Ep 114 Are you afraid to listen to your own audiobook? Is cursive writing now obsolete? Meet graphic novelist Shane W Smith.

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podcast-artwork In Episode 114 of So you want to be a writer: Discover which author broke through after four flops and the author afraid to listen to her own audiobook. We discuss if cursive writing is now obsolete and more reasons to sometimes write by hand. Impress (or tire) your friends with the meaning of soporific and meet Australian graphic novelist Shane W Smith. Is Livescribe or Microsoft Surface better for writers and are you making these author blog mistakes?

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes
How the ‘queen of the beach novel’ became a best-selling author after her first 4 books flopped

Afraid to Listen to My Own Audiobook

‘Irrelevant and obsolete’? Schools moving away from teaching cursive writing

5 Ways Picking Up a Pen Can Make You Smarter

Writer in Residence

Shane W Smith
shanewsmithShane W Smith is the creator of seven full-length graphic novels, and a number of shorter pieces. His graphic novel Undad  was shortlisted in the Australian Shadows Awards and tells the tale of a vegetarian family man who unexpectedly turns undead. He has written a sequel, Undad Volume 2. His books have been shortlisted twice in the Aurealis Awards. He has a creative writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his oddest achievement is getting a comic published in a refereed academic journal.

Visit Shane’s website

Follow Shane on Twitter

Working Writer’s Tip

Livescribe versus Microsoft Surface for writers

Answered in the podcast!

App Pick
Australian Taxation Office

Competition

Win “The Natural Way of Things” and Dendy Direct gift card

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript

Allison

Shane W. Smith is the author of seven full-length graphic novels, and many shorter pieces. His work has been shortlisted for the Aurealis Awards twice, and was most recently an Australia Shadows finalist.

 

Shane’s latest graphic novels, Undad, and Undad Volume 2 are the story of a normal family man who suddenly finds himself undead, so your basic zombie dad.

 

Alright, so welcome to the program, Shane.

 

Shane

Allison, thanks for having me on.

 

Allison

Let’s start with some basics for our listeners who may not be completely familiar with the graphic novel as a genre, so to speak. How does it differ from a comic? Is there a difference?

 

Shane

Not to my mind. I use the words interchangeably.

 

Allison

OK.

 

Shane

It’s not something that has an official definition. There’s been a considerable debate between pedants in the form over many decades.

 

Allison

Right. And no one has come up with any real conclusion as to the major difference?

 

Shane

No.

 

Allison

No? Don’t you love that? You can debate it for decades and we’re still back where we started from.

 

Shane
Very much so, yeah.

 

 

Allison

Have you always written graphic novels?

 

Shane

I haven’t. I cut my teeth in prose fiction. I’ve been writing proses pretty much all of my life. And only started dabbling in comics about ten years ago.

 

Allison

OK, and why did you start? Why choose this form?

 

Shane

It’s kind of funny how these things happen. There’s never really any single factor more of a strange confluence of events.

 

I wasn’t a lifelong fan of comics. I grew up on prose novels and I think they’re probably still my first love. By the time I was in university studying creative writing I had already written two novels, which had quite rightly, been rejected for publication many times.

 

I went through a bit of a Joss Whedon fan boy stage in the early 2000s that led me to pick up the comic he had written called Fray, which was the first comic I had read since I was a little boy. And there was something about the way it flowed and the way it read that made me feel like perhaps this was something I could branch out into.

 

I wanted to give it a go, anyway. I had already sort of dabbled in poetry and children’s books and screenplays as part of my degree, so I was definitely well-primed to experiment with another form.

 

Allison

So do you the art as well?

 

Shane

I do, yes.

 

Allison

Alright. So, have you always been an artist as well as a writer?

 

Shane

When I was a kid I loved to draw. But, I let that slide for a bit when I started focusing more on the prose novels. But, when it came time to pick it up again it sort of… it came back relatively quickly.

 

Allison

Did you have to do a how to draw a graphic novel course, or is it all about creating your own style?

 

 

Shane

I didn’t do any course. I didn’t read any books on how to draw a graphic novel. But, I did read pretty extensively in the form over a period of a few months I just read novels and I picked apart why they flowed the way they flowed. And there are a couple of really good non-fiction books that break down some popular graphic novels and really get into the meaning of the images and why they work the way they work.

 

So, it was sort of an intensive self-learning period, I suppose.

 

Allison

Wow, and were there particular authors that you were drawn to at that point? Do you have favorites?

 

Shane

I do have favorites, not really what you might expect of the superhero genre of comics. That’s not really something that interests me. But, I consulted with one of my tutors at university, who was a big graphic novel fan. And he put me onto a few people, like Alan Moore and Brian K Vaughan. And a couple of more indie people, like Joe Sacco, who does sort of comic journalism in war-torn countries.

 

So, there is a huge range of work out there, and they all approach it a bit differently. So, it was a good chance to see just how broad and how diverse the form could be and all of the different ways it could be used.

 

Allison

How does the process work for you? Do you start with words? Do you start with an idea? Do you start with a picture? How do you go about actually constructing a story?

 

Shane

I don’t really have a set method. Every project just seems to take on a life of its own. Sometimes I start with an elevator pitch and develop some concept out from that, and sometimes I have a full novel that I’ll decide to convert to a graphic novel.

 

Allison

OK, so you will have already have written the words and then you’ll convert it into the form?

 

Shane

That’s happened. Lesser Evil, my first commercial publication was actually a prose novel for about ten years before I made the transition.

 

Allison

And do you feel it worked better as a graphic novel? Is it something… like, do you think that — does it lift the words, having the graphics with it?

 

Shane

For that project it absolutely did. The Lesser Evil novel was a bit of a disaster zone.

 

Allison

Oh.

 

Shane

I had rewritten it so, so many times over many years and it just wasn’t clicking in the right way. And if I had any sense at all I probably would have just shelved it. But, I felt like there was something in there that was still sort of worth sticking around for, so I gave it one last chance and decided to see how it would work as a graphic novel script.

 

Allison

So do you always do words and pictures yourself? Or do you actually work with other people as well?

 

Shane

For my first two books I did it all myself, that was mainly a budget decision because collaborating with other people, with a project that I would hope to retain creative control over is generally an expensive one, because you’re looking to hire other people rather than enter into a real creative partnership with them.

 

And artists typically command a pay rate in excess of $50 a page. When you’re working on a full-length graphic novel of 350 pages it’s unaffordable, at this stage of my career.

 

Allison

So you tend to do the pictures yourself, just so that you can retain control and keep it all together?

 

Shane

That’s right. But, my most recent project, Undad, I actually took a different path. I decided to try a Kickstarter. I put it up on Kickstarter and I raised something like $15,000 combined for the two volumes. That was enough to pay a team of ten artists to work on the book with me.

 

Allison

So, if you do it all yourself how long does it take you to produce a full novel?

 

Shane

I work in digital art, which is thankfully a lot quicker than using pen and paper. I can put out 300-pages in roughly eight or nine months, if I’m working hard.

 

Allison

Wow, including images? Wow, that’s amazing.

 

With Undad, with Kickstarter behind you were you able to make that an even faster process?

 

Shane

Definitely. The two books together total about 450 pages, and that all came together in about 12 months.

 

Allison

With Undad is that one where you had written… I mean obviously if you’re working with other people you have to write the whole thing first and then work back from there, do you? Is that how that worked?

 

Shane

That’s right. So, the typical workflow is that the writer puts together a script detailing panel actions and dialogue and sends it out to the artists for their contribution.

 

Allison

Wow.

 

Is this area of publishing a difficult one to break into? How did you come to be published in this area in the first place?

 

Shane

I think I was lucky. In Australia there’s not really all that many opportunities to be published as a graphic novelist. I think we have one maybe two publishers that are seeking work from comic creators.

 

I was sort of forced to look overseas. I found a small press in Canada called Zeta Comics. I mean I sent Lesser Evil out to dozens of places, but they bit, they liked the work.

 

Allison

When you submit it do you send the whole thing or is like a novel where you send a query and three chapters or how does that work?

 

Shane

I think as with novels every publisher has its own submission guidelines, some like to see the whole book and some like to see a sample of about 20 pages. And, yeah. I think it’s the same.

 

Allison

When you actually got — like when they bit and came back to you and said, “Yeah, we’re going to publish your work,” were you dancing around the kitchen at this point? Is that… is this a massive thing for you? Was that your first one you ever had published?

 

Shane

It was huge. The first response wasn’t actually one that made me dance. They had a look at the sample and they said, “This is great. We love the writing, when is the final artwork going to be done?”

 

Allison

Oh. And you’re like, “Yeah, still working on that.”

 

Oh dear, that’s not what you want to hear at all.

 

Shane

That was a bit of a belly drop.

 

Allison

You mentioned that there’s only a couple of Australian publishers that actually do cover graphic novels or are seeking work. Is that the biggest challenge about being an Australia graphic novelist, is just finding outlets for your work?

 

Shane

Yes, I think so. Yes.

 

Though comic creators, I think are also in a bit of a privileged position over prose writers, in that we have avenues like comic conventions to get the work out there. I don’t think there are that many events for non-comic writers that have the same kind of reach.

 

Allison

I was going to ask you about that, because we met at Comic Gong.

 

Shane

Yes.

 

Allison

Which is the Woolongong comic festival, for anyone who’s interested. I was trailing around after my children, looking for people to talk to.

 

Are conferences and fan festivals the best way for you to get your work out there, because I imagine distribution is not an easy thing.

 

Shane

No, distribution in the comics world… it’s a monopoly, actually. There’s one distributor that covers the entire world. There’s Diamond, Diamond Distributors. And, unless you can convince them that they can make a profit sending your book to comic stores, you have no option other than approaching each individual store and seeing if they will stock your book.

 

 

Allison

Wow. So, is that what you do? Are you hand-selling to booksellers as well as going to conferences and fan festivals?

 

Shane

Whenever I visit another city for an event like Comic Gong I’ll try to get to the local store and see if they’ll put my book in, but not always easy.

 

Allison

So how many sort of conferences and things are you attending each year?

 

Shane

It varies from year to year, depending on whether or not my wife has just given birth to another child, actually.

 

Allison

That’s right, because you have four children, don’t you?

 

Shane
Four children, yeah.

 

Allison
To add to the mix of this, which we’re going to talk about in a minute.

 

Do you do a lot of online platform-building? Is that a good place for a graphic novelist to kind of get their work out there?

 

Shane

It’s hard to say. I do have a fairly active Facebook page and Twitter feed. People respond to my posts and content, but I can’t say how well that leads to direct sales.

 

Allison

No.

 

Shane

I think most — the huge majority of my sales are face-to-face at conventions and events.

 

Allison

OK, so it’s definitely work the effort to attend?

 

Shane

Oh, for sure.

 

Allison

OK, all right.

 

So, are you still doing other things… I know you did the creative writing degree at the University of Canberra. Are you still writing straight prose novels and things as well? Or have you really decided that this is going to be your thing for the time being?

 

Shane

I’m still keeping my toes wet in prose.

 

In 2012, just after my son was born I spent eight months on the commute to and from work writing out a novel by hand. That was an interesting experience, it was very rewarding.

 

Allison

Was it? I was going to ask you about that. Because we were discussing in a recent podcast the difference between writing longhand and typing and how it sort of taxing to a different part of your brain. Did you find that’s what happened with you because you were writing longhand?

 

Shane

Absolutely, yeah. The creative process felt completely different writing by longhand.

 

Allison

Interesting. Valerie keeps telling me I should try it. And I keep saying that I can’t read my handwriting so there’d be no point.

 

Shane

There are plenty of drawbacks to that approach.

 

Allison

Yeah.

 

Shane

You end up having to type out the whole thing after you’ve written it by hand.

 

Allison
Oh yeah.

 

I just think there’s not enough sort of options for deleting and adding things in at the top and that sort of stuff. I think I would find it hard.

 

Shane

It can get quite messy.

 

Allison

What does a typical writing day look like for you, because I believe you have a full time job?

 

Shane

Yep, I’ve got a full time job. So, my typical day involves getting up at about 6:00 and heading straight off to work. I work until about 4:00, come home, help my wife with the dinner and getting the kids to bed. And I spend time with my wife until she goes to bed, and then I stay up a few extra hours and that’s my writing time.

 

Allison

You’re kind of having a fairly long and busy day and you’re writing in the middle of the night?

 

Shane

That’s right.

 

Allison

Is that now just your routine or do you find that sandwiching your writing around family and work very difficult?

 

Shane

It was difficult to get into the routine, but once I’ve got it I’m committed to it. I mean it’s something that I have to do, I can’t imagine life without writing, so you do what you have to do, really.

 

Allison

And are you doing that every day, or is it like five days a week, or how do you sort of… is writing something that you manage to fit in at some point every single day?

 

Shane

Yeah, I write every day. Barring an emergency room trip for one of the kids there are no exceptions, no excuses.

 

Allison

Wow, OK. That is a serious routine. Like, I think a lot of people would find that incredibly difficult to get started. But, as you say, once you make the habit then it’s hard to break the habit, isn’t it?

 

Shane

That’s right. And, if it matters you’ll find time for it, I think. You find out just how much it really matters.

 

Allison

Do you switch between words and pictures to kind of give, depending on the day? Or do you work on a panel at a time? How do you construct that? I’m just wondering if you’re not really into that day do you do one or the other? Or how does that work for you?

 

Shane

I’ve usually got five or six creative projects on the go at a time, because if I’m bored with one I can work on another.

 

Allison

So you don’t get writer’s block because you’re doing lots of different things?

 

Shane

Yeah.

 

Allison

Do you fit exercise in and all of that sort of stuff in at any point?

 

Shane

No, that sort of fell by the wayside a few years ago.

 

Allison

You have to look after your health, Shane. OK?

 

Shane
I’ve started eating better, I’m dropping weight.

 

Allison

Excellent.

 

Shane

So, I’m on the right path now, I think.

 

Allison

Do you network with other graphic novelists, like in the sense of — is it a relatively small community that you see at the conferences all the time? The same sort of faces?

 

Shane

Very much so. There’s a few dozen of us. But, I think by now we all pretty much know each other, because we talk to each other at these conventions and usually go out for a beer afterwards and that sort of thing.

 

Allison

Is it a supportive community? Like are you supporting each other’s work, or is it kind of every man for himself?

 

Shane

I was expecting it to be sort of more siloed than it is. I think by and large everyone is incredibly supportive of each other. There are Facebook groups where we all talk techniques and marketing and distribution and we’re banning together at the moment to work out some sort of wholesale options.

 

Allison

Oh, that’s great.

 

Shane

Distributing to stores, yeah.

 

Allison

How important is it for you to feel like there are other people in the same boat that you’re in?

 

Shane
Not very.

 

Allison

Really?

 

Shane
No, I kind of feel like writing is something that I’ve always wanted to. And, what other people are getting up to. I mean I love supporting them, I love liaisoning with them, and I’ll help them out if I can and they’ll help me out, but it doesn’t feel like a priority to know…

 

Allison

No, it’s more of your focus is on your work and your writing.

 

Shane

Yeah, pretty much. Yeah.

 

Allison

Well, I guess you don’t have much time, so you’ve got to prioritize, don’t you?

 

Alright, let’s finish up our conversation today with our three top tips for aspiring graphic novelists. What have you got for me?

 

Shane

The first one would be… be prepared to not make any money, ever.

 

Allison

OK, this is a labor of love, is it?

 

Shane
It is. It has to be.

If you don’t love it you should do anything else, really.

 

Allison

OK, alright. So no money, great.

 

Shane

No money.

 

Allison

Good start.

 

Next?

 

Shane

Don’t publish your first work. There’s a huge percentage of people who work in comics, I think, that seem to feel like just because you’ve invested a certain amount of time in a project and you’ve put it all together that automatically makes it publishable. And because… I mean I think we’re starting to see this in prose as well, but because the publishing options in Australia are so limited everyone is self-publishing.

 

Allison

Right.

 

Shane

Which means there isn’t so much gate-keeping happening.

 

Allison

Is it an expensive thing to do, to self-publish though? With a graphic novel? Like more so than a prose novel, so to speak?

 

Shane

I think you’ve got the same options with comics as you do with prose. You can order 500 copies and keep them in the garage. Or, you can go through a print on demand service.

 

Allison

Oh, of course. Yeah.

Alright, and your third tip?

 

Shane

Work hard, all the time. Everyday. Practice, practice, practice on your skills. Never give up. So, that’s sort of have determination. Yes.

 

Allison

OK, even though they’ll never be any money for you.

 

You’ve given me such a positive outlook there.

 

But, it’s true, isn’t it? You do have to work hard.

 

Shane

Yes, but I mean if you love it won’t feel like work.

 

Allison

Thank you so much, Shane, for your time today. It’s been a very interesting look. I think graphic novels are an area that not very many people know an awful lot about. I think there’s that notion of, “Who does this stuff?”

 

The other thing I find quite interesting is that so many… as you say, you feel they’re quite interchangeable with comics in some ways, so many of them are very adult, aren’t they? The big market is adults for this kind of thing, is that correct?

 

Shane

I’d say yeah. The market has definitely shifted in the last couple of decades into darker, gritty work. And we can see that bleeding over into the movies, which have been hugely profitable for the comic companies. I think it’s obviously bled back into the books now. So, there are people who see the movies, the gritty, dark, violent movies now want to read gritty, dark, violent comics.

 

And so characters typically aim at — well, traditionally aimed at children, like Superman, are now really dark and quite adult.

 

Allison

That’s so true. Now that you have four children of your own can you see yourself ever doing graphic novels for kids?

 

Shane

I’d love to. It’s sort of somewhere on my to-do list.

 

Allison

Somewhere.

 

Shane

I do intend to do it at some stage.

 

Allison

OK, just add that onto your many thousand things that you need to do.

 

Alright, we’ll let you get back to your many thousand things you need to do. We thank you once again for your time. Good luck with everything and good luck with Undad, Volumes 1 and 2.

 

Do you have any new work coming out in the next little while at all?

 

Shane

I’m currently editing a science fiction anthology of prose and comics called
All the King’s Men. We’re tentatively expecting that book to come out by the end of the year.

 

Allison

Excellent, alright. We’ll keep an eye out for it. And we will of course put Shane’s website address, et cetera, in the show notes. But, you can find out more about him at www.shanewsmith.com

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