One of the most common questions among creators in any field, but especially writing, ask How do I get started? It’s common because not a lot of folks really talk about how hard it can be to break into the industry and land published work, especially if you’re not able to draw your own stories.
It’s marginally easier to find published work in comics if you can draw your own stories. You can build up your portfolio on your own, and not have to rely on collaboration, and saving up money to bring your scripts to life. But while it’s maybe easier to break in that way, artists ultimately get the short end of the stick, as they tend to be burdened with the majority of the work, crappier deadlines, and less pay.
That’s why it’s important for writers to practice as they come into the industry, and learn how to be the best collaborator that they can be. It’s not just about building up a portfolio, it’s about building up your work so that you’re taking your co-creators into consideration.
If you ask other creators who’ve been around for a while How do I get started? you will almost definitely get the response, “Just make comics!” This can be a little bit frustrating to some folks who feel that they don’t know how to make comics yet, and the question is more about WHERE do they start? How do they build up a network of peers? How do they seek out editors and published work? There are so many different components at work here, and we’re going to try to jump into a few of those in this piece.
GETTING YOUR WORK PUBLISHED
I am a massive advocate of the short story. Short stories can be incredibly hard to write, and even harder to make satisfying to your readers. But being able to write a short story can be a powerful portfolio piece for you that editors will note and appreciate. It’s hard to drop people into a world, even if it’s our own, and set the stage so that the story can play out with anything that the reader may need to understand. You need to play around with how much information you absolutely have to convey vs. what can your reader be left to deduce on their own. To do that, you have to understand your audience, and write for who you think might read your story.
Thankfully, that sort of information tends to be provided to you if you look for anthologies and zines to submit to. Coming up and writing original story ideas can be really daunting without parameters, but because of the rise of the comic book anthology, small press publishers have been working on putting out a wide variety of collections to showcase a wide variety of creators.
They’re not always open call anthologies, and sometimes you just need to know the right people, but checking out a newsletter like the one that PaperCatBlog puts out weekly, helps you stay in the loop for the ones that do open their submissions.
Writers who aren’t able to draw their own stories are often concerned about their ability to pay an artist to bring their story to life. Submitting to, and getting accepted into an anthology can not only help with that, but it gets you a credit in a published project.
Most reputable anthologies and small press publishers will make sure to offer a page rate to the creators on their books. Because they’re small publishers though, the page rate is usually pending a crowdfunding campaign – they tend to get the money via Kickstarter (or another crowdfunding platform), which includes rates for the creators as well as the money they need for the actual creation of the book. You can visit TO Comix Press’ site to learn more about the process; they are completely transparent on the process, the funds, and everything else you need to learn about anthologies or to run your own.
Some creators may want to work with an established artist for a short story – an artist who may otherwise be out of their price range. What you can also do here, is negotiate with said artist. By negotiate, I mean you find out what their regular rate is, find out the rate that the anthology is paying to the artist, and then subtract that number from the regular rate. From there, you can pay the difference to make up for it, and potentially have the chance to work with a bigger name creator.
This can be good because a) it brings more repute to the anthology b) it gives more weight to you as a creator and c) allows you to learn about collaborating with someone who already has experience in the industry.
But even though you have a contract for the anthology (probably), make sure to also develop a contract between yourselves for the additional page rate to be provided.
Even if it’s small press or a micro press, having a story published in an anthology or zine still counts as published work. There can also be a lot of competition for these story slots too, so don’t be discouraged by rejection. You can always hang onto stories to work on and develop on your own down the line.
That brings me to my last point with this section though, and that’s about READING THE BRIEF. Each anthology will have specific perimeters and will often break things down into things that they want to see and things that they definitely don’t want to see. It’s important to read carefully and make sure that whatever you come up with fits into what they’re looking for. If not, you run the risk of being disregarded immediately.
Make sure you include everything that is asked of you. Check to see if they’ll help pair you up with an artist; if not, look into some options (you can put out a call for paid work on Twitter with the hashtag #HiringForComics and our sister site, Creator Advisor will share it). Check if you need to provide a web site; do you have a web site? If not, make sure you have one, and make sure that whatever you submit is what they’re looking for (for instance, some folks do not want to see Instagram shared as a portfolio).
Real talk: always have a web site. Always have contact information on your web site. Always make your web site accessible – you never know who might notice you! But most editors will never love a creator enough to hunt them down… if you don’t have a web site, or contact information listed anywhere, and are generally unaccessible, you are going to miss out on potential opportunities.
Most anthologies won’t ask for a script or art up front, but read to make sure. A lot of anthologies will at least want an outline of your story (including a satisfying resolution to the story), an idea of your characters, and a description like what you’d see on the back of a book.
To learn how to format a script, visit here for Fred Van Lente’s officially unofficial standard. And visit here for a breakdown of that format where Fred explains it all in more detail.
CONNECTING WITH EDITORS
This is tricky, especially if you don’t go to conventions or if you have crippling anxiety or… well, there’s a bunch of reasons why this is tricky.
There’s this great thing that exists called The Internet! And on the internet, you can utilize social media. And on that social media, you can still connect with editors (and your peers).
I’d recommend building up a network of your peers first, and building up a good relationship with them. It doesn’t have to be a working relationship – in fact, most peer relationships are built as traditional friendships rather than being treated as a co-worker or colleague. Creators want to build healthy relationships with peers that they can be in the industry with; folks they can talk to and understand and relate to. Interacting, engaging, and supporting your peers in a way that feels (and is) genuine will go a long way in helping you build your career.
As you and your peers grow in the industry, you’ll find that people tend to share the wealth, so to speak. Creators are happy to give intros to other creators, to editors, and to other pros working in the industry. They’re willing to do that for their friends and peers that they will feel will be a good reflection of them since it’s their introduction that will open the door.
All of this can apply to IRL relationships and communities, if you’re the type of person okay with social interaction and being at conventions and industry events, but it still applies if you’re exclusively online only.
It’s about treating others with respect. Read the room, so to speak, and engage with others in an appropriate way. Respect your peers. Understand the rules and boundaries, and respect them.
WRITING EXERCISES AND PROMPTS
I won’t spend a long time on this section, so I’ll get to the point. Like I mentioned within the Getting Your Work Published section – sometimes when your have no perimeters, it’s intimidating to come up with a story idea. If that’s the case, and you don’t see any anthologies or zines to pitch to, look for writing prompts!
You can definitely find lots of them on Pinterest, on social media, and just generally around, but what you can also do to prepare yourself for other anthologies, is looking at old anthologies no longer accepting submissions. You can look at their guidelines and specifications, and try to build a story with them. It gives you structure and timelines to work with. You can choose to come up with the ideas and outlines only, or you can play around with the scripts and actually write them.
Other things to do? Think of your favourite characters from anything at all, and try to come up with a story that you haven’t seen done before with them. Shout out to FANFICTION!!!! It’s existed for many, many moons, and is fantastic. You can change the names of the characters or heck, you can just write out the character as the character. Just make sure that should you ever pursue having the script made, that there are certain legalities around selling a story that’s based on someone else’s property.
But as an exercise just for you? It’s great.
FINDING TIME TO WRITE
Despite what anyone says, you do not need a fancy app or word processor to write your scripts. For both writing and editing, I exclusively use Google Docs. I only really use Microsoft Word for copyedits or to send a file in a specific format to a creator or editor. Google Docs is great because it allows me access to my work anytime, and anywhere that I have internet access. Even if I don’t have internet access, as long as I’ve made the file available offline, I can still get to it.
This allows for me to, again, work from anywhere. I can work on my commute (I literally wrote an entire novel over the course of a month just on my daily commute), I can work on my day job breaks, and I can work if I have a few minutes before an appointment, or meeting or wherever else I am.
For me as also an editor, formatting is important, but it’s not as important as just getting things down on paper. You can free flow your idea and stories onto the page, and once you’re in a place to build up from that groundwork, go in and fine tune things.
Creators often don’t find time to write – most of us continue to have day jobs and side hustles that we have to do to pay our bills. If we focused on finding the time to write, it would never get done. We make the time to write.
This isn’t a humble brag on my life – because make no mistake: it’s a mess that I constantly struggle to balance – but I have a full-time job that I’m at for 45 hours every week. I’m a staff member with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which we work on essentially year round. I run this web site, I go to the gym three times a week, I see my partner as often as possible, I play D&D regularly, I edit several comics, and I write every day. Or nearly every day. You could easily look at my life, and minus the editing and writing portion, think Wow, when would you have time to do anything else? and again, the answer is this: I make the time.
You need to make the time.
So at the end of the day, it comes down to you. When you, or anyone else asks How do I get started? it comes down to how bad you want it. Do you love comics? Do you love telling stories? Can you make time for this?
You need to tell these stories for you, first and foremost. You have to love the medium, and turning what’s in your brain into something more on the page. If you’re focused on making comics for other people, chances are, you won’t make it far. Tell stories that are important to you, and stories that you want to tell. That way, it becomes easy to make the time.
Get excited for your art. Get excited to tell a story. Get excited to see it come to life with an artist, and other collaborators! Collaboration is the best part of this medium, and when you open yourself up to the possibilities of what you can do within it, you’ll maybe find that the excitement is intoxicating and addicting in the best ways possible.