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.
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.
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.
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.)