A question came in from the internet this week: “Nick, do you have anything on your site that gives advice to freelance writers about how to go about finding work?”
I do now.
Keep in mind, I can only give you insight from my personal experience. If you’re passionate about writing comics professionally, research and follow your favorite writers, see what they have to say on the subject and gather as much advice as you can.
First, I want you to think back on anything you’ve bought in recent times that totally impressed you… really blew your mind. It could have been anything:
a new cell phone,
a new video game,
a movie you saw,
a book you read,
maybe a place you went on vacation—literally anything that just totally stood out.
Close your eyes and get something.
No, go on and do it. Then come back and keep reading.
Ok so that thing you thought of… after it knocked your socks off, did you squirrel it away in a journal and not tell a living soul, or did you post about it on social media and tell every one of your close friends about it.
That’s how you get work in comics.
Well that’s how I get work in comics anyway.
Do what you do so well, people hire you again and recommend you to colleagues.
Easy peasy. [wink emoji]
But seriously, the majority of my work comes from word of mouth and repeat business… no secret formula.
Beyond that number one rule, landing work in comics depends on:
what you’ve done,
what you can do,
and how you sell and carry yourself.
The proof is in the pudding.
To sell yourself into comic scripting, you need to show what you’re capable of. You do this by showing what you’ve already done.
If you don’t have a portfolio, you need to create one.
Completed comics are necessary to get your foot in the door at any major publishers. A script alone is unlikely to make it past the mailroom gate keepers. (More on the majors under the ‘more bad news’ section below.)
If you’re targeting individuals, people with ideas and “dreams” (or actual goals), you may be able to secure gigs with some good script samples. Properly formatted comic scripts have a magical look to them to the wee common folk and individuals serious about getting a good writer on their project are less likely to require extensive pedigrees and publication history.
Of course, in every case having a completed comic is the ultimate portfolio piece. If you have more than one you’re standing out above the pack.
Keeping it honest and real with you guys—the truth is, a comic writer’s portfolio piece is only as good as the book’s art.
This is a catch-22 for the aspiring writer.
Established comic professionals, editors and industry story people “can” see through poor art to analyze the script.
To everyone else, it’s a package deal. Those individuals with a dream I mentioned above—90% of those folks, will judge your writing/ability based on the overall impression of the book.
The lesson here is work with the best possible artists you can.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, making comics is expensive. No matter how you crack it.
The proof is still in the pudding.
At the end of the day, no matter how good your samples, the work you do for every client has to be up to par… (or more accurately really above par—or is that below par?—freaking golf!)
You must have the knowledge to know what you’re doing and the ability to execute.
Every single project you work on is a rung. And you build a career in comics one rung at a time.
One of the ways to do this is to focus your skills in a specific area or specialize in a genre. Pick what you’re most passionate about.
For me it’s Sci-fi, Fantasy, Horror and Superheroes (sounds like I covered all the bases, but hey, I’ve been doing this a long time). Of course, I write in a lot more than these four genres—but these are my real areas of expertise and were definitely my focus when I first started.
(Actually, I could probably narrow that list down further when I first started: My original specialization was probably Sci-fi/Fantasy.)
One of the benefits of specializing is the law of attraction (which I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the site)—which is absolutely real. If you have a portfolio full of sci-fi work, it’s unlikely someone is going to hire you for a manga teen romance book.
And once you do standout work in one area, similar projects come pounding at the door.
Thugs get busted or killed. Hitmen have long, lucrative careers.
A good portion of securing jobs in comics relies on making contacts and selling yourself. Learn how to sell yourself and how to carry yourself in negotiations (even if those negotiations are just via email).
Until you’re established you have to be a salesman. It sucks, but it’s another writer reality.
And while you don’t have to sell as much as your name starts to get around, you always have to be professional.
- Treating people well.
- Doing what you say when you say.
- Meeting deadlines.
- And carrying yourself well when situations go bad…
are hallmarks of the professional.
Mercenary writers live and die by our reputation.
I’ve worked with and hired a tremendous amount of people in my life. There are a lot of egos and unprofessional people in comics. Folks who think their talent excuses everything else. It doesn’t. I’ve passed on hiring great artists that were unprofessional and I’ve hired folks who weren’t at the top of their game, but carried themselves really well.
Professionalism makes a difference.
Now for the bad news.
Getting into comics cold is impossibly hard.
I’ll go out on a limb and say all aspiring comic writers have to make money elsewhere to survive on while they first pursue comic writing.
Whether you’re doing magazine articles, writing web copy or something completely unrelated to comics.
It’s like going to Hollywood to become an actor… unless you have an “in” somewhere, you better be ready to serve up food or whiskey.
More bad news.
Marvel, DC and the other big publishers have a billion freelance writers on file. About five hundred million of them have published credentials. About one million of them are big names. THEY DON’T NEED YOU. (My numbers might be a bit off here, but the point is valid.)
Indie Publishers have a few less writers on file. They are a bit softer and easier to approach, but Indie Publishers don’t launch a company without their ideas, IPs and talent in place.
Comic publishers don’t need people who can write—they’ve got that.
What many comic publishers are interested in, are really good, well executed ideas. And boy do publishers love followings… The more proven the idea, the more interested they are.
After all, every publisher in the world, big and small wants the next “Walking Dead”.
This is why focusing on that ultimate portfolio piece—your own comic—is perhaps the single best way to “get work” in comics.
If you get your idea out in the world, it looks great and does well. People take notice.
If you’ve followed the other articles on this site [wing emoji] you may just have the knockout concept the big guys are looking for… But even if you don’t have the next Walking Dead, just by being in the game you’ve given yourself an “in” to the industry.
Reflective and introspective, but how about getting down to the brass tacks Nick? I gotz to eat brother!
Unfortunately there is no secret website that us comic writers use to get gigs. There is no bat-phone, work hotline… No convention back-room where we meet in robes and secret handshakes. (At least not that I’ve been invited.)
To find comic writing gigs you need to do legwork, use the internet, exploit social media, network and be active in the comic community. Even if it’s just voicing an opinion when asked or sharing links for people, get your face out there—meet people.
Years ago, Craigslist was a viable source for targeting individuals and smaller publishers. I believe Craigslist is pretty much dead these days-I dunno I’m rarely on it, except to look for antique typewriters. A few years back I met a couple good contacts on Elance—Elance has since closed.
Sites like these come and go, keep your ear to the ground and maybe you’ll catch wind of a good one.
There are a few places comic folks gather like deviantart, penciljack, reddit and a couple others. Generally these places are good to network, meet collaborators and support the community—but usually any paid writing gigs offer minimal compensation (if any)—so they’re not ideal for finding work.
The real advantage the aspiring comic writer has today is the internet—the ease at which you can find personal contact info (and the sheer number of comic publishers online today).
Find them. (Did you know creators of comics are listed right up front in every comic!)
Follow them. (Have you heard of facebook, linkedin and other social media?)
Don’t hound them or stalk them, but reach out.
Let them know you’re out there and available. Point them to your portfolio.
This approach will work with a lot of indie guys. You may even find a few individuals from the big publishers you can connect with, but a lot of times the better known contacts won’t be able to accept new contacts or you’ll be vetted and denied. (Don’t get discouraged.)
And while you’re doing this, above all, DO THE WORK.
Focus on honing your craft, getting better at what you do.
Work on your own stuff. Fine tune your portfolio, invest in yourself… and if you’re one of the super lucky ones along the way, you might wind up not needing to find comic work. Your own effort might become the work itself.
When you’re just starting.
It’s a bit hard for me to remember when I was just starting, I published my first book in the 90s. It’s also a bit hard for me because my career has been all over the place—”Serpentine! Serpentine! They can’t hit you if you don’t run in a straight line!”
Free tests and Page Rates.
I’ve touched on this before. I never advocate working for free. But when you’re first starting out, you may need to do some free test pages for a client and/or work at lower page rates than you’d like to.
Even in these situations, gravitate towards clients that respect your time and skill. There’s the client willing to pay, but cautious of spending money on someone unproven. That’s ok. Then there’s the cheapskate, deadbeat who wants free stuff (screw him).
Don’t do large tests. You’re better spending the time on your own work.
If you do a test, do it 100%, don’t do it half-ass. Half-ass will never get you anywhere.
Set your page rate for what you think you’re worth, what you need to live. IF you ever drop below it, tell the client. “Hey, my page rate is X, but based on everything we’ve discussed I’ll do it for Y… this time.”
Reputable contests are good if you’re young and have time… or are submitting existing work—something already sitting on your desk.
If you win, or place, they’re good for your portfolio. Of course, most of the time you won’t do either, depending on the talent pool.
Keep in mind contests are very unforgiving. In all likelihood you probably won’t even hear back from them. If you do, they won’t point out redeeming qualities of your work or critique where you need to improve.
I wish I had time for contests… but then again, I wish I had a sailboat and lived in the Caribbean.
Time is on your side, or against you— it’s all how you look at it.
I hope you were able to take something away from this article.
Never forget that writing comics is a long game.
Breakout properties that make writers an overnight sensation are the exception to the rule—NOT THE RULE.
In a sense time also stands as the ultimate filter, the industry doesn’t want mediocre. Only writers with the guts and stamina to see it through to the end, get to the finish line.
You can do it.
The work is out there.
Never give up.
Remember, one project—one rung at a time. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.