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How I created my graphic novel Bird & Squirrel (part 1)
From IDEA to OUTLINE
Today I thought it would be fun (and maybe informative) to look back at how I created my graphic novel series Bird & Squirrel. I’ll try and break down the entire process over the course of a few posts starting today with how I came up with the idea and what the initial outline looked like for the first book.
I came up with the idea for what would eventually be called Bird & Squirrel back in 2009/2010 after talking to my agent on the phone following the completion of my second book, Beep and Bah. She asked what I would be working on next, and like every time I finished a project, I said I had no ideas. But determined to think of something, I searched the internet for inspiration. I eventually came across an article about Amelia Earhart, and it sparked an idea!
Since I’ve always been a fan of animal stories like Wind and the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, Disney’s Robin Hood, and Jungle Book, as well as my favorite book growing up, Watership Down, I thought I could write a story about a Penguin named Amelia who instead of flying around the world in a plane tried to circumnavigate the globe on an iceberg.
This seemed like a fantastic idea until I imagined her iceberg melting in the warm water near South America. This could have been the end of that idea, but thankfully, my brain then jumped to a bird migrating south for the winter, and bingo, I had the first piece of the puzzle— Bird!
Now I needed someone to keep him company. Someone for him to clown around with and talk to. And guess what? I had just the right someone already taking up space on my hard drive, a neurotic squirrel from a failed picture book idea who was terrified of everything (Even failed ideas can be reborn so don’t lose hope). Success! I had the second piece— Squirrel!
All I had to do now was come up with the story. So far, I had imagined a free-flying Bird who loved adventure and a uber-responsible Squirrel who never diverted from his set routine of collecting nuts for the long winter, and they were not friends. They were basically an animal version of the Odd Couple. At this point, I asked myself why Squirrel would head south for the winter with Bird?
This is usually how my story-writing process goes. I create a character, or in this case, two characters, and then I ask myself a million and one questions about the who, the what, the why, and the where. The answers lead me down different story paths until I eventually find the story. Usually, for me, the hardest part of the story-writing process is not coming up with the plot; it’s the emotional story! What type of internal struggle do these characters need to overcome to complete their journey on a physical level (the plot) and an emotional one? This is the heart of the story. The part that makes the characters more than drawings and hopefully makes them relatable in some way to the reader.
I eventually landed on Squirrel needing to overcome his fear in order to experience new things and live a fuller, happier life. In contrast, Bird would need to learn to be a little less flighty and more responsible. I was also trying to do this in my own life at the time. Overcome my tendency to worry about everything and be a bit more adventuresome. Try new things and push myself outside my comfort zone. Basically, find the perfect balance between being responsible and having fun, which is the theme of the first Bird & Squirrel book.
With the basic building blocks of the story in place, my next step is to write the outline. I keep the outline as simple as possible with limited dialogue. All I want to do is describe what’s happening in each beat of the story in the clearest way possible. The outlines I write now are slightly more detailed than this and do sometimes contain dialogue, but this is how I used to outline back in 2010 when I created Bird & Squirrel.
The reason I like to outline my stories is it's much easier to throw out a bad idea or something that isn't working when it's only a sentence or a short paragraph verses pages and pages of thousands of words. By keeping each beat short and simple I can explore multiple ideas and story pathways without wasting too much time. Sometimes I'll write out each beat on an individual note card. The cards are easy to move around and discard. If I don't like the beat I can write a new card and replace it or if that story beat works better earlier I can move it there without too much fuss.
You’ll notice below that the book wasn’t initially called Bird & Squirrel. At the time, I hadn’t planned on this being a series. It was going to be a stand-alone story called Acorns to Oaks, which was supposed to be a metaphor about these two characters growing emotionally from acorns into mighty oak trees by the end of the adventure. I was also trying to avoid doing a third book with the characters’ names and an “&” in the title. But that would eventually change based on a request from the publisher. More on that later.
Here is the complete ten-page outline:
NOTE: It contains elements that didn’t make it into the published story.
Acorns to Oaks:
A Bird and Squirrel Adventure
by James Burks
END OF FALL
Bird is flying around, enjoying the day. He happily greets the other woodland creatures he sees.
Squirrel is hard at work collecting nuts to store for winter. He cautiously zips from tree to tree, always on the look out for danger. After all, there is a cat that prowls the area.
Bird sees Squirrel and flies up to him, barraging him with a host of questions. Squirrel is annoyed. He wants to know why Bird hasn’t flown south like all the other birds. Bird shrugs. It’s too nice of a day to be flying south.
Squirrel finds this unthinkable. Winter is almost here and there is no time to waste. But Bird is unconcerned. He flies off to enjoy the rest of the day, leaving Squirrel behind frantically gathering his store of food for winter.
Bird sees a shiny piece of glass on the forest floor and flies down to examine it. He holds it up and admires his reflection, talking to himself. The cat, who had been lurking in the grass nearby, leaps at Bird, who manages to get away. He flies just out of reach as the cat gives chase. He's not scared, though. It's just a game to him.
SQUIRREL SAVES BIRD
Meanwhile, Squirrel is neatly stacking nuts into his tree as Bird flies underneath his branch with the cat on his heels. When Bird looks back to talk to Squirrel, he unintentionally slams into a tree stump and drops to the ground like a stone. The cat is on him in a flash.
Squirrel watches from above in horror. He can't just stand there and let Bird die, even though he is a thorn in his side. He thinks fast and pulls out a nut from his winter stash to throw down at the cat to distract him.
Inadvertently, this causes Squirrel’s whole stash of nuts to come spilling out of the tree and onto the cat, carrying him and the nuts over a ledge and into the river below. Even though Bird is safe, Squirrel’s entire supply of food is washed away downstream with the cat.
Both Squirrel and Bird realize the predicament they are in. Bird can’t fly south because his wing was injured in the catfight, and Squirrel has no food to get him through the long, cold winter. They’re both DOOOOOOMED!
After some debate, Bird and Squirrel decide there is only one thing to do. They will head south together. It’s the only way they can survive the winter; there will be plenty of food down south for the both of them.
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
Squirrel loads up his bike with everything he might need while on the journey south. He’s pretty much bringing everything but the kitchen sink. Scratch that, he’s bringing the kitchen sink too. After all, you can never be too prepared. Bird stands by watching, empty handed, and amused by Squirrel’s neuroticism.
With everything loaded and ready to go they set off on their journey south. Squirrel is peddling while Bird rides in the back. They are only gone for a few minutes when they return to Squirrel’s house. Squirrel had forgotten his toothbrush.
With the Toothbrush safely stowed away, the two set off again. But before they can get very far, the cat (wet and not happy) leaps out from the bushes and attacks them again. Squirrel pedals the bike as fast as he can go to get away.
With the cat in hot pursuit, the two head down the hill towards the old bridge. However, neither of them knows that the bridge has collapsed. They only realize it after it’s too late for them to change course and they plummet into the water below. The cat skids to a stop on the edge and watches from above as they are swept up in the rapids and away down stream.
Reaching a calm patch of water, Bird and Squirrel pull themselves up onto a log and float downstream. Bird comments on how much fun that was while Squirrel is un-amused. He doesn't find almost dying fun. (Plus he’s lost all his food and supplies.) Bird wonders how squirrel can be so upset. “Just listen to the tranquil sounds of the running water,” Bird says, closing his eyes.
But the sound seems to be growing louder. Squirrel looks around and sees that they are approaching a waterfall. Before they can change course, they are swept over the falls.
BOTTOM OF THE FALLS
There's no sign of either at the bottom of the falls. Then Bird bobs to the surface. “That was awesome! We should definitely do that again,” he exclaims. Squirrel pops up next to him and scowls.
Bird and Squirrel make it to the other side of the river and crawl onto the shore. Squirrel can't believe everything that’s happened thus far and blames Bird for getting him into this situation. If he had been more responsible, then none of this would have happened! Squirrel walks off the beach and into the trees. Bird trails after him, trying to lighten his mood, holds up Squirrel’s toothbrush and calls after him, “At least you still have your toothbrush!”
Bird and Squirrel are walking through the wilderness over streams, past fallen logs and giant boulders. Bird is talking a mile a minute, asking questions and pointing at things that catch his interest. He pauses briefly for Squirrel to answer but Squirrel is giving him the silent treatment. This makes Bird try even harder to get a reaction out of Squirrel. He grabs two sticks and holds them up like antlers. “Look at me I’m a deer.” No response. He tries knock knock jokes but that doesn’t work either. Squirrel refuses to say, “Who’s there?” so Bird just ends up saying “knock knock” over and over and over again.
Finally, Bird starts singing a made up song about Squirrel. It’s awful. This drives Squirrel to the breaking point. “Do you ever shut up?” he demands. Bird thinks about this for a moment and then asks, “Do you ever smile? I haven’t seen you smile the whole time I’ve known you. I bet I can make you smile.” Squirrel just turns and walks away.
Squirrel and Bird come out of the woods onto the edge of a farm. Off in the distance they can see an old barn. They decide to sleep there for the night.
As they are walking, they come across some cows. Bird climbs up onto one and pretends that he’s riding a bucking bronco. “Hey, maybe we can ride this cow south,” he says to Squirrel. Squirrel looks sad, and holds up some grass for the cow, reminding him to eat up since winter is on its way. The cow tires of Bird’s antics and slaps him off with his tail. Bird is flung over Squirrel’s head and yells “Yeeeee-haw!”
They keep walking through the long tall dry grass when a rabbit pops up out of a hole. Apparently the farm is his territory and he doesn’t want any foreigners stealing any of his food. “This ain’t no farmer’s market,” He yells at them. He starts bouncing around them like Muhammad Ali, ready for a fight. Squirrel, who’s not (ever) looking for trouble thinks they should go back and just walk around the farm. Bird will hear nothing of the sort; he can take this rabbit, no problem! After all, he is an expert in Wing Chun, the ancient art of bird fu (not to be confused with bird flu).
The two fighters begin to circle each other. Bird is making sounds like Bruce Lee and striking various poses that he has obviously made up (like the walrus, the chicken, and the cheese soufflé). But before any punches can be thrown, the rabbit stops dead in his tracks, his ears up in alert. Without another word he darts back into his hole and disappears. Bird turns to Squirrel in victory. “The cheese soufflé always gets them,” he laughs. But Bird’s victory dance is cut short when the ground begins to shake.
A giant bailer comes into view, eating up the dry grass with its spinning steal blades. The two of them run as fast as they can, but the bailer is just too fast and too wide to outrun. The blades are just inches from their tails when the ground gives way beneath their feet and they fall into an underground tunnel. The bailer rumbles overhead, filling in the opening and plunging them into complete darkness.
IN THE DARK
Bird and Squirrel stumble along in the darkness. Not surprisingly, Squirrel does not like the dark. Matter of fact, he hates it. He’s quite certain that they are going to be eaten by any number of things. Snakes! Giant spiders! Bats! Or maybe a deadly wasp that will paralyze them and lay its eggs on their backs, just so the larvae can hatch and feed on their insides while they are still alive! Bird pauses, and then says, “All this talk about being eaten is making me hungry.”
Squirrel continues to panic as they feel their way down the tunnel. Bird spots something up ahead. It looks like a light and it’s coming towards them. Squirrel cries out, “I DON’T WANT TO BE WASP FOOD!” just as Mr. Mole walks up carrying a small lantern.
MEET THE MOLES
Mr. Mole takes them back to his home and introduces them to Mrs. Mole, their two kids, and his hundred-year-old grandma. They offer Bird and Squirrel food and shelter for the night.
During dinner Mr. Mole talks about what it’s like to live underground. He tells them not to take anything Grandma says to heart; she’s getting a little crazy in her old age and thinks she can see the future. Grandma who’s sleeping at the dinner table wakes up, mutters something about a bird and then dozes off again.
Bird talks about all the places he’s been and the people he’s met. The kids are in awe of him. Squirrel talks about collecting nuts and how there isn’t time for anything else. The kids find this very boring. Where’s the adventure? The fun? Mrs. Mole thinks he must be terribly lonely. Squirrel quickly changes the subject by offering to help clear the table and wash the dishes.
After dinner Bird plays with the kids, chasing them around the house, bouncing on the furniture and having a good time. Squirrel finishes up the last of the dishes and sits down next to sleeping Grandma to watch them play. A loud squeal from one of the kids wakes Grandma and she begins to mutter to Squirrel about his future and how a great fall will result in his death. Before Squirrel can ask any questions, Grandma’s head droops and she begins to snore again. Mr. Mole wheels her away and off to bed. Squirrel shrugs it off.
After a very long day of traveling, Squirrel and Bird prepare for bed. They say goodnight and drift off to sleep.
The next morning Mr. Mole takes them back to the surface. He gives them a bundle of food from Mrs. Mole and wishes them luck on the rest of their journey.
A brief montage of images showing Bird and Squirrel moving along.
Bird and squirrel come up to a giant ravine. Lucky for them a tree has fallen across making a natural bridge. Bird starts to walk across but Squirrel stops. He remembers the crazy old mole’s prediction and thinks they should go another way. Bird tries to tell him that this is the way to go. His bird sense is never wrong. But Squirrel won’t budge and they are forced to find another way around.
BIRD AND THE BEES
Bird sees a bee buzzing by as they’re walking. He flaps his good wing and runs along pretending to be a bee. “Look at me, Squirrel, I’m a Bee, bzzzzzzzzzzzz!” Squirrel does not find this amusing and ignores him.
Before Bird knows it, one bee turns into two, then three, and then a whole swarm of bees has appeared before him. Not knowing what to do, Bird throws their food bundle into the air and runs back towards Squirrel. The bees swarm after him.
Bird and Squirrel run from the angry bees. As the two try to escape, Bird realizes that his wing is better. He’s able to soar up and away from the attacking bees.
Squirrel wasn’t so lucky. Covered in welts from the bee stings, Squirrel sits unhappily on a tree stump. Bird stands next to him unscathed.
Trying to see the positive, Bird holds up his wing and says. “At least now we know that my wing is better.” Mistaking the look on Squirrel’s face for concern, he adds. “But don’t worry I’m not going to fly away and leave you.”
Squirrel warily asks Bird about the food bundle. Bird explains that he had to use it as a diversion. This is the last straw. Squirrel finally loses his patience with Bird and tells him so. None of this stuff would have happened if it weren’t for Bird. This is the end of the road for the two of them, he states.
Bird doesn’t think this is a good idea. He tries to tell Squirrel that he’s going the wrong way. It’s his bird sense again and it’s never wrong. Squirrel doesn’t think Bird has any sense at all and walks off. Bird watches him go, then shrugs and walks off in the other direction.
Squirrel walks along the path grumbling about Bird, not paying attention to where he’s going. He doesn’t realize that his path has turned from open and airy to overgrown and ominous. The thick canopy overhead blocks out all but a few rays of light. When he finally realizes his surroundings he stops and looks around.
Squirrel is standing at the mouth of a small clearing. He spots what appears to be another squirrel lurking in the shadows on the other side. He calls out but there is no response. He slowly walks towards it but when he gets closer, he stops in horror. It’s not a squirrel, it’s squirrel bones! The entire area is littered with the bones of small animals.
A loud screech breaks the silence and Squirrel whirls around to see a giant owl soaring down from the trees above. Squirrel takes off running; the owl right on his tail. He's doomed for sure. But there is a sudden flash of yellow and the owl screeches in anger. Squirrel dashes behind a tree and peers out. To his surprise, Bird is flying around the owl, zigging and zagging, pecking the owl repeatedly with his sharp beak. The owl retreats in defeat.
Bird and Squirrel head back out the way they came, an unspoken agreement between the two of them.
ALL IS LOST
Once they are out of harms way, Squirrel begins to have a breakdown. He’s homesick and tired of being chased by everything under the sun. He has no business being out here and just wants to go home. Bird tries to tell him that he’ll die if he goes back. Squirrel tells Bird about the crazy old mole’s prediction and how he’s going to die if he keeps going anyways.
Bird tries to cheer him up by saying if he’s dead either way, he might as well keep going and make the best of it. “What do you have to lose?” For once Bird is right and Squirrel decides to soldier on.
TRAVELLING PART 2
In contrast to the last travel montage this time Squirrel is beginning to enjoy the sights. They stop along the way looking at various things of interest. There’s a rock that bird swears looks like squirrel (though it really is shaped like a nut). They hop across rocks and climb over and through fallen logs. Squirrel stops occasionally to look around. He’s still a Squirrel after all and can’t avoid being a little paranoid.
Squirrel asks Bird what its like to fly. Bird offers to take him but Squirrel refuses. He’s just starting to have a good time and would rather put off his inevitable death until later. Bird agrees and they walk on.
At mid day, the two decide to stop and eat lunch. Bird insists that Squirrel sit and relax while he looks for some food. Bird dashes off into the trees and returns moments later with an assortment of worms, grubs, and everyday slugs to choose from. Bird puts the food down in front of Squirrel triumphantly.
Squirrel fidgets uncomfortably, but not wanting to be ungrateful he puts one of the grubs into his mouth. It’s all he can do to keep from gagging. Bird starts to laugh and then pulls out another bark plate with a few nuts on it. Squirrel is mad at first but softens as he realizes that it doesn’t taste all that bad. He promises Bird that he’ll get him back when he least expects it.
THE OLD BADGER
As they come around the bend, Bird and Squirrel spot an old badger chopping wood and decide to say hello. The Badger does not like the unwelcome distraction. He has things to do and must do them straight away. Time is of the essence. This firewood will not chop itself. He’s so busy in fact that Bird and Squirrel can barely even get a word in edge wise. The Badger just goes on and on about being bothered and how animals should just learn to mind their own business and how if he stopped to talk to everyone that passed by he’d freeze to death. Bird and Squirrel get the point and move along.
As they walk away, Bird looks at Squirrel and smiles. Squirrel knows exactly what he’s thinking and tries to explain that he was never that bad.
After lunch Squirrel and Bird come to an open meadow. Bird is about to step out when Squirrel stops him. (This is Squirrel’s chance to help Bird.) He tells Bird that he can’t just walk across an open meadow; you never know what might be lurking above just waiting for a tasty meal. Squirrel tells Bird to follow him and do exactly what he does.
Squirrel darts across the open meadow in a crazy, erratic pattern. He zigs and zags, he spirals, he stops by a rock and looks around, then he zigs zags and spirals some more. Bird watches in amusement, and then copies exactly the same pattern, stops and all. Bird meets up with Squirrel on the other side of the meadow and they both smile. Just as they are about to set off again Bird spots an actual hawk circling above the meadow, and points it out to Squirrel who almost dies with fright.
Squirrel stammers in mock confidence, “I told you.” Before they can say another word they hear the hawk screech and they both run off into the trees.
SOARING ACROSS THE GREAT CANYON
A short distance away from the meadow they walk up to the edge of the great canyon and look down. There’s no way they can walk around this one. Bird and Squirrel both know what they have to do. Bird will fly Squirrel across to the other side. Bird can tell that Squirrel is reluctant and reassures him that he won’t let anything happen to him. Squirrel agrees and they take flight.
As they fly higher and higher, all of Squirrels worries fade away. It’s the most amazing thing he’s ever experienced. They soar through the canyons, over the tops of the tall redwood trees, and marvel at a magnificent waterfall. Squirrel says hello to a mountain goat, who’s so startled that he almost falls off the tiny ledge he’s standing on.
Bird looks at Squirrel as they near the other side of the gorge. “See there’s nothing too worry about!” But just as the words leave Bird’s beak a shadow falls over them. Bird glances up and then quickly begins to dive towards the canyon floor. Below him, Squirrel is unaware of what’s going on and thinks it’s all just part of the ride. Bird reaches the tree line and drops Squirrel safely onto a branch and then takes off again.
A confused Squirrel looks up to see Bird flying away with a giant hawk in tow. He watches as Bird zigs, zags and spirals, but he still can’t shake the Hawk. Squirrel has to do something.
Squirrel starts climbing, hopping from tree to tree and up the side of the cliff. If he can just get high enough, he might be able to distract the hawk and save Bird. He reaches the highest point and leaps off the cliff face, sky diving towards the action below. He hits the Hawk like a bullet and latches on with all his might. The hawk immediately abandons the chase, trying instead to shake Squirrel. This doesn’t take long but it’s long enough for Bird to get away. Bird finds a safe place to land and watches helplessly as Squirrel loses his grip and falls into the canyon below. The hawk, his feathers ruffled, screeches in anger and flies away.
Squirrel is lying motionless on the ground, with his nut helmet a few feet away. Bird lands thinking that Squirrel is dead. He feels awful. This is all his fault. If only he’d been a little more responsible then none of this would have happened. Just as he’s about to say he’s sorry, Squirrel sits bolt upright, scaring the feathers out of Bird. Squirrel immediately begins talking about what he just did. He’s exhilarated. He’s never felt more alive in his whole life. He looks at Bird, smiles, and thanks him. Bird grabs him and gives him a big hug, happy that he’s still alive.
Squirrel jumps up and is ready to go. Bird picks up Squirrel’s nut helmet and holds it out for him, but Squirrel doesn’t need it anymore. He’s no longer afraid. The two of them take flight again, but this time Bird thinks they should fly a little lower, just to be safe. Next stop, South.
Squirrel and Bird are sitting in lounge chairs on the beach sipping from coconut shells with tiny umbrellas. They both have big smiles and are looking very relaxed. This is the life. They sit and watch the waves wash up onto the shore.
Then Bird turns to Squirrel and says, “I’m bored.” Squirrel can’t agree more and jumps up ready to take off on another adventure. Bird picks up Squirrel and they fly out to sea towards the horizon and they both say, “It’s a perfect day for flying!”
Well, I hope you enjoyed Part 1. In the next post, I’ll dive into character designs and show the rough pages along with a few finished spreads I created for the submission packet my Agent sent out to publishers. Plus the inevitable rejections that followed.
If you have any specific questions about the outline process, please leave them in the comments.
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And last but not least, if you’re interested in reading Bird & Squirrel, the books are available wherever books are sold.