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Posts tagged ‘writing graphic novels for teens’

Time And The Publishing Process, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

There’s a good delay with books. It’s a time-consuming process, both writing the book and going through the publication process. Things like comic books or a daily comic strip can be really appealing because you have a constant contact with your audience. Every day or every month you can put your latest work out and you’re never far from your public’s mind. Stand up comics often have trouble doing any kind of written material because they’re so used to an immediate feedback from their material. With books, with what I’m writing now, you have to worry that what you’re writing will still be relevant, or topical a year or two down the line. Or that world events don’t render it irrelevant or distasteful, or that someone else doesn’t have the idea you’ve been spending months refining and beat you to the punch. Alas, all you can do is your part and hope the rest falls into place.

Personally, I usually have a handful of ideas on hand in various states of readiness. So, oftentimes I have a vague idea of what my next book is while I’m still working on a current project. The way I work, having a regular publisher, editor and agent, is I’ll develop the idea I want to do into a detailed outline, I’ll work on sample chapters and I’ll get a really decent-length pitch put together. This can take anywhere from a couple of months to over a year, as has been the case for this book I am writing now.

Winter Town came out in December of 2011 but I’d been working on the pitch for a while before that, so certainly over a year to develop this into a good pitch I can be proud of and ready to write. From there, my editor has to sell this idea to the other editors and marketing teams in an acquisitions meeting. A lot of people have to sign on and say yes, this book sounds good; this deserves to be on the shelves; and yes, we think we can sell this. Even if it was completely written already and was a masterpiece, there are only so many books a publishing house can put out per season. If spring 2013 is filled up, or if it’d get lost in all the powerhouse books coming out in fall of 2013, it would still get pushed out a year. Maybe if I was James Patterson they could make a case for getting it out sooner, but I’m no James Patterson.

In my case it works out. This gives me most of the year to finish writing the book. It gives us time to revise it and go through a few rounds of edits. It gives Little, Brown & Co time to print advance copies, to shop it around and build up interest before it’s officially released. To the public, it’d seem that I disappear for a couple years and return with a shiny new book, but really all that time is spent working, writing, revising, marketing and planning for the release.

It’s a lengthy process, putting a book out, with very little of the process spent in the public eye, generally right around the release there’s a big hoopla, interviews and talks and book shelves, and then it all goes quiet again as we work on the next one.

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

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Writing Stories In Different Formats, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I’ve had the privilege to write for a few formats that are not novels. Namely, I got my start working on comic strips and was very entranced with that industry for a long time. I also spent a few years working in comic books, and because of my comic book Emo Boy I was given the chance to work on a feature film screenplay for a proposed film adaptation. I’ll talk here about those unique processes.

All of them are of course very different from prose writing, for teens or otherwise. While the heavy lifting of creating an airtight plot remains the same for any form of writing, and believe me that can easily be the most effort-intensive part of the process, there’s less focus on detail, generally because an artist or director will be supplying the actual images needed. Your job is strictly telling the story.

Comic strips may seem the easiest but I’ll always maintain that it’s a great boot camp for writing. You only need to do a small number of panels, usually one to four, with minimal dialogue, a small cast of characters and usually just the one scene. To do that well, to tell a full story AND elicit a laugh or a heartfelt moment, or to make someone stop and ponder something for a moment, is difficult. To do it day in and day out, week after week, year after year, you’ll understand quickly how hard it is to keep that momentum going. Every strip needs to set up who is talking, where they are, what the context is and then somehow turn that idea on it’s head by the end of the strip in a clever way. Sometimes a comic strip will have a storyline that goes on through a week or a month; Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes fame occasionally would play a game and see how long he could keep an idea going. Watterson is especially famous for pushing boundaries and testing the limits of the form. But through these storylines you can never assume a reader has read the previous instalments. You have to assume they’ve never even heard of your strip. So not only do you have to carry on the story, but you have to address it as if this is the first instalment of the story and find a clever or quick way to recap. Every strip is essentially a tiny standalone story.

Comic books have a bit more space to play in. You can grow from a 3 panel story to a full 3 act story. Comics generally have 24 pages to tell your story in; whether it’s a standalone story or part of a longer arc, which has become more common in the past decade or two. Comics are a very visual medium, so it’s often the artist who tells the story in terms of movement and dynamics, and the speed a scene may pass along at. The writer is generally setting up the scene and delivering the major actions and dialogue. I can draw decently, so I had written and drawn my comics. I’d usually come up with a long list of potential plots, as most of the issues of Emo Boy had anywhere from one to three short stories (Issue 11 had 11 stories). Once I had decided on a plot, I’d spend a day or two coming up with jokes, scenes and a general three act structure, and when it was time to write I’d keep those notes handy and often write the full issue in one sitting. The majority of the month I would spend doing all the art.

When I started work on the Emo Boy movie, I had to learn a lot about structure and writing a long-form work. With books and movies, that freewheeling speed and quick note jotting was no good, I needed to really sit down and put everything together like a puzzle. Theme, recurring motifs, and strong set pieces all became important. I had to really think of big visual moments that would look good in a trailer, I had to see everything on a screen in my head. I had to learn to cut for the first time, because, at 90 pages, you need a clean, strong storyline and you have to be aware of any scenes that divert from your story or don’t in any way enhance or add to the story. Real estate is precious in a screenplay: scenes are generally short, a few pages long at best, so you don’t have the freedom to stroll at your own pace the way you do in a novel. You can’t spend a page talking about the flowers your character just passed. A novel can be a thousand pages or it can be 300 pages, you set your own pace. A movie needs to hit the right beats at the right times and hit them strong.

One of the best things about novel writing is the control you have over it. There’s no space demand of a comic strip or even a movie, there are far fewer hands in the production. It’s essentially you and your ideas, particularly at the start when the blank page truly is an invitation to your own world, as large or small as you feel comfortable existing in.

There’s always an option for a writer whether to express a story as a comic, a movie, a video game, a novel, a blog, a news article… there’s always a need and a place for good writing.

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

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My Fiction Writing Process, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I’m going to talk a little bit about what works for me when it comes to the process of writing. Everyone’s different, and no doubt you will be too, but here’s a little insight on how I work and how I came to use this process, and with any luck it can help you find your way as well.

I taught myself to write in gradual steps, by need, generally. My first ‘writing’ was my short comic strips. It doesn’t sound like much but writing comic strips is a great boot camp – every strip has a beginning, middle and end, or set up, development and punch line. You’re essentially telling a small story every day. By the time I was working on my Emo Boy comic book, I figured I’d read enough comics and watched enough TV. I knew the basic gist of how a story should look and feel. Some issues had one issue-long story and some issues had story several smaller stories. I’d generally set up the storyline, come up with some events and jokes, then wrap it all up, and if Emo Boy could learn a lesson by the end, all the better.

In 2008, I was working on two projects at once. One was Happyface, a full novel I was writing for Little Brown Books For Young Readers and the other was a screenplay for an Emo Boy movie for Vanguard Films. In 2008, I learned I knew absolutely nothing about storytelling.

The main complaint I kept hearing was: “Where’s the structure?” This was coming from both companies. Having worked on short comic strips and comic books, my stories tended to feel too episodic. Emo Boy, the movie was having multiple adventures stemming from the comic book storylines. Happyface was jumping from month to month and place to place with little arc.

I’ve since become a strong outliner – I often spend as much time, if not more, outlining a book as I do actually writing it. I start in broad strokes and break it down piece by piece. It goes something like this:

  • Have an idea.
  • Give the idea a basic arc – a beginning, middle and end.
  • Flesh those pieces out into 3 acts – so the beginning, middle and end each have a beginning, middle and end.
  • Jot out ideas, scenes, character traits and lines of dialogue. Picture a video trailer for the book. Think up themes arising from big ideas. I ask myself: what is it about this story that excites me and makes me want to write about this in particular? How do I connect with the story? I take all those puzzle pieces and try to fit them together into some kind of loose outline.
  • From there, I start thinking in chapters.
  • For each chapter, I’ll write a beginning, middle and end. I’ll add more dialogue, locations and characters.

My editor says my first draft for a chapter is always very loose, like I’m racing to the end. It’s closer to a comic or a screenplay: this person says this, that person says that, they both do this, the end. I’ll go through it again to add more observation, detail and surroundings. I’ll go through it again and add more mannerisms and movement, what the characters are thinking, sensory details like how something looks, smells or sounds. In final drafts, I pay attention to word choices, how sentences flow and the general feel of the text.

Things change a lot as I write. The outline will bend and sway, characters will reveal themselves to be far more important than I’d anticipated. So, even though I have a blueprint, I’m still discovering along the way. Some people prefer to start blind – they have a germ of an idea in mind and they start writing. I’ve tried this but I just stare at a blank page trying to think of something clever to say. It doesn’t work for me – but we’re all different. This is just my process.

In a more general day-to-day look at my writing process, I like to write outside of my home. I find I’m easily distracted at home, I have all my books there, my TV, video games and, worst of all, house chores. I also find that other places have better lighting. It makes me feel more awake. It could be a library, a cafe, a Panera Bread or a Barnes & Noble. I listen to music while I write – nothing with lyrics or too distracting – or sometime movie scores, and there are some indie bands that do instrumental music. I like jazz, anime soundtracks and, lately, I’ve added hip hop instrumentals into the mix.

Writing is hard. This is an issue for me and I know it is for a lot of people. Sometimes you know you want to write but you think, “I don’t have any ideas. I don’t know what to write.” So you don’t. It takes me a few minutes to get started. My head is racing, full of to-do lists, distractions, it’s been a long day, my brain is fuzz and I just want to tune out, but once I sit and just stare at the blank screen or notebook paper my brain will, one by one, shut off all those distractions. I start to think, one thought leads to another and eventually I’ll be lost in my own little world. Time slips away and I can easily sit there for an hour or two and not even feel it. I imagine it’s what meditation is like.

Anyone can write: you need to find what works best for you. Find that process and put your trust in it, and you’ll be piling up pages before you know it.

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

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On Story Ideas And Developing A Novel, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

There are so many story ideas out there; small, personal stories, slice-of-life, romance, adventure, horror, fantasy epics. I have lists of ideas tucked away that I’ll probably never get around to writing. So how do you know which idea to follow? With luck, something will talk to you – the right idea will hold your hand and walk you right through to the end.

After I finished writing my first Happyface, my first teen graphic novel, I felt like I needed to take my writing career to the next level. Other authors were making huge deals for 6 figures writing these epic series, these volumes-long fantasies and dystopias of other worlds and barren futures. I’d only written some comics and my first teen graphic novel, but I’m an author, so I figured I should be able to write anything I choose.

I set out to work on my own series. I fumbled through a few ideas before I settled on my epic – it involved a world that exists on a molecular level, subatomic particles and whatnot that you could only see after you die, when you leave your body and become energy. Or, you could see it through The Machine.

I slaved on this thing for months as it grew and grew, lending itself to volumes of stories. There was a parallel to Homer’s The Odyssey, there were gods and monsters, there was a girl… there were many girls! There was a broken protagonist, who needed to fix himself on his journey. Once the confines of the human body were left behind, the world became especially open. He could travel through time and space, there was an underworld, a heaven and lessons to be learned.

I first knew I was in trouble when I was sending my editor these long dry articles on quantum physics and theories on the soul and she said, “Okay, great, I don’t know what you want me to do with these!!” I’d spent months trying to build this world that never felt tangible. I didn’t know how or where to start, and I hadn’t written a single word. It was just IDEAS, piles and piles of IDEAS, and research, and graphs and charts and character arcs. I wasn’t getting any closer to having a BOOK. My editor pointed out that people have spent a lifetime trying to pull off The Odyssey.

One day I was at my day job and I had to call someone who lived in Winter Haven, Florida. “That’s a weird place to name a town after winter,” I thought. Florida is like summer all year round. This sparked the idea for Winter Town. I pictured the winters I had as a child in New England and thought it was a charming setting for a story. I thought of writing two protagonists, a boy and a girl, and how maybe they only get to see each other during the winter, making it all the more magical and romantic.

Within twenty minutes I had a rough outline for what the book could be. I emailed the idea to my editor and she immediately grasped onto it – it felt like a proper follow-up to Happyface, and it wouldn’t take me years of plotting to make something of it. The basic idea for Winter Town never changed. I added personal elements, there were themes on art, dreams and comfort added, but I was moving. I was writing, and I felt like I was actually working on something and not just spinning my wheels. Then it was just solving the remaining puzzles – What do these characters want? What do they need? How do they fulfil each other? Where do they leave each other empty?

Maybe I’ll still get to that epic some day, or another series, but my point is this: Don’t chase trends, don’t worry about what others are writing or how much money they’re making, and don’t follow buzz – just write your story. Write what comes from your heart or you’ll be starting at the bottom of a long uphill battle.

story notes by graphic novelist Stephen Emond

 

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

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Writing Personal Stories For Teens, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I would never say that I write autobiography but I like to say that I write personal stories, because I do cull a lot from my life and from people around me and things that I see, as I imagine most authors do. It gets more difficult with each project because writers look for new aspects of their personality to mine, and usually it’s that first book that is the culmination of a life’s worth of experiences.

I was no different, as my book Happyface definitely felt like a look back on everything I’d lived before. It really wasn’t intentional. It would have been bold of me to say, “I plan to write a book about me, and the people shall love it.” Although, I may have pitched that at some point. It was an organic process, and when you’re sitting there asking, “What would this character say? Where can they go?” it’s definitely easy to answer with what you would say and where you’ve been.

In case you haven’t read it, Happyface is about a boy who suffers an unnamed family tragedy, moves to a new town and decides to start life over for himself. It becomes a social experiment and he uses it to bury pain and escape his reality. It’s a “downward spiral” story.

The genesis of the book came from a title I’d just written it down in a sketchbook. Later I wondered who Happyface was, and the idea of a kid smiling through a lot of inner pain seemed like a great character to dive into. I had his parents divorced, because my own parents were divorced. I made him kind of shy, a little geeky, because I could definitely sell that. He was an artist. That pretty much clenched it -this was going to be a personal story.

I spent a lot of time thinking about my high school years when working on Happyface. I often wished I’d kept a journal of some kind, something I’ve always felt through life but never actually did. It would have been a goldmine for material! I had moved to a new town my sophomore year of high school when my parents divorced, and I viewed it as a chance to be a new person, but this was honestly lost on me as I wrote and only after did it dawn on me that I had actually lived through that experience. I thought I’d just been coming up with interesting story points. Other things I did intentionally use. I pulled a lot of details and banter and relationship tics from my first girlfriend. I thought about the kids that reached out to me when I first moved. These girls Leslie and Emily would always talk to me in French class. They didn’t seem to realize I was an unpopular hermit, so they inspired the Moon sisters. A kid I sat with at lunch with a strong affinity for Married With Children inspired the character Mike. Much later in life, after a breakup, I met new people and had a new group of friends, and that inspired a chunk of the story as well.

This all sounds like autobiographical fiction but it really isn’t. A book starts off as an idea and usually for me it has little to do with anything going on in my life. The arc of the story, even when it involves real events, usually needs to be fictionalized. It needs closure, it needs structure, a lesson to learn, a theme, things a little more tidy than life ever offers. As I flesh it out, personal details tend to fill in the spaces, and round out the characters, and provide the little bits of wisdom and insight. Eventually, though, it also goes through my editor, and a much wider audience than myself or my friends is considered. It goes back to telling a story the right way, giving it a real structure, adding drama and taking away fluff. This is when we get rid of the 90s nostalgia, the Super Mario references, the old sitcom references. I keep adding those in, I can’t help it. This is when we search the story for those universal truths, where we find the pieces teenagers will really relate too, and we strengthen those and bring them to the front. That’s the stage where I stop writing for me, and start writing for an audience.

In my next article, I’ll talk a bit about how I use art in books – thanks for reading!

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

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I Was A Teenage Artist, by Stephen Emond (graphic novelist)

I’ll dive right in and start this series of articles on teen writing by introducing myself, some of my work, and give a little insight as to how I got here, seeing as I was once a teenager myself. So, my name is Stephen Emond, I live in Connecticut, and I am a Young Adult author. My first book, Happyface, came out in 2010, my second book Winter Town came out in late 2011, and right now I’m wondering how I managed to write two books in such quick succession, because this third one is not going so smoothly! Before Happyface, I’d written and drawn a series of comic books for SLG Publishing called Emo Boy, which are collected in two volumes. And before that…

Despite having been first published in my late twenties, I’ve always thought of myself as an artist and storyteller. When I was 5 years old and sleeping over my grandparents house, I needed to have paper and crayons with me. I was always “the artist,” even when my drawings were wobbly circles with L’s for legs. In high school I’d gotten into comic books – the early 90’s were all about Image comics and Marvel comics for me, and I very much wanted to draw my own. I filled sketchbooks with doodles of my own characters and on rare occasions tried writing up worlds for them to exist in, and stories of hitting the streets to take down punks. These were not great stories.

Stephen Emond comic book art

In my senior year, I was drawing cartoons for the school newspaper, still nothing great, but I was “THE ARTIST!” now, with exclamation point! Even when I wasn’t good I had some kind of aura that said, “This kid’s the artist,” and aside from the occasional comment on how I gave everyone duck feet, it was just accepted that I was the artist. I think it was less about how well I could draw (or not) but more for the fact that I was always doing it. By graduation, as a gift for my circle of friends, I made a twenty-page book of comic strips that featured the few of us as characters. The art in these was still awful, and the characters infuriated my friend Mike with their lack of mouths and noses.

Stephen Emond - Steverino comic book art

The take away from this is that even though the art wasn’t great, I got a great joy from doing these things. Despite the brevity of your average comic strip, it was a way for me to communicate in a way I wasn’t always comfortable with in person. For me, drawing, and, I’ll add writing as a way for me to have something to draw, was a way of escape – it was a fantasy world I could escape to. But more than that, it was a bridge, a way for me to communicate, to explain who I am, what I’m like, and what I think about.

When people write to sell a hit book or make a ton of money or get famous, I shake my head. I think, more than wanting to create, you should need to do it – you should get a great enjoyment from it. Because I loved making those comic strips, and when Mike suggested I keep doing them and send them to our friends in college, I leapt at the chance. And every month for years I’d send out a pamphlet of new cartoons, new storylines, new ideas, and slowly I began to get better. Each month I struggled to learn from the last batch of cartoons and improve. I began sending my comic strips to newspaper syndicates, and as the editors there got used to my submissions, they began to watch my growth and offer feedback. Within a year or two I had communications with editors at most of the 6 main syndicates, even though I wasn’t ready for publication yet. It was all about learning and growing still.

In 1999 I won a national cartooning award, and in 2004 I had the idea for Emo Boy. By then I’d written enough comics to pull off a 24-page story. And in 2008 when I met my editor at Little, Brown Books For Young Readers, I’d written enough comics that I was comfortable in tackling a book.

I’ll close with take away #2: you’re never too young to start. It happens that occasionally someone later in life randomly decides to write a novel and has a hit with it but, for me and for a lot of creators I know, getting published is just a step on the way – and it’s usually not the first step. It’s a culmination of experiences, observations, short stories, poems, notebooks of ideas. It was for me, at least.

In my next article I’ll talk a bit more about Happyface and how else my teenaged self inspired the story. Until then!

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Stephen Emond’s author website: www.stephenemond.com

Stephen Emond’s bio page

***

United States (and beyond)

   

United Kingdom (and beyond)

   

Australia (and beyond)

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Writing Teen Novels
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