Graphic novel progress

Here’s a timeline and brief diary for my graphic novel, The Facts of Life, to date. It’s been a case of ‘comics interruptus’ so far for all sorts of reasons, but it’s gathering speed now and I’m ‘in the zone':

2006: After reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, I realise that it’s possible to be a middle-aged woman writing memoir using the medium of comics. Can I play, too? Seeds of idea for a autobiographical graphic novel germinate. Start an alphabetical card file of memories. I begin to sketch memories and draw my first comic strip How a Baby is Made. Tentatively show one or two amenable friends who emit positive noises and suggest I go for it. I go to a comics convention for the first time but feel that neither myself nor my story fits somehow, and leave discouraged. (It would be a long time until I discover the the indie self-publishing scene).

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2007:  I enter How a Baby is Made to the first Observer Graphic Short Story prize – but it’s not really a short story. Join Deviant Art as ‘Missnibs’ and post strip there – but I’m not yet au fait with social networking and don’t get very far.

How a Baby is Made 1

How a Baby is Made 1

2007/8: Submit idea to a new comics publisher – initial interest and very encouraging but nothing solid. My proposal is still a little under-cooked. And so am I.

2008-10: Hiatus – all will become clear in book! Discover Laydeez do Comics.

2010: Timeline of memoir ends so ready to start writing – theme of story has changed somewhat due to life events! I go to Laydeez do Comics for the first time and feel more encouraged that there might be a readership for my story. I start to transfer the card file entries to colour-coded post-its, which stay on the wall for over two years until the glue goes crispy and they start to drop off. I use these headings to start writing scenes in words. Join Twitter as a proofreader (my other work) but end up using it to meet comics people instead, thus discovering Graphic Medicine. Further enthused. Sadly, I don’t attend the very first Graphic Medicine conference because I mistakenly think it’s for academics and medics only.

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2011: Get going! Background research and much reading. Enter 17 pages to Myriad Editions’ inaugural First Graphic Novel Competition. It’s good to have a goal. Air project in public for the first time at Laydeez do Comics in May (where I hear about the competition). Attend Arvon Foundation Graphic Novels course where I receive some welcome feedback and meet more lovely comics people – in full flow of quenching thirst from the overflowing cup of comics camaraderie at this point. In November I speak about my project at Comics Forum in Leeds at the Graphic Medicine day. It’s the first time I’ve spoken at an academic conference and it seems to be well received, although I’m extremely nervous. I’ve finally met ‘my people’, professionally speaking, this year! Trawl through old photos.p1_2010_gray

2012: Good news – reach shortlist of Myriad competition! It’s the first time I’ve got so far in any professional competition. Keep in touch with Myriad as project progresses. More research, reading, and story-boarding in between paid freelance work. Make my first self-published comic, Spooky Womb, to dip toe into water. I take it to autumn Comiket and it sells well. My first children’s books as author are published this year, too. A year of firsts.

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2013: More good news! Sign contract with Myriad Editions. Then follows another unfortunate 8-month hiatus. In summer, I speak at the 4th Comics and Medicine Conference in Brighton, which buoys me. Unearth old teenage diaries and letters. Start working on book again towards the end of the year, when I finish the artwork for my prologue.

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2014: Finish first draft of storyboards. Feeding of recycle bin with superfluous splurge. Successful application to Arts Council England for funding to complete my book. Re-read letter to make sure! They definitely said yes. Have a go at making a handwritten font for the lettering – aka a week of faffing resulting in alphabet spaghetti rather than beautiful lo-fi fontage plus sore knuckles from all the gnawing. Begin to make working drawings from the storyboards, which I transfer to Bristol Board for painting and inking. Fonts can wait until patience is restored.

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Onwards: Part three to jiggle,190ish pages of artwork and lettering to draw and complete, and the cover to design. Now working on it for six days a week stopping at eight o’clock most nights. I don’t get out much. I hope friends and family can bear with me for the confinement over the coming year. BBC Radios 4 and 6 are my friends now, plus garden snails and local cats at lunchtimes.

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Nathan Filer talk

I was lucky to get the last ticket to Costa winner Nathan Filer’s talk about his book The Shock of the Fall. Waterstones Bristol was packed out, as you’d expect for a visit from a highly successful local writer. Unfortunately, the downside of having read it on e-book is that I couldn’t get mine signed and it reminded me of how much I like books as objects. I won’t go into too much detail about the talk itself – I’ve put some of the salient points in my notebook, here: NFiler_notes3 NFiler_notes2 NFiler_notes It’s always a relief to hear a writer say, ‘Ten years ago…’ in relation to when they had the seeds of an idea for their book. I can give myself a break in that case, because, by the time mine comes out, it will easily be ten years since I started. Not that its genesis was altogether proactive at the time. I also found it encouraging that only the main character remains from his first attempt to write the book.

When I started reading The Shock of the Fall, although I knew Nathan Filer had grown up in Bristol, I didn’t realise the book was set here – some of it is based on a ward at Southmead Hospital, where Filer trained to be a psychiatric nurse. His characterisation of Matthew’s (main character) friend, who hangs around the corner at the junction between Stoke’s Croft and Jamaica St., made me think of the people you might expect to see there and thus made them more real to me – and is an illustration of how the book helps to break taboos about mental health issues (although I’m not suggesting that all who hang around there have mental health issues!) But it does beg the question: what becomes of people whose care services have been cut? For me, part of the importance of this book is that it draws attention to the fallout from government cuts in an implicit manner. The ward where Filer trained is now closed (although I’m unclear if that was a direct result of cuts).

The payoff for not being in the signing queue was that I had the pleasure of meeting the author’s mum. She came over to speak to me because she had seen me drawing during the talk – she’s also an artist. I apologised that it’s hard to get a likeness when someone is moving around! I can see where he gets his sense of humour: Mrs Filer suggested I look up her son’s poetry readings on the internet. She explained that he often alludes to the Oedipus complex in some of them: ‘It’s Not True‘ she assures me. We laugh. It was a pleasure to meet her.

I highlighted so many sentences from this book it’s hard to pick one. As someone who is both writing and drawing a memoir that includes taboo subject matter, I was particularly drawn to Matthew’s insights on that very process – how memory is so fragmented and how you put it back together in the writing process. I won’t quote them all here, instead I’d urge you to read the book. Here’s one of my favourites:  

‘Patient is engaging in writing behaviour’. From The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer.

I myself, for the rest of day, will be engaging in writing behaviour, patiently.

ps: If you are interested in reading books about mental health care, I’d also recommend the graphic novel Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham, pub. Myriad Editions.

Comics from Brighton and Bristol to the Lakes!

A long-overdue catch-up post:

Upcoming comics events

Next weekend, I’ll be tabling at Bristol Comic and Zine Fair, organised by the lovely folk from Bearpit Zines. There are 40 exhibitors – some from Bristol; some from beyond – it promises to be a fantastic day. I’m especially excited to see that Gareth Brookes will be there with his graphic novel The Black Project out from Myriad Editions (my publisher-to-be). I’ll certainly be buying a copy. Gareth was the winner of Myriad’s First Graphic Novel competition in which I was shortlisted with The Facts of Life.

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Then, on 18th October, I’m off to the inaugural Lakes International Comic Art Festival where I’ll have a table in the Comics Clock Tower sharing with Ian Williams (Graphic Medicine man). On the Saturday night I’m taking part in Quick Strips – Myriad Authors and Friends, where it is suggested that we will be ‘revealing all’. I’m hoping that this means a 6-minute presentation of work in progress! It will be my first time as a guest at a comics festival.

I’ll be taking Spooky Womb, X Utero, and a newly repackaged non-limited edition version of A Fray, along with some pages in progress from my book. If you can’t make it to these events, my latest comic X Utero is available in Blackwell’s at Wellcome bookshop and Orbital Comics. Or you can buy them direct from me.

Ethics Under Cover – Graphic Medicine conference

In July, I went to Brighton to present at Ethics Under Cover, Comics Medicine and Society (Graphic Medicine) on the panel Whose story is it? with Mita Mahato, Peaco Todd and Linda Raphael. I talked about the ethical considerations of secondary characters when writing memoir – especially if their stories also contain medical details. I felt that it went well personally (I sold all my comics) and our panel was well received. Podcasts from the conference are regularly uploaded here. It was lovely to catch up with old and new Graphic Medicine comics friends and spend time eating samosas(c/o Mita) on Brighton beach.

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In other news

As a result of contacts made at the Brighton conference, I was approached with an offer of some paid comics work, which I did over the summer. I can’t say much about it yet for confidentiality reasons, but I was happy to have been able to use my artistic skills in a way that might be useful to others in a healthcare setting.

I’ve also just received a contract for a new children’s picture book text (as author only). I wrote it earlier in the year and Bright Literary Agency have been representing it since May – so I’m please to have had this interest so soon.

I expect that’s just about enough for now – phew – worralorralinks!

Starsky the Rainbow Trout

I wrote this at Cleveland College of Art & Design in Middlesbrough (1987-8) when I was studying for my Foundation Certificate. I made this book dummy as part of my response to a textiles module. The brief was to buy a whole fish from a fishmonger’s, which would serve as inspiration for the duration of the project. We had to draw and ‘get to know’ the fish – we kept them in the college fridge in between classes. The studio was ripe by the end of the module.

Starsky was executed in pencil crayons and inkpen (very 1980s – everyone wanted to be Raymond Briggs back then). I was a strict vegetarian at the time, and, although I eat fish now, I’ve never really fancied trout.

As a published picture book author, I would say to my young student-self:

  • Not bad for a first try at making a story book, but:
  • Avoid rhyming text for a first book; it makes translation of co-editions tricky, but if you must:
  • Try using a thesaurus to avoid lazy rhyming stanzas.
  • Learn some grammar and how to spell ‘fly’ and ‘embedded’.
  • Fish don’t ‘shout’ – they scream silently (in the same way an uprooted flower does). They don’t laugh either. Mainly, they glug.
  • Think about page turns – who was lurking on the bank? Make the reader want to turn the page to find out. Same goes for the very last line – it would be more dramatic if it had a page to itself at the end.
  • Don’t simply illustrate the words, drop some words and let the pictures do the talking, too.
  • Try for a more imaginative title – publishers aren’t keen on ‘Sammy the Squirrel’-type titles. How about Massacre in the River Tees* instead?

I got an good mark for that module, and the tutor tried to persuade me to apply for Textile Design at degree level, instead of Graphic Design. I don’t think textiles would have been my thing. Too stinky.

*joking, of course

Curing the cringe factor

There are times when you create something that is so crushingly cringeful that you cannot bear to look at it for years afterwards. You even destroy work in an Orwellian-style rewriting-of-history attempt to erase all traces of crapitude. I’m almost over it with these teenage paintings of mine that my mum secretly kept. It’s interesting (to me at least) to look back on work I did as a teenager who wanted to ‘be an artist one day’. Just about enough time has lapsed for me to be able to look at them with fondness and to know that all cringes pass in time.

Teenage art eh? Hormones all-asunder, sweeping emotions, yearning and unrequited love. I’m surprised I didn’t use my own blood to render this dancing image:dancing_paulaknight

snowgoose_paulaknightThe birthday card above was based on The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. We listened to the radio adaptation in art class and had to draw as we listened to the story. I drew the characters Fritha and Philip, with the snow goose in the background. I don’t recall who the card was for but I didn’t send it.peacegirls_paulaknight

I did the ‘peace girls’ image after visiting Eastern-bloc Czechoslovakia on a youth-orchestra exchange in 1984. Mine was an emotional rather than political response – I think I was too young to really appreciate the politics back then. I only wish I still had the painting I did of a woman being sacrificed over the letter S (the top of the S was a hand holding a dagger dripping with blood). Teenage hormones…

I worry that the work I’m producing at the moment – in my hormonal peri-menopausal state – will one day beckon the dreaded cringe all over again. But this time the work isn’t safely squirrelled away in a bottom drawer for later. However, cringe is under-rated; perhaps the discomfort is a sign of authenticity, of work wrought from such a genuinely human and vulnerable place that it elicits angst at the very thought of sharing it. I think Billy Bragg said that he knew when a lyric was probably good because it made him feel uncomfortable to express it.

Once it’s out there it’s out there. So, my advice to myself and others is this: You don’t know what it will feel like until you dip your toe in the water – put it out there expecting a few hours of vulnerability backlash*, then forget about it. But if you do find yourself curling up in existential agony for weeks afterwards, it’s probably not worth the stress. A leathery hide is advantageous when sharing deeply personal work because you might not receive the required response, which could potentially smart more than the original wound. It’s a gamble. But equally it’s a gamble not to share it, because you never know where it might lead and what good it might do others. Like any new thing, it can get easier the more you practise. This not only applies to deeply personal work – but also to any creative work: some people have terrible trouble letting their work out into the big bad world where everyone is a critic and where silence speaks louder than words.

So, I’ve shared these pictures that used to make me feel so very embarrassed for myself. I’m practising.

ps; I must get round to reading The Wounded Storyteller, by Arthur Frank. It’s meant to be good.

* I first saw this phrase used by Jody Day of Gateway Women – apt words to describe that after-click panic when sharing something personal on social networking sites.

Laydeez do Comics Bristol

I’m not partial to defining my activity by genderAlthough technically I’m a ‘female’ illustrator, proofreader, comics creator and writer; I don’t feel I should need the adjective to help describe my involvement in those jobs. However, when the gender scales have historically been weighted on one side in any given arena (comics in this case), perhaps, for a while, you can heap it on with spades on the other to help redress the balance.

I first went to a comics convention in Bristol in the mid-00s because Jeffery Brown was speaking – I’d read all of his books. I’d also read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and thought wow, a woman the same age as me writing autobiographical comics – maybe that means I can too! So I tripped along to the comics con all fluffy-tailed and excited…

But I felt so out of place. I felt old for a start (I was 36ish) – and starkly female. The overarching feeling was that I didn’t belong there. It’s hard to pinpoint why – the proliferation of young men, the daleks and stormtroopers – I’m not sure. Nothing wrong with young men, daleks and stormtroopers, (I was a Doctor Who and Star Wars fan as a child), but it wasn’t what I was searching for at the time. It was probably something tribal – about recognising oneself in others to foster a sense of belonging. Despite my own lack of costume, I felt like an interloper from another planet.

Although I enjoyed Jeffrey Brown’s talk (I even asked him a question) I still left feeling somewhat disheartened thinking that even if I did get round to writing my graphic novel, who would want to read a comic with themes of fertility and miscarriage? That dalek wouldn’t be interested, would he? I was yet to discover Graphic Medicine where there are plenty of comics dealing with stuff going wrong with bodies. And I was also largely unaware of  the female creators from the 60s/70s who were certainly not shy of drawing the personal and intimate details of their lives. As it happens, the first two people to buy my first comic, Spooky Womb, were men (though still no daleks).

Laydeez do Comics 

So, imagine my joy when I stumbled over Laydeez do Comics! I think I googled ‘female graphic novelists’ sometime in 2009, found LDC and thought I really must go to that thing one day. It was a graphic novels forum run by women (Nicola Streeten and Sarah Lightman) but open to all. They had guest speakers, including men, talking about their comics work – with a ‘focus on the autobiographical, domestic and everyday’.

I finally went along to Laydeez in late 2010 when Posy Simmonds was speaking. It was rammed, I didn’t know a soul and I was horrified to discover that there was an introductory ice-breaker question (‘the question’) to answer in front of all the other attendees. Blind terror aside, I managed to splutter out something comprehensible enough for Nicola Streeten (co-founder of LDC and author of Billy, Me and You), to ask if I fancied coming along to speak about my work the following year. No, I thought, you have to be kidding. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t pursue it but Nicola did, thankfully. I once heard Grayson Perry say in an interview that his motto is ‘take the path of most resistance’ and this chimed with me at the time. I’d decided I wasn’t having children after some troublesome years, and that I must get out there, meet new people and do new stuff. This opportunity was all three.

I spoke at LDC for the first time in May 2011 along with Mary Talbot (Dotter of her Father’s Eyes) and Jo Tyler. Laydeez often places emerging practitioners alongside the more experienced. I showed the beginnings of my graphic memoir and some children’s illustration work to a supportive audience. It was like a big fuzzy comics cuddle, and I felt a glow of promise and excitement – a renewed interest in carrying on with my memoir. Both Mary and Bryan Talbot were encouraging about my work, too! It was also at that meeting that I found out about Myriad Editions’ First Fictions First Graphic Novel Competition, which I subsequently spent the summer working on, entered and reached the shortlist. So I have a lot to thank Laydeez do Comics for. A Brick Lane curry to fill the gap left by a nervous stomach rounded off the evening perfectly. And, I’ve met some ace people at meetings since.

Laydeez do Comics Bristol (and San Francisco, Leeds, Chicago…)

I wished there was something like LDC in Bristol and sat around waiting for someone else to provide this for me to attend. They didn’t, so I thought I’d better get something together myself. Nicola and Sarah were keen and we held the first Bristol event at Cafe Kino in August 2012. It was packed out – and I was happy to be spreading the Laydeez joy to Bristol. There is a healthy comics community in Bristol (Bearpit Zines, BLAM included) so I felt that there would be some interest. Speakers at the first event were Katie Green, Smoo Comics (Simon Moreton), Nicola Streeten, Sarah Lightman, Sicker Than Thou (Andrew Godfrey, Emma Mould) and yours truly. See some photos from that event and Nick Soucek’s blog:

Laydeez do Comics Bristol 2

LDC London now meet at Foyles Bookshop, so I wondered whether our branch of Foyles here in Bristol would be keen to extend that relationship – I knew they had an event space. They were very keen, enthusiastic and helpful! The next Bristol meeting is on Monday April 8th upstairs at Foyles Bookshop, Cabot Circus, Bristol, 6-7.45pm.

Click here for details – with guests Hannah Berry, Joff Winterhart and LOAf magazine‘s Rosie Faragher. It’s free but you must book a ticket here. Hope to see you there for some effervescent comics discussion, and cake c/o Sarah Lightman!

Facebook event page.

Miscarriage comics – talking about it

Last week, The Miscarriage Association began a campaign – It’s time to talk about miscarriage. Of course, not everyone wants to talk about it and that’s fine – either they find it too difficult or prefer to keep that part of their lives private. However, the taboos surrounding miscarriage mean that many women who do want to be open about it feel that they can’t. Perhaps they are afraid of upsetting others or making people feel uncomfortable. This further compounds their isolation and grief.

I’ve been making comics on the subject for a couple of years now, based on my own experiences of repeated unexplained early miscarriage. I also wrote a post about the language and euphemisms used to refer to miscarriage. As well as a natural urge to express myself through creativity, my hope has been to express something that others can’t, and to help break taboos. Comics can do this because pictures replace the need for words which are hard to say – or it seems that the symbiosis of words and pictures can speak louder than words alone and the impact is more immediate. And perhaps this could help in breaking the silence surrounding miscarriage. Here is most of the work I’ve done on the subject so far:

Or does it have a positive affect? I’m not sure. The response to sharing this work has been varied: From supportive other creatives doing similar to befuddled relatives telling me I just need to ‘get counselling’. The funniest response was at Comica Comiket last autumn when a guy did a double-take at my comic Spooky Womb: he pointed at it, looked at me, pulled a ‘scary’ face, then ran away! I guess he wasn’t ready to come face to face with anthropomorphic female reproductive parts at a comics fair. Poor chap!

It has been very connecting in that women I barely know have spoken to me about their own experiences of miscarriage and not having children. Not that I’m offering myself as a comics creator-counsellor by any means – not equipped! But I appreciated these connections.

However, I often worry about offending people who’d probably rather not know or upsetting others who’ve had similar experiences. Of course this reflects some of the reasons women in general don’t/ can’t talk about it. In fact, I’ve read articles about comics mentioning that comics should be all about cheering people up and the lighter side of life. But a couple of years ago I was excited to find that there’s a whole website about the intersection of comics and medicine/ illness (Graphic Medicine) where it’s accepted that comics can play an important role in empathy, understanding and education. Hello! I thought.

I’ve started writing warning messages on posts recently. But perhaps that’s me pandering to the taboo – just another way to steer it off the radar. Though I feel it’s mainly out of respect. I’ve discussed these issues with Mita Mahato and Katie Green recently (comics creators also sharing emotive work). On conclusion, I’m inclined to think that people have a choice as to whether or not they look, and this recent campaign by The Miscarriage Association has given me cause to believe that perhaps it’s OK. After all – not all my social networking updates are about this subject – there’s a peppering of other interests too – music, wildlife, politics, goats shouting like humans etc.

Here’s an interesting post by artist Lily Mae Martin, about sharing intimate, honest and often difficult details of her life as a mother. I met Lily when she spoke about her work at Laydeez do Comics.