Grind – On Writing for a Living

Probably the most frequent thing I’m asked is about how to ‘go pro’ as a writer, and I frequently answer more or less the same thing. I realized it’s something that I haven’t actually written about extensively (or at least haven’t in a while) so, here we go.

First off, writing for a living is amazing. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I hope to never have to have any other job (unless it’s, I dunno, directing and writing, or producing and writing, as long as it’s something with a writing component, I’m happy). But, here’s the thing. It’s a non-stop fight. I’ve yet to met a writer including some of the most successful screen, tv, and comics writers in the world who’s not over-worked and slightly over-whelmed. It’s just par for the course.

Part of being a writer is learning to grow and change and flex muscles that nobody else is interested in helping you stretch. Becoming better is nobody’s job but yours, and, again, no matter how supportive the people around you are or how much anyone has your back, the weight remains firmly on your own shoulders.

And, part of being a writer, at least, y’know, now, is fighting to keep the work coming. I spend almost as much time looking for work as I do actually writing. It’s something that I constantly think I’m going to ‘grow out of’ but have yet to actually do. And it’s one of the most frequent topics of conversation I have with my writer friends.

The truth is that when you’re working freelance you’re at the mercy of the people with the jobs. Which, of course, is the problem with breaking in. You need to prove that you’re worth the risk of the people who hold the purse strings. You need to do this in a couple of ways.

Step one is to have produced a TON of original material that is beloved critically (or, even better, successful financially.) This, of course, is not particularly easy at all. But, you spend a few years (or decades) honing your craft, and, hopefully something great comes out the other end. Which leads us to…

Step two, having pre-existing relationships with those people of power. This, actually, is a bit easier. Unfortunately, you still need to do the other thing first. Because Editors, Publishers, Executives all want to be around success.

They want to feel like they’re gleaning some of your golden glow and in their way are helping you to glow brighter. They want to meet people who’s books they’ve enjoyed. They want to grab a beer with the person who made that book that everyone is talking about. It’s just human nature, and, it’s business sense. But even with both of those things going for you?

It’s still damn hard. Maybe I’m wrong (or I just don’t have a high enough class of friends) but, it never gets easier. There’s no short cut. There’s no secret way in. You just have to do good work and get in front of people, some of whom, hopefully, are the right people.

Nobody can do that part, unfortunately, except for you.

So, get working and get used to it, bucko.

End of an Era or What a long strange trip it’s been…

This week marks the release of ECHOES in Hardcover form.  It’s a uniquely beautiful package that I’m immensely proud of.  It’s twenty bucks and worth every penny, if I do say so myself.

It’s also the last creator owned book I’ll do before the launch of I,Vampire, Iron Man 2.0, and assorted other work for hire books.  The past six months or so have been massively busy between all of my corporate work and work on LAST OF THE GREATS and DEEP VALLEY (both of which are discussed along with my mainstream work in these video pieces over at MTV Geek.)

That’s something I’ve been working towards for almost a decade.  It’s been an arduous, at times frustrating, process that, frankly, I wouldn’t change for anything.  I mean sure, I could probably live without Speakeasy going bankrupt or the nine month, ahem, printing process on TUMOR, or the fights and falling outs and fucking overs… But…

I’m a better writer.  Every one of those experiences taught me something else about being a writer, both from a creative and a business stand point.  Had I been given these opportunities even as recently as two years ago, I don’t know that I’d be as able to meet the challenges as I am now.

I’m exactly where I should be doing exacty what I was born to do, and honest to god, I love every minute of it.

In housekeeping news – be sure to preorder LAST OF THE GREATS, I,VAMPIRE, and IRON MAN 2.0, yes?

Take Five – On Downtime

A couple weeks back I was writing about my work load and how much work I was getting done and all of that noise.  Well, that pace hasn’t really let up, and combined with a baby seemingly grown past the need for sleep, it’s been a fuck of a week.  I found myself throughout most of my work days staring at the screen, or reading articles or twitter, or, happily distracted by all the great submissions for my new column over at iFanboy.

So today (not counting right now), I took the day off.  Tomorrow? Same thing.  Recharging is key.  Now, again, to go back to things previously said, this is my full time job.  This is what I spend virtually every waking hour doing.  Ergo, I get free time.  You, with your day job and your few hours a day to work?  You don’t get this.  I mean, you can have it, if you want, but, it’s a tradeoff.  You’re giving up a day of writing, a day of getting better, a day of getting a tiny bit closer to not needing that job.  If that’s cool with you, then, more power to you.  But me?  Even where I am now, low as it may be, still makes it seem like an impossibility to actually take a full day off.  Again, please, note, on this my ‘day off’ I’ve already done a notes phone call, approved art, and y’know, wrote this thing that you’re reading now.

This is getting a bit meta for me.

This is not profound.  This is not something you’ll jump up and down with eureka-filled glee.

Just remember, that creating requires a functioning mind, whatever that means, and that a healthy mind is a relaxed mind.  So tell your problems, worries, and concerns to go fuck themselves, and have a great weekend.

Shoplifting

“Writing is like shoplifting.  You’re constantly trying to get away with bigger and bigger things and not get caught.”

I spent about 14 hours total in the car this weekend with ace writer/editor Rob Levin (theroblevin.wordpress.com/) talking about, well, that.  Rob and I have been working together for around five years now.  He was the guy who brought me into Top Cow, editing both Cyblade and Alibi, and then came on board TUMOR when it became clear we needed a grown up involved to get the book done.

The conversation we had was about pushing yourself, and how easy it is not to.  How every project needs to push off from where you left off, and you need constantly be challenging yourself.  But, it also comes from a sense of self-loathing.  At almost every minute when I’m writing (or immediately after when I’ve submitted my script to the editor or the artist or my friends for notes and thoughts) is asking whether I get away with what I’m doing.  If the constructed reality of the story stands up to scrutiny because, y’see, I see the stitches.  I see the places where I took shortcuts, got lazy, forced it out, left it to fix ‘later’ etc.  I did something that I find morally wrong from a creative stand point.  And the feedback?  That tells you if you make it past mall security or get tackled and beat up in the back hallways.

But, with that, comes something else.  So, if you constantly feel like you made it by some miraculous twist of fate, how in god’s name do you sell yourself or your work?  Well, that’s the other thing that’s important.  Compartmentalizing.  When I’m sitting here alone, writing, and listening to the Pixies, I hate myself and every word I ever wrote.  When I tweet or do interviews or go to shows all of that HAS TO go away.  I go from hating myself to being Mr. I Can Get It Done.  You have to instill confidence in your editors and fans equally.  You need to show off that you know what you’re doing and that you’re going to do an amazing job.

Now, if you actually BELIEVE that, there might be a problem.  There’s very little more terrifying than being told, “Great, get scripting.”  Because you just started all over again, back at the beginning and facing off with trying to get that hardcover past that tall nerdy guy with bad skin and a B. Dalton Booksellers tie standing by the door.

Maybe that’s just me, though.

Seven Days – On What I Wrote This Week

This is not to brag.  This is not to boast.  This is not because I like peanut butter on my breakfast toast, as the Sugarhill Gang once said.

In the past week I have written:

Two Treatments in the 3 to 5 page range

Two Twenty Page Comic Book Scripts

One Character Bio Sheet

One 2nd Draft of a Twenty Page Comic Book Script

One Boilerplate Contract for a new Creator Owned Series

Two Essays (Three, counting this one) for my various blogs

Plus, spent the afternoon on Saturday on the crime comics panel, and still managed to work in a family day and two days of daddy/baby time.  Oh, yeah, I’ve also seen this week’s new Brave and the Bold cartoon.

Being a freelancer writer is a delight.  Honestly, it’s a lot of fun, you get paid to do what you’d probably do for free, and you get to do it all from more or less wherever you’d like. But…

It’s a lot of work.  This was a highly productive week, but, it’s also how just about every week has to be in order to actually make a living doing what I do.  That means whether I have paid work or am doing it all for free, whether I’m sick or don’t get to sleep because the baby is teething, or the nanny calls in sick.

It’s extremely easy to fall into the trap of the X-Box or the Satellite Dish.  They both sit there just spewing things to do.  But, if you put it all down (or, y’know, limit your playing of Stacked to only three hours per week), and really put your nose to the grind stone, you can do it.  You can make a living, you can do what you love.

The trick is to make sure you still love it once you’re done.

You Got Lucky, Babe – On Breaking In

9 years ago, I started my journey in comics.  I mean, sure, I spent every free minute from the time I was old enough to push REC on my Fisher-Price tape recorder telling stories and getting ready for that, but, really, resolutely, nine years ago I decided this is what I wanted to do, and, we the aid of some truly wonderful people who had my back, I started on my journey.

And now, nine years later,  I find myself having just come from a panel talking about how I broke in, and how i got where I am, and realized that, frankly, it’s all just luck.

Somehow, I found my first patron (and amazing friend) in Chris Arundel (better known to those of you following along at home as the Publisher at Hoarse and Buggy Productions), and, from there, I’ve been lucky enough to find a string of people either smart or foolish enough to take chances on me.

That being said, I made a lot of bad decisions, things that I lay awake thinking about, and wish I could go back in time and fix them.  I’ve lost everything including friends, money, and joy from those bad decisions.  But, very few of them have had long term consequences on me.  That’s luck, too.  Those bad decisions, in fact, led me down paths that gave me bigger and better opportunities.

ALl of that being said, I’ve also worked my balls off.  Years of killing myself on scripts and marketing and printers and fighting with publishers and going to cons and pitching my ass off in meetings and driving three hours to get to a meeting that doesn’t happen because the guy decided to leave for his private island a few hours early.

For the first five years, I worked full time while pulling more than another forty hours a week in the PM to keep books on time and coming out and, theoretically, awesome.  For the next four, I’ve struggled to balance paying the bills with creating art that I love and cherish all while building a family and a social life and all the things I gave up in the first five to get here.

And now, I’ve got some amazing things coming up later this year.  Not just some amazing creator owned, in which I’m working with some of my favorite people on earth, but, opportunities to deliver mainstream books that are built entirely on the strength of my voice and what I’ve proven over the years.

But even that, while, sure, all that hard work certainly paid off, it really just came down to a couple of people picking my book out of a pile and giving it a looksie.

Everything I have is that same luck.  Hell, had I not logged into my online dating account one last time, I never would’ve met the most wonderful woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing, nor gotten to have a kid more amazing that I could’ve ever imagined.

So, look, ultimately the point to all of this is that as unfortunate as it is, no matter how hard you work or how long you toil, sometimes, it just comes down to that flip of a coin.  And that sucks.

Unless, that is, you happen to be me.

I Don’t Wanna – On Writing For a Living

Writers write.  That’s the unfortunate truth, right?  Writers actually sit down in front of their computers (preferably of the Apple persuasion) with their cafe au lait and their copy of Scrivener on the screen, and, then, lo and behold, they actually write.  That’s the hurdle.  That’s the starter’s pistol you need in order to do this for a living.

But here’s the truth.  I do write.  I write a fair amount.  But, a good amount of my time is spent staring out windows, reading crime novels, and playing with my daughter.  Disconnected from the work at hand and playing Bejeweled for an hour (or three) is sometimes exactly what the brain needs.  Something that stimulates the sections of your brain not designed specifically for, y’know, creating is a necessity.

Now here’s what you don’t want to hear.  If you have a day job and you aspire to be a writer?  Guess what? That ‘non-writing screw off time’ is what you call your job.  That means every moment you’re not there is precious writing time.  When you’re trying to break in or learn the ropes or whatever euphemism you like, the absolute only way to do it is to write.  Writers write.

What you write doesn’t have to be good.  In fact, knowing that it’s not good, being able to actually figure out that something is or isn’t good is a great skill to have.  I send my scripts to a stack of my friends before submitting them.  But, rarely have I ever gotten a note back that I didn’t, really, already know.  All that process should be is confirmation of your fuck ups.

But that’s a ways from here.  Write.  Write a lot.

Develop your voice, find out who you are as a writer, and stop just being that schmuck who says he’s a writer, and actually become one.  The way you do that?  Write.  Writers write.  Writers write a lot because they are writers.

This is not brain surgery.  If you think you’re a writer and all you have to show for it is, well, that coffee, that Mac, and that copy of Scrivener, then you’re not a writer.  A writer has something to say and a particular way to say it that is singular and yet universal.  That’s the part where the craft subsides and the art can take over.

Because, again, the dirty little secret of almost any creative endeavor, is that we’re building chairs over here.  If you can’t put four legs and a seat together, then, guess what? You’re not capable of building a chair.  But, if you take time, read some books on chair building, talk to your friends and mentors about building chairs, really just take some time to figure out what it means to be a chair builder, then guess what?  You’re STILL incapable of building a chair, you’re just more capable of talking about building it.

No.  Learn, observe, talk, take classes, all of that is great.  But what’s more important?  BUILD THE FUCKING CHAIR.

Writers write.

Human, Inhuman – On Writing Awful People You Care About

Most of my work, at the end of the day, is about one thing, how awful we can be to each other.  But, I like to think that within that thesis, there comes something else.  How amazing we can be to each other.  Using Tumor as an example, Frank is a degenerate who’s more or less thrown away his life because of a series of bad decisions and the loss of his wife.  He’s for all intents and purposes been a complete and utter drain on society and a waste of space.   But, the point of Tumor is to redeem him.  To show that even the awfulness that has been his life isn’t enough to corrupt that tiny spark of humanity inside him.

That’s probably even more true of Detective Polish in Tumor who’s pretty much an unlikable, amoral shit bag.  And yet, for me, he’s the most interesting character in the book.  He’s the one who actually has to make choices, especially in the final act, that change his life irreparably.  He’s biting the hand that feeds him in the favor of good, or, at least, the guy who he thinks might actually win.  That’s probably why any thought I have about continuing the characters from Tumor center not around young Frank, but around post-corrupt Polish.

Elk’s Run in it’s way is about this same question as everybody thinks they’re the good guy, even as though they do horrific, monstsrous things.  Hell, even Punks is really about a bunch of guys with so little humanity that they aren’t even human.  Alibi, Echoes, and any number of top secret things you’ve not yet heard about all tread this same ground.

So now, I’m doing a superhero book.  My own, creator owned superhero book.  Of course, being me, it’s not.  It’s not about superheroes, not really, and, in fact, there’s only one, and he’s kind of a shit head.  But, he’s also so far above all of us both in terms of power AND morality, that he’s a bit of mystery, even to me.  I write this character who’s got genuinely pure intentions but has no interest in the sanctity of life or trampling over whoever it takes to take care of the task at hand.  That’s been the challenge of writing the book, and frankly, the reason I stay away from the supernatural/science fiction stuff, as I tend to get lost in the math, so to speak, rather than the poetry.

I say all of this because while sitting on the plane to Emerald City Comic Con (Come see me at both 710!), I just watched the documentary CATFISH.  It’s very clearly from the get go about some very, very inhumane people.  Both the protaganist and the so called antagonists are pretty unlikeable, and, you think you know where it’s going, with one side jumping out on the other and screaming “HA! I CAUGHT YOU!”

And it gets right up into that moment, and then something extraordinary happens.

Humanity.  These people look at each other, and just can’t do it.  They can’t hurt somebody so delicate and so needy.  It’s… magical.  Even as the strife that drives story continues, (and I’m being vague to not spoil it for you), you feel not anger or resentment for them, but pity and sorrow.  That’s a great lesson to learn as a writer.  You can have people doing awful things or being awful, but, without humanity it becomes a dark satire at best, grating melodramatic bullshit at worst.

Always, always keep the humanity in the inhumanity.

New eBook Available for Download!

Hey gang,
We’re still waiting on Amazon to post up the third chapter of Tumor, but, in the meantime, I wanted to direct you to a brand new short story by yours truly for Kindle and the iPhone/iPod Touch Kindle App. It’s called Belly Button Reset, and I’m very proud of it. It’s sort of a Vonnegut-y sci-fi romance drama thing, and it’s only a buck, so, why not? You can purchase it here: tinyurl.com/ltxpmm

But, what’s that? You don’t have a Kindle or iPhone? Well, you’re in luck. You can check out a non-Kindle version over here at feedbooks.com/userbook/7446

But, I do ask that if you download it over on Feedbooks, PLEASE, post a brief review over on the site or over on Amazon. Reviews get people to try books out, especially with low price points, so it’d be a huge help.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the story!

j.
www.thefialkov.com