Ah, the freelance life.
As most talent will tell you, the question we field most often is "where do you get your ideas?" Like most questions of that sort, it's a stupid question if you know and not so stupid if you don't. But it supposes a set of conditions that don't really exist. No one "gets" ideas. We accumulate information. We sort information. Consciously or unconsciously, we start connecting the dots.
Learning to "get" ideas is pretty much the same as any other skill. Recent studies in brain physiology indicate when the brain is learning a new skill, part of it expands, generating new cells. This happens whether you're learning to play the violin (in fact, violin players tend to have bigger brains than other people), to cut hair, or to lift weights the proper way for the best results. Or to "get" ideas. For awhile, you have to consciously focus on it. Your brain "learns" the skill. At a certain point, you start internalizing the process and it becomes second nature. Curiously, all those new cells then spread out to other parts of the brain, to become part of your nervous system.
So we can speak of an "idea muscle." Mental, not physical. Like any other muscle, it can be trained and developed. Like any other muscle, exercise it and it continues to work.
So sometimes we get ideas that we have to nurse for a long time. Just because a freelancer gets an idea doesn't mean it, whether good or bad, can be sold. (Bad ideas are actually easier to sell than good, for some reason.) As I've said before, fixating on "ideas" is a bad move for a would-be freelancer anyway. Ideas are only as good as what you do with them, and that requires more than just ideas: you need to master language, character, plot. Also skills that can be learned, though, of course, there's such a thing as natural talent and there's no accounting for where that can take you. But even natural talent can only carry you so far and exhausts itself periodically and when you hit the wall it's the other things you fall back on.
Sat. Nov. 17: I get an e-mail from William Christenson of Avatar Press. Emboldened by his success with Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis books, he wants to expand his line. Warren has suggested me. William plans to call me the next morning if that's all right. It is.
Here's my typical day, seven days a week: I get up between 6:30 and 7 AM. Clean up, put in the contact lenses, dress (these days it's light sweats). I pop downstairs to grab a bottle of water that I sip on all morning and I'm in the office by 7:30. I check my e-mail for must-deal-with messages. Usually they can wait. I have two computers, both going simultaneously, often with a different project on each. (Right now, this and the Sabretooth script are on the laptop, while the script for my forthcoming Platinum graphic novel GUILTY is on the desktop.) I write until about 11 AM, then go downstairs for breakfast. After breakfast, I check cable TV to see if there are any movies I want to tape during the next 24 hours. If I have any phone calls to make, after breakfast is generally when I make them. Afternoons are set for running errands, going shopping, banking, or, more often than not these days, going back to work. Once in awhile I go to the movies, but there's not that much I care to see. Every other day I exercise with a regimen of weight training, stomach exercises, leg exercises. Late afternoons, I walk. Before dinner I shower. These days I'm usually in bed by 11 PM. As I often tell people, interesting enough to live through, deathly dull to talk about.
Sun. Nov. 18: 9 AM – William calls. He gives me the basics of the deal and I'm okay with them so it's a go as far as I'm concerned. I haven't had time to rifle my files for series ideas, and he has fairly specific wants anyway. This is how it often is: an editor has a vague something in mind, and rather than try to force existing ideas down his throat – a process that almost never works, and often comes back to bite you in the ass when it does – you try to find a middle ground between what the editor wants and what you'd like to do. In a best case scenario – rare – everyone's happy. In this particular instance, after about an hour of chatting, something percolates. If I can reductively paraphrase, what it comes down to is William's looking for is a horror story with cops. I'm not particularly partial to cop stories – my meat is the loner hero, and cops have built-in support groups. But I'm not opposed to it if I can separate the cop out, turn him into an outsider hero. William's down for that. So far so good.
Here's where ideas play in: for a long time, I've had this idea I've never been able to use. It's a simple idea: bodies and spirits die at separate rates. We've all heard of ghosts, which are spirits living on without bodies. We all know people who seem to be nothing more than bodies whose spirits have died (clinically, they're called sociopaths). So I extrapolate that to a dramatic element: not only are these beings – we'll call them the dead for now – walking around, but, due to the fact they're little more than walking vacuums fueled only by hunger and ambition, they pretty much run the world, and they hate us. William likes this concept. We get the hook – our cop hero gains the ability to pick out the dead from the living – and from there it's a matter of fleshing out characters and story. So in about 90 minutes we've cooked up a series.
The next step is to provide a few character descriptions for an artist to work with. Problem: because his deadline for getting the promotional material to Diamond is the next day, he needs character descriptions (so the artist, Philip Xavier) and cover concepts by the evening, shooting the afternoon. But that's okay. The life of a freelancer. You come to expect these things.
12:30: Mike Baron calls to get info for a short profile of me he's doing for the Comic Buyer's Guide. Mike and I talk about the business. Mike's one of the cleverest writers I know, and it boggles me that publishers haven't been after him for work. I mention a name to him and suggest he call.
The rest of the day is a scramble to get the Avatar material done and figure out a name. A thesaurus is a good tool for that. Pick a word and go through permutations until something clicks. By the end of the day, I've got character descriptions, an outline for a three issue arc and notes for two following arcs, and two concepts each for covers for each of the three issues. And a name: MORTAL SOULS. The trick is playing it out as a crime story as well as a horror story. Of course, I haven't written the script for the first issue yet – that comes today – so I'm not sure how it'll work out yet. But William read my wild scripts for the CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES comic I'm slowly writing for Fantagraphics/Eros Comix, and he wants that sort of energy and action, so as far as I'm concerned it'll be fun.
The downside is I have to set aside for the day an urgent project, which means Monday will be a catch-up day all day.
Mon. Nov. 19: Before anything I have to do the Sabretooth plot I promised to David Bogart, who used to edit me on VAMPIRELLA at Harris Comics and now edits X-MEN UNLIMITED. I've already run a one-line concept by him – basically I've examined what makes Sabretooth tick as a character and pulled a reversal – and he likes the plot I developed by has to run it past another X-editor for approval. After that I go back to the other project, hoping to finish it by Tuesday.
In the afternoon I try reaching an editor I need to talk to – we've been playing phone tag since September – but learn he's out for the week. The good news is a long-missing check finally shows up. Like most freelancers, I'm perpetually living in the space between when the checks come and the bills need to be paid, desperately trying to keep the two from overlapping or, worse, reversing places in the scheme of things.
Tues. Nov. 20: PERMANENT DAMAGE #10 is due. I check e-mail, gather data online, pull together the materials I've been sent to review and read those I haven't had the chance to read yet. It takes a couple hours to write. I go back to the other project, but by mid-afternoon it's clear I can't finish until the next morning. I e-mail the person I'm doing it for to give him the bad news.
Around 2 PM, David Bogart calls to say the Sabertooth plot outlinehas been cleared. I promise it for Monday.
Wed. Nov. 21: After half the morning, the project is finally finished. I try to e-mail the script but AOL keeps sending it back, telling me the account doesn't exist when I know damn well it does. William Christensen sends character sketches for MORTAL SOULS, along with a wonderful promotional blurb Warren Ellis wrote. The sketches are great, but the blurb fills me with dread, because now I have to live up to it. Three more times I try to e-mail the script, with the same result. I take the afternoon off to go to the movies.
In the evening, the sound suddenly goes out on my desktop. I can't access any of the sound controls. Sound itself isn't critical but it's my experience one thing often leads to another with computers and I picture the whole thing crashing, or, at minimum, having to reinstall the operating system and all my programs, a process that will destroy two or three entire workdays. And I like music when I write. Songs when I'm plotting, instrumentals or orchestral when I dialogue. (If you have people singing in the background it makes it hard to "hear" the characters speak.) Music on computer means I can run it for several hours at a time without having to think about it. So not having sound is a pain.
Thurs. Nov. 22: I start fleshing out the Sabertooth plot, not realizing I'm making a critical error. Crisis! Despite four days thawing in the fridge, the turkey is still partially frozen and the neck is resolutely stuck inside. This means it has to thaw more before it can be moved, which means I'll be the only one around to get it out and prepare and cook the turkey before visitors arrive for Thanksgiving dinner, which throws the day's schedule out of whack. Worse, I'm trying to chat with Spanish artists agent David Macho Gomez – we're trying to get projects off the ground with several of his clients like Jesus Siaz and Manuel Garcia – and MSN Messenger is refusing to connect as my window of opportunity slowly closes. With half an hour of free time left, I manage to contact him and provide an update, basically no motion on anything, and then it's off to make dinner.
Despite trying a host of possible solutions, the sound is still out.
Fri. Nov. 23: I finally manage to send the file. More to be done on MORTAL SOULS. I quit early to go buy a weight bench at a Day-After-Thanksgiving superbargain price, a spare chair for the office (something I've been meaning to get since I moved in), and a new sound card, since I've run out of other possibilities.
Sat. Nov. 24: I work on the Sabertooth plot. The rest of the day consists of taking care of things around the house and ripping the desktop computer apart. The new sound card goes in but nothing changes. I e-mail a friend who works in computers and the best advice he can give me is to switch operating systems.
Sun. Nov. 25: Instead of working on Sabretooth, I return to the GUILTY graphic novel I'm working on for Platinum Studios, which should've been done on Oct. 15. The sound problem is consuming me. I contact Rob Beddard at Microsoft to see what he can tell me. He supplies me with a variety of solutions. Nothing works.
Mon. Nov. 26: The Sabertooth plot is finished, but e-mail from David Bogart informs me he'd rather have a full script. I should have asked about this before but Marvel traditionally has shied away from full scripts, so it didn't occur to me. This is the first original job I'm doing for David since he got there. I'm more than happy to do a full script – I end up with more control over the finished product and I get more money faster – but it means another day before I can turn it in.
12:15 PM: Larry Young e-mails to find when would be a good time to call. I tell him after 2.
1 PM: Mike Zeck calls, wanting to know my possible availability for and interest in a project. He knows I'm always game to work with him, so I tell him to set it up if he wants to and let me know. We chat for an hour or so.
2:15 PM: Larry Young calls to update me on the progress of the WHISPER graphic novel and discuss the other projects I've got coming up with AIT/PlanetLar Books. We firm up a lot of things and make tentative deals. He tells me another writer I'd recommended called him and they're setting something up. About 3:30 we call it a day. Things sound good. There were other editors I needed to call but it's too late now. Instead I send out several pitches and hope for the best. These days it's difficult for almost any of us to get even the best-intentioned editor to read a pitch, let alone comment on it.
Tues. Nov. 27: I'm supposed to get back in touch with David Gomez but haven't had the chance. The Sabretooth dialogue takes precedence over everything, but it gets done. Then it's column time again, which brings us to right now.
And that's a freelancer's life, folks. Something to be lusted after, huh?
To hear the critics and magazines tell it, we're now in a new era of human history, and it's not 2001 AD, it's 4 HP. Harry Potter. The movie, we're told, is the hottest seller in human history (keeping in mind that movies have only been around 1/2900th of that history by liberal estimations) but that doesn't stop HARRY POTTER AND (if you live in the USA, anyway) THE SORCERER'S STONE from being little more than a loud, fairly dull two-and-a-half hour setup for the final fight scene, punctuated by an array of nattering mock-prepubescent English boarding school accents. Though it does have its pleasure, namely Robbie Coltrane. Wait for cable. (A curious tidbit in the Harry Potter wake: British moral watchdogs fear children will start swearing in imitation of one of the characters who constantly says "Bloody hell!", bloody being a curse word of some power in Ye Olde Merry. Who knew?) Then again, I'm probably not the optimum audience for Harry Potter anyway. It was the twenty-somethings who raved most enthusiastically on their way out of the theater, with kids a distant second. I have to admit I only read part of the first book, which struck me as BOOKS OF MAGIC Lite, frankly. Got to say those FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING ads sure look cool, though.
No comics reviews this week. No one sent me anything. I didn't even read any. I'm going to go cry in my beer now.
But Rob Beddard, with a little help from his chums at Microsoft, finally solved my sound problem. Thanks, Rob! I dedicate the Sabretooth story to you.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
If you enjoy PERMANENT DAMAGE, check out our brother column, Larry Young's LOOSE CANNON.
If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.