Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Cutting a novel to make way for graphic illustrations is hard work, but ultimately very rewarding, says Zella Compton author of The Ten Rules of Skimming.

When I wrote The Ten Rules of Skimming I had no idea that it would turn out to be half book, half graphic novel. Why would I? I wrote it for young adults, and it’s not often that you see books with multiple illustrations in that genre (although many of the covers are truly awesome).

But my publisher gave me a choice. He would either print it as a straight novel, or with sequential illustrations on pretty much every page, it was up to me. It took me a few days to decide. The first draft was around 70,000 words, and the publisher told me if I went to an illustrated format I’d have to chop at least 30,000 of them. That was daunting.

But then I saw some pitch artwork from one of the potential artists, Jess Swainson. She’d drawn two scenes from the book– and they blew my mind. The scenes she’d chosen were so cool. The first was when Adam, the protagonist, is being questioned about how he found his sister’s – and other girls – bodies. The second depicted some of the side-effects of skimming through people’s minds . . . and I loved both drawings. It was like seeing a movie trailer for your favourite book and knowing that the film will do it justice. The excitement swelled in my belly, I couldn’t believe she’d got my characters so spot on. The decision was made.

Jess and I met for lunch, and I looked over her character roughs. She asked me lots of detailed questions which I’d never thought about. It was really simple stuff like what kind of clothes does Adam wear, and does Jenny-Ray (the female lead) tie her hair back? It made me realise that I am quite sparse in my descriptions, my default position is to leave readers to fill in the blanks. I had to think long and hard about it; thankfully Jess gave jenny-Ray much better dress sense that I ever had.

The next task was to get rid of the 30,000 extra words (I had used three adjectives where one would do, so that wasn’t too hard) and start planning out the images. My publisher wanted me to aim for one on every page, which meant cutting more and more text. For example, where I would have used a couple of pages to describe the horror of being chased through minds, Jess drew it in half the space.

I had to be very careful about the images I chose to use. The book is gritty. Physical violence between adults and children, bodies in conservatories and murder. It was a balancing act to work out what is best left to a reader’s imagination (younger siblings do pick up books!), and what to literally show.

When these broad decisions were taken, I had to think about speech bubbles. Condensing dialogue into three or four words was the hardest part of the process. I have so much respect for comic book creators now!

As the editing process moved on, the publisher sent Jess final versions of chapters, with broad instructions for what the images should be and the speech bubbles. I ‘signed off’ roughs before she drew the finals. Jess is a genius drawer; it’s fair to say that my favourite part of being an author (so far) was watching the pictures come in and seeing my story from someone else’s eyes.

Jess drew over 130 images; so based on the old adage that a picture’s worth 1,000 words, I would have had to cut nearly double the length of the first draft. In The Ten Rules of Skimming each picture is actually worth about 300 words, and I am delighted with the end result: a taut thriller which leaps off the page.

The Ten Rules of Skimming by Zella Compton and Jess Swainson is available to order from all good bookshops, from (free postage), from Amazon, Sainsburys (online) and WH Smith (online).

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