Making a Graphic Novel – Pitching and Writing Cheer Up!

People are curious how books get made, and the process can seem mysterious if you don’t work in publishing. From the outside, you might think “Wow, this book must have always been a perfect, full-formed product!” But behind the scenes, creating a book is a long process that involves a lot of people refining each others’ work at every step. Like turning thumbnails into a sketch, and finally into a piece of art, you revisit and perfect your ideas to make it a little better each time.

Like most books, Cheer Up began as an elevator pitch—a short description you can, in theory, give in the time it takes to ride in an elevator with someone (elevators are rarely involved in practice)—that I sent to Oni along with two other books. The original pitch was simple:

Cheer Up: Annie is a smart but antisocial geek starting her senior years of high school and forced by her mother to join the cheerleading squad to make friends and get an athletics credit for her college applications. She expects a stereotypical clique of stuck-up popular girls, but instead finds genuine warmth, especially from Beebee, a trans girl who came out and transitioned last year. Beebee outwardly seems like a perfect, popular girl, but inside she’s a bundle of insecurity who feels like she has to live up to high standards to be accepted instead of just being the imperfect person she is. She and Annie become best friends, and romance soon blossoms. Cheer Up is intended to be a standalone slice-of-life graphic novel.

As you can see, some things stuck, like Annie being smart and anti-social, but a lot of details didn’t exist yet. I knew there were cheerleaders. I knew they smooched. The girls didn’t even have last names yet, Bebe’s name had extra vowels, the whole element of them having been friends before didn’t exist yet.

After this, my original editor, Ari Yarwood loved it and asked me for a full pitch treatment. A full pitch includes a very basic summary, some talk about the book’s final format, an overview, and a loose outline. Cheer Up’s initial outline looked like this:

Cheer Up!
Two queer girls on the cheerleading team—antisocial cis lesbian Annie and the eager-to-please trans girl Beebee—find each other through the school’s cheerleading team and rekindle a friendship they both thought they’d lost. They eventually learn there’s a lot more to the other than it seems on the surface, and eventually find love.
Cheer Up! is a standalone story that would best fit a 100-120 graphic novel, but could work as a miniseries of 5-6 monthly floppies. 
Annie is a smart but antisocial geek starting her senior year of high school and forced by her mother to join the cheerleading squad to make friends and get an athletics credit for her college applications.

Beebee is a pleaser—she feels like she needs to be to survive. Her parents treat her transition like an imposition and won’t let it continue if she can’t keep her grades up, while the entire school only seems to accept her because the cheerleading team took her in.

Both girls have their flaws and their strengths, and find something missing from their own lives in the other, and after they find each other through cheerleading, they form a friendship and eventually romance that helps them both grow into more complete human beings.

Cheer Up! looks at growth and maturity from a variety of sources, and how to recognize what you need in others, as well as modern queer youth problems like microaggressions, conditional acceptance, and respectability politics. It is also a lesbian love story between a cisgender and transgender character, and in my own overwhelming optimism I hope it helps teach young cis lesbians that there’s nothing wrong with dating trans women, hopefully undermining the current antagonism that occupies a corner of the queer women’s community.

There’s also an outline that’s much closer to the final script, including a few short dialogue snippets like the first iteration of Annie’s line “and then I will explain in gratuitous detail why the Seven-Years War SHOULD be called World War I!”

But even this pitch outline isn’t perfect. This early iteration was darker, with Bebe’s parents being less supportive and Jonah’s creepiness playing a much bigger role. Around this time, the core theme of the book—“Girls Supporting Girls”—began to take shape and I revised the outline more to reflect that. The story became a little less of a romance and more about how making friends helps us grow. Bebe teaches Anni to be gentle and Annie teaches Bebe to stand up for herself.In this original pitch outline, Annie saves Bebe from her creeper, but thanks to some re-writes and editor feedback, Bebe learns to save herself in the final script.

Around this time, Oni paired me up with the amazing artist Val K Wise, and that’s when everything started coming together. Val and I chatted, and learned that we’d grown up close to each other on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It was at this point we decided to specifically set the book in Florida, in an amalgam of the communities we grew up in. Suddenly a lot of details began to fill in: Bebe became mixed-race Latina in my mind. Annie was a specific kind of Florida grunge girl we both knew growing up. The town had its own look, and we pulled local institutions like the ice cream shop and the movie theater from our own childhoods. With Val’s input (and his amazing character sketches), I re-wrote the outline to be something much closer to the final shape of the book. Along the way you’re making notes about dialogue and character quirks and scenes you want to include.

The very last stage of outlining—for a graphic novel or comics, at least—is taking your general outline and all your notes and making what’s called a page-by-page. A page-by-page is exactly what it sounds like: You number out all your pages (originally we thought Cheer Up could fit into 100 pages) and you look at your outline and you say “this will happen on page X, that will happen on page y,” and so on, until you know what each page of your book needs to include. It doesn’t need to be detailed, but you need to know how you’re using the space and the pacing.

And then the writing begins.

Comic book writing is different than screenwriting or prose writing, because you need to be a dialogue coach, but also a set-designer. You need to decide how many panels each page will have and tell your artist what’s going on in each panel: who’s there, what are they doing, where are they, what kind of emotions are they showing? Ideally, you’ve got a great relationship with your artist and can talk to them if you get stuck or need inspiration. And then you also need to write the dialogue.

Here’s a sample page from the first draft of the Cheer Up script:

Panel 1: Exterior establishing shot of ANNIE’S HOUSE, a small, 1920’s bungalow-style wooden house with overgrown flowering shrubs all around it.
1. ANNIE (off):	Mom, I’m home!
2. MS. GINTER (off)	In the kitchen, sweetie.
3. ANNIE (off):	...I might have gotten detention.
Panel 2: Interior establishing shot of ANNIE’S KITCHEN, which is large and old-fashioned, with plants everywhere growing in flower pots and old cans and cartons. A lot of the plants are little seedlings, but some of them are large and overgrown. The kitchen looks very old-fashioned and a little messy, but lived-in and cozy. There are antique hurricane lamps on some of the shelves and several bundles of herbs are hanging from the high ceilings to dry.
Annie is walking in and dropping her bag. Her mother has several makeshift planting pots and a bag of soil on the counter and is planting strelitzia seeds (which involves pulling off their orange hair before planting them).
REFERENCE: Hurricane lamp
REFERENCE: strelitzia seeds
4. ANNIE:	It wasn’t my fault.
5. MS. GINTER:	Mmhmm...
6. ANNIE:	These guys picked a fight, but somehow I’m the only one who got in trouble!
7. MS. GINTER:	Oh? You’re held to a different standard because of others’ preconceptions?
8. ANNIE:	Exactly!
Panel 3: Close-up on Ms. Ginter, as she finally looks at Annie and gives her that smug “valuable teaching moment” look that says “gotcha.”
9. MS. GINTER:	Kind of like you did to your old mother this morning about her cheerleading?

As you can see, you can even include links to images you want to include in the shot. Different artists like different levels of detail from the writer, so it’s always important to talk and make sure you’re giving them what they need without weighing them down.

After you’ve got the script, it’s time to hand everything over to your artist. But we’ll pick that up tomorrow…

Cheer Up! Love and Pompoms from Oni Press will be available from your favorite booksellers beginning August 11th!

Phantasmal Killer—The Skill Trap

Welcome back to Phantasmal Killer, a blog delving into weird and fun game mechanics and how you can take advantage of them to bring new ideas to life at your tabletop. In each article I look at using a game system in unexpected ways to create unique or bizarre characters to pummel your players.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: The pressure is on and time is tight! A hero must unlock a door as the water rises to the knees, their waist, their chest! Or a sparking panel needs to be repaired in the radiation-flooded engine room! Or the bomb ticks down as a shaky pair of hands vacillate between the red wire and the blue—cutting the correct wire will save the day, but failure will spell disaster! These are all common tropes in books and film, but the skill systems in many RPGs just don’t bear out that risk and tension. If you screw up diffusing that bomb, the campaign ends. So obviously everyone knows that bomb will be safely diffused. Most RPGs just don’t have a skill system that provides tiered drawbacks for failed skills the way they do combat.

Or do they?

There’s at least one category of skill checks most RPGs provide level-adjusted consequences for, but for a very narrow model of play: Traps!

Continue reading “Phantasmal Killer—The Skill Trap”