How to Build a Career in Graphic Novels and Not Kill Yourself Doing It.

Once upon a time, I was young(er), bright-eyed, and twenty-three. I also happened to have my first graphic novel to finish, and less than a year in which to do it. So I pulled my hair back, glued my butt to my chair, and declared, “THOU SHALL NOT SLEEP!” And I worked. I worked 16 hours a day…7 days a week…for 9 months straight*. I didn’t take weekends. I didn’t take holidays. I was in a relationship, but I didn’t go on dates. I slept (sort of), I showered (always), I ate (most of the time). And at the end of those nine months, I somehow managed to give birth to a 180 page YA graphic novel. PHEW!

Then I did it again. TWICE. And yes, it just about murdered me. But the worst part wasn’t actually the carpal tunnel, the eye injuries, or my first gray hairs. The worst part was that because I drastically and consistently overextended myself, I gave up on making comics as a living for 15 years.

Permanent burnout is a tragedy of this industry. I have lost count of the number of friends I’ve known who were masterful at their craft, wonderful artists and storytellers, but had to switch careers because the deadlines simply weren’t humanly sustainable: their health was shot–both physical and mental–and they were frankly…dirt poor. In this industry, if you can’t produce pages fast enough, you can’t make enough to live off of. It’s simple economics.

Yet, twenty years later, I’m working on not one but TWO graphic novels simultaneously. I keep a 35 to 50-hour work week (this flexes around deadlines). I have a kid (whom I spend plenty of time with). I have a house (and the energy to fix it). I also teach comics-making classes via the Kids Comics Intensive program I run with my agent, Janna Morishima. I have somehow found a career in this industry that is sustainable

So how do you do all this, taming this mythical unicorn-beast called work-life balance while building a career in an industry notorious for its unceasing train of burnout after burnout? As somebody who’s had nearly twenty years to figure this out (and yes, failed many many times at it), I want to offer up a few gems of wisdom for getting that graphic novel made without dying for it or giving up:

29 Tips for Career Graphic Novel Creators to Help Stay Happy and Avoid Burnout

1. Comics must be your Destiny.

Making comics is grueling, back-breaking work. Every graphic novel is a bit like making a movie, but you’re the writer, director, cast, costumer, makeup artist, location specialist, set designer, lighting person, camera guy, and post production editing studio all in one. You do it ALL. And doing that amount of work as an all-in-one-wo/man job takes an INCREDIBLE amount of love, passion, and dedication to keep the fire going for years on end.

There is simply too much struggle, too little pay (and too much no pay), and far far too many quiet lonely unappreciated hours of work to be making comics if the passion doesn’t burn a hole through your heart straight out the other side. To keep that passion going, you must be married to it. It is your other spouse, your other child. And it is your love for it that will drag you through the rough times into the better times without giving up on it.

2. Create a rotation schedule for Family, Friends, Fitness, and Getting Enough Sleep.

While deadlines must be your number one daily priority, you do still need to regularly set aside time for all the other things in life.

Unfortunately, it’s physically impossible to get everything done that you’d like to get done, every day, especially when you have the kind of demanding work schedule that creating graphic novels entails. I often only have a few hours of non-work time in my day to focus on other things. Trying to shove it all into those few hours is a one-way fast-track ticket to burnout.

So, instead of trying to “do it all” every day, try this instead: 

1) Start with work as your number 1 priority every day. Unless somebody is sick or dying or needs help NOW, then this should take up the majority of your day.

2) Now pick two things: Family? Friends? Fitness? or Getting enough Sleep? Which of these is most important to you today? What can you do tomorrow? This weekend? And remember that the need for a good-night’s sleep to function well the next day varies person-to-person, year-to-year. For some of us, getting to bed by a certain time (which cuts useable hours out of your day for other things) is a requirement rather than an option. If you’re that type, then pick sleep plus one.

3) Rotate your two things (or one thing) so that you are doing them all in a week, but not everything in one day. It’s okay to spend less time with family today if you had quality time with them yesterday but you really need to get in a good workout so you can feel better about yourself and stay healthy. Then make sure to continue to rotate, rotate, rotate. You can’t do it all at once. But you can do all of it a day at a time over time.

Putting your life outside your work on rotation ensures that you always hitting each thing regularly while giving you much needed time (both physical and mental) away from your work. You need to rest your eyes, your hands, your neck and back, and your brain as well. Deliberately setting aside time for non-work is crucial to evading burnout.

3. If you feel like you need more time to produce your graphic novel  (and do it well, so that it isn’t rushed and actually sells), then be fearless in asking for that time.

It never ceases to amaze me how may people know that the deadline they’ve been given by the publisher is far too short for their needs and yet are afraid to ask for more. There are even more people (like myself at 23) who simply don’t know what is a sustainable pace vs what isn’t. Impossible deadlines happen most often with a creative’s first major project, and is the NUMBER ONE reason for burnout. A deadline that doesn’t leave room for anything but breathing simply isn’t sustainable in the long-term.

And let’s be honest…there are a LOT of publishers who are still new to this whole graphic novel thing, and many of them have a very narrow idea of how long it realistically should take to make a graphic novel. Somebody who completed a 250-page graphic novel in a year then burnt out and vowed to never made another one again SHOULD NOT be the gold standard for publishers and creatives when setting deadlines. A more realistic standard should be the pace set by those who’ve been here a while and know what it takes to keep it the candle burning. This kind of very niche skilled labor is really quite hard to find! It’s in the publisher’s interest to keep that kind of skill around for many years to come instead of using it and losing it. Some publishers really just don’t know better because we don’t tell them. So we must tell them.

However, if you need more time, you should ask for it at the beginning, when you’re negotiating the project, instead of at the end, when you’re running on fumes. It’s easy to get an extra year at the front, but harder to get an few months at the end. Too many people immediately agree to the initial suggested deadline in their contracts. So, if you get a sick feeling in your stomach when you see that deadline date, CHANGE IT. Now.

My personal recommendation? If they give you a year, ask for two. If they give you two, ask for three. It will pretty much always take twice as long as you think. And if the contract takes a year to negotiate (it happens), ask for another year then too! It NEVER hurts to ask.

4. Schedule in the need to make supplemental income.

This is one of the dirty realities of working in most creative fields. Most creative jobs simply don’t pay enough often enough to take care of the all the bills. So the majority of us turn to other means to make the rest of our ends meet.

But you shouldn’t work just any job, or even the highest paying job! Ask yourself this essential question first: “What’s the BEST kind of job for my personality that I could do ALONGSIDE my graphic novel work that won’t burn me out?” 

Some people find their “second career” is within the industry: hiring themselves out as a flatter or colorist or letterer or even running the convention circle selling prints and merchandise or running a Patreon. Others find it’s elsewhere entirely, though: a massage therapist or a part time administrative assistant or a professional gamer who only gears up during tournament time. For me, it’s teaching! But I DON’T teach year round. I can’t teach and create at the some time, so I block out a few months for almost exclusively teaching (though I’ll typically save inking and lettering or coloring work for this time too) and work on the more difficult parts of my books (like storyboarding and penciling) the rest of the year.

So what supplemental career is right for you? You may have to explore quite a bit in order to figure this one out!

5. Wait to start on your book until AFTER the contract has been signed.

I know some people might disagree with me here, but that book isn’t real to a publisher until that contract is signed, so unless you’re working with an editor you’ve worked with previously or beginning the next in a series, you’re gonna be waiting a while for feedback until it is! Because why would an editor start working on something that could potentially fall through at the last minute? It happens. Editors don’t want to waste their time either. So why should you waste yours writing and storyboarding when you may end up having to redo it all later (oh yes, I’ve seen it happen)?

So what do you do while your contract is being negotiated? Some ideas: Make the pitch for your next project. Write. Create. Make money and save. But whatever you do, don’t work for free on what might end up being 100% wasted effort. I had to redraw the entire first half of a book because of this. Trust me. It’s not worth getting what you think is a head-start on what ends up becoming a dead-end unless you are absolutely 100% sure and have the go-ahead from your editor to get going.

6. Be patient and expect to wait.

Waiting is part of publishing. But especially of graphic novels!

Graphic novels are produced in stages: script, storyboards, pencils, inks, colors, letters. And every time you submit a stage for changes or approval, there is waiting. It can literally sometimes months to hear back from your editor. They are busy people and more often than not, overworked. It’s okay to send them reminders and updates, but be prepared…to do a lot of waiting.

7. While you’re waiting, create! (or make money)

You always need to be thinking about your next project, developing your skills, building information for your social media posts or newsletters, etc. It’s important to be productive during these waiting periods because you just won’t have the time to later. 

But you can also spend that time, working and saving, to shore up against the fact that most graphic novelists just don’t make that much. For me, personally, I deliberately schedule major deadline milestones (when I know I’ll probably have at least month’s worth of waiting for feedback) right around the times I start teaching. That “waiting” is now spent in productivity. But before I became a teacher, I worked temp jobs and short freelance gigs. Temp work is a godsend to creatives who must put up with a lot of waiting but need to make more money. You work a few days, weeks, or months, and then you’re done. 

But if it’s not a job, make sure you’re doing SOMETHING that will help keep you ahead later!

8. Prioritize. Then complement.

If you are working on multiple projects, you need to be focusing on what’s most important RIGHT NOW. It actually amazes me how many people don’t do this, who get distracted by other big, continuous, often highly-challenging projects like participating in Inktober or NaNoWriMo when their editors are literally knocking on their door. I know it’s tempting to pursue something new because you’re eyes are burned holes in your head from staring at the same pages for two years. And sometimes, we actually need to take those kinds of major creative breaks, but in the middle of a major project while you have the momentum IS NOT IT. 

But this is why we complement. Working too much on the same thing for too long is part of what leads to burnout. So I recommend having something that you can be creative on but that complements your project, rather than competes with it. This can be something like developing your style (line, color, layouts, etc), starting a newsletter (if you enjoy writing, it can be nice to take a writing break from all the art!), or documenting via comic all the foods you’re enjoying while making this book. What’s essential however, is that it isn’t a single big project, that it doesn’t require a big deadline (little short deadlines are okay), and that you ENJOY IT.

Now, you work on the complementary projects ONLY when you feel yourself stalling or starting to burn out. You may feel a little guilty not doing those last inked few pages you were shooting for this week, but you WILL feel better about yourself when you’ve energized your creative energy by finally trying out that new brush pack you’ve wanted to experiment with to get the coloring look for your comic!

You can be productive on the same project, but in different ways. It doesn’t always have to be on the same thing every day, all the time. Mix it up!

9. Try not to set daily page milestones. Instead, aim for weekly or even monthly milestones.

There’s a reason for this: some pages are easier than others and some take WAY longer. There will be days you get five pages done, then a week when you only get one page done. That is the natural order of making a graphic novel! It is a constant game of leapfrog where you are falling behind then leaping forward. But if you try to hit a daily page goal, you will do nothing but disappoint. Weekly and monthly page goals are FAR more realistic and achievable!

10. Don’t hold yourself to impossible standards.

There are the Dan Santats, LeUyen Phams, and Takeshi Obata’s in the world…and then there are the rest of us. Some people are fast. Some people are slow. Most people are somewhere in-between. Once you find your ideal speed…EMBRACE IT. Forcing yourself to be a Speed Queen when you just aren’t is a one-way-ticket to permanent burnout. Yes, you can get fastER (especially as you gain both experience and confidence in your work!), but if you are the kind of person who needs to spend a lot of time deliberating or if your quality drastically suffers as soon as you start to aim for speed, then accept this and move on. This is simply who you are and there ain’t nothing out there that can change it. Trust me. I’ve definitely tried. You’re either fast…or you’re not. And if there’s room…aim for something practical in-between!

11. Consider inking your characters first and saving backgrounds for last.

Sure, it may not be as satisfying going through your book like a line-item factory worker, because seeing finished pages makes GREAT social media fodder…but backgrounds are actually the one area that if you are rushing on a deadline, you can skimp a bit and be okay. They are still important, but readers look at characters first, especially faces and body language, so it’s those you want to get right FIRST. What you don’t want is to rush finishing your entire last chapter and seeing the quality of the whole chapter slip because you ran out of time. But if you simplified a few backgrounds because you ran out of time, it won’t be as noticed…if at all.

12. You can sacrifice art quality (to an extent) for the sake of speed, but if you want your books to sell, you CANNOT sacrifice story quality.

This does, to some extent, address the speed question. If you’re getting hung up on the speed of your work because you feel like every panel must be an exquisite work of stippled art…you may want to step back and consider: Is this REALLY the only way you know of telling this story? COULD you pick a style that’s a bit faster and easier or simpler to create the same story? OR are you using beautiful art as a crutch to prop up a weak story?

Many many graphic novel author/illustrators start out as artists and become writers. Far fewer start out as writers and become artists. Yet, it is the graphic novels that have amazing STORIES that sell and sell and sell and sell and sell some more.

Your objective shouldn’t be making breathtaking art. Your objective should be a phenomenal story where the art adds instead of subtracts from the story. There are tons of beautiful books out there with no story. They don’t sell well. But there are also tons of books out there with okay art that sell like hotcakes because the story really hit a spot with readers. Just…sit with this. And think on it. Especially if you are an author/illustrator and you spend more time thinking about art than writing. It may be time to start thinking about your writing more!

Find balance in both your writing and your art if you want to make this a long-term career.

13. Weekends are not workdays.

If you need to use a weekend to catchup every now and then, that’s fine, because the necessity of nearing deadlines sometimes calls for it. But weekends should otherwise be sacred ground for resting your body and your mind. When figuring out your ideal schedule, leave weekends OUT. Then, when you fall desperately behind, they can become a springboard for the occasional catch-up instead of yet another list of things to-do.

14. Schedule in sick time. Vacation time. School emergency time. And yes…period recovery time (if you need it).

Because I have a kiddo, pretty much every month, there’s about a week’s worth of time dedicated to all the miscellaneous minutiae of being a parent and a grown adult with too many responsibilities. And heck, it adds up! And yes, I DO take a day off every month to wrap myself in a warm blanket with a heating pad behind me, drink hot cocoa, and read manga. Don’t fight it. If your body is telling you to take a day off, listen, because when you do, tomorrow, you’ll then feel the energy to do double what you might have done today. Also, because you now have weekends, you can always makeup then. 😀

15. Gatekeep your work time.

All that being said, many of us work from home, and at home, there is laundry to be done, a sink to be emptied, a bathroom to be cleaned…etc. IGNORE IT. Your work time is absolutely precious. You wouldn’t do your kids’ dishes while working away at an office. So why should you do them while in your home working on your project? Don’t let time-consuming chores that aren’t work-related interfere with your work time. Unless somebody is sick or dying (or it’s an emergency), nonwork work can wait for a more appropriate time and place.

16. Find a second workplace away from home.

Find a second workplace is especially crucial if you are the primary caretaker of a young child. Or if you have roommates (or parents). Sometimes, you just gotta damn well get away from the ruckus of home life. There are times, many times, having a home office just isn’t enough. Other times, it’s just nice to have a change of pace in an environment that isn’t inherently distracting.

So find a coffee shop. Rent a studio. Work at the library. There are MANY ways to get out of the house. It helps if you have a bag with all your gear for portability always at the ready too. The less time spent thinking about what to pack and unpack the better. There’s nothing worse than arriving at the coffee shop, all ready to work, and realizing you left your pencil bag or stylus at home!

17. If you work from home but don’t have an office, try setting up a workspace area that is clearly divided from your play and relaxation spaces.

This sort of mental partitioning of your work and personal life is, I feel, ESSENTIAL for good mental health. Going to bed at night while your work desk, littered with inking and drawing paraphernalia, stares you in the face, guiltily taunting you for not working is NOT a healthy lifestyle. You need breaks from your work in order to approach it fresh every day, and visually separating your work space from your R&R space creates a visual barrier that helps with this. Especially for us. Visual artists, you know? 

So, consider putting up a curtain. Ikea makes some excellent, inexpensive, sturdy bookshelves as well, just fix some lightweight boards to the back (and if this is in a noisy living room with roommates, you may even consider some sound insulation!) and paint them, and you practically have a new room!

18. If you have to live cheap, it’s better to have roommates than move back in with your parents.

Because you will never learn how to earn a living if you don’t learn how to pay rent! You want to do this your whole life? Then you need to struggle a bit. The bonus side of that? It really does make it easier to ask for more money come contract-negotiation time. There’s nothing like desperation and wanting to keep a roof over your head to make it easier to ask for enough from a publisher in order to keep it there! Sometimes you gotta starve a little in order to learn how to keep yourself fed!

19. Momentum is your friend.

This can be exceptionally difficult if you are working on a graphic novel for several years and keep having to stop and take on supplemental work to keep your income at a livable level. This is why making comics needs to be your unwavering number 1 priority. And yes, I know you just won that glorious 2-month vacation to Paris via lottery, but really…can’t it wait as a celebration for when the book is finished? Big pauses in workflow will kill that momentum you’ve got dead in its tracks, and swiftly change what was a page-a-day routine into something more like a page-every-two-weeks.

The speed tends to pick up the fewer interruptions you have! So keep it going as long as you can!

20. But don’t forget regular breaks.

Honestly, this is probably the only thing I don’t personally suffer from because I am the ADHD Empress (my problem is staying in one spot for more than fifteen minutes), but there are plenty of people out there who work four, five, ten hours straight without taking a single break. And I don’t mean “break” by eating soup at your desk while you’re working; you need to rest your eyes and look at something other than a screen. You need to get up and stretch. You need to break the sitting monotony and MOVE. Heck, do some jumping jacks and get your heart rate up! (yes. yes I do this.)

Giving your body regular breaks is not only healthy for your body, it’s also healthy for your longevity as an artist. Wrist injuries, neck and back pain or a hallmark of this career…but they don’t have to be. Take REGULAR short but needed breaks.

21. NEVER EVER EVER “work through the pain.”

If you try to work through the first twinges of what feels like a wrist injury and keep going even when you’re screaming in pain, you will cripple yourself, and for some people, end up with a permanent, lifelong injury! 

I put myself out of commission for two months doing this once, and all I did was work with excruciating pain in my wrist for about a week, pushing to meet a deadline. I couldn’t use my working hand for two months after that!

What I should have done instead was called my editor and asked for a week’s extension, then immediately stopped and let my wrist heal until the pain was entirely gone (ibuprofen and hot and cold compresses are an artist’s friends!). I would have been late on my deadline by a week (which is typically not a huge deal, btw!) but at least I wouldn’t have had to wait two months before getting started on the next paying project!

It does not pay to work through pain. In the long run, it only sets you back further. So don’t do it.

22. Don’t forget to think about your next project and to be working on it (the manuscript, the characters, a pitch packet etc) during any down time you might have.

Ideally, you want to have an offer on your next book BEFORE you are done with your current one. If you wait until your current book is done, it could be several years before your next one even gets started! So keep on, keep on, creating for that next book (or several!)

This is, incidentally, how I managed to come to be working on two books at once, both at different stages of their process, as well as having multiple manuscripts ready to go for my next books. Being prepared for the next book will keep you not only ahead of the game, but also give you an easier time towards getting paid!

23. Document your process as you go.

You may not have time to make a bunch of blog, newsletter, or instagram posts right now, but when you’re done with your book and want to start getting the word out there, it’ll help if you have something on-hand to share, giving readers insight into your book-making process.

Documenting your work as you go, however, should be relatively quick, otherwise it risks becoming yet another distraction from your work. Snap some phone shots of what’s on your desk (but don’t get sucked into editing them yet!). Take screenshots every now and then as you are mid-page inking. Keep a text file somewhere to write about your excitement or your thoughts at that point in the creation process. Then tuck it away in a folder labeled “marketing” and forget about it until you have time to actually do something with it.

24. Learn when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”

At some point, after you get your first book deal, then deals, people’s heads start to perk up. They ask you to do things. Many more of them offer to pay you to do those things, things like speaking engagements, events, more freelance gigs etc. But…you can’t say YES to everything! Money is important. It’s GREAT to have work! But there is a point where you need to occasionally press on the brakes and say “I’m sorry. But I’m in the middle of a project / on deadline / have family issues I’m currently dealing with, and I just can’t take on any more projects/assignments/workshops/etc right now.”

Learning the art of saying “no” (when you are financially free to do so) is a lifelong skill that helps you to preserve the time you need to rest so that your primary work (ie: your graphic novels) don’t suffer in quality or content just because you lost a month getting ready for that workshop in Nebraska that you knew, deep down in your gut, that you didn’t have the time for.

Weigh the benefits of saying yes. Then weigh the benefits of saying no. And let your instincts drive your answers!

25. Don’t let social media overwhelm you.

There is a LOT of pressure to do everything, everywhere, all at once. And just like learning to say no to new assignments that you don’t have the time to take on, you must also learn to say no to trying to juggle all the Things that come with being on social media. Yes, you need to promote your books! ABSOLUTELY. Having been a publisher who published other people’s books, I’ve never yet seen an author who succeeded without at least making SOME effort on their part to get their books and their brand out there.

But you do NOT need to be on every single social media platform in the known Universe. Pick one or two, especially ones that you feel comfortable on. If Twitter or Mastadon makes your stomach drop through the bottom of your socks while Instagram or Pillowfort makes you smile, then it’s obvious which is the right choice for you. Don’t force yourself onto platforms you aren’t comfortable on. There are SO MANY options out there for outreach to current and future potential fans, including your own hosted blogs and newsletter (yes, both are making a comeback, and the former already HAS). 

Pick your poison if you must, but pick the poison you know you can live with rather than the one that makes you dread using it. 

26. If what used to be your creative hobby is now your career, then start looking for a new creative hobby.

Getting paid to do the thing you love is a transformative experience, but too much of a good thing is often just too much. While it’s important as artists that we stay creatively fresh and seek new inspiration and motivation so that we don’t become creatively stale, sometimes we need to branch out to other creative areas so that we aren’t over-exercising the creative muscles that we use for our work. 

So pick up an instrument. Take a tiny homebuilding class. Subscribe to a woodworking magazine. Explore new cooking recipes. Find something that inspires your creativity but something that you don’t also rely on to pay the bills. Getting paid to do what we love very often transforms our relationship to it, the same way marrying the love of your life and raising children with them alters the nature of that relationship; it’s not better or worse, just…different. 

It is super important to find something that sparks joy without the burden of your financial expectations tied up in it.

27. If the project is long, then make sure you don’t just like it…make sure that you LOVE it.

Graphic novels are notoriously lengthy projects. You could spend YEARS working on one. So make sure that when you go to sign that contract, that you look within and ask yourself, “Can I still love this project even when I’m mad at it?” It’s pretty much the same question you should ask getting married to somebody…”Will I still love this person even when I’m mad at them?” A graphic novel is a long term relationship. You can’t fall out of love halfway through and expect to keep up the long grueling hours of work without wanting to abandon ship. There are financial consequences as well for quitting halfway-through a GN contract. I know more than a few people still paying back advances for books they never finished.

Graphic novels are a long term commitment. So treat them as such. Tread not lightly in this domain.

28. Set aside time for creative challenges.

If you want to still be making graphic novels well into your 80s (or at least your 40s, 50s, 60s), then that means you need to not stagnate, to stay fresh, to keep inspired, to always be exploring and pushing yourself to try new and interesting things. LOTS of creatives get stuck in one voice, one method their whole lives. But we are a product of our times, and those times are always changing. There’s new technologies. Storytelling styles change. Visual art styles change. Reader expectations evolve so we must always be evolving our own tastes and expectations as well.

So keep on trying out new tools, methods, and styles! Not only will it keep your approach from stagnating, it will also keep you motivated and inspired and less prone to burn out because your creativity feels stifled with an overly familiar routine.

29. And last, but not least…KNOW THYSELF.

This is a deliberately obtuse statement because there are things you can do to make yourself better at your creative job and to prevent burnout that will never fit on this list. Some people might need nonstop headbanger music blaring 24/7 in order to get things done. Others may need to dig in the garden at noon, sharp before returning to an evening round of furious typing. Others may need to perform a ritual dance to draw on the spirit energy of their inner being before unleashing their storyboarding beast. You get the picture.

What’s important is that you EXPLORE. Try something different every now and then (but not everyday or it risks becoming procrastination). Then, if that something different isn’t working out for you, ditch it, no hesitation, no regrets. I personally find schedule books a massive time suck (and waste) but for others, they are essential to getting just about anything done. I rely on my phone to remind me of important meetings, dates, and times, while others would rather keep it in their head. I NEED a bright window and trees and a desk to open up creatively. Others prefer a dark room, dim lights, and a couch. Winter is my most productive time of year. Others fall into a morass as soon as the first leaves fall. We are all different.

The hardest part about scheduling and distributing the workload for your first graphic novel, however, is that if you’ve never made one before, then you probably have no idea what works best for you. Your first book at least is inevitably going to be mostly experiment and a whole lot of thoughtful guesswork. So…get to know thyself! 

And be honest. Feel no shame if something you tried just didn’t work out. SOMETHING will work for you as long as you keep experimenting and trying. 

*that’s 4032 hours btw. The average american worker works apx 1791 hours a year. At the end of it all, I made about $2.98 an hour, which doesn’t included all the “free” time spent creating, pitching, and promoting it. My current work pays more in the $8-$25 per hour range (depending on the project) and I work closer to 2400 hours a year. I made $38 per hour as a skilled admin working part-time.

Want to learn more about making kids graphic novels? Check out our upcoming Kids Comics Intensive!

Rivkah Lafille

Rivkah LaFille (pronounced “lah-fee”) is a children’s writer, illustrator, and graphic novelist who specializes in slice-of-life type stories with HEART. Currently, she is working on a graphic novel about creative writing with First Second and a YA literary GN with Candlewick. She teaches the art of writing and illustrating children’s comics at Kids Comics Unite and is an active member of the SCBWI.

Tikea (my desk Turtle) reminds me every day to take the long view rather than the short. As career creators, our interest isn’t in the short term sprint but rather the cross-country marathon. Learn how to pace yourself, and you’ll have an easier time sustaining a creative career across decades rather than years and avoid permanent burnout.

4 thoughts on “How to Build a Career in Graphic Novels and Not Kill Yourself Doing It.

  1. Thank you for the reinforcements of what I’m experiencing. I feel most of this relates to some extent to any art career, and I wish I’d had more understanding of this when I was in art school straight out of HS originally… and again at 23…. and again when trying to submit pre-internet and raising a kid alone.

    Even though I am now retired and living on my own, in place of kids or a paid job interfering with time, it’s balancing trips to the chiropractor, massage therapist and GP-PA to deal with physical challenges – and all the more reason to now respect break times, sleep needs, and changing body rhythms that alter my schedule from plan to reality. Reading that I am doing the right thing by running my weekly zoom dance to clear the cobwebs, release stress, improve my body and revive my focus is appreciated. It’s not because I don’t already know this. It just is easy to get lonely and fall into imposter syndrome when I’m dedicating my heart and mind and spirit energy to this project while at home isolated. I appreciate mentioning the potential still exists to publish after 60… while knowing this may not happen … also facing it will definitely never happen if I stop.

    What you wrote about the downfalls of a contracted book that didn’t get finished… I feel is a really good reason to keep at my own experimenting stage and personal timeline till I feel confident in my skills producing this particular project, since it’s my first GN – even though I may invest longer than norm to develop a project that might need changing later.

    I’ve observed those artists/ writers around me who are achieving their goals – both early and late – decided to believe in themselves and move at their own pace – fast or slow. This also was great to read here. I am fast at certain parts – coming up with characters, sketching scenes, basic page layouts. And slow with other parts – correcting layouts where unusual angles or depth need pushing. Certain tech knowledge, learning new programs… I have no idea how difficult color / other consistency will take me, just thinking in terms of this sort of like 20 picture books – but without that much real time to do. Keeping my focus on one chapter at a time as much as possible, with experimenting on background and assets in breaks – pushing myself to think in designing less as the completed picture, taking it apart, and more in assets and layers. My brain understands it, but it fights with my training and habits of decades in painting finishes on boards.

    Have saved this page as a reminder to look back upon when I get down in myself.

  2. What a great list! I’ve bookmarked it so I can go back to it. I want to reinforce (well, everything you said, but you already said it so I won’t) that for people who have more than one pull on their time (i.e. everyone) there is NOTHING more important than having a dedicated space that is set up so that you can sit down and get to work. I am lucky enough to be at a point in life where I have areas in my studio (which is at home & bigger than my living space) that are set up for each of the different creative pursuits I regularly do. I met an artist years ago, who lived in a small house with his family. He had taken over a closet, and fitted it out with shelves, drawers and a drawing table. He sat outside the closet, and there was a space under the table to tuck his stool/chair under and close the closet door when he wasn’t working. It’s not as good as a room you can shut everyone else out of, but it’s better than having to find your stuff and set up and clean up each time.

  3. Thank you for writing this! I burned out from my 1st GN – not so much from the work but from the combo of art work, day job (I should have cut back my hours), & neglecting my friendships/physical health during the “lockdown” phase of the pandemic, etc. Finally getting back into my groove & excited to pitch the next GN WIP!

    1. Finding that right balance between GN work, pay-the-rest-of-the-bills work, and personal life is like making angel food cake: if the balance of your recipe is even a little off, you end up with a flat gross mess! Here’s to hoping you find that better balance with your next book Marla!! I’m so happy to hear you’re ready to dive in again!!!!!! ❤️

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