Thanks for tuning in to another episode of Table Talk, the column where three New Pulp authors talk about whatever questions happen to teleport through the quantum pockets of their nebulous imaginations. This week, Barry Reese, Bobby Nash and Mike Bullock dig into the mailbag and respond to more questions from you, the readers.
(Question from Mark Holmes) In light of the recent SCOTUS decision concerning foreign public domain copyrights, are you guys seeing a threat to a good part of your ability to
use characters in the public domain created in the U.S. ?
Bobby: In all honesty, I’ve not really given it a lot of thought. Yet. I’m also not that well versed in the decision so I can’t really say exactly how it will impact my work. When I write public domain characters it is generally for a publisher so the possibility of certain writing assignments going away is a very real possibility. I enjoy writing stories with characters like Domino Lady, Secret Agent X, and the like, but if and when they become unavailable then there are characters I’ve created or will create to fill that void. Not to say I won’t miss those characters. I’ve grown quite fond of a couple of them, namely Domino Lady and Secret Agent X.
Public domain characters are fun to play with in stories, but if they become unavailable then I’ll move on to new characters I can write about. It’s just like Spider-man. I love the character of Spider-man, but I don’t have the authority to write the character so I don’t. It would be the same difference, I think.
Barry: I’m not very concerned about it, either. I’ve used several public domain heroes in The Rook series but I don’t have any plans to use any of them in the future – and like Bobby, most of the time recently that I’ve been asked to write PD characters, it was at the behest of some publisher. The PD heroes that I’ve enjoyed writing the most are fairly obscure ones (like Ascott Keane) but if I had to stop using them entirely, it wouldn’t be hard to create new versions that filled the same roles.
Mike: I guess I'm with my colleagues on this one. Honestly, aside from say Phantom, John Carter and Moon Knight, I'd die happy if I only wrote my own characters for the rest of my life. Sure I love Captain Future, Black Bat and many others, but in the end, I get the most enjoyment from playing in my own sandbox with my own toys.
(Question from C. William Russette) Do you believe in writer's block? What do you do to make yourself face the blank page when the block has been raised? How do you overcome it?
Bobby: I don’t believe in writer’s block. Are there days when the words won’t flow right? Absolutely. However, I’ve found that I can step away from the project where I’ve stalled and work on another story just fine. That tells em there is a problem with either my story that I need to work through or that I simply need a break from that story.
The writer’s block question is one I hear at conventions a lot. I’m going to borrow the answer that my convention traveling buddy, Sean Taylor often gives. “Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, do they?” While it is apples and oranges, it is a valid point. Writing as a job is a lot different than writing as a hobby. As a hobby, you can wait until the muse hits you. When writing is your job, your livelihood, then you don’t usually have that luxury. There have been many days where I’ve typed “The End” on one story and immediately started on the next to meet deadlines. Deadlines are a great cure for writer’s block.
The hardest thing for me is getting started. It’s so easy to get sidetracked by other things that keep me from putting my butt in the chair. Cleaning the office, Facebook, Twitter, updating my website, etc. are all important, but sometimes you have to push those aside and just start writing. Once I get started, however, I’m usually good to go.
Barry: I’ve never had a really bad case of writer’s block. I mean, sometimes I just can’t get the motivation to write but it only lasts a day or two before the compulsion drives me back to work.
The best thing to do, I’ve found, is to take some time to step away and watch or read something that inspires you. Then you come back to the computer and start banging away. Even if it’s not perfect, you have to work through things and put words on the paper… you can always clean it up later. You just keep chipping away and eventually the block will crack.
Bobby: I absolutely agree, Barry. I was on a panel at a convention once and a writer commented that part of writing is staring out the window. He was right. As a writer, sometimes we have to work through plot issues away from the keyboard. For me, taking a walk, going for a drive, and mowing the lawn are some of things I can do that allows my brain some freedom to explore story elements. Sometimes walking away for a bit is very helpful to the writing process.
Mike: I don't believe in it either. Justin Gray once said that writer's block is a myth. What actually happens is you just run low on fuel. The imagination needs fuel just like everything else, so if you never take in anything (such as news, science, other stories, etc.) then eventually you'll run out of gas and fall into a lack of inspiration that many call writer's block.
(Question from Mark Holmes): I'm following this mess with Gary Freidrich and Marvel over Ghost Rider. Do you guys own the complete rights to characters you create or are they shared with the publishers?
Bobby: It varies. I have done work for hire where I created characters for a series that I do not own. For example, outside of the title characters and the villain, I created most of the characters in the Yin Yang graphic novel. I knew going in that anything I created for this book would belong to the company. The thought of trying to sue to get those characters has never occurred to me. I went into the project knowing that I was doing work for hire.
I own all of my novel characters outright, except for the adaptation of Fantastix, which was a company owned property. I also own, or co-own in some cases, characters created for original comic projects. The artist and I generally co-own the property since we’re both doing it pretty much on spec.
The rights issue is a lot less messy than it once was. Back in the 60’s and 70’s there was very little thought given to movies, TV, and other media that hadn’t even been created at the time. The rights issues are a little more clear these days and spelled out in contracts. Sometimes that means the publishers want a cut of movie rights and others. It is up to the creators of the project to decide if giving up a portion of the rights is in their best interest or not. Every publisher is different. You have to do your research before signing.
As for the Gary Freidrich issue, I’ll refrain from comment, as I’m not directly involved.
Mike: I can't comment on the Ghost Rider/Friedrich scenario as there are just too many variables I don't know anything about. On the topic of things I do know a lot about, I own most of the characters I've created. Granted, there are exceptions, like Manuel Ortega, a villain I created to combat The Phantom, but for the most part I make sure I own them from the get go. It's not like today's publishers are paying the kind of money that makes giving away your creations a wise trade.
Barry: As Bobby says, there are varying degrees with each publisher. I own all rights to The Rook but I also have a contract with Pro Se that says that any new Rook material I do has to be done through them for the next couple of years. So the character is mine but I have a contract that dictates where it can be published for the terms of it. Likewise, Lazarus Gray is mine but he’s part of a shared world called Sovereign City so while I could take him elsewhere when my deal was up, I’d have to edit out references to other people’s characters, etc.
I’ve also done a lot of work-for-hire, where I own none of it. The work I did for Moonstone was all like that, as well as the stuff I wrote for Marvel or the various role-playing games I’ve been associated with. I’m okay with that – it was very clearly spelled out in the contract and I knew what I was doing going into the project.
Bobby: I guess the important thing to remember here is that if you plan to write, draw, or do any creative job for a publisher, know what the terms of employment are before signing a contract. I know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of a bad contract, especially early in my writing career, but I learned from my mistakes (I hope) and moved forward.