Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Mapping

"The dirty secret of comics is that a lot of it involves copy fitting."--Justin Green

Book maps are on my mind these days. They're production tools that publishers, and some authors, use when plotting out how a book will go together. Maybe you could adapt the idea to your own projects.

As with all my process posts, this is only one way to make the sausage. It's not the only or best way; it's just mine.

You'd think the graphic novelist's responsibility would be writing the words, drawing the pictures, and telling the best story they could. But in fact, the form shapes the content (only in print; online, none of these rules apply, which is one of the liberating things about it). Other things the graphic novelist needs to consider:

--Chapters should begin on right (odd-numbered) pages and end on left (even-numbered) pages, which means all chapters have an even number of pages.

--Two-page spreads need to span an even- and odd-numbered pair of pages.

--The number of pages in a book should ideally be divisible by 16, or at least 8, because those are the number of pages in a signature or half-signature (a "signature" being a bundle of sheets of paper used in the book-binding process). Mom's Cancer is 128 pages (16 x 8); Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is 208 pages (16 x 13). The page count of any book you've ever read is some multiple of 4 because that's how they're made.

Mom's Cancer was a publishing production challenge because I created it as a webcomic with no regard for any of this stuff. Different pages are in black-and-white (b&w) or color depending on whether I thought it was right for the story. However, for print, it would have been really nice if the b&w and color portions had broken down neatly into signatures or half-signatures--for example, if the first 8 pages were color, the next 16 were b&w, the following 16 were color, etc. Being able to print a signature in b&w instead of full color drops its printing costs by about three-fourths. That's why, in a lot of books, you'll see a bunch of color illustrations all gathered together in the middle while the rest of the book is b&w. Those color pages are their own signature printed separately from the others. Spreading them throughout the book would have cost a lot more money.

Editor Charlie and I wrestled with recoloring or reorganizing Mom's Cancer to make the signatures work out. We couldn't; my use of color was too scattered and integral to the storytelling. Charlie finally made the tough, expensive call to print the whole book in full color even though most of it was b&w! He could have insisted that Mom's Cancer be entirely b&w and I probably would have agreed, but he was a mensch who did the right thing and that's one of the reasons I love him.

World of Tomorrow was a different challenge. If you've read it, you'll recall that I created fake "old comic books" inserted into the book to show the comics my character Buddy read in different decades. They were printed on different paper stock (the cheapest pulp we could find) than the rest of the book. Three of the inserts were 8 pages and one was 16 pages, and now you know why.

In addition to being half or full signatures themselves, they had to fall between other signatures. That meant that, for example, the first fake comic book had to follow Page 32 (16 x 2). No matter what else was happening in the story, the action had to break on Page 32.

That's hard to keep track of. You'd almost need some sort of  . . . map.

Here's what my book map looked like. In addition to tallying signatures and page counts, I also used it to manage my work flow.

My book map in an Excel spreadsheet. The left column is the signature count, where I kept track of  how many pages were in each half- or full-signature. The colored bars indicate chapters: blue is the front matter, orange/tan is Chapter 1, yellow is the first fake comic book insert (note that it follows Page 32, after which I restarted my signature count), followed by the remainder of Chapter 1 then the beginning of Chapter 2 in gray. Other columns provided a brief description to remind me what's on the page and check boxes to track my progress on each page. The final four columns tell me which pages I assigned to my Photoshop coloring assistants.

At the same time, unknown to me, Editor Charlie had made his own book map. It's laid out differently to give him information he needs, and it's interesting to compare and contrast.

Charlie's book map, also in Excel. The gray pages are front matter, followed by Chapter 1 in yellow, the comic book insert in orange, and Chapter 2 in blue. Again, notice that the orange insert falls after Page 32. One nice feature of Charlie's map is it clearly shows Chapters 1 and 2 beginning on right-hand pages (pp. 7 and 47). Charlie also called out the front and back covers of the fake comic book (pp. 31, 32, 41, 42) but, in fact, they were printed on the same paper as the signatures before and after the inserts so no special attention was required. 

I think book maps are particularly useful for graphic novelists because each page is a discrete unit that has to fit with all the others. In a regular text novel, a writer or editor can add or subtract words, paragraphs or even chapters without doing much damage; in a graphic novel, adding or deleting one page tips over a chain of dominoes that clatters through the entire book.

Book maps are on my mind because I'm making a new one for a new book I'm not talking about until contracts are signed. If all goes as planned, it'll be full color throughout (so that won't be a problem) and will also have a few "special features" that'll need to go between signatures. With a first draft almost done, it's time to see how it fits into the mold while it's still flexible enough to reshape.

. . .

Cartoonist Justin Green delivered the quip at the top of this post during his lecture at the 2015 Comics & Medicine Conference in Riverside, Calif. I think I was the only person in the audience who guffawed because I found it very funny and true.

Readers think writers and artists draw their words and images from the deepest wells of artistic self-expression. Well . . . ideally. But, at least in comics, more often than you'd think, I replace one word with another just because I'm out of space and it's shorter. I'll add or delete panels so the next chapter begins on an odd-numbered page. I'll tear up a story and reorganize it to put a signature break where I need it. Sometimes all you're trying to do is make the copy fit.

There's a nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship to publishing that I imagine some creators find frustrating but I really enjoy. It's like haiku: do whatever you want as long as it fits the structure. I like the constraints, especially the part where if you handle them right the reader never realizes they were there.


Sharon Rosenzweig said...

This is so helpful. Our book, The Comic Torah, was made as a Web comic and it took a year to turn it into a book. Now I'm working on a big amorphous thing, feeling lost about structure, so this comes as a timely piece of advice. Really appreciate your sharing insider insight here. Thank you!

Brian Fies said...

Thanks a lot, Sharon! Hope it helps. Just find what works for you and forget the rest.

Brubaker said...

I'm trying to get into graphic novels, so this is very interesting to know. Thanks for posting!

Hank Gillette said...

Very interesting, Brian. Reminds of the constraints that movie-makers had under the Hays Code. While it was restricting, in some cases I think it led to a better product, because they had to imply adult situations rather than simply show them.

Good luck with your new project. I’ve enjoyed all of your work that I’ve seen so far.

Dave said...

You've just provided more information about books than I've gained in a lifetime of reading them. Who knew there was this whole world about how they are structured hidden in plain sight right in front of my eyes?

(I guess you did, for one.)

Brian Fies said...

Thanks again. Glad it's an interesting post!