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Devourer of Words 016: Revisionary Thinking

Marc Bernardin

It is going to happen and it is going to happen often. Fighting it won’t make it go away, it will only make things worse, especially if you’re doing work-for-hire comics.

You will get notes on a script from your editor. How you deal with those notes will define much of your career—especially the length of it. Because you’re a freelancer and every freelancer is at least one of four things to an employer: good, fast, easy or cheap. One of them will get you work. Two of them will help you keep it. Three of them will put you in demand. And if you’re all four, you get voted King of the Comic Book Mountain, are carried high on editorial’s shoulders, and are gifted with the finest baubles and sauces money can buy.

The key when doing revisions is to find the spirit of the note. What was the thing that caused them to try and rewrite you? Few editors—even would-be writers—will change something simply for the sake of changing it. So try and understand why.

The kind of notes you’ll get are, by and large, determined by the kind of editor you have. Some editors are smart people, who want your story to be as good as humanly possible. They will give you well thought-out notes, which will either be easy to make, because they are clear in what they’re looking for, or hard, because they’ll make you look at the work in a way you hadn’t thought of before. And sometimes, those clear eyes are the most important.

Some editors are frustrated writers. They can be well meaning, but the notes they’ll give you are suggestions for how they would tell your story. These are tricky to deal with, as they are also the people you need to make happy to move on to the next phase of production. And there’s no going over their heads—that will simply get you branded as “trouble” and you’ll have “easy” crossed off on your freelancer scorecard. But at least they’re giving you notes because they’re invested in the story. You’ll probably be able to find a solution that makes you both happy.

And some editors are just warm bodies along the assembly line. If you’re lucky, you won’t encounter too many of these because they’re impossible to get a read on. Are the notes coming from them or from on high? Are they to help make your story better, or to satisfy the whims of someone else, or to adhere to some corporate stratagem? In this case, there’s no real spirit of the note, because you’re so far removed from its source, and it’s so arbitrary a thing they’re asking for. In this case, you’re in job preservation mode. If you can make the revision and look at yourself in the mirror—and if you need the job—do it. If you can’t, make a stand and fight for what you think is right—but know you might be burning a bridge in the process.

If you’re doing a creator-owned book, and you bring an editor on, you’ve likely done so because you value their judgment. And because it’s yours, you can take or leave whatever feedback they have at your own discretion.

But if you’re doing work-for-hire books, telling stories with company-owned characters, you have to remember that you are playing with their toys and, as such, they have a right to tell you what you can and cannot do with them.

You also have a right to put down their toys and walk away. You can decide, for yourself, when playtime is over.

Marc Bernardin’s Devourer of Words appears the third Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!