Devourer of Words 058: Someone Else’s Toys

Toucan reading a comic

There are a couple of ways to make your living writing comics (or TV, or movies, or novels). You can chart a completely new path and make up something brand new, never-before-seen. Or you can tell a story in a world using characters that are pre-existing. If you have to boil it down to their catchiest labels: creator-owned or work for hire.

Creator owned should be, if you’re reading this column, something you’re fairly familiar with. You have an original idea, you pitch it to a company who agrees to publish it, and you keep a percentage of the rights to the work. Work for hire, on the other hand, usually consists of taking a property that already exists—a character, a franchise, a universe—and offer a new story using elements that, for the most part, already exist.

(There are, of course, exceptions: You can create new characters to place in a company-owned title—i.e., a new baddie for Batman to punch in the face. Also, it’s possible to pitch an entirely fresh creation to a company that makes it clear that they are going to take ALL the rights in exchange for publication. Which is precisely what happened to Adam Freeman and I when we pitched The Highwaymen to DC. Those were the conditions and we accepted them. No one was taken advantage of, per se. We knew exactly what we were getting into.)

Now, for this column, we’re going to set aside creator-owned ideas and talk about work for hire. This past week, I was asked if I had a “take” on a franchise. Which basically means, “Hey, if we let you tell a story in this arena, what story would you tell?” (I can’t say which arena at the moment. When I can talk about it will depend on whether or not I get the gig. If I don’t, I can talk about it as soon as they kick me to the curb. If I do, I won’t be able to talk about it for years.)

Should this kind of opportunity come your way, here are some things to keep in mind:

Do You Even Like the Property?

You might consider yourself the kind of writer who believes she or he can write anything. And that could very well be true. But enthusiasm counts for more than you might care to admit. We can fake it—we’ve all learned how, by now, but enthusiasm will be what pushes you past “pretty good” into “outstanding.” When faced with two equally talented and experienced writers, I believe an editor (or producer or studio executive) will choose the one who loves the material the most. What’s more, enthusiasm will armor you against the litany of notes you’ll get during the process. “Yeah, I know these changes are kinda asinine, but it’s GODZILLA, MAN! You’ve wanted to write Godzilla since you were eight!”

(Note: I’m not pitching on Godzilla.)

Do You Have Something to Say?

It’s not enough to deliver the same kind of story they’ve already done. Sure, there’s a place for a Star Wars story that simply feels like a Star Wars story. But you have to realize that they probably already have people who can do that. The whole reason why they’re opening the gates to a fresh person with a fresh voice is because they’re going to bring something new and different to the table. What can you say with a Star Wars story that hasn’t been said before? It doesn’t necessarily have to be politically, though it can be. But it needs to use the toys in the sandbox in a way they haven’t seen before.

(Nor am I pitching on Star Wars.)

Be Willing to Say No

We are hard-wired to chase opportunities, like dogs and passing cars. If someone asks you, “Hey, man … do you think you’ve got a Harry Potter story in you?” if you are anything like every writer I’ve ever met, you’ll say, “Yeah, I got something.” Even if you don’t. There is nothing wrong with giving it a few minutes, or even a day of introspection, and coming back with, “Thanks; I’m very flattered that you asked, but I’m afraid I don’t have anything phenomenal.” Not only will they understand, but they’ll appreciate the honesty. Because if you lie, they’ll go down the road a ways with you, listening to pitches, trying to get to the nougaty center of them, only to eventually come to the place where you should’ve started—no, you don’t have a Harry Potter story in you—having wasted days if not weeks getting there. There is no shame in no.

(Yeah, like anyone but J.K. Rowling’s gonna get to write Harry Potter anymore. Please.)

Shakespeare said it best: Check thyself, lest ye wreck thyself.

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

Written by