Graphic novels are a big deal in the publishing world right now, and I’ve been anxious to find out more about them. Fortunately, there’s some really great graphic novelists out there, Jason Platt being one of them. His debut graphic novel Middle School Misadventures hit the shelves in April of this year. My family purchased our copy and it’s already been read multiple times. In my budding graphic novel nerdiness, I was especially impressed with how well he positioned his dialogue tags–no easy task. It’s with great pleasure, that I present Jason’s excellent insights on graphic novels with hopes of more GN news to come.
Thank you, Jason!
What got you started writing and illustrating graphic novels?
It’s funny, because I never really saw myself doing graphic novels. I had been doing my webcomic “Mister and Me” for a number of years, and even though that is close to a graphic novel, its structure is handled differently. In a traditional comic strip, you have four panels to tell part of a story and where it usually ends with some sort of punchline. But with a graphic novel you have time to really tell all of the story, and develop the characters more. It’s really nice.
Originally, I had started to write what is now called “Middle School Misadventures” as a book that is similar to, let’s say, Big Nate or Diary of a Wimpy Kid kind of style. Where it was written with prose and then a spot illustration mixed throughout the whole thing. When my agent approached editors with it, we got some positive responses, however, one editor suggested making it into a full graphic novel and asked if I was interested in changing its format. Immediately I said yes, of course. It would flow really well with how I tell stories anyway. But I also knew that the job would be that much harder to complete. There is a lot more construction and organizing that’s involved. But once I got started, I knew it was the right direction to go.
So it wasn’t necessarily something that I was aiming for, but it was a storytelling device that I was able to fall into easily.
What is it that appeals to you about graphic novels?
Very similar to the first question. I think what’s really nice about the graphic novel format is being able to harness any character development and show that in a visual form. And also not have the limitations of a traditional comic strip panel sizes. In other words, it’s so nice to be able to dedicate a whole page for one moment and use that to express the impact that the story may have. And usually, it helps with the excitement or the punchline of a funny moment that is happening.
Who are some of your inspirations?
That is a great question. I have loads of inspiration that I have drawn from all the time. Sometimes, without me even realizing it.
One of my earliest inspirations were the comic strips that I would read in the newspaper. Charles M Schulz and his creation Peanuts, Jim Davis and Garfield, were probably my two biggest influences as a young kid. Their comic strips were like a daily “how to” for me. I was laughing and learning at the same time. I would look at it and see how they were able to solve a problem visually. I would learn how to tell a joke, and how to pace it out. And as I got a little older I would pay more attention on how they told the joke with the words and the art.
But as I got older, I began to reach out and appreciate other artists out there. Probably my biggest influence as a young artist was Mort Drucker, with Mad Magazine. There was something about how he was able to draw a caricature of someone, but somehow make it look like they were alive on the page. Back in the day, when I would read Mad Magazine all the time, there were tons of cartoonists who captured my imagination, but none other like Mort Drucker. His line work with pen and ink was something that I would marvel at. And to be honest, I still do. If you were to ask any cartoonist working today to name one of their heroes, I’d bet Mort Drucker would come up more often than not. He’s just amazing.
But then there are filmmakers, and actors, and novelists who inspire me all the time too. Notably Charlie Chaplin. But probably real life inspires me most of all, because I think that is what makes us unique. What makes our voice, and the way that we tell a story, our own, is the experiences that we personally have.
What program(s) do you create your novels in? Do you work on the art in a separate program before putting it together with the text, or how to you get the two together?
Primarily, I work in Corel Painter for my penciling and inking. And from there I use Photoshop to color my pages. I prefer Painter when actually drawing because I really like how the digital materials respond, especially the pens. They mimic the line work that I like to do in a physical piece, and, for me, I haven’t found another program that handles it like I want. That said, I do all of my coloring in Photoshop because, while Painter is great for drawing, it is a memory hog when trying to color. And that is when Photoshop really comes into play.
But when writing the story, I will add text into Painter as I am writing it, because then I can see where the texts will flow in that particular panel. I created my own font so I will know exactly how the text will fall on the page. Because where the speech balloons fall is just as much of the composition as the characters are. You want the balloons and the dialogue to flow just as smoothly as the people do.
What are some techniques or methods you use in the early stages to create how you want your novel to look and read?
If I’m in a brainstorming session, I will sometimes sketch out what I’m thinking in my head first. By keeping it small and loose you can see right away if it works or not. And you can move on to try and solve the problem without spending too much time on it. I have been working on the second book for Middle School Misadventures, and a few months ago my wife and I took a little time away for some R&R. I was still in the writing phase of the book, but didn’t have all my resources with me to do any work during my free time. So instead of “writing” out ideas, I would sketch out a moment. And I could see it. It helped me more than if I ‘wrote’ an idea down.
But sometimes one of the best ways to write something is to just jump right on in. It is super exciting to brainstorm and world build, but you don’t want to get caught up in that stage forever. Because sometimes, as you’re writing, you will world build without even knowing you are.
Big tip that has helped be out a lot: keep a little notebook (or side document) where you can jot down names of characters you’ve made, or locations. You will have secondary characters that you will throw into your story, and you don’t want to have to scroll through your entire document trying to find out that the minor character’s name was Maria and not Marney.
But as for “what I do to help make it look how I want it to read,” that’s a tough one. Because it’s a graphic novel you have to show it. When you write in prose you can say: “Daniel stepped into the coffee shop and immediately saw her sitting there.”
Simple sentence, but as a graphic novel there is a TON of information there. Do you start with Daniel walking up to the coffee shop? Is he crossing the street? Is there a bell that rings when he enters? How many people are sitting there? What is she wearing? Is she at a table, or at the counter? Is it a wide shot? or a close up? There is a lot to construct, and it’s your job as a storyteller to break it all down that helps tell the story and keep its pace going smooth.
What comes first, the story or the art?
The story always comes first. But when I say that, I mean that I have an idea of the whole story. I create what I call tent poles for it. A tent pole is similar to the headers of an outline. But I’m not big on writing the whole script out first, because a lot of what comes out is what the characters will do. It’s much like throwing actors on stage and asking them to improvise their way to this next tent pole of the story. And they may do something, or say something that I never predicted that will change how they get to that tent pole. So while I do come up with the story first, the actual telling of the story is simultaneous with the drawing.
It’s a little bit like when Alfred Hitchcock would shoot his movies. He found a lot of the joy in writing the screenplay and drawing the storyboards. And when he actually got to the point where he was shooting the film, he found that it was a little boring for him. He’d already shot the entire movie in his head and on paper, so the creative aspect of it had already been done for him.
How did you get started writing Middle School Misadventures? Is any part of it autobiographical?
Part of it does come from my own life, being that I did participate in a talent show in elementary school, but that’s pretty much where it stops. I think behind every writing there is some nugget of past experience that many writers draw from. And they use that experience as a springboard, in a sense.
But since I already had these characters from my comic strip Mister and Me, it was easy to build on them. My agent at the time suggested that I use them, and I was willing to explore a full story with them.
Originally I had the character Newell the same age as he was in the comic, where he is perpetually five years old, but the feedback was that many kids want to read stories about peers or kids who are older than them, not characters who are younger. Which I totally get. I had no problems making Newell in a middle-school age range. That made it really exciting for me. I got to explore Newell in a new realm where he is more independent, and where he counts on his friends more. So it was really fun to experience this new world basically at the same time as Newell.
How did your novel get picked up by Little, Brown Books? What happened when you heard the news that they wanted to publish it?
As I had mentioned, my agents and I shopped my manuscript, which was loosely penciled. I did have about five pages inked and a couple pages colored to give the editor an idea of what the final product would be like.
They were a couple of publishers that passed on it before Little, Brown Books acquired it. When it comes to publishing traditionally, you have to be professional and patient. Sometimes you will get a response relatively soon, but sometimes you may not get a response for a while. Editors have a lot of things on their plates, and it’s not easy to look at all of the submissions that are in front of them. So we had first rights of refusal with every submission. Meaning that we would not submit the manuscript to another editor while it was being reviewed by somebody else. And sometimes we had to wait a couple of weeks or so to get a response. So in the meantime, while I waited for responses, I worked on freelance assignments and also worked on other manuscripts that I was tinkering with. And when the manuscript landed at Little, Brown Books, they had it for quite a while – I can’t remember exactly how long – but long enough to raise our eyebrows with interest. My son and I were actually on our summer vacation, and actually pulling into our hotel when I got the call from my agents to let me know that Little, Brown Books was making an official offer for acquisition. So, needless to say, it made the beginning of a wonderful vacation for us. It was a real exciting time.
What have you learned about publishing graphic novels from this process?
They always say never edit as you write because it destroys the momentum. And I totally agree with that. That said, it’s a little different with a graphic novel. At least, for me it is. The flow of the story isn’t just the dialogue, but it’s the visuals as well. And I want the visuals to flow just as smoothly as the story. I want the pacing to be smooth. I want the page turns to be fun and exciting. So whenever I get done penciling a page, I drop it into an InDesign document and move onto the next page. But as I am penciling the next page, I will go to the InDesign document and look at the flow of the last three pages to where I am now. And sometimes, I will go back and make adjustments to the page I’m working on, or one of the previous pages. Once you get a page done, and all of the panels where you want them, it’s hard to go back and edit the panels of a page. If you add a panel or two to a page it will affect the page flow, not only for that page but the next page, and maybe even the page after that. I’m not sure if that makes sense, or not. But I’m usually editing as I go along.
And just like every other project, you really have to love your story, because you’re going to be seeing it and reading it for a long time. There are three major points of storytelling with a graphic novel that I go through (and I love every bit of it): the writing and penciling, the inking, and the coloring. And with those three points to cycle through, it’s really neat to see it all evolve and grow right in front of you.
What advice do you have for writers and illustrators aspiring to produce graphic novels?
First and foremost, have fun with it. That’s why you’re telling your story. When George Lucas was making Raiders of the Lost Ark, there were no movies out there that were inspired by adventure serials from the 1920s. He made the movie because he wanted to see it. And there is something special about graphic novels that are different than a traditional prose novel. That being that the graphic novelist is not just a playwright, but also the director, the cinematographer, the customer, the lighting director, the casting agent, and all of the actors all at the same time. There are a lot of nonverbal moments that happen with the illustrations that I really love. You don’t have to tell the audience, “I’m bored.” You can show the character being bored instead and get the same point across.
And just like with any writer, one of the best ways to get started is to read a lot. Find the genres that you enjoy reading, and study how the writer and illustrator blend their work together. And go from there.
And just like everything else, practice makes perfect. Start out by writing smaller pieces, much like how are novelist might start with short stories. Practice your craft. You will learn techniques and style through those smaller pieces. Even if they are just for yourself, or your friends and family. But the important thing is that you’re stretching that storytelling muscle where you will eventually graduate from telling smaller stories to larger ones, and then even larger ones than that.
And, once again, not to sound like a broken record, but patience is a real benefit. It took just over a year to complete Middle School Misadventures, and I loved every minute of it. But it did take a lot of work and long nights. So if you’re telling your story, and you get frustrated at how long it may be taking you, take a deep breath and know that it is a lengthy process. But if you love your story, you’ll follow through. In the end, you’ll have something you’re very proud of.
For a writer who doesn’t illustrate, what’s the best way to go about submitting a graphic novel text?
That’s a great question, a lot of people who want to write for graphic novels or picture books think that they have to submit the artwork along with it, and will sometimes seek an illustrator to do it for them. But for a writer, you just submit your copy or text, and if an editor is interested in it, they will find the illustrator for your work. So it’s something writers don’t have to worry about, but writing for a graphic novel specifically, you’ll want to study the format of basic screenplay writing. And follow those guidelines. Writing a graphic novel is much like writing a play, or a screenplay. So I would recommend picking up a book on screenplays, or finding some on online and see how they are written. Not that there are many that I have found, but if you can find how a graphic novel is written, that would certainly help too. Finding out how a screenplay writer does dialogue or supplies action and how they might describe the environment, etc., can really help. But know that there are many different formats, and ways of writing a screenplay, or graphic novel. And there is no “one way” to do it.
When it comes to my scripts, I like to have every page of the script reflect one page of the graphic novel. So if I’m writing page 21 it will be page 21 of the graphic novel. In that way, if I need to find the dialogue for page 21 in the actual script, I just go straight to that particular page. It makes it easier for me. And in turn, it makes it easier for my editor as well.
How can we find out more about you and your books?
You can find more about Middle School Misadventures at middleschoolmisadventures.com, where I talk about the book, the characters and a little bit about myself and a few samples of other illustrations, along with coloring page downloads.
What’s on the horizon?
I am currently in the middle of inking my second book in the Middle School Misadventures series right now, which will be out in the spring of 2020. It’s the same cast of characters in a brand new adventure that they go on. It’s pretty exciting!
Thank you for all your thoughtful answers, Jason!
Additional graphic novel resources: