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Top Ten Tips for Writing a Graphic Novel


For those who know and those who don’t.. I am currently entrenched in the process of writing my first graphic novel. It is my intention to see it through to being published and distributed but that is the not the aim of these tips. I have read just about every HOW TO book and Graphic Novel that I have been able to get my hands on and I have been busting to have a go of it myself.

A few months ago, I was given a very good reason to write, an amazing muse and the emotional motivation to stop thinking and start doing. This was a starting point that I couldn’t ignore. (That’s another thing entirely.)

Back then, I had nothing but vague ideas and now I have three hand drawn books that I like very much. It’s alot of work that has actually been FUN!! I do not lie. I have been having real, good old fashioned, childlike fun working on this project. Here are the tips which are helping me…

1. It’s fun. Try not calling it a book. Try calling it a project. Take the heat & pressure out of the label.

2. Tell your friends what you are doing. Get them to read bits and pieces or as much as they want. Talk about what your writing. Allow a conversation about the story you are working on and listen to what your friends think and suggest.

3. Become a storyteller. Use these same friends and/or people you find stimulating or muse-ish (as opposed to boring and mule-ish). Hone your storytelling skills by trying out parts of your story or even the basic plot line on your mate. Listen to their suggestions & assumptions and remember your responses to these. Your physical responses come in handy later on… to clarify, you may feel yourself cringe at an idea said aloud which sounded fine in your head.

Remember, when your inner critic (bastard that he is) butts in to rebuff any change to your story, offered by your friend, that EVERY bit of feedback is gold. Smile and say AWESOME on the OUTSIDE even when on the INSIDE you are thinking ‘There is no bloody way that THAT is going to happen in this story!’. Cool?
Also, the gentle observation of someones body language is helpful if you want confirmation that they are engaged in the world you are creating for them. IE: If they are smiling at the Lady at the next table – You may need to tighten your plot somewhat – or get another story buddy.

4. Try Minimalist thinking and recording. This is the hardest part for me as I do tend to go on a bit… To do this I had to start at the beginning. This meant allowing myself the space to write ten pages on a subject.. only to have it sum up, accidently, somewhere near the end. As time goes by ten pages becomes eight becomes six becomes four and so on and so on. I minimimalised down to my diary being one word a day. Which got boring fast. For me. So…
Write a page on a subject/idea first.. than nail the idea down to a sentence or two. Take out all that is unnecessary unless of course you are working on a deliberate thoughtful proseish/poetic piece. In that case, flow away… in a deliciously necessary way. TIP: Pick Your Point

5. Watch TV & Film. (as well as reading everything you can, of course)
Sounds crap but it works for me. Watch the genre you’re writing. Analyse It. How do the visual scenes change? What is the POV? How do they handle a shift in visual direction? What is the cropping? The framing? The lighting?? The genre?? AND the dialogue – I love good dialogue. If you have a musical bone in your body – it’ll be easier. Dialogue (especially comedy) has rythym, timing. You can tap your foot to it. Yes? TIP: Practise listening to the rythym in dialogue

While you are listening and studying the ‘sound’ of the dialogue on the television (or Visual Radio) – keep your hands busy – with the more mundane chores of the project. eg – inking/ blocking/ colouring.

I found it useful to read a good ‘How to write a Storyboard’ book or two.
Then it’s a good time to start to work on your project.

The thoughts that have PREVENTED me STARTING to write are:

a) If I write about my life in an honest fashion I feel that I risk compromising the privacy of those I care about.
b) If I write what I think people EXPECT me to write, it will be predictable, transparent and will suck beyond all measure. Believe me – I KNOW this. I have cringe scars to prove it…
c) My avant garde is too avant garde and pointless (at the moment due to the fact that I couldn’t justify the self indulgence).
d) I didn’t want to sell out. I have values. I should have put this at the top of the list.

7. I wanted to write a graphic novel that was fun to read and make and that had appeal, one that would enable my kids to see me in another light (because that is important to me), to communicate in a real way, to create a work of beauty and for the spirit in me, a work of endurance… for art. A meditation.

At the beginning I had three projects in mind.
a) Stubborn Avant Garde with limited appeal = Heart Project
b) Complete commercial project which would undoubtably insult my own intelligence. = Head Project
c) Something fun and real that may have a real chance at success = Mind Project (with a generous dollop of heart thrown in).

Once I understood this- All I had to do was:
- Make a list of my top three most viable projects
- Devote actual time to thinking and feeling about them. I even went as far as thinking about ethics and the ideas I threw out into the world – or at least- how I present them.
- I had to be honest with myself.
- Finally commit to ONE idea
- Get to work.

8. TOOLS for your storyboard or first draft.
I like hardcover blank books with okay paper. I never get too precious about the paper. Too much pressure. Some people like loose paper. Some like scrap. Some like spiral bound or hand-made. Whatever you like – grab it.
I like to use a pencil and sharpener as my initial tools. I don’t use an eraser – again, if I can erase I can overthink.
The next bit is hard to describe. It’s awkward at first and the first page you make is either bloody disappointing or so good that you can’t start the second page due to the fact that you can’t possibly ever live up to the brilliance of the first page. These are all inner bits which drive me nuts and encourage me to procrastinate. In fact, now that I think about it, I have wasted most of my life debating this stuff with myself….. pfft.
PENCIL TIPS: 4B – leaves a shadow on the opposing page. Double erasing = boring. HB – is hard, scratchy and unemotional – however, good for eyeballs when hard, scratchy & unemotional lines are required. 2B – Is just right.

If you don’t know where to start – start with a stick figure. Play. Practise. Warm Up. Gain Confidence slowly or quickly. Make the figures talk. Give your figures human dialogue, dilemas and Dramas. Kill them off, marry them off, send them off cliffs and into emotional quagmires….. torment their hearts and souls or nourish and love them. Heal them. Take note of your responses. It’s important. :)

While you are playing with the stick figures and getting them to speak… you may get stuck or be predicable like I did.. at least once on every page. This leads me to this TIP: Investigation.
At this point what would you do or say if you were the character?
What would your Mum say? What would your partner do?
I like to choose the opposite to my initial impulse. It opens up avenues.
IE: You could be writing about a buff, boyishly handsome train robber who comes out with your Mum’s most well know line "Make sure you’re home before dark… ".

10) My Personal Favourite – STAY UP ALL NIGHT!!
Of course, make sure that it is practical. Remember your kids if you have them, your job et al.
I love staying up all night. It requires coffee, stamina and discipline! Sounds harsh but the rewards are great. Nightime is distraction free and allows time for an idea to flow and take shape. Nights are the times when I have the chance to disappear into work – luxury.
Don’t knock it till you try it. Ease into it.

Like the story you are writing.
Write the story you would like to read – or one you wouldn’t??
Don’t be precious, Precious. It’s just a draft. A thing for you.

Well, there you go. My geeky observations about my journey thus far. I’ll think about the rest when I’m closer to finishing ‘my project’ and report back if I have any other news.

Good luck and Dog Speed to You All.

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