Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Digital artwork of a proposed graphic novel cover. It's blinding magenta with glitched-out blue, green, and orange striping. Glitchy letters spell out 'TERMINAL' on top. A white marble sphinx perches on a glitchy altar. A green pixel star bears 'H. McGill' in courier new.

Making a New Graphic Novel Pitch: Terminal!
After attending a comics event via SCBWI, I realized that my fantasy graphic novel Warlock’d was better off self-published. If I self-publish Warlock’d, I could teach myself how to make a graphic novel without the threat of going over budget. However, I still want to participate in the publishing community and practice pitching. I wished to design a graphic novel concept that had a target audience clearly in mind before I began production on it. Warlock’d has already been through quite a few revisions and its story structure is settled, at least for me. I also have no idea who would want to read Warlock’d besides me. I hunted for a more flexible idea, one that an editor, art director, and publisher could alter to suit a target audience.

To be honest, I’m not sure what this Venn diagram really means. It’s a visual of what my brain looked like while I was thinking.

I started with a single concept:

 

A haunted pink computer teaches a girl to let go of her childhood possessions.

 

The earliest iteration of the idea centered on a girl who had amassed a hoard of stuff: Toys she never played with anymore, old art projects, embarrassing obsessions with cartoon characters, etc.  She was distancing herself from her friends out of embarrassment that she still loved all those old, childish things. Somehow, there would be a computer that would do ghostly stuff. Perhaps it was able to move items around?

Perhaps not. The fantastical aspects of my idea felt exhausting. Whatever had possessed me to fill Warlock’d with mystical structures was plum tuckered out. I could not deal with inventing and keeping track another imaginary system for how ghosts would work. I still love the idea of ghosts and hauntings mixed in with technology, but maybe the spirit parts are less literal. Death as a metaphor for new beginnings and all that.

Another early problem was that even someone as gently enthusiastic as Marie Kondo can seriously ramp up the anxiety of a person who collects items to comfort themselves. I’m not a fan of moral judgment in stories. It’s none of my business to tell people what things they should have in their homes to bring them happiness. I still wanted the aspect of ‘letting go’ so my new concept became more broad:

 

A haunted pink computer teaches a girl to let go.

 

This broader aspect gave me more wiggle room to construct the story. There was the question of who was haunting the pink computer. Without a literal ‘ghost’, what might there be? Old files from its previous owner? That seemed fun and interesting to me. The files needed something to tie them to the main character.

What if they were her mom’s files?

Do we need yet another children’s book character with a dead mom? Not really. Death! A metaphor for new beginnings, not actual death! Since my target audience is ‘moms who will buy the book to give to their kids, particularly daughters/nonbinaries’, it seems prudent to have a mom character alive and present. Possibly even…a cool mom. I doodled a mom and her daughter. I’m going research-lite on this one so they both look kind of like me.

I was also thinking about the kids that Sylvia might encounter. I named one ‘Evie’ and the other ‘Lark’. The idea was that Sylvia would be experiencing a change or unexpected distance with her friend Evie, which would lead Sylvia to seek out friendship with a ‘scary’ kid. Evie’s transformation from friend to enemy would have been marked by her wardrobe change. I’m still into this idea, although Evie is currently less ‘evil’ and more ‘developing social skills she does not yet have’.

My first draft of an outline was something like, Sylvia gets rejected from Evie’s friend group, so she starts to get to know Lark instead, and they make a video game, and there’s some interpersonal drama, but it gets solved with boundaries. It was really complex, though. I didn’t have much room for the mom or the haunted computer. The resolution was also quite mean, with Sylvia no longer working on the game’s art assets so that Lark wasn’t feeling so bogged down by her lack of skill.

Lark got dumped into a file called ‘Sequel Fodder’. Maybe worth exploring later, but not right now. I just want a simple book that is under 200 pages. Lark alone could add about a hundred pages of subplot.

My second draft of an outline included a horrible middle school computer science teacher. ‘Sequel fodder’ was too good for him. He was immediately gone after one readthrough. That left me a cast of about five characters: Sylvia, Evie, Sylvia’s mom, Evie’s mom, and two of Evie’s new friends to represent Evie’s exploration into social spheres, away from Sylvia. Lark is on the ‘optional’ end of the cast right now and I’ll see where he fits in after I finish draft 1.

The outline, when read aloud, became confusing, because ‘Evie’ sounds a lot like ‘Sylvia’. I experimented with different character names and settled on ‘Meadow’ instead of Evie.

I also tentatively designed the pink computer. I think early 2000s computers still look futuristic today, in a fun way. We don’t get the cool candy colors anymore and I think that’s a shame.

I tried a cover mockup of the computer but it looked too much like an ‘iMac G3 user guide’. I also didn’t want to run into licensing issues, particularly with the wallpaper background or with the icon face. This ‘character’ will also undergo a few more design revisions as a result. For now it looks the way I want it to look.

I messed with the graphics and came up with some pixel art I think a 12 year old girl in 2001 would make so that the UI and display were more bespoke and less corporate.

Once I had some characters to mess around with, it was time to generate sample pages and see how they all worked together. I made a quick script as an opening chapter and laid out the following eight pages:

 

As you can see, I added Brooke and Leah, who represent Meadow’s new friend group. There is not yet much thought to either of these characters, but I imagine Leah as a socially-savvy, protective friend, whereas Brooke is a sweetheart who enables others to have fun. To Sylvia both girls will initially read as antagonistic but she will eventually realize they are legitimately cool girls. This will occur to Sylvia even if they aren’t exactly friends by the end of the story.

Some small changes according to feedback included giving Leah a hair cap and making the pillows look less like rocks. In general I’m interested in completely redrawing these pages so that the characters look like they have more structure. I also waffle between simplifying or making characters more complex-looking. Looking back at my initial sketches I think it’s probably a better idea to lean into gestural poses and simplified eyes. I like my character sketches a lot more than I liked my completed pages.

I also made a ‘wow’ spread to represent an exciting moment that happens later in the graphic novel. This one, I’m fond of, especially the technical details and the bubble letters. If you spot the Evangelion reference congratulations! You’re a nerd!!

The finished product I have in mind is something that has relatable interpersonal drama, with cinematic segments to keep things fresh. This book should be a safe space to indulge in the pleasure of gossip without hurting anyone in real life. I think it would also be neat to have some logic puzzles and real computer science thrown in. However, that requires a bit more research than what I have now. I will be querying my partner, who is a software engineer, for specifics.

What’s Next?
I’ve revised the outline and it feels solid enough to chunk into scenes. I’m writing those into a first draft of the script. I’ll reread the script with notes to let it influence how I reorganize my outline. Already I’m thinking about putting Lark back in…but I digress. I will submit the pitch packet to agents as long as I have a first draft and the test pages all done. Scary, but hopefully I learn something about it as a result!

Comics Tip

How to Make Pitch Packets
 First of all, there isn’t a universal format for pitch packets. Graphic novels have always been an odd market. I’ve seen very extravagant packets as well as very small simple ones. It depends on the editor, publisher, or agent as to what they individually want to see, but it can be hard to get that information. I think a good strategy is to check agent, editor, and publisher homepages for what formats they like. They want materials they can easily show and talk about at a meeting with interested parties.

Here is the subtle thing that I don’t think most people realize.

Forming a pitch is about quickly getting to know a project…for the creator. I don’t think pitches are for publishing entities alone. Graphic novels take years to produce and I think the pitch is the ideal way to gauge whether a project is worth investing that amount of time into. The two-sentence elevator pitch, the outline, the rough draft, the character sketches, the sample pages…that’s also for the creator to test things out and see what they like creating. I also personally feel like an organized pitch is the mark of a professional. I know that art can be legitimate and completed even when it’s messy, but when it comes to the publishing system and making sure the whole team involved can get a book at the end to sell, and then feed their families…Yeah. Being professional isn’t necessarily the fun part. Being able to follow through comes from structure and discipline. It’s about selling the idea, and then it’s about reliably following through on that idea. It’s about showing others how you will work with them, whether that’s about story structure, scripting style, drawing style, etc.

For these reasons, I think good materials to have for general external pitching include:

  1. Two-sentence summary.
  2. Five-sentence summary.
  3. One-page outline.
  4. Full outline.
  5. Sample pages (check editor/publisher/agent for which pages they want to see)
  6. Written character studies and their purpose in the story.
  7. Drawn character studies and size/silhouette comparisons.
  8. A setting study or two.
  9. A complete rough draft of the script.
  10. 50 polished pages of the script.

Nice-to-haves might include:

  1. Polished character portraits.
  2. Character lineup.
  3. Concept art of the story’s defining moments.
  4. A complete, revised 2nd or 3rd draft of the script, although be aware that editing and changes may still happen to the story!

This is all I know so far, but I hope it offers some ideas of where to get started when it comes to forming a new graphic novel.

Care to read more?

Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Retrofitting Dinosaurs for the Future of HumankindRAWR! Dinosaur Friends started out as a webcomic concept, one that I wasn't initially intending to pitch as a proper graphic novel. The first iteration was a slapdash, punk homage to the natural history museums I loved...

Goblin Week 2022 Retrospective

Goblin Week 2022 Retrospective

Throwing Down on Social MediaI don't often participate in big group challenges in public, but this one caught my interest: Goblin Week! It was started by Evan Dahm in 2012 and every year, the goblins just get more goblin-y. I created seven different goblins with...

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Afterlife

Afterlife

Full-color digital artwork of a vast, mossy landscape under a sky clobbering up with stormclouds. Two yi qi dinosaurs browse the moss near a black river. Overhead, a third yi qi swoops in from off-frame. The remains of a sauropod are overgrown with ferns and moss in the foreground. Off in the distance, it's difficult to tell where the mountains end and the clouds begin.

The Composition that Social Media Made

This piece didn’t start out as a reflection of some unrelated personal stuff that happened to me lately. It was defined via a Twitter poll where voters decided I was going to draw yi qi dinosaurs next to a stream and color them purple. I had a lot of help from NeolithicSheep, who shared my polls with enough people to give me good data to work from.

Dolling up a poll with emoji to make people want to click it is one thing, but the main force involved with garnering interactions is having friends with big followings on Twitter. I haven’t 100% figured out how to manipulate social media in my favor on my own, but this poll’s results sure turned out fun. I feel encouraged to set up other polls like this in the future. If you check out Shep’s twitter and enjoy his content, you can help him maintain heritage sheep and cattle breeds by pledging to his Patreon.

Comics Tip

Color Theory: Lightness and Darkness
When learning how to color, many beginning colorists are surprised to learn that at least one aspect of color theory can be picked up from doing grayscale (monochromatic) studies. The lightness and darkness of a color affects its depth and ability to catch the eye in any given composition. The way that light and dark colors pop out depend on their proximity to one another. Examples:

Digital artwork of a black composition with one white point, and a white composition with one black point.

In a very dark painting, seen on left, a light color will stick out as what you want the viewer to focus on. In a very light painting, seen on right, a dark color will stick out instead.

Digital artwork of a grayscale box. A white square and a black square are next to each other in the box, creating a point of interest.

It’s also important to keep midtone values in mind. The typical composition that utilizes midtones will gather  the darkest and lightest colors on a focal point. They will pop out at the viewer as an area they should look at. This is called an area of ‘high contrast’. 

Digitatl artwork of a checkerboard panel with nine black and white squares. One of the black squares is gray instead, creating a point of interest via scarcity.

…But this can be subverted in a very interesting way, such as making a high contrast black and white composition with one area of midtones.

Digital art of four different checkerboard squares. Each one is a different color, starting from monochromatic, to purple, to teal, to a yellow and purple variant at the end.

Monochromatic doesn’t mean ‘grayscale’, either. Monochromatic simply means ‘one color’. These aspects still apply even when a single color is used throughout a composition. Photoshop has a tool called ‘Gradient mapping’ which is useful for exploring monochromatic compositions and then harmlessly trying out different color schemes on top. It can be pushed to fantastical extremes, depending on the colors chosen, breaking it out of monochrome into a multicolor piece. Some artists use a Photoshop layer set to Overlay to hand-paint monochromatic compositions. I confess that my grasp on grayscale is not quite polished enough for this to work, and when I used this method I would add layers on top to deepen colors. For me, Overlay is too messy for comics coloring.

A version of the previously-described yi qi piece, but the only color used is purple.

My first attempt at coloring Afterlife was to use only purple, and color pick based on a palette. For a vision of the beyond, it turned out a little too lifeless, so I added a few spot colors here and there. I haven’t figured out whether this is an aspect of purple to be cold and dark like this. Red is probably easier to work with, so I’m keeping red in mind for a future monochromatic composition.

For another note on color theory, here is my writeup on how different hues of colors interact. If you play with both hues and with contrast, you’re bound to get some lovely color composition ideas.

DIgital lineart of the yi qi piece. Colors are omitted so that the viewer may supply their own here.‘Afterlife’ Coloring page licensed under CC BY NC 3.0.

 

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Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Retrofitting Dinosaurs for the Future of HumankindRAWR! Dinosaur Friends started out as a webcomic concept, one that I wasn't initially intending to pitch as a proper graphic novel. The first iteration was a slapdash, punk homage to the natural history museums I loved...

Goblin Week 2022 Retrospective

Goblin Week 2022 Retrospective

Throwing Down on Social MediaI don't often participate in big group challenges in public, but this one caught my interest: Goblin Week! It was started by Evan Dahm in 2012 and every year, the goblins just get more goblin-y. I created seven different goblins with...

Want to chat about this?

Our Little Editors: A Paw-fully Good Zine About Pets

Our Little Editors: A Paw-fully Good Zine About Pets

Digital artwork done in the style of a 14th century illuminated manuscript piece. A small calico cat is angrily plinking away at keys on a pipe organ, while passive-aggressive flowers curl and twist up to the cat's thoughts: "Mother!!!" the cat thinks, "Leave me alone. I am composing!!". The 'M' in 'mother' is lovingly painted and guilded like a medieval capital.

Our Little Editors Zine: Out Now!
My contribution to this pet zine is based off, of course, a medieval illumination. I swapped in my own cat for the striped white creature in the original, and expanded the floral treatment into some typography hanging overhead. Originally I did this as a one-off illustration for my own amusement, but then I heard about a small zine project and knew it could live there. I expanded the design and added more flowers and typography above the organ-playing cat.

Scan of a medieval illumination featuring a white cat angrily playing a little medieval pipe organ. Intense floral designs surround the cat.Hook of hours, France 15th century.
Bodleian, MS. Douce 80, fol. 106v

This zine is full of one-page observations about our pets. It spawned from a casual Friday Zoom hangout hosted by the Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW). This zine was curated by Adrean Clark and Annie Mok. 32 artists banded together to make this zine. My work is featured on page 20.

As for the title, well…That was my suggestion! Like any good hands-on editor, my cats are destructive in the kindest of ways. This zine is freely available as a pdf file.

 

Click here to download
the FREE Zine!

Comics Tip

Digital self portrait of Adrean Clark, drawn by her. It's a simple but elegant sketch of herself with thick blue lines, holding her chin with one hand and going 'HMM!'Guest Tip by:
Adrean Clark

How to Organize a Zine
As I have no experience organizing zines, I decided to ask Adrean Clark about her experience compiling pieces and organizing them into a coherent collective whole. Here is what she has to say:

“Zines are meant to be a playground for ideas. They are different from books in that they allow you to experiment at a smaller scale with a broader range of finish (from scribbles to polished art).

If you’re making the contents of your own zine, then it’s a personal relationship between you and your reader. Your focus is on communicating with your audience. Anthology zines add extra layers to this relationship. You’ll be thinking about communicating within your own work, managing the contributors, and connecting with the audience.

A good anthology zine revolves around a clear concept. It has to be something that sparks interest for potential contributors – an idea that is easily explained in one or two sentences. What makes you excited to participate in a social project? What are some common ideas that could appeal to a broad range of artists? What would be interesting for people to read?

After the concept, decide on the format. Your contributors need to know what size, dpi, and medium to work in. Be detailed as to the deadline, where to submit the finished files, etc. If there is money involved, such as printing books, sales, etc. – it is extremely important to keep that information transparent with your contributors. Pay people on time.

I strongly suggest a signed agreement between you and the contributors, so that everyone is on the same page with expectations. You will spend a lot of time outside of your own contribution in communicating with people, so think carefully about how much time you want to commit to the project. It’s better to start with smaller collections and build up your skills from there than to try and swing for the fences with a huge Kickstarter-type project.

Personally, I enjoy doing anthologies because they’re a fun way to push my own work and socialize with other artists. It’s neat to see how people interpret ideas in their own ways. At the same time one has to be attentive to the dynamics of the project. It’s ok to scale things back or change gears if something isn’t working. Chalk it up to experience, and keep making art. :)”

Adrean Clark, ASL Deaf Author, Artist, and Advocate

So there you have it! To make a zine, make the zine. And remember to communicate with everyone who pitches in.

Care to read more?

Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Retrofitting Dinosaurs for the Future of HumankindRAWR! Dinosaur Friends started out as a webcomic concept, one that I wasn't initially intending to pitch as a proper graphic novel. The first iteration was a slapdash, punk homage to the natural history museums I loved...

Goblin Week 2022 Retrospective

Goblin Week 2022 Retrospective

Throwing Down on Social MediaI don't often participate in big group challenges in public, but this one caught my interest: Goblin Week! It was started by Evan Dahm in 2012 and every year, the goblins just get more goblin-y. I created seven different goblins with...

Want to chat about this?