Writing and Publishing Graphic Novels from Start to Finish

Comics and graphic novels have seen impressive growth over the past three years, which means this category is ripe for experimentation by new authors.
Publish date:

By Steve Kissing

One of the things that amuses me about publishing my first graphic novel is that prior to engaging in this project a few years ago, I had never read one. I had some sense of graphic novels, of course, but I paid them no heed. Truth be told, I suppose I even looked down on them as if they were somehow beneath a “real” writer, reader and book lover such as myself. However, when I was approached about converting my memoir, published in 2003, into a graphic novel, I had to face my ignorance and arrogance. Here are some things this graphic novel neophyte learned through his baptism of fire.

Graphic Novels Are Rising in Popularity

While still not fully mainstream, you have probably already noticed the proliferation of graphic novels where you shop for books. NPD Bookscan reports that comics and graphic novels have seen “compound annual unit sales growth of 15 percent over the last three years, making it one of the highest growth categories in the trade book marketplace.” In other words, it’s not just stereotypical comic book nerds buying graphic novels.

I have experienced this sales surge firsthand. I have dozens of family, friends and colleagues who chose not to read my narrative memoir but who have already read the graphic novel version. The easier to digest, visually driven stories are more inviting for some. I assume this is due in part to the fact that we live in a world awash in imagery, from streaming movies and TV shows to social media where video, photos and infographics reign supreme. Whatever the root causes, the key reason graphic novels sell is that they are entertaining and artful, some of them as much as any other book of any other type.

[“How do you get into writing comics? Write a comic.” Eisner-Nominated Alex de Campi Talks Comics, Prose & Multidisciplinary Creative Work]

It’s Not an Either/Or Proposition

I first told my story—one about how, as a child, I misdiagnosed my hallucinations caused by a seizure disorder as demonic possession—via a feature-length magazine piece. I then wrote a narrative memoir, and now, some fifteen years later, it’s also a graphic novel, published by London-based Markosia. (I tease my writer friends that the next embodiment of my story will be an animatronic themed park ride.) My point: Perhaps the book you’re writing could also be “re-packaged” as a graphic novel. Or vice versa.

 Comics Experience Guide to Writing Comics: Scripting Your Story Ideas from Start to Finish

Comics Experience Guide to Writing Comics: Scripting Your Story Ideas from Start to Finish

If your story, true or not, is filled with visually interesting scenes and characters, it may be particularly suited to the graphic novel format. My hallucinations, in which I “saw” things such as alligators and famous people like Abraham Lincoln, certainly lent themselves to some interesting visuals. In fact, this is why I was encouraged to convert my narrative memoir into a graphic one.

Getting Used to Thinking in Pictures

It can hard for those accustomed to communicating in words to think and express themselves in pictures, especially if you’re not the one actually drawing them. I didn’t draw mine. (That’s a good thing because even my stick figures are lame.) My story was illustrated by Jim Jimenez, an experienced graphic artist with credits such as “X-Men” and “The Mask.” (Jim needed to be directed, though; more on that in a moment.)

So much of a good story is rooted in how writers describe people, places and things for the reader to see in her mind’s eye. With a graphic novel, the visuals do virtually all of that heavy lifting. As such, far fewer words are needed. The tried-and-true advice to “show, don’t tell” applies to graphic novels as much any other kind of book, but also applicable is the counsel: don’t show and tell. In other words, no need to communicate the same information through images and words. That’s a story-killer called redundancy.

Through the process of creating my graphic novel, I thought of it less as traditional writing and more like creating a storyboard for a movie, for which I was writing captions. This helped me to “see” the story in images rather than just words.

The Layers of Graphic Novel Creation

In creating my graphic novel, I received professional help from an experienced graphic novel scripter, Charles Santino of Marshall Holt Entertainment. (A simple Google search will identify people like Charles who can help you for a fee or a portion of the sales.) Working collaboratively, Charles and I prepared the book’s script in sections—what you could think of as chapters—broken down by page and then by the “panels” on each. (Page through any graphic novel and you’ll see that most deploy different sized panels, some bigger, some smaller, on each page. Some panels may have multiple captions, and some none at all.)

The script describes the images for the artist to capture in each frame (along with providing the caption that will accompany it), while leaving plenty of room for his or her imagination and talent to enhance the scene. In some cases, we also provided the artist with some reference material, such as photos of my family, neighborhood, school and church.

Here’s a sample script page:

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The artist would then provide a rough sketch for my approval, that looked like this:

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Next would come a black-and-white version of that page, which looked like this:

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Then another person, who was not the artist, would add the color. (Two colorists contributed to my book.)

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And then the captions are added, a process called lettering. This is a specialty in its own right and is typically done by someone other than the lead artist. My project engaged two letterers. Here’s a sample finished page:

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Perhaps needless to say, we made edits and changes along the way, though we always worked hard to get each stage right before moving on to the next, as it’s much more efficient to make changes to visuals before they are colored and the lettering is added.

I so enjoyed this process, and now feel comfortable with it, that I am planning to write another graphic novel, a work of fiction set in a post-apocalyptic world. I am also now a regular reader—and advocate—of graphic novels. (For a nice overview of some of the best graphic memoirs, check out this article on Mashable.)

If you’re not reading graphic novels, take it from me: you’re missing out. And if you’re not thinking about writing one, your readers—and potential readers—will be missing out, too.

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Steve Kissing is an award-winning magazine writer and published poet who also runs a communications firm in Cincinnati, OH called Wordsworth. His recently released graphic novel is available on Amazon and in select bookstores.

Don't miss our special preconference workshop, Writing Comics & Graphic Novels, at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference! The workshop features individual sessions with Eisner–nominated comics and prose writer Alex de Campi; Valiant Entertainment Executive Editor Joe Illidge; and Starlight Runner CEO Jeff Gomez—and wraps up with a moderated panel discussion featuring all three instructors answering your questions.

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