Devourer of Words 053: Building a Wall

Toucan reading a comic

There comes a time in the life of every project when it’s no longer is solely in  your hands. Unless you’re a cartoonist making webcomics that you’re hosting yourself—and if that’s the case, then, power to you—you will have to invite other people into the tent to help you bring the story to life.

And there is something magical and wonderful about that, when every member of the team is on the same page, literally and figuratively. Everyone is bringing their strengths to the table, and helping to minimize other people’s weaknesses. Collaboration and partnership can be a wonderful thing. I’ve done most of my comics work with a writing partner and my entire television career has been spent in a writers room; a dozen people all telling the same story. Sometimes, compromise is the tool that will let you push forward into glory.

But there are also times when you invite others into the tent that you can sense something … dissipating from the work. Maybe it stopped feeling special. Perhaps you’re a little less excited. Some of that comes with time spent, sure, but sometimes it’s because something’s rotten in Collaboration Denmark. It can happen with artists, colorists, editors, publishers or Hollywood—anywhere and everywhere along the line is susceptible.

But there are three things you can do to help prevent this kind of mission creep.

1) Know the heart of your story.

Decide, for yourself, what the immutable core of your story is. What is the thing that makes it special? What made you want to tell this story in the first place? Sometimes, that’s a character, other times it’s a theme, it can even be a scene or a sequence—but what is the why?

2) Build a wall around it.

You have to protect the thing that makes the story special above all else. You will have differences of agreement with your collaborators on elements of the work. That’s natural: If you all saw the project the same exact way, they wouldn’t be able to bring anything new to it. You’re hoping they surprise you in some fashion — that’s the joy of collaboration.

But at the same time, you have to circle your wagons around the heart. If the reason why you’re telling the story gets diluted, then you won’t be able to write it as effectively because you won’t believe in it as deeply. You should protect it above all else.

3) Understand the power of “no.”

It’s the nuclear option, for sure, but if the idea started with you, and the people around you are insistent on changing it to the point where the heart of the story is gone, then say no and walk away. You have that power. If money has changed hands, if papers have been signed, you can still say no—since I’m sure you had a lawyer vet whatever papers you signed, that same lawyer can get you out of almost any contract, provided you return whatever compensation you received.

I’ve had film and TV producers come to me, interested in optioning or buying outright a comic I’ve written or co-written. I’ve listened to their “take” on the material. And I’ve said no more often than I’ve said yes, because they wanted to change the whole reason why people responded to the book in the first place. If I said yes, and took the money, then you forfeit the right to complain.

No is hard, when there’s rent to be paid and a family to be fed. But it’s always there for you, if things in the collaboration shift from good to bad, or bad to worse.

Go into every partnership or collaboration with the best of intentions, but with your eyes open — and the heart of the story close to your chest.

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

Written by