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Devourer of Words 017: A Non-Compete Agreement

Marc Bernardin

As one can readily tell, walking the halls of any moderate-sized convention, or reading Twitter, or looking at any one of a hundred websites devoted to covering comics, there are a lot of people trying to make a living writing comics. Some are more successful than others. A few are more successful than everybody.

As a writer looking to break in—or an established writer, looking to break higher—there are a few ways to look at the existence of those whose careers are shining brighter. To borrow from a little green man, don’t be envious, for that envy leads to the Dark Side.

It is always hard to see your contemporaries do well and there’s a knee-jerk tendency to root for them to fail. It’s natural … so much so that the Germans have a word for it: Schadenfreude.

But the thing to remember is that we, as writers, spend enough time alone, in our offices/coffee shops/libraries trying to do this work. No one else can understand what we do but us. As such, we are a tribe. (I’d say brotherhood, but that would ignore the ever-increasing number of women who want to do this thing, too.)

We are in this thing together, for better or worse. And the thing to remember is that we are not competing with each other—despite the increasing number of bake-offs conducted by editors to staff their books. We are in a war with our stories. The writing process is one which finds us challenged by our own shortcomings, straining against the boundaries of our own talent to deliver something that we weren’t sure we were capable of.

And that fight never gets any easier, not if we’re doing our jobs right. I’ve never met the story that “wrote itself,” but I’ve met plenty that have resisted me at every turn.

It’s not for nothing that TV writers refer to the act of outlining an episode as “breaking the story.” They are like wild animals that will either be brought to heel or will run to places you didn’t want them to go. (Which is, in and of itself, not that bad a thing. But we have deadlines.)

Spending the time worrying about how much work this writer is getting, or the exclusive that the other one has, or the entire print run that that woman sold out of or the dream character that guy gets to write—that’s wasted time. Time that could be better spent writing.

Or learning from those who are blazing the trail just ahead of you. I’ve found that most writers are happy to share their tales from the trenches and would like nothing more than to offer some advice to get you through a particularly prickly story thicket, or help navigate some business hazard you’ve never seen before.

A little competition is healthy. It makes you want to be better. But when competition gives way to unhealthy obsession, it does no one any good.

We all got into comics to make comics. What’s more, to make comics better. Anything that detracts from that is like peeing in the wind.

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