It makes sense — it’s nice to get a little discount and it’s nice to get a whole story in a single bag.
8. I was seated next to “Action Comics” artist Aaron Kuder and facing frequent collaborators Fred Van Lente, Ryan Dunlavey, and Charles Soule. That meant if someone was looking at a copy of “Action,” I could say, “And you can get Aaron to sign it for you, too!” I think that helped move a lot of books.
And now here’s a list of things I thought about after the fact and will try to do for the next con:
1. Make a little sign saying I take credit cards. Most Artists Alley vendors these days have little Square thingies that let them take credit cards. But not all visitors realize that. A little sign would probably have increased my sales just a bit.
2. Make a sign listing my collaborators who are at the con and where they’re sitting in Artists Alley. As noted above, sitting near Fred and Charles and Aaron certainly helped move single issues. But probably a dozen other artists I’ve worked with were attending the con. If I’d had a little sign at my table noting what books they’d worked on and where folks could find them, it might have encouraged a few more sales. And it would just be good karma to point fans to the tables of my friends and collaborators.
3. Bring a sheet to cover the table. On the first day of the con, I forgot to bring a sheet. So every time I left the table, I had to spend a few minutes moving books off the table. I brought a sheet on the second day and probably saved a half hour to forty minutes over the course of the con as a result.
4. I’d thought of creating a little insert to stick into books that I sold people that listed my name and website and Twitter handle. But I forgot. I think that’s a pretty good idea and will try to do that for the next con. Seems like a good way to help turn customers into Twitter followers, which can then help keep them informed about my future work.
And, finally, a quick list of things I learned.
1. Iconic covers and #1 issues sell. If folks aren’t following the storylines and looking for specific books, their eyes get drawn to iconic covers featuring characters they know and books with a big #1 on them. So “Action Comics” #28, the book in the rack next to the short box featuring the iconic Superman flying towards us with the explosion behind him, sold out very quickly. And every time I put “Storm” #1 on the table with its gorgeous Victor Ibañez cover, it would sell within a half hour.
2. There are tons of parents roaming the con with small children — including tons of small girls. But I didn’t have a ton of stuff to offer those families. I ended up drawing with those kids a ton, which was a blast. But I’m pretty eager to see what’ll happen when I finally have hard copies of the “Princess Who Saved Herself” book I’m doing with Jonathan Coulton and the “Code Monkey Save World” team.
3. I actually paid $30 for a Facebook ad saying I was at the con and providing my Artists Alley table number. I have no idea how many people actually came to the table because of that ad. I should have asked folks. But if only a few buyers of “Code Monkey” or “Make Comics Like the Pros” came because of that ad, it was worth it. As dubious as I am of Facebook in general, I’ll probably do it again.
Back in 2012, the fine folks at Script Frenzy were kind enough to invite me to submit some thoughts about comic book writing to their website. Here’s a repost. And if this kind of stuff is useful to you, please check out my Writing about Comics Writing Patreon!
I came up through independent film as a writer and director, but over the last eight years, I’ve written somewhere around two hundred comic book scripts for big superhero stories like “Planet Hulk,” historical fiction like “Magneto Testament” and “Red Skull Incarnate,” supernatural action like “Dead Man’s Run” for Aspen and Gale Ann Hurd’s Valhalla, and creator owned sci-fi like “Vision Machine.” Every day I’m working on becoming a better writer. Here are a few thoughts and principles that have worked for me along the way.
All those good dramatic writing principles apply
They call them graphic novels, and yes, the medium allows for extended prose, should you choose to use it. But I’d argue that the driving engine of comics is dramatic storytelling. So all of that great advice and training you’ve gotten by reading Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing” and Syd Field’s “Four Screenplays” and Robert McKee’s “Story” apply. Work those conflicts, tell your story visually, put your characters in motion, know your premise.
Know your ending
I do most of my work in serial comics, meaning I’m writing a 20 page comics script right now that’s one chapter in a longer story. I might not write the end of that longer story for six months or even a year. One of the glories of this kind of comics is that there’s huge space for things to grow and develop organically — entire subplots and characters I never dreamed of when I started might develop down the line. I love this kind of writing. But in order to work this way, I always have to know my ending. If I know how the story ends, I know what my character’s big arc is and I know what the point of the story is — in Egri’s terms, I know my premise. Knowing the ending thus allows me to take advantage of fun twists and turns along the way — I can incorporate new ideas and run down intriguing rabbit holes because I can see how they contribute to the big character arc and premise I’m working with.
More than a screenplay, less than a novel
My comic book scripts tend to be more dense than my screenplays. When I’m writing a screenplay, I’m writing for a billion people, including busy agents, executives, and studio readers. So I’m shooting for lean, efficient, effortless writing that lets people fall into the story and characters and rocket through the read without consciously thinking about camera angles or the specific challenges of the actual filmmaking. A comic book script, on the other hand, is usually read by just a few people, all of whom are directly involved in making the comic book. So my comic book scripts are packed with the kinds of practical notes I’d share with a production designer, actor, and cinematographer. Often I’ll even address letterers, editors and artist by name while making suggestions or asking questions. It’s the most practical way to get things done, particularly since I seldom meet my comic book collaborators face-to-face — 90 percent of our communication happens via email, so it makes sense to front-load script notes into the script.
However (and this is a BIG however), it’s important not to get carried away. A few years back, I realized I was developing a bad habit of describing every darn thing in every panel in way too much detail. That’s one way to make sure you get what you want. But it can be suffocating to artists who want to have the chance to interpret and extrapolate a bit on their own. And as a writer, it’s smart for me to give my artists the room to dream and stretch — they’ll often come up with brilliant images or storytelling solutions that I would never have come up with just by myself.
This is an ongoing challenge for all of us comics writers and exactly how I approach it varies from project to project and artist to artist — different collaborators work better with slightly different approaches. But in general, I’m trying to keep things simpler, to reduce my verbiage, to cut back, to use just a few words if… hey, you know what? I’ll stop right there.
Think about page turns and chapter endings
When writing screenplays, I think about time — the two minute mark, the five minute mark, the fifteen minute mark, the half hour mark, the midpoint. At each of those points, I try to have a hook of some kind, a turning point that resolves some issue and raises a question about what happens next. A similar concept applies to comics, but those marks are determined by the physical form of the book itself. When a reader reaches the end of a page, he or she has to decide whether to turn that page and keep on reading. It’s similar to a person watching a movie and hitting the end of a scene or sequence — keep watching or change the channel?
So at the end of each page in a comics script, I try to create a little bit of drama or suspense. In an action sequence, a punch might be thrown on one page, but the impact isn’t shown until the next. With dialogue, a page might end with an unanswered question, a voice calling from off-panel, or a line begun but not finished until after the page turn.
Similarly, if you’re writing in chapters, you have a great opportunity to build up to nice cliffhangers. In serial comics, cliffhangers are pretty essential. It’s incredibly easy for monthly readers to drop out — it requires enterprise and commitment to go buy the next issue four weeks later. So a memorable, suspenseful cliffhanger that promises not just the next big plot element but some real impact or development for characters we love can be key in keeping a book alive.
Write in chapters
One of the great advantages of making comics is that it’s pretty standard for artists to begin drawing before writers have completed the scripts for the entire series. That’s a great gift for us as writers — we have the chance to see characters come to life before we’ve finished writing the story, which means we can take inspiration and make improvements along the way.
A done-in-one graphic novel is a different creature from a monthly series or miniseries. But by breaking the book into chapters, you can create discrete chunks of story to feed your artist. This not only can make writing more manageable and keep the book on schedule, it also can give you that amazing experience of seeing how you’re writing’s working while you’re still writing.
Listen to your editors
If you’re lucky enough to be working with editors, listen to them. Just about every editor I’ve ever worked with is smart, funny, insightful, and cares deeply about making the book work on every level. When you get stuck on some tiny bit or some massive thematic or character-based question, your editor is the perfect person with whom to bounce ideas around. You may not always agree on everything. You may get frustrated sometimes about things your editor asks you consider or tweak. And particularly when multiple editors are involved, you may have to make a special effort to remember what your story is really about and why you’re writing it as you juggle disparate suggestions. But if you open yourself up a bit, a good, ongoing back-and-forth with your editor will save you hours and make the book so much better. Editor Mark Paniccia was a phenomenal partner in crime on “Planet Hulk.” Editors Warren Simons and Alejandro Arbona were absolutely critical for “Magneto Testament” and “Red Skull Incarnate,” respectively. And my current editors, Jeanine Schaefer on “X-Treme X-Men” and Ellie Pyle on “Doctor Strange Season One,” are making those books so much better every day with their advice and ideas.
Know and love your artists and tailor your writing to help them do their best work
Your artist is your actor, production designer, and cinematographer. He or she is going to bring that script to life, so if you’re lucky enough to know who’s drawing your book, keep his or her style and preferences in mind as you write. It’s also smart to keep track of things your artist might struggle with and tailor your script accordingly. If you artist has trouble with multiple things going on in a single frame, try to break things down into multiple panels. If your artist may not be the best at certain kinds of emotions or expressions, think about ways of staging that convey that emotion without requiring big close-ups. And if your artist speaks English as a second language or you know the script will be translated, make a special effort to keep your prose simple and clear.
I constantly see good artists produce breathtakingly great work when they’re matched with stories that challenge and inspire them and writers they love. With a little thought about your artist’s needs and preferences, you can write that story and be that writer.
Greg Pak is an award-winning writer and filmmaker best known for his feature film “Robot Stories” and comic book storylines such as “Planet Hulk,” “Incredible Hercules” (with Fred Van Lente), “Magneto Testament,” and “Red Skull Incarnate.” Pak was named one of 25 Filmmakers to Watch by Filmmaker Magazine, described as “a talent with a future” by the New York Times, and named “Breakout Talent” of the year by Wizard Magazine. Pak is currently writing “X-Treme X-Men” and “Doctor Strange Year One” for Marvel and “Dead Man’s Run” for Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla and Aspen Comics. His sci fi graphic novel “Vision Machine” can be downloaded for free at www.visionmachine.net and will debut as an iPad app later this year. For more about Pak, visit www.gregpak.com and twitter.com/gregpak .
Writer of over 500 comic books, including PLANET HULK, MECH CADET YU, FIREFLY, and DARTH VADER