What I took away from The View From The Cheap Seats are six of what Neil Gaiman calls the "wisdom" he's acquired in the world of comic book creation. This "wisdom" is relevant to anyone in the business of creating stories, whether through illustration or writing (freelance or otherwise).
Let's start with the first:
1. Big is not necessarily bad. Small is not necessarily good.
Because few big publishing firms have a reputation of ripping creative people off, some people prefer to publish with small publishing companies as a way of insuring themselves or sticking it up to the man. However, Neil Gaiman says this does not mean a thing as there are times when publishing with small companies might hurt you. He says:
This really is something it took me ages to learn. I kept doing projects for small, more independent companies because I was convinced that, in my case, DC Comics was a monolithic and ultimately evil organisation that was just waiting for me to lower my guard before they screwed me ....
It didn't happen. DC were easily the most amenable to reason, accessible, and financially reliable of all the publishers I've dealt with. Which is not to say there was not and sometimes still isn't a great deal of frustration in dealing with some of the departments at DC.
For this, one can forgive many things.
In retrospect, my one regret with Eclipse was that I didn't audit their accounts years before they went under. Their figures made no sense, and they would only send out royalties if threatened. On some level, I knew that there had to be fraud of some kind going on, but Eclipse was only caught when Toren Smith moved his comics from Eclipse to Dark Horse, and his royalties shot up, despite that fact the deal was the same and the sales were constant.
2. Learn How To say No
This has been the bane of many creatives in this modern age and a huge reason for us being taken advantage of by people who wants to use us for their own advancement. This has fostered a low-pay culture and a race to the bottom where a lot of writers are just happy to have projects to do in return for a pittance. Neil said this doesn't have to be so. He says:
This is still the one I have the hardest time with. I think it's part of the freelance mentality: we so used to hustling, to going out and desperately peddling out skills, hoping that someone will be impressed enough by them or moved to raw pity enough by our plight to give us work, that we learn to say yes to everything.
I remember, as a starving freelance writer, in the early eighties, I would blithely proclaim competence in anything, if there was a check attached. Which meant I often found myself utterly out of my depth...
Most things I've done in retrospect were astonishingly stupid ideas....next thing you know there are unreadable, even offensive comics with your name on them that you never wrote in the world. Or whatever. It took me longer to learn that you can say no. And it's an easy thing to say. It helps define your boundaries.
3. Get it in writing. Or put it in writing
If you are getting on a project with remuneration involved, get the terms in writing. Any agreement must be made via a written communication. Failure to do this have resulted in pain for many creatives. Don't make a mistake of having a verbal agreement alone without a written confirmation backing it up. Neil Gaiman covers this in few words:
...those times I haven't put something in writing, I've regretted it.
4. Everything is negotiable
Haggle. Discuss terms - even after you think it's already set in stone. Probe, ask questions. and keep an open mind. If you don't ask, you might not get. As creatives, we can sometimes be timid in our approach to business. Neil Gaiman says we need to be bold and ask questions about anything on our mind. If we feel a contract needs to be negotiated because we think it could be improved upon, then we ought to speak up and ask. He says:
If someone sends you a contract, whether you are dealing with it yourself or getting someone else - an attorney or agent or someone - to vet your contracts, remember that absolutely everything is negotiable. In the early days I used to think that contracts were a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. And they aren't.
Do not be afraid to negotiate. And if you have people whose job it is to negotiate on your behalf, don't be afraid to use them. Nor to accept input. You are not looking a gift horse in the mouth, nor is the contract going to go away because you got someone to look it over.
This is speaking as someone who has been, from time to time, screwed over by overlooked clauses in otherwise pretty good contracts, and who has, from time to time, been astonished by what, in a contract, the other party let slide.
5. Trust Your Obsessions
Whatever drives you, keeps you awake at night, gnaws at your mind, makes you excited... these are the likely lines and stories you should pursue, says Neil Gaiman. Your interests and obsessions are what will ignite your art and stories, making them come alive. However, if you pursue art for money, or anything superficial, its light will be dim in comparison to things you are really excited about. He says:
People sometimes ask whether the research or the idea for the story comes first for me. and I tell them, normally the first thing that turns up is the obsession: for example, all of a sudden I notice that I'm reading nothing but English seventeen-century metaphysical verse. And I know it'll show ups somewhere-whether I'll name a character after one of those poets, or use that time period, or use the poetry, I have no idea. But I know one day it'll be there waiting for me.
Go where your obsessions take you. Write the things you must. Draw the things you must. Your obsessions may not always take you to commercial places, or apparently commercial places. But trust them.
6. Be you. Don't try to be someone else more commercial. Don't try to be that other guy.
A lot of people preach this line in different ways... and the world is saturated with this message. But for creatives, this advice is difficult to put into practice. Neil Gaiman is quite straightforward on this. He writes:
We all swipe when we start. We trace, we copy, we emulate. But the most important thing is to get to the place where you're telling your own stories, painting your own pictures, doing the stuff that no one else could have done but you.
...learn to draw like you.
...and, as a writer, or as a storyteller, try to tell the stories that only you can tell. Try to tell the stories that you cannot help telling, the stories you would be telling yourself if you had no audience to listen. The ones that reveal a little too much about you to the world.
It's the point I think of in writing as walking naked down the street: it has nothing to do with style, or with genre, it has to do with honesty. Honesty to yourself and to whatever you're doing.
...don't worry about developing a style. Style is what you can't help doing. If you write enough, draw enough, you'll have a style, whether you want it or not.
The View From The Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman contains more of these kinds of tips from someone who has walked the walk. Apart from writing tips, the book has transcripts of Neil's interviews with legends like Stephen king, Terry Pratchett and the likes. The book discusses their motivations, processes, and other experiences creatives would love to hear. Also, the book showcases Neil's thoughts on the nature of storytelling, public libraries, the future of comic books and other ideas.
If you are a creator of stories, The View From The Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman is a book you'll want to have by your bedside for few days or weeks, depending on how fast you are as a reader.
Many thanks to William Morrow for review copy.