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How a Graphic Novel is Born (And Raised)

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Graphic novels are an amazing medium. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and an average graphic novel has somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pictures in it…so, that’s worth a lot of words!

But how do they come to be? Most authors get ideas for stories, type up an outline, and then flesh that outline into paragraphs, chapters, and finished a manuscript. Cartoonists also do that, but there are pictures involved, too. They’re not an afterthought, but a part of the process from start to finish.

Here’s what goes into making one of my graphic novels.

1. Idea!

All good stories have to start somewhere. My ideas come from many places (see my previous posts for more on this), and the origins of my stories can either be pictures or simple sentences. With Drama, the glimmers of the idea came from just thinking about my own theatre days in high school, and the friends I made during that time.

I looked at lots of old photographs, and considered writing a story about drama kids. I wanted them to be on stage crew, which is something I always wanted to try but never did. Callie’s name came to me when I was driving around northern California a couple of years ago, and the song “Goin’ Back to Cali” was playing on the radio. That’s embarrassing, but there you have it.

2. Pitch!

Eventually, an idea needs to be turned into a pitch. Can the story idea be summarized in a couple of paragraphs? It needs to be, if it’s going to be published. Drama’s pitch was simple:

The kids of Eucalyptus Middle School are putting on a school play. Callie is a set designer who keeps falling for the wrong boys. She makes friends with two twin brothers, Justin and Jesse, and their friendship becomes as dramatic as the play itself! But the show must go on, and everyone must work together in the end.

...Or something like that.

I also created drawings of all the main characters in the story. Callie’s hair was going to be a dark blonde color, and then one evening my husband was helping me put together my pitch for Drama (which didn't have an official title until I was more than halfway done with it!), and decided to change her hair color to purple for some reason. I took one look at the drawing, and it was just perfect. That was Callie!

3. Detailed Outline!

The next step was to create a full outline. I typed up several pages, explaining what would happen in every scene in the story. I worked and re-worked this until it felt right. Scenes that were clear in my mind didn’t always fit the overall story, and were cut or re-arranged. Others were added.

4. Thumbnails!

So, my editors at my publisher liked my pitch! Hooray! They asked to see a full draft of the story, and I set to work. For me, this is the most challenging part of creating a graphic novel, because until I start the thumbnails, I don’t know where the story might go. Oh, sure, I had my outline to work off of…but for me, thumbnailing IS writing. I don’t script out the characters’ dialog in advance on a computer. They speak to me through word balloons and stick figures in panels. Writing comics means writing out the pacing, panel by panel, spread by spread, which sometimes includes panels (and pages) where there is no dialog at all, but the pictures take the place of exposition or description, so they’re important to include in the thumbnails. This is also the most challenging part of my process to explain to people. Thumbnailing is just like writing with a pencil on paper. You’re just doodling too, and putting everything into boxes.

But the lovely thing is, when you’ve thumbnailed your book, you know exactly how long it’s going to be, and have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to look like! The drawings aren't finished, but this draft can now be “read” by an editor. This is where my publisher steps in and decides whether the story is good or not. Does it need to be revised? Edited? Expanded? Shortened? It’s much more economical to edit thumbnails than finished artwork, so I’m happy to work out all the kinks here.

I thumbnailed Drama twice. My editors felt the story as I wrote it wasn’t quite working. The main problem was I originally wrote the characters as high-school aged, but my editors felt they should be in middle school (Year 7 and Year 8). I grappled with whether this would be possible, but the only way to figure it out was to just sit down and write another draft. That meant re-drawing about 75% of my thumbnails, adding another 6 months to the writing process!

5. Layouts!

Once the thumbnailed script was approved, I had a perfect template for drawing the finished book. I switched over to large, sturdy paper, and started laying out the final pages.

<<DISCLAIMER: I didn't scan my layouts for Drama, so you'll just have to make do with this photo of a layout from one of my Baby-sitters Club graphic novel pages instead. Bad Raina!>>

Layouts are kind of nebulous to explain. I use a blue pencil, rule out all of my panels by hand, and then draw in loose underdrawings, using the thumbnails as a guide but always trying to improve and clarify as I go. I loved gesture drawing when I was in university—the fast, flowy, gestural drawing we did to capture the energy of the model. It’s not unlike looking at an animator’s work. Check out Glen Keane’s loose sketches of his characters: he’s trying to capture their essence on paper.

The looseness and sketchiness will be cleaned up later. That’s what layouts are like: trying to convey energy, flow, body language, and spirit…while still leaving enough space for all the dialog!

Composition also plays a huge role in layouts. I’m working out things like perspective and scale, and trying to make everything fit harmoniously into the panel boxes. Is the composition pleasing, overall? Do the shapes look nice together? They should! If something needs fixing, it’s best to fix it now, because later I tend to go into autopilot mode. If layouts are well done, the page will look good, even at this stripped-down, sketchy stage.

6. Pencils!

I pencil right over my layouts. This is refinement. The energetic underdrawing is there, and now I’m working out all the details. Facial features, hands, clothes, backgrounds, everything you’ll see in the finished artwork. Again, I’m constantly refining. This stage takes a lot of concentration, but it’s very rewarding.

7. Inks!

Ah, how I love to ink! For one thing, I love using a brush. It’s just so…flowy! At this point I’m going over my pencils, varying the pressure on my brush to create thick and thin ink lines. This is when everything starts to really come to life for me. I do all my brush inking first (I can ink up to eight pages in a full workday!), and then go back in with a technical pen and fill in tiny details like eyeballs, shirt buttons, and anything else the brush would be too large for.

8. Scanning!

I sit in front of my computer for a couple hours and scan all my pages in. I scan at 600dpi, black and white / lineart.

9. Cleanup!

Also kind of boring, but because my inking style is fast and loose, I tend to have a lot of messy crossed lines and screw-ups that need a quick correction. Instead of using white-out on my physical pages, I make my corrections digitally. I also drop in my panel borders, and make sure all my stray lines are closed off before sending the finished, cleaned up pages off to my colorist.

10. Color!

I don’t do this stage myself. I could, but it would add 6-9 months to my production schedule. Instead, I work with a colorist, often giving them samples of the colors I want or sending them reference photos if they’re coloring a real place or thing. The pages come back to me (we use Photoshop) for final approval before getting sent back to my publisher, so if anything is the wrong color or I just had something different in mind, I make corrections to the files. Then I flatten the colors, prep the lineart for print (a technical process I can’t even begin to explain), and stick them all on a server for Scholastic’s art director. (A note: the image above was approved and sent off, but my editors decided at the last minute that the yellow color scheme of this scene wasn't working to their satisfaction! So we did a few tests, and the final version of this page can be seen in the final version of Drama.)

11. Lettering!

Oh yeah, I typed up the manuscript once the thumbnails were approved. It’s pretty basic: “Page 1. Panel 1. Callie: Hey, Matt. Matt: Hey. Panel 2…” And so on. This gets copyedited, and sent to my letterer! This is another stage of the process I could probably do myself, but it saves me some time to let someone else help out. The letters are pulled right from the manuscript, and put into word balloons using Adobe Illustrator. The letterer sends these files directly to my art director, and he puts everything together on his end!

12. Cover Design!

My editors and I come up with some cover concepts, I do a bunch of sketches, and we pick our favorite. I create the final cover art, and the art director puts in the type and any other features (foil details, spot gloss, and so on).

13. Etc!

Everything else that happens, I know less about. Files are sent to a printer somewhere in Asia. They send back a set of color proofs, which we go through and approve. (Is it too light? Too dark? Too blue?) Then a bunch of copies are printed, bound, and stuck on a giant boat, headed for the U.S. or wherever they’re being sold. My editor mails me a copy a few months before the book is actually published, and I get to bask in the glory of being a published author. This never gets old!


In my next post, I’ll shine a spotlight on the exact tools I use in each stage of his process. See you then…

May 01,2013
anonymous's picture

Thanks for posting, this is great.

This is an excellent how-to, but as you allude to in a few places, there are some finer technical steps that simply can't be summarized. In your own learning process, how did you master all of these steps, big and small? 

I think I would need some sort of apprenticeship. I've read books and looked at videos, but it's just not effective. Even if the work is done digitally, this is highly kinesthetic stuff that requires some in-person interaction.

I suppose a class would work too, provided the instructor can spend a lot of time with students indivually. Do you know of any courses like this in the New York area?

Apr 17,2013

"What's your opinion on working digital compared to traditional drawing? What are the pros and cons?"

I think digital tools are great if they open up artist's creative mindsets. The thing to keep in mind: they're still tools. You can make comics with a fancy Cintiq, an expensive computer, and MangaPro software (for example)...or you can make comics by drawing with a stick in the sand.

I work almost entirely traditionally, so it's hard for me to give my complete opinion about working other ways, but I see these as being some of the pros and cons:

Traditional Pros:

--you have original artwork you can sell

--there is a beauty to handcrafted work that can't quite be duplicated by computers

--the craft shows right there on the page. You can't hide behind digital technique or the ability to re-do everything.


Traditional Cons:

--your life is pretty much ruled by paper. I've drawn thousands of pages and am running out of places to put them.

--If the work gets ruined somehow, you can't undo or copy.

--materials can be expensive.


Digital Pros:

--no paper! For neatfreaks, this is a plus.

--you can draw and re-draw a million times if you want.

--Integrating different technology means you can do everything (drawing, coloring, lettering, production) in one place.


Digital Cons:

--the startup costs are VERY expensive. Computer, drawing tablet or Cintiq, printer & ink, etc etc all cost a lot of money.

--staring at a screen for the long hours comics take isn't the best for your eyes.

--no original art to sell! Print-outs just aren't the same.

--unless you're lucky enough to have the tech in your classroom or home, you may not get to start playing around and making stuff until you're old enough to afford the tech. And I think that's a shame. I wouldn't want anyone to feel like they have to WAIT in order to make stuff!

Apr 15,2013
anonymous's picture

What's your opinion on working digital compared to traditional drawing? What are the pros and cons?

Apr 14,2013
anonymous's picture

Wow, what good timing! Our third graders are creating their own graphic novels in my library class. It's really fun to see their ideas come to life. I keep  looking at how others create their graphic novels, and it's very fun to see the process behind one I already love.

Apr 13,2013
anonymous's picture

raina im a big fan

Apr 11,2013

Daydreamer: Yeah! That'd be cool. Send the documentary crew over; I'll be ready in 10 minutes...

Apr 10,2013

You know those videos where they show the building of some stadium or something in fast forward? As I was reading the post, I thought it would be interesting to have the same thing for a graphic novel. ^^ It would be awesome to watch it come to life.

Apr 10,2013
anonymous's picture

I love that you chose to share those pages of Drama to show the process! Those are my favorite pages because the characters look like they're walking on and kneeling on my book.  I love how you capture perspective.

Apr 10,2013

"How do you write your stories?  Do you focus on writing one project at a time, or do you usually juggle a few projects in your "spare time" ?"

Good question! I like to focus on one big project plus a few smaller projects at a time. For example, at the moment, I'm working on my new graphic novel SISTERS (Scholastic, 2014!), and am juggling 3 short stories for different anthologies on the side.

Uh, "spare time"...what's that?  ;)

Apr 10,2013

"Which printer do you use for your books?  You said it's an overseas printer?"

Hmm, I'm actually not sure! There are lots of different printers. Since my books are published by Scholastic, they use large printing compaines they have established relationships with. There are other, smaller book printers that self-publishers and small press publishers use (two that come to mind are Quebecor and Brenner, both of which are in North America), as well as print-on-demand services like Try a google search for "print on demand companies" and see what you can find close to where you live. 

The indicia page of Smile says "printed in Singapore," but that's all the information I have.  :/


Apr 10,2013

"when you're inking over your pencil drawings, are you inking on the same sheet of paper or are you using a light table and transferring over to a new sheet?"

I use the same piece of paper. Which is kinda scary--what if I mess up, right? Well, I scan all of my pencils into my computer before I ink, so I can always print my pencils out on a new piece of paper if I spill a bottle of ink on the page or something. (Yes, this has happened!)

Apr 10,2013

Wow, thanks for all the comments and questions! This website operates on Australian time, and I'm on the east coast of the, bear with me if my comments don't operate in "real" time for some of you...

I'll try and answer these in the order they came in.

"Would love to see a small video of you inking with a brush..."

--Coming up in my next post. Check back on Saturday!  :)

Apr 10,2013
anonymous's picture

Wow! Thanks for sharing your process! I will share your blog with my grade 8 students. It's very helpful to see how you go about creating a graphic novel!

Cindy Jenson-Elliott

Apr 10,2013
anonymous's picture

I'm always fascinated by everyone's process and work routines.  Thank you very much for sharing this with us.  It is reassuring to know that a pro still needs a couple of years to bring their graphic novel to life.  How do you write your stories?  Do you focus on writing one project at a time, or do you usually juggle a few projects in your "spare time" ?

Apr 10,2013
anonymous's picture

Which printer do you use for your books?  You said it's an overseas printer?

Apr 10,2013
anonymous's picture

Thanks for a great peek into the process! I love that cover sketch #13 looking through the back of the drama mask.

Apr 10,2013
anonymous's picture

What a great process post! One question I have, and something that's always been a snag in my own workflow, when you're inking over your pencil drawings, are you inking on the same sheet of paper or are you using a light table and transferring over to a new sheet?

Apr 10,2013
anonymous's picture

Best thing i've read in months!! Thank you so much for sharing this process... :) It's the small details, things like how long it took you (2.5 years!) & the DPI that i love... Would love to see a small video of you inking with a brush...  I admire brush inking SO much! it scares me!.. Thank you again!

Apr 09,2013

Hi ambivalence.!

I do get artist's block, yes. All the time. I'm not a sketcher, and I don't tend to do illustrations or play around with drawing single images for fun. It's COMICS that I love making, and when I come up with a *story* I want to tell, I can sit down and draw for like 14 hours at a time!

You're right that making graphic novels is fun. But it's still a lot of work, and I do sometimes get fatigued from the process, while I'm in it. Deadlines help--any kind of parameter helps, I find--and I set small deadlines for myself all along the way, so I usually have a specific goal I'm trying to hit every single month. DRAMA took 2.5 years to make, and yes, that means I gave myself short deadlines that entire time! This job takes a ton of discipline! ;)


Apr 09,2013

I feel like the process of making a graphic novel is a lot more fun than a novel-ly novel. Maybe it's all the sketching and drawing and colouring.. it just doesn't seem that stressful. Do you ever get ... ehm... artist's block? ^_^

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