Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Converting a Webcomic into a Graphic Novel Pitch

Digital artwork of seven gangly goblins.

Retrofitting Dinosaurs for the Future of Humankind
RAWR! 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 to visit as a child. The humor was derived from a style of internet humor called (sorry for the swear word on a middle-grade publishing blog) ‘shitposting’. I thought the combination of dry scientific concepts and casual style of writing would spark interest. The computer used grayscale tones so that it would be cheap to print. My computer was not able to handle brush strokes in Photoshop so I built it with vector shapes in Adobe Illustrator.

These comics were drawn with bezier curves and agony.

The first few comics were quite rough but I managed my expectations. If no one read it, that was fine. I could continue making it for my own enjoyment and that was enough. Making these comics made me feel like a small, safe child in a natural history museum. I posted it to a few comics and dinosaur forums and to my surprise, readers came out of the woodworks. I think I hit about ten notes and felt very happy.

One of the best responses to my comic was a polite inquiry about which dinosaur would be the most impressive to ride in a parade for a queen, and T. rex was a little too cliché. My response was to go for a gorgonopsid or a quezalcoatlus. Which resulted in…this.

And yes, I’m still friends with Andy Purviance, to this day. Who wouldn’t be?

A Taste of Attention, and Then: The End

This is the first comic I made that reached a larger audience than normal, to the tune of about two-thousand notes on Tumblr. I hesitate to call this ‘viral’ in an age where actual virality can rack up hundreds of thousands of interactions, but it was still an affirmation that hey, maybe something about what I was making was there, resonating with more people than I could ever know in my lifetime.

I brought my comic to an end in 2016. One factor was that I was an armchair paleontology fan and the space was increasingly hostile towards those who weren’t updated on the latest in paleontological finds, especially with anatomy. Another factor was that my comics, like much of social media that purports to be educational or historical, were being used as sources…and they most definitely were not researched enough to be considered educational. The final factor was, I felt like I was not challenging myself with the artwork or writing. The types of jokes fell into a few broad categories (Animal comparisons, simple stories that span millions of years and thus have unearned gravitas, mockery of pop cultural ideas about dinosaurs, gentle corrections of dinosaur facts, etc.). I also had better equipment than I did in my little un-air-conditioned 1-bedroom in Berkeley. I wanted to really draw some stuff and not be restricted by, well, restrictions that I had set up for myself to accommodate my unusual prior situation. I worked on a longform comic project called Warlock’d for a bit. Making a complete longform project is a lot different from rattling off one-shots every week. When I shopped Warlock’d around local publishing groups, I started to realize exactly how heavy and complex it was.

I wanted to, again, chase that high of rattling something silly off and getting a big, broad response. I was also getting more involved with my local comics and writing communities, and was being encouraged to create pitches to sell to publishers. RAWR! Dinosaur friends returned to my mind.

This was easily the most popular thing I had ever created. I understand that internet metrics are worthless, but 4000 notes must mean something, even if it’s just Tumblr.

I poked my little dinosaur comics blog with an updated, colorful version of ‘that horseshoe crab comic’, just to see what happened.

It exploded. The full-color version sits at around 14000 notes, currently. That je ne sais quoi  from six years ago must still be there. Then I checked my purchase history of when I formed a zine out of my dinosaur comics. Apparently I had sold about 500 copies of these zines. I wasn’t sure how impressive this was until I told other writers. They assured me that 500 copies is not a large number per se, until a person factors in the lack of wider distribution. Then, 500 copies is mildly impressive.

Cover of RAWR! Dinosaur Friends pitch. It displays several prehistoric creatures on a black background with a self portrait of the artist in the middle.My first attempt at rebranding, trying to keep a reference to my grayscale zine roots.

I shuffled RAWR! Dinosaur Friends, as a full-color iteration of the same anthology-type format, around to a couple of portfolio reviews. The response was that the middle-grade market currently only wants longform stories. Short stories and anthologies don’t do well. I restructured it as a large ‘story’ composed of hundreds of characters across all 15 geological eras, but still no dice. A graphic novel needs a story. It needs a main character, preferably one that 7-10 year olds can relate to. It needs a plot arc. It needs character development. It can’t be a friendlier version of a textbook for kids. Other than that, though, dinosaurs are a good, sellable topic for publishers to pick up, especially in the middle grade graphic novel space. So, what I was looking at was, small things that worked, a broad topic that worked, but an overall structure that did not work. Oh, and one small detail…

I also received firm pushback on the style of how dinosaurs speak. The compromise is to style the dinosaur speech bubbles to seem ‘screechier’ than the textbook writing. I’m not happy about this but I will do it so that parents and teachers don’t, in turn, screech at me for exposing their children to bad grammar.

Converting Short Stories into a Long Story
The other thing I set out to do was create some sort of main character for readers to follow through billions of years. I know that in most natural history textbooks, I was wont to skip to the dinosaurs. For my natural history book, I never wanted readers to feel like they needed to go find ‘the good stuff’. The whole book should be good. I talked to a comic artist and came across the concept of the ‘super-companion’, or character who experiences stuff in scicomm stories and can explain concepts to the audience. I’m not entirely sold on having a character who breaks the fourth wall to lecture the audience about themselves, but the concept as a general thing seemed do-able.

My first main character was actually the moon! I loved this concept of the moon looking down on the Earth and narrating what it saw. However, the moon’s not really a character, undergoing challenges and changing. If anything, the moon is fairly un-changing. 

I developed a new outline based on geological periods and threaded small adventures into an overarching story about hunting for T. rex through billions of years. This second character concept, Risa the Chrononaut, is meant to be an ‘audience step-in’ type of super-companion. She doesn’t turn to the audience and lecture them on anything, but she experiences situations a person could never experience in real life, such as tracking dinosaurs in the wild. She’s cloaked in a helmet so that the reader can imagine themselves more easily as her. She knows some things about natural history, but not everything. Risa does research on-the-fly with a magic glove that contains tools real scientists use in the field. She has her assumptions challenged as she progresses through a story about traveling through time and helping animals. Most of the assumptions I gave to her are ones I imagine some readers might have, such as mistaking ichthyosaurus and pterosaurs for dinosaurs (they aren’t!). She also learns that T. rex is a very late dinosaur which didn’t necessarily interact with a lot of the more well-known dinosaurs!

My non-storytelling goal was to make a book that causes kids to read through, and care about, natural history outside of just the millions of years that contained dinosaurs. My first outline focused on promising a T. rex in hopes that kids would understand the early geological periods were stepping stones towards the T. rex. When bounced off a trusted friend, this strategy resulted in the sensation of ‘suffering through’ the early periods to get to the dinosaurs. After the point of the story where Risa finds the T. rex, the rest of her story also suffers this way, reading like an extra-long epilogue as the age of apes peters out and what’s left over is humanity. That’s not fair to amazing time periods like the Cambrian, the Carboniferous, and the Paleogene. There are so many cool creatures to spot and takeaways that are applicable to modern human life. It would also negate all the science fiction worldbuilding work I was doing to make it so that kid’s didn’t skip to the dinosaurs!

This told me a few things. One, a T. rex is a compelling goal for my character. However, I don’t have to oversell a T. rex, since it’s naturally intriguing. My solution for draft 2 of my outline was to give Risa a greater variety of goals related to specific time periods. When I think about nature I think about survival stories. Each time period should challenge Risa to survive. I shared my revised outline with my former reader and she felt like there were improvements to the overall flow.

I passed the outline off to a different trusted reader for a fresh take, and the notes on reader interest were quite different. Instead of big lulls in the story where there were no dinosaurs, instead there were little spikes and falls of interest. This is probably a better way to tell a story, to have ebbs and flows of tension.

What next?
I’m going to write a rough draft based on this second outline, but I’m still going to seek out readers of my target audience age to see what sorts of things they like to see in stories about time travel and dinosaurs. If readers have an expectation from natural history, I want to fulfill that expectation. My plan is to have a full manuscript, twenty sample pages, and character sketches ready for a pitch. I’d love to find a publisher who is hunting for their ‘Dinosaur Book’.

 

Comics Tip

Soliciting Effective Critique with an Outline
I’ve been in a few critique groups and portfolio reviews, and one thing I’ve noticed is that outlines give me more useful one-off critique than full chapters or writing samples. Imagine: Everyone in publishing is very busy, whether it’s reading, writing, editing, or drawing. Would you have the patience to browse full stories from someone who might not be very good at writing yet? Let’s try thinking about the person on the other end of this for a second.

Critique groups are often unpaid. This means it’s a bit rude to resolutely shuffle a chapter per week to a random group of strangers. If you’re doing that, you’re better off hiring an editor. However, some groups may allow this. I avoid groups where this is the norm because it means, for every meeting, I’m reading 4-5 random chapters from ongoing stories where I might not get full context and will feel quite useless giving feedback. There are also times when someone’s long story is somehow unpleasant for me to read so that can be tricky to navigate. As a result I’m quite paranoid about making sure I value my reader’s time.

Enter the outline! A full story that requires no further context, stuffed into a bite-sized document. Now I can get feedback on important concepts such as character development, plot arcs, and settings. Nailing these upfront makes writing them out easier. I can also chunk the outline into parts to keep the workload interesting.

A good outline:
1. Immediately portrays the story’s concept.
2. Shows the main character and the arc and transformation that they go through.
3. Describes just enough of the setting to support the main character’s arc.

There are some writers who prefer to write without outlines, but they are generally already confident about their writing. I think outlines are the ideal way to share stories early, although they might not be part of everyone’s process. I get so much more out of reactions to an outline than I ever did to individual writing samples and chapters.

 

 

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

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.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

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...

Afterlife

Afterlife

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...

Want to chat about this?

Goblin Week 2022 Retrospective

Goblin Week 2022 Retrospective

Digital artwork of seven gangly goblins.

Throwing Down on Social Media
I 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 different goblin careers. One aspect of the challenge that I was proud of was testing out how fast I could conceptualize a goblin, draw it, and color it. I could make a couple per hour with my new lining and flatting style. The goblins didn’t make as big of a splash as I’d hoped on social media but I am happy with them and hope they live lovely little goblin lives.

Comics Tip

Developing a Following for a Comic via Community Events
Big community challenges aren’t necessarily great for exposure. Many times, artists who already have a following are the ones who are going to get big numbers within a large group event. I’ve done many community challenges in the past and have a few thoughts to share about them, besides simply honing your skills.

Digital art of dragons chasing a tiny Margo.One of my old Inktober entries. Margo has attracted quite the following.

What is the trick to gaining followers from community challenges? I would say, picking smaller challenges that occur frequently is a great place to start. Why is this? Well, if you think about advertising, it’s something that has to happen consistently to ‘take’. A person often won’t click on an ad the very first time they see it. If the ad is persistent, they are more likely to click it. The same goes for following an artist. A person who sees that artist’s work multiple times is more likely to recognize and follow them.

If the only community event an artist does occurs once per year, and is already oversaturated with the works of other, bigger artists, then that is not going to result in many new followers. Sure there are oddball lucky submissions that do numbers, but for stuff like Inktober and Goblin Week I could tell that artists who already had followings were being seen and shared the most. My own submissions for just the one year reached a couple of new people, but this was only with the help of those who already followed my accounts (about 2-3 thousand people across my various accounts, as far as I can tell). So, this makes me think that the really big community challenges aren’t necessarily the best ones for comic artists hoping to attract new eyes to their work.

Try Small, Repeating Art Contests
My suggestion for those looking to build their following would be to start small, with small challenges, that repeat frequently, so that your work gets presented to the same audience on a relatively frequent basis. People love to watch growth so even if your work isn’t up to par at the beginning, it could get there eventually. Persistence is going to win the day if your goal is to build a following. Pick one or two monthly challenges with consistent deadlines, such as on Facebook or Twitter, and add to the community there. Then, once momentum builds from the smaller communities, it’s easier to make a statement in larger community events.

My final note, of course, is that social media is inherently meaningless on its own, so some thought ought to be put into what a following may be used to leverage. Don’t build your following for a comic at the expense of making the comic, is all I’m saying.

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

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.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

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...

Afterlife

Afterlife

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...

Want to chat about this?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

Full-color digital artwork of 250+ creatures of the Carboniferous period. A graphic of the world in the upper left corner encourages viewers to 'spot 'em all!'. The Carboniferous lasted from 359.2-299 mya. There are too many creatures in the graphic to name, but there are sharks, nautiloids, ammonites, fish, amphibians, arachnids, insects, and even a couple of edaphosaurs (mammalian reptiles) present in this period. They're scattered all around the continents before they were even Pangea. Plenty of plants dot the landscape in between, including plants still extant today such as ginkgo.

An Illustration of Gastronomical Proportions
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 meals involved as puns are all based on my own personal tastes and are in no way representative of all the great food out there. I should be ashamed of all these puns, but no, I’m going to include a chart so that you can track down each and every one of them. Many of the puns were contributed by regular viewers to my weekly livestream and no, I’m not sure whether I should thank or blame them.

Gastronomy labeled map - full details pending

Horoscopes
As a writing exercise, I wrote encouraging food-themed horoscopes for each zodiac sign.

Steak

Aries
“B-aries”

You are bold and swift. As you charge forth into your creative endeavors, remember that the things you are creating and offering to the world can also be things that you, yourself, enjoy.

Steak

Pisces
“Stargazy Pie”-sces

You’re looking at the stars all the time in search of inspiration. Don’t forget to glance in front of you every now and then. We wouldn’t want you to end up in someone else’s pie.

Steak

Aquarius
“Asparagus”

Today, you’re going to chop all the woody parts off your project. This will make it super soft, buttery, and crisp after it’s fried. Look to Taurus and pour a little red wine for a great pairing.

Steak

Saggitarius
Saggi-“Pear”-ius

Keep your eye on the prize, but — if you can load your arrow upfront, who would blame you? Maybe you have a secret resource that you’re not utilizing yet. No shame in using it.

Steak

Scorpio
Lobster Tail

You might be severely underrated. Even prisoners didn’t want to eat lobster in Victorian England. But look at this dish now — Golden, buttery, delicious…expensive. Boil your heart out.

Steak

Libra
Li-“Bread”

Your work is going to be a staple in someone’s life. Maybe not everyone likes raisins in their loaf, or rye, or sourdough, but trying different angles will show you the true grain eventually.

Steak

Virgo
Extra “Virgo” Olive Oil

Honey, you’re delicious, and you belong in every meal. Just remember to add yourself after the pan is heated so you don’t evaporate into smoke. Tonight: sit in a bowl with some oregano

Steak

Leo
Le-“Orange”

If your work isn’t quite complex enough to attract attention, utilize your sunny personality. Big, simple flavors are refreshing, especially if they’re offered by someone kind and friendly.

Steak

Cancer
Boiled Crab

You’ve got something really grand in the works, and you know it! The project may take awhile to get from one place to another, but once you have it, it’s yours to steam and butter.

Steak

Gemini
Ge-“Mint”-i

Have you shared your project with someone you trust? Not every pitch session has to be about critique. Sometimes, it’s refreshing to sit down with someone who only has praise for your work.

Steak

Taurus
T-bone Steak

Your stalwart nature will save the day. Flip your project and your finesse will result in a juicy, flavorful meal — and it’s also okay to use extra spices. A good sear is what locks the flavor in.

Comics Tip

Comparing Processes in Similar Projects
Lately I have been on what I could term an ‘Eye Spy’ kick, where I’m fascinated by broad, landscape compositions with lots to teeny, tiny intertwining scenes and characters. My previous work in this vein was this snapshot of the Carboniferous, featuring over 250 organisms from the time period.

Full-color digital artwork of 250+ creatures of the Carboniferous period. A graphic of the world in the upper left corner encourages viewers to 'spot 'em all!'. The Carboniferous lasted from 359.2-299 mya. There are too many creatures in the graphic to name, but there are sharks, nautiloids, ammonites, fish, amphibians, arachnids, insects, and even a couple of edaphosaurs (mammalian reptiles) present in this period. They're scattered all around the continents before they were even Pangea. Plenty of plants dot the landscape in between, including plants still extant today such as ginkgo.

For this complex Eye Spy page, I had each organism in its own named layer folder. The folder contained visual reference, a rough sketch, and lineart. I approached the composition by laying out all of the organisms as sketches first. Then I created their lineart. After that, I duplicated the lines and merged them so that they would be easier to color. I felt weird about having over a thousand layers in one document, but my computer was able to handle it.

For the Gastronomy concept, I wondered if simplifying the document might help complete it more quickly. Instead of compiling reference for everything, then sketching every character, and then drawing lineart for every character, I worked on the piece one constellation at a time. All the sketches are on one layer, and all the lineart is on one layer, and then all the stars are on one layer.

Which one works best for me?
The results were… drumroll please…Absolutely, 1000%, my process on the Carboniferous was better. Working on individual illustrations meant I was constantly switching between research, sketch, and lineart mode on Gastronomy. My Carboniferous creatures, as sketches, could be moved around more easily and tangents were solved. This was not the case with Gastronomy constellation characters and I fear the tangents in this piece.

For creating highly-detailed landscape compositions like this, I recommend:

  1. Organized, named layers, in folders per miniature that exists in the illustration. Don’t be afraid of a thousand layers in your document. Just save it as a .psb. It’s all good.

  2. Do visual research for ALL of the characters or mini-illustrations first.
  3. Sketch ALL of the characters across the whole composition before doing lineart.
  4. Give yourself a composition-editing phase between sketching and lineart. Easier to move, enlarge, shrink, and otherwise edit sketches than it is to edit lines, in my experience.
  5. Once the lineart is done, create two duplicate, flattened versions of all the lineart. One is to behave as lines, the other is to help with flatting. Keep at least one copy of the lineart with separate characters because they can be useful outside of the big composition as spot illustrations, or as easy selection areas for the magic wand tool.
  6. Chunk the whole composition into 9-12 squares for coloring flats, details, and doing small paintovers. Polishing a fraction of the larger illustration per day helps manage burnout and gives a series of smaller accomplishments to reach.
  7. Choose points of interest in the overall composition. Putting big highlights and shadows on everything can make it hard to focus (although sometimes that’s the point!). Selectively highlighting certain parts of a larger Eye Spy composition allows the other subjects to fall back and ‘hide’ a little, making it more fun to look through.

On a final note, there was also a small hiccup with Gastronomy where my reference star chart omitted around 40 additional southern constellations. The way I had constructed the illustration hampered my ability to add them in harmoniously.

This Gastronomy constellation food chart is available as a free coloring page under Creative Commons CC BY-NC 3.0.

Care to read more?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

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.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

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...

Afterlife

Afterlife

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...

Want to chat about this?

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?

Gastronomy Chart

Gastronomy Chart

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.

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

Terminal: My New Graphic Novel Pitch

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...

Afterlife

Afterlife

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...

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