I did a most enjoyable talk for SelfMadeHero for their Guardian Masterclass last Saturday on how to write a graphic novel. Thought it would be useful to share some of my key points for those who couldn’t make it to London, and have ambitions in that direction.
I based my talk around a new project I’ve only been working on for the last six weeks. It’s a WW1 series in the tradition of Charley’s War but with a number of significant differences. It started off as Fred’s War but is widening by the day into a group story. I’m very lucky to have the artist David Hitchcock on board, who has a superb Edwardian/gothic-y style with tonnes of atmosphere.
Fred’s War character study by David Hitchcock
MY KEY POINTS
- Market? Mainstream, Fan, Superhero, Comic Lit or other? This is clearly Mainstream and most of you will know that’s where my heart is.
- Unique Selling Point? World War One because of anniversary and because there’s a lot happening with Charley’s War during the anniversary years. Six years ago, it wouldn’t have flown. See Hislop’s Wipers Times where he said the same thing. He tried six years ago with it and couldn’t get any interest.
- Test the water. Hence the summary image which shows key elements of the story. That went down well and attracted a lot of interest, so it’s encouraged me to go much further.
- Bible. Use a bible. I use Robert McKee, who wrote Story. I’ve attended one of his seminars – great value for money. The fact that several people in the business don’t like him is a further recommendation for me. You don’t expect his abrasive style to win him friends. His book is pro-“Classical” (mainstream) and less enthusiastic about Arthouse, so that’s another reason he works for me. McKee has a lot to say on the concept of “positive and negative” values. Worth buying his book for that alone. Although it’s about film, the principles for graphic novels are almost identical.
- Theme. ALL scenes should further the theme. If they don’t, ditch that theme or story strand. I cited an example where I dumped a Home Front scene with Fred’s working class girlfriend, where she falls from grace through drugs (widespread scandal in UK no one talks about even today). Didn’t fit the theme – so, much as I was attached to that scene, out it went!
Charley’s War theme is: The ordinary soldiers’ patriotism was betrayed by the ruling class.
It’s almost but not quite “World War One was a class war” which would have meant ditching certain stories and adding others. (E.g. Add a scene in 1919 when the tanks arrived in Glasgow).
Accident Man theme is: Materialism is almost all you need in life. The “almost” is the problem for Mike Fallon! (Accident Man collection due out in Feb 2014 from Titan).
Slaine theme is: “Searching for the Celtic other.”
So the theme for my new war story is: The World is my country.
The story started with Fred and his conscientious objector younger brother. That phrase “The World is my country” comes from the Wheeldons*: pacifists who feature heavily in my story. We need more working class heroines like them for this anniversary, otherwise we’ll all be submerged by tales and poetry of middle and upper-class heroes. (Read about Alice’s extraordinary story here). * Edit: Many thanks to Fiona O’Neill for pointing out that the quote is originally from Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1792).
Directly pursuing the theme led to secondary but significant roles for a German, Frenchman, Australian (Fred’s older brother), American and even a Russian. So, combined with the conscientious objector, there is a “Magnificent Seven” of the Great War where “The World is my country.”
So theme is everything.
- Positive and Negative. If a scene starts with a positive value, then it will end with the negative of this value. Or vice versa. If it doesn’t, then it’s probably exposition, according to McKee, and it should be dumped. He’s right. We hide this error in Mainstream because we have so much action it disguises our faults. And sometimes we write this way intuitively. Ditto in Lit. But if you look at Comic Lit, I’ve come across pages which despite being well written and beautifully drawn, were boring. It’s because they do not follow this principle. Being literature or art-house is NO excuse, it’s a cop out. The principles go back to Aristotle. McKee has much to say on this and it’s all excellent.
- Edit your script after it’s drawn. Some artists won’t let you do this and if they’re top names you have to put with it. And it may not be necessary if they’ve got a big following But if you can it a) acts as an extra draft b) tailors the words to the art. c) If artists are poor storytellers, you can hide it with good editing. d) If their art is empty or even rushed, you can disguise this with extra words. e) If when you wrote it you were having a bad day you get another chance. f) If your dialogue is too heavy or light you can shift it around, so it doesn’t mess up the art.
Your arse is on the line as writer. Because if an artist tells a story badly, the reader usually think it’s cos your story ‘ain’t up to much’ and blames you! But with good editing the reader will say what a brilliant storyteller the artist is. And you can smile quietly to yourself…
This technique is rarely applied today, by writer or editor, partly – and understandably –because of economics, but it was STANDARD practice when I started. Standard practice for a reason – it worked. (Excepting of course editors who don’t know what they’re doing and made changes, e.g., in Charley’s War, Charley’s working class catchphrase: “Alf a Mo” regularly got altered by the editor to “Half a Moment”. FFS!
I have to say, I enjoyed my first tutorial in a helluva long time. There’s something in this teaching business. Hope it was useful to you, too.
Some pictures from the day
First unveiling of David Hitchcock’s Fred’s War character study to the public.
One of David’s previous projects: the wonderfully creepy The Signalman.
Inspiration for my theme ‘The World is my country': The Wheeldons, whose efforts saved countless lives during WW1.
I was invited to take part in a panel after the talks with Roger Sabin, academic and author, and Emma Hayley, Managing Director of SelfMadeHero. Chaired by Alex Fitch, Panelborders.
Gathering for a group shot of the last remaining stragglers. Deeply admiring of Paul Gravett’s snazzy jacket.
Paul Gravett, Audrey Niffenegger, Pat Mills, Roger Sabin, Alex Fitch.
And we manage to squeeze illustrator JAKe in, too.
Big thanks to SelfMadeHero and the Guardian Masterclass teams who invited me along, and made it all happen!