Thursday 7 October 2010

National Graphic Novel Writing Month - part 2

We’ve all seen Harlan Ellison’s brilliant rant. I know that doesn’t narrow it down much. I mean his rant about the miserable treatment of writers. I used to work with a producer who was fond of saying, “Nobody wants to pay the cockadoodie writer!” Only she didn’t use the word cockadoodie; it was a bit more heartfelt than that.

It was brought home to me this week when a comic book editor told me he expected to pay “name” writers no more than $800 to write a full 22 pages. How fast would you have to churn out the words to make that pay? It certainly puts the target of National Graphic Novel Writing Month into perspective. For NaGraNoWriMo you have to complete the script for a 48-page book by the end of October.

No grumbling, now – based on those rates, the pro writer would expect to do it in under a week. But that’s if you’re writing monthly comic books, the majority of which are intended to be read and chucked away. “Wonderful trash,” as David Fickling once said, “has its place in comics too.” A graphic novel, though, ought to be a work that people will keep, cherish and re-read many times. Here’s Neil Gaiman, quoted in Writers on Comics Scriptwriting by Mark Salisbury:
“I remember being told off by one writer who writes a comic in a day. We were talking and I was saying, ‘I've just finished this last Sandman, and it took me about three weeks to write,’ and this person looked at me and said, ‘I bash them out in a day. How can you afford to do it?’ Because at the time we were only making $1,500 to $2,000 a script. On the other hand, the ten volumes of Sandman are still in print, and they still sell more than anything else does. We've done roughly a million of them in the US alone and well over a quarter of a million in the UK, and over the years they've paid me back for the amount of effort I put into them. There was no guarantee that they would in the beginning, it was just how I felt they had to be done. Looking back, I'm not sure why I was doing it. I definitely wasn't doing it for the money. It was partly the fun, the joy of creating art, and a lot of it with Sandman was just the joy of doing something I didn't feel anyone had done before, which is not something that you get very often in any field of art or literature.”
Sandman was worth all the care and effort Gaiman poured into it. That book was never an example of Mr Fickling’s “wonderful trash” species of comics. It may have been released in monthly installments, but at heart Sandman was always a graphic novel. It’s a work that you keep discovering new layers to, that keeps on rewarding you each time you return to it- in the same way that the works of Dickens (originally serialized, of course) stay on the shelves while airport thrillers are intended to be read once and left in the bin when you check out of your hotel.

Perhaps the best comparison I can make is with television. I can enjoy a series like Monk or House, where the episodes don’t really build into much of a bigger whole. And on the other hand you’ve got the shows like The Shield or Deadwood, which genuinely are 13-hour movies. And it's the latter that are the equivalent of graphic novels.

Now, I know lots of people hate that term, but I think it has its place. ‘Graphic novel’ doesn’t have to betoken a badly-drawn semi-autobiographical work about an overeducated introvert losing love and gaining wisdom in a Third World warzone, or New Yorkers living in cockroach-infested apartments while ogling a girl they’ll never talk to. Swamp Thing was a graphic novel. Right from the start, even published as a monthly book, it was one big graphic novel. Watchmen too. Two of my current faves, B.P.R.D. and Hellboy, are so thoroughly conceived as graphic novels that I save up a complete run of issues before I’ll even start on a story.
The NaGraNoWriMo exercise isn’t about Mr Fickling’s “wonderful trash”, it’s about writing a graphic novel like that. To give you an idea of the difference, here is a script for a comic book I wrote in a weekend. That was for an issue of Frankenstein’s Legions (whence the pictures) and I wrote it over a weekend because I was doing it as a favor. The Frankenstein’s Legions script is for an 18 page book. It's rough, improperly formatted and a little underlength, but if somebody was only paying me $800 then I'm not going to spend much longer than a day or two on it.

Now contrast that with the opening episode of Mirabilis. Those 25 pages probably took me about five or six weeks to write – and that only after spending several months planning out the whole story. Mirabilis is intended to be for keeps, it has a good part of my heart and soul in it, and I hope the difference shows.

My point here is not to put you off attempting NaGraNoWriMo. (And boy do they need a better acronym. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s already taken, unfortunately.) I just want to make it clear to everyone – and in particular to the penny-pinching comic book company editors out there – that something of the quality of a great, or even halfway decent, graphic novel is not something you can knock out in a day or two.

Forty-eight pages in thirty-one days is an achievable target, but it’s not an easy one. Bring your best game and, as Ronald D Moore says, write with confidence.

1 comment:

  1. Dave, I think you're beginning to re-educate me in re-evaluating my extreme mistrust of the term graphic novel.

    Really a very absorbing and beautifully rationalized analysis and I think the first twenty five pages of Mirabilis were more than worth the effort.

    Not to mention the rest of this epic work.