Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Planning Your Comics Career Like A Video Game

When my first full-length graphic novel, “The Spectacular Adventures of Zsazsa Zaturnnah” made waves for the most part of the 2000s, many people said that I was a success, that I could content myself with the fact that I’ve made a great contribution to Philippine pop culture, Philippine comics –Philippine literature even– in the New Millennium. While I was thankful for the unexpected accolades, it didn’t sink in so much. Maybe I was in denial. Maybe I believed the success was premature. Or maybe I didn’t really have an idea of what my success should look like.

To me, the fact that I was able to finish the book and get it published was my true success. Everything else became a nice bonus.

But maybe I should have looked at building my success differently, especially if I had really wanted to make comics my career.

It’s important to define what your success will look like, especially if you plan to make comics over the long-term. If you’re starting out, your measure of success could be simply “having fun,” or “finishing,” or “getting positive comments from strangers.” But if you’ve spent a number of years producing comics, your measure of success might change. As you get older, get more experience, and take on more responsibilities as an adult, your measure of success can go as far as “making a comfortable living” from your works.

But it all has to come in steps. like that of a video game, and each success is not unlike finishing a “level” of that game.

If your comics career were to come in levels, what do you want to achieve with each? Here’s an example:

Level 1: 1st Comics Project. Write and draw an eight-pager in one month. Just practice.
Level 2: 2nd Comics Project. Write and draw a twelve-pager in one month. Just practice.
Level 3: 3rd Comics Project. Write and draw a twelve-pager in one month. Post it in a blog. Get feedback.
Level 4: 4th Comics Project. Write and draw a 30-page webcomic in two months. Post it in a blog. Get feedback.
Level 5: 5th Comics Project. Write and draw a 50-page webcomic in three months. Post it in a blog. Get feedback.

You can add milestones when it comes to target audience, such as…

Level 6: 5th Comics Project. Write and draw a 50-page webcomic in three months. Subject is autism. Post it in a blog. Get feedback from medical experts, and parents of autistic children.
Level 7: 6th Comics Project. Write and draw a 50-page webcomic in three months. The comic is an adaptation of a story generally studied in high school. Post it in a blog. Get feedback from teachers and students.

Another milestone can be revenue-generating. For instance…

Level 8: Personal Website. Post all of my comics. Add Google Adsense. Finish in one month.
Level 9: Personal Website. Post ten “how I make comics” articles over the span of two months. Build a mailing list.

Then there’s the milestone when it comes to publishing formats, like…

Level 10:  Kindle Comics. Write and draw a 100-page Kindle Comic in five months. Publish through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing.
Level 11:  Createspace Comics. Convert 100-page Kindle Comics into a book. Publish through Amazon’s Createspace.

Then you can have milestones in terms of publicity, such as…

Level 12:  Connect with Podcasters. Get in touch with producers of relevant podcasts to see the possibility of guesting.
Level 13:  Connect with Local Establishments. Get in touch with coffee shops in the area for the possibility of leaving reading copies in the shops.

In defining your success in each level, your objective should be:

SPECIFIC (“15-page comic book,” not “one comic book”)
ATTAINABLE (will the objective be too much to pursue given the other stuff I have to do in my life?)
TIME-BOUND (use specific dates)

After successfully accomplishing a number of levels, you would need to take some time to look back at what you've done. By evaluating what you've done right and what you need to improve on, as well as looking out for new opportunities in the comics industry, you can redefine what your next levels will be. It's you being the captain of your own ship, anticipating changes in the marketplace and adjusting your course as needed.

By seeing your comics career this way, you can clearly determine how and when you’ve “leveled-up.” More importantly, each level will come with its own set of lessons on what you should NOT do, or what you should be more careful with. Of course, as you go through these levels, you’re still actively learning and improving your writing, drawing, and marketing skills.

Arguably, the above sample can be achieved in about three or four years. If you have more time in your hands and are particularly persevering, you can pile up the above milestones into fewer levels.

I wish I had known this when I was starting out. I think my comics career would have grown in leaps and bounds over the past decade if I had done this a long time ago. Plus, I could safely say that any unexpected successes that would come my way would have been rightfully earned. We reap what we sow.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Making Comics: Starting Out By Starting Small

When learning how to draw comics, it’s prudent to start small and work your way up. Many times have aspiring creators approached me to talk about their planned “epic series” but never got around to starting. They’re chasing the big dream without knowing what achieving that big dream entails.

My first solo work back in 2001 was 56 pages long, and the story was simple–two people talking about their past romantic relationship. There were no physical fight scenes nor adventurous camera angles, and I had been drawing other people’s stories for a few years prior, so tackling 56 pages for a simple story wasn’t much of a stretch.

For you, it’s advisable to spend a couple of years to create one 4- to 8-page story every month or two. Ideally, these works won’t be for public consumption. Instead, you can post your pages on forums like DigitalWebbing to get crits.

As you work on shorter stories, you’ll be able to:

1) Learn how to draw different things. With each story, try a new genre. Since your stories will have a variety of topics, you’ll have opportunities to draw things you’ve never drawn before.

2) Draw faster and more comfortably. As they say, practice makes perfect. When you become used to drawing regularly, your speed improves, and your style becomes more consistent. Plus, you get your hand more accustomed to drawing.

3) Find your “happy middle.” Drawing comics is about producing satisfying work in the shortest amount of time. If it takes you four days to a week to finish a page, then you won’t be able to take on many projects. By doing short stories first, you can test different approaches and see which approach satisfies you as an artist but doesn’t take too long to finish.

4) Engage in “deliberate” practice. Because you’re only doing short stories, you can finish a story faster and take time to evaluate what you’ve done. You can also predetermine what sorts of drawing skills you want to work on for each story. For instance, you can say, “For the first story, I’ll work on facial expressions.” So your energy and focus will fall on that area. Then you can move on to camera angles and perspective for the next story. Then anatomy, and so on, improving slowly with every new story.

5) Create a working method. When you’re starting out, the way you produce comics won’t probably be the most efficient. Along the way, you’ll discover better paper, or a better inking method, even a better time of day to work. You might even discover that going 100% digital for your art would best, or maybe you’ll decide it’s not such a good idea after all. By doing short stories first, you can test different methods and different materials and see which works better for you.

If you’re looking for short complete stories, you might want to try some royalty-free comedy skit scripts written by Jeff Goebel over at Frogstar. While these are not comics scripts, they can easily be made into comics, and allows you to develop your skills in drawing facial expressions. (By the way, if you decide to use these scripts to practice drawing comics, let Jeff know through jeff@frogstar.com, especially if you plan to post your work anywhere on the web.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Making Comics: Should You Ask People To Buy When You're Starting Out?

I was at De La Salle University this afternoon, invited to give a short talk at the Student Media Office Comics Convention. During the talk, I said something that I'd like to elaborate upon here, because it could easily be misconstrued.

I basically said that, personally, I feel it's really important for Pinoy comics creators to learn the principles of story, to be good at the craft, and try to make the best possible comics they can, especially if they intend to sell their works. We're asking people to give us money, and so our works--essentially consumer products--need to have worth.

There's one thing to consider here, which I think is very important to note: what may have worth for some people can be seen as worthless to others. I personally don't find a lot of value in a Louis Vuitton, but many consider LVs great investments. In contrast, one man's trash has been proven to be another man's goldmine.

An article over at Business Insider reveals the success of some authors in the realm of monster porn, with stories that detail intimate encounters between humans and, well, non-humans. The general public may scoff at the genre, but who could argue with one author's earning US$2,000 a month in royalties? Not to say that we should all explore the many possible combinations and permutations of human-monster interaction, but it does show us that value is relative.

For the comics creator who's just starting out, trying to find what works and what doesn't, it's not a bad thing to ask people for money in exchange for a comic book in whatever genre, whether it be Western superhero-inspired, manga-inspired, or pure indie, with quality that may need improvement. Because somewhere in the vast sea of humanity is someone who will find value in what we produce. In this age of "likes" and :fans," it doesn't really matter if we become the biggest sensation in comics, or rake in widely-circulated positive reviews, but more of finding a good number of people who'll like our work enough to shell out money. Then it becomes a matter of giving them what they want on a regular basis.

But my statement stems from the kind of comics creator I want to be, which isn't someone who banks on luck. (In other art forms like singing, dancing, or acting, even those who have natural talent still undergo training.) I mentioned once in a magazine interview that I'm my own worst critic, so I continuously find the ways and means to further educate and improve myself in both writing and art. I want to make my work as "valuable" as I can, by telling stories that I'd like to think are unique and entertaining, and at the same time laden with some meaning. So, at least, when I put out a story that I want to sell, I can safely say that I've done my homework.

So if you're just starting out in this crazy little adventure of making comics, by all means ask for money. Find your audience, build it, and give it what it wants. If they really like what they see, they'll be curious to know what else you have. But it's always prudent to keep your expectations in check. If you're not seeing the numbers you'd like despite moving mountains, maybe it's time to try something else.

Ultimately, you define what success means. Like value, success is relative.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Why I Love Cooking

I remember how, as a kid, I had thought about being one of two things: a priest, or a chef. Look where I ended up.

In the late 2000s, I moved out of the house to join a friend and her then-boyfriend to a nice three-bedroom townhouse in Pasig. She was paying most of the rent so I couldn't complain. The moment I stepped into the unit, one of the first areas I checked out was the kitchen, and I'd imagine myself whipping up whatever culinary storm I could think of, even if  the time I had could only afford me enough to make a sandwich.

I love kitchens, moreso the stuff I could do there. Being an art director for Real Living magazine had exposed me to different kitchen designs, and I'd always get secretly excited whenever a kitchen was the subject of the monthly makeover. A mall's appliance center is also a fave place of mine, particularly--surpirse,surprise--the kitchen section. Then there's the supermarket, which I'd sometimes visit even if I didn't have anything to buy. I just wanted to see what was available.

And I also love cooking, something I hardly am able to do right now. Whenever cable television was available, I would catch Anna Olson, Chef Michael Smith, Nigella Lawson or Laura Calder (even if I had never made any of their recipes).

I guess what I really like about cooking, apart from the therapy it provides, is the whole creative potential that surrounds it, especially if you don't have a lot of ingredients to work with. How can I make scrambled egg more interesting? Or vegetable soup? Or basic spaghetti? Even though I had my cookbook phase, I can only recall one instance where I've followed a recipe--a Del Monte Kitchenomics recipe for pochero--to the letter. There was another time when I followed a recipe for ceviche (kinilaw) using cream dory, but I couldn't resist taking some liberties. I added apple cider vinegar and white wine, and was glad that that little tweak proved successful with the relatives.

I'm partial, however, to fried rice and pasta sauces, because there's just so many possibiities with them. What's more, they can be complete meals in themselves with the right ingredients, and there's practically zero wastage.

The downside to all that experimentation, at least for me, is that I can't replicate any successful dish I've done. I've never adopted the habit of going "meta," or having a self-conversation about what I've created, even with my comics work. I know it's important, but I don't know why I've never made an effort. Maybe I relish the spontaneity of it all.

Anyway, I still dream of ruling my own kitchen, not so much to become a kitchen goddess, but a simple creative who loves slaving over a hot stove.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Develop Your Story Creation Skills with Tabletop Role-Playing Games

Since I'm the kind who thinks about these things, I've come up with a list of the different skills of story creators, and I use the word "skills" loosely here. While creating stories, I find myself making use of all of them, some better than others.

1) Research - The ability to search for, consume, and digest relevant and interesting information.

2) Omnipresence - The ability to go into "god mode," that is, to see a story from all angles, within and without. You are aware not only of the events that take place in your story world, but also of the aspirations and motivations within the hearts and minds of your characters.

3) Causality - The ability to see how things lead to other things, why some events take place, and what these events can lead to.

4) Interconnectedness - The ability to determine the connections between seemingly unrelated elements.

5) Psychology - The ability to dissect personalities, attitudes, relationships, and states of mind, and how they influence actions and reactions.

6) Structural Awareness - The ability to choose what to reveal, when to reveal, and how to reveal in order to give audiences a satisfying story experience.

7) Expression - The ability to clearly articulate story.

8) Thematic Awareness - The ability to see themes running through events or a series of events, and allowing them to influence story decisions.

I'm sure there are other skills, but these eight are what I can think of right now. I didn't include "writing" in the list, because I believe that those who don't have superb creative writing abilities can still create a good story. These people can create the plot which, when turned over to a true wordsmith, can be transformed into something artful.

I think every person has these skills in varying degrees, because we are, after all, shaped by story. But the greatest story creators would have mastered most of these skills. For me, one of the best ways to develop a lot of these skills is to regularly play story games, or games wherein you're tasked to complete stories. I will be biased by saying that the ultimate story game is the tabletop role-playing game, and those who would want to take their story creating skills to a higher level would benefit from playing one.

If you haven't heard of tabletop RPGs, here's what Wikipedia says about it:

"Participants usually conduct the game as a small social gathering. One participant, called the ... Game Master or GM ... prepares a set of rules and a fictional setting in which players can act out the roles of their characters. This setting includes challenges for the player characters to overcome through play, such as traps to be avoided or adversaries to be fought. The full details of the setting are kept secret, but some broad details of the game world are usually given to the players. Games can be played in one session of a few hours, or across many sessions depending on the depth and complexity of the setting.

"The players each create characters whose roles they will play in the game. As well as fleshing out the character's personal history and background, they assign numerical statistics to the character; these will be used later to determine the outcome of events in the game. Together, these notes tell the player about their character and his or her place in the game world."

From this description alone, you can see how the different story skills can come into play (pun intended). Gameplay progresses spontaneously--there is no script. As a Player, you have to keep your wits about in dealing with and adapting to what the Game Master throws at you. Plus, interacting with other players "in character" exposes you to the different ways people deal with challenges. When you're the Game Master, you're in charge of creating the world the characters will inhabit, the other characters they have to interact with, as well as the tasks they have to complete. Since you're dealing with more than one player/character who each have distinct personalities, you're forced to think on your toes in case they make decisions that surprise you.

Unfortunately, you need a group of people to conduct game sessions, but it's a great reason to meet up with friends, especially if you're all out to hone your story skills.

Fortunately, there are FREE downloadable PDFs of game manuals which you can take a look at. A list of links can be found in The Trollish Delver. Gather a few people, read the rules, meet during weekends, take turns being the Game Master... and have fun!!

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