A peaceful place to readSometimes you can have a conversation with a stranger and they’ll tell you the  most fascinating things, other times the person who approaches you with a barrage of questions will just be plain weird. Yesterday I had an encounter of the good kind, the kind that makes you glad that you happened to be in that place at that time so that you could learn that interesting new thing.

The weather was beautiful so I went down to the canal to read my book in the sunshine. Benches are few and far between along the canal and within seconds of sitting down I was joined by someone else.

“Looks like we both had the same idea,” he said, pulling a book out of his bag. And that would probably have been it, if I hadn’t at that moment opened my book. “Ooh, what are you reading?”

It was Persepolis, a graphic novel. I think that if I had a copy of Pride and Prejudice open on my lap it wouldn’t have caught his eye in the same way that the bold black and white illustrations of Persepolis did. I told him a bit about the book, about how it is a portrait of a girl growing up in Iran in the midst of war and under a strict Islamic regime. I didn’t tell him that it is both sad and funny and that I frequently have tears in my eyes when I reach the end of a chapter. You just don’t say that kind of thing to a stranger.

He told me about the book he was reading, a cyberpunk novel. I’ve heard of steampunk before, but never cyberpunk. I was intrigued so he explained to me that it was a mix of cybernetics and fantasy. In the book he was reading there was the real world and a virtual world that everyone ‘plugged’ into. The main character was a pizza delivery boy in real life but an expert hacker/street samurai in the virtual world. (I think I’ve got that right. At any rate, the premise he described sounded like a cross between Futurama and The Matrix.

I was a little bit concerned when he asked me if I’d heard of role-play, but it turned out that he was involved in creating some cyberpunk role-playing games and he was writing the characters for them. At this point, I wish that I had whipped my notebook out and said, “tell me more.” I am so so fascinated by the multitude of ways there are to create through writing. It would have made a great blog post, don’t you think? Q&A With A Cyberpunk Role-Play Writer. But I didn’t quite trust myself to pull off this act of spontaneity so you’ll have to make do with the wikipedia entry on cyberpunk instead.

It turns out the term ‘cyberpunk’ has been around for as long as I have, and it preceeded ‘steampunk‘ by a couple of years. I’m not sure why I haven’t heard of this genre before. Perhaps I don’t read the right magazines or hang out with the right crowd. Or maybe it’s just that when I’ve come across cyberpunk novels in the past, they’ve been categorised under the broader fantasy umbrella.

It’s interesting that when you add ‘punk’ on the end of a word it makes it sound much more edgy and appealing. Cyber fiction just doesn’t have the same ring to it. I’m wondering now what will be next? Crimepunk, where ninja-detectives use their computer-hacking, binary-code-cracking skills to track criminals through parallel dimensions? Or Rompunk, where human girls from good families fall in love with androids from the wrong side of the tracks. Remember, you heard it here first.


Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman – Edinburgh Book Festival 2009

Last week I went to see Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman in the Edinburgh Book Festival, where they discussed the differences between writing prose and graphic novels. The event coincided with the launch of Ian Rankin’s first graphic novel, Dark Entries. I’ve been considering taking a course in shorthand for a while now but what really convinced me to go for it was trying to make notes while Ian Rankin was talking. He speaks very, very quickly. I can’t promise that the notes below are exactly word for word, but they are a pretty close approximation of what was said during the session.

Q: What are the differences between writing prose and writing graphic novels?

IR: They are hugely different. I found the collaborating thing hard [when writing Dark Entries]. I’m used to playing god in my novels, working alone with my computer. After so many years of being a consumer, reading graphic novels and thinking, “Oh, that’s easy,” it turns out it’s not.

NG: Prose is a machine: I give people a code, they compile it into a program. In comics you are writing a script for an artist.

Q: What are the advantages of graphic novels?

IR: Freedom. Scenes can show weird things happening in people’s heads, you can see fantasy lives being acted out. Those are things that you can’t do in these supposed realistic Edinburgh novels.

NG: When you see something in a picture you believe it. I used to read American comics as a child and I believed that superheroes really existed in America. Fire hydrants, skyscrapers and superheroes were all on the same plane of reality for me.

IR: The thing that I find really interesting in writing graphic novels is moving to a different time, place and perspective with every couple of inches. You’re writing and directing a mini-movie with almost every scene.

NG: When I write prose the thing I miss the most is the silent panel. (A) it gives you a beat and a rhythm and (B) it forces the reader to think about what’s going on in the characters’ heads. In a graphic novel you can have a panel where a character says something, then in the following panel he thinks about it. You can’t do that in a novel. By the very act of writing “he thinks about it,” you have spoiled the silent moment.

Q: What are the advantages of prose?

NG: Prose has a totally different set of strengths and weaknesses. In Anansi Boys one of the things I took great pleasure in was challenging the race assumptions people make. Characters are default white unless you say otherwise. In Anansi Boys I only assigned race to white people. It made the readers stop and think. People have to reassess what they thought. You can’t do that in a comic book because you can see everybody.

IR: Yes, in prose you can pull the rug out from under someone. In a picture there’s no rug to be pulled away.

Q: What do you think of your cult status as writers of graphic novels?

NG: Fans care deeply about what we do. We like that. I honestly liked it when I was even more of a cult figure and had a smaller fan base because I really enjoyed when only a few people recognised me. Now people have heard of me even if they haven’t read me and they think they know what I do and they don’t. I preferred it when I was a little more of a secret.

Q: What do you think of the idea that genre writing is regarded as less mainstream and less valid?

NG: I’m always more comfortable in the gutter. I liked it better when comics were comics and they weren’t graphic novels. And I liked it better when adults didn’t go into bookshops to buy Diana Wynne Jones books, when you had to creep into the back of Waterstone’s to find fantasy novels and further back to find crime – where all the Western novels used to be. We [writers of graphic novels] have more influence now that we are in the strange magical world where we are in the mainstream. It’s actually more fun being under the radar.

IR: I’m slightly at odds with that because my teenage son has been introduced to literature through comic books. I bought him Manga Shakespeare and now he wants to see Shakespeare in the theatre. Graphic novels keep your fantasy life active through your teenage years when the whole world is trying to knock it out of you.

Q: What about graphic novels on the web?

NG: The most fascinating think about the web is that it has completely removed the gatekeeper. Before you would have to find a publisher or an editor – a gatekeeper – who would say, yes, this is fit to be published. The glory of the web is that there are no gatekeepers. You are playing on the same field as the Guardian or the New Yorker.  The downside is the half a billion other people out there with no gatekeepers. There are web comics that I find and wind up following. There are wonderful things out there.

Q: Have you ever considered doing your own art work for your graphic novels?

NG: I once tried drawing my own comic in 24 hours. I wound up with an amazing respect for artists. They have to figure out how alligator’s teeth work and stuff. It’s incredibly time consuming and there are people out there who are so much better at drawing than I am. One of the reasons I keep coming back to graphic novels is the artists, because they are completely different. I love that I have all these people that will bring things to what I’m doing and inspire me to up my game.

Chips and Stan

Do you remember I blogged about that Writing for Graphic Novels workshop last month? Well, the reason I got interested in graphic novels in the first place is because my brother is always leaving scraps of paper with drawings of aliens and monsters on them lying around the house. If you put down an envelope or notebook you might pick it up again later to find space weapons doodled all over it.

Chips and Stan page 12

IMG_0603I was convinced that he would really enjoy writing a graphic novel so I asked him to make me one for my birthday. The thing with teenage boys is, if you want them to do anything, you have to go on and on and on and on at them about it until they get so sick of hearing you whine that they just do whatever it is you asked them to. (My mum hasn’t figured this out yet which is why she still periodically does my brother’s laundry or clears the dirty dishes out of his bedroom for him).

After frequent reminders and bouts of emotional blackmail, Chips and Stan in The Night of the Psychotic Tentacle was born. It’s hand drawn  in pencil on printer paper and I think it’s just brilliant. I’ve read it several times and it still  makes me laugh. It is the best birthday present I’ve ever received. And of course it’s great to see how motivated my brother is now that he has completed a project. He’s working on some animations now and I hope there will be some Chips and Stan sequels coming soon.

So, the moral of the story is, if you nag someone enough they’ll eventually do what you want you don’t have to have a degree in art or English or special computer software to write a graphic novel. Just grab a pencil and some paper and get drawing!

Writing for Graphic Novels

Edwin is a bacteriologist. He loves bacteria. He finds all processes involving bacteria absolutely fascinating. One day, he decides to attend a cheese making workshop. He can’t wait to get hands on experience of the amazing transformation of milk  sugars into lactic acid by nature’s most wonderous creation, bacteria. But then, just as the workshop is about to start, the teacher walks up to Edwin and jabs an accuasatory finger in his face. “Edwin, you fraud!” he yells. “This workshop is for cheese lovers but I know for a fact that no morsel of cheese has passed your lips since you were a little boy.” You see, Edwin is lactose intolerant. He hangs his head in shame. All he wanted was to enjoy a little bit of bacteria in action but since he cannot even name three different types of cheese to save his life, he feels like he does not belong.

Poor Edwin. I can sympathise. I went to Dundee Literary Festival on Sunday for their Comics Programme. As you know, I love writing and everything to do with writing, and although I haven’t read a comic since 1993 when I used to subscribe to Mandy & Judy … OK, I think you can see where this is going. To be fair, none of the speakers at the event went so far as to  jab a finger in my face, but several of them said, “if you are here then you must love reading comics.” No no no no no! You do not have to be an avid reader of graphic novels to be interested in finding out about how they are made. I am going to prove this to you by sharing with you some of the exciting things that I learned during David Bishop‘s Writing for Graphic Novels workshop and Emma Vieceli‘s talk on Approaching Sequential Art and Adaptation.

The most important point to come out of the workshop was that you need to choose very carefully which moments best tell your story. In graphic novels this is because you may be restricted to only 30 panels in which to create a protagonist the reader cares about, establish their world and detail their journey. Similarly, in screenwriting and fiction writing choosing which scenes scenes to include and which to omit is crucial because you may be working with a time limit or word limit.

The transitions between  moments are also important. “The gaps between the panels in a graphic novel are brilliant story telling tools,” David Bishop told us, explaining that they can slow time down to a complete standstill, speed it up, advance the plot, misdirect the reader and create suspense.

The advantage of graphic novels over other mediums is that “they can tell stories of great density in far fewer pages than it would take if writing in prose.” It’s that old adage, a picture tells 1000 words. You can collaborate with an artist so that you have two brains working on one story to create something that is better than the sum of its parts.

David Bishop’s tip for people wanting to write graphic novels is to read as many as you can get your hands on. “Think about what works and what doesn’t. You need to think visually if you want to write graphic novels.” He said there are no hard and fast rules on how the manuscript should look but it resembles a script. He personally believes that less is more when it comes to writing panel descriptions but “it depends on how much control you want to give to the artist. They can probably tell the story better than you visually because that is their job.” Finding an artist is easier than it used to be thanks to the internet and he suggested looking on ComicSpace. He recommended self-publishing but “do it online so that you don’t lose any money.”

Emma Vieceli is a comic artist and she illustrated her talk with examples from Much Ado About Nothing, the Manga Shakespeare volume, which she did the artwork for. She told us that she incorporated images of the Italian town where her family comes from into the book because they are important to her and she wanted to share something personal with the reader. She researched period fashion and used elements of it in her illustrations. She did not adhere strictly to the dress code of the period, explaining that “what’s historically accurate is not necessarily visually appealing” and pointing out that the Manga Shakespeare books have a contemporary setting. She showed us how she made use of metaphor by designing panels that looked like shards of broken glass to signify a character’s world shattering and explained how she tries to make Shakespeare’s meaning clear to the reader through her illustrations, for example, in Hamlet she drew a picture of two Hamlets wrestling each other during the famous “to be or not to be” speech.

I’m not an artist myself (as anyone who saw my attempts at drawing during David Bishop’s workshop will testify), but I really enjoyed Emma Vieceli’s account of her illustrating  process and thought that some of the things she said applied to any kind of creative work. I do try to  incorporate personal experiences in my writing to make it truthful and I think it is very important to be selective about what research you include in your stories.

I hope I have convinced you that comic conferences are good fun not just for Comic Book Geeks (even self-styled ones like Emma Vieceli) but for everyone. I will leave you now with one final quote of the day, courtesy of David Bishop, which applies to everyone who has ever put down a disappointing comic/novel/poem/script and said “I can do better than this!”:

“Don’t aim to be a little bit better than the worst thing you have ever read, aim to be as good as the best thing you have ever read.”