Hello and welcome to the first in a series of articles, in which Card Shark Comics founder Dave discusses advice, tips and lessons learned from his first year and a half on the comic circuit. If you have any questions for him, just email – firstname.lastname@example.org
It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, all of us have had a bright idea at some point. Think back and be honest with yourself: How many of those ideas have you actually acted upon?
I’m not shy about it: I have had countless ideas and projects – from websites to evening classes and beyond – that I’ve never actually made good on, and yeah, I regret never following them through.
But here’s the thing; you and I aren’t robots, we’re busy people who can only cram so much into one day, so it’s categorically impossible to do it all.
This is the first lesson you need to learn in the first of my ‘how to’ series of comic guides.
Learn this lesson, study it, and live by it – your sanity will thank you. This is coming from a guy who has legitimately burned out and battled depression caused by stress. You CANNOT do everything at once.
What does this has to do with writing your first comic?
Me hanging out with City of Lost Souls writer James McCulloch, Saltire writer John Ferguson and Little Girl Black artist Pedro after Glasgow Comic Con ’16 (I’ve asked all these guys for advice before!)
I have an idea for a comic book: where do I start?
My first book, the post-apocalyptic Bust #1, was published in July 2015 at Glasgow Comic Con. I started scribbling notes for the story three years before then, in 2012. Why did it take so long?
Quite simply, I lacked the conviction and confidence to progress the project any further. I was a writer by trade – a games journalist in fact – but what the hell did I know about comics?
Nothing at that point of course, but if even if your name is Mark Millar, Rick Remender or Warren Ellis, you had to start somewhere. These icons of the comic world didn’t just automatically start off as experts of their craft.
They were novices at one point too, and over the years they honed their writing styles, understood the industry and most likely – spoke with other creators to benefit from their collective knowledge.
Over the last year and a half of self-publishing comics and attending conventions under the Card Shark Comics alias, the number one question I hear from aspiring creators is – “I have an idea for a comic. How do I write it?”
The short answer – and I’ll caveat this to say I’m not being blunt just to be bullish is – “Just write it.”
If you procrastinate, and worry too much about not being able to write, or being afraid of taking that first step, you will never turn your project into a reality.
This is a 100%, iron-clad statement of fact. It will never happen. Period.
So what can you do about it?
Selling comics at the Big Glasgow Comic and Craft Fair. My second ever show was one of theirs, and it feels like a lifetime ago. Again, advice and peer reviews got me there, it can do the same for you!
Break it down!
Remember what I said at the start about not being able to do everything at once. This is what I mean. If you have an idea for a comic but you have zero direction as to how you make it happen, you need to step back and take a strategic approach.
Anyone can do this, trust me – it’s easy!
Here’s a few steps you can (read: SHOULD) follow to plan your attack on the world of indie comics
Break your idea down into separate components
By this I mean ‘Start a lore bible.’ A lore bible is a word document, or even a pad of paper, in which you write down the history of your world, the characters and the rough story arc.
Don’t get hung up on this being right first time – hell, I’m still making edits to the script of Vessels #2 and it’s in production now.
Vessels is a dark fantasy series, so I started out by writing out some world rules that said, ‘OK, so it’s set in a medieval-like world, with no technology. It’s not high fantasy so there’s no dragons, fairies or other mythical beings, but there is magic. How does it work? Well, it’s largely force projectile spells and shields, nothing too high fantasy again.’
There’s more to this of course, but you can already see what I’m doing- I’m informing what will eventually become my script. So I now know that if my characters are say – locked in a jail cell – they can’t just use magic to teleport out of there, because all they can do is hit people with projectiles or protect themselves with shields. No teleporting, as it breaks the lore.
Or say my characters get separated or lost, they can’t just whip out a phone to call each other because that technology doesn’t exist yet.
The same goes for my characters. I absolutely, 100% recommend writing short (or long) bios for each of your main characters. What are their personality traits, what’s their back story, what do they wear, what’s their agenda.
Again in Vessels, there’s a character called Marillon who is a master thief, who was once a skilled hunter. She’s one with nature and a master at stealth. I established that early on, and today I am writing her into scenes where the other characters are using her sneaking skills to get out of sticky situations.
Marillon is my favourite character from any of my books to write, but she started from nothing – a simple concept – and has grown in complexity from there.
She’s also a trash talker – like a medieval Spider-Gwen – who taunts her opponents in battle and talks herself into trouble. This was established from the first time we see her, and it now fuels a lot of our comedy moments.
This is the art of breaking down your grand idea into smaller chunks so it no longer feels intimidating or too big to make a start.
You won’t have written a single word of script yet, but trust me when I say that when you do, the process will flow far more smoothly because you have the lore in place.
Seriously, do this!
More of Marillon being a cocky shit, because she’s awesome!
2. Story arcs are your best friend, be nice to them
So your lore is in place, and you’re ready to script – but don’t start writing yet. What you need is a story arc. For example, I already know how every one of my series starts, progresses and ends – even though I haven’t scripted them all yet.
Writing without a clear sense of direction is a waste, and it leads to pointless or redundant scenes that will either confuse your reader as to the actual point of your book, or it will feel like blatant filler.
You need to establish a clear progression – such as the classic Hero’s Journey story-telling method – but with your own spin on it.
Star Wars IV: A New Hope is a classic ‘go-to’ example, but there are plenty out there. I’ll use one of my favourite movies Fight Club in this case, as it has a great progression arc that goes like this:
- Jack has insomnia and leads a dull, unadventurous life
- Jack meets his polar opposite Tyler on a plane, then loses his home
- Homeless and with nothing to lose, Jack forms Fight Club with Tyler
- Fight Club gets so big that they both form Project Mayhem and start blowing up parts of the city
- Bob gets shot in the head, causing Jack to realise the project has gone too far
- Jack tries to shut Project Mayhem down but it’s too big now. He comes to a startling realisation about Tyler
- Tyler tries to put his big final scheme into motion, they both have an epic fight
- In the end, Jack understands who he is and Project Mayhem reaches its final conclusion. The End.
Notice how I’m not explicitly spelling out in great detail what happens in each phase of the character Jack’s journey – only the huge events or as I call them ‘beats’ that lead him to the story’s end. That’s all you need at this stage, as long as YOU are clear in your own mind about what happens.
Now, what I tend to do next is look at my arc notes then start portioning those ‘beats’ into issues. For example, you could dedicate a whole issue to each of the eight beats above, or cover two in each issue, or any number.
But what you need to do is allow enough space for character development (more on that in another blog post).
Now you’re ready to start writing your script!
When writing Feather – my short series for Comichaus with Norrie Millar – the story started out entirely of cliff notes – single sentences that described what issue would involve, and then it grew from there.
3. How to start writing a comic script
I’m going to dedicate a few separate blog posts to formatting, writing and fine-tuning your comic script so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I wanted to lay a few tips on you for starters:
- Look online for formatting guides, there’s plenty available
- Ask other comic creators how they’ve done it – we’re lovely people and (mostly) don’t mind taking time to give others advice. Again – like my Millar/Ellis/Remender example, we’ve all been in your shoes and asked for help in the past.
- And if someone does give you shit after asking for their advice, just shrug it off. They’re maybe just massively stressed or busy, or – I’ll be honest here – just a total dick. Don’t let it get to you!
- Don’t plan on finishing your script in one sitting. Remember, you CANNOT do it all, and trying to do everything at once is a sure-fire way to develop stress, depression, sleep deprivation or worse (yes, worse!).
- I have a ‘comic day’ – one day each week where I absolutely have to sit down and work on my books after my 9-5 job. It can be any day of the week, but I have to do it every week. This means I can have a social life, spend time with my fiancé and just relax. And hey, if I have to postpone ‘comic day’ for a day because my friends want to hang out – I don’t feel bad about it. I just commit to do it another day that week.
- Don’t worry if you don’t get much done. I absolutely believe that if you have to really force the ideas and words out, they won’t be your best work. I need to really be ’feeling it’ to work on a particular script. Sometimes that means I only write 100 words during comic day – because perhaps I wasn’t happy with the first 1000 I wrote and scrapped them. If this happens to you, just remember:
- THAT 100 WORDS IS 100 MORE THAN WHAT YOU HAD THE WEEK BEFORE, SO EVEN THOUGH IT’S SMALL PROGRESS, IT IS STILL – REPEAT – STILL PROGRESS! CHIN UP, YOU CREATED SOMETHING – BE HAPPY ABOUT THAT SMALL ADVANCE!
- Sorry about the caps lock, but seriously, if you take away anything else from this post, it is what I just said there. Print it out, frame it and stick it on your wall next to wherever you write if you have to.
- Lastly, get people to peer review your work. This can be a creator online, a Facebook community like Work in Comics, Comichaus or Ashcan – seek them out, they’re great. It could even be a creator at a con, or a friend (but make sure your friend gives you honest, brutal, but constructive feedback – you don’t want half-assed sugar coating when you’re trying to raise your game!)
- I’ve even had young writers hand me a poly sleeve with simple printed off A4 sheets at cons, together with their contact details before. I gladly read everything that gets handed to me like this, and I’ve gone back to them with constructive feedback. I hope to see them all sharing space at future cons with me!
In the end, just remember, you are not alone in your creation. There is no shame in reaching out to people for help – because again, we’ve all done it, seriously!
But most importantly, do something about it. Don’t let your ideas fester in the black hole of ideas you are ‘maybe’ going to do one day, because you won’t. Trust me on this, you just won’t do them.
Until you actually start writing the first sentence of your lore bible, you won’t have fully realised your vision. Set aside even an hour, sit down and get scribbling.
And seriously, if you ever want to run your idea or script by me, I would love to help you.
You can message me at:
Until next time, I hope you have enjoyed my first ‘how to’ guide.
Good luck, and happy creating!