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.
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!
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:
- Two-sentence summary.
- Five-sentence summary.
- One-page outline.
- Full outline.
- Sample pages (check editor/publisher/agent for which pages they want to see)
- Written character studies and their purpose in the story.
- Drawn character studies and size/silhouette comparisons.
- A setting study or two.
- A complete rough draft of the script.
- 50 polished pages of the script.
Nice-to-haves might include:
- Polished character portraits.
- Character lineup.
- Concept art of the story’s defining moments.
- 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?
This one-shot editorial illustration represents mashups of foods that I personally enjoy and celestial bodies. I wanted to make a large print for sale in-person at conventions. Someday, I may open an online shop as well, but for now this exists as an exercise in creating a compelling illustration out of lots of fiddly bits.
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...
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....