How to Write & Illustrate your first Graphic Novel? Part 1/3 THE NOVEL PART

Updated: Mar 27

Ideas come to us like hiccups. Some of them go away so fast we barely notice their present. Others last longer than they are welcomed. “Gateh Gateh: Worlds beyond boundaries” was an idea that visited me and would not go away until I did something about it. It didn’t hurt like a long hiccup, but it nudged at the edge of my mind every day at 2:07 pm. Just kidding, it surfaced at random times and before I knew it, I started taking notes and paying more attention to what it wanted to become. I learn to give energy to my curiosity from Elizabeth Gilbert's book "Big Magic".


Are there stories that you must tell, not because you think it might help someone or make you a writer, but because it just needs to be born one way or another? You don’t get to decide whether to engage with this muse or not. She just came and sat on your desk, staring into your eyes like a house cat when feeding time is near. If you do, this post is for you.


When I decided to make this into a graphic novel, I searched everywhere online and at my local libraries for instructions. Great resources and wonderful inspiration were there but I couldn’t find enough leads with photos of the process. By the way, check out Neil Gaiman , Jake Parker , and Tonko House. Their process and structure gave me the light to shine on my initial path. I am grateful for their generosity in teaching and inspiring my journey.

Starting out, I thought if the behind the scenes of a graphic novel was shown to me, I would have more confidence in my mortal self to take the next step. Otherwise, it all seemed a bit blurry and too magical.

Therefore, today I come back and write a post for my past self and those who needs the messy backstage struggles, countless iterations, and some tips for the journey ahead.


What roles do you need to play to create a graphic novel all by yourself?


Nothing is truly created by yourself alone. You do need people’s help in either supporting you, giving you feedback or editing your writing and more.

Traditionally, there will be a Writer who has the inspiration and make the map for the story. Then comes the Editor who understands the subject, the language, and your audience. After your story is well refined, the script will be handed off to the Artist whose skill will enhance the writing and translate emotions and messages to visual form. The Letterer and Colorist come after that.



At first, I was not used to getting up at 4am so the best way for me to get excited about drawing was to let myself doodle on paper and made lots of silly sketches. Let the CHAOS reigns strong at this phase!


Why it is important to tell it in this art form?


The 3 why I learnt from Chris Do : Why this format? Why now? Why me?


I did not answer these three on paper, but it is quite easy. First question, because it is the simplest way of telling a story without a huge budget and because I love manga. Now because I was working full time on “America the Motion Picture” for Netflix when I started this project. Getting up at 4:30 am everyday to get in 2-3 hours of work in was not easy but because I loved it so much, it pushed me through till it became a habit.

A full-time gig gave me the peace of mind to focus my creative energy into personal work. The personal work then gave me fire, skill and knowledge to pour back into my day job at the animation studio.

Why me? Because it was my story growing up, sort of. It helped me process my emotions, and organizing my past in a way that made sense to me and freed me from any wrong beliefs or guilt program that I kept running unconsciously on. I guess it was self-therapy and I am proud of it since the stories I found most relatable are those that are so personal that I got chilled by the courage of the author to let themselves be seen. And someone else might resonate with it!


Your turn. What are your 3 why?


Identifying the main conflict and message for your story


If there is no tension, nothing to overcome, there is no story. Stories are ways that we human organize information to map out the world and derive lessons, meaning from it for future applications. There are certainly stories for entertainment and serve no further purposes. But if you want to grasp attention and make it memorable, there has got to be something at stake. The higher the stake, the greater the reward. Human brain processes pain and pleasure in the same region.


Hayao Miyazaki said something similar too. We live in a dualistic reality, so in picking your suffering, you pick the path toward transforming it and bringing out its other side which is joy, wisdom, and love for life.

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
_ Kahlil Gibran, author of "The Prophet"

Conflict doesn’t have to be invented. That is where the muse comes to whisper in your ears. You just must pay attention, to yourself and the world around, to what you pay attention to in different space and time. Schedule time to be alone and be still. The world has plenty of conflicts and tensions for you to address and raise your creative pen for. It only needs to be personal, that way it is honest and authentic. Then you can have fun with resolving it creatively either through real world inspiration or in your own imagination.


Write for yourself. Read a lot. Write what you yourself would love to read. _Stan Lee

Conflicts drive the story forward, provide relatability elements, create emotional impacts, and meaningful changes in the characters we are rooting for.


When we speak of conflicts, the image of good guys fighting bad guys is the general one that pops up. However, conflict can be internal, external, ethical, or even philosophical. Your protagonist doesn’t have to be the good guy. In fact, I started with a weakness in the character. Adnana was shy, didn’t speak up for herself and was terrified by the Dibuoi, aka the homeless people. She needed to face that and be transformed somehow. When the main character displays humanly flaws, it makes the whole story more real and believable.


The struggles can be emotional turmoil, yet it must be expressed, or manifested into the physical world that your story encompasses. It is like a simulation space to experience what your characters deal with inside them. This is how we find stories valuable. They explore possibilities that the readers might not have a chance to taste or not willing to try. In successfully describing the challenges, creative ways to face it, and slay the obstacles/dragon, a story will allow the protagonist and the audience to integrate the lesson and close the book with a transcended mind, becoming a different person.


If you can’t find a conflict yet, keep a sketchbook or notebook by you. Every time an idea visits or something in your daily life sparks your interest. Write it down. Pay attention to what pulls you. Slowly you will see a pattern within yourself. Only then, chase it, develop it, play with it, build a garden for its seeds! This conflict will color the whole story and dictate how the world and characters will be designed and staged. I will explain more later.


As a rule of thumb, you need conflict & resolution, then decide on the setting, then the characters, and finally the look and feel that support your story.

Figure out the genre that this graphic novel will belong to and also what set it apart from the rest of them. “Gateh Gateh Worlds beyond boundaries” is in the fantasy realm and the unique feature is the worlds and technologies that the 2 leading human races wield. Like the conflict definition, you need to understand it very clearly to extract its potential.


For those who have not heard of the Hero’s journey by Josef Campbell. Google-sama is at your service. In short, one needs to venture out of their comfort zone into a new territory to face the shadow of themselves (fear or the dragon/lizard) and come back with the gift (gold or scale) and share it with humanity.

Adnana going from the known world into the "underworld" where her call to action laid. From sketch to final, the essence was retained


This is not the only structure but it is a good start if this is the first time writing for you as well. One important note is to invoke powerful emotions relating to love, anger, joy, sadness, grief, or a sense of justice (careful with this one). As biochemical operated creatures, we run on energetic signals which are powered by feelings. When we experience strong emotions, our brain makes sure we take a snapshot of that scene or story to store away for later use. This is how entertainment narratives live on in people’s memory for generations. It also gave human society the archetypal stories to interpret their lives and live out their hero journey.


Please look much further for initial script writing tips and guides by other authors. My background is in art so I will give you more pointers regarding that area. See you in my next post about the process of refining the writing, designing and illustrating the project.




If you find this post valuable to your own path, please consider sending me a coffee. 😉 My Venmo is @Rubi-Do-Trinh