Friday, September 29, 2006

Great ideas? Easy. Great scripts? Not so much

A friend of this blog sent me an email, asking how they could best develop an idea they’d had which seemed perfect for Britain’s weekly science fiction anthology comic, 2000 AD. Not sure why I seem to have become some sort of oracle in such matters [I've been getting lots of requests for advice lately], but I guess it's what comes of opening my big, fat mouth and spouting opinions. Anyways, below is what I sent back to them by way of a reply. Some of the advice is 2000 AD specific, but some of it applies to writing in general and especially script-writing...
The best writing is so good it looks like anybody could do it, the scribe makes the end result look effortless. But the effort required, the level of craft and the storytelling talent to pull that magic trick off is immense. Not many people think they can compose a symphony, yet everyone believes they have a book in them. With comics, that perception - how easy it must be to write a good comic - is even more deceptive. You'd be surprised how many writers who had won acclaim in other writing fields decide they have a graphic novel in them. Writing is writing, right? Yes, but writing good comics is hard and writing great comics is bloody hard.

Let's say you have an idea for a one-off 2000 AD or Megazine tale like a Future Shock, Terror Tale, Time Twister or Tale from the Black Museum. All you need do is write up the plot as an exciting single-page synopsis and snail mail it in, with a covering letter and contact details - and be very, very, very patient. If you felt sufficiently enthused, on a one-off you could also send the finished script to show you can write, but you're probably better to send the synopsis and covering letter, mentioning that you can supply a script by return post if the editor is interested. Their time is strictly limited and they don't need a load of unsolicited scripts cluttering up their desk.

If your idea is for a story set in an existing character universe, like a Dreddworld story, an ABC Warriors adventure or a revival of an old favourite like - I don't know, Shako or Project Overkill - I'd say forget it. 2000 AD already has a stable of writers who can successfully revive old favourites [such as Dan Abnett on The VCs], so the editor's covered there. And he generally has the original writers available for many existing strips, such as Pat Mills on Flesh or Invasion. To get work on 2000 AD in an existing character universe, you first need to establish yourself as a skilled and reliable writer - and that takes a couple of years hard work, assuming you've got the time and talent.

If you have an original idea of your own devising for an serial or on-going series, that's good. But you'll almost certainly need to build up a track record for yourself at the comic before the editor would commission your great idea for a series. Pay your dues, show you have a firm grasp of the art and craft of writing for comics. Like I said here a week or two back, most comics creators need to get at least 100 pages published before they start getting halfway decent.

Alan Moore did Future Shocks and Time Twisters, more than 50 of them. John Wagner wrote for girls' romance comics and gag strips for Buster. Grant Morrison wrote and drew for Starblazer, wrote Future Shocks and wrote for Marvel UK's Zoids before he got the chance to write Zenith, an idea he'd been nurturing for years. Even the mighty Neil Gaimain did a Future Shock or two before ascending to the lofty heights of superstardom via Vertigo.

Comics scripting is a craft-based industry, like writing a screenplay. It takes years of practical experience to get great at it. That's not to say there aren't great natural talents [a.k.a. bastards], but these are rare indeed. So, to sell a series to 2000 AD, you'll need to prove first that you can write comics. Chances are, that'll mean some Future Shocks, Terror Tales or Past Imperfects. The editor recently made mention of the fact he doesn't get many submissions for the Past Imperfect slot, so that could be an opening. Write two or three great Past Imperfect stories for him, and you'll make a positive impression.

Ultimately, a great idea for a 2000 AD story is just that - a great idea. Sad to say, but the world is full of great ideas. Turning a great idea into a great script and selling it to the editor - that's the hard part. Even if you have the chops to make your great idea into a great script, there's no guarantee it will be to the editor's taste or that it will be what he's looking for. As in so many writing arenas, timing can be crucial to success. Submit a Future Shock about a virtual reality prison back in 1978 and you'd have been on a winner. Submit it now and you'd be laughed out of the building.

One of my favourite 2000 AD series of recent times - Necronauts, written by Gordon Rennie - was rejected by one 2000 AD editor. But Gordon resubmitted it when that editor left and it got commissioned. Gordon believed in his story and was patient enough to wait for another chance with another editor. So persistence is another crucial ingredient for success in comics. Talent, a little luck, persistence, a grasp of the craft and professionalism - you need all these things to turn your great idea into a great script, and to get it commissioned.

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