Why You Should Write & Submit Short Works

Pssssst: It’s my birthday today! Usually I wouldn’t advertise that, but it’s my 30th, so yeah, I’m going to unapologetically ask you to check out the Kickstarter project I’m involved in.

Contents:

The Importance of Writing Short Pieces

Back in 2017, novelist and screenwriter Tim Federle, asked, “Writers who’ve been at it a while, what’s one piece of craft advice you wish your younger self had known?”

This was my answer, based on my experience and the decades’ experience of my editing clients:

Write (and finish!) more short works before attempting that three-volume novel or ten-year comic. Advice teaches you how others write, but each new story you write teaches you how to solve problems with your unique brain.

If your current WIP (work in progress) is long-form fiction or essays or a book-length project, you could go months before finishing something. Writing something shorter can grant that feeling of accomplishment so many of our brains depend on to keep motivation up.

In “The Psychology of Checklists: Why Setting Small Goals Motivates Us to Accomplish Bigger Things,” Trello blogger Lauren Marchese says:

When we experience even small amounts of success, our brains release dopamine, which is connected to feelings of pleasure, learning and motivation. When we feel the effects of dopamine, we’re eager to repeat the actions that resulted in success in the first place. Neuroscientists refer to this as “self-directed learning.” This is why achieving small goals is such an effective way to stay motivated during long-term projects and processes.

[links original to post]

Write a draft you can finish in a day or week: flash fiction, a short script for a comic or skit, a poem, an outline of a picture book. A fifteen-blinker—300-800 maximum words for prose, fewer than 30 lines for poetry.

If you’re between projects or stuck on one, if you’re feeling uninspired or pressed for time, write something short. Something completely different from what you are currently writing on. Let the madman loose and write without rules. Don’t edit, don’t revise, just finish the thing.

And OK, once you’ve finished the thing, and if you’re not on deadline for something else, revise that work and submit to contests, anthologies, or magazines. Shorter works are quicker to revise, so you can submit more frequently, which gives you a better chance of getting published (that is, if you keep improving as a writer and aren’t a jerk to the publishing community…).

Sure, you might get a bunch of “No”s, but rejections hurt less for works you didn’t invest as many months into.

And any “yes” is an upvote for your skill as a writer and an addition to your writer bio.

So how do you submit, anyway?

Submitting to Literary Magazines and Journals

Before you ever sign a contract, I recommend having a lawyer look over the terms. If you can’t afford a lawyer, research the terms and any person or entity involved in the contract before signing your name.

Submitting to a literary journal or nonprofit press is not the same as submitting to a commercial publisher. They want different things. A commercial publisher wants a query letter that will help them gauge whether you or your work will sell to a commercial audience. (That isn’t to say they don’t want good writing or that they won’t accept quiet works from unknown writers!) Still, query letters have to market your writing.

A cover letter for a journal or nonprofit press should include how your work will fit in with their oeuvre of published work. Literary journal and nonprofit press editors often skim or skip the cover letter—they care more about the story and voice than the pitch or concept. However, no matter how excellent your work is, it still has to fit within their brand. Your Hugo-worthy political fantasy will get rejected by Stymie, a literary magazine focused on sports.

Find literary magazines and journals to submit through Poets & Writers search or Writers Market. The latter requires a subscription. One year is the best deal, but you can pay $6 for one month and then cancel. You can order the physical book online for half price or pick up a copy of the book at a bookstore. Your local library may have a free copy of Writer’s Market to borrow, but it might be out of date.

Always check online to see if the submission information is accurate and to see if the magazine or journal has specific requirements for their cover letter.

Submitting Comics to Anthologies

Before you ever sign a contract, I recommend having a lawyer look over the terms. If you can’t afford a lawyer, research the terms and any person or entity involved in the contract before signing your name.

If you are part of a comics community, you might catch word of anthologies and open submissions through your network. Otherwise check out Find Anthologies! on Twitter.

Each anthology will have their own submission requirements. Most likely, if you aren’t illustrating your own work, you will need to have an illustrator up front. Together you will create a proposal with a cover letter, pitch, and sample pages or character designs.

Group Chat, a Comics Anthology about Friendship, Is Now Live on Kickstarter!

This whole blog post comes from personal experience. I frequently need to feel like I’ve finished something tangible, or else I get discouraged.

While working on long pieces, I often need to distract myself, especially when I’m feeling stuck or uninspired, by writing something short. I’ll write poetry, picture books, and short comics.

Well, one of those short comics is being published in an anthology!

Read the description below. Emphasis mine, because that’s the comic I wrote!

Group Chat features 24 up-and-coming creators, all telling stories about the people who have your back no matter what.
Group Chat spans genres from sci-fi to slice-of-life; from westerns to witchy shenanigans to coming-of-age stories. These comics —feeling good about your body after a mastectomy, two friends supporting each other through the creation of a trans fashion line, learning to appreciate your best friend’s chucklehead boyfriend, and others—were carefully chosen for their humor, heart, and beauty from a wide range of up-and-coming creators.

See the project on Kickstarter. If you watch the project video, “Best Dressed” is featured at 1:45. You can catch an additional sneak peak on Twitter or in my @larathelark Instagram Stories (Stories only available on mobile).

“Best Dressed” is a feel-good comic about dressing-room anxiety.

Want to read the original comic script?

Pledge at least $10 to the Kickstarter (the price for a digital copy of the whole anthology, 200+ pages) and email the pledge confirmation to querylara (at) gmail (.)com.

Julia Hutchinson is an illustrator and comics artist whom I follow on Twitter. She was looking to collaborate on a couple anthology submissions, and I sent her my idea for a comic for Group Chat. When I needed inspiration while writing the comic, I looked to the Leslie Knope / Ann Perkins friendship from Parks and Recreation and Julia’s previous artwork to solidify the characters. I wrote the skeleton, but Julia’s art brought my script to life with muscles and skin and spirit. She’s awesome, and I’m really proud of the comic we made together!

How to Format and Submit Graphic Novels

Are you an agent or publisher accepting graphic novel submissions? Get the best work in your slush by giving clear submission guidelines like these

Pop Quiz

Question 1: What do you need to get your graphic novel published? (Choose all that apply)

  • A writer
  • An artist
  • A colorist
  • A penciller
  • An inker
  • A letterer
  • Thousands of fans
  • A pitch or proposal
  • An artist portfolio
  • A dummy (sketched mock-up of finished work)
  • A complete manuscript
  • A complete script in comics format
  • A completely finished, inked/colored work

Question 2: Once you’ve got everything ready, how do you get your graphic novel published?

A: Self-publish online or digitally.

B: Crowdfund and then publish using a print-on-demand company.

C: Send a query letter to an agent, who will represent you in finding a publisher.

D: Send a proposal to a comics publisher.

E: Send a proposal to a literary publisher.

Answers: Any of the above have worked in the past. It all depends. But don’t worry, I’ll do my best to demystify the best solution for your goals.

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Contents

How are graphic novels published?

Graphic novels, I tell you. They’re published by comics publishers and literary publishers. They’re self-published, they’re crowdfunded, they’re submitted through agents, they’re submitted without agents. Though the medium of graphic novels has been in the literary world for decades now, writers, agents, and acquisitions editors still have no universally standard format or submission policy.

As a freelance editor for comics and graphic novels, I wanted to be able to provide these clients with a resource like the Formatting a Novel Manuscript post I made for my fiction clients. Through my research and correspondence with agents, editors, and comic creators, I’ve found a variety of submission possibilities to share with you.

Illustrated and hybrid novels

Illustrated novels are prose novels with occasional (or multiple) illustrations, like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and dozens of chapter books. Their pages will look more like prose manuscripts. It’s more precise to call these “illustrated novels” in your query letter. Link to images you’re providing, or include brief illustration notes in brackets.

[Illustration: Like this]

Hybrid or multimedia novels include sections of concrete poetry, imagery or ephemera which are not supplemental, but integral. The visual aspects are meant to be read or analyzed along with the text, like IlluminaeHouse of Leaves, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Closeor Ship of Theseus. A hybrid novel might be part comic panels, part sketches, part handwritten notes, part typed prose, part photographs. If you are creating the graphic aspects of your novel, then also consider yourself the “illustrator” below.

What’s your destination?

To figure out which route you should take to get a graphic novel published, you need to understand your goal.

  • Do you want to work for a well-known comics publisher (like Marvel, DC, Image, or Dark Horse)?
  • Do you want to assemble your own team of artists, writers, colorists, and letterers?
  • Do you want to write and illustrate a graphic novel to be published with traditional literary publishers?
  • Do you just want to make the art for graphic novels?
  • Do you just want to write graphic novels?

Recommended routes for each:

If you want to work for a well-known comics publisher, you can try to get an internship, but the best way to become part of the comics world is to create an amazing portfolio of either illustration or writing samples, network with creators, and self-publish a short comic or zine by yourself or with a team of creators (see next paragraph). You can pitch your work at comic cons, recruiters can find your comics online and hire you that way, or you can join a comics community like Comics Experience, which includes a workshop and has options for publishing with IDW. Skip to the Comic Format section below to see how to format your comic scripts.

If you want to assemble your own team of creators, your first step is likely to be self-publishing. If you don’t care about being paid and just need the experience or exposure or portfolio, create a webcomic. Tapastic and Tumblr are both popular venues for webcomics, but if you have a big enough fan base, you can publish on your own website, like The Dreamer or XKCD. Some successful webcomics get book deals. Nimona, my favorite graphic novel of 2015, started as a webcomic and was published by Harper (a literary publisher—Stevenson has a literary agent). The Dreamer turned into three graphic novel volumes of comics, published by IDW (a comics publisher—Innes entered the agreement with IDW as an independent creator). Hark, a Vagrant! has gotten Kate Beaton an agent and several book deals. You might also find good success crowdfunding your graphic novel on Kickstarter. Of course, you could also become your own publisher and use a print-on-demand service to sell at cons or turn them into eBooks or PDFs to sell online.

If you want to write and illustrate a graphic novel to be published traditionally, you can do what Innes or Stevenson or Beaton did above and get your work out there first, or you can create a graphic novel proposal to send to agents. If you don’t have a complete, finished graphic novel to pitch, you’ll need a link to your portfolio (see resources in next paragraph) and a complete script.

If you want to do pencils or inks or colors, you’ll need to create an outstanding portfolio. Then you’ll do portfolio reviews to meet editors and art directors, or you’ll get an agent, who will share your work with acquisitions editors and art directors. I have heard nothing but good things about Chris Oatley’s online Painting Drama class. Oatley did character design for Disney, and his students learn how to instill deep emotional impact into their drawings and paintings–exactly what art directors are looking for. If you’d like to illustrate graphic novels and picture books for children in particular, I highly recommend KidLit411 as a resource.

If you just want to write graphic novels, you’ll need to read a lot and write a lot in your genre. Then you’ll need to write an entire script and a) query an agent to represent your script, or b) send your script to a comics publisher open to script submissions.

Graphic Novel Script and Manuscript Formats

Comic Script Formats

You may have heard of the Marvel Method, and you might have seen Alan Moore’s micromanaging scripts, but unless you are Stan Lee or Alan Moore, I recommend using Dark Horse’s suggested format. See and download a host of comic script examples at the Comic Book Script Archive and at Comics Experience’s Script Archive.

If you are really serious about writing comics, I cannot recommend Superscript enough. (This is not a paid nor requested endorsement.) Superscript is built for comics writers and has comics-specific short codes and automatic smart formatting. You can also export to PDF or Word in a number of formatting styles. It has saved me SO MANY HOURS of formatting time. See pricing and get a one week free trial.

Formats for writer/illustrators

As both writer and illustrator, you can write your script however you’d like, as long as you have a complete graphic novel to show for it or it’s legible enough for an agent to read. See how Innes and Oatley, both writer/illustrators, wrote and formatted their own scripts here. Innes uses a modified comic script, and Oatley writes his more like a screenplay. At the link, you can download their script pages and see how the script changed from draft to pencils to final colored pages.

Formats for writers seeking literary agents (and literary publishers)

If you’re looking for a literary agent and are not illustrating, read what agents are looking for below. Whether you write a more classic comics-like script or write more of a screenplay style, include golden details to guide and ground the illustrator. If you are writing real-life or historical settings or characters, add links to photos or videos for references. Tell the story through action and dialogue and, if necessary, captions. Shannon Hale, a NYT best-selling novelist, shares her style for graphic novels here (Update: this link has sadly now been removed. Check out Chris Oatley’s scripts in the previous section and read Brent’s preferences below).

What agents are looking for

If you’re wondering what comics publishers are looking for, see this Definitive List of submission guidelines.

Bree Ogden wants a query letter with a link to the script and/or artwork. She wants scripts in the comic style.

1. I look for proper formatting. Little mistakes here and there are fine. But screenplay formatting and/or prose are unacceptable. It shows me so many things, namely that you’re not familiar with the genre you want to write in.

2. Outside of formatting, I look for things like: are the captions too long? Does the dialogue in the panel give enough information without being verbose? I usually storyboard the first few pages (if it’s just a script without sample panels) and see how it pans out as an actual graphic novel. You’d be surprised how easy it is to make a mess of captions!

3. I look to see that the writer has a grasp on description and an eye for detail. This makes working with an artist so much easier.

[…]

It should look like this:

Dear Agent,

Blah blah *query letter* blah blah.

I’d love for you to take a look at the first five pages of my graphic novel script and some sample art. You can view both on my website http://www.___________.com. The password to view the script is __________.

[Closing remarks]

Brent Taylor wants a query with scripts written in a less formal style:

I typically prefer a query along with sample script pages pasted into the body of the message, with a link to art or samples attached as a PDF. The one thing that I will say that is more craft related is that I really like GN scripts to be written in a more “Hollywood” way. When GN writers get too caught up in art direction and minute details [like Moore’s style!] it detracts from the character and story, and I find it’s much easier to sell a GN when the script is written in a really readable manner for those who aren’t as familiar with formal comic formats.

What? Bree and Brent want completely opposite things in their scripts? Bree describes a comic-like graphic novel with panel breakdowns. She probably has connections with comics publishers. Brent is looking for more prose-like graphic novel scripts, which means he’s probably not going to submit your script to comics publishers; he’s going to submit it to book publishers.

Generally agents want different things depending on whether you’re also illustrating the graphic novel.

If you are writing only, send a query letter once your script is complete and polished. Check submission guidelines to see if you can paste the first five pages below your query letter or include a link to your first five pages in your bio paragraph.

If you are illustrating and your script is complete, send a query letter with a link to your portfolio and sample pages (unless the agency requests proposals in their submission guidelines).

If you are illustrating and your script is not complete, send a cover letter and proposal (unless the agency requests something else in their submission guidelines).

Some more agent responses:

Please research agents and publishers before you submit or sign any contract. Inclusion in this post is not endorsement. I also do not update this post if/when agent wishlists change.

Editor responses:

  • Rachel Stark is accepting MG graphic novel submissions at Sky Pony Press. Email cover letter and attach complete script. If illustrating, attach first three chapters as a PDF. If your work is complete, you can include a link to your finished work.
  • McKelle George is looking for hybrid novels like Illuminae or A Monster Calls for Jolly Fish Press. She’d prefer a proposal or a link to complete work.
  • See editorial preferences for comics publishers here

Difference between a query and a proposal

Query letters are like cover letters.

A query letter is a one-page pitch addressed to an individual agent which gives the details of the story’s characters, goals, and obstacles. Don’t tell the ending, but make the reader need to know what comes next. Include a short paragraph with details about the graphic novel: title, genre, and word count (page count only if you have an idea of how your graphic novel will be laid out, and it’s within standards). Give a 1- to 2-sentence bio, and then sign the letter/email. You can send query letters to any number of agents, but address them to each personally, and before you submit, be sure to check each agency’s submission guidelines and whether they even accept graphic novels.

See an example of a successful query for a graphic novel.

If you are writing but not illustrating, only send query letters when your script is complete.

If an agent asks for samples of pages or artwork, never include attachments unless expressly asked to do so. Instead, paste text at the bottom of the email or include a link to your portfolio or pages in your bio paragraph.

Proposals are like interviews.

A proposal is a multi-page pitch which proves that you are capable of entering into a contract to complete a graphic novel. In other words, you may not have a complete graphic novel finished, but you do have a complete grasp of what you need to finish it. Check with the agency or publisher’s guidelines to see what they require. Some things you might be required to include:

  • A cover letter (generally required)—one page, addressed to appropriate person by name—who are you, what do you write or make, and why are you a good fit for this agency’s or publisher’s line-up?
  • A CV—usually optional unless you have prior publications to include
  • Synopsis (usually required)—full synopsis of what happens in the story, from beginning to end
  • Sample chapters (generally required for writers or teams)—usually 3 chapters or 10,000 words
  • Sample artwork (generally required for artists or teams)—the best pieces in your portfolio. Try to pick images which tell a story and set a scene; posed pin-ups or portraits are not the best choice for a storytelling proposal

Formatting, Submitting, and Publishing Graphic Novels | LaraWillard.com

Did you find this information useful?

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  • Consider subscribing to StoryCadet.com, my online portal for writing workshops. I offer courses in drafting, revision, and pitching/querying. By subscribing, you’ll be notified when courses will be offered.
  • If you’d like to book me for editing services, I have a page just for visual narratives (graphic novels, comics, picture books) on my editing site.

Friday Reads: MS. MARVEL, Vol. 1: NO NORMAL

Regarding Graphic Novels

Read my introduction below, or skip ahead to the review.

I’m going to preface this with the disclaimer that I’ve always loved superheroes, but comics were not easily available to me as a child. I didn’t know anyone at school who was into comics, and on the rare occasion I was far enough away from my rural upbringing that I could get my hands on comics, I’d grab a single issue. I was often disappointed in the lack of variety, the women without agency treated more like scantily clad objects of desire or killing rather than heroes. I watched Batman and Spiderman cartoons and loved Supergirl.

Pre-internet, I grew up thinking that geek girls were an endangered species.

Now I have immediate access to comics thanks to the internet. I live in a city with comic book stores and a huge interlibrary loan system.

I’m a small-town girl late to the game, but I have every intention of catching up. And let me tell you, there’s never been a better time to get into comics, especially if you’re a woman or a child.

More female characters are being given agency—they are treated as individuals, not objects. More are fronting their own series. Women comic creators are generating a ton of amazing content online and in print.

Our library separates the adult graphic novels from the teen ones, and the teen ones from the children’s ones, a division I’m very thankful for as a mother.

Go to your library, browse the spines, judge them by their covers, and take a stack home. This week I picked up Saga vol 1 (Mature: contains very graphic sex in chapter/issue 4), A Boy & A Girl (pg-13 for brief nudity and language), This One Summer (pg-13 for language and sexual references), Ms. Marvel vol 1, Misfits of Avalon, and a stack of Star Wars ones for the Captain.

I’ll likely be reading and reviewing newer releases, ones that are either stand-alones or the first in a new series. This isn’t a comic or graphic novel review blog—it’s a blog about writing and editing—so I’ll be reviewing ones with a broad audience, ones that should be available at local libraries or bookstores.

But do comment below with your favorite graphic novels! It’s no secret I’m a fan of The Dreamer, but I won’t be reviewing it, since Vol. 3 is out in stores now.

Ms. Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal

msmarvel

This is a very mild origin story (think Peter Parker without Uncle Ben dying), so whether you’ll like it or not depends on how well you connect with Kamala.

Kamala Khan is the kind of superhero I craved as a preteen. She’s geeky and spunky and relatable. (Again, a lot like early Spider-Man.) I can see why some might consider her a Mary Sue character, but in #5, when she had her first “victory,” I was hooked. If the conflict and stakes don’t keep intensifying, then I’ll probably walk away, but for now, I’m so in.

kamala-khan

If you have daughters that want to get into comics, I’d recommend Kamala for 8+

Writing Exercise

Pick up a copy of Ms. Marvel Volume 1 from a library or bookstore (you could read the whole thing just standing in between stacks). Then write a 15-blinker origin story.*

*It doesn’t have to be a superhero story. It could be about your origin as a writer.

And don’t forget to comment with your favorite graphic novels, comics, or webcomics below, if you’ve got some!