The magic of a graphic novel comes from words and illustrations working together seamlessly to create an engrossing world. A lot of people don’t realize that a whole team of creatives typically collaborate to make that possible. To give you a better picture of how to write a graphic novel, I’m giving you an inside look at how the magic of Muhammad Najem, War Reporter came together. Take a look at how we moved from a rough first draft of the script all the way to a complete world with beautiful illustrations.
Storytelling that Starts with a Script
When I told people about the publication of my first graphic novel, I got one response over and over: I didn’t know you could draw!
I actually can draw, thank you very much! But I didn’t illustrate this book. I wrote it.
When people ask me how to write a graphic novel, they often don’t realize that it starts with a script. You can think about a graphic novel manuscript like a movie script. It includes dialogue but also descriptions of the scene, details on characterization, narration (whether that’s voiceover in a movie or captions in a graphic novel), and more.
The script also sculpts the story. It gives a graphic novel all the pieces it needs to make a complete story – a beginning, middle, and end. The conflict, character development, and even ideas for setting start in the script.
Most importantly, the script answers the question: What is the story trying to say? In Muhammad Najem, War Reporter, the script emphasized Muhammad’s courage and the power of citizen journalism. Words were the foundation for his story, but pictures brought it to life.
As important as a script is, a graphic novel needs illustrations. That’s where visual artists come into the picture. They breathe life into the setting and characters, their emotions and challenges. And if you’re lucky – as my co-author Muhammad and I are – your artist will create a world beyond your words. Understanding how to write a graphic novel means envisioning a truly collaborative process from start to finish.
Our artist, Julie Rabine, took our manuscript and made it come to life. She added nuance and emotion, details and humor. The story becomes more than it could be with words alone.
That’s what I love about writing graphic novels: The final product is a collaboration. It’s a meeting of minds and more than just the sum total of its parts.
In a word, it’s magic.
Revising the Graphic Novel Script
When I first started working on Muhammad Najem, War Reporter, I didn’t actually know much about how to write a graphic novel. Before we could begin to think about pictures, we had to get the script in good shape.
We started in the winter of 2019. That first draft was decidedly… not magic. I typed it up in Microsoft Word and figured out the format as I went along.
At that point, there was no narration from Muhammad. My incredible agent Wendi Gu recommended shifting the perspective of the story. That decision stuck through the final draft and added to the emotional heft of the book.
In a January 2020 draft, we added captions to clarify the perspective. Again, Wendi was an invaluable collaborator at this stage. She helped us understand how small details of the story would translate in an American publishing context. For example, early drafts included a scene of Muhammad making a toy gun out of scraps of wood from his father’s carpentry shop.
At Wendi’s suggestion, Muhammad and I revisited that part of the script. He also remembered making little wooden cats as a kid. So we updated the script and made a few other tweaks. This one change inspired adding cats as a continued motif throughout the book.
We made continued edits to the first page throughout the first few months of 2020. By the time we sold the project to Andrea Colvin at Little, Brown, in summer 2020, the first page looked markedly different. Note the added captions that characterize young Muhammad’s role in his family as the “miracle child.”
Creating the Illustrations
We can’t talk about how to write a graphic novel without covering the illustrations! Andrea hired Julie as our illustrator after seeing her sample of the first few pages. Even then, Muhammad and I knew something special was happening.
Julie so captured the heart of Muhammad’s story. We knew immediately that she was the right artist for this project. That’s when the collaboration started! We started a group text thread between us and Julie, and Muhammad’s brother Qusay. We shared ideas and sketches and FaceTimed to get to know each other better. Trust was a huge part of this process.
First came rough sketches, under the direction of art director Karina Granda, which you can see below.
Then Julie sent inks about six months later, along with a note.
Here’s what the first page will look like when you crack open your copy. We came a long way from the first rough script to an immersive world of words and pictures.
There were a lot— a LOT— more drafts in between these. The point is that Muhammad Najem, War Reporter was a truly collaborative effort. It’s one that everyone involved can be proud of. This graphic novel even went on to be selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2022 and a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection.
Teaching Students How to Write a Graphic Novel
Are you an educator who would like to teach students how to write a graphic novel? I offer engaging workshops for K12 students. Using my graphic novel Muhammad Najem, War Reporter, I share behind-the-scenes videos and drafts from the collaborative creative process. If you want your students to have a really hands-on experience, I can even help them create the first page of their very own graphic novel! Learn more here.