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B&N Week 155: Top Five Horror Stories & Lessons Learned

| December 10, 2013

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It’s another Tuesday, and since we’re still in December, we’re still doing countdowns!

T his week, we’re going to do my five greatest horror stories, and the lessons I’ve learned from them. Hopefully, you’ll learn from them, too.

These are not going to be in any particular order, and some of them you may have heard before, but the lessons may not have come through clearly. So, let’s get started!

Story 1: I was hired to edit a story, and the writer was pretty haughty about his storytelling abilities as well as the story they were trying to tell. The story itself was unremarkable, didn’t move well, and was pretty boring, although the writer was trying to do something different. They spent too long in their own head, thinking the story great, but it wasn’t coming through on the page. It didn’t help that they studied the “old masters” without a very deep understanding of what the masters were doing.

Let’s move back some. The writer insisted on a contract, which I then wrote up and gave. The writer wanted to make sure they were protected, even though most contracts aren’t going to do bupkis. They wanted to go over a few different permutations of scenarios, and make sure those were in the contract, as well as negotiating a kill fee if we didn’t see eye-to-eye.

I had a bad feeling, but I was also in need of money, so I took the job. The writer fought a good portion of the edits, and we went through a couple of drafts before it was plain to see that we were truly incompatible.

I had a decision to make. I could either continue down this path, or I could fire my client. I spoke to my wife about it, and she saw how much I was struggling with it. I knew how I was leaning, and I was feeling terrible about it. It felt like a failure on my part, and I don’t like to fail.

Ultimately, I fired my client, taking the kill fee, and getting my peace of mind back.

Lesson: When you feel something may not be right, listen to that voice and keep moving along. Your own peace of mind is much more important than money. Also, sometimes it is necessary to fire your client for the sake of that peace of mind.

It wasn’t so much a failure as a learning opportunity. I learned how much I’m willing to take, as well as how much work a creator is willing to put in in order to make a true go of their creation. I’m not a “my way or the highway” type of individual, but I’m not going to not be myself in order to satisfy someone’s ego. That hurts the story, and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I allowed that to happen.

Story 2: I was editor in chief of a small company. I did not own the company, and I was the second editor to take the reins.

I came in and looked all about, taking a census of the stories and seeing where they were. One of the stories that had fallen through the cracks at a previous publisher had come over to this new venture, and there was an entire issue’s worth of art already completed, with a second issue already underway.

I read all the scripts for all the comics we had slated, and this one was terrible. Worse than terrible, actually. It would have made a good “how not to write a comic” story. Bad writing, dialogue to make you physically ill, and ill-conceived characters.

The book was based on a gimmick: you can read the story from the last issue to the first, or the first issue to the last, and it would make sense both ways. As gimmicks go, that’s a good one. However, the story behind it was terrible. It would not have made us any friends in publishing it.

I stopped the work and assigned an editor. The writer didn’t want to change much. I assigned another editor and told them to edit it hard. The writer dug in even more. I decided to edit it myself, and would bring on another writer to help the original writer with their story. The original writer only trusted one other person to help them with the story, and when I read that story, it was actually worse than the original writer’s! Then, the writer tells me, their direct editor and the editor in chief, that they aren’t making any more changes and that I had better get on their program, or I could remove myself from their project.

I was pissed. Extremely so. I wanted to rage and tell them that he was no longer welcome at the publisher.

I wasn’t allowed to. The owners took care of that themselves. I wasn’t happy, and felt that I was neutered. It was a terrible, terrible feeling. Things were eventually squared away, but it took some doing, and I vowed I’d never put myself in that position again.

Lesson: If you come in second and take over somewhere, expect there to be some upheaval. That’s natural, and the only thing you can really do is attempt to mitigate the damage you’re going to cause. I also learned that I don’t like not being myself. I don’t like to coddle or to be coddled. I’m probably too blunt for my own good, but I’m getting better.

Story 3: I got into creating comics with my cousin. We created an entire universe together, trying to fill every nook and cranny with characters and storylines. Street level heroes, teams, cosmic, spies, scientists, ninjas…we had it all. It was all wrapped up and intertwined and it was getting to be as twisted as any Claremont-written X-Men comic. It was great.

There were two basic roles: micro and macro. My cousin was good at the micro, and I was good at the macro. Technology and the uses of it, as well as character personality twists was my cousin’s affair, and mine was giving the storylines for the adventures and making sure that things fell properly into place.

We created a lot of characters together, and things were going well for a while. Then he started getting less serious about it, and I was growing more serious about creating comics, and he eventually dropped out.

I wasn’t devastated, but it was definitely a blow. I decided to go it alone, but in order to do so, I had to cut out everything my cousin had created, and replace it with my own creations. So, I lost about half of the universe we had created, and I had to create new characters to fill the holes. More storylines to fit everything together. Why? Because if this universe were to take off and become popular, then I wouldn’t have to share in the fruit of my labor. That isn’t selfish, that’s smart. I saw no reason to share in the spoils of something with someone who basically left me high and dry.

Lesson: Do not enter into business with someone who isn’t at least as committed as you are, no matter how much you like or love them. You’ll end up either failing altogether or doing all the work yourself.

Story 4: A friend of mine asked me to edit their book, and I had apprehensions about it. We had tried this particular merry-go-round before on a different project, and while that project had a publisher, the art was coming in slowly due to the creator’s inability to pay for the art. The story was good, the writing was okay, and I was trying to teach the writer how not to get in their own way. Imagine a scene that was basically cut in two: just as you start to get into the scene, it would cut to another scene, and just as you started to get into that scene, it would cut to a third, and just as you started to get into the third, it would cut back to the first, finishing that scene and losing the impact therein.

Sounds like a lot of cutting, right? I tried to tell the writer that, but they insisted that they were right, because they had studied plays and television and this was just like that… It wasn’t until a lot of struggling and back and forth that they understood that they were getting in their own way, and then they consolidated their half-scenes into full scenes, and finally made the story into a good read instead of a frustrating one.

I didn’t want to go through that again. But I was once again in a difficult place financially, and I hoped they had learned their lesson from the first go-round. So I agreed. I still had my apprehensions, and I did try to get out of it, but not terribly hard. I got to work.

The story was much better this time around, and the writer wasn’t getting in their own way. However, it was a slow read. The page count was purposefully low, and not much story was being given in those pages. I gave notes, knowing that the writer wasn’t going to agree. Stories have to have a beginning, middle, and end, and this story didn’t do that. Barely a beginning, it was mostly middle, and no real end. And the page count was low.

The writer didn’t agree, and stated that while some of my edits were spot on, they didn’t agree with the overall thrust of where I thought their story should be. So they paid me the rest of my fee and continued on their way. I was relieved, and the book now not only has a publisher, but also has lots of sales through the third issue. So everything worked out well.

Lesson: Editors are not always right. Their ideas are not the only way to go with a particular story. They have their own set of priorities when they are helping a creator tell a story.

Also, listen to that little voice inside you! I could have saved myself some headache if I had listened to myself with my apprehension. I have no idea if the book is vastly different from what I was given to edit. I’m just happy that the creator is where they wanted to be.

Story 5: A friend of mine asked me to edit a short story of theirs. I said okay, and I was sent the script. It was mediocre. The story was a bit weird, and the storytelling needed the writer to visualize more, because the camera movement along with the dialogue wasn’t working as well as it should have.

I told my friend this, and while they agreed that some of what I said was valid, they disagreed on most of the other things, going so far as to say that if they made the changes I suggested, then the story they wrote would no longer be theirs. They thanked me for my time, and then they continued on their way.

I saw the finished product, and it turned out as bad as I thought it would. It was unpublishable in that form. My friend wasn’t able to place it anywhere, and the story is probably in a folder in a computer somewhere.

Lesson: If you ask someone to edit your work, be prepared to be edited. You can’t half-ass it: you’re either ready to work with others, or you aren’t. If you look at the editorial process as adversarial, then you’re not going to get as much out of the process as you could. It’s all about the story, and not about you as a person.

By saying that the story would no longer be “theirs,” my friend told me that they aren’t yet ready to work with others. Their implied stance: the editor is there to change their story, and the artist isn’t allowed to make decisions for themselves—they’re basically going to be a slave to the script. That’s no way to work.

These are the top lessons that have molded me into the editor I’ve become. Some lessons are newer than others, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t helped to mold me.

Why tell these stories? Some of them are unflattering. Because I’m hoping that some of you will learn from my experiences. There are other lessons I’ve learned, but those would just basically be variations of a theme.

And that’s it for this week! No homework. See you in seven.

Click here to discuss this at the ComixTribe forum at Digital Webbing!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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