Shelf Life: Finding the Balance in Writing and in Life

Thu, October 3rd, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

Finding the Balance in Writing and in Life

Conventions and signings are valuable aspects of a career in comics, but they can become distractions from doing the necessary work.

I participated in a writers panel this past weekend at the Granite State Comicon in Manchester, New Hampshire. Or, more correctly, I participated in half a writers panel, since I couldn't get away from my table in time to make it at the start. Christos Gage, Mike Raicht, Erik Burnham and I talked about the usual topics, but as most writers panels do, a lot of it boiled down to advice for aspiring writers about honing their craft and breaking in to the business.

The following day, I received a polite e-mail (via my website's contact button) from someone who missed the panel, but wanted to know what was said. I sent him links to a few previous Shelf Life columns on writing craft, and wished him well. But there's more to pursuing, and more importantly, sustaining a writing career than the nuts and bolts of panel breakdowns and balloon placements.

There's no specific formula, of course. Everyone comes to writing -- comics, novels, anything -- in their own fashion for their own reasons. But there are common traits.

Obviously talent is at the top of the list. You can learn to write, you can get better by practice and study, but there has to be some spark in the first place. (And yes, spelling counts.) Talent is hard to define and harder to quantify. But we all know it when we encounter it.

Yet one of the writers I most admire, Stephen King, has said, "Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

Meaning: tenacity. All the talent in the world is useless if you don't pursue your goal with single-minded fervor. You will face failure, you will absorb rejection, you will encounter dark midnights of self-doubt. It's how you pick yourself up and continue forward that will determine whether or not you have a career.

But even talent and tenacity aren't enough. You also need a certain amount of luck, of being in the right place at the right time, of bumping into the right person. Writing in general and comics in specific is not completely a matter of "who you know"... but it doesn't hurt. Yes, you make your own luck by being tenacious, but sometimes things just happen.

If fortune happens to put you in the right place at the right time, you still need have the social skills to make something of it. Like most other jobs, this is a business of networking, of building relationships. You need to be more than a name in an e-mail. Being awkward or timid or difficult will set back your career just as surely as talent, tenacity and luck will advance it.

Ron walks the back roads near his house almost every day, pondering future stories.

But more than you need any of these traits individually, you need balance. You need a mixture of all of the above. In comics, there's the "two out of three" rule. You need to be at least two of these three things: really good, really fast, or really easy to get along with. If you're all three, you're golden. If you're two out of three, you have a chance at a career. If you're only one out of three, you can drive a UPS truck.

Then, if all the alchemy works out and you find yourself with a writing career, you need balance to keep it, and your sanity.

You have to balance your work and your life. I've had a lot of people tell me they'd love to work at home. And I have to admit, it's a great boon. My schedule is my own, as long as I turn in the work when it's needed. I can go to matinee when I feel like it, I can sit on the couch in my office and read comics, I can take a day off whenever I want to. But I hardly ever do any of those things.

I know some writers who can treat their freelance gig like a regular job, working 9 to 5 every day, a half hour for lunch, weekends off. Most don't. I can't. What I do doesn't turn on and off like a faucet. When you work at home, you're always at work. When you're your own boss, you generally work for a slave-driver. Time is always a freelancer's enemy. There are always equilibriums to be struck.

You have to balance the work in front of you now with pursuing the next work. If you concentrate too much on the present work, you find yourself without something to do next. If you concentrate too much on tracking down new assignments, rather than what's due now, your work dries up because you didn't hand it in when you were supposed to.

You have to balance the work and being a presence in the media, social or otherwise. More than ever before, you need to promote your own work via whatever flavor you prefer: your own site, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook. There are interviews to be done, blog updates to be written. Shelf Life appears every two weeks, rather than weekly, because I need to balance writing these columns with writing comics.

You have to let the audience know what you're doing. I recently did a Spreecast event with sports reporter/broadcaster and comics fan Seth Everett, touching on both comics and sports. The plan is to turn it into a regular thing. Next Wednesday, Oct. 9, at 2 p.m. I'm doing an hour on WAMC, the local NPR station, talking about comics and pop culture (it's a call-in show, so... call in).

But while all that's happening, the work still needs to be produced. Certainly there are creators who spend as much time creating an internet persona as they do creating the work. Sometimes more time. The end result is usually an empty suit.

You have to balance the work and conventions and signing appearances. The convention business is booming. There's a convention somewhere every weekend, and on most weekends, two or three decent-sized conventions. There are opportunities to set up at shows and interact with existing readers and reach out to new ones. I'll be at New York Comic Con for a few days next week, Cleveland Comic Con on Oct. 19, and North Carolina Comicon on Nov. 9 and 10. I'm already committed to four shows for next year.

The balance between work and family includes time devoted to coaching a Little League team.

Cons and signings are an integral aspect of comics, especially if you're trying to gain traction for a creator-owned venture. It's the best way to introduce something new to the audience. I started out last weekend's show in New Hampshire with a stack of "Ravine" Volume 1 TPBs by me and Stjepan Sejic. I came home with one copy. Hopefully all those people who picked up Volume 1 will be back for next month's Volume 2.

Cons allow you to reach out to fans, interact with your peers and make connections. "Social skills," remember? But again, too much time away from the desk means too little work getting accomplished.

You have to balance the paying work with the freebies and favors. Creator-owned work is the most creatively satisfying, but most often comes with little or no up-front money. Everyone's situation is different, but everyone has to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. That usually means balancing creator-owned work and work-for-hire gigs.

There are also "side jobs" that crop up: short stories that seem like a good idea when you agree to do them, stories for charity collections, favors for friends, introductions, forewords. It all takes a bite out of the schedule.

You have to balance the work and down time. I try to take a walk or a bike ride every day, to maintain some kind of fitness. More often than not, it's a walk, because that's my thinking time. I've mentioned before that we live near a lake, and every day that I can, I walk the 2.5-mile loop around the lake. Most weeks, I walk at least 15 miles. I never feel more like a writer than when I'm simply walking and thinking.

Any creative mind needs grist for the mill: movies, television, novels, comics. There's never enough time to get to it all. I never got to see "Iron Man 3" or "Pacific Rim" or "The Wolverine" in theaters this summer. I even missed them at the local second-run theater, because there was always a reason to be at my desk. Most nights, squeezing in an hour of television is an accomplishment. But experience has taught me that I have to make time for those things. What can seem like a distraction is a necessity, planting the seeds of inspiration.

In the near future, my nose will be buried in Stephen King's "Doctor Sleep," meaning my comic reading will fall by the wayside, except for the stack of reference issues I have to read for a couple of 2014 projects. The half-dozen "Thor" Marvel Masterworks I brought home from New Hampshire will have to wait a while, and so will "The Art of Howard Chaykin" book Dynamite sent me.

Maybe the hardest balancing act is that between work and family. It's the great push-pull of any job, really. A large part of why you do the job is to provide for your family. Yet the job is what keeps you from spending more time with your family. There's a video of late, great artist Gene Colan on the "Daredevil" DVD extras (and YouTube) in which he poignantly and regretfully talks about missing out on family life because he was always at the drawing board. As he said, "You're married to your art."

Taking time to read Stephen King's new "Doctor Sleep" means the "Thor" Masterworks will have to wait.

You have to make the conscious decision to walk away from your art or writing in this business. It can be too alluring, too all-consuming. I coach my son's Little League team, but I know that means coming home after games and practices, and working late nights. Even then, it's not always enough. This past summer, my son played all-star baseball as well as soccer. The night I chose to miss one of his soccer games because of looming deadlines, he scored five goals.

I've missed swim meets and school concerts, had to cancel dinner dates with my wife, thanks to the necessity of work. Part of this column was written in the car on the my way to my daughter's cross country meet.

Being a writer means being a juggler. I've been doing this job for more than 20 years, and I still struggle with balancing it all. But I think I'm getting better at it. So will you.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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