SPEAKING WITH…KURT BUSIEK

Welcome back to the third and final installment of Speaking With Kurt Busiek. I’ve thanked Kurt so many times these past three weeks it may seem redundant, but I really can’t thank him enough for taking the time to truly answer my questions. He’s also making it tough going for those who follow him.

Kurt is currently working on the long delayed JLA/Avengers with some artist named George Perez, whoever that is. He is also working on new Astro City stories with Brent Anderson, and, as much as I’m interested in seeing his and George’s JLA, I really want to see the return of Astro City. And now, the questions and answers…

MW: HOW DO NEW WRITERS GET THE ATTENTION OF EDITORS AND PUBLISHERS, ETC?

KB: I have no idea. I'm hampered by the fact that I haven't been a new writer in a long time, so things have changed, and also because I broke in pretty easily. Staying in was a lot of work, but breaking in happened fast, so I didn't have a lot of experience knocking on doors without having had work published. So I don't know who's looking or what gets an editor interested in a newcomer, not any more.

I didn't really know when I was doing it, in fact -- I just stumbled around and took my best shot. But it turns out I did a few things right without knowing I was doing anything sensible at the time. I wrote scads of letters to lettercols in the Seventies, just because I wanted to, but it turned out that having over a hundred letters printed meant that various people already knew who I was, and had a first impression of me as someone who could organize his thoughts and write effectively. It may not have been comics writing, but it proved I could do something that involved writing, and that's

And I looked for opportunities -- I didn't write sample Spider-Man or Batman stories, I wrote sample stories mostly for books I thought might have openings. That didn't always pay off -- I wrote that Supergirl script right before they ended the series, for instance -- but it made a lot more sense to be sending in POWER MAN/IRON FIST stories rather than X-MEN stories. So doing whatever you can to get your name known -- in a positive context -- can't hurt.

Writing articles for the fan press, helping organize a convention, putting together an in-store newsletter at your local store -- things like this are a way to come in contact with the business and to show that you can do something well. If nothing else, it makes the next step a little easier. And looking for where the opportunities are rather than wishing that the door you most want to open would suddenly open is far more constructive. Denny O'Neil bought my first POWER MAN/IRON FIST script because he needed scripts and I was right there with something usable. I looked for the door that was open -- and if some other book had been running a lot of fill-ins, I'd have pitched for that one, too.

Fill-ins aren't as prevalent any more, but that's not the point. You broke in on short horror stories, Marv -- but by the time I broke in, those magazines were about dead, and that door wasn't open any more. I broke in on backups and fill-ins. Scott Lobdell broke in on short stories for MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS. Karl Kesel broke in on NEW TALENT SHOWCASE. Each of us pursued the opportunities that existed at the time.

Anyone who wants to break in today should do their best to figure out where the opportunities are today, and then pursue them. That's part of being a freelancer, too -- studying the markets, and pitching to the ones you think you might be able to sell to.

MW: WHAT ARE YOUR GOALS AND WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO WHEN WRITING IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES?

KB: Most of it's the same stuff I'm doing when I'm writing stuff of my own creation -- I want to have a good time, do good work, attract an audience big enough to let me keep doing it, make a living, work with good artists, that sort of thing. There are a few things that are different, that come from the fact that I don't own the finished work and there are other writers writing in the same world -- sometimes the same characters -- but they're secondary, and I prefer to minimize them as much as possible.

First off, if I'm writing a work-for-hire book for Marvel or DC, I don't have final say. My editor and I can talk through the story, but if we reach an irreconcilable disagreement, I do it his way. I accept that as part of the rules, part of the way it works, but I don't just shrug my shoulders and do what I'm told -- I try to make sure there aren't going to be a lot of irreconcilable disagreements. If my editor and I aren't in sync on what the direction of and vision for the book is, I don't want to keep working with that editor. It's just not a good idea -- my writing won't be as good as it could be if I'm being overruled all the time, and as a result, I won't have as good a time, I won't be happy, the book won't be what it could be -- that editor's probably better off working with someone else.

That's not to say I don't want editorial input -- the best editors I've worked with are editors who make suggestions, who challenge me, who point out problems and suggest solutions. But I'd rather talk things through with the editors and come up with something we're both happy with, rather than writing stuff I don't think is a good idea, but my boss told me to do it. So as long as I'm writing stories I'm happy with, and I don't feel like the fact that I don't own the characters is getting in the way, then I don't have any problems. If it does get in the way, I think about doing something else. Similarly, the fact that other writers are handling that universe or those characters can limit things.

If Mark Waid gives Captain America an energy-shield in CAP, and I'm writing Cap in AVENGERS, I'd better write the energy-shield in. That's not really much of a problem -- it was more of a problem when the guys over on IRON MAN put Iron Man into a new suit of armor that I thought looked ugly. In that case, what I did was arrange for him to be needed more as Tony Stark than as Iron Man, and we didn't let him put the suit back on in AVENGERS until he had a new one.

But there's usually something like that going on -- if it gets too intrusive,it's time to find something else to do.

Beyond that, I think what I try to do is build on the existing structures, building something new that fits well with what's already there, and complements or enhances the universe rather than breaking it. And as long as I'm enjoying it, it's all fine. But I keep in mind that I don't own it, that I could be fired tomorrow, or put into a position that'd make me want to quit, and I have to be prepared for that, and not fool myself into thinking that the books are somehow "mine." I like working with the characters, I like exploring the universes -- but first and foremost, I like doing good stories and creating something I'm proud of, that can attract an audience. If the company ownership compromises that, then my attachment to doing what I do well had better be stronger than my attachment to those particular characters.

MW: HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOUR RELATIONSHIP UP FRONT WITH YOUR
EDITOR/STORY-EDITOR/PRODUCER/THE WRITERS WHO WORK UNDER YOU?

KB: I talk a lot. I want them to know what my vision for the project is, so they know what I'm trying to accomplish and can backstop me if I screw up. And I want to know what their vision is, so if we don't agree, we can talk through it and resolve it rather than getting five parts into a six part story and only then discovering that we can't agree on how to end it. If we can't get in sync early on, there's going to be trouble down the road.

I also make some technical requests -- I prefer to do any rewriting that needs to be done, even if it's just a matter of the editor calling me up and saying, "We need a different line here," and coming up with it on the fly. And I like to proofread the books I work on, so I can catch a missing balloon, or a line that just doesn't work, or whatever. I don't always get everything I want, but I can usually get most of it.

MW: WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL ADVICE TO WRITERS AND WOULD-BE WRITERS?

KB: On the subject of the craft of writing:

There's nothing that'll teach you more than practice. I think it was John D. MacDonald who said that every beginning writer has a million words of lousy fiction in him. Sit down, start writing, and a million words later you'll have gotten past the bad stuff.

Writers should read, study, analyze why the stuff they like works -- but it's far more important simply to write. Write complete stories, so you're practicing beginnings, middles and ends. Experiment -- try stuff you don't know how to do, figure out what works for you, have some fun, get comfortable with the process. It's more important to find your own voice than to follow someone else's rules.

I do recommend a few books --
UNDERSTANDING COMICS by Scott McCloud
ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE by William Goldman
TELLING LIES FOR FUN AND PROFIT by Lawrence Block
CHARACTER & VIEWPOINT by Orson Scott Card

-- but actually writing, and writing a lot, is the best thing you can do. On the subject of the profession of writing:

Two things not to forget --

First, nobody is there to do you any favors. If you want to break in, you'll do it by offering someone something they need, and they'll buy it. You won't do it by being "discovered," or wanting to write X-MEN so badly that they'll give you your shot just because you're you. The creative part is the fun part; you don't need to reminded of why it's important. But the business part is the part you have to remember -- you're building things and selling them to customers. The better you are at it, the more able you'll be to sell them what you want to build. But when you're starting out, you need to sell them what they want to buy. That doesn't mean you should whore yourself out to any editor with a checkbook -- just that you should look for where what you want to write and what people are willing to buy overlap. I never would have set out to write POWER MAN/IRON FIST. But it was available, and it was something I could do. So I went for it.

Another aspect of this is that if and when they do hire you, they're not doing it as a favor then, either. They're buying something from you that they expect to make money from. You don't owe them something because they bought your work -- they bought it to profit off of it. Don't be fooled into thinking that you owe them something more than the work they bought, any more than you should fool yourself into thinking that Spider-Man is somehow "yours" if you're writing him. If you buy into either notion, you'll get disabused of it in time, and it'll bruise.

Second, always remember that you're a small businessman, and you're responsible for your own career. As I just noted, if they're buying stories from you, they're doing it to make money for themselves. It's not in a publisher's interest to figure out what's best for your career; he's more focused on what's best for him. So publishers will always want you to do whatever suits them best, which is not necessarily what suits you best. Be aware of that, because if you're not looking out for your career, nobody will be.

None of that means that the publisher is the enemy -- in the best situations, creators and publishers are partners, each supplying the other with what they want (money and an audience on one side, material and profit on the other), and each doing well from the deal.

he trick is to remember that it's a bargain, and it should be as fair a bargain as possible. Serving the greater glory of the Marvel or DC Universe will not build you up loyalty points -- the moment they don't think they can profit off your work, you're out, whether you're Jack Kirby, Steve Gerber, Stan Lee, Gardner Fox, Grant Morrison, Herb Trimpe or anyone else. So stay aware that you're running your own little business, even if it feels like you're working for them. They'll take care of their business, you take care of yours. If you approach it with that attitude, you'll be fine. If you think that they'll take care of you, or that you've somehow earned power over what they own, you're headed for disappointment.

***

I want to again (and the for last time this week) thank Kurt for the time and energy he put into answering these questions. One of the reasons I wanted to do this column and hope I can continue it for a bit longer, is to help others out there realize that craft isn’t something that just happens. If you want to learn craft you need to work at it. You need to have your work criticized and you need to listen to the criticism.

I know people who send out there work to other writers to look at and then argue with the writer when told what may not be working. Don’t argue. Not even if you completely disagree. Listen. If you don’t understand their criticism, ask for an explanation, but don’t argue. Ultimately, it’s your story and you’re going to do what you want to anyway (unless it’s an assignment in which case you will do what you can’t argue your editor out of doing). But you might learn something if you keep your mouth shut.

The other writer may indeed be wrong, or they may be falling into the trap of telling you how they would write your story (a no-no), but they may also be pointing out a real problem. Think about what they say. If, after you get over the hurt of being told your story is not firing on all cylinders, and you can see some glimmer of truth in their words, make the fix. And always remember, the criticism is not about you; it’s about the work. Drop the ego.

Take care. Don’t forget to click over to our “What The Hey?” message board and send us your opinions or argue with others, myself included.

See you all in seven.
-Marv Wolfman

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