The following is a development diary* of sorts, covering 4 problems I ran into over the course of a year working on a graphic novel. #1. Design drift #2. Character development and storytelling failures #3. Formatting issues and #4. Speed of production.
I have abandoned many creative projects.
My first attempt at a novel was a fantasy story.
(It was a kind of horror/fairytale. The main character is kidnapped by a witch. She holds him captive on her island and all the things he does to survive there, prepares him for his eventual escape and return to his family. The disgusting plant he eats to stay alive turns his skin green and later in the story he manages to escape danger as he journeys across magical lands, back to his family, because his skin is green etc. but when he returns to his home and finds his family he has changed so much she is unrecognizable.)
I never finished it.
I started a graphic novel about a mousy, bespectacled, social worker. (She feels powerless in her job to stop terrible things from happening to powerless children, so she becomes a serial killer – murdering bad parents, abusive uncles and neighbors. She never really knows if she’s doing the right thing. She’s tortured over doing nothing and she’s tortured when she acts.)
I never finished it.
I started a children’s picture book called The Book of Loud Noises, which I thought was hysterical.
I never finished it.
But looking back, I see these projects is practice runs. Warm-ups. I got up to speed but stopped short of the hurdle. Feeling out the distance. The effort. Psyching myself up to jump.
Then I had an idea for a graphic novel about amateur motorcross racers. I was inspired by the television show Veronica Mars (an edgy, funny, modern take on Nancy Drew) and I thought that my graphic novel could be a modern take on the Hardy Boys. But the characters wouldn’t be squeaky-clean, rich or privileged. They would be real kids from working-class families, struggling against authority and injustice in small town America.
I started drawing the graphic novel called Mud, Blood and Motorcross five years ago.
I didn’t finish it.
I needed to plot out the mystery, so I sat down in front of my computer and ended up writing a novel instead.
I had so much fun writing the story that I wrote and published two more books in the series.
Each time I sat down to write another book, it didn’t feel effortless.
It was still terrifying getting started.
And the rest of the process wasn’t easy, but I was more comfortable. Continuing with the track metaphor – I was finding my stride.
But the graphic novel, unfinished, nagged at me. So I picked it back up again in November or December 2013. In every creative project you have to give yourself some leeway, some time to struggle and explore. Then there’s a point where you need to step back and judge, edit, self-correct. After working for almost a full year, in November or December 2014, I had a horrible gut-wrenching realization:
My graphic novel was bad.
I was failing to tell the story or make the reader care about my characters.
Falling on your face is bad enough but wasting an entire year and then falling on your face is pretty excruciating. Luckily, or unluckily depending on how all of this turns out, I can’t give up on this project.
I was buoyed, inspired and I learned a lot from a post by Sean Michael Robinson on The Hooded Utilitarian called: How Not to make a graphic novel.
Sean‘s post highlighted a couple problems that I was having and a couple problems that I wasn’t even aware of.
#1. “Design drift” is what Sean calls it, but I began to think of it as “style drift” because it was not just my characters who were morphing and changing from page to page as I drew out the story. Backgrounds, line weight, composition, black to white balance… it was all over the place.
Sean quotes an anonymous genius who said, “In comics, style is way less important than consistency.”
I knew that this was happening, but I just kept thinking I would be able to go back and fix it once I got into a rhythm. I made the mistake of thinking that it just happens, like magic, “it gels”, it “comes together.”
But I was wrong.
These things do not just work themselves out. I had to make choices.
I had read Scott McCloud’s amazing book, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, many years ago. I reread it, and ordered his two other books: Reinventing Comics: How Imagination and Technology Are Revolutionizing an Art Form and Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels.
In Making Comics, Mccloud shows how he “designs” characters and comes up with “rules”.
- How do the characters compare with each other?
- How are they different?
- How can you tell them apart?
To a professional illustrator or comic artist, I’m sure that is obvious. I never formally studied drawing comics, but I have always read them, and I hoped I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel. (My success, obviously, is yet to be determined.)
I have to remind myself that we learn from our mistakes. As painful as it may be. So I went back to the drawing board (literally) and figured out exactly who the characters were and what they look like.**
So “design drift” and “style drift” we’re problem #1.
Problem #2 were related to my main character and the translation from novel to comics.
Sean had the problem that he didn’t like his main character. He felt that his character was a judgemental jerk. In my graphic novel, I just wasn’t getting across the full character development. In my book, I had more tools to help the reader feel for Nick. As you read, you are “in his head,” even though it’s written in third person, you still know what he’s thinking and feeling. But I wasn’t doing that in the graphic novel. We were on the outside looking in and not enough in his head. I didn’t want the comic to have a running inner monologue so I had to tell the story differently.
I was following the book more or less, but that was a big fat fail!
One of my beta readers said, “I just don’t care about Nick, and why are you making him so ugly?”
At this point I threw the story out. I read a bunch of books on screenwriting, because I figured that was more accurately the storytelling structure I needed. Yes, the reader is looking at Nick from the outside, but it’s still my job to make you feel for him, care about him.
The most useful screenwriting books were Robert McKee‘s Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting and Sid Field‘s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting.
Both of them recommended a technique where you write a skeleton of your story on index cards, with each plot point or turning point on a card. You can shuffle the cards around and throw out the ones you don’t need. And inversely if there’s a hole you can fill it.
Now with my stack of index cards I sketched out the new version of the story. I had to let go of the story as I had written it in the book. They are different storytelling tools. So I had to treat them very differently.
Problem #3 and problem #4 I didn’t even know I had until I read Sean’s post.
#4. Speed of production
Sean talks about how he was drawing too large (on large format paper) and with too many tiny lines, so when reduced for production, all that time and effort was wasted. All of his fine details disappeared.
Back to Scott McCloud in Making Comics on page 190, he talks about working on art between “125% and 166% of the printed size which reduces between 80% and 60% respectively.”
Again I had to make some choices stylistically.
What was going to be my final print size?
Because that would dictate my working page size and pen size.
I was working in Photoshop already much as McCloud explains on page 197 of Making Comics, but he explained the nifty idea of the top layer being white with the panels punched out. So the art would show through.
(I was I was drawing in layers of the individual panels which was way more work intensive than it needed to be. This was happening because of my misguided goal to draw the graphic novel panel by panel and post it to my blog – one panel a day. This could work if I restricted myself to the same panel size always, like Dash Shaw‘s BodyWorld. But for me, working this way, I was being too precious with each panel (staring deeply at the tree bark and losing sight of the forest). And it was contributing further to the crazy style drift.)
Again… these things do not just work themselves out. I had to make choices.
I’m sure any professional who is reading this is shaking their head and feeling sorry for me. I will take your pity. I felt sorry for myself for awhile. But then I began to have hope. I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I began to see how I was going to finish this project.
At the same time, I was reading A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (and 833 page graphic memoir – holy moly!) he recounts seeing the proof pages of his idol, Osamu Tezuka, for the first time. He’s horrified!
The Pages of the color manuscripts are drawn on, “torn out notebook paper and the faces and hands have corrections pasted over them.”
“You can’t exactly call them pretty, can you?”
“The prepress technician still makes plates for each color separation, so Mr. Tezuka just specifies the color using numbers that are assigned to certain colors.”
“There’s no wasted work with him you can’t produce such volume otherwise.”
“Being an amateur, I never would have imagined such a technique.”
“I felt like the scales are falling off my eyes.”
That is exactly what happened to me as I read those words.
I realized I needed a system of production, so I can produce more of my art and become better at the craft of storytelling with my drawings.
Not drawing illustrations of my story.
The answer for me, was a style guide – I picked five gray tones that I would stick to, plus black and white, and I picked three basic pen sizes: number three for distance, number six middle ground, number 10 for close-ups. I established a drawing style for objects, people and backgrounds that I would stick to. There was also a white to dark ratio that although not set in stone, I became aware of, and consciously try to maintain/manipulate for drama and storytelling purposes.
The big question I asked myself is, “did I just waste the last year of my life?”
But I don’t think so. I choose to think not. I will be able to use at least some of the drawings in the final version, and I learned a lot.
Now I am paying close attention to consistency and seeing how each page, each drawing, each character fits into and adds to the whole story.
Obviously, I’m not finished yet. But so far, I have learned how not to make a graphic novel.
*Thanks to Austin Kleon and his book, Show Your Work, for the roadmap of how and why to where your process, struggle, and influences. He recommends the idea of a development diary.
** in retrospect, my main character Nick, was the one who was the least concrete in my mind. And that was mostly intentional in the novel because I didn’t want to write a description that would stop the reader from identifying with him. I wanted to leave Nick is “blank” as possible, so the reader would project themselves onto neck and feel him more deeply.*** Personally, I find that when I read novels and the main character is described especially in first person, “I have brown hair and green eyes and I only wear Lucky Brand jeans and Aeropostale T-shirts…”
#1. I just get annoyed. That type of stuff can either be super dated or just regionally cool or uncool. Someone from a different place or time can then read that, and get the wrong impression of your character.
#2. I (mentally) throw away those kinds of details as I read because of characters thoughts and actions are more important to me than their eye color. (My agent made me go back into the manuscript when I was finished and add more detail than there initially was. So the reader does know that Nick has dark shaggy hair and dark eyes and mostly wears T-shirts, jeans, and motocross gear… no brand specified.)
*** This same concept is articulated in the language of comics by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (pages 30 through 36) where he explains how we all think of ourselves:
Our Face is “a mask facing outward, worn from the day you were born… seen by everyone you meet, but never by you.”
We can easily identify and project our own emotions onto an icon or a comic character. But when we interact with others we are looking at them and observing them in, “vivid detail.”
“That’s when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of the face… you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon… you see yourself.”
(The ubiquity of the emoticons needs to be explored late at a later date.)