Words that Sell: Writing Marketing Copy for Your Novel

Let’s begin with the notion that brevity and clarity are the soul of wit. Or, at least, are the basis for what you can use to make your books stand out in a good way and attract a reader’s attention. Do readers automagically buy a book on the first reading of your best and most fabulous copy? Sometimes! In any case, writing good marketing copy helps your work find its people, and that is the name of the game.

What does marketing copy include? 

  • Your book description. This includes the two to three paragraphs that appear on the back of print copies of your book (we’re assuming you’re writing your own here) as well as on the websites that will sell your book. You will need short (a couple of lines) and long descriptions to upload your books onto the various sales platforms. 
  • Blurb – Sometimes used interchangeably with the description, but generally this refers to nice things another author says about your book. You don’t write this kind of review blurb, but you can decide which phrases to quote for the most impact.
  • Taglines. These are short phrases that capture the tone of the book. “Airships. Piracy. Murder. The Occasional Cup of Tea…” is the tagline for one of our steampunk titles, for example. “Winning What You Want May Cost You Everything” is another very popular example. Taglines are used on the back of your book and can be added to the description on sales platforms. 

Common mistakes:

  • The description is too long, detailed and/or dull.
  • The description tells the reader nothing about the book.
  • Blurbs rely on overused words and clichés.
  • Taglines are trite and/or tell the reader nothing about the book.
  • There are typos or grammatical errors.

Think of your description as something akin to an elevator pitch for your book. You’re aiming for something that a potential book buyer can skim quickly. Limit yourself to 3-4 sentences per paragraph and stick to 2. The description should include:

  • A lead in to your central conflict.
  • The name of your main character or characters (assuming a smallish cast).
  • Enough information to tell someone what kind of story they’re looking at.
  • Emotional payoff: what will they get from buying your book?  This can be stated (“Fall in love all over again”) or implied (“X must happen to do Y. But at what cost? The empire is about to find out.”)

There is really only one kind of reader that you’re looking for and that’s the one who that description will speak to, thereby inspiring them to buy and read your book. Not everyone who’s ever read a book or even all fans of your particular genre.  Think about that reader when you write your copy.

Are you writing your copy for the first time?

  • Do some research. Look at what other writers in your genre are writing about their books. Look at the word choices and descriptions and see what works for you, as well as what doesn’t.  
  • Make a list of things that resonate. Does a phrase intrigue you enough to want to learn more about that book? Can you come up with an original description of your own book that works the same way for you?
  • Make a list of other things you’re seeing as well – are some words and phrases overused? Just not working for you?

Look at taglines and ads too: 

  • Do they sound intriguing?
  • Do they sound enthusiastic?
  • Would you considered buying this book based on how they present it?

Some day, when we can have book tables at conventions again, it’s very helpful to watch people when they pick up your books and read the back. That reaction can be magical or disappointing, but either way, it tells you when your copy grabs someone’s attention. In the meantime, look at your reviews, particularly the ones from readers. If they are consistently “expecting something else,” that may be a sign to review your marketing copy and ask writer friends to help you vet it. Look at your click throughs too, if you are running ads, and experiment with those. And finally, bear in mind that mistakes are generally fixable. Marketing copy doesn’t need to be static and can grow with your work.


The Craft of Critiques

Giving critiques is something of an art, and it's a skill that most writers should learn to cultivate early on. After all, one of the first community experiences you'll get when you start writing is being asked to provide feedback to other writers. You might start a critique group, you might just trade critiques for critiques, you might even make friends who end up being your primary critique partners. It's not only useful for other writers, but it's useful for you as you grow in your craft and to foster a healthy community of writers. And it stands to reason that, well, we don't actually learn how to critique each other. Instead, a lot of us learned how to provide feedback by keeping various "rules" of writing in our heads like a checklist. Unfortunately, the checklist method is both unfair to different perspectives and unwieldy to "non-standard" writing. And as speculative fiction writers, isn't "non-standard" something we should strive for?

This article is a bit of a cross between a guide and a collection of resources to help you wire your brain for critiquing. Above all, remember that you're looking at work from your peers, who have also poured in the effort and heart as you have into their work. Good etiquette will help you find your footing in the writing community.

Mary Robinette Kowal outlines good etiquette in her guide here:

Image

Another, more detailed resource is Valerie Valdes' "How to Critique."

As much as we want to provide the How to fix when writing critiques, the most useful thing we can do is to give our gut reactions. The reason for this is that as outsiders, we might not know exactly what the writer is trying to achieve. Instead, we can provide hints to the writer at how their work is going to be received. As writers, we might be too close to know where our execution has failed but gut reaction feedback can then tell us how to tweak the work to ensure that our execution is more precise. Frame your gut instincts as exactly that: use "I" statements to make it clear where these sentiments are coming from and avoid anything too prescriptive (i.e. saying "you must do x" or "y doesn't work" or "you should never include z" vs "I didn't feel like y worked for me" or "I was confused by z")

Last year, I wrote a blog post over on my personal site. It's meant to be a way to supplement your critiquing method, to help you learn to look at stories as a whole and to curate your feedback based off what it seems like the writer is trying to achieve. Rather than superimposing your own likes and dislikes onto a story, you should identify your own biases and attempt to critique a work outside of that.

But don't let it all be negative - finding what worked for you is just as important as finding what didn't. Include the bits you liked, the bits that you intrigued you or you felt like was well-executed the story's favour. Did you like the concept? The characters? The decisions that the author made with the plot? Maybe the worldbuilding intrigued you, or maybe the themes resonated. Those are all things to articulate in your critique as well. The positives don't have to feel cloying or fake: they show that you, the critiquer, paid attention to the story and was able to appreciate the work that was put into it.

Remember to be constructive! Your goal isn't to put down your peers, it's to help them make the best out of their work. In being constructive, you're looking to provide ways for the writer to make changes to their story in order to make the best version of it. While it's nice to say, "I like x!" that doesn't really help the writer learn what worked in the story. Instead, saying something like "I found x really reinforced the themes, but I thought it would be stronger earlier" combines the positive sentiment with something actionable and specific. Sometimes it helps to also ask questions when providing critiques, like asking what the writer was trying to achieve, so that you can try to provide more directed feedback. After all, the person getting critiqued is looking for something useful out of it.

Critiquing is such a valuable skill, both for you to help others but also for you to learn what works and what doesn't work for you so that you can implement those elements into your own writing. Being critical of others and learning the language of criticism will help you grow as a writer yourself, as you'll be able to strengthen your own analytical skills and translate that into better revisions and better drafts.


Recommending Books the Old-Fashioned Way

Recommending Books the Old-Fashioned Way without Keywords or Algorithms

As a bookseller, I am often asked for book recommendations both in the bookstore and online. Connecting someone with the right book can be a great pleasure, but giving an unfit recommendation can leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth that they’re not likely to forget. It is important to realize that reading a book is a commitment, both in time spent reading, and in emotional investment. Not every book is for everyone, and it is important to keep this in mind for booksellers and authors alike.

When asked to provide a book recommendation having read the book you are recommending is the best preparation. For this reason it is always useful when an author has provided me with an ARC (advance reading copy). I prefer to read hard copies, but many booksellers are also fine with an ebook – a cheaper solution for the author or publisher. Not every bookseller will have the time to read your book, but the gesture, and the sign of professionalism can go a long way.

To connect a reader with the right book can be tricky, especially if they are a new customer and I am unfamiliar with their tastes. Because of this I always ask what was a book they loved, and what was a book that they hated. This information is extremely helpful for narrowing down the selection, both thematically and in the density of the material that they enjoy reading. For instance if someone has enjoyed Vonnegut and Adams, I know they are looking for something light-hearted and humorous. 

Biographical information can also be super useful when connecting a reader with a book. I have found that often just sharing information about the author can be helpful in piquing the interest of the reader. For this reason, I always read the bio in the back of books to prepare me for the customer’s questions. If you are an author releasing a book do not forget to put a bio in the back, as many readers will go to this section first to see if they are interested in pursuing the book. Mention awards, interests, location etc., all of this information may interest the potential reader. Many authors use humorous or caddy bios to try and attract attention. In my experience this is generally a turn off for the reader, after-all you want the reader to take the book seriously (unless perhaps it is a book of humor). 

Genre can sometimes be a factor in purchasing a book, and it is certainly a helpful tool for marketing and where to shelve a book, however in my experience most readers read more broadly than one particular genre. Often a reader can be turned off to a book they may otherwise enjoy because of stereotypes surrounding genre. Because of this, I find it helpful to try and ascertain the more general taste of a reader, and this is why it can be helpful to include interests outside of genre when writing your bio or marketing your book. 

Other factors that may help connect a reader with your book are shelf talkers and signed bookplates. The latter is useful because many readers also collect books and many of us collect signed first editions. Signed bookplates are a great way to open up a conversation with a bookseller and often offer the extra incentive needed for the customer to take a chance on the book. 

Display space is also extremely useful for catching the customer’s eye when browsing. By putting a book on display in the bookshop it is an automatic endorsement of the book and it is more likely to sell. Often authors and publishers request that their books be on display, but I would caution against this, as display space is valuable real estate and highly coveted (some booksellers even charge for the space). If you are lucky enough to get your book featured in the display space, it is important to make sure that you have compelling cover art, and this is not an area of your book you want to skimp on. For self-published authors it is also extremely important that your book has a printed spine because otherwise it will disappear into the shelves and will likely never sell.

Ultimately, when a reader reads your book you are opening up a one way relationship and it is important to treat it like any other relationship. If your book is packaged to look like it delivers a certain type of experience than it had better live up to that expectation. The more points of entry you give the reader the more likely they are to love the book, and the more likely a bookseller is to include your book in their list of recommendations. 


Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters III

Content notes: gore, body horror, blood

I am very sorry for the sudden hiatus taken on this series without prior warning. Thank you for your patience and understanding. So, without taking much of your precious time, let’s talk about some horror comics. 

(Red Room by Ed Piskor)

In previous episodes, we discussed some of the types of characters we love to root for – characters capable of instantly stealing our hearts (not so they can sacrifice them to an old serpent god but to keep us glued to the page). Or as it’s popularly put in the TV industry – “characters we want to be or want to be around”. In this episode, we’ll be discussing that little “oomph” we can give our characters to make them more compelling no matter their character type. These are the traits that keep us coming back week-after-week (as in most webcomics) or month-after-month (as in most comic books), besides the gripping plot of course. 

(Two Moons by John Arcudi and Valerio Giangiordano)

Primal Motivation

(Ultramega by James Harren)

Primal goals are goals we would still be capable of having even if we were stripped of our modern comforts. But giving your protagonist a goal that’s so modern like wanting to gain one million followers on Instagram isn’t bad at all, but the motivation behind such goals should be primal.  I’m sure you’ve seen how far animals travel to find a mate – sometimes farther than they are willing to travel to find a “proper” meal. So, wanting to get laid can be a very good motivation for a teenage boy to journey into the haunted woods (if his crush booty-called him to meet her in a cabin in said haunted woods).  Protecting one’s life and/or one’s family is also a very primal motivation. Parental and social validation is another. 

(The Nice House on the Lake by James Tynion IV and Álvaro Martínez Bueno)

These motivations are very relatable because they tend to cut through cultural and background barriers as we can all relate to them at a primal level. 

In It (the movie), we can relate to the kids’ motivations. From trying to impress the girl amongst them, to trying to find a brother, and to trying to survive a kid-eating clown-faced monster (cause kids can’t just pack their stuff and move to another town). We totally get it. In the sequel, however, we see adults try to fulfil a promise they made as kids they have hazy memories of making. I doubt I have the time or the energy to finally go back to my high school to tell my math teacher that he sucks. As gratifying as that may be, I am too lazy to do it. Go back to face a child-killing monster? No, thank you. 

Redeeming Qualities

(Nocterra by Scott Snyder and Tony S. Daniel)

I think most creators have got this down, so I won’t dwell too long on it. Basically, no matter how flawed you make your characters, give them a core emotion-evoking strength. And no matter how perfect you make your characters, give them a core emotion-evoking weakness. Now, let’s talk about the thing horror creators don’t usually nail.

Good People Die Too

(We Only Find Them When They’re Dead by Al Ewing and Simone Di Meo)

One of the reasons deaths in Game of Thrones and Attack of Titan elicit a more emotional response than in a lot of horror fiction is because a lot of horror fiction may be willing to show boobs and guts, but they are not willing to break our hearts. The “popular” girl dies because F that B-word. The passionate couple dies because that’s what they get for being happy. The bully that always seems to like the old brewski dies because monsters love the taste of insecurity. Somehow, at the end of it all, the well-behaved well-adjusted character survives at the end. Yup. No one saw that coming (*rolls eyes). I understand creators don’t want to seem unnecessarily cruel. But what I’m saying is, let’s try to mix it up and remember that both good and bad people die in real life, so why not in our fiction. In short, write in redeeming qualities for the victims in your story too. That way, we respond emotionally and not just physically to deaths and the threat of death. 

Stakes (Not for Killing Vampires)

(Stillwater by Chip Zdarsky and Ramón K Perez)

This has to do more with the plot, so we’ll probably discuss it in detail in subsequent episodes of this series. But in summary, your protagonist must stand to lose something. There must be something at stake. In a lot of horror fiction, it’s simply the protagonist’s life that’s at stake and honestly, there is nothing wrong with that. However, in Get Out, it’s the protagonist’s body. In The Shining, it’s the protagonist’s sanity. In The Quiet Place, it’s the family. It doesn’t always have to be life and death. Sometimes, it’s just extreme physical pain. 

But the reason why we are discussing stakes in this section is that we need to create our protagonists in a way that the stakes matter to them. If Lee Abbott wasn’t a caring father who values his family’s safety, the entire plot for The Quiet Place falls apart pretty quickly. 

Character Design

(The One You Feed by Donny Cates and Dylan Burnett)

I’m not much of an artist, so I can’t say much here. But simply creating a generic-looking character and tossing them a t-shirt and a pair of jeans is not usually the best move in soliciting interest in your characters. Let your unique setting and character personalities ooze from how your characters dress, act, and look. Besides that it keeps things interesting, we don’t want Henry meeting his demise and we continue to wonder for pages and pages if that was Henry, Samuel, Greg, or Jessica. 

Conclusion

(Bog Bodies by Declan Shalvey and Gavin Fullerton)

In conclusion, characters can be well received even more than the creators intended as is the case of Rorschach by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Though sometimes unintended, a lot of care does go into making a character memorable and one we want to come back to again and again. But hey… do you think that comic series you already started doesn’t have strong enough characters? You don’t have to cancel your beautiful baby and rip its files off the internet like a cold unforgiving monster. That’s the fun thing about periodicals like comics, you can improve things mid-story in organic ways. No rule says your character must be awesome right from Act 1. We might start getting to dig your character in Act 2 or even in the closing Act. 

My point is, we can create new stories with the tools we’ve acquired, but we don’t have to give up on our current babies too. A lot of manga, comic book series and webcomics have moments where they suddenly “got good” and new readers start flooding in. So, keep creating new comics and keep building on the ones you’ve already created. 

See you soon. 

Comic Book Suggestion

Delusion by Hongjacga


Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters II

Content notes: blood

Hey, if this is your first time joining us, why not take a quick look at some of our previous episodes?

  1. Fear in Comics: An Introduction 
  2. Fear in Comics: Gaming the Format
  3. Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters I

That said, let’s get right to it.

The Seduction of the Badass

(NEW MEN by Murewa Ayodele and Dotun Akande)

 

I once heard a filmmaker say that your characters may be despicable monsters, but at least make them good at their jobs. And this is a trait I’ve noticed in lots of beloved characters ranging from Batman to Rick Sanchez. I’m not exactly sure why, but as humans, we enjoy competence. It’s extremely seductive. Even more so when the competent person reached this peak capacity by working harder than anyone else for it. Audience members want to be around them. Heck, audience members want to be them.

(Batman: Joker War by James Tynion IV and Jorge Jimenez)

 

Listed below are a few examples of badass characters. 

  • Wall-E from Wall-E
  • Batman from DC Comics
  • Saitama from One-Punch Man
  • Walter White from Breaking Bad
  • Raya from Raya and the Last Dragon
  • Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty 
  • Iron Man from Marvel Comics
  • Summerset from Se7en
  • Michael Sullivan from Road to Perdition

 

Notice extremely popular, competent, and capable characters like Superman and Captain Marvel aren’t on the list (although it is a pretty short list)? Well, it’s because they are false badasses. Badass characters (in the context of this write-up) usually have a huge flaw to them. No, I don’t mean kryptonite or she-loves-cats-too-much. The character flaw must be birthed from the fact that they are so good at their jobs. Summerset has solved too many grizzly crimes he has lost all optimism. Rick Sanchez is depressed and lonely – one of the reasons being he is an unmatched god. Iron Man and Batman are obsessive planners, so much so, it ruins their personal lives. In God Country, it’s a little more literal. Emmet becomes a badass when he holds the sword, Valofax. When he stops holding it, he immediately turns into an old man suffering from Alzheimer’s. And holding unto the sword keeps getting him in more and more trouble until it takes his life.

(Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto)

 

Once your badass’ primary flaw is birthed from their strengths as badasses, you have a strong foundation to build your beautiful character on. 

 

Please, don’t be intimidated by the examples I gave. Your badass characters can be as low-concept as prettiest-girl-in-the-grade or as high-concept as killer-of-gods.

 

The Hypnotic

(Negan Lives! by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard)

 

As creators, these characters can often be the most difficult to create. Their potency usually depends largely on what a group of people (the audience) finds mesmerizing at a particular point in time. They can often be mistaken for the badass characters, but their appeal isn’t necessarily based on their competence but on a quirk (or multiple quirks) they have that we can’t but enjoy watching them act on it. 

SpongeBob is so exceptionally naive we can’t but stare and wonder what goes on in his head. We love how Jules Winnfield talks and quotes the scriptures before he blasts some fool in Pulp Fiction. Wood Man from Hilda is just so… well, Wood Man. You love every scene he is in instantly. What about Rorschach? The costume, the mask, and the way he talks… you could listen to an hour podcast of him just going on and on about corruption and dirty politicians. Some more examples are…

    • Sheldon from Big Bang Theory
    • Barney from How I Met Your Mother
    • James Carter from Rush Hour
    • Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men
    • Beavis and Butt-Head from Beavis and Butt-Head
    • James Gordon from Harley Quinn (Animated Series)
    • Lobo from DC Comics
    • Michelangelo from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    • Negan from The Walking Dead
    • Charmy from Black Clover

 

These characters usually need almost like an opposite character to bounce off of to work. We could read tons of comics with just Michelangelo and Raphael in a room together. SpongeBob and Squidward, James Carter and Inspector Lee, Wood Man and Hilda & Mom, etc. But this isn’t always necessary as some characters can be mesmerizing solo like Lou from Nightcrawler

 

Scream Bloody Vengeance

(Little Bird by Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram)

 

Making your character a kid who is constantly made fun of in school because of his weird haircut doesn’t mean we’ll care about that character. Comedy stories make us laugh by bringing constant misfortune on their characters, so why do you think by bringing misfortune on your characters we will take them any more seriously?

(Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Last Ronin by Kevin Eastman, et al.)

 

Why then are characters like John Wick from John Wick, Hutch from Nobody, and Maximus from Gladiator so compelling? Well, it’s because their misfortune is born from their good doing. John Wick is punished for loving the dog his dead wife left him, Hutch is punished for trying to be a good old regular dad, and Maximus is punished for being loyal to Rome. Your character doesn’t have to be a badass soldier or something like that for it to work. In It, despite being sick, Billy makes a beautiful boat for his younger brother. What he gets as a reward is his younger brother getting eaten by a clown that lives in the sewers. In Get Out, Chris knows that no matter how weird things get his girlfriend has his back. He doesn’t assume that just because she is related or shares the same skin colour as some sketchy individuals, she is sketchy too. When he (and the audience) finds out his girlfriend is actually in cahoots with her body-snatching racist family, the audience gets probably the most intense emotional reaction in the entire movie.

The unfairly treated protagonist gets us riled up screaming bloody vengeance and demanding swift justice on their behalf. They are one of the most, if not the most, effective at eliciting empathy from the audience. So, in your stories, don’t just punish your characters needlessly. Rather, punish them for doing good, and you’ll see your audience get riled up on their behalf.

 

Conclusion

These aren’t all the possible types of characters we love rooting for, but these are a good jumping-off point. As you research and consume more stories, you’ll discover more character types. I’m sure you’ll notice very quickly that some creators even combine different character types into one character or make their character change character type mid-story. 

Bakugo from My Hero Academia started as a badass antagonist. He became an underdog protagonist of a subplot the first time he saw Todoroki use his powers, and as at the writing of this article, is a badass ally to the protagonist. Hutch from Nobody, Walter White from Breaking Bad, and Uhtred from The Last Kingdom are badasses and unfairly treated – Uhtred being the most intense of the combination. So, feel free to experiment with character types to figure out what would be best for your story and what would engage your audience best.

(Plunge by Joe Hill and Stuart Immonen)

 

When you finally have your characters, you’ll want to give them goals we can be invested in, redeeming qualities, and prices to pay along the way. We’ll discuss more on those next week before we move on to our next topic, Fear in Comics: Strength in Subtlety

 

Comic Suggestion

This week’s reading suggestion is Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell.


Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters

Content warning: blood, violence, graphic imagery such as gore and body horror

Well, I’m sure you well know that characters aren’t limited to comic books and neither are they unique to the horror genre. Empathetic characters help all kinds of stories become more gripping, so why am I emphasizing them for horror comics (and necessary to elicit fear in your stories)? You see, for romance stories, you might have heard a couple of people say something like “one of the main characters better be hotter than my ex”. For crime stories, you might have heard something similar to “the detective better be a chain-smoker with the longest trench coat in all of cinema”. For superhero stories, maybe you’ve heard a fan craving for more morally ambiguous crimefighters like Deadpool. For a lot of genres, it’s easy to realize both the audience and the creators have character expectations, hence everyone takes the idea of characters seriously. 

(Ice Cream Man by W. Maxwell Prince and Martín Morazzo)

In horror stories, however, fans describe their preferences in terms of their love for a good Kaiju story (a subgenre of monster stories), slasher story, mad scientist story, psychological horror story, etc. As you may have noticed, the focus seems to be more on the threat rather than the protagonist (or victim). I doubt anyone ever says, “if a white female pharmacist isn’t screaming for her life in a horror story, colour me uninterested”. What creators don’t realize is that it’s not that horror fans don’t care about having good protagonists, it’s that they are more open-minded to the types of protagonists featured in their favourite genre than the average fiction consumer. 

(Proctor Valley Road by Grant Morrison, Alex Child, and Naomi Franquiz)

The vast possibilities of protagonists in the horror genre and the tendency for a horror creator not to focus on the protagonist are why I would like to welcome you to Fear in Comics Part 3: Make Us Care About Your Characters

(Spoiler Alert for a bunch of comics and movies. Gore Alert. The comic samples used in this article are for academic purposes only. The author isn’t glorifying the acts carried out in the stories.)

Contrary to Public Opinion, We Don’t Like Underdogs

The top actors get the biggest gigs, the top directors get the biggest box-office numbers, the prettiest people have the fullest inboxes, the top football clubs have the largest fanbases. In our day-to-day lives, we gravitate towards the strong and the powerful, so why on earth would we go the opposite direction in our taste in fiction? The answer is we don’t. Weakness has never been an admirable quality. No one tunes in to watch the telly with excitement wondering who would beat up their favourite MMA fighter next. So, why then do we love Asta from Black Clover, Deku from My Hero Academia, Atom from Real Steel – obvious underdogs?

(Boku no Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi)

Imagine this. There is a bank robbery. Superman flies in to stop it. He finds the perp on the run. He flies after the perp. The perp yells out the money is for his family. Superman says we’ve all got a family to feed and it’s no excuse to steal. The perp gives up. He throws the perp in jail 60s cartoon style. Superman is our hero.

(Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru)

Let’s make few adjustments to that story. This time, the perp doesn’t give up. He tries to flee but Superman gets a good hit in. The perp coughs up bloody teeth, yet he raises his fists against Superman. Superman pummels him, but he doesn’t give up. The perp, with broken ribs, eyes swollen shut, and a bloody mug insists he won’t let go of the money. He says he has a family to feed, and he’ll die before he lets go of the money. Every of Superman’s punch that sinks into this perp is followed by the perp getting back to his feet to say he’ll keep fighting till he gets the money to his family. This will become uncomfortable for us to watch very fast because, at this point, we just want this dude to get the money to his family. We are rooting for him even though he is a criminal.

(Invincible by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker)

What’s the difference? In both examples, the perp is the underdog and has a family to feed. I think the latter is more compelling because the underdog fights back. The underdog, with his actions, says, “I don’t care who you are, I’ll keep fighting”. So, I think what we really love is a fighting underdog. We love it when the team at the bottom of the log plays with determination to beat the team at the top of the table. It doesn’t matter if they win or not. What matters is that they stood and fought. 

(Image from Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: Civil War)

Steve Rogers, though a weakling (at the beginning at least), will never stand down in the face of a fight, bullies, or death. Deku, even though he has no superpowers, will rush in to save someone in danger even if the danger has more powerful heroes hesitant. Asta trains his physical body to physical perfection as if a strong body means anything in the world of magic. He goes as far as to declare he’ll become the Wizard King despite the fact that he has no magic whatsoever. These characters, though underdogs, carry their heads high and don’t know when to quit.

(Black Clover by Yūki Tabata)

Now, let’s consider examples from horror stories. The kids in Stranger Things (2016 – Present) and It (2017) are dorks – underdogs. They never pretend in the story to be otherwise. They are never apologetic about their nerdy loves or try to change how they dress to please a bully. These dudes (Stranger Things) even dress like Ghost Busters to school. In both stories, the characters decide the investigate and face dangers even teens and grown adults would run away scared from. Throughout the story, they are constantly presented with escape routes and chances to give up, but they never take it. They are the kind of underdogs we root for – the fighting ones.

Plug

There are more characters I’ll like to discuss ranging from the Unjustly Treated Protagonist to the Badass. Kindly join me next week as we discuss more character types and what makes them so compelling and empathetic. Now…

Comic Book Suggestion

Want to read a comic book that’s a masterclass on making you care about its characters?

Read Extremity by Daniel Warren Johnson and Mike Spicer

Thank you and keep having fun making comics. 


Fear in Comics: Gaming the Format

Content warnings: violence, blood, gore.

Fear in Comics: Gaming the Format

Ever searched for a recipe online only to be led to a website where the author goes on and on about their family, job, and dog? Like… your girlfriend is an hour away and you just want to know the ingredients to get at the store – not the cut of meat Bingo (I know right. Lazy dog name) prefers when he is sad. So, trying to avoid that pitfall, let’s get right to the gist of gaming the sequential art format to create tension and horror. Welcome to Fear in Comics Part 2: Gaming the Format

(Spoiler Alert for a bunch of comics and webtoons. Gore Alert. The comic samples used in this article are for academic purposes only. The author isn’t glorifying the acts carried out in the stories.)

Panel and Framing

The Super Long Panel/Margin

(Killing Stalking by Koogi)

Like we discussed in our previous article (Fear in Comics: An Introduction), when it comes to fear, our goal is to play with the audience’s expectations in horrific ways. We build them up, then we linger before we meet or subvert those very expectations we’ve worked so hard to create. It’s a pretty psychopathic process if you ask me, but it works. 

In the vertical scroll comic format, usually just called “webtoons” or “webcomics”, we’ve seen creators use extremely long panels to do just that – creating panels where each scroll gives us new information whilst creating new questions in our minds. As the audience, we dread the very journey to the end of the panel where we know some uncanny reveal awaits us. 

A simpler way of creating that feeling is to have your regular sized panels, but the margin between them becomes the tease (or torture). In Killing Stalking, our protagonist (if we can call him that) has just discovered his crush has a helpless girl gagged and tied up in his basement. Still in shock, we scroll through a very long black margin wondering what our protagonist would do, only for it to be revealed his psychotic crush was standing behind him with a baseball bat in hand. This gorgeous technique, though simple in the grand scheme of things, is very difficult (if possible) to pull off in prose, the classic comic book format, or in a movie. This was birthed by creators who have decided to game the sequential art format to create something truly gripping.

 

The Tight Panel

If you’ve watched the movie, Ex Machina (2014), you would notice how a simple narrative can become so thrilling when the storyteller has mastered the art of the control of information. Giving the audience just enough information to keep them wanting more or putting them in a state of unease can be a very powerful tool in creating tension. And in the visual department, the tight panels, are your best friends. 

(Silver Coin by Michael Walsh)

Usually, in comic books, to help your audience have a sense of space (and location) and so the art can shine in its storytelling, you give the art some room to breathe.

(Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples)

But when it’s time to scare your audience, you can take that privilege away from them. You can tighten the panels so, the audience loses the sense of space, direction, and location. They will also lose a sense of where other characters (or monsters) are or what they’re up to. Limit the amount of information they can get from a panel, and watch the unease and claustrophobia slip in. 

(Babyteeth by Donny Cates and Garry Brown)

Storytelling with Panel Layout

I love simple panel layouts. I find that following a story is usually easier with them, and arguably the most critically acclaimed comic book (Watchmen) has very simple panel layouts. 

(Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

But many find them boring and uninspired. They want stories with panels bleeding into each other without demarcations or creatively shaped and placed panels. Lately, I’ve discovered a lot of comic books do both – keeping simple layouts for mundane scenes and going crazy for the dramatic scenes. Why not play around with this expectation?

(Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

If you have established in your story that the panel layout stops being a grid every time the monster attacks, so why not retain a grid layout the next time your monster attacks so the audience doesn’t see it coming. You could also go the reverse route by using wild panel layouts to get the audience pumped full of adrenalin for an attack that’ll never happen… yet. 😊 

Don’t just think of panel layouts as tools to tell your story. They can be a part of your story.

The Page Turn

(Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)

The First Left Panel 

In our previous article (Fear in Comics: An Introduction), we’ve discussed how it can be difficult to shock (or surprise) your audience in comic books because, at the turn of a page, two pages worth of panels are available to you at a mere glance – story spoilers begging you to stare at them. Well, except for the first panel of the left page. That panel is always new (at the turn of the page) - making them perfect for revealing new and shocking information to the audience.

The Last Right Panel

With that logic, you would think the last panel of the right page got the short end of the stick. By the time the reader gets to it, it probably has little to hide. Well, not really. It’s hiding the next set of panels, which is usually another two pages worth of panels. For this reason, creators usually make them cliffhangers. Consider the above image. Two armed men show up at the door. We see they’ve killed two people. We are left to wonder what will happen to the lady who has opened the door for these dangerous men – a cliffhanger. We are forced to turn the page.

In the above image, the last panel to our right also works as our “bomb under the table”. It’s a ghastly image that warns us of the future. The fact that our eyes keep going to that panel, gives a different context to everything we read in the panels that come before it. Tension is immediately created. This tension is only created because we can see both the present and future at a glance in comics. What many see as a flaw becomes a strength in the hands of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez.

Get Creative

(My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris)

In conclusion, stay curious and keep experimenting. My Favorite Thing is Monsters was illustrated with ballpoint pens in a notebook. Maybe your comic could be illustrated on those classic journalist jotters where you can only view a page at a time. You could go the digital route where whenever something scary is about to happen in your story, the computer takes control of the scroll feature. 

Just have fun. Make mistakes. Learn. The format isn’t a prison. It’s just a torture toolkit, and your audience is the willing victim. 

Comic Recommendation: 

The Magazine: http://skelehime.com/the-magazine.html

Next Episode: 

Fear in Comics: Make Us Care About Your Characters 

 


Fear in Comics: An Introduction

Content warning: gore, blood, and body horror

 

I love comic books. I think it’s one of the most powerful storytelling mediums. Most of my favorite stories of all time (like Extremity, Watchmen, God Country, Secret Wars, Y the Last Man, etc.) were told in the pages of comic books, and some of my favorite authors/writers (Robert Kirkman, Brian K Vaughan, Joe Hill, Jonathan Hickman, etc.) are comic book writers. But I’ll have to admit it, compared to other storytelling mediums, getting a good scare is a rarity in comics. In comics, the consumption pace (speed at which you navigate through the story) is totally up to the reader, and there is no support for sound, so much so that pulling off jump-scares and a whole lot of techniques seen in horror movies are impossible.

(from Basketful of Heads by Joe Hill and Leomacs)

In prose – the other end of the spectrum, every page, every paragraph, every sentence, is a mystery until, well, you read it. But in a comic book page, panels are mere glances away from each other. There is hardly any mystery as to what will happen next. So, how do you then manage to shock and surprise your audience? How do you put eye-widening terror into them?

Either it’s for your next horror comic book project, or a comic book project in another genre that needs a couple of frightening scenes, you can try out some of these simple techniques to unleash fear.

(from New Men by Murewa Ayodele and Dotun Akande)

(Because we’ll be discussing how other creators pulled off fear in their comics, I suppose a SPOILER ALERT for a few comics is in order. Due to the subject matter, GORY IMAGERY ALERT too, I guess)

 

If You Can’t Shock Them, Put Pressure on Them

Without further inspection, we might think fear is only born from the unexpected and the uncertain. But that’s not necessarily true. There is a deeper type of terror that can only be achieved through unwavering certainty. Arguably the universal fear we all have to a degree is the fear of death. And what makes it so damn scary and lasting? Because we know for a concrete certainty that we will die. So, the fear is born from the how and the when of this certainty.

(from Haha #1 by W. Maxwell Prince and Venesa Del Rey)

In your comic project, why not tell us “how your story will end” right from the beginning and watch the pressure build as the audience can’t contain their expectation of that “ending”. And how soon can you give this “ending” away?

(from Something is Killing the Children by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera)

Yup. From the very title of the comic. 

When we choose our titles, we look for options that reflect the uniqueness of our plot, summarizes our theme, showcases our setting or character, etc. But we can get the audience working right from the title of our projects.

I am currently writing an episode for my action-adventure fantasy webtoons series, My Grandfather Was A God, titled Heroes Die Too. From the title reveal, I hope to put pressure on the audience as they wonder which of their beloved heroes will lose their lives. So, this technique is not only limited to horror comics or to opening sequences/scenes. You can mount pressure as early as from your cover page.

(Here is what the great Alfred Hitchcock has to say about the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPFsuc_M_3E)

Art & Book Design

A lot of the techniques we’ll be evaluating will require playing with the reader’s expectations. Your art and book design are powerful tools in your creative toolbox to this effect.

Let’s consider Jupiter’s Legacy. The art and book design for the comic book series is bright, colorful, and hopeful. So, when truly despicable acts by the characters start to unfold, they are very shocking, jarring, and most importantly, unexpected. 

(from Jupiter’s Legacy by Mark Millar and Frank Quitely)

Whereas in comics like Something is Killing the Children, the inks are scratchy, the colors are dull, black borders & margins are common, and there are a lot of blacks in general. From the very first panel, the reader understands this is not the book to read alone in the night.

(from Something is Killing the Children by James Tynion IV and Werther Dell’Edera)

There are lots of directions to take but the key is to be fully aware of the strengths your art choice brings to the story.

Make Us Care for Your Characters

Unlike motion pictures, the budget for a comic page is the same whether it’s just a couple of guys having a drink at the pub or Cthulhu going bunkers in a city made of glass. This creative freedom is one of the reasons comics are so powerful, but it’s also the reason comic book creators rush to deal great violence on their characters. I’m sorry but no matter how much of a character’s intestines you show us, if we don’t care about the character, we won’t care what happens to them.

The Boys is a series that’s often criticized for its excessive use of violence and gore, but the death of Robin, both in the comic series and the TV show, hits like a truck because in the little time we’ve spent with her, we had fallen head over heels for her.

(from The Boys by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson)

This may be true for all storytelling, but it is especially true in comics; making us care about the characters (and the stakes), in turn makes us scream when they enter the wrong room, cry when the door locks behind them, and remain completely motionless when a wide sinister grin shows up in the shadows. 

Game the Format

(from The Walking Dead Deluxe by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard)

For your floppy comic books and graphic novels, why not put the shocking imagery and/or big reveals on the left-side pages. This way, the reader can’t see them until the turn of the page – retaining your ability as the storyteller to create some mystery and surprise.

(from Unholy Blood by Lina Im and Jeonghyeon Kim)

You could also try telling your story as a vertical scroll webcomic. In this format, readers can be forced to view a single comic panel at a time – giving some control of information back to the creator.

So, research on print and digital formats that’s best for your story. The right story told well in the right format is sure to give readers the good kind of Stockholm’s syndrome 😊.

There is Strength is Subtlety

Let’s be honest. No number of unreadable words thrown across a comic panel could replace hearing the scream of a victim as a monster crunches down on their skull swelled by the incorporation of ominous music. Even the most talented of artists struggle to replicate simple cinematic experiences. Reading a comic book is not the same as a trip to the theatre, so why do comic creators try to replicate the same kind of horror? And when comic creators aren’t trying to replicate the same kind of horror as cinema, they try to overcompensate. Till today, I don’t understand why I was subjected to reading pages and pages of an old lady’s corpse being tossed in a washing machine from a horror anthology I read recently.

(from Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett)

And what are some of those subtle ways to instill fear?

Uncanny Valley

You can create unsettling imagery with your understanding of the uncanny valley.

(from Shingeki no Kyojin by Hajime Isayama)

Phobias

Experiment with real life phobias… bugs (although overused), mushrooms growing on people, darkness, drowning, etc. For example, I have the very real phobia of grouped holes called Trypophobia. If you create a monster that puts those weird patterns on people’s bodies, you’ll definitely scare and creep me out way more than intestines hanging over a flagpole. 

(from Basketful of Heads by Joe Hill and Leomacs)

Constant Feeling of Dread

Some critics say there is nothing scary about a slow-moving threat. They want the threat dangerous and fast, but I think there is more than one way to skin a man. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are slow but they are numerous and ever-present. If you’re in the toilet, they could be the ones knocking at the door and not Mr. Can’t-Hold-It-In-Anymore. You could jump into a pool and they could be the one’s that’ll catch you midair. Because of this, we the audience are never relaxed. We are always tensed because no place is safe. 

(from Gideon Falls by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino)

Your story doesn’t have to feature zombies, but why not create an inescapable threat that’s ever-present to get your audience tensed for many pages. Comics shine with stories like this.

In Conclusion

These aren’t all the tools available to you for introducing fear into your comic projects, rather, a scratch of the surface; one I hope can build up your confidence in your capacity to infuse different emotions into your comic projects – including FEAR.

Join me next time as we delve deeper into the intricacies of storytelling in horror comics. See you soon, but in the meantime… have fun making comics.

Enjoy horror comics? Why not try:

  1. Gideon Falls
  2. The Walking Dead
  3. Basketful of Heads
  4. Something is Killing the Children
  5. Hellstar Remina

Preparedness, the Archive, Your Bio and Blurb

The work of writing requires another kind of work  --- the work of preparing materials that support your presence as an author. It can be a drag or it may be a joy; sometimes it's both.

Most publications now request and require a couple of things that you should have at the ready: these are a bio and a head shot. Not having them at the ready can also affect your future publication and participation in a particular venue.

Every writer should have at hand a bio, short for biography. This biography can take many forms depending on where you are in your journey.  Most often requested in the third person, it includes your name, perhaps where you're from or where you currently live, perhaps your degrees, your awards, and your publications. I strongly suggest that you write a long one, maybe two pages, and then a one-page one, and then 100 word  and a 50-word one. The publication will specify the kind they want and the length of bio they want. More and more request them upon submitting. I've been asked for 50-word bios, 100-word bios, and, more rarely, 150-word bios. You must think of this well before the time of request or submittal, and have it at the ready because the moment that it is required is rarely a moment that you want to think of the cleverest and most authentic way to present yourself. I recommend that you review this annually and that you update it. Read it aloud, get a friend to vet it.

I also recommend that you keep a literary vita, a literary resume where you list every publication, including the name of the editors, the date of publication, and the website linked to it. This forms the basis for your bio recollection and having this data kept updated regularly is very useful, should you want to apply for nearly anything. I keep such a list and I came to find out that I've been published every year since 1974 except one. Isn't that a cute and compelling line? It doesn't survive every bio I write, but when there's more room it's a nice thing to mention. I’m able to say that and prove it because I've kept a list of my publications from 1974 to date. You should keep a list of your appearances if you do readings as they do accumulate and may be fodder for your bio or information for some other application.

Another thing that you have to have,  in this era of internet and online worlds is a headshot, in other words, a picture where your face is prominent and there's nothing else in the frame. This too may be requested, as any number of publications like to show who the authors are, as well as tell who the authors are. If you have it at the ready, it makes life so much easier for a presenter. I use the image of the reader in the promotions that I create for my reading series. I create several different flyers for each reader and release them at different times so it's helpful for me to have the headshot and the bio.

I have also needed bios for collections and anthologies that I've worked on. Readers want to know a bit about the authors, don't you? Every time I read a piece I like and look for a bit more about the author, it enhances my experience to make that connection. So know that you should be ready to provide that for your readers.

A timely response is as critical as having these tools–– that is, a commitment to timeliness in answering professional emails. From the editor/presenter's perspective, nothing is more irksome than chasing down authors for their information.  If you get a lot of emails, consider getting an email account dedicated to your writing so you can see immediately when a publication/venue is trying to get in touch.

I’ve had writers miss pay days because I needed their information or a grant. They didn’t get back to me for weeks and so missed the funding. These are people I never want to work with again, because while it was their loss, it was also an expenditure of my energy and concern. Sometimes days are too long when everyone else answers in hours, the person that took 3 days is out. When a bunch of people answer immediately and one doesn’t – there’s a message there.

Your goal as a writer or creator should be to routinize and make the administrivia as seamless, automatic and pain free as possible. Routinize recording your publications and appearances, keep a head shot handy and organize your email.


Non-Fiction Writers: The Unsung Heroes of the Industry

For some reason or another, non-fiction’s never gotten its due. When we debate who belongs in the pantheon of great writers, rarely will the likes of Maya Angelou, James Boswell, or Ralph Waldo Emerson be brought up. If they happen to be, they’ll likely be relegated to their own category away from the ‘real’ writers that we should be talking about. As is usually the case in publishing, speculative writers have it even worse, with only the nonfiction written by noted spec-fic writers receiving any significant attention (barring a few exceptions here and there). Those who channel their energies exclusively into short nonfiction seem to be left out of the conversation entirely, their work being treated more like a flavor of the day conversation piece than a genuine literary accomplishment. Which is a damn shame because, for years, short nonfiction writers have toiled away at quality work for measly sums and little-to-no recognition even though they are as integral to the speculative genre as any of the major fiction writers.

We mustn't forget that short nonfiction is the primary outlet for us writers and readers to air out our grievances with the SFF market and, more importantly, to propose ideas on how to change things for the better. Short nonfiction also informs us on what to (and what not to) do when it comes to both our writing and careers, offering us invaluable advice that we’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

We are as influenced by short non-fiction as we are by the classics and what’s popular in the market right now, but that influence never translates into anything substantial for short nonfiction writers. As it stands, their work is never recognized in any significant way, their writing is rarely, if ever, collected, and more often than not, pro magazines don’t even pay them pro rates. There are very few outlets that even bother to publish speculative nonfiction, and writers who place their works in academic journals are bound to go both unpaid and unread.

If we want to move this industry forward, we have to do something about this. We can no longer allow the unsung heroes of speculative fiction to be taken advantage of like this. They deserve better, and I don’t think anyone reading believes otherwise.

So how do we remedy this?

For starters, their pay needs to be bumped. It might be tough right now to allow to them make a living off it, but at the very least it should be worth their time. If that’s not feasible, and I doubt it isn’t, they should at least be recognized for their work in this field in a way that would further their careers and up their pay. That’s why the major spec-fic awards need to begin recognizing short non-fiction writers. Having some of these awards on your resume is a career boost that few other accomplishments in this field could ever hope to match. Even if someone doesn’t pay heed to awards, it’s hard to argue that some of these awards won’t open doors that would otherwise be closed for these writers based on their work in this niche. And even if they don’t, we should still do it because short non-fiction writers deserve to be recognized just like anybody else.

Now, the industry isn’t entirely to blame for this. They merely cater to what we readers are willing to pay for, and the noticeable dearth in essay and article collections is mainly on us. Even writers who are having their fiction published will have a hard time trying to sell their nonfiction because they’re not big enough names to warrant it. We’ve also developed a nasty habit of shirking at the thought of paying for what we read from magazines or new sites. Many thought a sustainable model could exist with ad revenues, but as these revenues trend downward, publications are having to rely on donations more and more to sustain themselves. If it works, that’s great, but the way the market currently operates has it prioritizing fiction writers' pay with non-fiction being treated as an afterthought that could be included if the budget permits it. Plenty of short non-fiction writers are even expected to work for free, and those that aren’t have better-paying options elsewhere.

After all, writing quality nonfiction is hard work. It takes a certain skill set and talent that’ll allow you to excel in other fields where your efforts would be more appreciated. The only reason anyone even bothers to write these short non-fiction pieces is because they’re passionate about what they have to say and want to change things for the better with it.

We shouldn’t make them pay the price for that.