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How do you *write* a graphic novel?
"What, just the speech bubbles?"
There’s one response I keep getting when I tell folks my first graphic novel is coming out in September: I didn’t know you could draw!
I actually can draw, thank you very much. But more pertinently, I didn’t illustrate this book! I just wrote it.
*suspicious face* You wrote a graphic novel?
Graphic novels need writers too, not just (insanely talented) artists. Think about a graphic novel manuscript like a movie script. It includes not only dialogue, but also descriptions of the scene, details on characterization, narration (whether that’s voiceover in a movie or captions in a graphic novel), and more.
A script also sculpts the story. Where does it begin? Where does it end? And where does it meander in between?
Most importantly: what is the story trying to say?
A script does not make a graphic novel, however. That’s where visual artists come in.
They breathe life into the setting and the characters, their emotions and challenges. And if you’re lucky— as my co-author Muhammad and I am— your artist will create a world beyond your words.
Julie Robine is one such artist. She took our manuscript and turned it into something alive, adding nuance and emotion, details and humor.
That’s what I love about writing in this medium: the final product is a collaboration, a meeting of the minds, more than just the sum total of its parts.
In a word, it’s magic.
Here’s an inside look at how the magic of MUHAMMAD NAJEM, WAR REPORTER came together.
We start in winter 2019 with a draft that was decidedly… not magic.
Don’t let the Courier font fool you: I just typed this up in Microsoft Word and basically made up the format as I went along.
At this point, you’ll notice there’s no first person narration from Muhammad. My incredible agent Wendi Gu recommended shifting the perspective of the story— a decision that stuck through the final draft and added to the emotional heft of the book.
In a January 2020 draft, we added those captions, and Wendi had a great point about the reference to young Muhammad making a toy gun. Read her comment below.
For accessibility’s sake, Wendi’s astute comment reads as follows, with a reference to old family photos Muhammad shared:
While I’m sure this is reflective of real life (just thinking of all his toy guns here) I think that this imagery could be problematic in an American publishing context.
It was a great point, so I went back to Muhammad. He also remembered making little wooden cats as a kid. So we updated the script and made a few other tweaks. This one change inspired adding cats as a continued motif throughout the book.
We made continued edits to this first page through the first few months of 2020 (lol, our timing), and by the time we sold the project to Andrea Colvin at Little, Brown, in summer 2020, the first page looked like this. Note the added captions that characterize young Muhammad’s role in his family as the “miracle child.”
Then came the magic.
Andrea hired Julie Robine as our illustrator after seeing her sample of the first few pages. Even then, Muhammad and I knew something special was happening.
Julie so captured the heart of Muhammad’s story. We knew immediately that she was the right artist for this project.
And then the collaboration started! We started a group text thread between us and Julie, and Muhammad’s brother Qusay. We shared ideas and sketches and FaceTimed to get to know each other better. Trust was a huge part of this process.
First came rough sketches, under the direction of art director Karina Granda…
…then inks, about six months later, with a note from Julie.
And finally, color, almost a year after Julie started.
Here’s what the first page will look like when you crack open your copy on September 27. (How many times is too many to link to the preorder page?)
There were a lot— a LOT— more drafts in between these. But there’s the gist.
I’m looking forward to sharing more insider info, writing tips and sneak peaks in this newsletter. If you enjoyed any part of Neus News, would you consider tweeting about it, forwarding to a few friends, or even printing it out and sliding it under the door of a neighbor?
All my best,