Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Breaking the Fourth Wall: Episode 7

Breaking news: I have just received my first official rejection letter. For those of you playing along at home, this was for the Dystopian pitch, which had been sent to Insomnia Publications. The rejection email I got was a pretty nice one, though, as it specifically said they weren't rejecting it because of the concept or the writing but rather because it doesn't fit their publishing format. You may recall that I discussed this very thing at length, so it's a bit funny that I still didn't quite get it right in my actual proposal; but I'm not surprised either. Essentially they publish complete one-volume trades and I submitted an ongoing (though finite) story that I tried to shoehorn into their format by pitching it as a series of trades. They rightly pointed out that this would not be doing the pacing of my story any favors, but they did say they'd be happy to review any other submissions I might send them, so that's good. Plus, the turnaround time was less than a month, which is brilliant. Overall, then, this was a fairly positive experience.

Prior to receiving that update, I had already written today's episode of Breaking the Fourth Wall, so here is what I originally had planned for today.

Last time out I discussed the proposals I have submitted and just how you go about tailoring your pitches for different publishers. That's all well and good, but today I'd like to take a look at a different side of the submission process: script samples.

Now, pretty much every publisher that still accepts writing submissions requires you to include a sample script, whether it's a full script of just the first few pages. And that's fine, especially because it allows you to really flesh out the proposal you are pitching. But there are some companies that actually want to see a sample of your scripting abilities before they will even take a look at the actual pitch. And that presents a quite different set of writing challenges than a regular pitch does.

Take a look, for example, at this submission requirement from Committed Comics:

"If you are interested in submitting to Committed Comics as a writer please write no more then a five (5) page story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. If you are going to use unknowns (your own creator owned characters) please ensure that there is enough description for our editorial staff to know the characters."

Now, by today's comic book standards, a complete five page story is akin to asking someone to translate the Dead Sea Scrolls into sign language. When mainstream megastars like Brian Michael Bendis are taking five pages to show a guy walking from his kitchen to his living room, the idea of having to actually craft an entire story of that length can seem amazing. Wherefore art thou, decompression?

Yet, it's far from an unusual or atypical request. Time Bomb Comics, for example, has essentially the same requirements (though they loosen it up a bit by making it 5-8 pages instead of just five), while Viper Comics... doesn't accept submissions. However, they did hold a writing contest over the summer that had almost the exact same requirements as Committed, except they specified that you had to use established characters rather than original properties (partially for legal reasons, I'm sure, but also because it would therefore be easier for the editors to gauge how good your characterization is). [note: I did not win that contest, as you can see from the link, but I haven't heard back from them either, so it's possible I was one of the runners-up they mentioned -- I'll let you know when I hear from them]

So, how do you go about putting together a viable five page sample using established characters? Hmm.

For me, I decided to do the obvious: if today's comics aren't publishing complete stories in that format, then why not look at comics from the past that did and emulate those? And there are plenty of examples to look at, because for decades, this kind of tight plotting and pacing was de rigueur for just about every publisher, especially when dealing with anthology books.

The most famous and probably most artistically successful stories ever done in this format were from EC Comics, but I personally don't have any of those lying around, so when preparing my five page story I instead turned to a somewhat easier source to procure: DC war comics. Luckily, I have lots of these stacked all over my bedroom, so pulling out a few gems from Bob Haney or Robert Kanigher wasn't a problem.

What stands out in these stories is the pacing, specifically contrasted to today's decompression. Where modern comics often try to emulate film and thus rely on multiple repeated frames to visually convey progression of time or emotion, in a five page story you just don't have that luxury. Instead, each panel becomes its own complete scene and the captions or dialogue become the key element to adding depth to the tale. In essence the pictures are the plot and the words are the heart; the shorter format places a higher premium on the writing to carry as much of a load as the art.

In addition, many of these stories do not have the space to fully develop a climax (and certainly not a denouement) so many rely on sudden, twist endings that recast everything that came before in a different light. This was a specialty of EC in particular, and it's one method of adding an emotional punch to a tale that otherwise might not have the breathing room to provide it (the most famous example being the ending to their classic story "Judgement Day", shown here).

These are just a couple techniques that I noticed when studying some of the classic short stories from the past; the point is that, as always, becoming familiar with the storytelling techniques that have been successful will in turn help you to become successful; and knowing the rules of the form is the only way you can successfully break the rules when you get proficient enough to do so. In my specific case, I decided to just go with a straight-up old school DC style war story for my submission: five pages, tight plotting, narrative captions, twist ending, etc. In order to satisfy the requirements of having an established character, I decided to go with Ben Grimm during his now forgotten (and retconned) tenure as a fighter pilot during World War II.

Whether or not this somewhat retro style of storytelling will pay off in terms of successful submissions, I'm not sure (I ended up sending slightly different versions of this same sample to all three of the companies I mentioned before), but the effort of studying and attempting to replicate the format certainly provided invaluable experience, so even if it doesn't lead to work it was worth the time.

Next time: Barring news from any of the other submissions I have out in the ether (that's two more pitches and three samples for those keeping track), our next episode of Breaking the Fourth Wall will discuss a specific storytelling technique I learned from the work of one of my favorite writers of the 90's, James Robinson. See you then!

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Good rejection letter, keep at them.
James Robinson is great. Leave it to Chance was a lot of fun.