Running a Marathon Is Nothing…Try Writing a Novel

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Two weeks ago, I ran my first marathon (that’s 26.2 miles, baby!), but I’ve gotta say, for all the two-hour training runs, IT band injuries, and sweat I put into preparing for the marathon, it’s still not as hard as writing a novel.

Two months ago, I finished the first draft of my Steampunk YA novel. Writing that was a lot like training for a marathon–I wrote even when I didn’t want to, I carved out specific days to get a good write in, and I varied my workout (sometimes I worked on character backstories, sometimes I read other similar works to inform my own, and sometimes I actually wrote the novel itself).

Perhaps the key difference between running a marathon and writing a novel is simply: who the hell knows how long your novel’s “race” will be? 26.2 is a darn long distance, but at least it’s a distance I know and can measure. My novel? God help me if I know how long that journey is going to be. But, hey, isn’t that part of the fun?

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. And work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen-hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I got to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; its a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long – six months to a year – requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”- Murakami

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I Can Write a Comic Book & So Can You: The Basics

A comic writer writes behind the scenes. Most people never actually see the words we write. They experience them as a picture, a word balloon, or the movement between panels.

The Script

When you sit down to write your first comic book, it’s hard to know exactly where to start, simply becuase you might not know what a comic script even looks like. Do a quick Google search of “how to write a comic” or “what does a comic script look like” and you get a melange of discordant results.

SampleScript2
Click to download the full script.

Here’s the short answer: There is no one industry standard format for a comic book script.

Here’s some info that’s more helpful:

  • Download one of my short comic scripts for a solid example of a comic book script format. I took a comic book writing class at Columbia College in Chicago. Mort Castle, the class’ professor and experienced horror comic writer, offered up a flexible simple script format created by David Campiti. It’s simple and easily customizable to fit a certain publisher’s needs.

Formatting

Formatting can be the bane of a comic writer’s existance. I’m not convinced it has to be. Here’s why:

  • Use a writing software that does the formatting for you. Scrivner is pretty sweet and is compatible with both Macs and PCs. You can download a 30 day trial, but, trust me, it’s worth the $45 price tag. FYI–it’s awesome for novel writing in general, as it allows you to collect your character summaries, photographs, research, and multiple drafts in one “source of truth” for your work.
  • Just fortmat at you go. That’s what I did when writing my graphic novel. I’d adjust the formatting at the end of every chapter. It was a nice break from the brain-wrenching work of writing.
Scriver's ability to store multiple forms of media in one document is great for comic writing.
Scriver’s ability to store multiple forms of media in one document is great for comic writing.

Terminology & Other Useful Things

Gutter-Space between comic book panels; a way cooler way of saying “space between comic book panels.”

Caption-A small box that encloses text.

Word Balloon-Don’t ever say word bubble. Ever.

Birds Eye View-The scene as seen from above it.

Close-up-A view of an object at close range.

Gods Eye View-The scene from far, far above as if from heaven.

Inset-A small panel enclosed in a big panel.

Manga Motion Lines-Lines that denote movement. This is a common technique used in Japanese comics, or manga.

Panel-A box that contains a given scene.

Splash Page-A full-page panel.

Wide View-A view that captures a long expanse of a scene.

Wikipedia has a more comprehensive list here.

Finally, Some Words of Wisdom

Don’t use Comic Sans font in your script. Just don’t do it. Be cool and use the old school Courier. It’s actually preferred because each letter takes up the same amount of space, making it easier for the artist to gauge space needed for a caption or word balloon.

Don’t over-describe. Probably your artist knows what a violin looks like, or a steak, or a ladder. The goal of the comic writer is to be descriptive enough her vision shines through but pithy enough to not constrict the artist’s style. When in doubt, add a picture reference.

Don’t get hung up on the formatting. If your script is readable, clear, and simple, you’ve probably got something good going. Let formatting be secondary to the actual content.

And with that, I release you to find the script format that works best for you!

I Can Write a Comic Book & So Can You: The Research

I’m going to be completely honest here—I don’t really like research, I don’t read as much as I “should” (As a once-English major, I’ll forever be plagued with the obligation to read more, in the same way I’m expected to like Scrabble and use words like “penultimate.”), and I’d rather smell old books than labor over them for nuggets of information.  Luckily for me, researching for comic books doesn’t have to be laborious and boring.

Remember, you are writing a comic, and comics are a visual medium, so, while “traditional” research is necessary (I’m not going to talk about it here because, really, it’s the same type of research you’d do for any type of fiction. If you’re looking for a good reference about non-visual research, check out Writer’s Digest and Writing Forward), visual due diligence is essential to writing a great comic.

To maximize my visual research, I created a Pinterest board for my comic. Pinterst (a virtual pin board for those who live in a cave and aren’t familiar) allows me to easily collect images and display them in an attractive, socially-connected way. Thus, I can simultaneously gather my research, build my writer’s platform (more on that later), and self-indulge in the cool-factor of physically seeing the essence of my comic before finding an artist.

http://pinterest.com/mscomix/fusion/
http://pinterest.com/mscomix/fusion/

Visual research is vital to the success of your comic, especially if you’re not going to draw it. Here’s why:

  1. Images allow your vision to shine (accurately). Your job as a comic writer is to simultaneously craft a story while translating the images banging around in your mind’s eye into readable, concise language so that an artist can pick up your script and draw it—in a way that actually resembles your vision.
  2. Visual research aids your storytelling. I do visual research (yes, via Pinterest) for my novels as well. Stream-of-consciousness Internet surfing sparks ideas. Gathering together images of the setting, characters, artificial eyes, Jimmy Cho heels, Ducati motorcycles, or whatever helps you identify gaps in your vision. Like, “Oh crap, a flamethrower is way too clunky. There’s no way she’d be able to fire that thing on a moving train.” Or, “I’m glad I didn’t write him wearing an ascot because I totally thought that was a kind of hat.” Visual research is particularly useful for comics set in (or inspired by) a historical context.
  3. Your visuals are part of your script. Copy and paste those images right into your Word document. I stuck mine at the end of my comic as a “visual appendix” with footnotes throughout the body of the script. Feel free to include it right along with your writing. You’re saving your artist time and grief by making your visuals accessible.

Long story short, do your research—both traditional and visual—before, during, and after writing the first draft of your comic. But! Don’t get too caught up it in….because at some point you’ll actually have to write this thing.

I Can Write a Comic Book & So Can You: The Intro

My life is substantially different than it was a year ago, when I moved to downtown Chicago to take a class in comic book writing. Since then, I’ve graduated, found myself a “grown-up” job, moved to a new city, and written a young adult novel. But the knowledge I learned and the experiences I gained from the best college class I’ve ever taken, stuck with me.

I got lucky and somehow finagled my way into a comic book writing class at a college I wasn’t even attending, with a professor who was a real expert in the industry, and with a group of student who actually gave a damn about the oft misunderstood world of comic creating.

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Art by Antonio Almazo. Find more of his stuff here: http://seedofsmiley.deviantart.com

I’d hate to be greedy. Not everyone gets to take a comic book writing class. So, while this series is long overdue (I promised it’d begin nearly five months ago), I’d like to present, Ms.Comix’ “I Can Write a Comic Book & So Can You,” a series of articles intended to take readers through the entire comic creating process from the perspective of a writer—a writer, mind you, who only “got into” comics two years ago, is a woman, is a feminist, was recently a student but now works (more than) full time in a real person job, and is, perhaps most importantly, incapable of drawing her own art.

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Storyboard. Trust me, it makes sense to me.

I intend to walk through the entire comic-creating process from a writer’s perspective. Besides the actual script writing, I’ll address research, story-boarding, outlining, building a writer’s platform, working with (and finding) artists, seeking publication, and finding your place in the comic community.

So come back. Subscribe to Ms.Comix emails. Walk with me through the highly-rewarding journey of a comic writer.

Comic Books 101: The Finale

My Comic Books 101 series, which detailed all the wisdom I learned from my comic book writing class this past semester, sort of faded away without much explanation. Long story short: I graduated.

Happily, I finished the class with a professional portfolio that contained the entire script for my graphic novel Fusion (which, admittedly, I also wrote as my senior thesis in English), the first six pages penciled and inked by an artist, a springboard, and other goodies (like character profiles, visual references, etc.). So while I’m certainly no expert at the comic creating process, I’m at least considerably more experienced than I was four months ago.

So here’s my plan. This post will act as my transition from the Comic Books 101 series to my new series, I Can Write a Comic Book and So Can You! (which will detail the adventure of creating my first ever graphic novel).

And to pretend like this post contains serious content, here’s a list of what you’ve learned in Comic Books 101:

Resources for Comic Creators

Writer-Artist Collaboration

Selling Your Comic

Breaking Into the Comic Book Industry

Writer Rights

The Elements of an Effective Comic

Pearls of Wisdom

Comics Are…

Comic Books 101–Part Eight

For the 8th edition of Comic Books 101, here’s a straight-up list of useful resources for comic book writers and artists:

Duotrope.com—Duotrope offers “a fully searchable database of over 4,125 active publishers
statistics on publishers’ response times, acceptance-rejection ratios, etc.
the ability to track all your submissions in your own submissions tracker.”

Writers’ Market—Keep up-to-date with publishing news, search for places to sell your work, manage your submissions, and search genre-specific resources.

Frame Forge—“FrameForge Previz Studio 3 enables you to create a virtual 3D set in your computer with the freedom to place any number of virtual cameras in any placement, angle or height desired.”

Poser—Poser is a 3D figure design software. It “includes over 3 gigabyte of ready-to-pose, fully textured, human and animal figures, basic accessories such as hair, clothing, pose sets, real world props and 3D scene elements. With Poser 9 you can start creating 3D character art and animation in minutes.”

Bryce—“Bryce is a very affordable 3D terrain generation tool. You can create mountains, skies, and oceans, as well as your own 3D models and props.”

Comic Life—Comic Life is useful for storyboarding your comic. “The easy-to-use interface integrates seamlessly with your photo collection or iSight. Drag in your pictures, captions, Lettering text (‘ka-blam!’) and speech balloons and your work is done!”

Anything you’d add to this list?

Comic Books 101–Part Seven

Collaborating with Artists

The panel of five comic creators I mentioned in the previous Comic Books 101 had much to say on the topic of collaboration.  I say this often, but one of the major reasons why I love comics is because it’s a naturally collaborative medium. Only in rare cases is a person able to write, draw, print, promote, and sell her comics all on her own. Unlike traditional writing, which is a generally solitary endeavor, comic creating is a dynamic, collaborative process. I love it (and, yes, it kinda weirds me out at the same time) that what I write isn’t actually what my readers see when they read my comic. Rather, my readers see how my artist interpreted my script. Comics are collaboration at its finest!

Here are some gems of wisdom regarding collaboration from some seasoned comic professionals:

“It’s always easier to start a fight than end one.”

Find an artist who balances you out. If you’re shy, find someone who’s more talkative. If you’re immersed in the fantasy genre, find some with experience writing noir crime.

Don’t confuse collaboration with friendship. Your friend might not be an ideal collaborator. An idea collaborator might not end up being your friend.

Listen to your collaborator. Respect can go a long way.

Have a contract ready before you show your artist anything. More on contracts here.

And my advice (I’m currently working with student artists willing to draw the first six pages of my graphic novel in exchange for collaboration and an addition to their portfolio.):

Find an artist you can trust. DO judge them by how promptly they reply to emails or if they often skip out on meetings.

DON’T just judge an artist by her art. A novice artist who is willing to work her butt off for your project is better than a brilliant seasoned artist who can’t meet deadlines.

DO cast your net wide. Tell everyone you’re looking for an artist. Put up posters. Advertise on Craigslist. Find artists on deviant art. There are artists willing to work at any price point, so don’t be discouraged (although, DO consider the trade offs).

Look out for next week’s Comic Books 101 about online resources for comic writers!