When you write a script, or create a graphic novel, you spend a long time in your own head. You make countless decisions, small and profound, which shape the tone of your story and the destiny of your characters. I’m a big believer in trusting your instincts and creating art which feels authentic and interesting to you, the creator, in the belief that others will recognise and cherish those same qualities too.
With that in mind, it’s also important to remain self-critical and take a reality check from time to time. Creatives should never be shy of showing their work in progress and listening to feedback, because a truly fresh perspective is priceless. If you’re confident in your own work it’s simply another way to analyse what you’re trying to achieve. What you do with feedback becomes part of your process.
Eight different people were kind enough to read my script for The Hollow Man, and give feedback in detail. They all had some interest or expertise in the arts, graphic novels, or creative writing, but none of them were close to me personally. One person was from Brazil, one from Poland, three from England and three from Scotland. Three were men, one of whom is a high-profile producer for the BBC. One of the female respondents is a well-respected and regularly commissioned writer, who also has her own production company.
Their feedback took the form of comments in the script, e-mails discussions, and six of the eight returned a quick ten question multiple choice survey.
The feedback was positive, and highlighted a few things I can improve. Most of these weaker areas were aspects I was aware needed attention, such as spending more time establishing a couple of the key characters. I always felt Pippa in particular was thinly drawn, and that there was a lot of detail I’d worked out regarding her past life, motivations, and moods that weren’t in the script. This was largely down to space – It’s Jay’s story, so the focus in many scenes is on what he’s thinking. Happily there are a few techniques you can use in a graphic novel that convey wonderful character details succinctly, without requiring extra scenes or a change in plot. I’ll discuss this later when I create those pages.
I’ve never done a formal survey for this purpose before, and it was noticeable how the survey findings were a little less positive than the feedback that came from comments and e-mails. I think the anonymity of a survey allows people to frame their criticism in less glowing terms, and be more realistic. This alone makes it a worthwhile technique.
The first question was simply to find out people’s overall reaction. Four people thought the script was excellent, two people thought it was good. One other person called it “a strong story with a good sense of place” and another praised the “engaging writing” and “strong atmosphere”. Other comments: “really excellent”; “an interesting character and story”; “a great story and a good structure”; “dark stuff” ; “dark and heavy but so good”.
Everyone who read The Hollow Man was moved by it. That’s one of my key goals. Four of the readers were moved a great deal, and two were “moved, but not greatly”. The aim is to get everyone in the former category, though you have to be realistic about the kind of stories different people connect with.
From the comments that came back, a couple of people guessed what was going on as the story unfolded but were still “genuinely shocked” at what happened later. I think the mystery will be a little more heightened in the graphic novel, but not at the expense of foreshadowing things that are important to make later revelations credible.
A lot of the writing in the script evokes a powerful mood and emotion in me, which I’m trying to share with readers. In some cases I achieve this through prose writing and narration. It’s never been my intention to transpose the prose directly onto the comic book page. The challenge in the graphic novel is to inspire the same emotion via alternative means. This ties into one of my principal areas of interest, the difference between how we cognitively process prose visual and verbal lexia in a comic book. As I make the graphic novel a paragraph of prose might become a single drawing, or I might add new sequences of images and dialogue to get a similar effect. My aim is to make the graphic novel more affecting and moving than the script, with greater subtlety and nuance. The script is simply a blueprint to work from.
Two people thought Ollie (who’ll be called Jay in the graphic novel) was a great character, and four people thought he was a good character. I’d rather more people thought he was a great character, and I have a few pages and scenes in mind to make him a little more credible, unusual and memorable. He also expresses a few opinions that, at the moment, rather come out of nowhere. I’m confident I can integrate those into his persona more holistically, as I make him real on the page.
A feature of my writing is revealing character by putting my protagonists under pressure through the machinations of the plot. I’ve never previously added a scene purely to flesh out character, though I will give my characters the space to improvise their own responses to situations. Recently I’ve come round to the idea of adding a couple of purely character related moments, so that everything that happens thereafter seems more heightened and involving. It’s a small shift in scope, and I won’t let it unbalance the structure of the story.
As I suspected, Pippa’s character was less successfully realised than Jay’s, with one person thinking she way ‘okay’, three thinking she was ‘good’ and two ‘great’. I need to do some work to fix this, but I have a firm idea of how to make her a truly great character.
This is an interesting one. The story is clearly not a comedy, but I tend to put humour into my dialogue to make it credible. Most people I know tend to make jokes or amusing comments as part of natural conversation, even in the darkest times. But I don’t want any lines like that to seem inappropriate, or unbalance the tone of the story.
Four people found these kind of lines amusing, and the other two didn’t notice any humour at all. That makes me think these lines seemed natural, not out-of-place, and that the two readers who didn’t register anything amusing have a completely different sense of humour to me. Fair enough.
In retrospect, it’s the wrong question. A better one would be “Does any of the dialogue seem inappropriate or out-of-place?” As it was, a couple of people were kind enough to list a couple of scenes that jarred with them a little. One of them, with the agent, I may well drop altogether. Others I feel just need a bit more explanation, or foreshadowing, to make them credible.
I’m happy with the response here, as making readers think about the issues in the graphic novel is a core aim.
I’m less pleased with the reaction to this question. Two people don’t feel the story gave them a unique insight or perspective into the world, which is disappointing. I guess the key word is “unique”. There’ve been stories on this topic before, but none quite like this in my experience. The reader’s experience may, of course, be different. I feel the story and the perspective given is illuminating and true, so I’m reluctant to change it. As I tell the story in the graphic novel I’m confident the unique elements will become more prominent. I want to put as much of myself into the pages as possible, and if I succeed in that I hope it’ll be a truly memorable read.
Finally, three people would “love to read a graphic novel like this” and three people would “like to read a graphic novel like this”. That’s encouraging. A couple of people also suggested it would make a great novel, which is interesting. I’d love to write this story as a novel too, particularly as part of my investigation into how we respond to pictures and words, but I have to be realistic. One thing at a time.
Overall, the feedback I’ve gathered over the last couple of weeks reinforces my burning desire to make this graphic novel. It’s the kind of story no-one else is publishing, which is exactly the type of narrative ground I want to explore. The nagging fear for any writer is that a story you love might seem impenetrable or unengaging to someone else, particularly if it’s unusually dark. So it’s reassuring to find that a cross-section of people loved the story in much the same way I do. There are a few aspects of the script I can improve to flesh out the characters and their motivations, which I’m looking forward to. I feel inspired to push on with new pages, and very grateful that so many people shared their opinions on the script with me.