Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gallifrey One Schedule...

With the snow flying here in Upstate New York, I'm pulling everything together for my trip to L.A. tomorrow for the Gallifrey One convention.

Lots of great events on the convention schedule, and I'll be appearing on a couple of panels about Doctor Who comics, as well as a Kaffeeklatsch where fans can sit down with some of the convention guests in a more relaxed setting and ask lots of questions while we all drink substantial amounts of coffee.

Friday at 1 pm, I'll be on a panel called DOCTOR WHO IN THE COMICS, with Gary Russell, Tony Lee, Pia Guerra, Paul Cornell, and Richard Starkings. Looking forward to this one, since I'm a huge fan of everyone on the panel with me. I'll try not to embarrass myself too badly. I've already gone very fanboy on Paul Cornell at two previous conventions, so this might be my chance to redeem myself as a cool-headed, unflappable comic book professional.

Sunday at 11 am, there's the mysterious-sounding IDW COMICS DOCTOR WHO PRESENTATION with IDW editor Denton Tipton, Tony Lee, and myself. The details are shrouded in secrecy, but I suspect there will be a few interesting announcements about the future of IDW's various DOCTOR WHO comic book projects.

And on Sunday at 2:30 pm, Tony Lee and I will be the guests for one of the aforementioned Kaffeeklatsches. Attendees have to sign up in advance and participation is strictly limited. Though hopefully the amount of coffee won't be.

I'll also be doing a signing, along with a number of the other guests, on Saturday at 2:30 pm. If you're going to be in the area, stop on by and say hello.

Friday, February 12, 2010


The nice folks at WildStorm put a sneak peek of my upcoming issue of SUPERNATURAL: BEGINNING'S END on their blog, THE BLEED.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Upcoming Project News...

Looks like one of the top secret projects I've been working on is now up for pre-ordering on a number of online comic book shops, so it should be safe to reveal that I drew an issue of DC/WildStorm's upcoming third SUPERNATURAL mini-series -- SUPERNATURAL: BEGINNING'S END -- based on the popular CW television show of the same name.

I was thrilled to draw 'the boys' again, and I'm always excited to work with the gang at WildStorm. I was honored to be asked to return to the Supernatural universe for this issue, and I really wanted to give my editor and the fans the best work I was capable of, so if you remember me talking a while back about a new art technique I'd been experimenting with, this is the project where I finally got to use it.

The artist of this series (the talented Diego Olmos) drew two pages of linking material for this issue and I drew the rest, including some very fun scenes with Sam and Dean running around in the basement of New York's Museum of Natural History.

The issue I contributed to (issue #3) is scheduled to hit the stands in March!

From the Westfield Comics website:

DC Comics, Wildstorm; March 17, 2010
; Cover price: $2.99


Perpetually caught between Sam and John's arguments, Dean hits a boiling point and drags his brother out for some good ol' monster hunting - at the Museum of Natural History! Time for a little bonding over blood! But the boys' first 'hunt' together goes tragically wrong...and has disastrous consequences for Sam.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

On the Nightstand

by F. Paul Wilson

I've talked a number of times about going through the Borderlands Boot Camp program, but I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned how it changed my reading habits.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I've always been an avid reader. They can tell you how I'm prone to boring everyone around me with long lectures about the books I love. Not to mention the sheer number of books in my office, and my often mocked need to alphabetize them.

(Can't help it. Spent too many years working in a bookstore.)

I've spent my entire life reading nearly any book I could get my hands on -- Fiction, Non-Fiction, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Horror, you name it. And I enjoyed nearly every one of them in one way or another.

Looking back, I guess I'd have to admit I wasn't a very discriminating reader. I just loved to read. And boy, did I love to read. Ever since I was a kid, I never failed to finish a book that I picked up. Never. No matter what it was about, or how well it was written.

But then I went through my first Borderlands Boot Camp, and suddenly I was putting books down left and right, only half-read. Even new books from authors I'd always liked. They just weren't doing it for me any more.

Learning about the process of writing prose changed the way I read. It made me far more aware of predictable plots, narrative cheats, lazy writing, and in some cases just plain bad writing. And it turns out many of my favorite writers were just as guilty of these transgressions as anyone else.

In fact, there's one writer who used to be on my own personal 'top 3 greatest writers of all time' list, but whose work I can't read anymore without noticing all the passive verbs and the heavy handed narrative voice.

Which brings me to F. Paul Wilson. I was a little nervous when I went back to read one of his books in the wake of my first trip through Boot Camp (where FPW was actually an instructor). Paul was on my personal 'top 3 greatest writers of all time' list, and his novel THE KEEP is one of my favorite books, period. So I was pleased, and even a little surprised, that not only did I still enjoy his books, but if anything, I enjoyed them even more now that I could see the deft way he moved a plot forward, or established a character with only a few well chosen words, or created a creepy atmosphere without hitting you over the head with the words 'dark', 'stormy', or 'night'.

F. Paul Wilson's latest book, JACK: SECRET CIRCLES showcases all of these skills. It's the second in his 'Young Repairman Jack' series, targeted at teenage readers and featuring his classic hero -- Repairman Jack -- as a teenager.

These books have been really engaging so far, fleshing out both Jack's childhood and the mythology that forms the backdrop for nearly all of F. Paul Wilson's stories. As a long time fan of Paul's it's fun to spot all the little threads that link up with other books, but they don't really distract from the story at hand, or the incredibly precise way he tells it.

In a funny way -- and god help me, it sounds like the most over-the-top sucking up ever committed in a blog post -- I envy a teenager who picks one of these books up, gets their first taste for what Paul calls the 'Secret History of the World', and chases it through all of the other F. Paul Wilson books.

When I first read THE KEEP, it was just out in paperback (back in 1983 or so), and Paul hadn't planned on tying everything else who wrote together into one long narrative, and hadn't even conceived of the Adversary Cycle (which forms the backbone of the Secret History), at least not as far as I know, or not as a cohesive whole. But now a reader can burn through all of those books in one go -- much like I burned through JACK: SECRET CIRCLES -- and only have to wait a couple of years for the last few new Repairman Jack books and the revised versions of REPRISAL and NIGHTWORLD. I however have been waiting 27 years.

As for the YA Jack books, my original understanding was that there would only be three of them, but recently Paul mentioned he had an idea for a fourth one. Yes, please. I'll buy that one, as well.

It'll keep me busy while I wait for the Secret History to come to a revised end.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Random Dog Photo...

With all this bloviating about pitches and secret projects, I'm beginning to feel like I might be taking myself a little too seriously as an artist-type. So here's a random photo of my dog, Sadie. Hard to take yourself too seriously when you've got a dog that looks like a cross between a rat and monkey.

Cheers, everyone!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Pitching, Part Three...

Alright. So I've rambled a bit about how I broke in and how hard it is to write a pitch, so let's take a look at an actual pitch and talk about how it came together.

First, some backstory... one of my oldest friends in the business is a guy named Michael Gaydos. We were both working at Caliber in the early 90s doing our own thing -- me writing and drawing stories for NEGATIVE BURN, and Michael drawing rings around the rest of us. The guy was good, so good that I got a little lump in my gut every time I saw a new drawing he'd done. Luckily, he's also a nice guy who seemed to like my own work, so I got him to draw one of my short stories. Still think it's one of the best stories with my name on it.

We talked about doing more work together, but our schedules never quite worked out. I was deeply distracted by my own art assignments -- I was working for Disney Interactive at that point and doing my first jobs at DC -- and Michael was busy building his own career, which eventually led to him drawing Marvel's ALIAS series, still the best book I think they've ever published.

Years passed, but Michael and I touched base from time to time, compared schedules, and inevitably discovered that we were too busy with other projects to work on anything new. And then there was a break in the clouds. Michael and I were both open for a brief period and I had a standing invitation with one of my editors to pitch anything that Michael and I did together (gotta love an editor who liked my writing AND loved Michael's art. That's an editor with impeccable taste.). Needless to say, I pulled every idea I had out of my writer's hat and ran them past my editor.

At this stage, I only sent him a brief description of the ideas. No more than a couple sentences to see if any of them caught his fancy. If memory serves, I sent him three or four basic ideas, including the one that became my pitch for a mini-series called DRAGONS.

And for those of you who ask questions like "where do you get your ideas?", Michael had mentioned the idea that he'd like to draw something with samurai, which connected with some reading I'd done when I was working on THE PATH with Ron Marz. At the time, I was fascinated with the tattoos worn by members of the Japanese mafia -- the Yakuza -- and played around with the idea of pitching a Katana (from DC's old Outsiders book) mini-series where the tattoos were actually demons attached to a Yakuza member's skin. That pitch never went anywhere, so I took the basic idea, removed Katana, and reworked the story into something else.

It wasn't quite 'something with samurai', but there WAS a samurai sword and all sorts of cool things for Michael to draw, so he went along with the idea.

My editor liked the basic concept (can't remember my two-line pitch on it, but it was probably something along the lines of a "John Woo/Supernatural Yakuza kind of thing"), so he had me work up a one-sheet pitch for it.

Here's what I sent:
Re-reading it now, several years later, I can't say it's the best idea I've ever had. As a writer, I'm not particularly drawn to Action material (I prefer quiet, creepy dark fantasy stories), and I think I was trying a little too hard to come up with some that would fit in with the publisher's other books, which tended to be very Action-oriented.

Having said that, let's talk about how I put the pitch together on the page.

As I said in an earlier post, I have to know the whole story before I can pitch it. I may not know ALL the details, but I've got a pretty good idea of the overall shape of the story, where it's going, what the themes are, and the major events along the way. All of these things come into play when I'm breaking the concept down into a single page.

I always break my pitches into three sections. Roughly, these are: The Basic Concept, The Basic Story, and Another Thing.

The first section (The Basic Concept) is fairly straight forward. I write a few paragraphs that establish the idea and explain what kind of world it's set in. I'll often use this section to introduce the main characters. Think of this first part as the setup, everything you learn in the first part of your story.

Next, we have a few paragraphs to describe how the story kicks off (The Basic Story). There's no room for a full plot breakdown, so I stick with a few key elements that are going to carry the story forward. You have to choose the plot points you're going to outline very carefully, and I prefer to focus on major ones from the beginning of the story.

These is where an intimate knowledge of plot structure is really necessary. The plot points I mention throughout the pitch are the basic building blocks of the story, the things that have to happen in order for there to be a story. Lots of other things will happen, but there's no room for that kind of detail.

I think of a pitch (and the first two sections in particular) like the back of a paperback novel. You pick up enough to know roughly what to expect if you bought the book, but not enough to ruin the whole story. It's a teaser to catch the interest of your reader (in this case your editor).

Finally, we have the last section of my pitches (Another Thing). This is a little more complicated than the other two.

In all my stories, I try to have an element the characters don't know about; whether it's some sort of secret being kept from them, or, as in this case, there's a supernatural force at work that they don't know about. It's basic storytelling. If there aren't any surprises along the way for the characters, then there aren't going to be any surprises for the reader. And that makes for an incredibly boring story.

More often than not, my stories have some supernatural element at work. Those are just the kinds of stories I like to tell. It's how I'm wired. So in this third section of a pitch, I'll tell the editor what that element is and write a few paragraphs that describe how this element is going to effect the story. This often leads to a short rundown of the next stage of the plot and where it's all going. In this case, the final conflict between our hero and the Black Dragons, not to mention the demon tattooed to his body.

And that leads me to the really tricky part... you'll notice that each section ends with a phrase that leads you into the next section, or as in the final section, leaves an open story question (can our hero defeat an enemy that is tattooed to his own body?) that can only be answered by reading the actual story. This is one thing I'm not sure how to teach someone to do. It comes naturally in my pitch writing, and is something I developed a feel for doing an awful lot of pitches. I'll hit the end of a section and know somehow that I need to leave something dangling to carry the reader through the pitch.

Keep in mind that you're trying to grab an editors interest. You want him or her to read your proposal and have questions they want to see answered, or they want to know how the story ends. The editor is the first reader your story will ever have, and you want them to be engaged in the storytelling. Sometimes I think a pitch is like telling the story around a campfire, but without the marshmallows, and with a lot fewer words.

Everyone has a different format for pitches. I've read a lot of them over the years, and I can't say any two of them have been exactly the same. And while this pitch didn't get picked up (and Michael and I were once again pulled away to our own separate careers, at least for the time being), this structure has worked well for me on countless other proposals.

And that's the key thing to remember. You put these pitches out there, they might be perfectly good stories, but they're still a chance they won't hit the mark for a particular editor. Either it doesn't quite fit into the creative slot they need to fill, or it doesn't fit in with the other projects they've already picked up for that year, or it just isn't to their taste. There's no way to know or control those sorts of things (though you should have at least a ballpark idea of your target editor's taste from the other books he edits), and it's good to keep a healthy perspective on that.

If you don't sell the idea, no sweat... put it away in the drawer and move on to the next idea with the same enthusiasm. You never know, you might pull the pitch out again a few years later, find something in the story that interests you, completely revise it, and pitch it all over again.

On Pitching, Part Two...

So you've got an idea that you think would make a perfect comic book story, you've worked out the whole idea in your head or on tiny little pieces of paper spread all over your desk, now you just have to sell it to somebody.

Easier said than done.

The days of blindly sending proposals out to publishers is pretty much a thing of the past. There are still some publishers who have dedicated submissions editors, but that's slowly going the way of the dodo. More often than not, comic book publishers have adopted the 'no unsolicited manuscripts' rule you'll see in the Writer's Market. These days, someone has to ask you to send them your idea.

On a personal note, back when I was trying to break into the industry, I used to send out proposals to every company I could think of. In those days, they actually read those sorts of things. (Yes, I'm THAT old.) I collected a fair number of rejection notes with some positive feedback, but my favorite had to be the form letter from a big publisher with little boxes they checked next to pre-written comments. They'd checked several, including the 'Make a name for yourself at another company and then we might be interested in you' box.

I'll talk about that last point later on, since it actually applies now more than ever.

So how do you get your idea in front of an editor? Well... I can't speak for everybody, but what's opened a lot of doors for me as a writer and as an artist is good old-fashioned networking. Blind submissions weren't really working, but I was going to a lot of conventions and introducing myself to a lot of people. Which is slightly amusing since I'm a painfully shy guy in my personal life, which I'm sure comes as a surprise to anyone who's met me. Trust me, I'm faking any kind of self-confidence in social situations.

And while I was introducing myself to a number of editors, the thing that REALLY did the trick for me was meeting other artists and writers. I got to know a group of creative types like myself and we started hanging out. I've talked before about the man who paved the way for my first gig -- the late Jim Royal -- in an earlier post, but the long and short of it is that my friends got me in the door.

Now this gets into tricky territory. I'm not talking about getting to know people just to use them as a stepping stone to a comic book career. I'm talking about getting to know other creators you genuinely like. You're not going to be doing yourself any favors sucking up to people to get work. Trust me. We see it all the time, and it turns our stomachs. We might be blinded by the flattery, but it's not going to open any doors for you, except maybe the exit.

What does work is having a group of friends who are all trying to break in, hanging around having fun, showing each other artwork, and talking about your crazy ideas for comics. Some of them may be working in the industry already. And then they introduce you to their editor or another artist and the circle grows more and more until someone recommends you to their editor or an artist says, "I need something to draw, got any ideas?".

I know, this isn't the world's most helpful advice. Sorry. But really... breaking in is more often than not a question of networking. And producing a lot of work. You should be writing or drawing, or both, the entire time. Your goal shouldn't be 'breaking into the comic book industry', it should be 'doing some SWEET comics'. 'Cause believe me, you don't need a publisher to do a comic book. You just need a good idea, a lot of paper, and something to draw with.

Which brings me to the box about making a name for yourself somewhere else. The best way to break into comics is to actually do a comic book. It's relatively easy to get it published either through a small publisher or online, or even printing it yourself. Lots of options on the small press front. And if you've got a completed comic book that you wrote and had one of your friends draw, or that you drew yourself, you're ahead of the game and can now sit back and relax with the knowledge that you are a comic book CREATOR, not just somebody who sits around talking about wanting to do a comic.

But here's the thing. You've got a comic book now. It's the ultimate self-promotion. Give it to people. Give it to lots of people. Give free copies to people working in the business who do the books you like. It's a long shot, but you never know... someone might see it and like it.

I did my first work in the small press, drawing and occasionally writing books at Caliber Comics. I never made any real money doing it, but I got lots of contributor copies, not to mention some good experience and a whole new batch of people in my network. And at a mass signing in L.A. for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, I brought my first Caliber book to sign and ended up meeting a bunch of writers and artists who eventually became my friends and led to my first work at DC.

It was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. One of my new friends was writing a comic book for DC and the artist on a fill-in issue had to drop out, so they asked me if I'd be interested in taking his place. Yes, please.

But that's the story of how I got into comics. How I got to be in a position to pitch my ideas to publishers is a little more complicated, and very specific to me. Over the years of working as an artist, I got to know some of my editors well enough for them to be aware that I really wanted to write. Trust me, I'm sure I bored them to tears with all my going on about wanting to write more. In the end, some of them got sick of hearing this and said, "Well, what have you got?".

See? Simple as that. But seriously, get to know some people. Do a lot of work on your own simply for the love of doing it, and if you're doing publication quality work, the doors will open for you soon enough.

But once you've got the door open, you've got to deliver. And I'll talk about that in my next post.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On Pitching...

It's been a while since I've been able to post anything, mainly because all the work I've got on my plate at the moment is extremely top secret, though it looks like there will be an announcement about one of them within the next couple of months. And while there are a few non-work related topics I like to talk about -- like what I'm reading or listening to -- I haven't had time to write anything about those, either. Mainly because all of my free writing time has been taken up with working on the FADE manuscript and writing pitches for creator-owned comic book projects I'd like to get going.

Writing pitches is an unusual experience, and while a great many books have been written on the subject of writing a novel, and even a few on writing comics, I don't think anyone has written a book on how to write a pitch for a comic book. I'd write one myself, but between my high level of failure to actually sell many of these ideas and the fact that I have no idea what the 'right' way to do one is, I think I'll pass.

Still, having spent the last weekend pulling ideas out of my files and dusting them off to send to an editor, I thought a lot about how hard these things are to write and why they're so difficult for me, personally. These days, most editors want a short, one-page description of the concept. Writing a single page sounds easy, but when that page is all an editor has to go on for understanding what you're proposing, boiling everything down to that one page is far from simple.

My ideas tend to be a little complex, or as I describe them to my writing friends -- "It's complicated". So a single page description of a concept is a daunting task. Luckily -- and after four rounds through the Borderlands Press Writing Boot Camp program -- I've gotten better at conveying a concept in as few words as possible. Each time I've gone through Boot Camp with the segment of a novel, I've had to work up a detailed plot outline for the rest of the piece. But they have very specific length requirements, which means you have to explain the rest of the story in very economical language. It gives you an opportunity to really figure out your story and all the component parts you need to tell it. Because that's pretty much all you have room to describe. No space for pretty little flourishes there, my friend.

There's no way to explain my process for that without a much longer post, but it's an interesting experience that focuses your thinking about plot mechanics and the shape of a long story. For more on that and some good advice on plotting I highly recommend David Morrell's book on writing (Which used to be called LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING, but has since been re-released with a new name that completely escapes me at the moment) or THE COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO WRITING A NOVEL by Thomas F. Monteleone.

And while the mechanics of boiling a comic book or graphic novel idea down into one page is daunting enough, it's not the hardest part of writing a pitch. For me, it's the emotional investment in developing a story and pitching it knowing full well that nothing may come of the attempt.

I never pitch a story unless it's something I really, really want to do. And if I'm going to pitch it, I need to know a lot more about it than will fit on a single page. I need to know its themes; its overall shape; its beginning, middle and end. That's a lot of work, and a lot of investment for something that an editor might look at and say, "Naw, doesn't do it for me." But it's the only way to go, in my book. If you're not emotionally invested in the idea, why would you expect someone to want to publish it? Just saying. I pitched a lot of half-baked superhero ideas early in my career and none of them anywhere. How could they? I didn't particularly want to tell those stories, I just wanted to create work for myself as an artist. 'Cause I was always pitching myself as the art team for my own book.

So I'm afraid I don't really have any useful advice on how to pitch a comic book series. Just the thought that you really need to be emotionally invested in the idea, willing to take the disappointment of having an editor not like it, and being able to throw yourself into the next idea with equal abandoned. It's not that your idea is bad, per se... it's just not right for that editor or that company.

Being both emotionally involved in your idea and able to take criticism or rejection at the same time is a crucial skill for anyone involved in a creative industry. And it's a skill that you have to learn over time. You have to walk that tightrope if you want to get anywhere as a writer or as an artist. And believe me, even if the editor LOVES your idea, as a writer you're going to have to step back and pull the entire thing apart again after you've sold it and started working on the final product, because a good editor will want to work with you to develop the idea a bit more.

I'll try and talk a little more about my process putting together pitches while I wait to be able to talk about some of my upcoming projects. If I have time, I'll try to go into some detail on how to structure one in an interesting way, and the importance of having some artwork to go a long with the one page concept sheet.