One thing you can count on once you’ve been published, is that aspiring creators are going to ask you how you did it. I don’t claim to have the answer. Hell, there is no pat answer, but I can offer one piece of advice that I believe made a difference for me, and if it helps anyone else become a better storyteller I guess that’s pretty good.
A few years ago, I finally decided what I wanted to do with myself as far as a profession. I wanted to tell stories, comic book stories in particular. I realized how much I love the art form and I knew deep down that it was where I could best entertain people.
So, I set out to make it happen. My artistic skills are…less than adequate, so I read all the articles on comics writers that I could. Invariably, the question of how to ‘break in’ would pop up, and I wrote down every answer and followed the suggestions as best as I could. The list read something like this:
First: learn to write-proper grammar, composition, etc. I went off to college and majored in English and journalism.
Second: read something besides comics, easy enough. I also watched every movie I could. I read plays and screenplays. I immersed myself in every storytelling medium available.
Third: learn how to put a submission together. Cover letter, plot synopsis, script sample, SASE. I got the basics down and soon was sending off story ideas to every editor I could get an address for.
Fourth: There was no fourth really, aside from ‘Move to New York and make a nuisance of yourself in the DC and/or Marvel offices until they give you a job just to shut you up.’ No thanks.
So I sent submission, after submission, after submission. I got a bite or two, but the rejection letters far outnumbered the callbacks. I’d go cry myself to sleep, get up in the morning, and re-read whatever had been passed over that week. And I could see why each and every one was rejected.
I had all the basics down-story structure, conflict, character arcs, and resolutions. My scripts and synopses were properly formatted. All the little ducks were placed in all their little rows. And my stories still sucked, no matter the genre-super hero, sci-fi or horror. They were flat. They had no energy, no spark, no life. I wasn’t trying to write another To Kill A Mockingbird. I just wanted to tell some cool stories that editors would buy and people would enjoy reading, but my stuff had all the depth and excitement of a drawer full of white socks. I needed a fourth suggestion-I needed some wisdom, and I got it of all places, from Mr. Neil Gaiman.
The comics reading world was digging on Sandman at the time, and I was no exception. I sent a fan letter to Neil, care of DC Comics. I thanked him for all the cool stories and told him how his work was really reinvigorating my interest in the medium. And I of course, let it slip that I was a writer. I spared him any whining about my inability to tell stories that I liked, much less stories that any publisher liked, but I made it clear that any advice he could give would be appreciated.
I didn’t hold my breath waiting to see my letter answered in the pages of Sandman, but it was worth a shot. And, just as I figured, the letter didn’t see print. Neil wrote me back instead. You heard me, a postcard, from one of the top writers in comics made its way to my little rural carrier box. Scribbled on the back of a beautiful piece of art by Michael Zulli was the best advice I’ve ever received. I’ll paraphrase here ‘You want to be a writer? Go live.’ And I did.
I turned off the computer, I packed the writing texts away and I went out into the world. I’d lived on the farm with my parents until this point in my life, so finding a little excitement didn’t take much doing.
I worked a variety of jobs-I was a radio announcer. I was a DJ at a roadhouse in one of the roughest counties in the southeast. I sold leather goods. I hung chandeliers. I appraised antiques. I restored furniture. I managed a comic book store. I waited tables, delivered pizza, tended bar and washed dishes. If it was unskilled labor, I was there.
I traveled. I saw most of the continental US, Canada and Mexico. I was no Marie Javins but I saw a lot of people and places that don’t make their way into the Triple A guidebooks.
I played in bands. I went on dates. I got my heart broken more than a few times. I made a lot of friends. I slept in cheap hotels. I went to parties, got into fights and even spent a night or two in jail. I went cave crawling. I skydived. I rode a borrowed motorcycle to Miami and back. I got a few tattoos. I grew my hair long, buzzed it all off and grew it out again. And I kept a journal the whole time. I didn’t lift my pen to write a single word of fiction, but I put a line or two about my day in those notebooks every night before I turned in or fell down.
Now, this all sounds like a lot of crowing, hell, it is crowing, but the point is-I followed Gaiman’s advice the best I could and it paid off.
A few years after I got that postcard, I sat down and started writing again. And now I really liked what I was doing. Even better, editors liked what I was doing. I didn’t get work right off the bat, but I got replies-personal replies. I got constructive feedback and I had an open door to send more material in, which I did. Pretty soon I was writing short pieces for small press anthologies. I started visiting cons whenever I could. I networked online. I hooked up with some talented new artists and this winter, I’m seeing the publication of my first full-length graphic novel.
Could this have happened if I’d stayed on the farm, looking at the world through books and television? Maybe, but I doubt it. The things I’ve done, however mundane they seem to anyone else, have really informed my writing. It’s given me a more colorful past to draw on, and a whole repertoire of people and places to ground my scripts with.
I like to believe that it’s given my work a ring of truth, of substance even, and I think this approach has made others better storytellers as well. Greg Rucka worked as a paramedic for a time. Brian Azzarello has haunted the seediest bars in Chicago-the ones with the dirty Old Style signs hanging out front. Grant Morrison has traveled the world, freaking out from London to India and back again, and they’re all successful, dare I say brilliant entertainers.
What I’m trying to do here is pass on a piece of wisdom. I’m not encouraging anyone to put his or her life in danger, or to break the law. I’m just encouraging you to have some adventures, however small. Believe me when I say you’ll see a difference.
And hey, this goes for those comics readers who aren’t aspiring creators-both of you. The richer your life is, the more you’ll bring to the table when you sit down to read the week’s comics. You may even start demanding more from this industry, and that’s a good thing, right?