If you have been following me in recent weeks you’ll notice a heavy emphasis on my current comic book projects. I’ve got three at present: two webcomics, Pretty Face and Human Wrestler; and Butterfly, one half of a split-comic which serves as a prequel to Deep Penitentiary 6, a pulp novella I released earlier this year.
Have I given up on novel writing? That may have been the concern of one of the readers of my Paradise Earth novel series. She wrote: “Seriously. Freaking cliffhanger ending and now you’re playing around with a comic strip? Get to work!” I believe the criticism merits a response, not just for readers, but also fellow writers.
I understand the pain of having to wait for the next installment of a series. Mad Men is my favorite show and I’m staring down a year until the next season. Novel series often do not fare better. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (which begat the hit television show Game of Thrones) experienced delays of up to six years between installments. It is a source of frustrations for fans who often echoed my reader’s comment “Get to work!”
Author and comic book writer Neil Gaiman addressed this common criticism of writers on his blog, pointedly stating “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch!” He also made valid points that not all writers create in the same manner and that often a lull in output can serve the book better.
While I will nod my head toward some of Gaiman’s sentiments, I will say his reality as a very successful author is a bit different from new writers who are struggling to maintain even a poverty standard of living based on their craft. George R.R. Martin looks quite healthy and probably hasn’t been living on ramen noodles in the lengthy interim between his releases.
My first published novel Paradise Earth: Day Zero was very well received, currently holding at five stars on Amazon. Nevertheless, I’m still not in the black with it and won’t be for the foreseeable future. That’s fine as the book was a passion project for me and I didn’t really have publishing aspirations for it to begin with. I’d really love it if my enthusiastic family members are prophets and the series is going to get me rich, but I doubt it. Forget being rich, I’d love to just be in a situation where I could simply sustain myself through writing.
While having a book on Amazon or on the shelves of Barnes and Noble is a good start it is a rough competition in a sea of thousands of other books all vying for the eyes of readers. If you want to get books in their hands it often means personally putting the books there. Like many author friends, the amount of books I can sell at public appearances dwarfs what I move on Amazon. But even in person it is no easy sell. There are lots of convention opportunities out there for those who write genre novels like science fiction, fantasy or horror. Despite it’s apocalyptic overlays Paradise Earth has a soul-searching literary center and acts as a dissertation on faith. Are there conventions that focus on existential literary novels? If there are, please let me know!
It is a real challenge to earn a living from writing novels. My friend and collaborator Shane Crash brought up a very good point on a recent podcast that we were interviewed on. He observes that in the past writers could sustain themselves by writing short stories between novels. In the present the short story market is virtually non-existent, often only paying in contributor copies. If you want to write for a living, it often means figuring out an alternative. Published author friends of mine supplement their novel writing with traditional journalism, Web articles, tabletop gaming books, and even songwriting. In his book Starve Better, author Nick Mamatas suggests that writing college essays for academically-challenged students can be a way to put food on the table. You have to get creative.
For me that is where things like comic books come in. Comic books conveniently provide another avenue for making a little bit of money through writing. As a real-world example, I’ve launched two crowd funding campaigns recently through Kickstarter, one for a prose book and one for a comic book. Both books are set in the same world and involve an ex-cult assassin named Theta Butterfly. Both campaigns had comparable goals. In order to get the prose book to make its goal I had to hustle everyday online promoting it in various ways. I was fortunate to get some generous backing from my readers to push me to the finish line. In contrast, the comic book is on the cusp of making its target, halfway through the campaign, with very minimal online marketing. My modest goal is nothing compared to many Kickstarter comic projects that make thousands.
More importantly, comics are also a great way to tell stories to a potentially different audience. As a writer, my passion is telling stories and I fell in love with the comic medium as a way to tell different kinds of tales. Unfortunately the idea that comics are simply superheroes beating the shit out of each other persists. It’s not exactly unfounded as those books are the monthly bestsellers. However, the success of The Walking Dead, a zombie horror book, has opened the door for many alternatives to capes and tights. My current favorites include Saga (sci-fi/fantasy) , Fatale (supernatural/noire), and Li’l Depressed Boy (romance).
My work-in-progress Pretty Face is a smart comic focusing on things like the cult of celebrity, intellectual property abuse, unjust war, torture, and privacy rights. It’s also a love story between two women, a young pop-star and an anorectic supermodel. To be accused of “playing around with a comic strip” is pretty disparaging in regard to a creative work that is just as deep as any novel I could ever write. I love this story and am so excited to have the opportunity to see it brought to life by a skilled artist.
I’m not just limiting myself to comics either. I’ve supplemented with some travel writing at Vagobond.com and am currently working on a Disney World guidebook with a twist. My prose web-series Happiness: How to Find It is getting ready for print with an expanded ending and a fresh edit. While I understand what the reader meant by “get to work”, the simple truth is that I am working very hard to manage all of these varied projects at once. If anything, I need a vacation!
Are writers the reader’s “bitch” as Neil Gaimon put it? The Internet has certainly changed the face of how people consume entertainment media like books. Borders bookstore has already closed up shop and things don’t look good for Barnes & Noble. In the wake of this some established writers are leaving the big New York publishing houses to go independent, opting to sell directly via online markets like Amazon. From my perspective it seems like we are heading back to a patronage system, with the artist, or in this case the writer, having a more direct relationship with the readers who support them.
One of my personal role models is musician Kristin Hersh, who was a pioneer in this new relationship. Early in her career she was signed to major record labels as a solo artist and with her band Throwing Muses. Later she went completely independent and started a subscription service by which fans could pay an annual fee in exchange for having access to work-in-progress songs, show tickets, and a complimentary copy of finished albums. She also started a new band called 50 Foot Wave that released all of its albums online for free. By doing this she became completely fan supported with her listeners bearing the cost of paying for expenses like recording. There are other models of musicians becoming fan supported out there, and many of them have roots in what punk rock bands have been doing for years. Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls eloquently speaks about this changed dynamic in a TED Talk entitled the Art of Asking.
As a writer every one of my readers definitely count. On the Kickstarter for pulp-paperback I had some of my readers giving much more than the book cost. When they generously support me like that it becomes hard hold Gaiman’s attitude that the writer owes the reader nothing beyond the book they paid for. To me that just smacks of old corporate style thinking, with the author punching out a product for the reader to purchase, with various of levels of separation between him and them.
The new, more direct approach calls for more communication between writer and reader. I hope that this lengthy response serves as a step in that direction. Both the writer and the reader have needs that should be recognized and respected. As a writer I have the need to find ways to support myself as a writer and also express myself creatively in various different ways. I also have the need to take a break from time-to-time. The Paradise Earth series is very, very emotionally draining for me because it is a very personal story. It is dark, grim book and writing often feels like I’m exorcising a demon in order to write it. It’s not a lot of fun and takes a lot out of me.
That being said, the readers who have enthusiastically supported the first book need the rest of the story. I hear you! I’m optimistic that I can get the next installment out about a year after the first was released, but a lot of that depends on the publisher’s schedule as well. After this month the comic projects will require less attention and I’ll be able to refocus down that dark road and you’ll be hearing more about Week One. I can say that the cover is completed and I do have a rough first draft.
I sincerely thank you for supporting me, leaving reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and most importantly of all reading and sharing my books! If anyone would like to help out you can donate to my current Kickstarter for the Butterfly comic. Even if comic strips are not your thing, backing that project helps me become more self-sufficient as writer, which will free my schedule for novels and other exciting things.