Eventually, every up and coming writer gets to the point where they still aren’t making a solid living from writing, but find themselves with more projects open to them than they can handle in addition to their day job. This has been a point of struggle that I’ve found particularly hard to manage, as I’d love to say yes to everything.
Of course if I did, I wouldn’t meet the deadlines for most. So that leaves us having to make some hard choices. Today I’d like to talk about how to navigate through the options available which you might find available to you. Obviously, the things which I find most important about storytelling may not be the same as your hierarchy of importance, but I’ll try to address the merits and pitfalls of various opportunities. Your tastes, personal muse, financial situation, and needs will have a great impact on what would be the right move for you though.
Creator owned (writer funded)
So let’s say that our comic writer, John Longbox, has just finished up a self-published OGN called Mercenary Tales. He dropped three grand on the art and another thousand on printing and conventions. He has gotten some good feedback on his book, and the artist is down to make a follow up, but John hasn’t even broke even from the first book. Still, this was a passion project and money isn’t as important as art to Mr. Longbox.
Before John can move on to the creation of Mercenary Tales he has to come up with some funds. This means saving up money over several months. Of course John can use his time saving money to get a kick ass script ready for his artist. But what if another opportunity presentsd itself?
Creator owned (collaborative)
John is working some overtime and trying to bank some money for Mercenary Tales Volume 2, for which he is working on a script. Unexpectedly, he gets an email from a penciler he worked with last year who really wants to do a book about ancient Rome. The artist has some basic ideas about the type of story and some character designs, but wants John to help him flesh it out into an actual story and then a fully realized comic. The terms he offers are completely even footing- 50/50 profit splits, no upfront page rates for both party, and equal ownership.
Now John may still have mercenaries on the mind, but he likes Ancient Rome just fine. On top of that, this penciler is pretty good, and this is an immediate project he could jump into with no funding. Sounds pretty good, right?
There are some things to consider before tossing Mercenary Tales on the backburner though.
1) Will focusing on a new project kill any inertia John has built with Mercenary Tales? Most people who really liked volume 1 will forget about it if there is a three year wait before the next book. If John is trying to build a franchise around Mercenary Tales, then straying away from it may be a bad idea if he does not have time to work on both it and the new project.
2) Has John made a commitment to his artist on Mercenary Tales? If the artist has carved out a chunk of time six months down the road and is counting on the payday from volume 2, then it would be very unprofessional of John to backburner the project. He may even ostracize this artist and burn a bridge.
3) Is this the right project? As an indie comic writer, I can attest that budget is king. When an artist is willing to work with you on equal footing and you don’t have to finance the project, almost anything sounds good. But John has to be honest with himself here. Does he want to do the research involved in a historical piece? Does the tone of the project work with his particular voice? Is the project going to be enjoyable? Is the artist talented enough to represent his script in a manner he is comfortable with? If John is not truthful to himself about any of these questions, then the project may be doomed before it begins
4) Is John a team player? It’s one thing to write a script and pay an artist to solidify your vision on paper. It’s another to work with another creative person and shape worlds, characters, and ideas. If John is the type of person who wants things his way or not at all, then this type of collaboration won’t work for him. John has to ask the same of his artist. Does he want someone who will want to refine and critique the visual elements of the story, or just a script monkey to fit the story he wants to draw into a neat, linear package. And trust me, true collaboration is a tough thing for both writers and artists, who are generally solitary creatures.
5) Do both John and the artist have the same endgame in mind? Is John willing to do whatever it takes to publish this thing, while the artist is willing to let it die after a few rejection letters? Do both parties feel that they need a page rate from a publisher? Is there an agreement about what to do if a publisher wants to purchase the rights to the project? These questions are best figured out before the first word meets paper.
6) What are you both willing to commit to? If the artist wants John to tell the entire story of Rome, but only wants to draw 24 pages, that could very well prove impossible for John to do in a manner that he feels does the project justice. On the flip side, if the artist wants to do a four volume collection, then the project may be beyond what John is willing or able to sign on for.
Work for hire (non-fiction)
Let’s say John, got another email on the same day, but from a publisher this time. John had shown the publisher, Not-Real Comics, some of his work at a convention, and now the editor is offering John the chance to script out an educational comic detailing the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. John has never even thought about writing a non-fiction comic before and he has a lot to consider, especially since he also has the opportunity to produce a second Mercenary Tales, as well as new collaborative effort.
1) In this kind of contract work, the publisher will almost always take care of the artist, printing, distribution, etc… On one side this is pretty sweet because John doesn’t have to worry about anything other than writing, and it will probably get better distribution than his self-published work.
It does take a lot of things out of his control though. John may end up hating the artwork. He has no control over the quality of the printing or the release schedule. In some cases the book that gets scripted may never even come out.
2) “Work for hire” doesn’t always mean paid work. Most small publishers offer only backend pay, and anyone working in the comic business can testify that “back end” often means “write for free”. This isn’t necessarily the worst deal out there however. John would get a book published, without dropping the equivalent of the down payment for car on artwork. If there is a page rate involved, all the better.
3) What is the return on John’s sweat equity? Can he somehow build a brand around real world characters and events? If so, is he interested in that? Will a non-fiction project make his body of work more impressive? While an editor at Marvel may not care about his Napoleon comic, it may open doors with a publisher that caters to the book store crowd, rather than the direct market. If this is an option that John is interested in exploring, then it is probably worthwhile. If he only wants to write X-Men, then it may be a waste of his time.
4) Just like with our previous example, John has to decide whether or not he is the right guy for this project. Is he a good researcher, and is he willing to put in the time and effort? Can he portray the subject matter in an objective manner (or in the light which the publisher is asking for)? Does John have skills to convey the information he must, in the requisite space, and keep it entertaining? How will the subject matter effect his own reputation? Producing a script about Napoleon may put John in a different light than writing a comic about Justin Bieber would.
5) John should also be considering the reputation of the publisher. If the publisher has good relations with other creators, then that’s awesome. If they have a record of non-payment, or butchering a writer’s script with edits, then John may want to consider passing.
Work for hire (licensed properties, established characters)
John’s taken a day to consider his option and gets a phone call from an editor at IDW who’s been working with a friend of his. The editor tells John that he’s read Mercenary Tales and thinks that John would be the perfect guy to write a Zartan mini-series. Great news, right? Yes, but let’s examine it a bit further.
1) Is there a page rate? More likely than not. Most anyone who is publishing a licensed property is actually paying money. There are companies I have done work for, that have asked me to turn public domain stuff, or existing ideas into comics for backend pay, but actual licensed stuff is done by professional companies with budgets and business plans. Most of these guys are paying, though not all of them. If they aren’t, John needs to consider that he is effectively building up their property for free. Is it worth the sweat to gain the exposure and increase his body of work?
2) Just like in the last two examples, be honest when asking yourself if you are the right person for this job. This is even more important with a licensed property, as you are representing someone else’s brand and will have an established fan base that is likely going to have a strong reaction to your treatment of their beloved characters. If John Longbox just doesn’t get the appeal of G.I. Joe, then he is likely the wrong person to script a Zartan series.
3) Fear can kill you. Let’s say that John has always dreamed of writing a G.I. Joe book and he gets offered the Zartan gig. Fear of ruining a property he loves may cripple him. If you love the material, and you understand it, then you will treat it with respect. Trust yourself and have fun with it. Take the risk and believe in yourself. If it turns out to be crap, it’s a good bet the editor will speak up about it.
4) Speaking of editors, John had better be prepared to give up a good amount of creative control. It is beyond unlikely that he will be able to script his dream story where Zartan kills off Duke and takes over the Joe Force, only to in turn die at the hands of Snake Eyes. Licensed properties are important to the brands they represent. As such, the editor and the licensor will both have a lot to say as to what you as the writer can and can’t do with these characters and worlds. Stories may need to be crafted in such a way that they introduce new characters or settings from an upcoming toy line. In some cases, seeds for cross-over events may be mandatory parts of the story, and in the case of an ongoing series, a whole story arc may be booted mid-stream to make room for a tie-in with other comics. The licensor and/or editor may even give the writer a strict outline, allowing him to control only the pacing and dialogue. Even with the dialogue, a character’s voice may be dictated by others above the writer.
5)Emotional investment can be a real bitch here, too, especially if you get the chance to work on a property you personally love. John may have put his heart and soul into creating a story arc that revitalizes Zartan, making him an A-list character. His work may be so highly regarded by fans that movies for the property are later based on his work. Even If this is the case – and there are worse problems to have – remember that you don’t own this. Just look at the lack of recognition Hollywood has given to men like Chris Claremont and Larry Hama. Larry Hama, who pretty much created G.I. Joe as we know it, wasn’t even offered a free ticket to the movie.
The number one thing here is remembering that this is just a gig. These aren’t your characters or your world. Don’t get too attached. Someone may even come in and retcon it all next year.
The other hat
John sure does have a lot of offers on the table, but let’s throw one more at him. Most people working in comics wear more than one hat. Aside from writing Mercenary Tales, John lettered it. Now, on top of the other opportunities in front of him, he’s been propositioned to letter someone else’s book. What should John be considering here?
1) Is he a writer or comic guy? If John is happy to work in comics in any capacity, then the lettering gig may be a nice change of pace. But if he is a writer who has happened to letter in the past simply because he couldn’t afford to pay someone else, then he should think twice. Lettering will take time away from writing and could get in the way of a project where he could be focusing on what he is really passionate about.
This something I’ve been guilty of in the past. I get sucked into lettering or coloring, which I have minimal talent for, and neglect my chosen trade of writing. While it’s nice to have experience in other parts of the process, it is foolish to let it get in the way of doing what you love.
2) Does it pay? Sometimes cash is king. If there is a page rate, and John is a fast hand with word balloons, then maybe the lettering gig makes sense to finance Mercenary Tales 2. If it doesn’t pay, does it hold any advantage for John at all? If it’s just exposure, that means crap unless John wants to get more lettering gigs. No editor is going to care how well a writer letters.
3) Is it a backdoor? There are a lot of unorthodox ways to land writing gigs in comics, and finding a back door like lettering is a viable route. Lettering a book for DC can help John forge relationships with editors who then may be more willing to look at a pitch or a sample of his writing. This is no guarantee though, and can backfire. If John makes a name for himself as a letterer at DC, people may view him as a letterer who wants to write, rather than a writer who also letters.
The final choice
Well it seems our Mr. Longbox has much to think about. It all seems a bit overwhelming, but the key to balancing opportunities is really narrowing down the choices before you. Cut out the projects that are definitively the wrong fit. After that, I would recommend making a chart of sorts that lists the advantages of each project. The project that offers the largest amount of advantages which are most important to the writer, represent the least investment of money and sweat, and allow for the least amount of risk should take priority.
For instance, say Johnny has narrowed things down to the new creator owned book and the Zartan comic. After comparing the two, he chooses the Zartan book because he not only loves the character, but he also knows that it will be published with wide distribution, there is a guarantee of payment, he will gain an increased credibility, and all he has to do is script it.
With the creator owned book, while he loved the concept, it carried a lot of risk. His collaborator could flake out. They may not find a publisher. Financial necessity may find him taking on duties such as flatting or lettering that take him away from writing. Of course, it could also end up as a hit, and make him rich, a la The Walking Dead. That’s unlikely though. Plus, an understanding collaborator will always be willing to hold off and revisit the project later.
That brings my discussion of choosing projects to a close for now. I sincerely hope that other writers who have found themselves in such situations find this helpful. Remember that each gig we take on represents who we are as creators and storytellers. Be cautious, yet bold!