How do you break into comics? How do you land logo projects? How do you launch a creator-owned comic series? How do you get a job at an advertising agency? How do you get an agent or manager in Hollywood? How do you get work as a comic book cover artist?
Let’s be honest, there’s absolutely no way to write about something like this without directly conflicting with other successful approaches, or completely glossing over something someone will deem too important to skip. My approach here is to simply carve out the part I’m most interested in, the part that has worked for me, and completely ignore the rest. If you find yourself frustrated by my approach to this, it’s not you, it’s me, and I’m sorry it didn’t work out. Still, if applied properly, many of you will find this information useful.
When it comes to creative industries, there are really only two steps to doing just about anything. Honest. Only two steps. These steps might need to be repeated to get results, but there are only two.
Step 1. Make something great.
Step 2. Show it to the right people.
It won’t always work, but it does work. If you’re doing these two things and still not finding success, one of the two steps is lacking. Let's dive a little deeper so we can figure out which one might need help. Odds are the work is not great. If it is, it's being shown to the wrong people. It's time for an honest evaluation.
Let's first look at the basics of the great project you're showing around. Is it in the proper form? If you want to be a screenwriter, you show screenplays. If you want to be a comic creator, you show comics. The same logic applies across the board for just about any creative industry. Pitches, pencils, and outlines won't do. Yes, professionals do show pitches, pencils, and outlines all the time, but it's because they've already proven they can produce finished work. If you haven't, your FIRST hurdle is to prove you're capable of finishing a project. Take it to completion, cross the finish line, ship it. and put it out there for the world to see. Finishing is far more than semantics, it's actual tangible PROOF you can do the thing you’re saying you can do. If you want to make comics for a living but you’re only showing pencil samples or pitch work, your odds of success are lower than someone that’s already finished and shipped a 32 page comic. Make a great comic to prove your skills, THEN send out your pencils and pitches. Same goes for just about any other creative endeavor. The good news is that most of what you’ll be doing, you can do for free, or for very little money. These days scripts, comics, novels, etc. can all go out as a PDFs, there’s very little financial investment required beyond the time required to create the work. The important thing is you have to produce work in its finished form. Finished work gets noticed. Screenwriters get work by sending out great spec scripts, not by telling everyone they could write a great spec script.
Let’s use an example: Your house needs to be painted and you've put out the call to find a painter. You've now got two choices in front of you. One is an aspiring painter that has never painted a house before, but they went to college for house painting and they've bought and read every book on house painting. They’re certain they could do it professionally if they were paid to do it. They were even kind enough to bring in a few sample boards of various colors to show you they can paint. The other person just painted your neighbor's house, and they did a great job. For us, it doesn't really matter if they were paid or not, our decision is based on their ability to paint a house. One is a house painter, the other isn't. Who is more likely to handle the job of painting YOUR house? It’s a dumb example, but an easy choice. Painting a house is damn hard work and everybody knows it, especially the person that just painted a house. It's not just about knowing how to use a paint brush and studying the process, it's also about endurance, commitment, and the ability to finish a project. Not everyone can.
Now that you’ve actually made a finished project, we need to figure out if it’s great. Some people think everything they do is great, others think it all sucks. The truth is that most of us aren’t capable of knowing if our work is any good because we lack objectivity. Until you’ve done it for a while, it can be very difficult to know for sure, especially when friends and family are telling you it’s all wonderful and great. The real test, the only test, is to have the project evaluated by working professionals. Don't bother with other aspiring creators in your Facebook group, contest judges don’t count, nor do paid consultants. I'm talking about actual working professionals that earn their living DOING the thing you're trying to do. If you're trying to be a screenwriter, you've got to get your script to a working screenwriter. Ideally, find more than one. If you're trying to do creator-owned comics, find creators that have shipped creator-owned comics. Apply that logic to whatever it is you're trying to do. Graphic designers, novelists, storyboard artists, fashion designers, whatever.
Easier said than done, right? Don’t worry, just about everyone that’s been successful at this has already done it. It’s something most of us do and continue to do. It’s part of the process. Now, it’s your turn. My advice is to start hitting conventions or trade shows and get to know creators in your chosen area. It’s going to be hard work, you’ll be greeted with rejection and apathy. Keep going. Once you've found someone kind enough to have a look at your work, don't expect them to read and review your entire project, and don’t send them more than one project. One project only. Most writers will know if you can write after the first 5 or 10 pages. A professional comic artist will know if you can draw and tell a story within a few seconds. Crazy, I know, but it's true.
Don't worry, if they love it they'll keep going. But if it stinks, don't expect them to plow forward through a hundred more pages. No one wants to endure that kind of horror. Ask for a simple but honest evaluation of your project in a way it could be answered in a single sentence, or perhaps, a single word. Keep it simple. No working creator has the time to send you a detailed list of corrections and notes. If that’s what you get, enjoy every second of it because it’s a genuine gift and be sure to send that creator a gift basket. This next bit is important. Ask them to be brutally honest. You're tough, you can take it. It's better to know than to not know. Expect the worst, and know that no matter how tough it might be to hear, they’re trying to help you.
You may not ever get a reply. That happens pretty often. Follow up, yes, but don’t be a jerk. Their job is to create, and they have their own lives and priorities that probably don’t include you. If/when you get that reply, positive or negative, DO NOT defend your work, send a rebuttal, or attack that professional (it happens). Your reply will simply be, "THANK YOU!," or some variation thereof.
If they tell you your work is great, move on to Step 2.
If they tell you the work isn't great, go back and make it great. Better yet, use the lessons learned to make a NEW thing that's great and start building a catalog of work. Make every project better than the last. Before you send out your new thing, repeat the process by getting it to professionals and MAKE SURE IT'S GREAT.
Now that you've got something great, on to Step 2.
Step 2: Show it to the right people.
If you've been showing your great project to professionals as recommended, you might have already done this part without knowing it. Referrals from respected professionals are one of the most powerful tools in any creative industry. However, referrals are a rare commodity,and they should be treated with great respect. For professionals, access to the best publishers, agents, managers, editors, etc. can sometimes be complex and tricky relationships. If you ask outright and that particular creator doesn't feel comfortable giving you a referral, you've now put them in an awkward situation. If they don’t believe in your project they really only have three options: Hurt your feelings, dodge the request, or lie. None of those are helpful for you, and you could very well sour your relationship with that professional. If you're serious about working in a particular field, nurturing and protecting relationships is an important skill to develop. If that professional loved your work, you might get a referral by default. If they didn’t love your work, it’s best to avoid the subject all together. If you decide to ask, you must ask in a way that doesn't put the professional on the spot. In other words, don’t ask a professional screenwriter for their agent’s email address. Horrible idea. Instead, let them know you don't have representation, but you're actively looking. Trust me, when you phrase things in this way, professionals will know exactly what's going on and what you're asking them. If they love your work and they want to help you, they will. If they don't, your relationship with that professional should remain unstrained.
If you don't get a referral, you can and should approach the decision makers on your own. If you're showing great work to the right people, good things will happen. If you're showing great work to someone that isn't a decision maker hoping they'll make a decision, you might be wasting your time. Getting a referral from them could be helpful, but if they're not in a position to open a door, don’t expect them to. Again, don't strain these relationships. It happens far too often.
How do you know who to approach? Who are the decision makers? There's no easy answer for this one, you've got to put in work to learn your particular industry, and within that industry, there are many variations. In comics, our work typically goes to publishers and/or editors. In advertising, it's creative directors, art directors, and account executives. Even here, there are variations. The important thing is that you take an honest look at your project, then approach the decision makers that are involved in that kind of work, or have expressed interest in that kind of work. You'll hear this kind of example often, but showing a sexually explicit cartoon to Nickelodeon won't get you very far because Nickelodeon doesn't do sexually explicit cartoons. You're not just wasting your time, you're wasting theirs as well. Another strained relationship. That's an obvious and extreme example, but there are many subtle versions of the very same thing. You've got to consider format, genre, project length, tone, style, etc. Some comic publishers offer a page-rate advance, some don't. If you need an advance, you've got to plan accordingly. There's no way around it, you must research and study your industry to learn the norms and the patterns. The good news is that you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. You can learn a lot by studying what works, and what has worked. Find, follow, and study the careers of creators that are doing what you're trying to do, and follow similar projects. Some creators are more open about process than others, but that’s part of the work. You have to identify the creators most willing to share what they know and you can learn a ton from their process.
Another point to mention, the 'right people' might just be YOU. There are plenty of creators that self publish and self distribute their own work. In many cases, you really don't need a publisher, distributor, or shelf space in a popular store to bring a project to life. All you really need is an internet connection. Self-publishing and distribution isn’t right for every project, and it’s certainly not right for every person, but it’s worth a look.
On that note, self-imposed limitations and fears can often prevent a truly great project from getting off the ground. Imposter syndrome, fear of public speaking, or fear of failure can all prevent aspiring creators from taking the steps required. Learning yourself is just as important as learning your industry. We can all fall into a comfort zone from time to time, or retreat into our shells, but I think it's important to learn to challenge yourself and to function when things are uncomfortable. I'm not saying it's easy, I'm just saying it's possible. Sometimes, getting in way over your head is all you need. Occasionally you’ve got to put yourself in a position where you're forced to sink or swim. It's often the only way to get things done. How many finished screenplays are sitting in a laptop right now having never made it to a single person capable of bringing it to life? Plenty, I imagine. With the right approach, you can work through it and make good things happen. In some cases, professional therapy might be needed. Therapy is also a valid and proven approach for many creators.
Peer support can also go a long way to helping you get where you need to be. I've built up a fairly large network of professionals I look to for advice and opinions, not just on the quality of my work, but also on smart ways to approach publishers, how to structure a tricky email, various ways to make contact with someone that might seem out out reach, or a simple gripe session to clear the mind. Again, conventions and trade shows are ideal for this kind of network building. Most of the professionals I have in my network are a direct result of conventions I’ve attended. Some of my connections have since become very close personal friends.
“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” ― Mark Twain
Go ahead, get started.
July 5, 2017