Thursday, July 2, 2015

So, you want to write comics, do ya?

This post may be helpful to absolutely no one (way to sell it, Segura), but I felt it’d be more fun to read than me whining about people rushing to share their outrage over True Detective on the Internet.

I work in comics. I edit some, I publicize a lot. It’s my day job. I’ve written a handful, have a few things in the pipeline, have worked at a few companies and, in my early years, covered the industry. I’ve been involved in comic books to some degree since 1999. Crazy right?

I’m also a crime writer. Therefore, I meet a lot of other writers at conferences, book events and so on. One of the most common things I hear from authors is something along the lines of “I want to write a comic someday.” or “I love comics but have no idea how to break in.” This makes sense. Comics are cool. A lot of us writers have multiple influences. I love crime novels but I also love diving into a stack of comic books. All of it comes from the pulps in one way or the other. So, while I can’t give you a failsafe way to “break in” or “get a comic made," I can share a few lessons I’ve learned first-hand or seen during my time in the industry. Take it all with a grain of salt and use what works for you.

Know/learn comics. For every great writer I meet who is a fan, who knows the world of comics and is into possibly writing comics, there will be one that has no sense of the medium. And that’s fine - if you’re willing to learn more. Hell, saying “learn” makes it sound boring. What could be more fun than going to a comic shop and buying a stack of graphic novels and figuring out what you like? I don’t think anyone expects a new comic book writer to know every nook and cranny of DC continuity or name every member of the Great Lakes Avengers (or read every issue of Cerebus) - but do some homework. Find the comics you like to read. Those are usually in tune with the kind of comics you want to write. Some (all over the place) suggestions to get you started: Blankets, Fun Home, Daredevil: Born Again, The Girl From H.O.P.P.E.R.S., Animal Man, Essex County, Hellboy, Green Lantern: Rebirth, Last of the Independents, Watchmen, Clumsy, Black Hole, Optic Nerve, Afterlife with Archie, Fatale, Bitch Planet, American Vampire, All Star Superman, 100 Bullets, The Spirit, Ms. Marvel. This is a smattering of stuff of the top of my head, not a be-all, end-all list. That said, you could do worse than these titles.

See how others do it. Comic scripts are weird. They’re like screenplays but aren’t. They’re like novels but not. They’re their own bizarre little amalgam, and that gives the medium its quirks and personality. Could you write a comic book script with zero experience? Sure. People have done it. It’ll make for a steep learning curve, though. The easiest first step is to find a comic script - like, the actual Word-style document - written by an author you like. Trust me. Do a web search. You'll find plenty. Then, if their style of formatting, dialogue structure and scene breakdowns work for you, adopt them. That’s the bare minimum. But there’s also a lot of theory to writing for comics - how many actions should reasonably be squeezed onto a page, How much dialogue you should squeeze in per word balloon and stuff like that. That requires a deeper dive. I suggest reading Scott McCloud’s excellent trilogy of books on comics, Understanding, Making and Reinventing Comics, to start. Some other great “guide” type books: Words for Picture by Brian Michael Bendis, The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics by Dennis O’Neil, Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels with Peter David. Again, this is just a sampling. I’m sure there are plenty of useful, great books that I’ve missed.

Don’t be precious. A speedy comic book writer can write a full script (first draft, natch) in maybe a week or two. It takes an artist, assuming he or she is doing pencils and inks, over a month to draw 22 pages. It’d be a drag for said artist if the writer wasn’t open to collaborating, or leaving stuff open for interpretation. If your comic was a movie, think of yourself as the screenwriter. The artist is basically the director - deciding (with your input!) on things like mood, camera angles, tone, scene structure, you name it. Unlike a novel, where you are lord and ruler of the page and can do as you see fit with anything, comics are a team effort. There’s the writer, the artist, a letterer and a colorist - minimum. Often, there’s an editor (especially if you’re doing work-for-hire at an established company) who has been tasked by the company to drive the ship and preserve the brand/IP. You have to be open to feedback, willing to let people do what they were hired to do and understand that not everything in your script is going to show up on the page as you envisioned it. But hey, that’s part of the fun, too. In my experience, more cool stuff comes from these jam-like moments than not, and you let your collaborators know you value their work and time by allowing them to be part of the creative process, as opposed to just doers following your commands. This brings me to my next point…

Think visually. Comics aren’t about word count. Dialogue and description are not the only tools you have to relay what is going on. If you’re paired with a great artist, they can and will make your story sing.

Network. Meet people. Come to a convention! Remember when you were a hungry author looking for a book deal? Trying to land a comic deal is similar, except you’re back at square one. I get that some of us have agents and there are “proper channels” we use to get our ideas out there, even if it's in a different genre from mystery/crime. Still, nothing can replace in-person face time. Talk to the editor of your favorite comic and let them know you’re a fan. And, oh, here’s this novel I wrote. That moment - showing that, yes, someone on the planet liked your work enough to pay to print, distribute and sell it - is important. Plus - conventions are fun. Networking and talking comics can be fun.

Know what you want to do before you pitch. Remember when I said you should figure out the comics you like? Well, once you do and have a sense of what that looks like, you should figure out what comics you want to write. And by kind, I don’t necessarily mean genre. I mean it in a more business-like way. Do you want to create new characters? Write existing ones? Webcomics? Graphic novels? Monthly floppy comics? All of the above? This is key to deciding how you approach your goal. Want to write your own stuff and own it? Cool. Find an artist friend and work on it. Wait, you want someone else to publish it and pay you an advance? OK, put a pitch together and shop it. You have this killer Madcap story you think Marvel should publish? Neat. Don’t write that 10-issue opus yet. Your first step - if work-for-hire is what you want to do - is to network with the right editors to figure out what they want you to write. “But Alex, I have this epic Madcap story!” Cool. Hold on to that. You’ll need it when you’ve turned in a few issues of what your future editor wants you to write and then asks “Do you have any ideas?” I’m being glib, but my point is this: if you know what kind of comics you want to write, you’ll be able to figure out how to get there. It’ll save you some time and sanity.

Professional > Fanboy. This one’s pretty self-explanatory. Don’t overwhelm your editor by rattling off the secret identities of every Teen Titan including Joker’s Daugher (erm, Pre-Crisis, of course). Write a good story. The geeking out moments will come in due time. The “Wow, this person is talented” has to come first.

In conclusion: what do I know? I’m just sharing a few top-of-mind tidbits from my own experience as an editor, publicist and writer. You may discover via your own trial and error that I’m full of it. Or, this may prove to be helpful. U-Decide!

More importantly, what comics are you reading lately?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Catching Up with Elmore Leonard

by Holly West

What authors/books are you a bit embarrassed to admit you haven't read? I know this topic has come up before but I feel like talking about it again.

My list of unread books is long, my friends. Most people at least read the classics in school. You know the ones I'm talking about: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE GREAT GATSBY, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER... those sort of books. I haven't read any of them. I tried to read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and couldn't get past the first chapter. In high school I wrote a report about THE SCARLET LETTER based on my mom's description of what the book was about (unbeknownst to her at the time--she just loved the book and was excited I was assigned to read it).

Eventually I'd like to read some or all of these books, but I can't see it happening any time soon. My TBR pile is so high it's threatening to fall over and crush me as it is.

Unfortunately, the same goes for my crime fiction reading. I came to the genre kind of late in life; when I was in my 30s a friend suggested I read Sue Grafton's Alphabet series and that's where my addiction started. I started with A and blew straight through to P (or whatever the last book published in the series was at the time). I read quite a few of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series, most of Linda Barnes' Carlotta Carlyle series, and of course, many others, including quite a bit of true crime.

My late start (and slow reading) has resulted in giant holes in my crime fiction repertoire. Recently, I admitted--somewhat sheepishly--that I'd never read a novel by Elmore Leonard. How is this possible, you might ask? I just never got around to it. But last week I was in Oregon and my bookshelves there are filled with paperbacks I purchased at thrift stores when we first bought the house. I realized I owned several Leonard titles and I figured it was probably time I broke one open.

Knowing that my writer friends would have opinions about what book I should start with, I went to Facebook and asked the question. I soon realized that Elmore Leonard wrote far more books than I ever guessed. When GET SHORTY came up a few times I decided that's what I'd read. I saw the movie years ago but don't really remember much about it. The only problem is that I keep picturing John Travolta as Chili Palmer, which is annoying since I haven't been a Travolta fan for awhile now.

Aside from that, reading it is a lot of fun and I can see myself running through a few Leonard titles in a row, like I did with Grafton, Cornwell, Barnes, and a few others.

I kind of hate that since I started writing, I no longer read anything without dissecting the author's technique. This is especially true of Elmore Leonard, since his 10 Rules of Writing are ubiquitous in my circles. GET SHORTY makes me think that maybe I use too many words, though I've suspected that for awhile now. It also reminds me that often (and perhaps always) it's enough to simply write what I mean and not worry so much about adding flourishes or coming up with a brand new way to say "he went to bed" or "she picked flowers" or "the dog barked so much I wanted to shoot it."

Wait a second, I don't kill dogs in my books (which is a whole other blog topic I might post about some day).

Now it's your turn to tell me where your literary diet is deficient. Don't be shy.

Monday, June 29, 2015

In praise of Newton Thornburg and Cutter and Bone

At the time of Newton Thornburg's death in May of 2011 all of his books were out of print. He was so far off the radar screen that his death wasn't even noticed by the media until weeks later. Newton Thornburg is too damn good and interesting of a novelist to remain out of of print. I love Newton Thornburg and it is a damn shame that he is largely forgotten these days. So, lets talk Thornburg.

A couple of things to know about Thornburg: He doesn't fully fit in to the crime fiction category but crime fiction fans have been the community to adopt him; He probably thought of himself more as a literary writer than a genre writer; he wasn't prolific; and, rather then write to a genre, all of his work is reworkings of a handful of themes.

Newton Thornburg was a cynical and pessimistic man through and through (more on that in a bit), and it shows in a lot of his work. It also works the best in his crime novels.

He wrote from the 60's to the early to mid 80's and it shows in his work. What I mean is that it is writing from and influenced by another era. No slam bang pyrotechnics and things build at their own pace (then, sometimes, he tacks on and resorts to an almost thrillerish ending that hurriedly ties everything off).

"For human beings finally were each as alone as dead stars and no amount of toil or love or litany could alter by a centimeter the terrible precision of their journeys."

That line is from Cutter and Bone. To me it is one of the darkest, scariest, truest, prettiest lines I've come across in a long time. For me it is the most noir line ever written.

Cutter and Bone is his masterpiece and the must read from his body of work. It was perhaps the best distillation and working of his themes. The books that came before were leading to it and the ones that came after at times channel the cranky old man side of personality a little too much. I think that the pace and necessary forward momentum of his more genre novels prevent him from dwelling too much.

Sometimes it's good to read a true noir book, one that is noir at a DNA level. A book that resets your noir compass to true North. Cutter and Bone is that book for me.

A couple of years ago Charles Ardai, editor of Hard Case Crime, wrote "Noir is crime fiction written by pessimists", in a piece at the Mulholland Books site.

I remember making a comment about that line to my wife to the effect of 'it's not pessimism if you are telling how it really is'. She quipped that that was the mark of a true cynic. Newton Thornburg was a cynic "I suppose I was pretty cynical early on,").  Even if we didn't hear it directly from him we would have the body of evidence that is Cutter and Bone to support the claim. Plus, we recognize our own.

Cynicism thy name is Alex Cutter. The character Cutter is one of the finest characters ever put to paper. One of my notions of what noir is, is embodied in the Cutter character, that noir has to do with systems defeating the individual. Cutter doesn't have an unearned chip on his shoulder and a petty grudge against the world. He was ground up and spat out by the gears of war and as such holds a mortal contempt for the larger forces and big institutions that crushed his body. David Simon wrote of the "essential triumph of institutions over individuals". This is another theme that Thornburg explores in Cutter and Bone. These larger forces (war, socio-economic, class) crush Cutter, leaving only his desire to fight back at them no matter the cost. This pursuit is a noble one. At first.  Yes, this rich man killed this girl and dammit he simply cannot get away with it. This pursuit then becomes obsession that colors everything and starts leaving a fatal wake. The institutions that had a face, that seemed surmountable, show their true size and begin to crush the foolish mortals that dared to rise up.

Thornburg gazed in to the abyss and Alex Cutter was staring back with one eye.

These characters outlook of the world and Thorton's cynicism are therefore linked because that level of cynicism cannot be faked and it informs the very DNA of Cutter and Bone. Thornburg was also great at tapping into the fears of his characters, and probably himself. At one point Mo, another great character and the original bruised angel, says,

"And in the middle of night, Rich, when I wake up and can almost hear my terror scratching along the walls -- will you be there then? Will you be there to hold me, Rich? Will you love me then?".

Diversion Books recently, and without much fanfare, reissued 9 of Thornburg's 11 books as e-books (everything but Gentleman Born and Knockover). This isn't the revival that Thornburg deserves but this is the one we get.

Ross Macdonald's brand of Cali noir has been getting some attention lately due to the second season of True Detective. And deservedly so. There is a rich history of California noir to delve into if you are watching True Detective and Thornburg too has a thematic trilogy of Cali noirs: Cutter and Bone, Dreamland, and To Die in California.

All of the e-books are $2.99 each so consider giving Thornburg and his work a try.

Cutter and Bone
To Die in California
Beautiful Kate
A Man's Game
Eve's Men
The Lion at the Door
Black Angus

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Series Books and Frequency

by Kristi Belcamino

My HarperCollins imprint, WitnessImpulse, has a demanding publishing schedule and while I don't mind it, I'd like to hear opinions on it.

I've heard a lot of different opinions on how often/quickly readers want a new series book to come out.

Part of the philosophy behind WitnessImpulse is that many mystery readers read on eBooks and that they want to read the next series book as quickly as possible.

That's why when my fourth book, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, comes out Sept. 29th, it will be the fourth book I've published in 15 months. I've been okay with the schedule so far. I'm a veteran journalist and the benefit of that is I know how to write very fast and I know how to sit down and get the job done. In my book, there is no such thing as writer's block.

But I think for future series books, I might consider a book a year, which is what most NYT bestselling mystery writers produce.

What are your thoughts? Are there any downsides to an author putting out more than one book a year? Any drawbacks to only publishing one book a year?

Thanks for your thoughts!

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Learning How to Adjust for Indie Authors

Scott D. Parker

Being an independent author has many benefits. I can write and publish what I want, I can design any sort of cover I can conceive, and I can establish a publishing pattern that suits my output. Heck, I can even pivot on a publishing schedule when it makes good business sense.

But there are limits to the things you can control. Sure, I can write whatever I want, but if no one buys, is that a good idea? I can make any sort of cover, but if it fails to attract attention and make sales, is that a good idea? I can publish a book a week for a year, but if no one buys, is that a good thing? No would be the answer to those questions. There is another thing over which an independent author has no control: the printing of a hardcopy book.

I use CreateSpace, which is an Amazon company. The way you go about creating interior files and cover files is very straightforward. I have experience no issues with that--once I learned how to conform to their standards. Having that first book under my belt, prepping the second was a piece of cake.

Here's the thing: WADING INTO WAR is a shorter book than THE PHANTOM AUTOMOBILES. I never considered making WADING into a physical book until I realized some folks--hi Mom!--wouldn't be able to read the book because they don't read on a device. No problem. I'll just use CreateSpace. The issue I had was with the spine. The book comes out a little shy of 100 pages and the space on the spine for content was, understandably, small. I got the text just the right way, but the cover image kept sliding onto the spine. Only a millimeter or two, but it looked bad.

I called up CreateSpace and talked with a couple of nice folks. They said that the printing process allows for a 0.125-inch variance. Of course, most books are printed 100% correct, but every now and then, especially with a book the size of WADING, things can shift.

Now, I never considered myself a control freak--and still basically am not--but when it comes to the look and feel of my books, that tendency comes out in me. The one thing I don't want is for a reader to buy WADING and have the printing be off. How to correct that?

Adjust. The best way for everything to line up correctly was to adjust the cover image to allow for that variance. As much as I didn't want to do that, I did. I altered the front and back cover, now with a black border that bleeds onto the spine. Now, the books should print the same way every time. I've ordered a physical proof so I'll get to see it in the flesh next week.

Is it the way I envisioned the book? Nope. Is it the end of the world? Also nope. I'm just thankful that I have the ability to do it.

Are there any aspects of publishing, either traditional or independent, that you have had to adjust to?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Read a thing while I'm on vaca

By Steve Weddle

I'm on vacation, kicked back in a long-sleeved t-shirt and light pants under an umbrella on a North Carolina beach, reading a Robin Hobb novel. While I'm out, I figured you might want some Daniel Woodrell you probably haven't read. Enjoy.

"Johanna Stull," by Daniel Woodrell (Buffalo Almanack)

Eugene’s partners have gathered on the gravel bar below the rapids at Tulla Bridge, where so many tourists in canoes take spills and lose watches, rings, cameras, sunglasses and so much else, adding their treasure to our riverbed, and Eugene wanted me there. He wants me along as his witness when he tells this bunch how he’s not worried about the mailman any more, that testimony won’t get said, and the cows can be moved to a sale barn in a few days or a week. Buster Leroy Dolly is sitting on a folding chair, bare feet in the Twin Forks, canned beer between his legs, and a handful of other fully dressed fellas also hang about, smoking weed, snorting stuff that snorts, conspiring idly and drinking plenty in the fine sunshine. >>

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Summer Vacation with Grandma

By Holly West

Today I'm broadcasting from Rogue River, Oregon. As I write this post, I'm watching The Price is Right with my Grandma, which is only one of the many television shows I watch when I'm visiting her. Later today, we'll see The Young and the RestlessGeneral Hospital and The Bold and the Beautiful. Maybe not the most exciting vacation ever, but it takes me back to my childhood when my brother and I would spend a couple of weeks with my grandparents every summer. They lived in Coalinga, California, which, if you haven't been there, is the sort of place that feels like you can never escape, even if you drive for miles and miles. Kind of like a real-life Wayward Pines, only not as charming.

Mostly, I loved those vacations in Coalinga. At home we had chores to do but at Grandma's we got to sleep in and eat sugar cereal for breakfast. My Grandma gave me home permanents and took us to the pool at the community college where they had a high diving board. I'm not sure I could jump off one now but as a kid I had no problem with it. Same with doing cartwheels and twirling on the uneven bars at the playground.

Summers in Coalinga were hot, which made playing outside during the day unpleasant. My brother and I would play in the living room all day with my Grandma's "soapies" playing in the background. One day in August the program was interrupted for a special news alert and the newscaster announced that Elvis Presley was dead. I turned to my Grandma and said, "the Elvis Presley?" It didn't seem possible.

My Grandpa worked six days a week. We'd get up early and have a Carnation Instant Breakfast with him while he played solitaire before work. He was a tractor mechanic on a farm and when he came home he smelled like motor oil and cigarettes. Sometime before I was born, he lost his left index finger down to the second knuckle in a work accident. I never thought I'd forget his hands and yet I just had to ask my Grandma which one--right or left--was missing the finger. She was married to him for nearly 69 years and had to think about it herself.

I got my taste for black coffee and beer during those summers. My Grandma had a pot of weak Folgers in the coffee maker ready throughout the day and my Grandpa would give me sips of the Coors he opened when he got home from work.

Every summer, we made a neighborhood friend or two. There was an older girl down the street who loved telling us how worldly she was. She told me about children being kidnapped and sold on the "black market" and I spent the remainder of the summer terrified that I'd be snatched.

Good times.

But you know what? They really were good times--some of the best of my life. And that's why I'll happily sit here watching soapies with my Grandma and hope I get to do it for many years to come.