Writing Comics – Some Things I Have Learned

The last two weekends have been spent in conference venues, pubs, restaurants and hotel bars with fellow comics creators. London Super Comic Con and Cardiff Comic Expo fell one after the other so, along with fatigue, hangovers and a lingering cough, I’ve got a head full of comics chatter, some of which I thought I’d share.

I was lucky enough at Cardiff to take part in two panels: one on Women In Comics and the other on Getting Ahead in Small Press / Self-Publishing. It’s the latter of these that I’d like to talk about, particularly to share some tips on writing for small press comics.

Tip #1 – write

Every blog about writing always starts with the same advice: just write. It’s boring, but it’s true. The more you write, the better you get. The more you write, the more ideas you have. The more you write, the faster it gets.

Don’t write in isolation: find people (not your mum) to read and comment on your scripts. A lot of small press editors will give feedback on submissions (see Tip #3 below); their feedback is meant to be constructive and helpful, so listen to it and act on it. No-one’s writing is perfect. No-one’s. No, not even yours. Really. Truly, it’s not.

Tip #2 – edit

Writing is the start of a process. The first draft of something will never be the last. You can’t just expect to vomit out words in a frenzy of creativity and for them all to land on the right page in the right order, or for them even to have been the right words in the first place.

When you’re writing for short form comics, 5 pages or so, edit out all of the fluff. Do not waste 3.5 pages introducing your alternate universe and then try to crunch your story into a page and a half. Get into your story as quickly as possible, tell it, and get out again. Think of yourself as the Special Forces of Writing, going in for the kill: don’t tell us what ammo you’re using, just shoot the damned target.

Two more things on editing:

Dialogue – try to stick to maximum 3 speech balloons in a panel and no more than 25 words in total. If you fill each panel with dialogue then (a) it gets confusing and (b) no-one can see the art. If you’ve got a lot of dialogue, you’re probably writing a play rather than a comic, so switch media.

Typos – unforgivable. This also applies to misplaced apostrophes. Writing is not just about the words, it’s about the spaces and little black marks in between. If you don’t know the rules, look ’em up. Punctuation is part of the profession.

Tip #3 – submit

There are plenty of opportunities to submit your writing to publishers, but for god’s sake, read their guidelines and give them what they want. If you send something that is the wrong length, format or genre, it won’t get read, even if it’s the finest piece of literature ever crafted.

As well as the guidelines, find out what you can about what different editors / publishers like and who their customers tend to be. I edit anthologies for Disconnected Press, for example, and I hate comics that are told entirely in captions (unless those captions subvert or transform what is being shown on the page). Finding out what editors like is, usually, a process of trial and error; you only learn what people don’t like by being rejected for doing it…

When you get rejected (note: when – everyone gets rejected), you should be given a reason why. Listen to that reason, look at your work, decide what you will do to improve your story. If you follow the feedback, you could re-submit your story a second time with a better outcome. If you put your fingers in your ears and go la-la-la whenever you are given any sort of criticism, you’ll never be a better writer, and you should probably never be allowed to drive a car or cook dinner for me.

Tip #4 – professionalism

We all write comics because we love comics. Love is no excuse for amateurism. If you behave in a professional manner, you will be treated like a professional and it’s more likely that you’ll become a professional. It’s the basic stuff: meet deadlines; present your work in a neat, organised way; respond to emails quickly (or at least set a timescale in which you will respond); learn how to speak about your work in a clear, concise manner; don’t cry, scream or set fire to things when you get negative feedback. People will judge your comics in part based on how they judge you (and yes, I know it’s not fair).

I could write more, but by now you’re keen to get back to tip #1 and do some writing or, if you’ve been paying attention, to tip #2 and do some editing. Go, go do. Write things. Send them out into the world.

And if you found this useful and /  or interesting: let me know. I’m happy to expound at length on comics, writing, editing, publishing and so forth. I can’t claim to be an expert, but I can claim to have an opinion, which may be the same thing.

Thanks for reading.


2 thoughts on “Writing Comics – Some Things I Have Learned

Add yours

  1. Periodically, I’ll write a ‘how to write’ email to someone who asks for advice – I shall direct them towards this from now on.

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