Writing advice writing comics

My Future Shock Hell: Breaking into Comics (And What I Learned By Doing It)

By Alec Worley
Jul 24, 2020 · 4,381 words · 16 minutes

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Art by Brett Ewins.  

From the author: Here's a popular blog I wrote (some years ago now) about how I started writing for 2000 AD by pitching Future Shocks scripts. Here I cover everything from submission tactics to coping with rejection and why there’s really no such thing as ‘breaking in’


This blog positions me as some kind of veteran - albeit of a teeny-tiny patch of comicdom - so I'd better show off a couple of medals before I start dishing out advice. I’ve had two original series published in 2000 AD, that’s Age Of The Wolf and Dandridge. I’ve also written Tales From The Black Museum, Robo-Hunter, and Judge Dredd. So there.

But before I got to write all that, I ‘broke in’ by submitting Tharg’s Future Shocks (read on to find out why I just dropped the inverted-comma bomb). What the heck is a Future Shock? Well, according to the 2000 AD submission guidelines they’re “self-contained, four-page science-fiction short stories with a twist ending”. These things appear several times a year in 2000 AD and there are several genre variants that employ the same format. These include horror stories called Terror Tales, time-travel stories called Time Twisters and alternate-history stories called Past Imperfect. But do bear in mind, if you’re submitting, that Tharg is asking for Future Shocks!
 
Now, 2000 AD has an open-door submissions policy, which means anyone can take a crack at writing a Future Shock and have a fair shot at getting it published. As such, this is the route through which the majority of new writers come to 2000 AD. This was how Simon Spurrier and Al Ewing arrived, both of whom now write for Marvel. Arthur Wyatt, writer of the bestselling Dredd movie sequel comic Underbelly, also fought his way through the slush pile, as did, most recently, writer and artist David Baillie (whose excellent blog contains a wealth of behind-the-magic info) and novelist T.C. Eglington (author of popular children’s books The Spellbound Hotel and its sequel The Stolen City).

Having gone through this apprenticeship myself, from submitting my first Future Shock to graduating to my first series, I’ve learned a great deal. But before I go into any of that, first let me tell you what I’m not going to tell you.

I’m not going to tell you how to get your Future Shock submission accepted. Why? Because I don't know. I’m not the editor; I’m the freelancer. I’m the guy on the outside looking in and as such have no idea what the editor does or doesn’t do, what processes he may or may not go through, what he may favour or can't stand. (Here’s a good time for me to add a little disclaimer along the lines of ‘all opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent those of Rebellion, yadda, yadda, yadda…’)

All I can tell you is what worked for me; and the truth is all anyone can tell you is what worked for them. Telling people how to break into comics (and Craig Mazin of the wonderful Scriptnotes podcast said exactly this of screenwriting in the US) is like telling them how to lose their virginity. I can tell you how I lost mine (and I usually will after six pints of Stella), but that’s it. Everyone’s circumstances are different. It’s therefore pretty much impossible to dish out one-size-fits-all advice.

However, one thing we can all agree on is that Future Shocks are super-hard to write well. And here’s four reasons why:

1.) You’re trying to surprise the reader with a final-page twist that they know is coming the second they see the words ‘Future Shocks’ on the contents page. Regular readers know these things contain twists and will have rounded up a list of possible punchlines by the time they've reached the bottom of the first page. 'I'll bet it was Earth all along, or the main character's really a ghost, or he's the killer he's been searching for all along, or maybe...'

2.) You’ve got only four pages in which to build a sense of character or consequence, so the reader actually cares about what you’re writing.

3.) It’s hard to avoid what’s been done before. Never mind what Future Shocks have been coming up with since they first appeared in 2000 AD in 1977, short-form sting-in-the-tail sci-fi stories have been doing their thing since at least the 1890s, when H.G. Wells was writing War Of The Worlds. Over a century later, even the most seemingly original ideas have likely been done to death already. (It’s interesting how at least two recent Future Shocks reflected this sense of a creative bottleneck by offering very postmodern spins on the Future Shock story: Simon Spurrier and Jon Davis-Hunt’s Hacked (Prog 1754, Oct 2011) and David Baillie and Graeme Neil Reid’s Time Is The Only Enemy (Prog 1837, June 2013). The first was a witty deconstruction of classic Future Shock tropes, while the second featured a Future Shock writer who essentially found himself in the middle of one of his own stories.)

4.) Competition is fierce. I asked Tharg himself, 2000 AD’s almighty alien editor, how many Future Shock submissions does the Nerve Centre receive? I was told approximately two a day. That’s 10 a week, around 40 a month and almost 500 a year. And how many Future Shocks actually got published in 2013? Seven.
 
What’s your best chance of getting a script accepted amid that scrum? Like I said, I don’t know, but here’s what happened with me. I started submitting in January 2007. At the time I’d had a lot of film journalism published, but had no creative credits. I’d written plenty of short stories and wotnot but had nothing published outside the small press. Once I had decided to target 2000 AD, I submitted relentlessly and got rejected half as much again. So the first thing I learned about writing Future Shocks was…

WRITE PLENTY OF SCRIPTS!

Submitting Future Shocks is a war of attrition in which scripts are your ammunition. We’re talking World War Z tactics here, whereby you get over the wall by clambering up a pile of rejected scripts, each one better than the last. Now here’s the next thing I learned…

REJECTION IS A CERTAINTY!

After getting hit by several of these horrible little form letters, you’re going to feel as though you’re feeding all your hard work into a shredder. I coped by telling myself…

WRITE LIKE YOU’VE ALREADY BEEN REJECTED!

Here’s some good news: All you need to care about is writing your script. You can’t control what happens once you’ve posted it. You can’t control whether it gets accepted or rejected. You can’t control what artist might work on it. You can’t control whether the readers will love it, hate it or dismiss it as ‘filler’. Hell, you can’t even guarantee Royal Mail can get your submission as far as Oxford! So don’t distract yourself by worrying about the possibilities. Focus on the script you’re writing. Don’t worry about failing or succeeding. Keep a clear head. This allows you to bring all your experience and ability to bear, and this will help you write as well as you possibly can.

While attempting to maintain this Zen-state (not always successfully), I knuckled down until I had a stack of scripts on file; around six or seven. So, as soon as that rejection arrived I could fire off a replacement straight away. Of course, if the editor had included any feedback with that rejection (e.g. ‘too many panels per page’, ‘you need to dramatize the story rather than just narrate it’) then I’d review the script I was about to send out, just to make sure I wasn’t making that same mistake twice.

IMPLEMENT ANY EDITORIAL FEEDBACK!

This went on for about three years, in between other writing jobs, including film journalism and subediting, until I got to a stage where Tharg let me pitch ideas instead of having to write the entire script. By now I’d been regularly writing film and comic-related reviews, articles and interviews for the Judge Dredd Megazine. It's perhaps safe to assume that the fact my copy always met the brief, the word count, and the deadline, went some way towards convincing Tharg that I was a safe pair of hands.

Soon after, I ventured an idea for my first series (Age Of The Wolf), which got accepted, after which I was ‘in’, although ‘in’ means whatever you want it to mean. No one gives you a certificate. Tharg doesn’t invite you to the Nerve Centre and say ‘I dub thee a script-droid’ (and if he did he’d probably only anoint you with a clip round the ear and threats of further violence unless you returned to your cubicle straight away).

Having gone through all that (the submitting Future Shocks not the Betelgeusian beatdown), I can probably distil everything I’ve learned about submitting Future Shocks into two broad categories of wisdom…

1.) ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE DOING THIS

2.) GET IN BY GETTING GOOD.

Let me break these two down, starting with the first one.

Having spoken to many writers over the years, I reckon there’s three types of people who submit Future Shocks: fans, aspiring professionals and established professionals. The fans aren’t in it for long haul; they’re just taking a punt on a cool idea, which is still a perfectly valid reason for submitting. These guys and girls are in the game on a casual basis. The aspiring pros, however, are in it to win it. They want to write comics professionally one day. The established professionals
are already making a living out of writing and for them this is just another outlet. These folks may be seasoned journalists, or fiction writers with several novels under their belt.

In terms of who stands the best chance of writing the sort of script most likely to get accepted, the established professionals probably have the edge, if only because they can write well enough to get paid to do it. The aspiring professionals probably have the advantage over the fans because they’re more likely to have studied the techniques that make a good script. Notice my emphasis here not on getting accepted, but on writing a good script. Because the surest route towards acceptance is to…

WRITE A GOOD SCRIPT!

I’m reminded here of an anecdote I once heard about an agent who telephones a publisher and says, ‘My client’s written a 10,000-word novel. Would you be interested in publishing it?’ To which the publisher replies, ‘Depends which words and in which order.’

To write a good script you’ll need to know how to build up an idea, how to tell a story visually, and understand drama, character and plot (and how those last three are all the same thing). So the advice to the underdogs out there has to be…

THINK LIKE A PRO EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT!

Don’t think like an amateur. Think like the writer you want to become. Get good at what you’re doing.

When I first started submitting I guess I was somewhere between aspiring and established (lots of work in niche publications and not much else, but I’d been around the block enough times to know what I was doing). When I started writing comics, I made all the usual rookie mistakes, which Tharg got me to wring out of the accepted scripts before they went to the artists. But once I’d made that first couple of sales and emerged blinking into the wonderful world of professional comics writing, I started to realise that a lot of the terminology I was used to hearing when I was still a Future Shock virgin didn’t really reflect the truth, certainly not as I was experiencing it.

For starters, ‘breaking in’, as I discovered, is really more like ‘seeping in’, like mould. I recall Simon Spurrier saying something to this effect elsewhere, but ‘breaking in’ implies there’s this one barrier, this single door that you have to get through, on the other side of which is this wonderful Wonkaland of comics in which you’ll never be rejected again, in which editors will queue up to give you work, and you’ll get paid to write whatever you want. That dream may come true way, way, waaaay down the line. If you’re super-lucky.

For now, the reality of submitting Future Shocks is this: You will exhaust yourself breaking down that door, getting that first script accepted, and once you’re through, guess what you’ll find on the other side…? Another door. And behind that, another door, and so on and so on. And each of those doors will be as hard to get through as the last. Submitting never gets any easier, even after you’ve scored a few sales, even when you get better at it. It’s like a video game where your character levels up, but the monsters just get stronger, and so the challenge remains the same.

So words like ‘breaking in’ don’t reflect the truth and yet do determine your view of the business you’re trying to get in to. So…

BEWARE ASSUMPTIONS!

Another term that can be deceptive: ‘comic writer’. If you want to become a professional comics writer you need to know what that means in reality and not what you think it means based on what you’ve read in interviews and other such promotions. I always used to assume, even when I had plenty of professional experience, that if someone was referred to as a ‘comic writer’ then they spent 100% of their time writing comics, when, of course, that’s very often not the case.

For many freelance writers, writing comics is just one gig among several. Chances are they’ll be toiling through two or more deeply unsexy writing gigs that they won’t want to mention during that interview with SFX magazine. They may be making the majority of their income proofreading recipe books or writing marketing copy for a high-street bank (I’ve done both). Lucky is the writer who can straight away launch a freelance career based on a creative niche like comics, which is why you need to be aware of the bigger picture at all times.

FUTURE SHOCKS ARE NOT THE BE-ALL AND END-ALL!

If you’re submitting Future Shocks with an eye on becoming a professional comics writer (that is, a freelance writer who works in comics), then submitting Future Shocks should be thought of as one fishing rod among many. Write other things for other outlets and see what bites. Do you know an artist? Have a firm idea about how you can self-publish something that will actually reach an audience? Then go for it.

Over the years, I’ve met a heartbreaking amount of people who’ve become fixated on writing or drawing for 2000 AD above all else, who’ve built the idea up in their head until it means more to them than is healthy.

ASK YOURSELF WHY YOU’RE DOING THIS!

The answer to that question shouldn’t be because you have to, because you’ll be a failure if you don’t, because getting a script accepted will validate who are. Stephen Pressfield’s awesome little book The War Of Art rightly warns of the dangers of staking your self-worth, your identity, your reason-for-being, on the response of others to your work.

Why was I doing it? Because I was a freelance writer who wanted to work for a paying creative outlet. I didn’t let it mean any more to me than that. Of course, emotionally it means way more to me than that. My inner fanboy is constantly bouncing up and down squealing ‘I write for 2000 AD! Woo-Hoo!’ But I keep him locked away when he needs to be and never let him get in the way of the work. Now, lesson two…

GET IN BY GETTING GOOD!

This came from an interview I read with former 2000 AD editor Andy Diggle, from Comic Heroes magazine. He said, "Everyone always asks how to break into the industry, but they never ask how to become a better writer. That's the answer - you break in by getting good at it."

So how do you get good at writing Future Shocks? You start by reading the two compilations Rebellion have published, that’s The Complete Alan Moore Future Shocks and The Best Of Tharg’s Future Shocks. But you also examine the foundations upon which the series is built. Future Shocks are short twist stories, which – never mind those found in Will Eisner’s The Spirit or classic anthology comics like Tales From The Crypt – is a form probably as old as the short story itself. While submitting my Future Shock scripts I read plenty of twist stories by those whom I had decided were the masters of the form, particularly Saki and O Henry. I watched shows like vintage Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

You’re reading and watching these to examine how they work, but you’re also familiarising yourself with the types of stories that have since become cliché. You’re becoming literate in the form.

Now the classic advice about writing, which you’ve no doubt heard a zillion times, is to read as much as possible and write as much as possible. I’d argue these two disciplines alone are actually of limited benefit to a writer. You need to read a lot? Definitely. Write a lot? Certainly. But you also need to take time out and…

STUDY!

Let’s say you want to become a great comic writer, you’ll dutifully work your way through the classics: Eisner, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns and everything else that finds its way onto every ‘100 best graphic novels list’ ever. But unless you know why you’re reading these books all you’re really doing is ticking titles off a list…

DON’T JUST READ IT, STUDY IT!

What’s so damn important about Watchmen anyway? Why does everyone say I have to read it? Don’t rely on the opinions of others, no matter how unimpeachably expert they may be. Challenge everything you’ve heard about this book. Approach it like you’ve never heard of it. Make up your own mind. Have the courage to disagree.

With a clear head, unclouded by hype and reverence, ask simple questions. What techniques is this story using? What effect does this create? What are the story’s antecedents? What’s the historical context, the circumstances in which this story was produced? What do you know about the person who wrote it?

Take nothing for granted. Develop an aggressive, even arrogant sense of what you think works or doesn’t work. Cultivate a sense of taste. Compile your own canon. Fuck ‘the classics’.

The same goes for writing. You can write a dozen scripts, but if you’re not learning more about what the medium can do, experimenting with new techniques, and being brave enough to fail, then you will never improve and every script you write will suck just as much as the last one.

There’s three strands to learning how to write anything (comics, novels, plays, anything)…

1.) UNDERSTAND LANGUAGE

2.) UNDERSTAND THE MEDIUM

3.) UNDERSTAND DRAMA.

The first is a given. If you want to write professionally, but can’t be bothered to learn how to string a sentence together, or how grammar and syntax work, then you’re the equivalent of a plumber who doesn’t know which way up to hold a monkey-wrench.

No editor worth writing for is going to accept poorly written English. If your Future Shock synopsis contains more than one typo or grammatical error, then I’m pretty sure that’s all the excuse Tharg needs to reach for another rejection slip. He’s got a filing cabinet full of these submissions, which he needs to get through before lunch.

Having worked for several years as a subeditor, I know how lazy writers can be when they think they can get away with it. But there’s no subeditor at 2000 AD to check your spelling for you or sharpen up your syntax before Tharg takes a look at it.

As I was rightly reminded by a member of the audience during my talk at Bristol, learning difficulties such as dyslexia need not be a barrier to writing professionally (it didn’t stop F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie or Quentin Tarantino). Seek information and support from organisations like The British Dyslexia Association or charities like Dyslexia Action.

As for the rest of you, there are plenty of books on grammar and style out there (I’d recommend Constance Hale’s firecracker of a style-guide Sin And Syntax for starters, as well as several of the Chambers and Oxford guides on style and plain English). There’s no excuse, people.

The same goes for strand number two, understand how your medium works. We’re talking comics here, so the bible has to be Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (a must!) and his third book, Making Comics. I’d also recommend Eisner’s venerable but still relevant books Graphic Storytelling And Visual Narrative and Comics And Sequential Art. Sorted.

Now, strand three, understand drama. This is particularly relevant when it comes to writing Future Shocks because you don’t have room to get away with spouting reams of exposition; it has to be this tight little six-pack of a story.

Here’s how drama works: your main character is trying to achieve something, but something or someone is standing in their way, and something awful will happen to that main character unless they achieve their goal.

That right there is the nucleus of storytelling and it goes back to the days of togas and inventing democracy. The key to understanding how it applies is to see how it exists within stories on both a macro level and a micro level, that is, to the overall story and within the smallest component of the story: the scene.

What does Indiana Jones want to achieve in Raiders Of The Lost Ark? The recovery of the Ark of the Covenant. What’s standing in his way? The Nazis. What will happen if Indy doesn’t achieve what he’s set out to do? The Nazis will take over the world.

Now let’s zoom in on that scene when Indy visits Marion at the bar in Nepal. What does Indy want to achieve at the start of this scene? He wants to convince Marion to tell him where to find the headpiece to the Staff of Ra. What’s standing in his way? Marion doesn’t want to tell him because she’s still mad at him about the way he treated her in the past. What will happen if Indy doesn’t find the headpiece? The Nazis will get it, discover the Ark’s resting place and eventually use the artefact to take over the world.

What you’re developing here is the writer’s x-ray vision, which will enable you to see through an overall premise or a single scene and identify what’s driving it. It’s the equivalent of an artist spending countless hours studying anatomy until they know instinctively how to structure a pose.

Let’s come up with a generic Future Shock premise right now. Let’s say there’s a guy in space-prison. What does he want to do? Escape. What’s stopping him? Bars, security guards, perimeter guns. What will happen to this guy if he doesn’t escape? We could settle for saying he’ll spend the rest of his life behind bars, but let’s ramp it up a bit. Your stakes need to be as dramatic as possible. So let’s say he’s offended fellow inmate Big Xertlik, Anvil-Headed Nutter of Worlds, who will Scotch-kiss our hero into oblivion unless he escapes within the next hour. Ooh, a time limit. Now we’re cooking.

Now let’s zero-in on a scene. Let’s say our hero is on work detail, breaking rocks with a laser-hammer, and an alien guard is about to discover the hole he’s digging and through which he was about to escape. Oh crap. The guard is striding towards him right now! What does our hero need to do? Prevent the guard from discovering the tunnel and alerting the other guards. What’s preventing the hero from doing this? This bruiser’s heavily armed and so are his buddies. What’s at stake? Horrible tortures await those who try and escape, so our hero’s going to wish he was staring up at Big Xertlik, Anvil-Headed Nutter of Worlds, if that tunnel gets discovered.

LINE OF ACTION. COUNTER-ACTION. STAKES. THE ONLY FORMULA YOU’LL EVER NEED.

Obviously, you’d need to put a fresh spin on that space-prison premise and ask a whole bunch of other questions, like what’s going to make my space-prison story different from everyone else’s? How can I make the reader care what happens to this guy? What’s the twist at the end? Notice how working up a story is about asking the right questions. Learning about drama will help you understand which questions to ask and how you can give the best answers for the story that you have in mind.

Writers, being writers, like to romanticise, especially about writing. But don’t be fooled. The hard work involved in writing a story isn’t magic; it’s mechanics. It’s craft. It’s learnable. Yes, there’s instinct involved, but instinct is built upon knowledge and experience. As the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix once said, “First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.” (By the way, I found that quote in John Yorke’s Into The Woods, a comprehensive breakdown of the mysteries and function of drama, and another must-read).

And it’s the same with ideas. You shouldn’t worry about being unable to generate enough ideas to keep writing scripts. Learning about drama can help you build a Future Shock idea out of anything. Check out New Scientist, Wired, or a Sunday magazine. Find an article that tickles your interest and ask how can I turn this into a Future Shock? Who might be the main character? What might they want? Have fun…

MAKE A GAME OF IT!

Remember that freedom you felt as a kid when you were writing or drawing? Back before it all came to mean something? That lack of self-consciousness is what you’re trying to get back to, because that’s how you’ll stand the best chance of doing your best work. If you’ve received a dozen rejections, then clearly you may have to ask yourself whether your best is ever going to be good enough for this publication. But the only way to find out for sure is to give it your best shot.


Alec Worley

Writes comic scripts, audio and fiction for 2000 AD (home of Judge Dredd) and Games Workshop's Black Library.