This is a guide for writers, who (like me) can’t draw, but still want to create a comic. The task of creating a comic book as “only a writer” can be daunting. (As a disclaimer, I have never published a comic… but I’m new to this so, give me a break. I do hope to have at least one book picked by the end of the year.) I have done my research, and have lots of experience with at least the first 4 steps that I think others might benefit from. (And hopefully we’ll cross that magic number 5 together.)
Without further ado…
The writer’s guide to creating a comic book, from concept to publishing, in 5 easy steps:
1. COME UP WITH A KILLER IDEA
It doesn’t matter how great a writer you are – your unique, original idea is what’s going to get you published.
A. Do Your Homework.
Hopefully if you are wanting to create a comic book, you already read comics. That’s the first place to start. The comic book is a different world than the movie, TV show, or book, so get to know it, backwards and forwards. Study your favorite comics. What is it that you like about them? Pay attention to pacing and story and scene breaks. Where are the cliffhangers? Where is the action? Where are the personal moments? How much dialog can you comfortably fit on a page? How many panels per page? How many pages per issue? How many pages to a “scene”?
Get online, look for comic scripts. Learn the format. The weird thing about comic book writing, as opposed to screenwriting, is that the format varies quite a bit, so figure out what you’re comfortable with. Learn how to write for artists. Practice.
B. Create Your World
A great concept equals a great world. Create a world that is unique, that offers infinite story possibilities, & is something you haven’t seen before. The best concept is one that the story ideas write themselves. Look at Y: the Last Man. All the men die except for one. What does a world without men look like? There is so much to explore in that world…. the series could’ve gone on forever and he never would’ve run out of story because it is a fully-formed world. And it doesn’t have to be that elaborate. Maybe your fully-formed unique world could be “competitive high school cheerleading”, or “the secret lives of soccer moms”.
What is your emotional story? It’s not enough to just have a cool super hero idea or a cool serial killer idea. Who are your characters? Who is going to introduce you to this world? What is their story? My favorite comics are the ones that spend as much time on character as they do on plot… and vice versa. You can’t have one without the other. Again, with Y: The Last Man, the book wouldn’t be much if it was just random stories of a world without men, but you are introduced to this world through the eyes of Yorick – the last man on earth. From the first issue you are introduced to an overarching plot & to a character that you are interested in following emotionally.
C. Let it Marinade.
Your initial reaction will be to jump into it immediately, but be patient, let the ideas percolate. Run them through your head over and over… look for loopholes, ask yourself hard questions, get to know your characters. Share your concept with others, get feedback. My first book went through major changes after getting comments from friends and colleagues, and it got a ton better. Before you move onto the next step, make sure you have fully realized main and secondary characters (each with their own emotional stories), a world for you to play in, an overarching plot that can carry your series for 50 issues or more (or, if it’s a single story, fill a 100+ page OGN), and a number of smaller stories, ready to go, that will carry you along the way. The more time you spend in the world of your concept, the more realized it will be.
2. CREATE YOUR PITCH.
For an unknown writer, the pitch is everything. The pitch is what you use to get your name out there, to attach an artist, and to get published.
A. What’s It About?
You should be able to sum up your concept in about 2 sentences. You should be able to cover your first story arc (or entire OGN) in just one page. People aren’t going to be willing to read more than that. (We live in a lazy society, what are you going to do…) A good pitch should have your concept or world presented right up front, and then pull us in with your important character & plot beats.
Imagine that you’ve just read your entire series and you were summing it up for someone. That’s what your pitch is. And give away the ending. Don’t tantalize with “what will danny do now that his dog is stuck in the well?” Whoever is reading your pitch needs to know what’s going to happen from beginning to end. This isn’t for the masses – just for those who will be creating the book with you.
B. What Does It Look Like?
What style are you going for? What other books are out that have a similar tone? Can you describe it as quickly as “Superman meets Bourne Identity” to help create a picture? Who is your audience? If you say “everyone”, then try again. Look for books similar to yours on the market. Try to find out who they market to. Is it horror fans? Young adults? A Manga audience? Your entire package needs to be aimed at that audience and everything, from your pitch, to your writing style, to your artist needs to reflect that.
C. Can You Write?
If an artist is going to take a chance on you, they are going to want to know if you can deliver the goods or not. So, have at least a first issue (or first chapter if an OGN) ready to show them. They’ll want to know if your script is easy to work from and they’ll want to know if you are easy to work with. Again, really take the time to hone yourself as a writer, and make sure that your script is the best it can be. First impressions are everything.
3. FIND AN ARTIST.
Okay, now comes the hard part. You can’t create a comic without an artist. Every artist out there probably has their own stories they want to tell, and if they don’t, they probably have a few dozen writers wanting to work with them. So, how do you pull it off?
A. Where to Look.
Luckily, nearly every single artist in the world can be found in one place – the internet. You can search for artists portfolios and blogs, but the greatest resource I’ve found for artists on the internet is deviantart.com. Every artist I’ve worked with so far has had a presence on deviantart. It’s basically a portfolio & social networking site for artists. You can get on there and browse thousands of artists and look at their bodies of work. Many of them are also photographers or painters, but it has a fantastic comic artist presence.
B. What to Look For.
You should have decided by now what type of art you want in your book. Think about your audience & your voice. Once you decide on the style of art you’re looking for, you can start your search for an artist that fits that look.
The most important thing you want to find are sequential pages. Just because someone can draw a pin-up doesn’t mean they can draw a comic book. Also, just an observation, in my experience, the best artists are the ones with an education background. Look for artists who went to school for art. There are plenty of exceptions to that, many of the greatest artists of all time are self-taught, but a formal training does help.
C. What to Expect.
You have to make it worth the artist’s while. If they are going to put time into your project, they are going to want certain things in return. Comics are a collaborative process. You can’t just tell an artist exactly what you want exactly like you want it. Get your vision across and then step out of the way. Be open to their suggestions. They understand the artists process more than you.
In addition to creative input, they’ll want some compensation. You can do this in one of two ways – I) Pay them up front. Artists can range from about $50-$200 per page. So, a 22 page comic is quite a bit of scratch. II) Work out a back end deal. With most indie comics, this is how you make your money. Your book is published, if it sells, you make money, if it doesn’t, you don’t. It’s a risk, so you need to decide ahead of time who is going to make what percentage of the back end.
4. CREATE YOUR PROPOSAL.
We’ve covered a lot of this territory in the previous sections. But now that you’ve got your pitch & the pages from your artist, how to you pull it all together in a proposal for you to send to publishers?
A. The Personality.
I’m a firm believer that personality sells. So, include a bio of yourself & your creative team. Keep it VERY short. Just a couple of sentences for each. Make your proposal look good. Put some time into it. Hire a designer to spruce it up, if that’s not your thing.
B. The Pitch.
A one-page description of your story from beginning to end. This is the same exact pitch that you sent to your artist (maybe with some tweaks based on your collaboration with the artist).
A publisher is also going to want to know that you’ve thought about your market and that you have a good grasp on what that market is looking for.
C. The Pages.
The goal here is to provide some preview pages of your book. This is more important than anything. Publisher’s need to know that you can tell a good story.
Take (at least) the first 5 pages or so of your project and create a fully drawn, lettered, and colored (if it’s in color) comic of those pages. You can find colorists & letterers by doing a search online. And you’ll want to pay them up front. Create a cover for your book with a logo that shows that you know your audience. Package it all together nicely with your pitch & bio. It’s a lot of work, but so is everything worth while in life.
5. GET PUBLISHED.
A. Where to Look
Let’s assume that you are not Joss Whedon or Kevin Smith. In that case, your first book is not going to be published by Marvel or DC. Luckily, there are lots of amazing smaller publishers out there… many who let you keep the creative rights to your properties. This means, if your idea is optioned into a movie, then you get credit and you get paid. Which, really should make writing for a smaller publisher way more enticing than the “big two,” who keep all the rights to what you create. Do your research. Look at the logos on the books that you most enjoy. Hopefully you already have publishers in mind. Get online, browse for smaller publishers. Find a publisher that is already publishing the types of books you want to make.
B. What to Send.
Most every publisher has a web page. And on this web page they will have a section on “submissions.” Every publisher asks for different specifics, so make sure you check their submission pages and follow it to the T. Don’t try to be clever, just let your work speak for itself.
And, it goes without saying… be respectful. Don’t try to pitch your book to a publisher at a Con. They get that all the time, and you’re just going to be one more face they’ll forget. Don’t try to get other comics creators to read your pitch (most of the time they can’t for legal reasons). Don’t email the publisher every day to see if they liked your pitch. If they like it, they’ll respond. If they didn’t, they may not. Just work hard, be respectful, and put your best foot forward.
C. Plan B.
Publish it yourself. This is not something I have a lot of experience with, but you have a few options – I) Become your own publishing company. Find a printer (there are some amazingly cheap ones online) or print it yourself down at your local Kinko’s. Put up a website, and market the hell out of your product. Go to your local comic shops, see if they’ll carry your books on consignment. Send free copies to comics reviewers online and comics podcasts. Try and get as many people as possible to take a look at your book and review it. Reviewers love getting free books, and you’ll love the publicity it gets you. II) Publish your book on the web. This area is still a little hazy… You really have to commit to updating your web comic regularly and really work on building a loyal audience. You’ll see no money up front for this, but it could work out in the long run. Maybe offer a “pay what you want” paypal account on your site where people can donate what they feel your work is worth… if they want.
I hope this helps any aspiring writers as they move forward with their dream projects. Please comment below if you have anything to add. Now, go create.
[UPDATE - For more on pitching, check out my write up on Chris Schweizer's "Pitching a Graphic Novel" panel at HeroesCon.]