The coffee was hot and black, just the way I liked it. I didn’t know what time it was, but I didn’t care. The night had taken me to a point of no return. Every loose idea that was drifting in my mind, I furiously snatched up as I scribbled everything down into my notebook. I could feel the caffeine coursing through my veins with a welcoming intensity. My heart felt like it was pumping jet fuel.
As I continued to ride out my manufactured adrenaline rush, I quickly realized my heart was racing for a completely different reason. I was finding it difficult to swallow as I was suddenly crippled with fear. I didn’t know why I was certain of this, but my safety was in jeopardy.
The thin giant sat a few stools over, dressed in a black suit and tie in a size too small that exacerbated his already jarring appearance. He was bald as a cancer patient, staring at me with lidless eyes, and I could feel the rhythmic vibrations of his razor sharp hunting knife tapping against the counter. He could not speak for his lips were sewn shut, but this didn’t stop him from emitting a guttural noise as he lunged at me.
I woke up gasping for air in the darkness of my bedroom. It was only a dream, but the vividness of it all was still fresh in my mind. Unable to shake the disturbing imagery, I sat down at my desk and started jotting down every last detail that I could remember. Satisfied, I crawled back into bed and lay awake until I was too tired to be scared anymore.
Where do your stories come from? The majority of mine have been plucked straight from my nightmares. Discerning the good from the bad takes time. The first major lesson I learned early on was that there’s a significant difference between concept and story. Concepts can often be mistaken for story as they possess all the elements of one, but the key difference is that a concept is simply an idea. A story is the follow through that fleshes out that idea into something substantial.
For about a year after I started writing Death Tax, I was bursting with what I thought at the time were more stories. Little did I know that most of them were simply concepts. When I realized I was jotting down nothing more than ideas for new pitches, I started to try to build upon them. By doing this, I learned that each concept was like that initial bit of yarn that allows you to unravel the entire ball, but many of mine ended up being false starts that left me with just a handful of disconnected pieces.
What I find to be an aide in preventing good ideas from dissolving into a false start is a healthy amount of research. This can be in any form, whether it be factually based, or just mere inspiration. Research can help keep that initial bit of thread intact, which in turn will allow you to knit the necessary layers that make up the blanket of your story.
Like my most recent nightmare, Southern Dog was also born out of a vivid dream I had of a werewolf fighting off a group of klansmen. Knowing that the imagery alone was a solid enough concept, I decided to place it within the modern context of America’s first African-American President.
From there, I conducted weeks of research on the history of the Ku Klux Klan all the way up to the inauguration of Barack Obama. Suffice it to say, I discovered some key facts that kept unraveling the ball of yarn. Drawing from my own personal experiences on the subject of racism allowed me to pull harder on the thread, which only strengthened the idea. Before I knew it, I found myself weaving a multi-layered tapestry of a story.
Around this time, I decided to attend WonderCon on a whim. I had the first issue of Death Tax complete, and felt it was a stronger representation of my passion, commitment, and talent. My reasoning behind this was that a pitch showed my interest in comics, but showing an editor a completed issue demonstrated a level of skill and professionalism that would set me apart.Continued below
Successfully obtaining a press pass to the show, I also managed to sign up for a new event called, “Creator Connection.” This was essentially speed-dating between writers and artists. It sounded like an ideal forum to scout out potential collaborators. I printed a brief one page synopsis and six pages of script for three different projects that needed an artist, and headed to the convention.
Unsure of who to talk to first, I happened to pass the Oni Press booth and found Brahm Revel (creator of Guerillas) doing a signing. We had met a few months earlier at an event at Bergen Street Comics back in Brooklyn, so it was nice to see a familiar face. After wrapping up his signing, he invited me to walk the convention floor with him. We talked comics, life, and everything in between. For a guy that was drawing and writing his own graphic novels, he was surprisingly laid back and appeared stress free. Needless to say, I was a bit in awe of him. Afterwards, he introduced me to Charlie Chu–Senior Editor at Oni Press–and mentioned a comic I had just self-published. Charlie was kind enough to accept the first issue, and I thanked him for his time.
I headed over to the Creator Connection event with a vague idea on how it might transpire. As I waited in line to get in, a few people saw my small stack of Death Tax #1’s and asked where I bought them. When I explained that they were mine, I managed to actually sell four copies before I even walked through the door. Upon entering, we all quickly noticed the completely uneven ratio of writers:artists was 9:1. This did not bode well.
My suspicions proved correct when the shifting of partners became increasingly disorganized to the point that people were cutting in line to sit down with one of the eight available artists. While I waited for my turn to chat, I traded books with a guy in line who was picking my brain about pitching to editors. What he handed me was an odd shaped book (in the shape of a TV remote) that contained an entirely silent story. After hearing his pitch for it–which was simply about Christmas happening every day of the year–I asked who he had planned on showing this to. He didn’t know. I backtracked a bit and asked who were some of his favorite creators and/or publishers. He didn’t have any. He was an actor.
Unsure of how to advise him, I mentioned that Archaia Entertainment was in the business of printing beautiful “art house” books, and that perhaps they’d be a suitable candidate to pitch his unusual size book to. I went even further to recommend speaking to Rebecca Taylor, an Assistant Editor there that I had interacted with a couple times. The next day, he found me at the convention to tell me that he spoke to her, but that she didn’t have anything positive to say about his book. He concluded that she must have been a glorified assistant because she clearly didn’t recognize that his comic was good.
His response was extremely shocking on a couple levels. It reminded me that not everyone can take criticism well. If you can’t, well I’m sorry. You won’t last very long in any creative business. It also was a helpful reminder to do your research and know your target audience. This guy had two strikes against him. As for his talent, that was still questionable, but I figured maybe his book just wasn’t my cup of tea. His third strike out for me was when he found me on Facebook and harassed me to like a page dedicated to his book, and to pledge towards his kickstarter to fund the production of it.
Looking back on this experience, it wasn’t how poorly he conducted himself, nor was it the mediocre presentation and pitch of his book. What was the major flaw in all of this–his actual point of failure–was the fact that he had created a book based off nothing more than a concept. Each time I asked him to elaborate on his story, he kept reminding me that it was about Christmas happening every day of the year. How cool is that, right?Continued below
Wrong. As a writer, you will have lots of ideas (I hope), and that’s a healthy sign that you’re on the right track. The prolific writers that I know that I can also call my friends are never short on concepts. But what sets them apart is that they know how to consistently and expertly construct engaging stories from them. Not every idea is good enough to make into a story, in fact a lot of them won’t be. But with every one you tackle, you will get more proficient at spotting a dead-end from a mile away. Even though a great idea never dies, a lot of good ones will never see the light of day. This is part of the weathered process of writing fiction.
I had just submitted my finalized and polished pitch for Southern Dog to a handful of publishers that I felt might be interested. I was a bit more confident thanks to Riley Rossmo being kind enough to provide stunning cover art for it. However, one by one, I received rejection letter after rejection letter.
You’re okay. You still haven’t heard from The One yet.
The last one–who also happened to be my first choice–was known for responding to submissions at the end of the month. It was a Friday night and my girlfriend at the time had gotten into a huge argument with me about how much strain my dedication to writing was putting on our relationship. It didn’t help that I was dedicating all my free time to writing, and spending every other weekend recording a podcast; all the while holding down a full-time job. If I could just get this green light, I could prove to her that my time was not being spent in vain, and that everything would get easier if I had something published.
I checked my email an hour before I was set to record another episode of The Process, and the response that was going to change my life was sitting in my inbox.
TO BE CONTINUED…