Category Archives: Tutorial

Creator-Owned Sales – Nov 2014 Update

Just over a year ago I put together a second pretty extensive post all about how long term sales were going on Skullkickers. I wanted to give people an understanding of the economics of what I’m doing without revealing the exact dollar figure amounts involved (that information is between Image Comics and the creative team).

Since then I’ve received two more accounting accrual statements from Image and also had a chance to dig deeper into the numbers and chart them a bit more accurately.

Here’s an updated look at where we’re at and some of my thoughts. I’m not going to repeat the same info from before, so feel free to check the earlier article for analysis of 2011 Q2-2013 Q2.

Here’s how Skullkickers has performed from our launch back in 2010 through to the first half of 2014:

2014-11-SalesChart2

2013 Q3-Q4: As I expected in my previous update, printing the deluxe Treasure Trove 2 hardback ratcheted up our expenses, but print sales are pretty much neck-and-neck, with digital keeping us slightly ahead.

2014 Q1-Q2: Reprinting our Volume 3 softcover built up some cost but we’ve been able to stay ahead with accrual sales. Digital sales are now becoming a larger factor overall as well. How much so? Well, let me show you in more detail.

2014-11-SalesChart3

Keep in mind the above is profit, not sales.

Digital sales continue to grow. Since there’s no print run or storage limit with digital they continue to build profitability over the long haul (particularly with the early issues as new readers sample the series during comiXology sales). Many issues that lost money in their initial print release have been able to make back their losses thanks to digital.

You can also see the effect our goofy reboot promotion (where we released five new #1’s in five months) had during issues 19-23. We’d never be able to do that sort of thing again, but it was a nice way to extend the life of the series a bit. I can see why Marvel and DC hit the relaunch button so often. Fans may say they’re sick of new #1’s, but the truth is that it can stir interest/sales.

Let’s look at the current state of the collections.

2014-11-SalesChart4

In my update a year ago Skullkickers Vol. 1: 1000 Opas and a Dead Body and Skullkickers Treasure Trove Vol. 1 weren’t profitable but now, thanks to longtail sales and digital, they’re making some money.

Skullkickers Vol. 3: Six Shooter on the Seven Seas sold through its initial print run and needed a reprint, so it’s back in the red (but will hopefully recover over the long haul).

Skullkickers Vol. 4: Eighty Eyes on an Evil Island hasn’t been out very long so there are more copies in stock than have currently sold. Thankfully digital sales are helping.

The deluxe Skullkickers Treasure Trove Vol. 2 hardback is, like the first one, very expensive to print and will take quite a while to make its money back. Even still, with a higher cover price it’s a great archival item to have available. The deluxe volumes sell well for me at conventions and, although it looks brutal right now, I think it will climb its way out of the red just like Treasure Trove 1 did.

A year ago our print expenditures had finally popped into a tiny bit of profitability. How are things looking now?

2014-11-SalesChart1

Okay, so that tiny breath of profitable fresh air in the green was temporary, but that’s okay. Things actually aren’t as dire as it may look, given all the data.

First off, Image paid us an accrual cheque based on digital sales in 2013, so when they had to print Treasure Trove 2 and Volume 4 and reprint Volume 3 that put them back in the red. Keeping the series in print and available is crucial for our long term viability.

Secondly, notice that digital sales continue to climb and that profits from digital are actually keeping pace with losses incurred through print. Digital is keeping us skimming along the break even line. I’m still hopeful that, once the series ends in 2015, we’ll end up in the black.

Compare the current situation to the low point of the first half of 2012. I can’t state enough that Image has been a rock through all of this, making their base amount and sticking with us, paying printing/distribution bills while we looked towards longtail sales for the series.

Keep in mind this is just analysis of one creator-owned series. As interesting as it can be, I can’t speak to anyone else’s sales or their financial situation. This sales cycle does not correspond to all creator-owned books. Please don’t make your own financial decisions based on what I’ve done. Everyone’s risk threshold and situation is different. You may end up throwing good money after bad. Wayward, my new creator-owned series that launched in August, has a completely different sales/profit situation and, if I have time, I may analyse that as well once we have our first trade release.

Note that this is not the full financial picture. The above charts don’t include convention sales, which are still going strong. The money made from direct convention sales, sketch covers, commissions and selling original page art has helped keep us going and viable. I exhibited at 11 conventions this year and, even though it was exhausting, it paid off in terms of sales and visibility for the series. It also doesn’t include money made from web ad revenue generated at our webcomic site.

Also note that none of the above takes into account freelance work that’s come from working on Skullkickers. If you factor in money made from the writing jobs I’ve done for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW, Valiant, Dynamite, and UDON since the series began, it has turned a substantial profit in that way even after paying the art team out of my own pocket (which is not factored into the above. The charts above represent only Image Comics’ profit/loss). Skullkickers has been the foundation where I’ve built a 2nd career as a professional comic writer over a relatively short period of time.

Most importantly, we put out a comic that stands favourably beside some of the best titles in the industry and I’m incredibly proud of that. As we head towards our sixth story arc we’re going to have over 30 issues, which is pretty rarefied air for a creator-owned series in this day and age.

If you find my sales and tutorial blogposts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends, and consider buying some of my comics to show your support. Thanks!

Comics Survival Kit

Gail Simone, award-winning comic writer and long time friend/supporter of my work, has put together a new Tumblr called the Comics Survival Kit filled to the brim with resources for aspiring comic creators.

Compiling articles and information from artists, writers, and editors across the industry, it’s a great resource and quite interesting even if you’re not looking to make your own comic stories. Check it out!

ComicsSurvivalKit

Comic Story Critique

One of my students from Seneca College (where I teach Animation courses) sent me two finished comic scripts for feedback. I don’t normally have time for this kind of critique, but we’ve talked quite a bit in the class about his desire to create comics and I wanted to encourage him to continue and push him to dig deeper. Here’s the feedback I sent, since I think a lot of the critique I write applies to new writers just starting out.

(Please do NOT send me your pitches/scripts for feedback. I really don’t have the time to review them. I did this as a personal favour for someone I know. I can’t spend all my time critiquing the work of strangers, especially with my insane work schedule right now).

Hi (name removed),

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you on this.

First off, congrats! Writing stories is tough and creating something new for yourself, especially the first few times, is always an intense uphill battle. You’ve finished a draft and that’s worthy of praise.

I read through both scripts and have quite a few thoughts, but I want you to know that I’m giving critique because I want your skills to improve and feel you’re capable of learning from the feedback rather than taking it personally. Tastes vary and what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, but getting feedback and deciding what criticism is valid for yourself is key.

TITLE: I’ve been told by several people that titling a story something negative can create a subconscious negative impression of the story itself. I know what you’re going for with that title and it’s okay, but I thought I’d mention that right out the gate.

FORMAT: Many of your panel descriptions are too brief and far too generic. You don’t have to create flowery prose for a comic script, but you do need to have enough material in there for the artist (unless you’re drawing it yourself?) to draw inspiration from. Using terms like “the city”, “the bank”, “the police station” doesn’t give us a sense of the place or atmosphere. What kind of city is this? What impression do these places give? Rich, poor, modern, historic – what do we need to know about these places to help us visualize them?

Always impart relevant information the very first time it’s required. You have several pages mentioning the crowd of people at the start of the story before you include information on the fact that there are mutants mixed in with that crowd. You also don’t mention that the main hero guy is wearing tech on his wrist until later when he uses it.

Remember that ‘page turn reveals’ happen on even page numbers. You have several surprise/big reveal moments happening on odd numbered pages, which means that if this was a printed comic the reader would already have seen the big moment with their peripheral vision as they read along.

PLOT: Your core story (cops investigating a superhero murder, a lesser hero murdering the #1 hero they’re jealous of) is really, really well worn cliché ground that’s been done many times before. Every twist and reveal is exactly what I expected it would be as I was reading. There’s nothing new here that hasn’t been done in other places.

One of the toughest things about creating new stories and being inspired by all kinds of different sources is that your earliest stories tend to be Frankenstein monsters of all your influences as you learn about form and storytelling methods. In that way, that’s exactly what you’ve done here. It’s competent, follows narrative logic and all wraps up cleanly. I think you’ve learned a lot just by writing this… BUT, it doesn’t have anything new/different/unexpected to say about superheroes, murder, or police work. The tropes are locked in place and a reader who knows the genres you’re taking from enough to want to read this will also see nothing here to excite them.

RESEARCH: After reading the story I don’t get the impression that you’ve done any research at all in to how actual murder investigations are conducted. Go beyond base level clichés and easy 1 note solutions. Even if you don’t use 90% of the research you do on actual police work, you can enrich the story with a 10% extra dose of reality by doing the legwork and finding out about the real thing. Everything goes too smoothly for your loser cops. They stumble across evidence and solve everything without breaking a sweat. They don’t follow any kind of protocol and just sort of stumble along and have it all go their way.

Same thing with the technology. Everything comes across as generic and too simple. They don’t give a sense of high-tech/future tech or any kind of specific reality. They’re just sci-fi-style shortcuts without anything new/unexpected.

DIALOGUE: If the entire story played out in a generic way but the characters were unique and witty the story could still be entertaining. What really hurts it for me is that your dialogue is just as cliché as the plot. Every character says the expected thing in the blandest way possible to move the plot forward. Everyone’s dialogue is interchangeable. There’s no personality coming through in the way they speak or their attitudes. They spout plot facts and move to the next scene.

This is where research can really come into it. Enrich the characters with facts about their lives, the city the story takes place in, the things that are happening before the story ever began. How did they end up where they are in the police force? What do they do when they’re not working? Who are they and why should we care?

Read the dialogue out loud. Get into character and say it differently for each person. How can you make the characters more distinctive sounding? How can you strengthen their personalities through the way they speak?

Again, I get that you’re playing with clichés, but would it kill you to have a woman (multiple women) in this story anywhere? Two superheroes, multiple bank robbers, cops, the police chief… they’re all guys. Don’t fall into the toxic head space that guys are protagonists and women are background material. It’s bullshit.

THEME: What is the theme of the story? What are you trying to say above and beyond the basic sequence of events? Not every story will be deep and meaningful, but finding a message/theme can be a helpful way of pushing yourself with bigger ideas to help drive the story.

I’m not saying you have to force a ‘deep’ moral core into it by any means, all kinds of fun stories can be built on silly/slight premises, but right now there’s absolutely nothing beyond the sequence of events and those events are generic.

Say something you believe in, not just what you think the audience wants to hear.

I know the above may come across as harsh, but I really do want to reinforce that you’ve done a good thing by completing these scripts. The only way to really learn storytelling is to do it. Reading tutorials and how-to books can’t replace the work itself. These scripts are the building blocks towards your improvement and you should be proud of that, even when I’m cutting deep with my criticism. I hear far too many people tell me they want to write stories and create things and then lament that they never have the time or make other excuses. You’re doing it and that is worthy. Keep doing. Keep building, self analysing, and improving.

Networking Is Not What You Think It Is

“Networking” is one of those broad social terms that get tossed out in conversation, and everyone who’s been around a while nods their head knowingly when the word comes up, but it’s something I think is quite misunderstood by a lot of people trying to get their start in comics or any other creative business.

Networking is not entering a social setting, finding the most “powerful” person there and trying to dazzle them so you can become “friends”.

It’s not sending lists of questions to professionals so they can “help” you break in.

It’s not tagging people on Facebook so they see your artwork or writing.

It’s not about dominating a conversation or hogging the spotlight.

It’s not nepotism or elitism, contrary to what some may think.

At its root, “networking” is about expanding your social circle in your related field. It’s casual conversation, shared enthusiasm, good manners, kindness, and common sense, whether those interactions are online or in person. Through the bonds of friendship and trust that build over time you’ll broaden your perspective on the creative and business sides of the industry and, eventually, find out about opportunities before people who are not as involved in those areas.

Like any kind of socializing, networking can be difficult to navigate at times. Everyone is doing their own thing and has their own wants and needs, both in the immediate and the future. There’s no perfect path for networking, but I can give you some quick tips gained from years on the convention circuit and working with publishing, video game, movie, and other entertainment companies.

• Friendly, casual: Networking isn’t contract negotiation and it’s not a job interview. Over the long, long haul it may lead to that kind of stuff later on, but don’t over formalize something that’s not all business.

• Be yourself at your best: Don’t try to put on airs or be something you’re not, but also try to be the best version of “you” that you can.

• Don’t come on too strong: I know it can feel like the current social interaction you’re having is the only time you’ll ever get the chance to sell yourself or make the big pitch, but fight that nervous urge and try to relax.

• Everyone is worth meeting: A lot of people want to meet celebrities, editors, art directors, and other decision-makers, but some of the most enjoyable and valuable networking I’ve done is with people who weren’t instantly recognizable as a “big deal”. Introduce yourself to someone you don’t know and you may be surprised at who they are and what they do.

• Listen and Ask: Engage the people you meet instead of just talking about yourself. Listen to where they steer the conversation and go with the flow. It’s not all about you.

• There is no perfect conversation: Don’t rehearse what you’re going to say and don’t expect to check off a list of “key points”. Try to enjoy the interaction for what it is instead of trying to make it something it’s not.

In my experience, the best kind of networking is the stuff that feels almost effortless – enjoyable conversations about shared interests, enthusiasm for the work of others, catch-all chatter about people and places. It’s a relaxed baseline of socializing that lets people know you’re decent and worth getting to know more about. I know that doesn’t sound like it’s going to get you a job but, believe me, it’s an important first step into a larger community where those kinds of first impressions mean a lot.

People tell me that they don’t know “how” to network, but they’re usually over thinking things. Do you like meeting people who like the same kinds of things you like? Do you like talking about those shared interests? Are you in for the long haul? In my experience that’s 90% of what networking actually is.

Everyone wants to work with reliable people. Getting to know you, or hearing from other trusted people that you’re one of the “good ones”, can open up doors. It’s frustrating when that “in or out” mentality pushes away good people or doesn’t embrace a proper range of diversity, but that’s not exclusive to comics by any means. It’s something a lot of creative businesses are grappling with as views broaden and the market for stories becomes even more global.

People in these businesses talk. They weigh opinions. They gossip. I can’t tell you the number of times a name will come up in conversation and I hear the exact same feedback coming out over and over from completely different people. Word gets around, both positive or negative. Good networking (and, you know, being a decent upstanding person in general) is a valuable way of making the right kind of impression and building a solid reputation. It doesn’t get you a job all on its own, but coupled with a quality body of work and a bit of luck it does help bridge the divide from aspiring amateur to paid professional.

Let me give you a personal example – Back in 2002 John Barber and I were both amateur webcomic artists putting our work online. John’s comic was a superhero deconstruction tale called Vicious Souvenirs and mine was a surreal coming of age comic called Makeshift Miracle. The two of us met socially through the late Joey Manley as part of a webcomic collective called Modern Tales. While promoting my webcomic at that time I met all kinds of different creators and attended conventions across North America, slowly building up my skills and body of work.

Now, in 2014, John’s a Senior Editor at IDW and we’re talking about a new project I’ll be writing that’s set to launch in the Fall. In the 12 years inbetween these two select points John and I have seen each other dozens of times. We’ve chatted, laughed, and built up mutual respect for each other. There’s a professional but casual friendship that’s grown over time and it gives John confidence that I’m a capable creator who will deliver the goods. I didn’t meet him back in 2002 expecting one day he’d hire me to write a comic, things progressed naturally out of shared social contact as part of this community. John is just one of literally hundreds of people I’ve met in the business over the past 12 years. When I look back through my career I can see weird and wonderful connections between the people I met over a decade ago and the work I’m doing in the here and now. That’s how it works.

Networking is easier than you think – Be social, be decent, and be involved. Don’t try to over think the destination, just focus on the journey itself and enjoy meeting people along the way. You’ll make lifelong friends, broaden your horizons and then, when you least expect it, professional opportunities may come your way.

If you find my tutorial blog posts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends and consider buying some of my comics to show your support.

Time-Saving Tips for the Creative Crunch

After my previous post about my output in 2013 and some thoughts on writer’s block, I received a lot of wonderful comments and messages. Quite a few people asked about ways to be more productive/save time while they work, so I thought I’d cover a few things that have worked for me in case they’d be helpful to a wider readership.

Although creativity and writing can be driven by inspiration and there are more/less productive cycles, there’s also a lot of repetition that can take up undue amounts of time if you let it. Whenever I notice I’m doing the same kind of thing again and again during my work process I look for ways to automate parts of it to save myself time later on.


ScriptChunk

TEMPLATES and BOILERPLATES

When you’re constantly communicating with clients, publishers, other freelancers, and conventions you’ll notice that the same information is required over and over. Do it once, do it right, and save it so you never have to put that information together from scratch again. It’s easy to update and adjust once you have the foundation in place.

• I use a script template (It’s based on Fred Van Lente’s killer script format and the latest version was put together by the incredible Rob Marland, which you can download right HERE) that auto formats and auto numbers pages, panels, and dialogue lines so I don’t have to waste time doing it myself. It sounds silly and unnecessary but, trust me, when you have hundreds of pages of script and multiple panels per page it’s really helpful to just hit Enter→ and immediately roll into the next sequence without hitting Tab>Bold>and typing “Page” and “Panel” over, and over, and over again. The other nice thing with auto numbering is that if I take a line or panel out of a script, it cascade renumbers everything to match the new sequence, which is a real sanity saver. The technology is there, so I might as well use it to my advantage.

• I put together a standard intro paragraph about myself and my work so I can easily cut and paste it into an email and then customize it from there for introducing myself to new clients. The same goes for review copies and press contacts.

• I have a short 50-80 word bio and a longer 100-150 word one along with a recent photo of myself (both print and web-sized) so I always have them for conventions, signings, whatever.

• Publishers always need mailing information and that info tends to get lost so, as soon as I start working on a new creator-owned project, I get everyone’s updated contact info and put them in a text file ready to go. It’s also helpful for sending people I work with little surprise gifts or Christmas cards.

Basically, whenever I’m typing up information that seems generic enough that I may need it again, I’ll save it to my cloud storage with a self-explanatory title so I have easy access to it later. Speaking of which…


CloudOptions

THE CLOUD

I used to walk around with 3 or 4 USB thumb drives with iterations of my latest work and was in a constant state of ‘version madness’ trying to remember where I’d saved the latest document or cursing myself if I forgot to back-up a copy somewhere safe.

Now I have a set of organized folders on Google Drive (Dropbox or any other comparable service should work just as well) that automatically uploads the file I’m working on to my desktop computer, my laptop, my office computer at the college where I teach, and online to my Drive account. It’s goddamn magic. I no longer have to worry about losing my work or wondering if I’m working on the latest version of a story. All of them are current, all of them are safe.

Even if I do some writing on a plane or somewhere else without an internet connection, the minute I hook up to the internet again (at a hotel or a coffee shop while I’m on the road) it propagates the newest save and every version is up to date again. With small files like documents the process is practically instantaneous and, since they don’t take up much space, I can keep a full archive of every script I’ve ever written in the cloud so it’s easy for me to access old or new work wherever I am, whenever I need it. The same goes for pitches, outlines, contracts, logos, and key reference documents I use all the time.

I even have my email signature in a text file in the cloud with every email program (software or online) pointing to it, so if I ever need to change my signature all of them are the exact same and up to date. Anal, yes, but also very convenient.


Actions

AUTOMATION

Photoshop has a wondrous feature not enough people use – Actions.

When you’re producing 20+ page stories month after month you’ll end up doing the same things to art files time and time again. With Photoshop Actions you can set it to Record you doing the sequence once, then do it as many times as you want by clicking on the new Action you’ve created. You can even point an Action towards a folder and Batch Process the whole damn thing. Set it up and walk away while Photoshop chugs through the files. It’s glorious.

• Publisher needs cover art in 3 different sizes/formats for solicitation? One-click Action.
• I need to resize page art to a standard size and create a ‘floating’ line art layer before sending it to the color flatter? One-click Action.
• I need low rez pages with a watermark for reviewers? One-click Action.
• I need differently sized page files for the letterer? One-click Action.
• One of the colorists I work with has consistently dim colors? One-click Action.

Any time I can see that I’m going to end up doing something more than a couple times in Photoshop, I build an Action for it and automate that bastard. There’s no reason not to.


FAQ

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Funny enough, these tutorial posts here on my site are also, in part, a time saving measure. When people started asking me about how to break into the business, or how I write comics, I realized it would be something that would probably come up a lot. I decided to really hunker down and write up an extensive answer for each of those questions so I could easily point people towards it and not worry about brushing them off.

Everyone gets equal attention and a detailed answer instead of me ignoring the question or writing something vague and unhelpful because I don’t have time to deal with it when they ask. It’s a resource people can use and, if it’s helpful to them – great. If not – at least it didn’t take any more of my time.

Work time can be fleeting, especially when you’re trying to fit it in alongside a day job or other responsibilities. Working smarter with templates and automation can help you maximize your time and let you focus on the fun stuff – story building, art, and creativity.

Now, please enjoy the boilerplate finish to my tutorials below… :)

If you find my tutorial blog posts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends and consider buying some of my comics to show your support.

Feel free to share your own time-saving methods in the comments so other people can find and make use of them too!

The Writing Marathon – Motivation and Writer’s Block

I mentioned in my previous post that I scripted a thousand comic pages this year. That wasn’t hyperbole. The actual total was 1003 pages. I was backing up files and reorganizing old documents when I thought about the crazy productive year I’d had and got curious about how many pages I scripted in 2013 compared to previous years. Going back through my files checking old projects, here’s how it added up:

PageCount

1000 pages is equivalent to 4 comics a month, which is solid output for someone working in the business full time, let alone juggling a full time day teaching job at the same time. I’m not saying that to brag, just trying to give some context.

That being said, it hasn’t been easy. In order to hit my freelance deadlines and stay on top of my day job, everything else in my life took a back seat in 2013. My social time with family and friends was fleeting. I barely played any video games or watched TV/movies. Almost every single trip I took was to a convention or signing. On top of all that, I stepped away from my Project Manager position at UDON, wrapping up ten solid years of working with people who have been like family to me. Writing consumed everything in its path.

My wife was incredibly patient through all of this, understanding that I had to make writing a priority to make the most of opportunities that came my way. Thankfully, she worked away on her own prose writing at the same time. We both have aggressive creative goals, which is one of the reasons why we’re a good fit together. :)

Producing stories week after week taught me how to ‘turn on’ productivity when I need to. It’s like any other kind of exercise – you start slow, keep practising, and bit by bit you improve. At this point I’m able to break down a story faster, pace out scenes better, and more quickly get into character when I’m writing dialogue. You can read tutorials and learn from other writers’ techniques, but there’s no replacement for putting in the time and building your skills through experience.

People have asked me how I stay motivated and push past writer’s block. I don’t have a foolproof system and I have unproductive days just like everyone else, but my answer is probably not what you might expect.

When I get blocked up and need to get writing work done, my biggest motivator is fear. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true.

I have a deep unshakable dread that people who are waiting on my work (the line artist, colorist, letterer, editor) will get screwed over if I don’t deliver when I say I will.

I’ve been in too many situations where people haven’t upheld their end of things and those experiences have branded into my brain what that feels like. When I’m distracted or seizing up I try to put myself in someone else’s shoes and imagine how frustrated I would be if I was expecting that script and didn’t get it on time. After that, my gut clenches up and shit tends to get done…

…And if it doesn’t, a rye-whiskey and a bag of Doritos works pretty good too. :P

Crown

Crown & Coke – Jim’s writing fuel. Always drink responsibly. ;P

Having concrete deadlines looming overhead is a definite motivator too. Starting new creator-owned projects is more difficult because it can always be put off compared to deadline-driven work for hire gigs. Once I have an artist attached to a project it becomes more ‘real’ and my guilt-fear complex takes over. I don’t want an artist to be waiting on me when I said I’d have a script for them. I do everything I can to deliver on time or let the editor/artist know ASAP if things aren’t going as planned. It’s a respect and integrity thing for me. The fastest way to my bad side is lack of communication.

I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. I’m not here to tell anyone how much work they should be producing. My output and schedule is different from anyone else’s. Everyone has their own situation and has to do what works for them. There’s no “one size fits all” solution, especially when it comes to creativity.

Some people write a little bit every day like clockwork. I tend to do story breakdowns and plotting for quite a while and then binge-script once I feel confident I have the story figured out. When I’m finally ready and in “scripting mode” I can pound out 8-10 pages on a good week night or 15+ pages on a Saturday or Sunday working through the day. If someone else does 3 pages a day for 7 days in a row and I plan things out and then script 20 pages over two days, it doesn’t matter – We both have a finished script ready by Sunday night.

Even then, I wish it was that simple. I can’t honestly say I produced a script a week. Deadlines overlap and outside responsibilities occasionally trump writing time, which translates into bursts of productivity between pauses trying to figure out plot lines or waiting on project approval. The flexibility of writing is both a positive and negative – You can work any time, but you always feel like you could do more. What’s important is finding methods that work for you and recognizing your own triggers, good and bad. The only way to do that is with time and practice.

My goal for 2014 isn’t about writing more, it’s about improving my overall quality and being selective about what I’m working on – Launching creator-owned projects that show a wider range of ability and taking on work for hire projects that inspire me and bring out my best. That’s where I feel I’m at right now. Look at that dorky 5 year bar chart above and understand that it’s a process that takes time. Everyone’s path is going to be different, but I can say without reservation that writing regularly will definitely help you improve, no matter what skill level you’re currently at.

For the first couple years I was worried about whether I’d be able to deliver anything at all. After that I fretted I was typecasting myself with too many sword & sorcery projects. Right now, I’m feeling a bit more balanced. It’s impossible to know if 2014 will be as productive as this year was, but hopefully I’m better prepared for the challenges to come. I don’t have all the answers, but I think I know how to keep some of this momentum going and enjoy the ride a bit more.

Colorist Wanted: Coloring Notes

I’m on the hunt for a colorist for a creator-owned comic project I’m looking to release in 2014. I posted about this position earlier today on Facebook/Twitter and the response has been strong. I’m hopeful I’ll find the right person for the job. Yay, internet!

Anyway, here’s the quick skinny-


COLORISTS:
Need colorist for creator-owned comic coming out in 2014.
Starting coloring rate will be $35/page.
Pages will be pre-flatted for you.
Email portfolio links to jimzub(at)gmail(dot)com


In addition to that Want-Ad style brief, I’ve been sending more extensive style notes out to the colorists who got in touch and have work in their portfolio that looks compatible with what I’m looking for.

I realized it might be helpful for other people to see those notes as well. Every project has different requirements, but you may find it helpful to see what I’m looking for and why.

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Stylistically, I’m looking for the following on this comic project:

• Color palettes that help sell the mood of the scene instead of just blue sky/green grass/blue water kind of obvious local color choices.
• Clean cut light and shadow reminiscent of animation. This will require a solid understanding of light direction, cast shadows, and volume even though the coloring ‘cuts’ may look deceptively simple.
• Light effects created by coloring the line art itself and using solid highlights instead of a lot of airbrush/gradients over top of the line art. I’m not looking for a soft/fuzzy/rounded rendering style for this project.

Here’s a zip file with colors done by Bill Crabtree on the Image series ‘Invincible’.

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It’s a great example of what I’m looking for. I don’t mean Bill’s specific color palette choices but the way he uses hard cut areas of light and shadow to create mood, show depth, draw attention to characters, and instantly identify a change of scene or location. It’s not about detail as much as it’s about strong staging choices and powerful color palettes.

If you can deliver that kind of clean cut moody coloring, then you’d be a perfect fit for this project.

I have three sample pages completed by the penciler so far. I’ve sent them off for flatting, but should be getting those back by end of the week. Once I have those flats I’ll send over a layered-flatted page file along with color ref for the characters and the sample script. If you could color up one page as a test, that’ll help me compare coloring approaches and make a decision on the creative team.

Jealousy Is Creative Poison

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Here’s a piece of advice very few people talk about but, the further I get on this weird and wonderful creative journey, it’s something I feel is absolutely crucial to bring up.

Avoid being jealous of other people’s success. It will never help you achieve the things you want. Focus on your own growth, not a scale set against someone else’s achievements or timeline.

Does that sound obvious? It doesn’t matter. You still need to hear it. I still need to hear it.

Being part of a roller coaster creative community like comics involves seeing a nigh-constant stream of promotion for new projects, big and small; Press releases, interviews, reviews, tweets, conventions, panels… It’s a barrage.

Every week it seems like everyone else is doing amazing things while you are standing still. That feeling can breed an intense amount of fear and doubt. It can eat away at your confidence and poison your ability to create.

You put yourself into the work. Your ego is wrapped up in these creative projects. You can’t help but compare yourself to your peers and have a knee-jerk reaction that their success somehow reflects back as your failure.

Trust me – You’re not the only person who feels that way. Every single creative person I know goes through periods of doubt, periods of frustration, periods of jealousy. What’s important is the ability to recognize it and do everything you can to push past it.

Don’t let jealousy motivate your communication. If you’re going into this business to be a creator, I feel you should be focused on creating, not tearing holes in other people’s work. Read it, like it or dislike it, learn from it either way, and then move on. I’m not telling you to be fake and pretend everything out there is wonderful, but the old adage of “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is pretty sound advice for a professional conducting themselves in public.

Is there crap out there? Absolutely, and more crap coming every week, but I rarely talk about that online or in public. I’d rather let people know about things I enjoy and spread the word about work that inspires me. It helps me maintain a positive attitude and reminds me what’s important – creating stories I’m proud of instead of trying to tear other people down.

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Try not to flail when you feel like you’re falling behind. Focus will take you further than fear. If you lash out with desperation or anger you’ll push away the very people you’ll need later on.

If you try and those frustrations still hit you hard, walk away from outlets where you could do damage and not be able to take it back. Seriously. Step away from email, Twitter, Facebook, whatever. If you need to, contact someone you trust in private instead of broadcasting negativity out to the world at large.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been to a would-be creator’s blog/twitter feed and seen a screed of negativity a mile long. It doesn’t impress anyone. It doesn’t improve the situation. It won’t open doors for you. If people are discovering your work online, your public persona matters. Attitude matters.

I can be neurotic at times about where my career is headed. I worry I’m not doing enough and wonder if I’m making the right choices. The more I talk to friends in this business, the more I realize it’s a common fear. It’s part of being invested in my work.

It’s easy to see everyone else’s career like a highlight reel while your own is lived out in slow motion. It’s a flawed perception. Purge it.

Instead of looking at someone else’s opportunities as ones I haven’t had, I do everything I can to appreciate where I’m at in the here and now – The work, my amazing collaborators, and the wonderful people who have shown me support so far. I remind myself of the distance travelled and stay focused on current achievable goals.

The audience for good quality work isn’t shrinking.
People are hungry for great stories and memorable characters.
There’s room for you to create and build your skills.
It’s an exciting and wonderful time to be creative.
It will never be easy, but it is doable.

I’m not a psychologist or therapist and I have good and bad days like anyone else, but the above thoughts have kept me motivated and moving forward on my creative journey so far. I’ve had my share of successes and setbacks, but I’m still plugging away and hopeful for the future. That’s a ‘win’ in my books.

If you find my tutorial blog posts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends and consider buying some of my comics to show your support.

Comic Writing: Every Story Is A Learning Experience

Gail Simone asked a bunch of her friends who write comics to send her bite-sized writing advice she could use as part of a lecture series she did at a convention. Below is the advice I sent her, expanded with more detail on the core concept.

If you want to create stories professionally you need to stop being a passive viewer of entertainment.

You have to understand how stories/characters work in order to improve your story building skills. That’s one of the big differences between an amateur and a professional. Professional writers make a conscious decision to deconstruct and understand storytelling. It never stops. Storytelling is a joy but it also becomes an obsession.

When I watch a TV show or movie, I move into analysis mode. It’s second nature to me now. I can still be entertained, but a whole other series of gears in my brain are turning at the same time, trying to understand what I like/dislike about it and doing all I can to learn from it, good or bad. I can’t be passive about stories any more. It’s almost impossible for me to ‘turn my brain off’ when it comes to fiction.

The same goes for comics. I read comics for enjoyment but I also analyse them as part of my job. Plot, dialogue, pacing, character development, continuity – I don’t take any of that stuff for granted. This is a career I’m slowly building and it’s one very few people get the chance to do professionally. Telling stories is fun and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it, but it’s also a skill. There are tools and methods that can be built upon, but only if you’re critical of the work you take in and equally critical of the work you create.

(An important note: Being “critical” is different from being a “critic”. I focus the vast majority of my public discourse on the positive. I don’t post critical reviews on my blog. I praise stories I’m enjoying and support my friends who put out creative work. This critical exercise is internal (or kept to discussion with close friends). It’s a way for me to improve my own skills, not an ego-building exercise in taking apart other people’s work publicly to prove I’m “better”.)

Taste is obviously part of this whole process. I don’t think I’m always “right” about the stories I enjoy or the ones that didn’t click for me. Part of that analysis is trying to understand my personal preferences and also understanding where biases are narrowing my focus. It gives me perspective on my own work and gives me ample reason to force myself outside of the confines of my own expectations from time to time. It helps me understand how stories might appeal to an audience quite different from myself. Just because a story isn’t “for me” doesn’t mean it’s not worthy.

Think carefully about stories you love and quantify why they affect you the way they do –

• At what point did you feel committed to the characters?
• What elements of the story created a bond with you?
• What emotions did the story bring out in you?
• What themes or ‘truths’ were left with you after the story was complete?

Do the same thing with stories that don’t work for you –

• At what point did the story lose your attention?
• What elements didn’t ring true?
• What aspects of the story seemed unclear or too cliché?
• What aspects of the story felt like they were lacking?

And here’s the one that keeps me thinking long after I’m finished a story I didn’t enjoy:

• What’s the minimal number of changes you could have made to improve the story?

That last one is like a chess game where I want to ‘win’ with the lowest number of ‘moves’. If someone handed you that story and you had to keep as much of it as possible, how could you clarify/redeem it in the smallest way? What cancerous parts could be cut away or scenes added to make it work? That kind of story problem solving teaches me more than almost anything else.

In the end, you’re trying to enter a field filled with intensely skilled people who tell stories for a living. In order to meet and exceed that skill level you need to up your game. That happens by writing a hell of a lot, reading a hell of a lot more, understanding how stories are built, and scrutinizing how those stories affect you.

Don’t be passive. Study the stories you’re experiencing (books, comics, film, video games, all of it). Even if they’re vastly different from your own ideas, analysing why you like/dislike them with a critical eye will improve your work. Every time I read, watch, or hear a story I’m gathering information.

If you find my tutorial blogposts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends and consider buying some of my comics to show your support.

Communication Is Everything – Part Two

Last time in my tutorial series about communication I talked about staying organized. This time it’s all about tone.

Before the advent of digital-everything, the majority of freelancers lived in close proximity and interacted with comic publishers far more directly. There was a lot of face-to-face discussion, phone calls aplenty and all the nuance of human behaviour that comes with direct communication. In the modern era, with people working around the globe, most contact is filtered through email, tweeting or texting. Barring the occasional convention or business trip those mediums have become the replacement for in-person interaction. The quality of your emails, blog posts or tweets are the way people get to ‘know’ you and how they judge your character.

What this means is: How you communicate is just as important as the content itself.

Quality:

My friend Wyeth Johnson, Art Director at Epic Games, explained in his Animex presentation this year how the Human Resources team at Epic penalizes applicants who have spelling/grammatical errors in their cover letters or resumes, even if they’re applying for art-related positions at the company. You may think that sounds finicky and short-sighted, but their reasoning is sound – If an applicant isn’t detail-oriented enough to make sure their initial correspondence is flawless, how can the company expect them to deliver high quality detail-oriented production work under a strict deadline? That first impression is absolutely crucial and it starts or stops everything after it.

When I’m emailing someone new I do everything I can to make sure it reads well. Spell check and grammar check is a must. I know a lot of people read emails on their phone so I try to keep my messages bite-sized with paragraph breaks clearly denoting ‘blocks’ of information that all go together. I re-read sentences out loud to make sure they’re clear, don’t ramble, and don’t use the same word over and over again. I probably spend 6-8 times as long writing initial correspondence compared to the time I’d spend drafting up a regular email.

When I send out professional writing (pitches, scripts, etc.) I make sure it’s formatted properly and well organized. I want clients to know that I take their assignments seriously and that they’re paying for something I’ve paid attention to.

When I’m posting something online (like this blog post), I’m extra-careful about what I say and how I say it. Those words are a reflection of who I am, a publicly accessible archive of my attitude and capability that anyone can come across down the road. If I see a mistake, I correct it as soon as possible, even if it’s just a tweet or Facebook status update. Attention to detail counts.

After a relationship is established and things are rolling smoothly, it gets easier. When I send a quick email to a friend or a rapid reply to someone I’ve worked with for a while I’m not as careful and I know typos and run-on sentences will find their way in there. The overall impression of my attitude and quality of communication has previously been set. My formal work submissions are still carefully checked, but the other communication happening around it gets a bit more relaxed.

Attitude:

Tone is also really important when it comes to professional communication. Again, if someone has never met you in person the only thing they have to gauge about who you are is the text you’ve typed.

Does your communication come across as confident (but not cocky), clear (but not terse), and capable (but not know-it-all)? If you read your blog, your Facebook, your emails or your Twitter feed as a complete stranger, what would you think of the person who wrote that material? Would you hire them?

Like everyone else, I have times where I’m extremely negative, emotional, frustrated or full-on angry. I’m not perfect about it, but I try really hard not to bring that stuff online or send that nastiness out to people over email. I’m thankful I have a few near and dear friends I can contact to use as a sounding board for that kind of stuff so it doesn’t have to be permanently archived online for colleagues and strangers to see. The initial rush of adrenalin that comes from venomous output is rarely worth the troubles it will cause later on.

Tonally, my communication tends towards “conversational professional” in nature. It’s relatively formal, formal enough to show I can write competently but not English Professor-level intimidating in my choice of words or writing structure. My written grammar can be a bit loose at times, sort of like I’m typing up a conversation, just with the “um”, “hmm”, and “yeah” parts taken out.

The impression I hope I leave with people is that I’m conversational, approachable and organized. Although I make a conscious choice to come across that way in my professional correspondence, it’s not like I’m “manufacturing” it. In general that’s how I am in person as well, so I carry that same attitude over to my online chatter, adding in an extra editorial pass to ensure I make the right impression.

I don’t think any of the above is obscuring who you really are, it’s about emphasizing positive traits that will improve business relationships and dialling back negative ones that can hurt them. As much as we all wish people could instantly see how genuine and amazing we can be, all they have to go from is what we present to them. Set the right tone and you’ll get more chances to impress people with your work.

If you find my tutorial blog posts helpful, feel free to let me know here (or on Twitter), share them with your friends and consider buying some of my comics to show your support.