How I create a graphic novel – including tips!

Readers often send me emails and letters asking for writing and illustration advice. Many want to create their own graphic novels. Every aspiring creator is unique and has their own imagination and writing style. But I’ll share what I do and the general steps I take to create a book. Then you can decide if you want to follow this, do some of it, or try it entirely your own way!

First, I read. A lot! Reading inspires and motivates me. I’ve gotten countless ideas from reading books, magazines, comics, and online articles.

Then I brainstorm. I jot down story ideas on a notepad. It’s also okay to type ideas into a computer or your phone. Whatever works! I try not to edit myself and just write down ideas until I feel like I have enough.

Along with choosing an idea for a story, I figure out which characters to use. Sometimes I know the characters I want beforehand, sometimes I don’t.

If you’re creating a character from scratch, it often helps to base them on yourself or people you know. I modeled Emmie after myself as a kid, so I was truly able to write from an authentic place. The other characters are usually a blend of people I know along with pieces of my own personality.

Once I choose a story idea and characters, it’s time to do an overview. That’s 3-4 paragraphs loosely outlining the plot of the story. When I first wrote INVISIBLE EMMIE, I wrote without any direction, and luckily a plot came to mind. But nowadays, I like to know the general direction and ending of a story before I start writing the book. The overview helps.

Next, I’ll move on to a more detailed outline. This bullet points the main events that happen in the story. I write two outlines: one for the illustrated, text-y portion of my book and one for the graphic novel portion. That’s because these portions are told from two different characters’ points of view, and often they have parallel — but different – stories.

Now, I don’t always follow the outlines exactly when I write the actual manuscript (book). Often, I’ll get a new idea and veer off in another direction. That’s okay! You shouldn’t be so tied to your outline that you can’t come up with new, possibly better, ideas when you’re writing.

Once my outlines are done, it’s time to write the book! I used to write on a legal pad, but now I use a computer. I try not to second-guess or edit myself when I write. I can go back and fix things later. For now, I just let my fingers fly. I usually write about three chapters per day. But I’ll write more if the ideas are really flowing.

I don’t illustrate anything when I first write. That would stop my flow of thoughts! Instead, I indicate where the art will go in red type. If I have a specific idea for the art, I’ll indicate it. If not, I’ll just type “(art)”. Here’s what Jaime’s chapter portion looks like in an early draft (from Just Jaime):

And here’s what Maya’s graphic novel portion looks like. It reads a little like a script:

I usually write several drafts, or corrected versions, of the book. In between, my editor and I go back and forth with new ideas, directions, or corrections. You can do this with family members or friends.

Once I’m happy with the manuscript, it’s time to add rough illustrations so I can see how the final book will look. I do them in pencil, then I scan them into my computer and plug ‘em right into my typed manuscript. This takes a long time. Here’s what it looks like:

You can see that the writing and illustrations can change from draft to draft. Sometimes I add more detail, like word balloons or labels.

When everything is approved, it’s time for the real fun – doing the final art! All this is done on a digital drawing tablet called a Cintiq (pictured below):

For the graphic novel chapters, I usually illustrate three pages per day. For the text chapters, I can do about 15-20 illustrations per day since they’re small and not as polished as the GN art. For more about this artistic process, you can go here or here.

That’s it! Really, there is no right or wrong way to go about it – whatever feels the most comfortable for you, works! I’ve honed my skills after a lot of trial and error, like many writers and illustrators. Which means…PRACTICE! You don’t get good at something until you try it many, many times. Also, it never hurts to take writing or art lessons to improve yourself.

One more tip: if you have writer’s or artist’s block, walk away from your work. Go back to it a few hours or days later and look at it with fresh eyes. This ALWAYS helps me.

But the most important thing of all when creating a graphic novel…

…is to HAVE FUN!!!