ANDY FISH is a comic book artist

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Monday, March 7, 2011

HOW TO Graphic Novel Part I: The IDEA/Pre Production

Prep for your story can be daunting.
I've been down the graphic novel path several times, written and illustrated a book on how to Draw 'em, and teach several classes on the subject-- HOW to Create a Graphic Novel is something I could talk about endlessly for months right here on this blog, but I'll keep it to the next three weeks.

WHERE the idea comes from is incidental.  I know many very talented illustrators and would be fellow graphic novelists who have told me they would love to do a graphic novel but they don't have a story.  Some of them end up giving a try to working with a writer-- but that can sometimes be a frustrating and not very rewarding experience since the workload is so unevenly balanced.  It takes a lot more work to illustrate a graphic novel than it does to write one.  Working from someone else's story can be daunting and a challenge to maintain one's interest as well.

I always suggest turning to the public domain classics if you need a structure to build a story on.  That doesn't mean you need to do an exact interpretation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet but it does mean you could take the plot of the story and change it enough that it becomes your own.  They did it with WEST SIDE STORY and countless other stories over the years. has a huge list of public domain classics, and even more importantly they do a sort of Cliff Notes version of most of them.  Remember Cliff Notes?  If you use them the way they are supposed to be used, unlike when we were in High School and we just used them as a substitute to reading The Outsiders and such, they give you a great examination of the Plot-- and that's what you need.  A good plot can be built upon.  You just change the situation to something you know, develop some characters and pretty soon you've got a story.

If this is your first attempt at a graphic novel I'd suggest keeping it short.  Say 32-48 pages.  Even if you have an epic you want to do, some incredible 500 page opus that will set the literary world on fire, resist the temptation to make that your rookie start and go with something smaller, something more manageable.

Work out the vaguest outline you can, no more than a single paragraph to describe your story-- save it too--you'll need this for the back of your book when it gets published to entice prospective readers to buy it.

Once you've finished the outline put it somewhere safe and walk away.  Seal it in a yellow envelope and put it on a shelf.  Put it aside and forget about it for a while-- a week or two at the least.  During this time find some inspiration-- I recommend Stephen King's book ON WRITING to help you get started.

I'd also suggest renting a couple of silent films from Netflix or your video supplier of choice.  You'll need the overacting and stark contrasting visuals when you get to laying out your pages.

Head out to Staples and buy yourself a fresh NOTEBOOK (I like graph paper style myself) and a datebook.  If you find yourself thinking about your story that's a good sign, but resist the urge to tinker with it yet.

Once you've stayed away from your outline for the minimum amount of time (two weeks is good, three weeks is better) take it off the shelf, open the envelope and give it a read through.  Does it still hold your interest?  In the biz we call this 'having legs'.  It means is the idea strong enough to keep you working on it.  There's nothing worse than losing interest in a story when you're halfway into it, or encountering some major stumbling block you can't get around.  These are the points you should work out BEFORE you even get started.

So if it has legs-- if it still seems like it would be interesting both to you and to your potential readers, if you're excited about working on this project then you're moving in the right direction and it's time to get started.  Now you've got to figure out a few things, some need to be known right now, some decided later on:

1. How many pages is it going to be?  (Now)
Once you've laid out how many pages it will be, calculate how long it will take you to finish it.  On average, doing a page a day is the average for a graphic novelist.  That's for a full-completed page, drawn and lettered.  A page a day may not seem like much, but it's a good number to strive for.  If you factor in life, family and a day job it might not be workable to hit that number.  My suggestion to you is put down Five Pages a week as a goal.  Plan on working six days a week to hit that number.

Now in that datebook start writing down some numbers.  At the end of week one, write down a 5-- at the end of week two write down a 10, week three a 15 and so on and so on.

Now make a deal with yourself that you will check this datebook each and every Saturday night before you turn in.  If you hit the number, circle it and put a check-mark next to it.  If you don't hit the number, draw a sad smiley face and a minus to indicate how many pages you missed, then add those numbers to the next week.

So if in Week 1 on Saturday night instead of a 5 you write down a 4 and a -1 that means now Week Two has to have a 6 on it-- and so on.

If you find you're only hitting 3 pages a week you'll need to re-adjust your schedule.  If you find you're hitting only 2 pages a week you need to re-adjust your thinking-- do you really want to do this?  If you're doing less than 2 then you should probably stick to reading graphic novels and come back to this when you have the time and interest.

On the flip side, if each week you're hitting the number and then some-- i.e. Week 1 ends with an 8 and a +3 smiley face-- keep on pushing.  You can also do this if you need to factor in a week off-- but commit to yourself and don't take that time off until you hit the number you promised yourself.

Following the Calendar Method is the single most important factor in successfully accomplishing your goal.

If you really want to do this, I mean REALLY.  You're going to have to make sacrifices that some people aren't willing to make.  Mostly meaning a social life.  When I'm on deadline I virtually disappear, taking only short peeks outside to make sure the world hasn't ended.

2. Are you going to publish it yourself or are you going to shop it around?  (Later)
You've got a few options as to how you put this graphic novel out when it's done.  The cheapest is to put it out as an internet/digital book.  No printing expense on your part-- but right now even Stephen King can't figure out how to make a decent income off digital publishing.

You can also shop the book around to various independent publishers.  IF you are a new creator they'll want to see the whole book finished before they'll even consider it.  They can't publish a promise.  The advantage to working with a publisher is that they handle all the production, marketing, publicity and distribution for you.  The downside is they take from 40-90% of the profits.  Some publishers pay you a small advance up front-- others only pay after publication.

You can also self publish it.  Normally the thought of a self published book instantly conjures up bad design, amateurish production values and bad stories, but self publishing can be successful and lucrative if you do it right (and we'll get to that).

3. When do you want it to come out?  (Both)
If you're going with a publisher, they'll have the final say.  If you're doing it yourself you get to pick, but you'll need to understand distribution methods and have to follow their guidelines.  More later.

IF, on the other hand, you found that it didn't have legs-- you've lost interest, put it aside and develop a different idea.  As I said it's better to find out before you start that this would end up an unfinished project.


Andy Fish writes and draws graphic novels.  His latest is DRACULA.  You can find out more about it by going to