Surprise! Contrary to what rydi1689 announced, I'm here to deliver one final article on Manga & Anime week! And it's pretty huge... prepare yourselves.
Special thanks to my partner in crime, J-Cleo, for helping me write this!
Creating manga is quite daunting as a project. You have to worry about so many things and prepare for unforeseen problems. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the field, I can at least share with you my experiences while on a quest to create my own manga.
Bear in mind, this guide is geared towards individuals serious about entering the field or wanting to create a well-developed story. That doesn’t mean you can’t use this advice if you’re a hobbyist (more power to you!) but this focuses on taking it that extra step.
The Story Concept
The first thing you need should be obvious: the concept, or idea, for your story. This could be something you’ve had in your mind for a while, a sudden brilliant idea that you must write out, or maybe you don’t even know where to start.
Maybe you’re one of those latter people—like an artist that has a really cool character design, but doesn’t know what to do with it yet. If you want this person to be your main character, start fleshing them out, particularly their motivations. What drives them? What pushes them to action? Do they have dreams or aspirations to achieve? Are they looking for something or someone? All of these prompts can function as great springboards for your story concept.
So once you have the basic idea figured out, ask yourself: How do you make this story yours? How will you make it stand out from other stories so readers can identify your work?
Most people will start off with a generic premise, but go deeper into detail later to make it into their own. For example, there’s a story I know about a humanoid alien baby whose home planet was destroyed, but he escapes on an escape pod and lands on Earth to be raised by humans. The alien has unusual superpowers and uses it to protect the inhabitants of planet Earth. Who did I just describe? Was it Superman? Actually, let me add this detail in: He has a monkey tail and goes around the world to collect seven magic orbs to summon a dragon that can grant wishes. At this point you’d realize I was talking about Goku of the Dragonball series. Small details can drastically change a generic story idea to become completely different identities.
Also consider for a moment the kind of message/tone you want to convey to the reader. How do you want them to feel? Are you writing a romance? Mystery thriller? Fantasy adventure? Sci fi? The list goes on. Decide on your genre and target audience as soon as possible. Both are very important guides in keeping your story on track and making sure the plot and characters fit.
EXAMPLE: “Midwinter” targets 19-35 year old fantasy and sci fi comic readers, with a leaning towards women. This basis establishes the rating and helps us make many decisions in writing, editing, and marketing. It’s very important to know your customer!
So what’s one of the worst mistakes a writer could make? If you said “Not enough research”, you’re right on the money. It makes sense if you think about it. Have you ever gone to see a movie talking about an area of your expertise/knowledge just to walk out feeling frustrated because they got it (all) wrong? That’s what happens when you don’t do your homework!
In my case, the setting was primarily taking place in a massive hospital, but neither I nor my co-creator knew much about the hospital structure. What would staff do in case of a terrorist threat? What’s the proper procedure in handling hazardous material? Luckily I knew someone who studied and worked in the medical profession for years (who incidentally is our current editor and head researcher!) However, don’t think we stopped there. Even with his help, we went through great pains to scour the internet for more information—on everything—and purchased several books for reference. If you think fans won’t catch onto small details, think again.
Arguably you could do this while you write (same with research), but it’s always a good idea to do the prep work so you don’t have to go back to add as many details later. Part of what makes a story so good and engaging isn’t simply just the characters themselves, but the world they reside in. If the characters and plot line are the Thanksgiving turkey, then the world is the mashed potatoes and stuffing.
They draw the reader into the storyline and make them feel like it’s a real world that could exist. People already recognize some of the generic pieces of world building: a fantasy novel could have a race of tree-dwelling elves; a sci-fi story would likely include technology not yet invented in real life. But the question is: How do the social/economical/political aspects of the world impact the characters? Or the cities/towns/villages that the characters are from? Or will visit?
Here’s an example: If one country wars against another, the direct results or consequences are easy to see. Characters traveling to one of the warring countries might have ruined cities and little or no inhabitants, but go one step further and try to ask yourself how that might affect a third country that borders one of the two warring countries. They have absolutely no stake in the war, but they could also be suffering because 1) the civilians from the warring countries are seeking refuge from the war and 2) their economy is tanking because there is one less neighbor to trade goods with. As a result of that, a regularly trade commodity (let’s say salt for example), is now scarce and is extremely expensive in that country. Suddenly, foods are becoming bland and the people are irritable because of the rise of salt theft and beggars wandering the streets (the refugees from warring countries). When the characters travel to a town in this neighboring country, they’re greeted by a slummy looking town due to the beggars and salt thieves running rampant and are served bland foods by irritable people, who will jump to attention if the characters mention they have salt to trade.
It’s an extreme example, but you get my point. While the audience doesn’t have to see how this all unfolds, it adds to the realism instead of having the world structured just around the characters. Life goes on outside of the characters’ journeys too. You just have to remember to include it, even if you don’t plan on the characters ever interacting with that aspect of the world.
That said, make doubly sure you write everything down and keep it organized. Our team uses OneNote 2010, which comes with Microsoft Office (about $70 by itself). It has been a life saver for us; not only does it keep all of our information in one place, we have it shared with each other through SkyDrive, which allows us to make near-real time edits that everyone can see at once. (I believe Evernote is a similar program, though I have never used it.)
Below is a screencap from our ON notebook:
Get it down on paper!
Sometimes the hardest thing about writing is knowing how to start. Most of us already have some basic idea of what we want to happen and what the ending will be like, but how to connect the events in cohesion? Some writers advocate starting backwards. That is, writing the climax of your story and then work backwards to how it came to that conclusion. Others will say just start writing. Seriously. Don’t worry about anything. Just start writing and see where it goes. After all, most of what you wrote will have to edited repeatedly anyway (more on that later).
For us, it was simple: we had an interesting idea we wanted to play out, so we roleplayed the characters and expanded on it. Before we knew it, it snowballed into something much larger (like a katamari of awesome) and we just kept going along. We are very much organic writers—we allowed the characters to take the story where they wanted it to go, and some great, unforeseen plots came out of it. Other writers are more structured and precise in their planning. They employ specific writing techniques that have been known to be part of the “winning formula” for writing and tend to view the story objectively.
Neither is good or bad, but they both have distinct advantages and disadvantages. In the end, it’s best to have it organic enough that the interactions between characters feel real, but structured enough that the story has a purpose and cohesion. Understanding some of the “science” of what makes a story compelling can help you out in the long run.
For instance, I realized that there was a part of the storyline that didn’t quite feel right, but we didn’t understand what was missing exactly. For a few weeks, we left it alone to work on other aspects of the story, but I came across a site with some common tips/questions to ask about writing. Particularly, I discovered one of our characters was in a reactive role instead of proactive. Suddenly it made so much sense. We were bored because we were waiting for things to happen to the character instead of the other way around. We knew there was something wrong, but until someone actually pointed it out to us, we couldn’t see it.
Editing is possibly the hardest (and longest) part of writing. All the fun story writing is done, but now it’s time to get to real work. I’m sorry. Did you think you were half-way done already? You just finished the easy part. Now comes the chopping block. You remember all those really awesome and cool ideas you wanted to put into the story that don’t really contribute to the main plot line? Yeah, that’s gone. And that one badass character you created who doesn’t really have a big role, but still randomly shows up? Get ready for the axe.
There are so many good ideas you’ll have that will likely be condensed or cut altogether to ensure the main storyline doesn’t get lost. Trust me when I say it’s one of the hardest things we had to do, but for the good of the project, we let some things go. However, that isn’t to say you can’t still use them. Whatever ideas we couldn’t use for this story could definitely be recycled for our next one. You just have to be patient.
You’ll also have to understand that your story is going to go through so many drafts that most of the original ideas you had might have changed or be taken out altogether, but this is (normally) a good thing. It means you’ve polished the piece into a diamond, and now it’s time to prep it for the world to see.
And, if you can get people to do it, organize a group of beta readers. These people are fresh eyes on content they know nothing about. Their feedback is invaluable; you don’t have to take every iota of advice, but really push for people to rip your work to shreds. Don’t take it personal and put everything you have into making it better. (One note about this: Know the difference between constructive criticism and someone just being a jerk. If the person says they dislike something, but offers serious advice on how to make it better, that's the kind of person you want to listen to.)
Translating From Text to Comic
Although we were able to visualize certain scenes in our head, it doesn’t often translate very well when it’s actually down on paper. We found out rather quickly that what worked in prose, might not work for the comic. (Or vice versa—a lot of things that were kinda lame in text looked a lot better in visual format, haha!) Be ready to be adaptable and to cut and add portions of scenes as you go.
For one, you need to realize the paneling and pacing of the scene can throw it all off. For instance, if you’re setting up for a climatic revelation, you’d want to keep the suspense until the last panel of a page. That way you can reveal it on the next page and not accidentally spoil it if someone glances at the next panel.
To avoid running into problems, we start off by doing sketches of thumbnails—a common technique found in almost all fields of animation and comics (which is known as “storyboarding”.)
There are two ways to do this: script and prose. 90% of the industry swears to creating scripts, but it’s really up to you to decide what works best if it’s a personal project. Because of the nature of our story—a roleplay—the entirety of it is in prose format, which is what I prefer to work from anyway!
My co-creator and I will get together and plan out sets of thumbnails at a time by following along the text. At this time, I usually sketch out the thumbnail while my co-creator will fill up a script for the pages. It helps eliminate confusion as to what line is being said in what panel. Plus it allows me to put a sound effect guide into it for my other team members when they have to add those in later.
Speaking of sound effects, we hadn’t realized how much we took those for granted in other graphic novels. In the beginning we constantly ran into the problem of figuring out exactly what sort of sound something would make, and how to type it. One of my teammates was able to find a sound effect list that compiled almost every sound effect ever put into a comic book, which really helped. Look at manga, too, if you’re stumped—sound is so important in selling the scene.
Along that same vein, never forget your motion lines. They make a ton of difference!
SOLO OR COLLABORATIVE?
As you can probably already tell, this workload is massive for just one person, both on the writing and artistic end. If you’re doing this as a side project or don’t mind going at a slower pace (maybe 1-2 pages a week), you can probably fly solo and do just fine. BUT, if you’re looking to turn this into a career or if you don’t want to spend over a decade completing it, you’ll want a team.
By no means is it easy to find a team, but they’re out there. There are a ton of people just like you who want to make something of their own or contribute to something big. If you have enough passion and dedication, and have shown it, others will follow.
But I know what some of you are thinking: “I don’t want a team—if I want it done right, I have to do it myself”. I’ll admit that’s a mindset even I had for a long time. I didn’t trust anyone else with my baby! But it is something I HAD to get over if I was going to get content out at a decent pace. Plus, not only do you have literal help with the comic, but you have other people to bounce ideas off of and to help solve problems. As long as no one lets their ego or personal motivations get in the way, it can be a great environment to be creative and improve.
However, having an extensive team has it challenges. For Midwinter, we had a problem of figuring out how to get everyone working on this from different parts of the world in different time zones. (We have a couple people in Australia, one in France, and we’re kinda scattered here in the US.) However, an assembly line for the pages worked out great, similar to how manga and comics are done in professional studios. I would sketch the page (using the thumbnails from earlier as a guide), ink it (alongside another inker), pass it to our toner, who then passes it back to me for highlights, etc. It was like a well-oiled machine, but it still had some kinks to it. For example, if any one of us had fallen behind in our work load, we’d be stuck waiting for them to finish their part before we could continue. It took a lot of faith in each of our member to get what needed to get done.
And if you’re the leader of the team, be prepared to flex those managerial skills. I often shoulder my own duties on top of making sure everyone has something to work on, answering questions, giving feedback, etc. I work on Midwinter 40 hours a week in addition to my regular 40-hour job, and I still feel like I don’t have enough time!
THE BUSINESS ASPECT
Learning the Business
Now that we were on our way, we had to face the hardest aspect of creating a manga: How were we going to sell this? Do we go with a publisher? Self-publish? Do we want paperback or an e-version? Remember how I said about not researching enough was a huge mistake for writers? Same thing goes for business. We had to research the cost for everything.
For Midwinter, we decided publishers were out of the question. (Most will ask you to sign away your intellectual property—and if you don’t, you’d only make profit off of royalties, which gives you no funding during production.) That just left us with self-publishing or starting our own company—we chose the company because it would allow us to quit our regular jobs and work solely on our product. It was the most financially stable in our situation.
But that in itself is another daunting task. A lot of people have a hard enough time just on their personal budget. How were we going to figure this out for a company?
And you know what? We researched; we talked to people (networking). I even signed up for a few business classes to ensure I had an idea of what I was doing. I may not be confident in being able to run a business, and we’re still working out a LOT of kinks, but we’re paving that road for ourselves.
Essentially, what makes this part so hard is that almost every aspiring manga artist wants to make a living out of this, but are unable (or unwilling) to learn the business aspect of the trade.
We also had to ask: Is this financially feasible? Can we afford this? I don’t think I need to say this, but the art community is severely undervalued and we’re expected to work for pennies on the dollar. Most of us are already working day jobs, so if we really were serious about this, it would be akin to a second job… except you were expected to pay to keep going. Sure you could get loans or have Kickstarter donations, but a good chunk of preparation will be coming out of your own pocket, and you’ll have to prepare for it somehow. You will also have to understand the risk that you may never see a return on that investment.
Another thing you’ll have to realize is this: You will fail in some way or another. Much of the population is so paralyzed at the idea of failure that we don’t even try it, but in the end we’ve already failed because we won’t do anything about it. The fact is, it’s silly to expect to get everything right the first time without problems. Often times there are issues that were unforeseen and we have to adapt quickly. (If a team member loses internet for a week, we need someone else to fill in for those tasks for instance.) But unless the loss is astronomical, we just have to learn from our mistake and try again. If we don’t, we’re certain to fail.
Are you Ready?
Chances are, the answer is “no.” No one is ever “ready”, but that shouldn’t hold you back! That being said, I think it’s important for everyone to pull back and take an objective look at their art and writing skills. The first few comics you put out probably won’t be publishable. They’re essential stepping stones, but that doesn’t make them ready for the limelight.
Ask yourself. Are you professional grade (or close) in either art or writing? If you’re not sure, have you been approached for commissions? Have you done any freelance work? Have you held a day job in the field? Do people attach to your characters or stories? None of these are requirements, but they’re good indicators of skill. You have to be realistic and really think about if people would buy your product. (It is essential to have a balanced mind when thinking about this; you CANNOT be egocentric or self-pitying. It will only skew the answer.)
If there isn’t a high chance that people would pick it up off the shelf, do not waste your money trying to monetize the comic off the bat. Simply put, don’t get ahead of yourself. It’s great to have a long term goal to work towards, but don’t try to jump over steps; you’ll just end up hurting yourself. Start out with something short, something free—a webcomic even—and practice your heart out every day. Challenge yourself, push your boundaries, try new things. Build up your skills with something small before you tackle the real deal.
Not that these things always go as planned, of course, but you should try.
I put together a quick progression on how I've improved on my comics in the past two years. I even surprised myself with how much I've gotten better! But I knew that I wasn't good enough for it until just recently, and man I'm glad I didn't try and get it published with those first few tries.
Is it Worth it?
Now that you’ve taken everything into consideration, you have to wonder: Is this something I’m really prepared to do? There’s so much prep work and risk involved that the payout might not be worth it to you. But that is a decision YOU have to make. Reflect on yourself and see if you’re okay where you are in life. Are you content with doing side projects or keeping it a hobby? If not, are you willing to make sacrifices for your dream? (Sleep and real life social interaction are things I used to have in the past.) Are you willing to work like a dog to have a chance to make it big? Your decisions could either mean a very expensive hobby or a very fulfilling career. Having the latter isn’t impossible, by any means, but you must educate yourself in every aspect and take opportunities when you see them.
To us, it’s more than worth it. Every single one of us wants to make this happen, and we will.
Thanks for reading, everyone!