So You’re Starting Your First Graphic Novel

I wanted to talk a bit about advice for new cartoonists and I thought I’d be fun to present it as a totally real and in all ways completely genuine interview that definitely happened! Exactly like my now year-old first post here on this blog. Enjoy!

Did you have your book completely written before you started drawing?
Not even close! I had the big bullet points, I knew every major plot hook, location, and character, but I did not have a full script. I’d finalize the scripts for each page as I was drawing them. Dialogue changed right up until it was put in a word balloon. And sometimes after.

I’m worried I’ll burn out halfway through and never finish my book. How do you deal with that?
I spent the last two years doing short stories just to avoid that exact problem! 15 pages is a whole lot more manageable than 150. I totally and completely recommend starting small. Start small, build your confidence and your skills, and slowly work your way up to bigger projects.

What did you do when you were lazy or had art block? What pushed you to get up and draw regardless of your motivation levels?
I think my motivation and work ethic came from updating a webcomic three times a week for nine years. Just funny gag stuff, low pressure, but it forced me to draw at least three times a week. I didn’t want to be that webcomic that missed updates. It held me accountable. And then all of a sudden one day you’re like “woah, I’ve written and drawn over a thousand comics.” As for those nights where I’m Just Not Feeling It, I try to set my expectations a little lower and accomplish something smaller. Maybe I was planning on getting a whole page done, but if all I get tonight is the sketches, that’s all right.

Do you recommend putting your pages online as you finish them?
That’s how I did it but I don’t know if it’s for everyone. I’d do one or two pages a week in order to keep the site updated and I don’t know if the book would have ever gotten done without that self-imposed schedule.

You’ve said before that LOOK took you three years to finish. Was that on and off or full time working on it?
Three years, yes. Drawing one or two pages a week. I did have to put it on hold for a few months somewhere in the middle because I was having a hard time juggling it, the day job, and my gag comic all at the same time. But there was a time where I was putting out five comics a week.

What advice do you have for someone starting their first graphic novel?
Don’t agonize over it being perfect and just start it. Your first comic isn’t going to be as great as it is in your head and that’s okay. It’s all practice and experience for the next thing which will automatically be better.

You can find Jon on Twitter where he posts his silly drawings and sometimes brags about his kids, and you can find out more about LOOK here.

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Writing It Down & The Origins Of PRIDE OF THE DECENT MAN.

Ideas for books come and go, but I’ve learned that if you don’t write them down, they’ll fly away out of your head pretty quickly. If you don’t write it down, it just doesn’t exist.

Every idea I’ve had for a comic, I first wrote down in a small, simple notebook.

My favorite place to exhibit ( and buy ) comics is the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. I like to have something new every time I go – to be excited about showing people your new work is a great feeling. When it came time to exhibit in 2014, I wrote and illustrated a small eight page quarter-size mini comic called TURNPIKE. It featured a nameless ‘homeless guy’ and a lonely teenager named Julie. The story evolved from those few scribbled down notes into a story.

color 1

I received a lot of good feedback about that minicomic. One cartoonist I respect a great deal told me it was very good and ‘indicative of a larger story.’

That got my wheels turning in the weeks afterward, and in 2015 I put together a proposal for a graphic novel called NEVER FORGET TO REMEMBER.

rough cover

 

It connected the two main characters in TURNPIKE and expanded on some of the themes and visual elements. I included the first ten finished pages of the book, as well as a synopsis, character descriptions, character designs, and a cover mockup.

It all started as a few hastily-scribbled sentences in a notebook, and soon evolved into a real project. NBM responded favorably and the title was eventually changed to PRIDE OF THE DECENT MAN.

 

pridecover

 

 

 

 

Where Do You Find The Time?

The short answer is: I don’t do much else!

Another short, but hopefully more helpful answer: you can’t find time, you make time.

But seriously, I don’t really do much else. I don’t watch TV and I don’t play video games (or, at least, not nearly as much as I used to.) When I’m not at the day job and while my children are asleep, I write and I draw. I work.

Maybe that makes me a workaholic, but if that’s true, it’s done wonders for my creative output.

And that’s what I mean by making time. If this is what you really want to do — what you need to do — you make time. Something else has to give. Maybe you don’t want to give up watching your favorite shows or perusing your favorite memes on reddit, and that’s fine! I’m not suggesting you give up all of your favorite past-times and devote yourself entirely and exclusively to your craft, but I am suggesting that maybe you take a look at how you spend your time on a daily basis. Maybe, as a random example, you spend some time each night checking Facebook. Let’s say two hours of Liking pictures of newborns and arguing with distant reletives. What if you were to limit yourself to an hour-and-a-half instead, and do a little drawing or writing with that free half hour you just made? Anything at all, it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. In fact, go in knowing that it won’t be. And that’s okay! Plenty of my drawings fail to meet my unrealistically high expectations and never see the light of day, but it’s never a waste of time.

I know this is all easier said than done. Time management and self-discipline don’t come easy and take a while to build, but this is how you do it. You start slow. Don’t be too hard on yourself by trying to do too much too fast. Try and do at least a little each day, even when you’re not feeling especially creative. Making that initial effort, however small, makes all the difference.

And let me tell you, that knowledge that at the end of the day, you made something that didn’t exist before? That feels pretty amazing.

You can find Jon on Twitter where he posts his silly drawings and sometimes brags about his kids, and you can find out more about LOOK here.

How Inktober Saved My Life

I’m a cartoonist, primarily. I write and tell stories. Or, at least, that’s what I aspire to. However, I’ve lately been distracted from my storytelling by trying to become what I call a “popular internet artist type person.” I even made business cards!

popular

But let’s back up to January 2016. I had just wrapped up my webcomic of eight years in an effort to get away from gag-a-day comics and focus entirely on more longform storytelling. I wanted my next graphic novel to be a short story compilation, so that’s where I put all of my energy.

Comics can take a while to produce, and in between short story releases, I always had little to say or show to my followers on social media. I’d post a few in-progress shots every now and then, sure, but they were few and far between. Once the comic was finally done and online, there’d be a sudden burst of “I made a thing! I made a thing! Everyone look! I made a thing!” and then it’s back to radio silence as I begin work on the next comic. But not just radio silence from me, silence from everyone. The comics I had been working on for weeks and weeks were getting little to no attention.

This was exceedingly frustrating for me.

I work for weeks, sometimes months, on a project, release it into the wild, receive some gratification here and there, and then nothing. I realize that that’s not exactly a new problem — the difficulty of being noticed as a classic struggle for artists throughout the ages — but something needed to change. I wasn’t seeing the growth I was hoping to see, especially considering how much work I was putting into these comics and what I left behind in order to pursue this new direction in my life.

It was a huge bummer! I was still proud of my work — I felt that each story was better than the last — but I began to question if I had made the right decision. If this new path that I had set myself on was the right one.

And then Inktober 2016 happened. Inktober is a yearly event created by Jake Parker that encourages artists of all skill levels to simply make a pen and ink drawing every day for a month. If you’ve heard of national novel writing month, this is similar. I always missed it every year, but this time I had just bought some new pens that I was eager to try out and they just happened to come in the mail on the first day of Inktober.

So I gave it a shot! I was still working on my big comic projects, but every night I’d start with a quick Inktober drawing and post it online. All of a sudden, when before my social media posts were at times weeks or months apart, my Twitter and Facebook followers were being updated with new drawings every single day.

Collage

In addition to the new skills and discipline I learned from drawing every day in a format I was inexperienced in, the effect on my social media networks was astounding and practically immediate. The number of people that liked and followed my work grew and grew. It turns out that posting daily content is a great way to build an audience! Who knew?

I was finally seeing growth. My work was slowly but steadily getting more attention and I was building relationships with some pretty rad people that I never would have met otherwise. It felt like everything suddenly made sense. I’m not the most social person and I had never put the work into building my social media presence, so why was I so surprised when I tweeted about my comics and got little to no response? In my attempt at focusing entirely on my comics, I had neglected my chosen medium for publishing those comics.

I didn’t stop my daily doodles after Inktober ended, and I don’t plan to any time soon. Does doing them take a chunk away from my already incredibly limited time? Yes, to some extent my comic output might have suffered a bit, but in the long run I believe it will be worth it. Building and sustaining a following that truly cares about me and my work far outweighs any time I’ve lost drawing my next graphic novel. Now when I release a new comic, I actually get more of a response from the small yet formidable audience I’ve managed to build. I cannot emphasize enough how much better of a place I am in now, both personally and artistically.

And I’m having fun drawing again! My drawing time has traditionally always been dedicated to projects and work and, as strange as it may sound, drawing purely for fun is actually a fairly new experience for me. Over the past few months I’ve produced the best work I’ve ever done and I’ve been having a blast the entire time.

And it’s all because I started a challenge to draw every day.

DrawEverDay

Thanks again to Jake Parker’s #inktober for being awesome and turning my life around. You can check out his work here. Thank you for reading and I’ll see you all on Monday when we’ll be talking about time and the ever-present dread it holds over us all!

You can find Jon on Twitter where he posts his silly drawings and sometimes brags about his kids, and you can find out more about LOOK here.

Ideas and Where to Find Them part 2

Last time we talked a little about some tricks on generating ideas based on very simple statements and questions. While that exercise can come in handy in overcoming certain tough writing hurdles, it won’t solve every problem you might encounter. So let’s start from the top:

Where do ideas come from?

Well, the short, vaguely cryptic answer is that ideas come from life. Ideas come from one’s own personal experiences and observations of the world around them. People you meet, places you go, conversations you have, even other stories you read or movies you watch. Ideas are everywhere, your mind just needs practice on recognizing them. Anything and everything is potential fodder for the fires of your imagination!

Let’s use my webcomic of nine years, Massive Pwnage, as an example. Massive Pwnage was not narrative driven, it was structured more like a newspaper comic, with each strip being its own standalone thing. Because there was no ongoing story to continue, every strip started as basically a blank slate. I had a small cast of recurring characters, but beyond that, it was a very real struggle for me to continuously come up with new ideas two or three times a week. I’d ask myself the same series of questions over and over again: should we see what my characters are up to? Have I had any real-life events that will translate well into a three panel comic? Do I have anything to say or joke about on any of the video games I’m playing right now? What about TV shows or movies or anything else I’m interested in? It’s a strange problem to have, having a comic with no rules or limitations. Massive Pwnage could be anything I wanted it to be, which was incredibly freeing, but also incredibly stifling at the same time. If that makes any sense.

But let’s take a look at one specific comic that’s always stood out in my mind as a good example of how to formulate and execute an idea.

2012-05-02.jpg

Here’s how it went down: I read an article about an upcoming game, I had almost these exact thoughts in response, I wrote them down as dialogue for my two main characters, and then I drew it. I wish they all came so easily!

Here’s one more example, again from Massive Pwnage.

2009-08-17

This is an even older comic than the previous one. All the way back in 2009, on a night I remember all too well. I was having the greatest drought of ideas I’ve ever experienced. I was trying to write the comic for the next day and all I was able to do was waste several hours staring at my computer screen. It was still early in my career and I had no idea how to deal with this wall I had run up against. After discarding countless ideas as terrible, I began digging deeper and deeper into my characters, hoping that examining what few characteristics they had at that point would give me at least the faintest spark of an idea. Something, anything that I could draw and finally go to bed. My characters didn’t have a lot going for them at this time besides being the “grumpy one” and the “silly one” but they did have some basic likes and dislikes. And right from day one, my main character Ence hated fish. I asked myself “is there anything there I haven’t already done? Does he hate fish as food, or just in general? Has he ever had one as a pet? What if I made him do something completely out of character and buy a pet fish?”

The result was this comic, and while it’s nothing to write home about, it still felt really good to finally make it, even if took all night to do so. Also it set up a few fun comics that came after, which was pretty nice.

To recap: if you’re ever stuck for ideas, don’t be like me from 2009, staring blankly at his monitor for hours on end. Ask questions, write down even the worst ideas, always be on the lookout for inspiration from the world around you, and stay determined. Sometimes, writing a list of things that should absolutely not ever happen next in your story is a good brainstorming exercise. Other times, all you have to do is choose an idea that you’ve discarded for being terrible, and execute it to the best of your ability. Even if the end product isn’t the greatest, at least you made something, and making something that didn’t exist before is never a waste of time.

Know that you have the tools to overcome any lack of ideas. Confidence comes with experience, and experience comes with getting the bad ideas out of your system.

Stay determined my friends!

You can find Jon on Twitter where he posts his silly drawings and sometimes brags about his kids, and you can find out more about LOOK here.

Ideas and Where to Find Them

Every single story ever written can be summed up thusly: someone wanted something. Maybe that something was money, maybe it was power, fame, love, freedom, a sandwich, or just the most basic of all primal needs: to just plain not die today.

The want can be as simple or complex as needed, all it needs to do is motivate the main character or characters, push the story forward, and create conflict. What is stopping the protagonist from getting what they want? What obstacles do they encounter along the way? Why can’t they just make themselves a sandwich? Can’t they go to the store? Can they not afford a sandwich? Why not?

You could make the argument that this is what writing is. Asking questions and then answering them, simple as that. Let’s take our sandwich idea a bit further. Maybe our protagonist in this example can’t afford a sandwich because she’s homeless, or her wallet has been stolen. Okay, that’s a start, either one of those could be a decent premise for a short story or scene, but let’s push it even further. Let’s have fun with it. Maybe our protagonist can’t afford a sandwich because she’s stranded on an alien planet. She doesn’t know the language, she has no idea what is even used for currency, and, honestly, the types of sandwiches she’s seeing in these alien delis really don’t look very appetizing anyway.

sandwich

This is what I do when I’m stuck for ideas. I start with a very basic want and I keep digging deeper and deeper until I find out everything about this character and why they want what they want. I wrote a short story set in the LOOK universe based entirely on the statement “I’m hungry.” I started with “I’m hungry,” the most interesting response I could think of was “that’s impossible, you’re a robot,” and before I knew it I had a six page comic. I didn’t even start out with the intention of writing a story about Artie and Owen, it just sort of organically worked itself out that way. That’s where my questions and answers took me.

So do all ideas come from these sorts of questions? Maybe not, they tend to work best for shorter stories, but it still helps to ask them. It might get you out of any writing ruts you might be in and help you start thinking in ways you might not normally think. Even if your short story, Lost in Space Without a Sandwich, never gets off the ground, it’s still good practice and might even give you an idea or two for your next story.

Have a good weekend and see you Monday for Ideas and Where to Find Them part 2!

You can find Jon on Twitter where he posts his silly drawings and sometimes brags about his kids, and you can find out more about LOOK here.

The Idea for LOOK

artieprime

In 2011 I drew a little robot in my sketchbook. There was no particular reason for it, I was just doodling and I felt like drawing a robot. I liked how it came out and decided to put a bit of a desert landscape behind it. I showed my wife this doodle of a sad robot wandering through the desert and made up a story for him on the spot. Something like “this is R-TY but he goes by Artie and the R stands for Recon because his only job is to recon this giant desert and he hangs out with a vulture because vultures live in deserts and yeah.”

It was silly, but I liked it, so I wrote it down. I wanted to learn more about Artie. How does he feel about this task he’s been assigned? Does he question it? What’s his friendship with this vulture like? What is the vulture’s name? What’s his deal? All of a sudden I had all of these questions and, just like Artie, I needed answers. I wrote all of these questions down and one by one I did my best to answer them. Pretty soon I had a plot outline for a full, long-form story. And it was pretty terrible! But I kept working on it. I kept writing and rewriting throughout the entire project, making drastic changes to the story as I was drawing it. Right up until I was drawing the last few pages, I was still tweaking the story. All in all, it took me roughly three years to write and draw the 136 pages of LOOK. Over that time I learned a lot about telling a story and I became a better cartoonist in the process. As my skills grew, so did the quality of the story I was telling. It ended up being a very real “learning on the job” scenario. Maybe that’s not for everyone, or for every project, but it’s what worked for me.

So, early on I had the premise and I had a basic outline of my story, but what was it really about? Sure, it’s about a little robot who’s unhappy with his current situation, but what else? What’s the point? Why am I telling this story? I was a bit stuck with what direction I wanted to take it. So I listened to that piece of advice given to any aspiring writer ever and I wrote what I knew. I drew from my own personal experiences and wrote about being in a midlife crisis. I wrote about coming to terms with the fact that maybe what you’re doing right now just isn’t working out. That maybe it’s just not what you’re good at. That maybe things need to change. I wrote about whether or not it’s even possible to find your passion, and if you’d recognize it if you did.

And I put it all into a story about a little robot and his vulture friend.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you again on Friday when we’ll be talking a bit more about where ideas come from.

You can find Jon on Twitter where he posts his silly drawings and sometimes brags about his kids, and you can find out more about LOOK here.