Breaking In Without Rules
This essay first appeared in Danny Fingeroth's Write Now #13, and was adapted and expanded from a hellaciously long post at the Warren Ellis Forum.
One Writer's Possibly-Instructive Journey
I spend a fair amount of time on the Internet, reading and posting to message boards, Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists and the like. Possibly too much time. My editors think so, at least. My wife definitely thinks so. But I do it anyway—I like the feedback. I like to see what fans are thinking, whether it's reviews of the latest issue of whatever I'm writing, or concerns about future developments, wishes for the return of such-and-such a character, and so on.
One question that comes up a lot, in e-mails and message board posts, gets phrased a lot of different ways, but boils down to "How do I break in?" There are a lot of comics readers out there who'd like to be comics writers (for which the editor and publishers of this magazine are grateful!), and they're not sure how to go about making the transition. They have a lot of questions—who do I submit stuff to? What should I submit? What format should it be in? How do you organize a pitch? Do I need an artist? I followed the publisher's submissions guidelines, and never heard back. Shouldn't there be a better system? Why do they hire people from TV and movies, but won't give the rest of us a chance? And so on.
But the impression I often get is that what a lot of these would-be writers are really asking for is a set of rules, a map. A procedure that anyone can follow, and it'll guide them right up to the door of their favorite comics publisher, and usher them inside. The trouble is, there is no such thing. There never has been. And it makes no sense to complain that in that case, there should be one, shouldn't there? The fact is, there isn't one, so the people who actually do break in are the people who recognize that fact and work around it, while the people who are waiting for the clear and easy-to-follow map to their chosen destination are still waiting.
Sure, there are submissions guidelines—most companies have them, and you can find them at most publishers' websites—but let me tell you a secret: Those guidelines aren't there to make it easier for you to get in. They're there to make it easier for the publisher to reject you and get back to work. It automates the process, makes it easier for one lowly-placed assistant editor in a cubicle somewhere to shuffle through lots of submissions fast, and get out form rejections. And maybe a few people break in that way—artists, usually, since artwork can be judged by taking a quick look at it, and writing samples have to be read—but not many. I don't know any writers who broke in through the slush pile.
And sure, there are people who happen to be drinking buddies with an editor, or the publisher's wife's gardener's son, giving rise to the theory that You Gotta Know Someone. But really, that doesn't happen anywhere near as much as people think. And if it actually was true, and you don't Know Someone, then there aren't any rules that are going to help, so why worry about it?
But people still break in, somehow. So there must be a way, right? There must be rules.
Well, no. There really aren't.
What spurred me to write this essay—and in the spirit of disclosure, let me say that I wrote most of it in 2001, as a long, long post on an internet forum—was the reaction I witnessed when DC announced that they wouldn't be looking at unsolicited submissions any more.
Now, DC had some pretty good reasons for this—it was a lot of work, it didn't turn up much in the way of talent, and it exposed them to legal troubles that occasionally cost them time, money and headaches —but oh, the cries of outrage! How could DC do this to the struggling creative community? How could they slam the door in people's faces like that? Nobody seemed to notice that they hadn't had any luck breaking in that way—they were just mad that it wasn't an option any more. The impression I got was that people were upset that a submissions process that was not going to work for them anyway was now closed to them—not that a sure-fire way into the business that broke new writers in on a regular basis was closed, but that a system that gets almost nobody in is no longer being offered as a way to waste your time fruitlessly.
And the cry went up, "They took away the rules! Goddammit, how can I break in and be creative without rules! Somebody tell me the rules!"
Even when someone would suggest something that worked for them or for others, it would be rejected as a strategy. "Not everyone can do that!" or "That's too complicated! Tell me some other rules!"
The other possibilities that were suggested, which were things that had actually worked for someone, were in fact no less likely to work for creator-hopefuls than the transom submissions, but they hadn't rejected that one out of hand. In fact, useless as it was, they were mad that it was gone. So why such resistance to taking another chance, just as slim? It may be a waste of time—but so was the "opportunity" they were bemoaning the loss of.
But that's not the main point. The main point is this:
If you need to have someone lay out a set of instructions for you, you probably don't have the skills or imagination to be a freelance writer.
Because being a freelance writer isn't just about writing. It doesn't have to be about drawing, too—but it absolutely isn't just about writing. If you're a freelance writer, you are by definition also a small businessman, running a company of one. You will be responsible for that company—you'll have to find customers (editors, publishers), you'll have to market yourself, you'll have to guide your career. Nobody will do these things for you—if you depend on a publisher to do them, you will either need to be very lucky, in that your needs coincide with the publisher's, or you will be very disappointed, when you hit a point when the publisher's needs and yours don't match, and they go off and serve their own and leave you in the gutter, muttering, "But I followed the rules...!"
There are no rules. There is no map.
You've doubtless heard any number of stories of how someone broke in to comics, whether it was Gail Simone writing a humor column on the internet that made people laugh, and got her an offer to try writing something funny in comics form, or Steve Englehart taking the train up to New York while he was in the military so he could be an art assistant to Neal Adams, and then wound up writing instead. What those stories inevitably show is that what works for one guy won't necessarily work for others—but that the people who break in are the people who keep trying until they find a way. They're the people who figure out their own rules, whether it means maxing out their credit cards to make a movie or Xeroxing their own comic book to sell locally and show around. None of them have any guarantee that it will work. And for some of them, it doesn't. But the folks it doesn't work for either quit, or they try something else. And the ones that keep trying either figure out their road in, or they quit. Or they die still trying—I know one guy who keeps showing me his portfolio, and the guy's got to be over fifty, and he's no good and I doubt he'll ever get work, but he's still trying because it's what he wants to do.
And it's sad for him that he's not going to make it, but that's the way it goes. No rules, no map, no guarantees. You might not make it. But if you don't figure out a way that'll work for you, then you definitely won't make it—because if nothing else, once you get that first job, you're not going to get a membership card and a stream of offers. You're going to have to get that second job, and there's no map to that, either. And you're going to have to keep getting jobs, and it will not always be easy, and the opportunities you do get will not always be ones you should take. But you'll have to figure that out as you go along, and use your imagination and your analytical skills and your vision to continually keep yourself on a path that works for you. And it'll often be a road you build for yourself. If you can't do it, breaking in won't do you any good anyway, because you won't stay in.
* * *
Now me, I broke in on my second submission, and I broke in writing for the big publishers, but it wasn't because I was lucky. It was because I worked at it and thought about it and figured out what would work best for me and my particular situation.
Here's how I did it. Please note, this is not a set of rules, it's a demonstration of how you work without them.
First off, I wrote a lot of letters to lettercolumns. I had no idea that this would help me break in—I just did it because I wanted to, and I liked writing, and I wanted to talk critically about why I liked or didn't like the comics I read (and I was 15 years old, so "critically" was a loose, loose term). But over the course of getting about 100 letters published, I learned how to think about story structure and pacing and how much verbiage I thought was too much and how much I thought was too little and all kinds of stuff that turned out to be useful. And I wrote publishable letters, and it turned out that what that meant was that there were a bunch of editors in the business who associated my name with well-expressed intelligent, usable stuff—even if it was just usable in the lettercolumns.
While I was doing this, I also practiced writing (and sometimes drawing) comics. I talked a friend into making comics with me. Before I talked him into it, he wanted to be a research scientist of some sort, and spent much of his time drawing detailed layouts of starships. Now, he's Scott McCloud, and every now and then I wonder if I should apologize to his mother for killing his ambition to go to MIT. But in any case, I wrote comics he drew, I wrote comics I drew, I wrote comics that other friends drew. Some of 'em never got finished, lots of them were lousy and it took an awful lot of time. But we did it for close to seven years, through high school and college, and at the end of it I'd learned two things: First, I learned that I didn't want to be a comics artist, though I'd taught myself a lot about how comics work visually. Second, I learned a lot about the craft of writing comics, without any sort of instruction book. About three or four years into all this, another friend sketched out for me what a full script looked like, based on his memory of having seen one once, shown to him at a con by Julie Schwartz. His sketch was wrong—it was all screwed up and hard to type—but I wrote scripts in that format for the next few years. That was all the insider instruction I had.
[I did get something published during that period, though. The Boston Pops put on a "Comic Heroes Night" one year as a fundraising concert, playing Neal Hefti's "Batman" theme and "The Flight of the Bumblebee" (better known in some circles as the "Green Hornet" theme) and others. And one of the people on the fundraising committee had a son who was into comics and into drawing, and he pitched her the idea of doing a comic book to sell as a fundraiser. He didn't know anything about how to make a comic book, but these two kids down the street did, so Scott and I got asked to write and lay out a comic for the Boston Pops, with the guy whose mother was on the committee doing the finished art. We had no idea of what we couldn't or shouldn't do, so we came up with a story involving Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and Spider-Man—and the Boston Pops organization didn't know this was an idiotic idea, so they went and got us permission from Marvel and DC to do this one-shot comic as a fundraiser, provided all unsold copies were destroyed at the end of the evening. So we did it and it was fun and maddening and hectic and it was ultimately the second "official" Marvel/DC crossover and one of the highest-cover-price comics produced to that date (ten bucks!) and it got turned into a slide show/dramatic reading by Robert Desiderio and we got to attend the concert along with a surly and uncommunicative Sol Harrison of DC (Marvel didn't send anyone). And it got us nowhere at all professionally, but them's the breaks.]
Along the way, my letter-writing and hanging around in comics stores arguing with people about Cary Bates and Steve Englehart got me into writing articles for fanzines, and eventually into editing for fanzines and trade magazines, which didn't turn out to be as much help as I thought it would be, and more help in ways I never thought I'd need.
And then, armed with years of practice, and no idea how to go about breaking in, I had to break in. My first attempt—sending a cold submission of a lousy Hawkeye backup story to Marvel, hadn't worked. So I tried to figure out what I could do, given that I didn't know anyone in the business above the trade press level.
I was attending Syracuse University in upstate New York at the time, taking any classes I thought might help me—playwrighting, creative writing, comparative mythology, magazine publishing—and for the magazine publishing class, I had to interview a magazine publisher for a term paper. Most of my classmates found magazine publishers either locally or near their home towns, since the paper was due after Thanksgiving break, and that way they could do the interviews at school or home. I talked the professor into letting me classify "DC Comics" as a magazine, since they all carried the same ads, and further, to let me go after the editor in chief rather than the publisher. So I called DC, and was able to set up an interview with Dick Giordano, then the e-i-c. I figured that getting in and talking to him was at least something.
So that Thanksgiving break, I took the bus to New York and stayed in the cheapest hotel I could find (a Times Square sleazepit, but I didn't know anything about it before I got there, and I barely knew enough about Times Square to be worried when the people outside tried to sell me drugs and sex) and went and interviewed Dick the next day. And I was polite and businesslike and asked him all the questions I needed for my term paper, and when it was all done, I screwed up the courage to tell him I hoped to be a comics writer when I graduated. He wasn't one of the editors I'd ever sent letters to, but he thought I seemed organized and articulate and serious, and suggested I send in some scripts.
So I did. I went back to school and over Spring Break, I wrote about 80 pages of samples—four full scripts featuring DC characters—and sent them in. And Dick didn't have time to read them, but I'd call every now and then to ask about them, dropping reminders to his assistant that they'd technically been "requested"—and eventually, Dick handed the scripts out to the editors of the books they were written for, to shut me up.
The editor of Brave & Bold never read the B&B script, the rat bastard. But he's hired me since. So I forgive you, Len!
E. Nelson Bridwell read my Supergirl and Superman: The In-Between Years scripts and pronounced them "perfectly publishable"—with the one problem that the Supergirl series was being revamped and relaunched, and thus my script was unusable, and the In-Between Years backup series was being scrapped, so my script was unusable. But Nelson's recommendation got me a chance to pitch Superboy fill-in ideas to Julie Schwartz. I pitched 18 of them. He didn't like any of them. He gave me a plot idea and told me to write it up. I did. He hated it—he thought it had way too much plot to fit into 15 pages. I told him it was his plot to start with, and he told me that didn't matter—I should've argued him into making it a two-parter! In any case, I got nowhere with Julie.
However, Ernie Colon read my Flash sample script, and liked it enough to ask me to pitch "Tales of the Green Lantern Corps" backup ideas. And I did, and he liked one well enough to assign it to me, so I wrote it, and that was my first sale. And a friend of mine, Richard Howell, was showing art samples, so I got Ernie to look at them, and it was his first sale, too.
But the story doesn't end there. Ernie asked us for another backup—but this time, he had an idea for us. He wanted us to do a slapstick-humor GLC story that was all in pantomime—there could be script to it, but it'd all be lettered in "alien," so it'd be so much gibberish. Ernie got the idea from some manga volumes I had with me; he was impressed by how clearly he could follow the story without being able to read Japanese.
I was not a good enough writer to make something like that work, and Richard was not an experienced-enough artist. But we were young and hungry, and we gave it our best shot, figuring that doing what the editor asks you to do is a good idea.
It wasn't. The end result was a bad job, the story was never published, and enough editors saw it and thought it stank that it killed both writer and artist's careers at DC for several years. We'd broken in, but we were right back outside again.
But in the meantime, I hadn't stopped trying.
On the one hand, I was living in New York and not making much money, so I was serving as the New York correspondent and interviewer for Comics Feature, a trade magazine of the day, and I tried to figure out how to get somewhere from that. One of the people I interviewed for the magazine was Tom deFalco—and after the interview, I hit him with much the same kind of thing I'd hit Dick with. I was trying to break in, any suggestions as to what I could do at Marvel? He invited me to submit plots for short Marvel Team-Up backups, and when I did, he liked one about Rick Jones and the Dazzler. So I wrote it up, and he hated it. No sale. Dead end.
But I had also noticed that Jo Duffy had left Power Man & Iron Fist, and Bob Layton had been announced as the upcoming new writer. But month after month, the book featured one-issue fill-ins written by the book's editor, Denny O'Neil. Doing the careful market analysis that would get me far, I figured that maybe, just maybe, Bob wasn't getting the scripts in. And maybe that meant there was an opportunity there. So I wrote up a two-page outline of a PM/IF fill-in, and mailed it to Denny with a note saying that I was already writing professionally for DC (one seven-page story, mind you, and a two-parter that wasn't good enough to publish, but you use what you got…). Denny needed to keep those pages filled, so he read my two pages, called and asked me to flesh it out into a spec script, and when I did, he bought it. So I pitched another. And then a two-parter. And Bob never did turn anything in, and I ended up writing the book for a year.
But the story still doesn't end there. By the time I'd been writing PM/IF for a year, I had moved back to New England to save money (couldn't afford New York, not on the $660/month I was making—$30 a page, and that was after two raises!), and then back to Syracuse. And I had no more contacts in the comics industry—the only guy who was buying anything from me was Denny, and just before I scripted PM/IF #100, he told me that was going to be my last issue. [It wasn't, as it turned out, because the guy who Denny hired to replace me—Archie Goodwin—was almost as slow as Bob Layton had been, and I wrote two more fill-ins on my way out, because Denny needed to fill the pages and I needed the work.]
So I was back in my college town and my career was dead in the water.
I took another bus down to New York, slept on Richard Howell's couch for three weeks and called editors to get appointments, trading heavily on having written a Marvel book for a year and pitching ideas whenever I got the chance. Len Wein hired me to write a JLA fill-in after I pitched a dozen ideas for JLA and Swamp Thing. Dick Giordano asked me to come up with ideas for mini-series about JLA members who didn't have their own books, and after rejecting outlines for minis about Aquaman, Zatanna and the Elongated Man, bought a proposal for a Red Tornado mini-series. And Jim Salicrup hired me to be a freelance assistant editor on Marvel Age Magazine, Marvel's in-house promo magazine, based on those trade-press credits I never thought I'd need.
So I went back to Syracuse, paid my back rent, wrote the entire Red Tornado mini in order to get the money to move back to the New York area, find a cheap apartment in New Jersey and buy a refrigerator.
And over the next year or two, I wrote stuff for DC—the Legend of Wonder Woman mini, some World's Finest fill-ins, a couple more issues of JLA—while working on Marvel Age and mostly getting nowhere with Marvel editors. But finally, I had enough work to quit the Marvel Age job—a mini-series and a new series featuring a character I'd created myself, both for Alan Gold at DC, and a Madame Masque mini-series for Denny O'Neil at Marvel. So I quit the Marvel Age job and got my roommate installed in my place—
—and then in the same week, Denny quit Marvel to go to DC (killing the Madame Masque mini) and Alan Gold quit comics altogether (sending both projects into turnaround). And Len Wein was buried in other work, and the editor who'd bought my World's Finest scripts had left the field, so I couldn't get other work. And I couldn't get my old job back because my roommate had it.
So I got a job at Burger King, and kept trying.
And I broke in by increments, working as an assistant editor at a small book publisher, as a literary agent at an unscrupulous literary agency, and as a sales manager at Marvel, pitching comics stuff as best I could and writing fill-ins and stuff by night (and the Liberty Project at Eclipse, for which I made something like $8/page, but had fun and learned a lot). And eventually, I had enough promises of work at Marvel and elsewhere that I quit the day job (again), because I couldn't be on staff at Marvel and write for Eclipse, Harris and Disney Comics, and the Marvel stuff I had (some issues of What If) wasn't enough.
By this time, I was married, and like an idiot I compounded my original error by moving out of the area again—this time all the way to the Pacific Northwest, where, sure, Dark Horse existed, but wasn't offering me any work. So if this stuff fell apart, I'd be dead in the water all over again.
Luckily, I managed to keep finding work, and after Marvels came out it turned into steady work, and I haven't had to worry about how to pay the mortgage for a while now. But even though I broke in on my second submission, it took eleven years before I managed to stay in on an ongoing basis.
* * *
At this point, those of you who've made it this far may be thinking, "But I don't know anyone's mom who works for the Boston Pops," or "I can't interview Dick Giordano for a term paper—I graduated already!" or even, "But they don't do backups and fill-ins that much any more!" That's not the point. Like I said way back at the start, this isn't intended as a set of rules for how You Too Can Break In The Busiek Way. What it is, as noted, is an example of how to work without rules.
I never followed submissions guidelines. I didn't even know they existed. I had no insiders offering advice on the Internet or anywhere else—I was too chicken to talk to pros at cons. I had never met Dick Giordano before interviewing him. Had never met Nelson or Julie or Ernie before they saw my samples. Didn't meet Denny until after he'd bought that first fill-in. And I wrote my sample scripts in the wrong format— Julie Schwartz, who had supposedly shown a script in that format to a friend of mine, looked at my samples and told me that first thing, don't ever write a script in a silly-ass format like this again, and showed me how his writers actually did it.
But if you look through that interminable story, you'll see that what I did at first was I practiced, and I communicated, and I figured things out for myself, because nobody was telling me any rules. And Scott and I stumbled along and worked out our craft skills until we knew what we were doing, at least on a beginner level.
And I looked at what I had, and used it to get me places where I could impress someone. I was in college, so I used a term-paper assignment to get into Dick's office, where I impressed him with a sensible enough manner to get invited to submit stuff. I used the samples to get me into editors' offices, where I impressed Ernie (briefly) and didn't impress Julie. I used my trade magazine experience to get into Tom deFalco's office, and didn't impress him. I used analysis and deduction to figure out Denny needed fill-ins, and pitched what he needed when he needed it, using my lame DC credits as a hook to get read. And so on. I used my experience working in the trade zines to get Marvel Age, an assignment I didn't much want, but it got me money, it got me experience and it got me in the door. But there were a lot of dead ends along the way, and a lot of wasted effort, but I had no idea which effort was wasted until I'd tried.
I built on what I had, and I did whatever I could, and I eventually built that into something. But it wasn't easy, and nobody was looking out for me (unless you count my father loaning me $2000 when I was flat broke, and Scott paying the rent a couple months when we were roomies in New York and I had no cash to cover my share), and I had no rules to follow.
But building on what you have and impressing whoever you can manage to make contact with—and persevering—are skills that any freelancer needs, and skills he'll probably still need long after he makes that first sale.
You probably don't have the same stuff to work with that I did. Everyone's got different stuff. Scott Lobdell worked nights, so he came in at Marvel and DC during the day, got into an office any way he could, and pitched idea after idea until they threw him out. If he sold a story, he'd write it the next morning and get into the offices again to deliver it, and keep pitching 'til he was thrown out. At one point, there was a rule at Marvel that Scott couldn't wander the halls unescorted, and if there wasn't anyone he had business with, he had to leave. He annoyed a lot of people. But he proved his dependability and his tenacity and his skill at writing publishable stuff, and that led to Alpha Flight—until he got fired from it by an editor who wanted to work with a buddy instead. But getting fired from Alpha Flight got him some emergency X-Men dialogue jobs, in part because someone felt he'd been unfairly fired (he'd doubled sales on the book with that "Northstar's gay!" issue, after all, and this was the thanks he got) and in part because they desperately needed someone who could do them overnight and have them be publishable. And that got him the regular gig on an A-list book, and from there he became a star.
He worked with what he had, he impressed people when he had a chance, and the constant effort resulted in a few breaks. But those few breaks added up to the right break.
Marv Wolfman broke in a different way—including short stories for DC's horror anthologies, like House of Mystery. Karl Kesel broke in a different way, through DC's New Talent Showcase. Everyone used what they had, and did what they could, and figured out a path that worked for them.
So, great. DC's not taking unsolicited submissions. Big deal—it's not like unsolicited submissions were going to work anyway.
If you're serious about breaking in to comics, don't worry about any formal submissions system with a set of rules to follow. Whenever there is one, it's flooded with crap anyway, and it doesn't get you anywhere because your submission is lost in a nine-foot-high morass of 12-part mini-series proposals that "fix" the X-universe and screenplays for unfilmable Spider-Man movies and stuff written in red Sharpie on brown-paper bags (I'm not kidding bout any of that, by the way). The people who break in manage it by finding another way. Mike Baron and Steve Rude did comics for a distributor based in their hometown that wanted to publish some comics. That's not in the rules. Joe Casey impressed James Robinson and helped him out with his deadlines. That's not in the rules. Barbara Kesel wrote Dick Giordano a 13-page letter telling him everything DC was doing wrong, and how they should fix it, and got an invite to submit something. That's not in the rules either. [And it must have been one hell of a letter, because most people who write that sort of thing get introduced to the trash can pretty quick.]
You don't need a map. You need to figure out what you've got and capitalize on that. Instead of bemoaning the fact that you can't mail in something that a publisher wasn't going to read and wasn't going to buy, try to figure out something else, something that builds off your skills or knowledge or contacts or whatever. If you don't have any way to get at Marvel and DC editors, try to get at someone else. Make comics, not just proposals—even making crappy comics that convince you that you never want to draw another background again in your life will teach you more about telling a story in pictures on paper than a zillion proposals in the slush pile.
You are your own business manager. You have to be. If all you can do is write, you have no future, since you will get screwed. Not by malicious editors, since they're as rare a breed as people who broke in because they were somebody's gardener—but by editors who use you to fill your needs without any concern for what's best for you and your career. That's not evil—it's not their job to care about your career, it's their job to care about getting their books done. It's your job to care about your career.
So develop the skills. Don't ask others to hand them to you. Analyze the market yourself. Figure out who needs what you can do—not who controls what you want to write, but who has a specific need you can fill, whether it be Power Man fill-ins or one-page humor fillers in a local paper. And if it isn't what you want to do most, too bad. How many people get to start out on their dream assignment—in any field? Do it anyway, and see what you can build on it. A year's worth of single-page weekly comics is enough to fill a 48-page collection, and that's a fine calling card.
But don't look at the great gulf of distance between where you are and where you want to be and complain that you can't get there without help. Look for the closest opportunity you can find, finagle or create. And go for it. Then, whether it worked or not, look for the next one. And if it takes you 18 years between deciding you want to be a comics writer and actually making a dependable living at it, well, welcome to the club. That's how long it took me, too.
If you're not willing to do the work involved in figuring out what opportunities you think exist and going after them, then find a job with a salary—you'll never survive as a freelancer.
* * *
One last note, for anyone who thinks the comics industry should be like book publishing:
The comics industry isn't like book publishing. Thinking it should be gets you nowhere, so it's a waste of time. Deal with reality, not how you wish things were instead of how they are.
The major reason comics aren't like book publishing is that comics editors and book editors need different things. Both of them need to keep putting out material, but after that, it just ain't the same. To keep putting out books, a book editor needs to keep finding new authors, at least until they have a stable of steady producers, and even then the editor will usually need to find more, as authors die or go to other publishing houses or slump in sales. But comic book editors? They need to fill the books. And for most comics, that means a regular team. So the regular team is filling that book every month, and the editor's job isn't about seeking out new material—it's about getting the book out on time, getting those regular guys to produce. A book editor's year is usually filled with one project per writer, so he deals with a lot of writers and there's a lot of need for new guys. A comic book editor editing five monthly books may not need to hire anyone new that year at all. Their books may just be full—and if they are, and the books are on-time and profitable, that editor's doing a good job without ever looking at the slush pile. And even if he needs to hire someone who isn't working for him already, odds are he can choose from a crowd of experienced professionals.
Finding new people is not part of his job. Getting the books out is. The way you break in is by finding someone who needs help getting the books out, whether those books are long-running monthly titles or a slate of ten OGNs that only have seven spots filled, and filling his need—by helping get the books out.
Does that suck, that editors are looking to fill their needs and not yours? That they're not out beating the bushes for the next Alan Moore? Maybe so, but it's how things work, and complaining that it sucks won't get you any closer to where you want to be.
And for that matter, they weren't out beating the bushes for the first Alan Moore either. Alan did what he could, and found, finagled or made opportunities, and one thing led to another, and now he's Alan Moore, and there's thousands of would-be creators who want to get that break writing Marvelman or Swamp Thing—but they're not out doing Maxwell the Magic Cat first, because it was the door that was open at the time. Alan did, and that's the kind of thing that got him the next opportunity, or the practice to take advantage of the next opportunity when it showed up.
Doug Moench wrote text for porn pictorials. Bill Mantlo did production work. Neil Gaiman wrote a book about—what, Duran Duran?
None of them had a map, because there isn't one.
You don't need one either. You already have access to more information and examples that most of the people working in comics had when they broke in, whether it's magazines like this one, books like Nat Gertler's Panel One: Comic Book Scripts by Top Writers, Lurene Haines's A Writer's Guide to the Business of Comics, Denny O'Neil's The DC Guide to Writing Comics, an embarrassment of creator websites and more. What you need is to think, and figure out what you can do from where you are. Not what someone else did and why you can't do it—they had plenty of things they couldn't do either, so they didn't do them. They figured out what they could do, instead.
That's the secret. Think for yourself, and try what you think of, until something works. Don't ask someone whether you need a penciler and an inker, or someone who can do both. Use your judgment. Craft is nothing without judgment. Careers can't be maintained without judgment. So start practicing it now.
And good luck with it.
© 2006, 2009 Kurt Busiek