“To boldly go …” The original Star Trek intro’s call to arms has always been–admittedly, for reasons I’m not entirely sure–my mantra in life. For writing, it’s translated into exploring and writing in exactly those genres that scares the bejeezus out of me.

Of late, that genre has been: the graphic novel. Visually, to me it feels like this:

Harry G. Aberdeen, Bicycle, American, active c. 1935, c. 1936, watercolor and graphite on paper, Index of American Design

The “bike” depicted has a seat, chain, pedals, tires (an extra one no less!), and in more or less the same places as any other bike. Yet, the end result of a few tweaks and changes has created something entirely different (is it even ridable?). The thought of climbing onto the contraption and giving it a spin–a.k.a. writing a graphic novel–is daunting.

So when a story idea came to me as a graphic novel, I swerved and wrote the story as a picture book, a genre in which I’m at home, having written and been published there for over a decade. My agent loved the piece, shopped it around … and we collected a lot of rejections. There was a recurring critique across them — length.

It was too long because, really, it needs to be a graphic novel. That’s what the story was telling me.

But, I was too much of a chicken. I went back in and shortened considerably.

We resubmitted. We collected more rejections. Critiques were varied now. Length wasn’t one of them anymore–whew!–but there was no common theme amongst the critiques, other than, the piece just didn’t have what it takes to cross over from “maybe” to “yes, yes yes!” – a hurdle that’s gotten harder to clear as the industry has changed.

As fate would have it, the latest rejection came from an editor with whom I have a personal connection. She was interested and wanted to hold onto the ms for future reconsideration, but she just wasn’t quite sold … for now. I had an idea how to sell her (graphic novel). But I was still chicken (to write a graphic novel). So I did what any chicken who needs a good push does: I ran into the road and played chicken.

Okay, okay, I didn’t actually, but metaphorically it felt that way, writing the editor and asking whether she’d be interested in seeing a revised version as a graphic novel. I received not only a yes, but an ENTHUSIASTIC yes. I don’t know if the editor knew I needed a push–editors have a sixth sense about such things–but she gave me what I needed. I was off and running … to the library.

Over the years, I’ve come up with a process to make getting to know a new genre a little less intimidating. It’s three parts research, one part procrastination. Okay, maybe two, but who’s counting?

Step 1 : Suss out and read a mountain of craft books. By mountain, I mean, as many as I need until I start to feel like I understand the genre’s parts and nuances. I probably go overboard. That’s the procrastination part. Deep dark secret–it doesn’t feel like procrastination if I can label it “research”.

Some of the books that helped me figure out graphic novels: Will Eisner, Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist; Scott McCloud, Understand Comics: The Invisible Art & Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels;  Mark Kneece, The Art of Comic Book Writing; Brian Michael Bendis, Words for Pictures: The Art and Business of Writing Comics and Graphic Novels.

A little background on the authors …

Will Eisner (http://www.willeisner.com/) is considered the father of graphic novels. Incidentally, this year is the celebration of his 100th birthday. His seminal works, such as The Spirit comic series from the 1940s and his 1978 graphic novel, A Contract with God, have influenced every other author listed above, as well as countless others (including Neil Gaiman, who got his start in sequential art, and was my go-to “writer first” graphic novelist; more on that below under Step 2). There are awards named after Will Eisner – aptly the Eisner Awards – given out in the comis genre. They are basically their version of the Oscars.

Eisner takeaways – how to organize a full page image/images that work together without panels (that is enough already to think about for days, if not weeks), font and how its style can contribute to meaning, timing, how to write for sequential art and how that kind of writing is more akin to playwriting, I could go on and on for days, literally, about the Father of modern day sequential art and the takeaways in this book, but suffice it to say, this is the visual and written “how-to” that lays the foundation for every book to follow. A MUST READ.

Scott McCloud (http://scottmccloud.com/ ) cut his sequential art teeth working for DC Comics’ Superman Adventures. He’s most known for his nonfiction book on sequential art, and his Making Comics was my first how-to on the genre, which I only stumbled upon many years after having written and had published a number of picture books. Honestly, I didn’t equate picture books with sequential art. PBs have, at most, 32 images. A graphic novel can have up to 7 (or more) images on a single page! In the immortal words of Wayne and Garth, “I’m not worthy!” I might not be, but picture books are. They are sequential images that tell a story. Basta. And that is the definition of sequential art. McCloud began to give me an idea how to feel comfortable surrounded by lots of images, and how to work with them, even create a whole page of them … just one … at a time …

McCloud has a killer step-by-step outline for figuring out panels: 1) Choice of Moment; 2) Choice of Frame (shot angle); 3) Choice of Image; 4) Choice of Word; 5) Choice of Flow.  There are a hundred other takeaways, such as level of abstraction on the picture plane, categories of word/picture combinations, and types of transitions between panels.

Mark Kneece (http://www.scad.edu/academics/faculty/mark-kneece ) is a professor of sequential art at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) and has created a number of sequential art works for Dark Horse, among other publishers. Since my background is academia, reading something by another academic was in slang that feels reassuring to me. Plus, he gives lots of great activities/assignments for getting comfy in the genre and trying one’s hand at it. More ways to learn (and procrastinate industriously) at the same time!

Brian Michael Bendis (http://jinxworld.com/wordpress/) No adventure through the realm of sequential art would be complete without exploring a how-to book by someone creating for the rival to DC Comics — Marvel. Enter: Brian Michael Bendis. Bendis has worked on various Marvel properties, including Spiderman, as well as The Avengers . I chose Words for Pictures because Bendis has been both the graphic artist, as well as “only” the writer, on various works of sequential art. He also interviews other artists and writers in his book, thus expanding the range of experience and take-aways within this piece, the most important takeaway being–leave room for the artist to be an artist, which is exactly the same guideline for picture book writers. Woohoo! A common thread.

Step 2: I expand upon expert knowledge in book format with internet websites, blog posts, interviews, draft versions of (in this case) graphic novels by other writers who have taken a plunge and shared their experiences. Sites I’ve found most helpful are:

Antony Johnston (http://www.antonyjohnston.com/ ) – author and game creator, Johnston has created a slew of graphic novels. On his website, he not only offers his take on how-to write a graphic novel but also offers numerous example drafts from his own work. So helpful! Seeing how a writer puts together a graphic novel is priceless for me. I refer back to his pdf-s constantly when I get stuck.

Neil Gaiman ( http://www.neilgaimanbibliography.com/scripts.html) has numerous drafts of his pieces on his website. Since Sandman was his breakout comic (although not his first sequential art project or graphic novel) I reviewed drafts of that series he has on his website. I’d read Gaiman can be pretty thorough when setting up a panel and wanted to see how that translated from text to final product. For the most part, Gaiman doesn’t give exacting instructions (okay, he does sometimes) but rather builds scene and character such that the artist is placed in a world in which she nonetheless has plenty of room to create.

Conrad Schiff (http://aboutcomics.blogwyrm.com/?p=378 ) has an eleven-part post on the how-to’s of sequential art. It was his post on Gaiman that helped me understand Gaiman’s writing process (at least on graphic novels) better. He looks at various artists across comics and graphics novels, approaching the genre much as I was–getting to know and understand it.

Step 3: With a working grasp of what sequential art is, I flood my theoretical know-how with actual works. This is truly one of the most fun parts of the genre research process. I get to read graphic novels! We have a sizable library of GNs. One of my daughters has visual dyslexia. Graphic novels were her gateway into reading. The images, coupled with lower word count (or seemingly so), offered enough of a break in text to help her become an active, happy reader. I scanned those works first, pulled out the ones that are biographical / autobiographical (which is what my WIP is), and used them to search for more of the same online, then pick up. I have a crazy stack of them scattered on the floor of my office now.

Some of the GNs I read and reread:

Biography/Autobiography –  Art Spiegelman, Maus; Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis; Sandrine Revel, Glenn Gould: A Life Off Tempo; Kate Veans, Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxembourg; Lewis Helfand, Mother Teresa: Angle of the Slums; John Lewis, March (series); Nick Abadzis, Laika; Will Bingley & Anthony Hope-Smith, Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson; Tetsu Saiwai, The 14th Dalai Lama; Raina Telegemaier, Smile; Jillian Tamaki, This One Summer; Cece Bell, El Deafo;

Crossover (i.e. biography that moves into fiction): Syndney Padua, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage* * The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer

Fiction: Rainer Telgemaier, Drama; Kazu Kibuishi, Explorer: The Lost Islands; Ru Xu, Newsprints

I take notes on the graphic novels I read, not so much for plot, but for visual effects and interplay of text and image. Some of the notes I’ve made, in no particular order and by no means exhaustive: 1) how to move visually, textually, and both visually and textually from one idea to the next; 2) how to visually convey emotion; 3) sound effects that break panel and said effect; 4) when panels are opened or closed and effect; 5) POV in autobiography vs. biography and effects; 6) use of thought bubbles, sound effects in general, panel borders, heaviness of word usage, interplay of words and images, all caps vs. regular font for text, and so on and on and on …

Step 4: Trying my hand. This is the super scary part for me, but I get there by overdosing on research until I’m begging myself to give it a go. I am not a great outliner. I am more of a pantster. However, I did try to outline this graphic novel … and ended up with a dirty, ugly, never-to-be-seen-by-the-outside-world first draft. Honestly, I think that’s my way of outlining – writing an awful first draft. It’s how I get to know character, setting, plot, the whole ball of yarn, but I’ll talk more on this next time in GRAPHIC NOVEL WRITING 101: PART 2 – THE FIRST DRAFT.

Until then, happy writing!

Stacy Nyikos

Stacy Nyikos is the author of many mischievous books for children. She’s not sure how that happened. She didn’t get into trouble as a child … much … definitely not on Thursdays. Thursday was hot dog day at school. Stacy holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College and has taught and visited at schools, conferences, and reading events across the U.S. When she isn’t traveling or chasing stories, Stacy can be found scribbling her latest tales in the wilds of Oklahoma. She is currently working on her first graphic novel about the inventor of the ballpoint pen, IDEA. You can find her at: www.stacynyikos.com, http://stacyanyikos.blogspot.com, https://twitter.com/stacynyikos