I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.
This month I’ll be discussing hybrid novels, my unofficial (and probably incorrect) label for books that combine prose and graphic novels. (Incidentally, if you know the industry term for these books, please let me know!)
Note: I’m cheating a little on two fronts this month. First, our reader’s advisory book club is taking a hiatus this month due to the added craziness of Summer Reading. We’re going to discuss literary fiction next month, so I chose my own genre this time. Second, in studying hybrid novels, I’m technically looking at a unique format, not a specific genre. But I think there’s still a lot that writers can learn from these books, whether we’re writing hybrid novels or sticking solely with print. So, without further ado, here are my top takeaways from this format.
1. Characters’ interests can help tell their stories. If you’re looking for a way to weave in backstory without it feeling clunky, turn to your characters’ hobbies. Musicians can write a song about a messy break-up, painters can cover a canvas with scenes from a car crash, and graphic artists can create comics with stories that reflect their own past. This last one is done beautifully in both the books I read, with the mysterious backstory depicted in comics between sections of prose. If you want to experiment with multiple formats, see if your characters’ interests could provide an opportunity to add illustrations, music, or even online multimedia. (I know that’s not always feasible, but for inspiration, check out what Heather Demetrios is doing with The Lexie Project.)
2. Stories within stories can add layers to your world, whether your book takes place in the real world or on a made-up planet. Village elders have been warning children away from dark forests with fairy tales for centuries; why not include a local fairy tale or legend in your own work to explain why no one ventures outside the village walls? This helps you explain the rules of your world in a more interesting way, while also letting you give a little bit of the history and culture.
3. If your character is an artist, you can deepen his emotions by showing them through his art. A painter whose father just died may hold it together in public for his mother’s sake, but may privately paint scenes that show how lost and alone he feels. A cartoonist who is struggling to understand a friend’s recent betrayal may draw comics in which a villain corrupts a character who looks like that friend. These may not be the best examples, but hopefully you get the idea.
So, those are the main lessons I learned from hybrid novels. Have you read any hybrids you liked recently? Did they help you improve your own work?
And since I’m already breaking the rules this month, I’m going to plug the books I studied for this post. Normally I don’t reveal specific titles in my genre lessons posts, because I’m not always crazy about those books. But I loved both these hybrid novels so much that I thought I’d share their summaries from Goodreads. They’re very different books, but both authors use the format in amazing ways. If you’ve read either one, let me know what you think!
I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest
Best friends, big fans, a mysterious webcomic, and a long-lost girl collide in this riveting novel, perfect for fans of both Cory Doctorow and Sarah Dessen; illustrated throughout with comics.
Once upon a time, two best friends created a princess together. Libby drew the pictures, May wrote the tales, and their heroine, Princess X, slayed all the dragons and scaled all the mountains their imaginations could conjure.
Once upon a few years later, Libby was in the car with her mom, driving across the Ballard Bridge on a rainy night. When the car went over the side, Libby passed away, and Princess X died with her.
Once upon a now: May is sixteen and lonely, wandering the streets of Seattle, when she sees a sticker slapped in a corner window.
When May looks around, she sees the Princess everywhere: Stickers. Patches. Graffiti. There’s an entire underground culture, focused around a webcomic at IAmPrincessX.com. The more May explores the webcomic, the more she sees disturbing similarities between Libby’s story and Princess X online. And that means that only one person could have started this phenomenon—her best friend, Libby, who lives.
The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley by Shaun David Hutchinson
Andrew Brawley was supposed to die that night. His parents did, and so did his sister, but he survived.
Now he lives in the hospital. He serves food in the cafeteria, he hangs out with the nurses, and he sleeps in a forgotten supply closet. Drew blends in to near invisibility, hiding from his past, his guilt, and those who are trying to find him.
Then one night Rusty is wheeled into the ER, burned on half his body by hateful classmates. His agony calls out to Drew like a beacon, pulling them both together through all their pain and grief. In Rusty, Drew sees hope, happiness, and a future for both of them. A future outside the hospital, and away from their pasts.
But Drew knows that life is never that simple. Death roams the hospital, searching for Drew, and now Rusty. Drew lost his family, but he refuses to lose Rusty, too, so he’s determined to make things right. He’s determined to bargain, and to settle his debts once and for all.
But Death is not easily placated, and Drew’s life will have to get worse before there is any chance for things to get better.