Road to a Graphic Novel: Part Two by Jane Yolen

In Tuesday’s edition of Road to a Graphic Novel, Jane Yolen discussed… well, actually, you can just read it here yourself!


I read the opening few pages [of “Foiled”] to granddaughter Maddison, who wanted to hear more and more and more.

But I didn’t have any more. I’d gotten stuck five pages in because it had become clear to me that this was not going to be a short story. It kept threatening to become bigger than the 2,500 to 3,000 words the anthologists wanted. Aliera, her mother and father, her wheelchair-bound cousin, with whom she shares role-playing games, the boy Avery, Coach Chris and all the rest of the characters simply insisted on a bigger story. They wanted (gulp!) a novel. Well, I was already booked up with novels. I needed a short story.

This wasn’t a short story.

So I panicked and stopped writing. I thought Maddison would never forgive me.

In fact she gave up fencing for ballet long before I ever finished Aliera’s story, so forgiveness was never part of the larger equation.

However, Maddison and her mother–my daughter Heidi–became my best researchers when I sold Foiled to Mark Siegel at First/Second as a graphic novel. My first graphic novel. But not my first comic.

When I remembered that aborted short story while talking to Mark, he leaned forward and told me excitedly to send in what I had. I went back home and emailed it that evening. He loved the start, the voice, the promise of magic, and encouraged me to turn it into a graphic novel.

Now Mark already knew many of my published works, books that had some relationship to graphic novels—the picture books and novels. He knew I’d written short screenplays and a couple of musicals for children. He also knew I’d retold two Scottish Border ballads in a short comic book format for Charles Vess’ Book of Ballads. It was why Mark had wanted to meet with me in the first place

But Mark also knew that the relationship between those books and a graphic novel was actually less similar than I believed. In fact, the differences are more emphatic than the samenesses. And I would like to explore some of those differences with you now because I think that knowing them from my side of the desk may be of interest to you.

When I write picture books— which should have been an easy corollary to graphic novels—I simply hand the text over to the editor to give to an illustrator, who then works with my text to make a book. There is motion and emotion, a story arc, an interplay between text and pictures, but it is the artist who decides on which page the pictures go and how to get the reader to turn the page by the magic of illustration. The author is supposed to be silent–utterly and peculiarly silent–on what art goes where. Other than having a bit of a discussion about possible illustrators with the editor, as well as (usually) seeing samples of the illustrator’s work, the picture book author is out of that loop. We are not given the illustrator’s email or address or phone number. We are not invited into the process of turning our story into an illustrated book. We are not to get in the illustrator’s way.

When I write a novel, another close cousin to the graphic novel one would think (they even share part of a name), I use words to paint all the pictures. I adore lush descriptions of place and often in my work landscape is a character in itself. Usually there is little art with the exception of a book jacket, an occasional map, and if one is lucky and the p&l statement (profit & loss) allows it, maybe some interesting chapter openers or endpapers. Or a few black and white drawings scattered throughout, a la Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. But normally there is nothing. The assumption is that children old enough to read novels will find illustrations babyish. Or else publishers are just saving money. Pick one.

In movie and play scripts, which I have also written, there are also similarities to writing graphic novels, though the amount of stage direction is miniscule compared to the actual dialogue. Still there is a coded shorthand. “Exeunt, pursued by a bear” covers a lot of ground.

All these correspondences and samenesses and similarities  get stood on their heads when writing graphic novels.

So when Mark and I shook hands over Foiled, even before he and my agent did historic battle over the terms of the contract, I thought: This is going to be fun. How hard can it be?

The short answer was: It was very hard. Turns out the learning curve was huge.

All that I really knew going in was how to write.

Graphic novels have their own (stretchable and rapidly changing) rules, their own tropes, their own patterns, their own form and format when it comes to actually writing the thing down on a page. There is a history to the graphic novel as well as battling historians. There are superstars in both text and art. There are awards called The Eisners. And there are conventions. I recently went to the New York ComicCon for the first time and was totally overwhelmed. There are critics and revisionists. Graphic novels and comics are not really newcomers to the publishing world, though somehow the publishers are all acting as if they are.

But what makes writing a graphic novel different than writing a picture book or a novel or a movie/theatrical script is that the author has to be part art director, part movie director, part set-designer and costume-designer, part story-boarder — some of which is especially difficult if, like me, you cannot draw at all.

From the beginning, the writer of a graphic novel needs to think about the look of the book. Each page is not just written, but is conceptualized as a piece of art. In other words, I didn’t just have to write differently, I had to think differently about what I was writing.

Now this is both good news and bad news. I have been writing professionally since college, where I was a journalist and a poet. I have been writing and publishing children’s books since I was 22. One gets a bit set in one’s ways. So I have always tried to challenge myself with my writing and learn something new. Picture books, novels, poetry, song lyrics, cookbooks, music books, young adult books, easy readers.

For an artist to stop growing is to die.

But writing a graphic novel turned out to be in some ways the greatest challenge of all, precisely because of the conceptualization aspect. I was taught through a series of tough-love encounters with three people while doing this.

Editor Tanya McKinnon, artist Mike Cavallaro, and Mark Siegel himself. They pushed me, prodded me, and occasionally even overrode things, passing suggestions back and forth amongst themselves and to me. I was almost always eager to take those suggestions. Hit me with a 2×4 often enough, and I do listen!

Have I learned enough from working on Foiled? A writer never learns enough. Every new book brings with it new problems, whether a picture book, a novel—or a graphic novel.

With the next book–Curses, Foiled Again, Mike, Tanya, and Mark had a lot more to teach me.

Old dog, new tricks.

I have already loved every difficult moment of it. Especially finishing.

Though Tanya has already informed me that there is a third book, of course.

Of course. I guess I was the only one foolish enough to think there were only two books here.

Curses indeed.

Jane Yolen has 300 books published, and another graphic novel, from DarkHorse ith pictures by Rebecca Guay, will be out this fall: The Last Dragon.

One thought on “Road to a Graphic Novel: Part Two by Jane Yolen

  1. hi, I was actually wondering the net’ and wanted to see how i would be able to get my novel I wrote published into a graphic novel. ANd I stumbled upon your post. It was fascinating to go into detail about what you went through to make your story, and how it came to life. It was amazing to read. I’m just curious though, if I recently finished writing a book and wanted it published into a graphic novel, where would the first place to look, be for me?

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