Devourer of Words 060: The Choice

Toucan reading a comic

It’s the beginning of a new year and if you’re anything like me, you: A) Wonder how you made it through the previous year and B) What you’re going to try and get done this time around the sun. But deciding what you’ll put on the to-do list can be rough. The Paralysis of Choice.

There are a lot of questions I ask myself when trying to figure out what’s next:

Something old or something new?

If you’ve been at this for a while, regardless of the medium, you’ve got ideas you’ve never done anything with. Maybe they’re fully written, maybe they’re in various stages of completion, maybe it’s just a scribble on a piece of paper somewhere. As a writer friend used to tell me all the time, “use every part of the buffalo.” There’s probably something of value in every old pitch or script—and you’re a different writer now than you were then. Maybe you’re smart enough to make it work.

But looking backwards too much can be a trap. You are a different writer now than you were then—and the future is forwards. You need to keep stretching to find the work that only you can do. Finding a balance between the old and the new is tricky, but crucial. Which one is a better use of your time? There’s no easy answer to that one.

For yourself or for someone else?

Depending on who you are and where you are in your career, this might not be a choice. If you’ve never been published before, your first work is likely going to be for yourself: A piece that you’re doing to help prove that you can actually write comics. Or maybe you don’t have the kind of connections that’ll make work-for-hire possible. You might be the kind of person who has only dreamed of writing Spider-Man or Wonder Woman or Hellboy. And those are valid dreams to have.

All things being equal, let’s assume you’re in a place where you can write a pitch for something creator-owned or something company-owned, the real question is, can you afford to bet on yourself? Because if a creator-owned book gets greenlit, there’s no guarantee that it’ll get done on time, that it’ll get done at all or, even if it does hit stands, that it’ll make any money. A corporate assignment will do all of those things: You’ll get paid your page rate and it’ll hit stands (unless the company folds or you get fired, but whatever). You’ll be writing a childhood hero—or someone’s childhood hero.

But it won’t be yours, soup to nuts. And it probably won’t buy you a house. Not that money is everything, but the only people who get rich in publishing are publishers. There comes a time, in every game, when you realize that being a player is fine—sometimes, it’s even great—but it’s not quite like being an owner. Especially one who still gets to play.

Something big or something small?

Is it time to dig into that magnum opus, that giant project you’ve been wanting to tackle for as long as you can remember? Or are you in a set-em-up-and-knock-em-down kind of mood? There is absolutely something to be said for the joy of completion. The screenwriter John Rogers turned me on to this saying: “Done is the engine of more.” Finishing leads to starting. The more often you can wrap something up, the bigger a pile of completed work you’ll have. And it’ll be a variety of things—like rotating crops, your mind can benefit from having broadened its horizons. Even further, unfinished work does no one any good.

But sometimes, you just want to drill down and work on a singular piece. A slab of culture. There is something incredibly attractive about getting lost in a world and finding the story lost within it. It’s an act of exploration, and discovering a new shore can be exhilarating.

Maybe all of these won’t be either/or choices: If you’re prolific, you can check all of these boxes in a year. And none of these questions have wrong answers. Just do what’s right for you … or write for you.

I do love a good pun.

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

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