Janet Lee Carey-Dreamwalks DreamWalks Janet Lee Carey Award-winning author of novels for children and young adults

Dead Max Comix, Book 1: The Deadening

Welcome to the first Creative Conversation for 2020! Find a comfy seat, lean in close, and eavesdrop in on our conversation. Today I’m talking with author/illustrator and comix creator, the indomitable Dana Sullivan Yay! Feel free to shake your tambourines Dreamwalkers!

Some lucky Dreamwalker will win a signed copy of Dana’s Dead Max Comix, Book 1: The Deadening. See the giveaway details at the end of our CC.

Quick synopsis: Derrick’s beloved dog gets creamed by a car, but after cremation he comes back as a ghost to help his boy through middle school. Should Derrick take advice from a dead dog, or will Max lead him astray?

“Dead Max is drop-dead funny!” -Dave Pilkey, best-selling author of Dog Man and Captain Underpants.

Order from Lerner Publishing or order from your local, indie bookstore (they LOVE to order books!)

The Chat

Janet: Hey Dana, I’m in my office fortified with soup and hot tea on this brisk winter day. Where are you?

Dana: I was just walking my dog through the woods and around the cow pasture out here in Port Townsend.

Janet: This wouldn’t be Dead Max, would it?

Dana: no, this is Bennie, who is a PT native. Got him from the Jefferson County Humane Society seven years ago.

Janet: Aw, a new edition! And speaking of new editions, I wanted to celebrate the new year with something entirely new. This is the first Creative Conversation exploring a graphic novel. I’m uber-curious about the process. I think the Dreamwalkers are, too. Can you walk us through it?

Dana: well, who knows if my process is anything like anyone else’s. Just a couple weeks ago at the Inside Story, one presenter with a new book said she really doesn’t know how to write a book. So I asked all the other 20 or so writers/illustrators on the panel if any of THEM knew how to write a book. No hands went up. I think we all have our own methods, however time-consuming and weird they might be. Dead Max started out as about one or two paragraphs in the one NANOWRIMO I did back in 2012. That grew into what I thought could be a heavily illustrated novel, but my agent, who is so sweet, said, “You sound like a middle-aged man trying to sound like a middle-grade boy.” Ouch. But then she said, “How about a graphic novel?” “How do I start?” sez I. “Just start drawing and see what happens,” sez she. So I drew and wrote on the fly until I had 31 pages and she started submitting to publishers.

Janet: Once you started drawing, did that release the story and get you more into the kid’s world?

Dana: Most definitely. Drawing always loosens me up, and it really helped when my hero (the boy) Derrick started drawing his own cartoons. I could be really loose and free and not worry about mistakes, because that’s what he would do. I just remembered how I would doodle when I was his age. I could be as immature as most people say I am anyway. But not worry about it.
Janet: Cool that Derrick helped you out. Sometimes my characters write me letters. They have a LOT to say about the story or plot ideas I’ve overlooked. Once you were working, did the drawings start to take the storytelling lead, or were you still working to match them with the text?

Dana: The doodles got me going, and then the drawings kind of took over. I didn’t really write anything out ahead of time, which really keeps your word count down. I mean, when you’ve drawn a scene and put a border around it, you realize how little space you have for words.

I don’t know how writers do it when they’re not gonna draw the pictures. At first, I would do little thumbnails about where I thought the story was going, but I got tired of that and just started dividing the page into three rows of panels and got to drawing. All in blue pencil.

When I got to 31 pages, my agent had me do a few pages in full color and ink, so an editor would know what the final art would look like. She started submitting and, as is her usual method, just forwarded all the rejections to me, after reminding me to “put my hard shell on.” That went on for TWO YEARS!

Janet: I’ve been there. Other authors reading this have too. Hang in there everyone and let’s hear how Dana’s story turned out.

Dana: I figured that Dead Max was, forgive me, but dead. Then we got an email from Red Chair Press asking what 4 books would look like.

Janet: Huzzah!!!!!! Doing a happy dance.

Dana: There’s nothing so inspiring as an editor wanting something from you, so I sat down and banged out three more synopses in about 20 minutes. I’m not usually that fast, but I was in a panic. This was on the eve of a big fundraiser dance my wife, and some other friends put every summer for the Star of Hope school and orphanage in Kenya (the inspiration for my book Kay Kay’s Alphabet Safari) and my sweet Vicki said, “What? Tell her you’ll get it to her after the dance!” I said, “great idea, be with you in a sec.,” and then I banged it out.

I’m not sure if there’s a difference between inspiration or panic, at least in my experience. I knew the clock was ticking, so I just went with crazier and crazier ideas for each book. I even threw in goldfish that turn into zombie piranhas in the final book. Can’t wait to get to them! Uh… what was the question?

Janet: I forgot. Blown away by the speedy synopses! Maybe I need to go to a dance to shake up my submissions. Did you stick to those original ideas? Inquiring minds want to know.

Dana: When I got an actual contract, I really read my first synopsis and stuck with it to get 33 more pages of sketches and dialogue done. That got approved pretty quickly, and I went to ink! (Actually, there’s no ink, I draw on a tablet in photoshop with a pen that acts and feels like a real brush pen.)

Dana: I have to say upfront that I am a firm believer in speed. When I teach picture book illustration classes, I give my students about a minute to draw a picture. It’s freeing, really! Somebody’s telling you that you have 20 more seconds, so how good can it be? And that’s the point of a first draft – crappy ideas, mistakes that lead to great ideas, getting that genius idea out of your brain and onto paper where you see it’s not so genius, but it’s a START!

Once I was done with book one, I almost immediately had to jump onto book two and I knew I couldn’t spend two years doodling. I needed to figure out how to speed up the process.

I asked some folks I know if they had script samples for graphic novels. I even asked R.L. Stine once at a conference (I bugged him while he and his wife were eating breakfast). He said, “eh, I just sit down and write.” Thanks, RL! I finally just figured out my method, which is to write another, more detailed, synopsis, but start writing dialogue as I go. And just keep going until I’ve told a whole story – or that book’s story. If I crack myself up, I know it’s got promise.

Same with the sketches. I try to move fast fast fast, so I don’t judge myself and keep rolling. I’m gonna have to fix everything at final anyway and the looser I draw, the more emotion and action I get. And sometimes a mistake will really help. I just read Linda Barry in her interview about getting the MacArthur genius award saying that making a mistake on an eyebrow might change that character’s expression – and maybe take the story in a completely unexpected direction. Mistakes are key in my work.

Janet: Ah, the bravery of creative mistakes. Some of my best ideas come from blunders. A few dragon names — like Yint — came from typos. Bravo to letting your ideas get crazier and crazier, speeding past the critical self to the creative self where the real rocket fluid is.

Dana: Max is almost always yelling at me about speeding up with his stories.
I used to hear writers talk about how their characters would talk to them and show them where the story had to go, and I thought, “dude, you need to see somebody about this problem.” But it really happens! Max was my real dog and after he died (old age) I put him in my picture book, Ozzie and the Art Contest. (I had to change the name because David Weisener’s “Art and Max” had just released) I am SO glad I changed his name to Ozzie because he and Dead Max are such different characters! Ozzie is my good, sweet, goofy self and Max is my Mr. Grumpy self. Self-criticism is our nemesis. But striving for perfection is worse. It freezes you up.

I also like to start by clustering, a technique I learned at an SCBWI meeting in 2009 from Terri Farley. You draw a stick figure (thereby not judging how crappy you draw, because it’s just a stick figure), then you draw a circle around that (a circle is a geometric shape, so it satisfies your analytical brain and gets it to shut up) and then you write one word (maybe two) under that circle about the story (writing a word also satisfies your critical brain and makes it shut up) then you draw a straight line to your next stick figure and repeat the process until some kind of story emerges. It’s important to do this in about 20 minutes so that you don’t agonize or revise. Don’t like an idea? Strike a line through it and plow on. Then look at it, move stuff around, revise and you’ve got a start!

Janet: Cool tool! It’s all about throwing the doors wide open and letting the ideas rush through.
So much of what we’ve talked about has to do with how we handle Time while creating. And ways of shutting the door on the critic, which has something to do with combining work and play.

Dana: Yes! I think we’re hesitant to goof around and waste time, but sometimes that’s the best way to get work done. When my students warm up with fast sketches, it’s often some of the best work they do. Me too. In fact, you can ask most illustrators and they’ll tell you that they wish their final art had the same life and spontaneity of their rough sketches. The more fun you have when drawing (or writing) the more it comes through in the final draft or illustration. More play!


Janet: Ha! Hooray to more play! Thanks for swinging by to celebrate book one of Dead Max Comix with us, Dana. I can’t wait to celebrate with you at one of the local bookstores. Will there be treats? Any dog would want to know this.

Dana: Thank YOU, Janet, it was Pawsome! And yes, there will be treats! At my Ozzie launch, I had cookies shaped like dog bones, but everybody thought they were for dogs, so I’ll rethink that. Arf!

Party Down With Dana S for Dead Max Comix
There’s gonna be thrills, chills, cheers, and maybe some tears as you hear the story behind this middle-school graphic novel, learn how to draw Max, eat doggie treats, and just get into the spirit with Dana.

-Thursday, January 16, 7:00 p.m. Brick & Mortar Books!
-Friday, January 17, 7:00 p.m. Secret Garden Books!
-Thursday, January 23, 6:00 p.m. PT School of the Arts! (Grover Gallery)

Dreamwalks Book Giveaway
Win a signed copy of Dead Max Comix Book 1: The Deadening!

How to Enter: To those of you who are new to Rafflecopter, all you need to do is sign in with email (FB doesn’t work well here) or tweet to enter (a tweet helps to spread the word about the book giveaway, but either way is fine). If you’re keen to win, you can sign in or tweet as often as once per day. The tweet is written for you ahead of time. You just need to click. Also, you need to click “I Tweeted” to confirm the entry. (Giveaway is limited to US address or APO address. Participants must be 18 or older.) Good Luck All!

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13 comments on “Dead Max Comix, Book 1: The Deadening

  1. I laughed out loud a few times, reading – mostly at Max’s jokes – but you too, Dana. You have a great attitude and I so enjoyed reading this. Janet, you have such generosity in your support and insights. DreamWalks is one of my favorite spots to eavesdrop.

  2. I love how Dana says nobody knows how to write a book. I’ve written several, and the process is no easier each time. In fact, it may be harder because I now second guess everything.

    1. R.L. Stine seems to know how to write a book, at least that’s the impression I got when I bugged him at breakfast. But I think the rest of us stumble along as we go every damned time.

    1. and thanks to YOU, Tina, for pretty much insisting I join SCBWI and go to my first conference. I miss making puppets in your studio. Bennie says hi to Finn. Okay, Bennie REALLY says, “Grrrrrr” to Finn. Grumpy.

  3. Great fun and informative. Thanks for laying it all out on the table for us. I want to share this with my art students who are afraid of making mistakes. Thanks for yet another excellent creative conversation!

    1. thanks, Margaret! Mistakes are my specialty. To be honest, I’m not ALWAYS thrilled when I make them. But I’ve learned to embrace them. There’s nothing like drawing in front of elementary school kids when one shouts out, “that looks like a rabbit, not a gerbil!” I’ve learned to say, “but that IS a rabbit! And doesn’t it make a better picture?” (okay, I don’t really say that last part because I can’t stand it when they say “no!”

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