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graphic novel class 8 - staying organized, motivated, and coping with burnout
I’m going to take you through the process of a graphic novel in a series of posts. This is from my perspective, as a writer and artist who makes fantasy books for middle grade and young adult readers - but hopefully it will be helpful even if you’re interested in making a different kind of book!
You’ve scripted and thumbnailed your entire book. That was all prep work, in a way, to make this step as easy as possible. Now it’s time to buckle down into the labor-intensive, time-consuming stage of DRAWING THE DANG THING.
How long does it take?
I get asked this question a lot, and I’m never quite sure how to answer. Sometimes writing a script takes years of bouncing it around and setting it aside. But once I’ve finished the script and I sit down to draw the book, it’s (usually) a very linear process.
The deadlines I’ve received from publishers have given me, on average, a year + several months to draw a book. This has worked for me, but it doesn’t work for everyone. I took freelance jobs during these times, but I didn’t have full time in-person work, which allowed me to spend the majority of my workday drawing the comic. Again, this is an issue of privilege and life circumstances. I don’t have kids, I can physically spend long workdays at my desk, and I don’t have a mental illness that makes focusing difficult (nervously shoves ‘compensating for low self-esteem by externalizing my self-worth onto my work’ out of sight). I always want to call this stuff out as contributing to my work output!
If you have circumstances that will make it harder to complete a book in a year, make sure to communicate that to your publisher as early as possible! And if you’re not working with a publisher yet, be gentle and realistic with yourself and your schedule.
I’ve learned, from trial and error, that I can’t do other full-time work while drawing a book. I also work in animation, and I’ve taken advantage of the long ‘hiatuses’ built into shows between seasons (or the gaps between one show ending and finding the next animation job) to draw my books in those times. Animation pays better in the short term, but prioritizing my own projects has always been the right choice in the long term.
I like to track my progress, because it helps the project feel less overwhelming and interminable. It also helps me keep track of my average page count per day. This changes, of course, based on the content of the pages; but figuring out a rough average is really helpful for planning, anticipating when you’ll be done, and calculating what pace you need to set to meet deadlines.
If you’re a bullet journal person (I am, but not the aesthetic kind, it’s a total mess), here’s a way to track your progress. You have a quick visual estimate of how much work you’ve done, and a record of what you did each day and how long it’s taking you. Also, it’s satisfying to draw the little lines in the little boxes.
You could also do a digital version of this, or find whatever makes sense. There could be stickers involved. The point is that it’s satisfying to watch it slowly fill up, and can remind you that you’re actually getting work done.
There will probably always be parts that feel like a slog! It takes a long time to draw a graphic novel. Here are some tips to stay motivated.
This is more of a wider script note, but write things that you want to draw! There’s always a few scenes that I’m particularly excited about (Ariel being kidnapped by her aunt, or Morgan kissing Keltie goodbye). For me, they’re usually emotionally intense scenes without a ton of complex action or set pieces. Knowing you’re working towards those scenes is a really good way to get through the more boring scenes (and DON’T just skip to the fun scenes, because you’ll never draw the boring scenes then).
And…if you find there's stuff that you really hate to draw, remember that for the next book you write! There are ways to write around what you find hard or boring. There are even ways to draw around it. If you’ve set a scene at at party but you hate drawing crowds, remember the value of an establishing shot. One big panel showing the crowd works wonders to set the scene, and you can spend the rest of your pages focusing on specific interactions between people. Be strategic!
You know this already, but you’re allowed to listen to music, podcasts, and even movies as you work. You can call up friends and have long conversations. I’m listing these on a scale of least to most distracting (for me); music is the least, conversations are the most. It’s only when I’m doing pretty basic work such as inking a tightly pencilled page (or something really dreary such as that big crowd scene) that I’ll put on a movie. My best work is done listening to long-form true crime podcasts, which has the added weirdness of remembering exactly what murder I was learning about whenever I look at a finished page.
When it comes to music, it’s always really fun to make a playlist for your story, and add songs as you think of them. Listening to my playlists always gets me in the zone!
Set milestones, and celebrate them. These can be finishing certain scenes, or getting to 50 pages, or finishing half the book; set these milestones and give yourself a treat when you reach them.
If you are on social media, sharing snippets of drawings that you like is a good way to get people excited about the story. And just having other eyes on your work can make it feel more real! If that’s not your speed, having a group of peers to share with is great too. You’re running a marathon and it feels great to have people cheering you on at the sidelines!
There’s a kind of deep flow that I don’t know how to access reliably, but it usually happens about halfway through a book. I get so wrapped up in the story, the world, and the characters. It’s a kind of escapism that I used to feel reading fantasy books as a kid; there’s something absorbing and freeing, where drawing the story feels almost like living in it. Trying to get to this part, and remembering how good it feels when it happens, is a big reason why I draw comics.
Drawing is physical labor!
Take care of your body! It is possible to draw comics without incurring wrist and arm injuries, but they’re so common in this field.
I’m by no means an expert in this, but here are a few things that help me draw healthily:
A chair with good back support. You can also use a pillow or some kind of lumbar support add-on to upgrade a basic office chair.
A footrest under my desk. I have a tendency to crouch like a gargoyle and do weird cross-legged poses that inevitably kill my back and neck. A footrest combined with back support makes me sit up straight and feel supported.
A cushioned elbow rest. I usually use a soft notebook to rest my elbow on. Resting your elbow on the hard table can cause nerve damage!
A wrist brace. You can wear it anytime : while drawing, while not working, while sleeping. It will help keep your wrist straight, and if you’re experiencing wrist pain the brace will help alleviate it. You can also get wrist braces with cooling packs that you keep in the freezer; they’re too bulky to wear while drawing, but after drawing the cold is a really good way to help with pain and inflamed muscles.
Breaks to stretch and move around are very important! Hand and wrist stretches are vital, but drawing is a full body activity. Often neck pain is resolved by stretching out your legs and lower back. If you do yoga, this is a good 11-minute practice that helps with drawing pain. If you’re finding yourself getting locked into four-hour drawing sessions, set a 30-minute timer to remind yourself to get up and move.
A pen grip. It’s easier to hold something large rather than pinching your fingers around a small pen. I use this grip for my Cintiq pen. Before I had this, I was a trash baby who used used a sock tied around my pen with a hair tie, and honestly, it worked.
Don’t work all day. Even if you’re in a good place and you’re feeling good, this is a marathon and not a sprint! Instead of burning through a bunch of pages in a 12-hour day and then being exhausted for the next week, do 6-hour days, or whatever is right for you. This is a long process and you need to care for yourself during it!
Take days off. Give yourself at least one day a week to not draw. Let your muscles relax.
Avoid other activities that are strenuous on your hands and wrists! And if you do them, wear a wrist brace and take it slow.
There’s a dynamic that happens between older and younger artists. Once you have a few projects under your belt, you know what leads to burnout. You see younger artists working in these ways, and you try to warn them. “Don’t stay up all night! Don’t kill yourself to meet a deadline! Physical injuries from drawing can be avoided and you certainly shouldn’t be getting them at 22!” we call out, like the mythical Cassandra, who can see the future but is never believed.
The thing is, burnout sucks. It’s painful and exhausting and traumatizing in ways that are very hard to articulate. We always want to save people from experiencing it, but it’s something that everyone, ultimately, has to figure out for themselves. Everyone has different ways of working, and different thresholds for burnout. The best case scenario is that you see your threshold before you go hurtling over it. It’s good to have people checking on you, and it’s good to tell other people when you see them teetering at that threshold; but ultimately, no one can stop you from burning out except yourself.
(Burnout looks different in collaborative mediums like animation. This is specifically about the burnout that occurs in the often-lonely job of drawing comics.)
Here are some signs that you’re on the threshold of burnout and you need to step back, now:
It’s emotionally agonizing to sit down at your desk and start drawing. It always feels to me like a raw nerve, like anything I do will trigger an outsized level of pain, like even the idea of sitting down to work makes me want to cry.
You hate what you’re doing. Hating your job is normalized in our capitalist hellscape. But I really, really don’t think it’s worth drawing comics that you hate. It’s simply too much labor for too little pay. Especially when it’s your own story, there should be a base level of enjoyment or at least interest. Burnout compounds when you find yourself really hating what you’re doing, and hating yourself for doing it. When you are an artist, your love of the work is worth protecting.
You find yourself doing anything to avoid working. This is actually good; it’s your subconscious recognizing that you can’t keep up this pace. Listen to yourself and your body when you can’t make yourself get in the drawing chair.
How to step back
Meeting a deadline is never worth burning out. Even if you’re being paid for your work and you feel you’re under an obligation to meet it! Remember that burnout takes a long, outsized, unfair amount of time to recover from—and it’s very hard to work during that time. Is your publisher paying you for the time you spend recovering? No, they’re not. They’re paying for the book you are drawing, and nothing more.
I’ve heard stories of editors being shitty when their artist can’t meet a deadline. I’m lucky to have never experienced it. I have missed deadlines before, for various reasons, and been met with empathy and understanding. It’s courteous to always let the editor know as soon as possible that you’re not going to be able to hit it (this is where having a tracker pays off). It is their job to figure out workarounds, and you’re giving them information to do their job! They will figure it out, and that is okay.
If you’re locked into the capitalist mindset that tells you worth equals productivity (and if you’re not, please tell me your secret), remember that you will be MORE productive in the long term if you don’t burn out.
If you feel like you’re really up on the threshold, take a few days off. You can do anything, although be gentle with your hands and wrists during this time (this is why I’ve never gotten into video games, or felting). For me, I find that I feel the most refreshed when I get out of my house (which is also my office) and do something. Go with friends to a new restaurant, or smoke weed and go on a hike, or read a book in a park, or drive around and play music really loud and scream the lyrics. You don’t have to plan anything big. You don’t have to see anyone else if that’s stressful. But changing your physical space will help. Having those outside experiences will help you recognize that time has actually passed between the pain of working and your present moment.
When you get back to work, be gentle with yourself. So much of burnout comes from a Pavlovian kind of association: you look at your drawing desk, you think about comics, and you remember a feeling of pain and misery. So as soon as you start to feel miserable, take a break. Refuse to sit in that misery. I sometimes imagine the part of myself that has to do the work as a small, overemotional child. I need to show her that it’s safe to do this work, that she will be listened to, that there are boundaries that will protect her from getting hurt.
Seek context. When you are in the thick of a book, it can be hard to see the whole thing (forest for the trees, etc). It can be helpful to go back to the early stages, those fun sparkly ideas that made you want to do this in the first place. Re-read your script, if you haven’t done that in a while. Share it with someone you trust and get some compliments (we are all doing this for compliments and it’s okay to admit that). Remember that you’re making something personal, something you care about, something you want to see in the world. Try to fall back in love with the project, whatever that means to you.
Recovering from burnout
But burnout still happens! Maybe you’re in the middle of it right now. Burnout is a form of trauma, and you need to be as kind to yourself as if you were recovering from a different form of emotional or physical trauma. The thought process of “it’s just a comic, it’s not like I’m a professional athlete or a doctor or a hobbit climbing a mountain, therefore I should be fine” is not helpful.
I was in a state of extreme burnout at the beginning of the pandemic. I felt worthless, unconfident, and unsure if anything I was doing mattered or if I wanted to keep doing it. I’ve had burnout before on a more physical level, but this was a really emotional, devastating feeling.
Reader, I came out of it by writing and drawing Lord of the Rings fanfiction. The pandemic was raging, I couldn’t see my friends or family, I was stuck at home, I’d quit a job that made me feel useless, and I didn’t want to do any other work. So I dove fully into someone else’s fantasy world, into a very specific story and a relationship that had always given me a lot of feelings. To this day I feel so incredibly lucky to have found that. It felt like my torch had gone out, and I managed to re-light it by borrowing a spark from another creator.
The lesson that I took out of this is that no source of fuel for your creative torch is wrong. When you feel so badly burned by making art for your job, go back to the beginning, to the things that made you want to draw and tell stories as a very small child. Go back to what made your heart do backflips when you were a teen.
When you associate drawing with trauma, it can feel like the way to heal is to stop drawing altogether. If this is what you need, then do that. But I encourage you to try and redefine your relationship to drawing. This could mean drawing your OTP kissing in fifty different configurations (🙋 guilty), or it could mean life drawing, or it could mean looking at a lot of other people’s art and remembering why you like drawing in the first place.
Draw something sexy, or silly, or ugly on purpose. Let yourself play. Let yourself indulge. Don’t worry about making something that is smart, or good, or groundbreaking. You don’t have to share it and no one else has to like it (although if you’re enjoying it, there’s a good chance other people will too).
Go back to other things you’ve made, and try to find that love. Get affirmations from people you know. It is absolutely okay to go to a friend and say “I’m suffering from burnout, can you tell me what’s good about my work/what I’m good at as an artist?” Sometimes when I get a really kind tweet or email about my work, I’ll screenshot it and save it to a folder. Seeing that kind of impact reminds me why I make comics; for me, ultimately, they’re about connecting with other people on a deep level.
And here is one more affirmation for you. It will get better. You will heal, because our bodies and minds are remarkable things. And you will have learned lessons about your threshold, about how to see it coming and how to step back and how to protect your spark and yourself. You will be a better advocate for yourself and others, and a better artist.
I’m wrapping up this series, and am curious if there’s any more topics related to graphic novels that people are interested in? Let me know in the comments!