Cameo: Animal, Vegetable, or Graphic Novel?

Carla Jablonski tells us how she got started writing award-winning graphic novels. She's also got some great questions to help you decide on the best genre for your story.


I didn’t start out as a graphic novel writer. In fact, I didn’t start out as a writer at all.

I began in publishing as an editor (while also pursuing an acting career—but that’s a whole other story). Being an editor was actually was a hindrance at first. I’d write a paragraph, but couldn’t continue until I thought it was perfect. And really, what paragraph is ever truly perfect? At the rate I was going, it would have taken me several years to write a 200-page first draft. Finally, what saved me (and my sanity, not to mention my deadlines!) was learning to write badly. No—let me revise that (there I go editing myself again). I already knew how to write badly—I have the ripped-up pages to prove it.

What I learned to do was give myself permission to write fantastically badly—long enough to get a first draft down on paper. A real first draft. Not the one that I’d send to my editor as my “official” first draft. The messy, incoherent, barely in English, nearly stream-of-consciousness draft that was for my eyes only. Learning to do this freed me up, let my imagination (and bad jokes) run wild, and broke through the intimidating barriers of the blank page and the judgmental editor side of my brain. After that, it’s just all about revising, tweaking, re-thinking, and reworking. Which seems a whole lot less daunting. At least to me.

I write middle-grade and young adult novels. I also write plays (under a different name). So my agent, knowing my involvement in theater and film, thought I might be interested in graphic novels.

He was right.

I gave myself a crash course in comics (I love a research project!) and began mulling... My initial foray into graphic novels resulted in Resistance, a trilogy being published by First Second Books.

In the past, I’d have to decide if what I was writing was literary (to be read on a page) or theatrical (to be performed live). I’m lucky—I can bring a potential play to a group and hear it out loud to test this. Now I’ve added “Is it a graphic novel?” to the mix.

When I have a new idea, I ask myself questions to help me determine its best form:


Is the story primarily internal or external?

In novels, plot can sometimes be less important than the internal struggles, conflicts, and changes taking place within the protagonist. This can be expressed beautifully in a graphic novel—I’ve seen it done—but not by me. Expressing an internal story is one of my strengths as a YA author, but I don’t yet know how to effectively write that script for an artist to draw.


Is the story best told through dialogue?

That can also make a great graphic novel—dialogue paired with images is what appears on the page. But if it’s primarily about the way people talk to each other, about the words, the rhythm of the language, the spoken and unspoken tensions that arise in conversation, and especially the layer of meaning an actor’s presence adds to the text, then maybe it’s a play.


Is the storyline extremely complex?

Do multiple subplots and many characters inform and give the primary story its heft and meaning? Then perhaps it’s a traditional novel, and hard to achieve in a play. Or it could work best as a comic series, and not a single-volume graphic novel.


Usually, I have to get some of the concept written, even if only as a treatment, before I can confidently commit to form. Yes, this does take time, but it’s not time wasted. I’m sure you’ve seen movies based on books that were disappointing compared with their original source. You may have read books that you thought were pretty mediocre and seemed to exist just to garner a movie deal (I won’t mention names).

You don’t want your story struggling against its form. You want the form to liberate your imagination and let the story fly.


Carla Jablonski’s first graphic novel, Resistance: Book 1, is a Sydney Taylor Honor Award winner, a Texas Maverick pick, and was selected for the 2011 YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens and the CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People lists.