My latest writing endeavor for myself, which I completed yesterday, was a bit outside my comfort zone: a YA historical fantasy romance graphic novel with queer themes. It presented a few different unique challenges. A new approach to drafting, a new format, and a new genre (with difficult subject matter). I’ll tackle each in turn, although there’s certainly some bleed-over.
First, there’s the way I approached the first draft. I always knew the core of the story, but I had several different, conflicting ideas of how it might play out. At a friend’s urging, I just started writing the damn thing, putting down words every single day, and finding my way as I went. Instead of extensively pre-planning my rough draft, I just winged it, but with the beginning and end always in mind. The story took some weird turns along the way — a time jump I’ll probably retcon in the next draft, subplots that didn’t turn out to go anywhere — but the process of just vomiting story onto the page ultimately helped give me a pile of material to work with that I can easily shape into a coherent story next go-round. In fact, it helped me reevaluate the core. I initially thought it would be primarily about the protagonist’s journey, and it still is, but the romance wound up playing a significant part that rung very personal to me (possibly because I’m getting married and that’s where my head is at right now). The process of organic discovery was much more satisfying and effective than dithering on prewriting. Overall, that aspect was successful.
I have also never written a long-form graphic novel. I’ve toyed with the format, but never more than single issues. Forcing my brain to think in single images and limited word balloons for 240 pages was a good way to switch things up for a while. I’m not sure I entirely succeeded in making it feel like a graphic novel (I definitely slipped into screenplay-style back-and-forth dialogue and discussion scenes that take way too long), but I feel like, overall, the format fits the story. So much of it relies on visual cues, but also the ability to freeze frame on a character at their moment of decision. There’s a whole new skill set that needs to be learned just to figure out those perfect snapshots. I’m not sure I’ve exactly mastered it yet, but this went a long way towards helping me understand it. Also, doing it for a YA audience meant that I had to be cognizant of the content, walking a fine line between having some mature situations but not free of them like my cartoon work or straight-up explicit with my screenplays.
And, as someone who’s primarily worked in action flicks and children’s programming, this wasn’t exactly my usual genre; I couldn’t resolve everything with a crazy gunfight or the characters learning the true meaning of friendship. That actually made it a little tricky to put together. I had to figure out how to make the big moments emotional instead of visceral. There’s swordplay, so it’s not like there’s no action, but it serves a slightly different purpose. Although action, when done well, allows for those big punctuation marks on the story, in this case it was secondary to the interpersonal relationships.
The historical aspect was also tricky. I know it’s my job to make shit up, and for the most part I chucked historical accuracy out the window, but I still had to work within the society of the setting. For this draft, at least, I wanted to make sure the character stuff was there without bothering to do a research deep dive. My philosophy with historical stuff is that the story is fiction — who cares how accurate it is as long as it’s not egregiously offensive? Still, it did lead to me questioning some things, especially considering the central relationship between two gay women — do I try to approach the social reaction to them as it really would have been, or do I try to paint a better world where people ultimately accept them for who they are? I ultimately went with the latter, as it kept with the theme of the story. It’s a fairly light-hearted tale for younger readers so I wanted to present their relationship as the healthy, natural thing that it is.
I am not gay, nor am I a woman, which put pressure on me to make sure I presented the characters honestly and compassionately. To do that, I drew on my own personal emotional experiences. By focusing on a young woman grappling with her identity, I centered it around my own internal struggles figuring out who I am and what I want, and society’s expectations of me. My confusion may not be related to my sexuality, but that inner battle is a central part of being human, and this seemed the most effective (and fun, considering the setting) way to externalize that dilemma. I wanted to take my frustrations from the universal to the specific while exploring a different facet of the human experience than my own. Hopefully I succeeded there, but I definitely plan on getting input from some LGBTQ+ friends to make sure it feels right.
The script needs a lot of polishing, but overall I feel the experiment was successful and will ultimately make it stronger. Now the real work begins…