B&N Week 50: Submissions

| December 6, 2011 | 8 Comments

I just looked at the calendar, and it told me that it was glorious Tuesday! If you haven’t noticed by now, I’ve got a love affair with Tuesday, and I hope you do, too.

This week, I thought I’d talk about something that I’ve touched upon previously, and talked around, and hinted at, but haven’t tackled head on. I’m talking about submitting your work. Sometime during your career in comics, you’re going to be going through this specialized torture, so let’s get down to the Bolts & Nuts of it, shall we?

There’s one important rule when it comes to submitting your work, and almost all of you are guilty of ignoring it. The rule is simple: don’t try to over-think the submission process. You are not unique, and your comic is not special. There are no mitigating circumstances. If the company who’s taking the time to look at your submission says they want five pages and a cover, sending them a full book isn’t going to help you. If they say not to spend the money on fancy paper and an attractive binder, don’t go out and do it. Even if they DON’T say NOT to do it, don’t do it. You’re wasting money that could be used elsewhere. [You DID read the Financials, didn’t you?]

Okay, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s back up and take a more measured approach to this.

I’m going to start with writers first, and I’m going to break you into two classes: writers and storytellers. Writers are simple: you know how to use the written language. You write. Storytellers are different. You’re not used to telling your stories in writing. Your command of the language is lacking.

Storytellers are the reason writers are given a bad name. We get painted with the same brush. The slush pile for scripts isn’t terrible because the ideas are bad; they’re terrible because the execution is terrible. The bulk of that is due to storytellers.

(Wait! I don’t think I understand what you’re getting at here, Steven.)

Fine, a different way:

In my view, storytellers lack the fundamentals of writing: spelling, grammar and punctuation. Spelling and punctuation to be specific. Storytellers want to tell a story, but they haven’t been writing long enough to tell that story with anything other than the nuance of a brick through a window. If more storytellers were writers, the slush pile wouldn’t be as big and terrible as it is.

Okay, now that I’ve managed to piss people off, let’s take a look at what EVERYONE should be doing when you’re submitting work.

First, stop sending in blind submissions. Just because a company such as Dark Horse has a somewhat open-door policy for scripts in place, doesn’t mean that you should send them spam. Okay, I’ll be nicer. Unsolicited scripts. The editors are busy, and don’t have a lot of time to look through the scripts you send them, hoping they’ll pick up the tab on the $16,000+ limited series you want to tell. Just stop doing it.

(Steven, you’re telling me to give up! I don’t want to be a damned dirty quitter!)

I didn’t say give up. I said to stop sending in unsolicited material. What I want you to do instead is to talk to an editor and then ask them if it would be okay to submit something to them. If they say no, you don’t. If they say yes you’re no longer sending in unsolicited material. (But, but That’s EASY!) Yes, it is.

Now, you don’t want to just send in that script raw. No. I’m telling you right now, you have mistakes in there: spelling, format, story, dialogue. You have one of two options in front of you at this point: you can get a group of friends to hammer the script into something that will pass muster, or you can hire a freelance editor to help you with it. One of these is free, one is not. Both have drawbacks.

The first problem with friends is that they’re your friends. They care about your emotional well-being. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. That’s not even the biggest problem.

The biggest problem with your friends is that they may not be writers themselves, and if they are, they may not be comic book writers. In general, they won’t know what they’re looking at, and they could be only of limited help. However, limited help is better than no help at all.

The problem with a freelance editor is simple: you’re paying them to make sure your script is technically sound before sending it off for submission. Few of you think of this route, and fewer of you take it. (What do you mean, technically sound ?) Simple: the freelance editor isn’t working to make sure the story is something that the company WILL publish. They’re making sure that there are no mistakes in spelling and format, and that the story can be drawn. They will do what they can to make sure the story makes sense and that there is character movement, but a lot of that will be up to you as the client and how much you’re willing to listen to the suggested changes.

If the freelancer is on their job, I believe they will give you a better shot of being looked at in a favorable light than if you were to go it alone or if you were to go to your friends for help. [Note: just in case your friends ARE comic writers, it may still be a good idea to have an editor look at it. Everyone needs an editor, and while comic writers may know what they’re looking at, they may not be able to express what is wrong with your script in a way that you would understand it.]


Anyway, let’s say you decide to go it alone. There are a few things you can do to help yourself.


  • Run it through a spellcheck: See all those red lines? Do your best to get rid of them, unless you know for a fact that the word you’re using is either made up, or spelled correctly. You’re on the internet. You can find the correct spelling of a word.


  • Don’t rely exclusively on spellcheck: Two illustrate my point, I purposely used the wrong word after the colon. There is no red line, because two is spelled correctly. However, I should have used to. Spellchecks won’t catch words that are used incorrectly, just ones that are spelled incorrectly. Sometimes you may have green lines under a word or phrase. Look to see if you can resolve those. This goes directly to the next point.


  • Get another set of eyes: No matter what, get someone else [at least someone who reads, even if they don’t write] to read your work. Those fresh eyes can help catch mistakes you’re too close to see.


  • Read it out loud: You’ll be surprised at the words you can miss when you’re typing and going at a good clip. Reading things aloud makes your mouth say what your eyes see, NOT what your brain thinks ought to be there. You can read and process much faster than you can speak, even though speaking is pretty fast. This forces your eyes to slow down and really see what’s there.


  • Give it 48 hours: At a minimum, don’t look at the work for 48 hours. Why? This gives you time to reset, so you can look at the work with fresher eyes. This way, you can catch mistakes that might have slipped through.


It may seem like a lot, but we’re talking about submitting your work in the hopes of getting published. Why do it half-assed? Don’t. If you do these things at a minimum, you’ll at least make a favorable impression on the editor that you didn’t submit mistake-riddled crap. They see enough of that as it is. Be better.

Be pristine.

Artists, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you!

During my last trip to SDCC, I saw a number of artists. I introduced myself as an editor, and looked at some portfolios.

Some of you are terrible. A lot of you are good, but too stylized. A lot of you are good, but need to work on visual storytelling and anatomy. [Note: never mistake style for correct anatomy. That is both your ego and laziness talking. Both will keep you out of a job.] There are damned few of you who are good, and ready for steady work right now. I’ve got tips for all of you, though.


  • Avoid doing strictly pinups: Pinups are nice and fun, but unless you’re looking for work as a cover artist, pinups will not tell the editor if you can tell a story. As much energy as you spend working on the pinups, spend working on your sequentials.


  • Work from scripts: About half of the artists I saw at SDCC looking for a job had pages in their portfolios that came directly out of their heads. I instantly saw that they didn’t work from a script, and that hurt their storytelling. Work from scripts, artists. They’re all over the place. There are writers who are just chomping at the bit to have their stories drawn. Team up.


  • Don’t ink your own work: If you’re a penciler, show the pencils. If you’re going to ink your own work, make copies of the pencils BEFORE you ink the work. The editors will need to see your storytelling abilities, and whether or not you should ink yourself. Bad inks can destroy good pencils, and you could lose a job because you chose to show pages you inked yourself. Don’t ink your own work, or at least make copies before you ink.


  • Draw everything: Marvel had a sample script that was going around a few years ago that showed Scott and Jean [Cyclops and Phoenix] in a restaurant, moving into a fight outside. There were elements that the script called for that would show the editors you could draw everything needed: fish, buildings, dogs, cars, people, objects. Draw everything. You never know what a script will call for.


  • Use reference: Use it extensively. Don’t think that a gun is just a couple of perpendicular rectangles. Use reference for everything: people, places, things, clothes, animals, poses, whatever. Only rely on your imagination if you have no other choice, such as aliens, spacecraft, and the like.


Okay, with that out of the way, we now circle back to following the rules.

While following the rules, don’t overthink them. Don’t play what if. Resist the urge. It will only end in heartache if you don’t. There used to be an absolutely titanic thread about submitting to Image, as everyone and everyone in their family wanted to play what if. It was terrible, because they wanted to make it more complicated than it was. Don’t do that. Just follow the directions. Again, neither you nor your project is special, and there are no mitigating circumstances.

So, you’ve submitted. When should you follow up?

Since you’ve been talking to one person in particular, give them at least a month. (A month! You’re killing me!) Yes, a month. If you don’t hear back from them within that time, just send a gentle reminder that you sent in a solicited submission, and you were wondering if they got it. Editors are underpaid and overworked, very often taking work home with them. Your submission is a back-burner item. They have books to shepherd, fires to put out, and creators to manage. Cut them some slack. A month is reasonable.

If you need to follow up, that gentle reminder should get a response. Sorry, Kletus, work’s been crazy! It’s sitting on my desk. I’m looking at it now. Look for something by the end of the week.   When you get that message, say thanks, and leave it at that. Give them their time, their self-imposed deadline. Saying thanks just means you got their e-mail. Keep it moving. The next correspondence should be the moment of truth.

Here it is! The decision! Have you made it, or did you crash and burn? You’re hoping for a couple of things here: a yes, or notes on why you were given a pass. You do NOT want a generic rejection form letter. They’re unhelpful, because you don’t know much of anything about why your story didn’t sell.

The yes is obvious. You’ve sold a story, and it will be published. Hurray! You made it! Congrats.

If it is no, the best thing in the world would be to get the script back, with notes about what was going on with it that caused the rejection. While it would be best, don’t count on it. The most obvious would be a letter saying why the story was rejected. This letter will either come through e-mail or snail mail. If you have notes, TAKE THEM TO HEART. Remember, while your story is yours, you also have to write according to whatever standards the company has, as well as the personal filter of the editor. Take the notes, incorporate them, and do better next time.

When you get the rejection—(Don’t you mean if, Steven?) [Nope. Rejection is inevitable, and it is extremely unlikely you’re going to get a contract on your first submission.]—BE THANKFUL.

Want to make sure you never get a story through that publisher? Bad-mouth the editor in public [online]. Don’t do that. You’re going to thank them for their time, you’re going to thank them for whatever insights or notes given, and you’re going to keep ANY bad thoughts to yourself. If you absolutely need to say them, say them verbally, to family members. Say them to people who care. SAY, don’t WRITE. Don’t write it on your blog, don’t write it on Twitter, don’t post it on Facebook, don’t write it on Tumblr. Odds are that it will be found, and then you’re sunk. And remember that editors talk, and they also move companies. If Stan Lee can do work for DC, then anything can happen.

To sum up, when you send in your submission, make sure you are as pristine as possible. There are tips at the top for both writers and artists that should help in that regard. Follow up, if needed, should be after at least a month. When you get rejected, BE THANKFUL. This will help you to stand out in the editor’s eye.

Homework: look at your work with an eye on being pristine. If you’re a writer, look into gathering a group of peers to you. Also, look into the cost of a freelance editor. If you’re an artist, look for scripts to draw. Ask writers to write some shorts for you to practice on. They’ll be enthusiastic that you did.

That’s all I have! See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

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.

Comments (8)

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  1. Conner MacDonald says:

    Question Mr.Forbes. Do you think that submissions are hopeless because of the slush pile?

    • Ooh! Good question.

      I’ll have a good answer for you when I’m not at work. So, later this evening.

    • Okay, here we go, Connor.

      Submissions are never hopeless. You’ve gone through the trouble of creating something, and that act in and of itself is always worthwhile.

      The question isn’t a matter of the slush pile being hopeless, it’s a matter of making sure the submissions are of Quality. Because most submissions are not of Quality, the slush pile grows. If you submit Quality, it will stand out, anywhere it’s at.

      The problem is, and always will be, Quality. Most newbie creators have an inflated sense of ego because they’re believing what their family tells them–even though, more than likely, their family has no idea what they’re looking at. “Oh, that’s nice, baby! You should sell this!” And then they think they’re as good as what they see on the stands, and they’re not.

      Quality. I’ll be talking about it soon in a B&N.

  2. John Lees says:

    I know the question is for Steven, but my opinion would be that submissions aren’t hopeless. However, UNSOLICITED submissions might be.

  3. Maybe you can use the slush pile to your advantage, because by making sure your scripts are immaculate, you instantly make yourself more attractive than 80% of the crap they receive 🙂

  4. Conner MacDonald says:

    “I didn’t say give up. I said to stop sending in unsolicited material. What I want you to do instead is to talk to an editor and then ask them if it would be okay to submit something to them. If they say no, you don’t. If they say yes you’re no longer sending in unsolicited material.
    (But, but That’s EASY!) Yes, it is.”

    Another question, if I may. So in the hypothetical situation if I was submitting to Dark Horse, instead of just jumping straight into submitting, I should seek out some contact info for a Dark Horse Editor and request permission to submit to them directly? And if so, don’t editors try to keep their contact info hidden, so they don’t have to deal with a slush pile/hate mail lol.

  5. Tyler James says:

    Erik Larsen Tweeted the other day (paraphrasing) that Image “Publishes 100% of everything great submitted to them, and 0% of anything that isn’t.”

    While I’m sure we could find some exceptions to that rule, it’s an interesting mindset.

    Submissions ARE a complete waste of time…unless you’ve got something great.

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