Unsung…

There’s an unsung member of the Alex Automatic team. I see a lot of concern online about proper credit in comics and it’s great to see things shifting towards everyone involved in the process quite rightly getting the credit they’re due.

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Alex Automatic #3 will be the first comic to see the light of day where I worked on the script with an editor, in this case the affable and very talented Harry French. Harry is a writer who has created comics like the brilliant FREAK OUT SQUARES and MASTER TAPE, but he’s been spending more time recently working with other writers, helping develop and improve (hopefully) already good scripts and aiming them towards being great scripts.

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For me, the role of an editor has several aspects. They help pick up your shitty spelling and grammar mistakes, sure. They suggest better ways to put things, give you a heads up when dialogue sounds off, all that stuff. They can even suggest wholesale changes that you might not like but here’s the thing – it’s always for the benefit of the comic. And that’s the most valuable aspect of an editor’s role. An editor can and usually will be your buddy, a friend who cares about the script as much as you do. Someone to sound off to, someone who understands how hard it is to pull this stuff out of your head. But a good editor will also lay it on the line if you are the one in the way of the script being even better. There is so much value in having someone on board your project who will tell you when you are getting in your own way. It can be hard to hear, and you may have to kill your babies, but it’s incredibly powerful to have that oversight.

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Now, you don’t always have to agree with your editor, and that’s totally ok. If it’s your show as it generally is in indie comics, you don’t have to listen. In professional comics, it would be a different, more nuanced relationship where ultimately (and for many varying reasons), you’ll have to be a pro, suck stuff up you don’t like and get on with the next draft. However, even in a scenario where you don’t have to listen, when your editor points out something you’ve missed, not considered or just got plain wrong, you’ll know. You’ll know, in that way where you wonder why you never thought of it, or never saw it. The fact is you probably did. Every creator will deliver something where they have a feeling about some weak points. Weak points you’ve wracked your brains about but never quite worked out. So they stay in, because it’s important just to get finished. These howlers will be spotted a mile off by a decent editor. Even if you’ve done a great job, a good editor will squeeze out a little more, helping you get that extra 5-10% more quality to help you stand out, learn and improve as a creator.

But what do you do if you don’t know any editors, or can’t afford to hire one? One great way to get a similar level of feedback is to join or start a writers group. John Lees (Sink, And Then Emily Was Gone) very kindly asked me to join his group with Kenny Porter (Barnstormers) and Rich Douek (Gutter Magic, Wailing Blade) and getting your stuff peer reviewed by people who really know what they’re talking about can be just as valuable as the more intensive one-to-one relationship with an editor. Your group members might not be in a position to go as in-depth on your stuff, but that can lead to more direct, honest constructive criticism that’s right on the money.

One case in point – I had a pitch proposal that I was pretty pleased with. I don’t often get high concept ideas for series and I was happy that I’d come up with something that might have a bit of mass appeal that would work as an on-going comic. So I submitted it to the group. I knew it wasn’t perfect but hey, nothing is, right? The guys, quite rightly, took it apart. It had under-developed characters, disparate plot lines that didn’t tie up and the core premise was fuzzy and undefined. As soon as I got that feedback, I knew every bit of it was right. But in pointing out where I’d gone wrong, the guys pretty much told me how to fix it. I worked hard on all the flaws and ended up with a much stronger outline for a comic that will be a ton better when it gets made.

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Exposing your work to criticism can be really daunting. If you struggle with confidence, which I certainly have over the years, it can feel much easier just to toil away on your own. But if you’re serious about getting better at what you’re doing,  joining a group of other creators you trust and letting them have at what you’re up to is a great start. If you’re lucky, it’ll end up being a real confidence builder. You’ll pick up on stuff you frequently get wrong, and cut it out. You’ll make sure your stuff isn’t half-assed, because you want to respect the group and you’ll write up to the standard of your peers, because you’ll want to earn their respect. And with practice and feedback comes confidence and eventually your voice will really start to develop. Plus, you’ll get to feedback on your friend’s stuff too and learn about looking at how scripts and stories work and how to offer your own thoughts. It’s a process that gets you thinking and talking about story mechanics in a fun way that will have you picking up and bedding in points on technique and structure the more you contribute. And of course it’s also cool just to hang out with other creative people who have your back.

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Working on Alex Automatic #3 with Harry has helped me deliver what I think is my most polished script for this series yet, and he’s made a big contribution to that. As a series develops, you naturally become more ambitious as you try to top what you’ve done before and keep people coming back around. That’s hard to do on your own as an inexperienced writer tackling an ongoing comic for the first time. For me, it’s important to know that right from the get go, there’s somebody on board who loves the comic and has my back, but will kick my ass if I start slipping. I’m just wondering how much Harry would have cut from this article…


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