Last winter i made my first graphic novel. It's called Ellna, and is about a girl searching for her little sister in my own version of Sweden during the 1600s. It's a dark fantasy story on 100 pages and it's all painted in watercolor. I wrote it, painted it and put the pages together. And it was published in the spring of 2017 and is now available in Sweden from epix.se and adlibris, and in libraries and book stores. I was going to write blog posts about the process for people who were interested and also for me to look back on but i realised that if i was going to make this book in the time i had from when i signed the contract to the deadline there was no way i had time to do anything else. Especially because i would still have to do freelance work because i would not make any money from the book before it was done.
But even though i didn't have time to do that, i still want to write something about it. So i decided to write about it now. So here are my thoughts about when i made this book.
Part 1: The happy
When i had signed the contract in the summer of 2016 i knew that my book was going to be published the next spring, i walked around feeling great. I thought i had it all planned out. I knew what the book was about and i knew how i wanted it to look. I knew what the beginning of the book was and i knew what the ending was going to be. And i also knew that it was going to be a lot of work. I had listened to enough podcasts and interviews with comic creators that i knew that i should not be naive. This was going to be hard, but i knew i would get it done, if i didn't do anything crazy like procrastinate. Especially because i only had 9 months to make this book. Including writing, sketching, cover, painting, layout, scanning the art, putting the pages together and final detailing.
Part 2: The procrastination
It was not really procrastination. I was super motivated and very quickly started working. It was not procrastination that was the problem really, it was more like self-deception. As soon as i started working on the book, i came across many things i had no idea how to do.
How do i plan out pages? How do i know the paintings are not going to look too small on the page? Will the details come through or will parts of the art get lost in the print? When i do line work, how thick do the lines need to be to make sure they are clear in the picture but not too thick? If i paint the same face in different styles or technique will people be confused? If i sometimes paint in black ink, will the print notice the subtle difference in value, or will it lump all ink into one black area, and if so should i instead use black watercolour? Do i want to paint all the lines with a brush or should i use a pen, and if so is this pen too thin? If i make this book the way i want it to be, will people be able to read it or will it be too strange?
A million problems hit me at once and i didn't notice at first how i managed to avoid dealing with them. I thought i was working, and i was, but i was working on the parts that did not force me to make hard choices. I did the things i knew how to do. I sketched ideas, and i planned out dialog and scenes. I designed characters and made storyboards. It felt like i was doing stuff, and i was, but not the important things. I was scared that when i started making choices i would make the wrong ones. Scared that the first actual painting for the book would be terrible.
When i suddenly noticed that i was doing this, i stopped, looked at the table with all this stuff that looked like work, put down my pencil, walked over to my watercolour paper and started making choices. I made brush strokes and had to trust they worked. I painted pages and had to trust they would be good enough. I made choices and stood by them.
Part 3: Strategy
Because this project was bigger than anything i'd done before i didn't know how i was going to plan the process. Should i just paint all the pictures in the order they would be in the book? Should i be working on many pages at ones or focusing on one page at a time? I chose to spread it out so that i could see more parts of the book at the same time. I taped all of my storyboard sketches on the wall and started choosing pictures to start painting, any pictures from any page. I chose pictures i felt like painting. It could be the third panel on page five and then the first panel on page one, and so on. I kept within the first chapter because i felt that i needed to give myself a feeling of achievement when i saw that a chapter was done. It worked pretty well. I started seeing paintings get done, and with every finished painting i walked over to the wall with the storyboards and marked the picture i just finished. This way i could keep an eye on how i was doing on the chapter, and if i was for instance avoiding a certain difficult page i would notice it quickly. After a page was finished i made a star on the storyboard page to show that all the pictures on that page was done. All these things were to make the process smooth, because after just a few days the amount of paintings piled up and i would loose track of where i was and what i had already done, if i didn't do all these steps.
I balanced this process while at the same time taking on freelance jobs, because i didn't make money while i was making the book.
Part 4: Things had to go
After a while i realised that any attempt of getting the book done while doing freelance work, and also having a life would be impossible. I didn't have enough time in the day to have a healthy balance.
The first thing to go was music. I quit playing music.
Next was friends. I told my friends that i would disappear for a while and i stopped answering my phone.
Next was training and exercise.
Part 5: What i should have seen coming
With a few weeks left before the deadline i suddenly felt my wrist go numb. By this time i was always working, and i had reached that place where i didn't really think of anything else. I wasn't feeling like it was bad or that i was really tired or anything else. I was feeling pretty good and i was just looking forward to when the book would be finished and that i could get back to taking on more freelance jobs. But then my wrist got numb and my fingers went cold.
I got it checked out and my wrist was overworked. I had to rest, but i couldn't if i wanted to make the deadline. I went to a chiropractor who could fix it, but that only lasted a day. The next morning it was all back. So i had to start taking breaks, where i held a bag of ice on my wrist. This in turn forced me to work even faster when i was working. And i also taught myself to hold the brush with just my index finger and my middle finger, without using my thumb.
During these two weeks before sending the book, i was really in a weird space. I was so scared that my hand would stop working and that i wasn't going to be able to get the book done. That the publisher would lose a lot of money for trusting me and that i would never be able to get another publisher to believe that i could get something done in time. By this time all my structure was gone. I didn't have a plan that made sure i was going to make it, because i knew that if i started counting what i had left to do i would see that there is no way i was. And i still had to do freelance stuff at the same time. But i kept working. I got up early. I had a quick breakfast. I started painting. I took short breaks with the ice. I worked until late at night and then passed out.
Part 6: Finally
The last couple of days i suddenly got a surge of energy. Not because i knew i was going to be able to hit the deadline, but just because no matter what i would be done in a few days. I either would make it, or not, but i would not have to do this anymore. So that gave me the energy to do one last push. I called my best friend and asked him to come hang out with me while i worked, so that i wouldn't fall asleep. Then i bought a huge amount of candy, soda and made a bunch of coffee. I knew that i was going to have to work until the last day, so i figured i would have to not sleep. Last push i worked for 22 hours straight and then sent it in. I stood in my living room and looking out the window, holding my wrist. It was 9:30 in the morning. I laid down on my bed and fell asleep.
Part 7: What i learned
I knew a couple of things going in to this. First i knew that it was going to be harder than i thought. And i knew that i probably would realise that it would be more work than i thought. So i was going in to this with a realistic view of what i was taking on. Or so i thought. Even though i made sure i wasn't going to take this lightly, i still was shocked at the amount of work that it actually involved. I knew that i wasn't going to be prepared for it, but when i actually hit that wall it was still harder than i thought it was going to be.
The biggest lesson i learned was that even though i can push myself to keep working, my body can't. I wasn't thinking about the physical strain on my hand. I was just thinking about sleeping so i wouldn't be too tired to work. But i've learned that taking breaks is also a part of my work. Exercise and rest is as much a part of my work as actually painting. Knowing that would probably not have changed things when i was making the book, but it has really changed how i think about my every day life and how i want to work in the future. So i'm greatful for having learned that. I've realised that how i was thinking about work before the book was not that healthy. So i'm more happy now than i was before.
Part 8: Was it worth it?
Yes. Seeing the book in stores and in the library is great. It was so worth it. Now on to the next project.
ps. My blog has really been dead for more than a year because of this book, but now that i'm working again i'm going to start posting again. I have a couple of oil paintings coming up and i'm starting on my next book project. I actually have two that i'm exited about. So i'll write more about that later. Check back for updates and paintings!