A Tale of Two Writers

writerLong ago in the Before Time, I was an editor at a comic book publisher. When I arrived there, the only way to edit that I knew was the way I edited a prose novel or story: look at the words, look at the characters, look at the plot, look at the underpinnings, make notes, return the whole to the author with the request that my comments be addressed in some fashion.

Okay: I knew that the words were often not key here, since a comic book script has words that will be translated into images (and dialogue is privileged… though I frequently queried things along the lines of “are you sure that’s what Our Hero means to say?”). So I was mostly, after a while, looking at plot, characterization (particularly of the corporate properties–which is to say, the heroes and heroines of our lines), and underpinnings. My arch enemies were the phrases “the Kids’ll Love It,” and “It doesn’t matter, it’s a comic book.” Because I thought, and still think, that it does matter a lot.

I worked with a number of comics writers, some famous, some not so much. And it is of two of them I would speak. I worked with them when I was pretty new to comics, and still testing what I was doing and how I was doing it. And I had a Biggish-Name writer assigned to one of my books, and a house-favorite younger guy assigned to another. So: each of them turned in a script. Writer A, who had been a staff editor and colorist and knew the characters inside and out, had turned in a pretty good script which, to my mind, needed some tweaks. I marked it up and returned it to him, and he asked “what is this?” Not in an affronted way, but with genuine curiosity.

“Editorial comments. For you to look over and address.”

He paged through, reading my notes, then smiled. “This is great. No one ever did this for me before.”

Well, of course I was relieved. I was new in comics, and hoping I’d done it right, and apparently I had. And he explained why he thought a couple of things were okay as they were, and we talked about it, and he turned in a second draft that both of us agreed was much stronger. I loved working with Writer A.

And then there was Writer B. The script he turned in needed a touch of tweaking in terms of maintaining the character of the characters, as it were. He worked for different companies, so that didn’t seem to bother him. But I also thought it was pretty lackluster, and it had at its heart one huge–and needless–scientific  flaw. So I marked it up and sent it back to him… and other than fixing the character details, he totally refused to entertain the idea of changing anything. I don’t know if he felt he wasn’t being paid enough (he was being paid exactly what everyone else was being paid) or if he was too important to be edited, or simply that no one had ever done this for/to him before. We went back and forth. I attempted to keep my temper and my cool as he absolutely refused to change anything. I could have done it; it was work-for-hire. But I didn’t want to unless I had to.

The big bone of contention was the scientific error. Changing one word throughout would have solved the problem (bacteria for virus). But this was just when The Hot Zone was big, and he insisted it had to be a virus, despite the fact that viruses don’t work the way he was saying they did. “Doesn’t matter,” he kept telling me. “No one cares.”

You know that full-body seeing-red flush that comes over you when you’re just stunned with frustration and anger, but have to be the grown-up and not be cranky? No? Maybe it’s just me. I did not scream I CARE AND SO SHOULD YOU!!!  But I was a woman in a male-dominated field, and I didn’t want Writer B to use the “she’s a girl so she just doesn’t get it” plaint with me, or use me as an example of how “women get too emotional”. Finally, I let the book go out as he’d written it, with the adjustments to our proprietary characters and all the lackluster left in, under his byline. He refused to work with me again, which was fine on both sides.

But I changed virus to bacteria. Lackluster is one thing. Facts are another.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


A Tale of Two Writers — 6 Comments

  1. Good for you. Just because it’s in a different medium doesn’t mean you should just make stuff up.

  2. I just found the comic book scripts archive, and it was so interesting to read them and see the formatting and way the story is visualized and the ways those visuals are communicated to the artist. A good comic book script jumps off the page into the mind of the reader. They deserve good and careful editing. You did some good work!

    • Done right, a good comic book is a synthesis of the writer’s imagination and the artist’s, and a true collaboration. In the same way that I edited scripts, I sometimes had to go back to an artist and point out that some of the things he’d discarded were not suggestions: they were vital to the plot and had to be included.

      Being an editor sometimes means Being No Fun.

  3. And that lack of understanding amongst the general populace of the difference between bacteria and viruses is why we’re now experiencing a rise in super bugs!

    The whole “no-one cares” claim is bogus. There will always be someone (and probably more someones than anyone cares to count) who does care, and who will point out the flaws, which will inevitably bring a work to its knees in public perception. I can think of so many instances where one seemingly small flaw in logic has ruined an entire piece for me. Suspension of disbelief only really works if it makes logical sense.

    The nerds of the world always care, and we’re a pretty vocal and tenacious lot.