Writing the story of a god

By George O'Connor

The following is a brief description of the process I used (and continue to use) in the creation of each book in the Olympians series.


Step 1: Read

The first and most basic step is to read, read, read. And when I'm done with that, I read some more.

Very early on in the whole process of making Olympians I decided that I didn't want to rely on any modern retellings of the Greek Myths. As much as possible, I wanted to go back to ancient Greek and Roman texts to inform my own versions of these stories. That meant a lot of research, but that was okay—researching stories about gods and monsters is about the most exciting thing you'll ever be asked to study.

The big plan is to make twelve books, one for each Olympian god. So while I read and read and read, I made a list of which stories I most wanted to retell (because there are literally thousands of different Greek myths, and a series that told every single one would have to be hundreds of books long, not just a dozen). Then I further broke the list down, figuring out which myth would best be told in which book. Sometimes it was obvious—The War of the Titans would have to be told in Zeus's book, for example—and other times it was less so— which book would be best to tell the Trojan War in, for instance? With it all sorted this out, I keep a copy of this list on both my computer's desktop and in my sketchbook at all times.

If you're interested, elsewhere on this site there is a list of some of the wonderful books and websites I used to write the stories in Olympians.


Step 2: Doodle

Then I start filling my aforementioned sketchbook with hundreds of drawings of the myths I want to tell in each book. At this point I'm not very worried about the story yet, I just want to draw the key scenes of a myth in a multitude of ways. This gives me a lot of option in how I tell the story later, when I try to assemble these drawings in to a coherent comics page. While I'm doodling, I'm also coming up with the designs of the characters and settings in the story. A lot of what I draw at this stage doesn't end up in the book as intended, but is still useful in a lot of ways. I may draw a really cool pose of, oh, let's say Ares, that doesn't work in the story I intended it in, but I may be able to rework that same basic drawing into an awesome shot of Achilles later.

I should also mention that at this stage I actually begin the "writing" of the book, that is, the script. You'll notice little words and chicken scratch all over the pages. Sometimes I write out entire sequences, word for word, other times just little notations. As a writer who is also an illustrator, I find it easiest to do both simultaneously.


Step 3: Thumbnail

Let me tell you something. For me, this is without a doubt, the most difficult part of the whole process, by far. Thumbnails are little tiny rough sketches of what the final comics page will look like. (I'm not sure why they're called thumbnails—I'm guessing it's because they're so small). Basically, I take a look at all the hundreds of doodles I've done and figure out the best way to put them all together to tell a story. Each book in Olympians has about 66 pages of comics story in them, and to help fit everything in that space, I will make a little color-coded map of how many pages each part of the story will take. It can be very easy for me to go too long otherwise.

Consider this: Not only does each page of comics have to make sense as a story, it additionally has to look good as a piece of art. Each panel has to work as a composition, and the every page is made up of a bunch of panels that also have to work together as a composition. There are so many things to do and keep in mind at the thumbnailing stage that it's no wonder I sometimes fall asleep at my drafting table. My brain uses up so many calories I become exhausted!


Step 4: Dummy

A dummy is the term for a fake book that you put together to get an idea of what your final book will look like. As you can see from my thumbnails above, nobody on Earth would be able to make sense of those insane little drawings, myself included. Quickly, before I forget what the heck it is I drew anyway, I blow my thumbnails up into rough drawings of what the final book will look like.

This dummy, filled with the rough draft of my book, will serve as the blueprint for the finished book. I like to sit with this for a few days and "read" through it, to make sure everything works and makes sense.

I should mention here that I don't always do such finished looking dummies as I show here. This is an excerpt from the dummy for Book 1 of Olympians, Zeus: King of the Gods, which I did up really fancy since, as the first book of a proposed series, I had to use this dummy to convince my publishers to buy the series. Normally, I would just do this in pencil.


Step 5: Script

Now that my "blueprint" is in order, I go back through my various notes and bits of writing to construct the actual script of my book. I'm actually cheating a little by making this its own section; as I mentioned earlier, the process of writing and drawing are extremely intertwined for me. By the time I sit down to actually type up my script, the whole book is almost completely written. Still, this is when I fine-tune it, clean up some things, add some things, and drop out some stuff completely (I tend to overwrite). Then I send the script off to my editors, who smooth over my odd ramblings and bizarre wordings further.


Step 6: Draw

Writing Step Six
Now the hard work's over, and the fun stuff begins. Drawing is the easy breezy part of this whole enterprise for me. I go over the steps in making a drawing elsewhere on the site, but first I loosely sketch the page out in pencil. Having drawn all this stuff before, from the doodle to dummy phase, I'm normally pretty warmed up and this stage is very quick. Once it's roughly penciled in, I go over it in ink, where, truth to tell, I do a lot of my real drawing—the pencils are just for layouts. I normally am able to draw two full pages a day, and up to four when I'm under a tight deadline.

Secret tip: work bigger than the eventual print size. When you shrink your work down, all your mistakes shrink too, and you end up looking like a better artist than you actually are.


Step 7: Scan

Writing Step Seven
Then I take my big ol' drawing and scan it into my computer. To get briefly technical, First Second (the publisher of Olympians) likes for all of the original black and white artwork to be scanned in at 1200 dpi, which means 1200 dots per inch. That's a lot of dots! It means these are some very big computer files, and that they capture every detail of the page, including dust. I normally spend a little bit of time in Photoshop correcting all my smudges and mistakes at this point. This is also the stage where I add the actual panel borders to the page. If you were to see an original page of Olympians artwork, there are no black panel borders.


Step 8: Word bubbles

Writing Step Eight
I'm happy to report that I've streamlined this step out of my whole process. Remember a second ago when I said there are no panel borders on my original artwork? Well, for all of Zeus: King of the Gods, and the first 15 pages or so of Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess, there are no word bubbles either.

How come? Well, for starters, I thought the original pages looked better without them (not that anyone but myself, my family and friends get to see them that way). Secondly, I liked to have the opportunity to change the script as late as in the process as I could (this despite the fact, at this stage, I may change one or two words, tops). Finally, my publisher likes to not have the words directly on the original art because it makes it easier for the book to be published in another language. Say, for example, that a publisher in France wants to publish Zeus in French. It's much easier for them to put in the French words if they don't have to erase the English from all of my art first. We keep the words on a separate computer file, which is added to the book when we print. Easy!

So now I draw the empty word balloons on the art as I go. It saves a lot of time. It helps me to integrate the balloons into the composition better, and I don't have to waste time drawing things in the background that will just be covered up by balloons anyway. Before, after I drew the whole, entire book, I would have to go back when I was finished, and, on a separate piece of paper, draw in every single word balloon, and where it was supposed to go on the page. It was the most horrible terrible thing ever, and I hated every millisecond of it. I'm so glad I don't do that anymore.

Oh, and I almost forgot! In order to make sure the word balloons were all the right size, I had to hand-letter the entire book in each of those word balloons. Then, because we used computer lettering (to better be able to extract it for foreign language editions), I would erase it all! ARRGH! The torture!!


Step 9: Color

Writing Step nine
Back to the fun stuff! Using the aforementioned Photoshop program, I color in all the black and white artwork for the book. This would take a while, all while sitting in front of a computer, but it's very rewarding to see the whole book come together. Not much to say about this step because it's mostly very technical, and, really, I'm just glad that I don't do Step 8 anymore.


Step 10:

Writing Step nine
The-send-it-all-off-to-the-publisher-and-take-a-two-week-nap phase! This is my favorite!

The wizards at First Second take everything, put it together all nicely, and many moons later I receive a beautiful finished book. I don't have any children, but I imagine this is the closest thing I could feel to being a father. Then many moons after that, the books are available to be purchased at all finer bookstores and comic shops.


And that, my friends, is how you write a god's story.

FIRST SECOND is an imprint of Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan USA.
All images are © copyright by their respective owners.