I’m often asked by fans and prospective writers about my storytelling. Why I write. How I write. How I created various characters. What are the tricks of the trade? Where do I get my inspiration from? How do I get over writer’s block and so on. So I thought it was time I answered those questions and shared my experiences in a series of weekly blogs, starting this week with CREATIVE JAMMING. I hope it will make Storyteller a useful ‘How To’ guide for writers – whether we’re talking comics, novels or film. Because the ground rules are ultimately the same. And many of those rules apply to comic artists, too – as one of my particular fortes seems to be discovering talented artists and pointing them in the right direction. So I’ll be covering the ground from their point of view, too.

 

And if you’re simply curious and would just like to know more about modern media and the comics industry, in particular, I’ll do my best to enlighten and, hopefully, entertain you. Some of my peers at least, seem – understandably –bashful on the subject. Whilst several confirmed the horror stories I described in Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD & Judge Dredd: The Secret History and related their own even more shocking stories to me in private correspondence, they declined to be quoted. In one case, at least, because the person thought that recounting past editorial misdeeds from nearly two decades ago might still affect his current work. As you possibly know, I’m not remotely bashful on this subject, so I will continue to tell it like it is. I believe in full transparency – I think we need to turn the spotlight on archaic practices and attitudes that should have no place in modern publishing and are so last-century. Primarily so it doesn’t take another century for things to change. If creators are afraid to speak out, or worse: they give up and don’t care anymore; if they just take the money and run, as so often happens, if everything is shrouded in secrecy and spin, everything remains the same and stagnation and decline sets in. It certainly did in the late 1990s and it’s a miracle that, largely thanks to Rebellion’s takeover of 2000AD after the millennium that we still have a comics industry. Be assured that speaking out does make a difference. I’ll go into some examples later. But why would I personally care? I guess because British comics, although now penetrated by the elite, are not dominated by them. Yet. At least not in the way they dominate the rest of the media. Comics still have an appeal to young people, just about, and to traditional audiences from whence comics originated, before ‘North London’ thinking tried to transform them into a world of ‘prestigious graphic novels’ (or ‘fat comics with bits of cardboard around them’ as one comic artist put it). They still have grass-roots appeal; they can still produce great new talents, they still have counterculture voices – barely. They can still be a refreshing alternative to the corporate, conservative thinking of elitist American superheroes. They can still be a platform to challenge the Orwellian status-quo in Britain today. And that’s quite something at a time when overwhelming covert media censorship, deniable but provable beyond any doubt, is at an all-time high. Comics have the potential to slip under the wire, not least because the elite don’t really understand them or their audience and have grossly underestimated their impact in the past and their potential for the future. So that’s why I care. I believe I also have some insights you’re unlikely to find elsewhere, especially as I’m going to stray into the usually taboo area of marketing with some rather more honest conclusions than those I’ve read elsewhere. For instance, I have a negative view on many publishers and agents and believe there are strong alternative possibilities in self-publishing and promotion. In my experience, once you’re successful and don’t need an agent, that’s actually the time when you’re most likely to be accepted by one. And companies may even insist you have an agent, so you have no choice. I’ve been on the books of one famous Hollywood agency and got turned down by another well-known British agency ‘because I wasn’t famous enough.’ I have also turned down a top film agent who was keen to work with me, even though I was assured by one of his famous clients, ‘He’s actually okay: although you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with him. I turned him down because I got fed-up working with people who often have only the most rudimentary idea of what I write and what it stands for. I’d have just been another name on his list. But my negative opinion is not just based on my own experience. The writer-producer of a famous American TV series and some recent successful films told me he had never got any work through his agent. I’ve heard the same story from other creators. Of course an agent will be useful elsewhere for progressing payment and scrutinising contracts, but even there I’ve found I have a much sharper eye for spotting problems in the small print. Agents also don’t seem to care if you accept a poor deal on a contract, because they get their cut, after all. My take on it is that they’re a necessary evil and that’s it; so I guess I won’t be dedicating the book version of Storyteller ‘to my agent’, as so many writers seem to do. And I think my personal take on finding your inspiration, AKA ‘meeting your muse’ is rather original. Much more on her later. Also, not forgetting the need to raise prospective writer’s self-esteem. There’s so many damned ‘can’ts’ in their way. So many gatekeepers who will wilfully, and sometimes vindictively, I’m afraid, impede their progress. No wonder newcomers suffer from ‘writer’s block’ or lack of motivation. But I passionately believe that writing is as much a universal talent as painting, singing or playing a musical instrument. Of course, there will be some who don’t have it in them and never will. But that goes for art and music, too ­– I sing flat, for instance, and my attempts to do something about it have failed dismally. But many more writers could make it with the right encouragement. I discovered this when I regularly went out of my way to work with new, completely unknown writers often with significant commercial success. It was great for me, too, because the new writer would have some expert knowledge I could only dream of. Writing with them was writing from the heart rather than from Wikipedia. But despite the benefits, at least one publisher put a stop to it by firmly insisting that I was a ‘brand name’ and if I kept working with unknowns I would be ‘diluting the brand’. Another publisher complained bitterly that I was causing him massive contract headaches by wanting the names on the by-line changed to include the newcomer. I’ll never forget his sustained and bitter tirade, but I stood my ground and insisted on a dual credit on a story. All the paranoid problems he imagined never happened, but he was still most unhappy about me letting in a newcomer. And that’s really what it was about. I guess because ultimately most publishers (You’ll appreciate I say ‘most’ for obvious reasons!) are ultimately motivated by a desire for power and control rather than a love of storytelling as art. If they have to choose, they’ll go for power every time. I still miss those days of creative jamming with new writers. To me, it’s like musicians spontaneously jamming in a pub or club – there’s no egos involved and something exciting and unpredictable emerges. Why shouldn’t storytelling have the same boozy, sexy, improvised atmosphere of jazz musicians? Does it really have to always come down to one guy alone in his room with a laptop? Wasn’t storytelling originally an art form told around a fire, staring into its glowing embers? I think we’ve lost something with the sometimes cold and clinical modern method. When I wrote the original version of Read ‘em and Weep with Kevin O’Neill he liked to work on it in a crowded city pub. Because the energy level was so high it inspired his best work. So he’d be shouting absolute gems of dialogue across a crowded and noisy bar to me and I’d be laughing my head off as I hastily scribbled them down, often on serviettes or scraps of paper. I’d then desperately try to decipher my handwriting the next morning. The end result is in Read ‘em and Weep Book One: Serial Killer and Book Two: Goodnight, John-Boy.

The authors of Serial Killer, in a bar.

These novels, based on the often lunatic and hilarious world of publishing in the 1970s show the trials and tribulations of new writers trying to ‘write to market’ rather than from the heart. At that time girls comics, in particular, were outrageously over the top, yet hugely popular with their audience, often selling more than 200,000 copies a week. A brief example here. Emotionally shut-down writer Dave has been trying to impress Glaswegian girls’ comics editor Joy with his story proposals.

‘I think a blind javelin thrower is stretching credibility too far, Dave. Una Never Saw the Umpire didn’t really work for me….Anyhoo … it was an improvement on your previous proposal: My Dead Little Pony‘I need realistic stories, Dave, relevant to girls’ lives in the 1970s. Hard-hitting. Social realism, showing the kind of Britain we’re living in today.’

‘Less Ken Barlow, more Ken Loach?’

‘Yes. If you like.’

‘Then I think I’ve got just the story for you, Joy. How does this sound? Tower Block Tessa. She’s homeless and sleeps in the lift. Her mother’s a bag lady and her father lives in a burnt-out car. She wants to be an Olympic swimmer. So she’s training in the water tank on the 30th floor. Maybe she has a disability, too, and is using her crutch to sweep aside the dead pigeons. She could find her alcoholic mother in the tank as well.’

Dave saw Joy’s wide-eyed face. ‘I’m not reaching you. Too over the top? Not enough? Give me some guidance here.’
(From Read Em And Weep 1: Serial Killer)

I’ll try and give guidance like Joy in this blog series.

 

Creative flow in Agharta Jazz Club, Prague

I think Storyteller should also be of interest to fans because it goes further behind the scenes on my stories. It picks up where Be Pure! leaves off and gives further insights (and horror stories) about the comics industry. Many readers also wanted more details on the storytelling process which – for reasons of space – I sometimes glided over. I’ll do my best to fill in the gaps with some key examples. How I actually went about thinking up Ro-Busters and the story of Rico Dredd, for example. And more on my relationships with comic artists – those who are driven by the muse and those who are driven by their bank managers. I’ll get into the various heroes and heroines I’ve created and why they’re invariably working class. Not least because most well known heroes in fiction are middle or upper class. And most people seem to accept that as the norm – which is outrageous! That’s why you’ll find there were rarely officer heroes in the early days of Battle, Action and 2000AD when I was controlling their destinies. Rat Pack (convicts) D. Day Dawson (sergeant), Charley’s War (private), Dredger (dirty secret agent with an old Etonian sidekick) Hook Jaw (force of nature) and so on. Similarly, on girls’ comics, Moonchild (Misty), a physically abused heroine becomes empowered. And in Land of No Tears (Jinty) the down to earth heroine takes on and defeats a futuristic ruling elite.

 

 

Dredger and Hook Jaw ACTION™ REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, COPYRIGHT © REBELLION PUBLISHING LTD, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

As I’m writing this as a series of blogs, if you have a particular question or subject you want to know more about, do please leave a comment or drop me an email and I’ll be sure to turn the spotlight on it. Or if you’ve got a different take or experience on writing that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear it. The creative jamming starts here. More next week.

 

19 Comments

  1. jonhayes1Jon Hayes

    Hi Pat … I just read the excerpt from Serial Killer Book One and fell off my chair laughing. As I’m at work, this caused a few raised eyebrows. It’s sent me rushing back to my Kindle to re-read your and Kevin’s book.

    On the ‘storyteller’ series, fantastic idea. Anything that can de-mystify the process is a help and, hopefully, will get people writing.

    I’d like to throw my own two-cents in about agents. I’ve had meetings with several and no-one signs an unknown, agents are only interested in signing someone when they think they can make money. That’s not a criticism, it’s how they make a living and we all need to pay the rent, but one thing that’s for sure — an agent won’t get you work, ‘you’ get you work!

    I had an agent once. Was on her books for two years and in that time she got me one meeting. I finally left her when I delivered a sit-com script she adored and, in a fit of ill-advised truthfulness announced, ‘if I can’t get you work on the basis of a script this strong I don’t deserve to call myself an agent!’

    Six-months of silence later …

    I called my agent to enquire how she was doing on making good on her promise. I discovered that she’d hardly sent it anywhere, hadn’t followed up on the places she had sent it to and that, actually, was just too busy to spend any time on it or me. I should call her in six months, she said, when she’d be less busy with her ‘established clients’ and might have some time for me, but not to hold my breath. And, as a final kick in the soft bits, told me if I didn’t like it she’d understand if I went elsewhere.

    I went elsewhere.

    Now, here’s the thing; my former agent wasn’t a bad agent or even a bad person and if I ran into her today I’d love to sit down and have a coffee, and chat because I consider her a mate. She was just trapped in a situation where she was desperately trying to make a living and had over-extended herself by signing a new writer she couldn’t actually develop.

    However … the thing I do object to is the bullshit.

    If she’d been straight with me all along and not tried to stroke my ego and whisper honeyed words in my shell-like, I’d probably still be on her books and happily chuntering away trying to raise my profile.

    Why?

    Because, as a new writer, having an agent gives you a stamp of approval. That’s important, it gives you a way to shove your foot in the door and, hopefully, kick it open. But understand that the agent won’t be knocking on many doors on your behalf. You have to do it yourself and that can come as a rude shock to people not prepared for it.

    Hell, it was a bit of a shock to me and I thought I was prepared for it!

    The other bit of dubious wisdom I think is worth sharing is this … these days, talent isn’t enough. I’m not sure it ever was, which is a shame as it should be, but now you have to really be out there promoting yourself. You have to have some sort of presence and a following of some kind in the interworld. I’ve fought against that for years and my career has sputtered and stalled as a result.

    Pat’s dead right when he says the future is in self-publishing, promotion and building your own little corner of like-minded loonies here on the Interworld. Doing it Yourself is exactly what Punk used to mean and it should be what it means now. Every writer needs to have a punk heart because if you don’t no-one will ever know you’ve been pouring your heart onto a page.

    My advice, which I’m in the process of finally taking, is follow Pat’s lead; get yourself foot there. Self-Publish and be a punk. There’s never been a better time and better tools, to make it happen for yourself, on your terms. We’ve all got stories to tell and it’s up to us to get them out there to be read. No-one’s going to give you permission to be a writer, you just have to stand up one day and yell your twisted tales from the highest rooftop you can find.

    Be an Original Punk … it’s the only way to go.

    Reply
    • Pat Mills

      Great words. So many ‘How to’ books don’t tell you the stuff you’ve described above.It needs to be said. Publishers will only promote their top earners, often film or tv characters- even successful second division books are unlikely to be pushed. Thus Accident Man – which was recently made into a film starring Scott Adkins – got no significant publicity from Titan Books. New writers and artists need to realize this. I get the feeling they think their book will be an exception. It won’t. If I’d promoted Accident Man myself, book sales would have doubled, instead sales just jog along. But in a finite world, I chose to promote my own self-published titles. It works. I’ll get into that in a bit later with some tips on how to do it and possible traps to avoid. Digital has a lot of possibilities and you don’t have to be a brand name to make money. Just produce something good. E.G. Requiem Vampire Knight sells well on Comixology to the US market. I doubt very much that Americans know who artist Olivier Ledroit is – they just like his work.

      Reply
  2. David Thomas

    ah great stuff, cheers buddy but will say your e-mail is still coming up in junk mail?

    Reply
    • Millsverse

      Thanks for letting me know! I know hotmail is particularly difficult with newsletters. Can you add me to your contacts?

      Reply
    • Jon Hayes

      That’s cause my fat fingers managed to mangle it! The word that describes the situation is … d’oh.

      Reply
  3. DerMaiden

    “They can still be a refreshing alternative to the corporate, conservative thinking of elitist American superheroes.”

    This is probably the main reason why I like and follow your stuff.

    It almost always the status quo in American superhero comics and if superhero or something horrific happens, it gets hammered back to where it was before almost all of the time. So boring

    Reply
  4. Mark Howard

    Hi Pat,

    Thank you for embarking on this blog, I am eager to learn more about our craft. As I am now in my early fifties, the comic scripts I write are really just a hobby to me – I long ago gave up on any ideas of making money from them, which seems to have been a blessing in many ways. Money, or rather the focus on making it, ruins everything in my view. (Sour grapes? Maybe!) Having enjoyed some modest success in the “Small Press,” just seeing my name in the likes of Zarjaz, DogBreath and Paragon still gives me a buzz, I like being able to write whatever I like and not worrying about whether my scripts will be accepted or not. I can write for me, which is very liberating.

    This does not mean that I have given up on learning, though, and enjoy reading how other writers do it – which is why I’m excited to read your thoughts here.

    I enjoy creating my own characters, worlds and stories but I equally enjoy building on the worlds and works of others, especially 2000AD’s stable for Zarjaz and DogBreath. Indeed, one of the strips I am most proud of was based on one of yours (Flesh) but took your ideas in a slightly different direction. I would be interested to learn about your opinions on the merits, or otherwise, of original stories versus “fan” stories.

    My best to you and yours, and my condolences on the loss of your old friend (a tragic and heartfelt loss for us all),

    Mark.

    Reply
    • Pat Mills

      Thanks, Mark. It was a great shock for us all. I’m very happy about fan stories now. I wasn’t in the late 90s because there was a real risk of 2000AD using it as a potential way to get rid of writers and artists.But it’s different today and the ‘threat’ is no longer from fan writers, but rather from the odd predatory writer, one of whom had to be reined in by Rebellion recently. (Regarding Slaine) Hope you find some of the forthcoming topics valuable

      Reply
  5. Mike Taylor

    I’m really exciting about this series. Seeing the process behind the creation of something I love is always fascinating. One of my very favourite books is Stewart Lee’s “How I Escaped My Certain Fate”, which is equal parts autobiography — describing his life in stand-up comedy, and how fashions have and have not been kind to him — and scripts of three of his shows, with very detailed annotations describing how various parts came to be, and how they were changed from earlier versions. I’m really looking forward to seeing something similar from Pat on creating comics.

    Reply
  6. Rossferatu (@RossFisherDavis)

    Thanks for starting this! Excited to read more.

    Character is everything for me, as a reader, and I’ve tried to bring that to my own work. Creating characters that are memorable, or inspirational, that people just latch on to and love, all huge goals of mine, and things I admire from the great era of British comics.

    Reply
  7. prettygreenparrot

    Great to see you starting this series. Looking forward to seeing more of your energetic writing and to some of the lessons you’ve learned. For example, reading here that the prophets of doom are ever-present: ‘you can’t add a newbie to a byline’. They’re everywhere, trying to keep traditions going because they daren’t risk a change.

    It sounds like you’re consistently true and authentic to you ideals. Have you always done that? Or did you have a revelation or change at some point in your career? What brought that on? How did you make that change?

    Reply
    • Millsverse

      When I started, I had to compromise to make a living. Writing some stories (notably for the ‘fun’ comics) that I really hated. The experience was so awful and miserable (I describe it in Serial Killer) that it forced me to be true to my ideals. Otherwise I’m sure I’d have sold out! Today, i’m probably more authentic than ever – but that has its dangers, too. I will probably write a blog about the dangers of Perfectionism. It can screw up writers and artists

      Reply
  8. Alex

    Look forward to it. Sounds like the crappy work conditions in comics aren’t much different from those in video games- with a major publisher boasting of his workforce pulling in 100 hour weeks.

    Reply
  9. Attila

    Hello Mr. Mills,

    This is a great idea for a blog, I will closely follow.
    As an aspiring comic book creator (writer) I would really appreciate if you can extend some tips on what to look for, in an artist you haven’t work with previously? In a wold, where unknown, self publishers rarely break three digits in sales, what is the fair price to pay a similarly unsung artist you are considering to hire?

    And here is a specific situation, where I would like to pick your brain on the matter.
    It’s a well known fact that comic book writers are ten a penny.

    So my question is how much small publishers prey on this fact?

    For example, I would submit my work to a publisher (who is distributed by Diamond) complying to their open submission policies and receive a generic rejection message. Something along the lines of: “Your work is different from the books we publish.” Fair enough. But then, they publish a video, where they admit that some of the submissions were exceptional in every way possible, and the only problem was, that these creators have very little to no social media presence. Well, isn’t that their job, to sell the books? It leaves me puzzled, but I can still jog along the narrative. Then, (this is where it get’s interesting), that same publisher sends out weekly emails asking me to pre-order, buy and promote their line of work. If my book wasn’t good enough for him, what makes him think, the books he is publishing are of interest to me? I feel these so called “winners” are picked from the pile of friends and relatives, while the rest of us are here to buy the product these friends and relatives will produce. Are my notions grounded?

    Reply
    • Millsverse

      Important questions, Attila, which I will cover in a future blog. Regarding publishers and your question there. I sympathise. In another blog I will cover self publishing. My books are working without going through Diamond – cos it just looked so daunting! And I DON’T think they’re selling just because I’m a brand, although that obviously helps a lot. I think it is possible to get above three digits and I’ll get into some of the ways and means later on. Comixology,and Kindle for example. And having a series. One-offs are tougher.

      Reply
  10. Paul

    The new Blog is great 👍 Pat loving it so far

    Reply
  11. Seelnelg Vader

    Looking forward to this!
    Pat how has your creative process evolved over your career?

    Reply
  12. Seelnelg Vader

    Looking forward to this!
    Pat how has your creative process evolved during your career?

    Reply
    • Pat Mills

      By getting in touch with the muse, the source of inspiration. That sounds obvious, but there’s more to it and I write a couple of later blogs on the subject

      Reply

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