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Writing Graphic Novels by Jack Campbell

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Jack Campbell

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Novels and short fiction demand some different approaches to writing because of their length.  Something that you can spend pages describing in a novel has to be summed up a sentence or two in a short story.  A novel can take its time getting somewhere, whereas a short story has to start close to where it wants to go and sprint the remaining distance.  Characters who can be slowly revealed by their actions over time in a novel have to be quickly defined by a few words or a single act in a short story.  Yet writing longer and shorter works teaches you tricks that work in both lengths.  Sometimes a novel wants to do something quickly, and sometimes a short story benefits from a slower reveal.  Above all, they show you that writing is about getting to the ending in way that keeps the reader reading.  No matter what else you do, you need a good story to hang the words on.

Writing The Lost Fleet: Corsair offered me a lesson in another form of writing.  Graphic novels make their own demands.  Yet the goal is the same, to produce a story that holds on to the reader and leaves them wanting more after you’ve taken them all the way to the end.

I see writing as having a rhythm to the way the words flow.  It can speed up for action scenes and slow down for contemplative moments, but the rhythm of the language is always there, carrying the reader along.  But then we have the graphic novel, which tells its story in freeze frame moments that are illustrated and jump from view to view.  A big challenge for me when writing the script for a graphic novel is getting that story rhythm in a medium that can easily create a series of jerky, abrupt transitions.  The art and the plot and the words have to flow from panel to panel, so that following the story feels as natural as watching a leaf glide by on the waters of a river.  The leaf may go in a sudden, unexpected direction, speed up or slow down, but it all feels natural and your eyes have no trouble following it.

For me, making that work meant thinking not just of what should be shown or said in each panel, but also thinking of the panels before and after it, and the total picture formed by all the panels on the page, as well as the transitions from the previous page and on to the next one.  That may seem obvious.  After all, when you write a story each sentence doesn’t stand on its own.  But it’s not always easy to visualize how the story will look before the art is done, whether the images you’re asking from the artist will clash or direct the eyes in the wrong direction.  Focusing on the flow of the story helps the writer figure out what should be shown in each panel, and from panel to panel.  Each panel will point the reader’s eyes somewhere.  That somewhere should be the next panel.  Don’t just depend on left to right and up to down.  The panels should lead the reader in those directions without the reader even realizing it.  And while getting each panel right is important, each an individual work of art, the “big picture,” the entire story, has to always be visualized as well.

Of course, it’s hard to figure out what the rhythm should be, what should be in each panel, if you don’t know where you’re going.  The story arc needs to be there, and it should both guide and support the art and dialogue.  Like the keystone that holds up an arch, the story drives everything else.  Don’t depend on the art and the artist to get the story past weak places.  That’s unfair to both the artist and the reader.  Fix the weak places, and the artist will be able to produce better art, and the reader will be happy with both writer and artist.

Dialogue is much different in a graphic format.  A few lines of dialogue, the sort of thing that flows well in a written story, can form a big, distracting balloon in a graphic novel panel.  The five comics in the Corsair series probably only had about two or three full pages of dialogue in them.  That means every single word has to be needed, and contribute to the story.  Yet at the same time, the dialogue has to convey not just information but also emotion, personality, motivation, and all of the other things that make readers care about the characters in the story.  If you lack that, it’s like one of those movies with all CGI and no heart.  You see huge things exploding and you just don’t care.  All of which means you have to shave down the dialogue to the absolute minimum needed, but you also have to include all the dialogue that is needed.  That’s not easy.  But you owe it to the readers.

Art collaboration isn’t really an issue with written works, except when it comes to the covers.  In a graphic novel, the artists need good guidance if they are going to produce good art to illustrate the story.  That’s also the writer’s job.  If you’re visualizing the story as you write it, you’re one step ahead of the game there.  Sometimes the artist will see something in the story, in a character or an event, that you hadn’t seen.  Do you reject that?  Maybe.  But your story inspired what the artist did.  So you need to evaluate the art with an eye to whether it brings out unexpected elements as well as to whether or not it reflects what you asked for.  The artist, after all, is an artist.  That’s what they do.  If you’re asking for the work and advice of an expert in something, you should pay attention to what they show you.

(c) Jack Campbell

About The Lost Fleet: Corsair

Set after the end of a century-long war between too space empires, Captain Michael Geary – an Alliance officer, presumed MIA – awakes to find himself aboard an enemy Syndic vessel. Forming an uneasy pact with the rebel Syndics, Michael sets out to save not only his fellow prisoners but their jailors too – on the run from a government determined to crush any uprising. But can he live up to the legend coloring his family name?

“A Tom Clancy thriller in space!” – Publishers Weekly

“A mile-a-second ride” – Freak Sugar

“Jack Campbell delivers a sci-fi masterpiece.” – Pastrami Nation

“The action is thick and fast and the visuals are truly stunning.” – Sci Fi Pulse

“A feeling of classic Star Trek” – Geek-O-Rama

“A strong, fast-paced story by writer Jack Campbell with terrific art” – Chuck’s Comic Of The Day

“A fine blend of action and intrigue, The Lost Fleet: Corsair is a “must-read” for connoisseurs of the genre, highly recommended. ” – Midwest Book Review

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Jack Campbell is the pseudonym for John G. Hemry, a retired Naval officer and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. As Jack Campbell, he writes The Lost Fleet series of military science fiction novels. He also wrote the Stark’s War and JAG in Space series under his real name.

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