Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Little Idea That Should Probably Die, But Likely Won’t.

I blame Kim Harrison.

The nom-de-plume of author Dawn Cook, Kim Harrison writes the Rachel Morgan series of urban fantasy novels about witches, demons and vampires. We’ve had a correspondence for a few years and I was on her Facebook page one day looking at her status. I recall the conversation went something like this:

Kim: I had a nice bubble bath today and came up with lots of great ideas!

Me: Anything involving rubber duckies?

Kim: You got me. Demon ducks are the next big thing. You heard it here first.

Me: Devon the Demon Duck vs. the Burning Bunnies from Hell! Hehe.

And that was it. That little joke got me thinking about an idea that wouldn’t go away. What if there was a duck possessed by a demon? There’s nothing funnier than a duck. Ducks are funny by design. Don’t believe me? Just look at that bill and those feet. Hilarious!

I began thinking of a short story set around Halloween. I was cat-sitting for my sister in October of 2009 during her trip to Hawaii. I had the whole house to myself and nothing to do but write. I was planning to work on my fantasy series but the damn duck idea wouldn’t go away. I had to get it out and bring it to life. I figured it also might help me get the attention of an agent; I could use the story like a honey trap and spring my other book series once I had them snared. Muhahaha!

Now, I had never done a comedy book before. I’ve always been told I am funny, but I never thought of myself as a particularly entertaining person when it came to funny stories. Nevertheless, I ploughed ahead as usual. I made sure Kim wasn’t actually going to use a demon duck, and I got her permission to include burning bunnies in my story (she uses a burning bunny image as a kind of trademark). I kept it to five pages per chapter and knocked out about 25,000 words in a month. Devon was a demon trapped in the body of a duck by a spell gone wrong, and Annie was the only person who could understand his ominous quacking. Together they would battle other possessed animals in their adventures. I thought it was cute.

My test readers only had one question: “What happens next?” It seems I had a hit on my hands. Devon wouldn’t die. He had charmed his way into peoples’ hearts like only a talking duck could, and now I was stuck with him. I had the sinking feeling that my serious fantasy story would never become big and I’d be known as the guy who writes the funny duck books. Well, there are worse things to be known for I guess. 

Like nothing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Seven

80,000 to 100,000 words. That’s what most agents define as the good average size of a fantasy novel for a first-time author. Too few words and you risk leaving the reader behind without enough explanation; too many words and it might be daunting for a reader to even start since they don’t know what to expect. My first novel was completed at around 192,000 words. That’s twice as long as the first two “Harry Potter” books combined. Oops. If I wanted it to be considered, I’d have to cut it in half. Not easy, btw.

And that’s not all. Much of the terminology I used was accurate; that is to say it was inaccessible to the average reader who didn’t delve into medieval studies and heavy fantasy. Do you know what a ‘wimple’ is, or a ‘pelice’? If not, I would have lost you in at page 2. (They are medieval articles of clothing; a wimple is fabric draped under the chin and a pelice is a long over-garment lined with fur. Neat, huh?) I always assumed that if the reader ran into a word they didn’t recognize, they would look it up and be educated. Maybe I’d put a glossary in the back. Well, that doesn’t fly; none of my test readers wanted to do research to read my damn book so I had to make more changes.

Pelice and wimple in action!

Another problem I noticed was my attention to detail. I realized that for much of the early book I was using my artwork as a guide, wanting to write about all the neat stuff I had taken so much time and effort to draw. I was describing things to death, forcing the reader to create images in their minds that were specific and elaborate. What I failed to realize is that most readers (me included) hate being overburdened with descriptions. So what if they pictured it differently in their minds? Did they enjoy the story? That’s the important thing. This allowed me to cut out huge swaths of text, lightening the word-burden considerably.

Also, do you realize how easy it is to type “heroes” and get “herpes”? Think about it.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about Agent Queries because there are far better places online to get advice, plus I figure if I haven’t been excepted than I’m not a reliable source. Let me just say that this is perhaps the hardest part of writing a book. Most people cannot describe their story in one paragraph in a way that grabs the attention and piques interest. If you ask me on a bad day, I’m likely to say my book is about “Knights, wizards, and fairy-dragon bullshit.” What I actually wrote in my agent queries was a bit better, but it went through several drafts before it was even close to being useful. If I ever get accepted by an agent, I’ll post the letter that worked.

Once I cut the book in half and changed the title from “The Gold Cat’s Daughter” to "Cindra and the Rose Knight”, I was able to get more hits from prospective agents. I have received nothing but form letters saying “no thank you” but that is to be expected. We can’t all be Stephenie Flippin’ Meyer. Read her lucky story of how her enormous first book got accepted if you are a struggling writer and really want to be annoyed.

More later....

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The weirdest thing I've seen at my job so far.

I have an interesting job. I work for a video transfer company that takes people's home movies and transfers them to DVD. My job is to go through the raw footage and make neat little chapters for the customers to choose from online. I've only been there for a few months but I've already seen homemade porn, several full-frontal childbirths, a dozen trips to Disney World, stupid kids doing illegal things, and all manner of strangeness.

So far the weirdest thing has to be this poor child's baptism. I say 'poor child' not because anything bad befell him, but the record of this memorable day will forever be marred by the moron shooting the footage.

The camera focuses on the loving parents holding the baby; the minister saying prayers over the baptismal font, the kid crying as the water runs over his forehead... then the camera operator gets distracted. It seems a big cockroach has intruded on the scene by crawling up the edge of the fountain while the parents and the pastor are off to the side. The ADD person with the camera loses interest in the ceremony and focuses on the bug as it crawls along the edge of the fountain, even zooming in for an extreme closeup while the poor parents are thinking this wonderful moment in their child's life will be forever caught on tape.

Some people.....

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Six

The comic book thing died in about 2007. I was out of money, between jobs, and generally depressed about my lack of success. As I wrote before, I did some math and realized that it would be fifty-some-odd years before I was done telling my story at my present pace. Cut that in half and it’s still a lot of time. While time didn't seem like an issue in my younger days, it now seemed very pressing indeed. Life was about to teach me another hard lesson.

In November of 2007, my father died of cancer. He had been diagnosed years before and had been through his treatments and remissions; now his time was running out and we all knew it, though none of us wanted to face it. As his health deteriorated I started thinking of my own mortality and the things I might leave undone. I realized that the comic book idea was too much to handle, but I wanted to tell my story. I hated the idea of letting go of my dream; I hated it even more that my parents had never liked the career path I’d chosen and they might have been right to be concerned. There is nothing worse than admitting your parents were right.

Anyway, I remember sitting in the hospital waiting room during a visit when it hit me. Novel writing. I could write novels! Could I write novels? Sure I could. How hard could it be? I began working on a story of the ancient history of my comic book world and events that would lead to the present storyline, kind of like The Silmarillion is to Lord of the Rings. It involved the first children of the gods (elves) and the introduction of the new children (humans) and how everything got knackered after that. I got the chance to use the elven language I’d made, writing in a formal and almost biblical style that seemed to suit the subject matter. It was kind of dry and detail-oriented and not very accessible. I shelved it after four chapters but managed to learn a bit about writing.

I think I was just beginning my first Cindra Corrina novel when dad died. It soon became a form of therapy to keep my mind occupied during that period, getting out of the house and writing in the bookstore’s cafĂ©. In a few months I had written further in the story than I had drawn in several years. Remember what I said about doing your best work when in the midst of personal tragedy? That’s the curse. Well, I don’t know if it was my best work but there sure was a lot of it and it came pouring out in a way I didn’t know was possible. It took nearly a year but I soon had a completed novel.

Now what do I do? I thought. Here’s a hint: I should have thought of that before I started. Like most things I tend to leap in and learn along the way, but that’s not always (ever) the best idea. I knew my target audience was young, like maybe early teens, but I knew nothing about the Young Adult market. I knew I needed to find an agent, but what do they look for in a manuscript?

Maybe I should have done a little research.

More later....

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Five

Let me say a few things on comic book creation. I like equating drawing a comic book to making a little movie, but you are in charge of the writing, direction, lighting, costume design, set design, casting, acting, and special effects.

If you are going to do a comic set in a certain time period and you want it to look and feel authentic, then you will have to do a lot of research. I found one of the best resources for an artist is the kids section at the bookstore, because everything has illustrations. A 400-page dissertation on medieval fashion is great for the academic, but it doesn’t help the artist much. Another great resource is movies; that is if you’re willing to let Hollywood be your guide to realism. But hey, it’s your book. Make it look like “First Knight” if you really want.

One challenge in designing the city and the fashions is deciding where in the world they are and what the climate is like. I settled on a warmer region so the clothing would not be too layered, and the buildings would look more Mediterranean. I really like the aesthetics of Tuscany and I wanted Portshia to have that feel; lots of cracked plaster with bricks underneath and creeping ivy, tiled roofs and little balconies. Beautiful, functional and easy to draw.

The next thing to decide was the city’s age. A medieval town starts with a castle and spreads out from there, but over time the older buildings tend to get replaced and upgraded, especially if there are wars and destruction near the castle. Portshia is nearly a thousand years old and was designed in the style of the “old empire” so the streets are broad and everything is well ordered. The castle, which started as a tall imposing affair, has been rebuilt several times and now lies low behind its thick outer walls because powder cannons have been invented and tall castles are not so popular anymore. The area just below the castle has been renovated over the years to be a posh area for rich people. There is also a Winter Palace which is a much newer addition, and positioned to impress the city folk rather than defend them. The churches of multiple gods are clustered in the center of the city with a grand polytheistic cathedral right in the middle. The wealth and status of a town or city is often directly tied to the number of churches it can support.

Yes, I made a map too.

 I’m not saying everyone should approach world building like this, but that map led to some really nice cityscapes and detailed scenes.

Costume design is something often overlooked in illustration. Many people just look at the face and what the character is doing, but the costumes they are wearing don’t always get that much attention. Superheroes have not helped this, since most of their costumes are skintight with little designs on them, making them more a study in anatomy than style.

Speaking of anatomy, one big influence in men’s fashions was that I didn’t want to draw codpieces. Certain historically accurate clothing is not really fit for modern eyes, and the medieval banana hammock is one of them. Luckily I found a few styles of lower garb that worked out better. Sometimes it’s all about not wanting to spend too much time on the crotch.

Insightful, huh?

More later....

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Four

Comics are a business. That’s the one thing I overlooked as I started out on my creative journey. During college, I always looked down on marketing majors as people who exploited the ‘real’ art of others. What I didn’t learn until much later on was that marketing is 80% of a product’s success. Just look at the last three Star Wars movies.

 (By the way, did you notice that the last movie could be abbreviated as SW: ROTS? Telling, ain’t it?)

One key element in this saturated market is that the book has to stand out in the first issue. Some of the more successful books are what are called ‘one-offs’ or ‘stand-alone’ books. These are small story arcs taking up one to three issues that tell a good, short story. If the reader gets hooked, then you have a ready-made audience for an expanded story. My book, while distinctive, was going to take a loooong time. By the third issue, I had a reader at a convention tell me “I don’t know where you’re going with this, but I like it so far.” I thought the story was a thing to sit back and enjoy. This is true of a novel or even a movie, but not a comic book. People only have about five minutes to devote to a comic book story; fifteen if it’s written by Kevin Smith, who tends to ramble. I figured my story would start taking off by oh, say, the tenth issue. This was not good business sense.

Each print run was over $1,000 bucks for 1,000 books. One thousand books that didn’t move, didn’t sell well, didn’t grab interest immediately. It had lots of talking, no real action, great scenery but no ‘hook’. In retrospect, it reads more like a movie storyboard with about the same pacing. Diamond Distribution wasn’t interested in it, so I had no way to get it out any farther than I could drive. I drew six issues, but by the third book I was out nearly four grand and made back less than $150. Those boxes are in storage now, slowly being eaten by crickets, I imagine.

I suppose I could have done ten or more issues and printed them as one big book, hoping that someone would like it, but that seemed like a long way off. I averaged about an issue every six months, so I estimated that to finish the story to my satisfaction it would take nearly fifty years. Not good. If I had approached it like a one-off, I might have hooked an audience willing to hang on for several years while I cranked out more books. Instead I drew a movie that was unfolding in my head, expecting others to be as excited to see it as I was. Never mind that the first fifteen minutes were a little slow and they took a year and a half to make.

But enough about my failures as a human being. Next time I’ll delve into the creative process and talk about what went into making the graphic story of Passage.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Three

Doing a comic book, as it turns out, is hard. Nowadays there are a lot of resources for the burgeoning artist, but when I was starting out there were like, three books. One of them was ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way,’ which I avoided because of the style. Most of what I learned was from pulling together scraps of info from the Internet, which can be suspect at times (keep that in mind as you read on!).

I started out by getting a packet of 11x17 Bristol board paper, a vial of black ink, some drawing nibs for my quill, and a blue non-photocopy pencil. I had a sketchbook for layouts and a bottle of artist’s white for corrections. Yay. Now I needed to figure out what to draw. My story was set in ‘medieval times’ but I had no real firm grasp on the time period. In a fantasy setting there can be many things in the same story that wouldn’t have existed together at the same time, like King Arthur wearing a suit of plate armor and living in a great stone castle. Those are called anachronisms and they bug me.

I decided to set the story in an earlier part of my fantasy world’s medieval time, simply for reasons of being lazy. I didn’t want to draw complex architecture, clothing or settings. I also set it ‘on the road’ in the countryside so I didn’t have to draw cities and people. My character was wandering the land like David Carradine’s Caine in ‘Kung Fu’ running into trouble and helping people with her hidden skills, but I planned to have flashbacks to the really interesting parts of her life that would explain who she had been and how she became this bad-ass warrior.

I slogged through one and a half issues before getting bored. I hated penciling a picture, then inking over it, essentially drawing it twice. I was using what would today be considered very old school techniques like cutting out the word bubbles and rubber cementing them to the artwork before photocopying. After I bought a scanner things became easier, but something was still wrong. I wasn’t telling the part of the story that initially interested me. I always wanted the ‘Kung Fu’ TV show to spend more time in the Shaolin monastery and less time in the flea-bitten Old West.

Life was happening too and that has its own challenges. I got married, raised several furry and/or scaly children, and was trying to figure out how to make that all work out. Remember that depression thing? It was still untreated. It’s hard to be steady if you fall into a dark pit for no reason at all. Creative things ground to a halt as I reconsidered every aspect of my comic book. I hated doing the artwork. The story bored me. This wasn’t what I wanted to make. Hrrmm.

Well, that was all fixed by the divorce. I didn’t care anymore about the book, because the rug had been pulled out from under me. I put all my artwork and supplies away for two years and didn’t think about them.

Then one day, like a bolt from the blue, I got my inspiration back. I would write the story I wanted to read, I would do all the artwork as finished pencil drawings, something only a few comics had tried. I began to write about the grand city of Portshia and envisioned a sweeping cityscape that I could create, filled with complex architecture and people wearing complex fashions. I brought the time period forward to include all the cool stuff about the Middle Ages like huge castles and siege weapons and early gunpowder cannons and large sailing ships. I wrote certain bits in iambic pentameter and poetry, I wrote about the homes of the gods and the world at large, and put little details into every page that had meaning to me. I soon found myself creating a sweeping epic story arc that would take the reader from Cindra Corrina’s early beginnings along her warrior path and finally to face her destiny.

That was my first big mistake.

More later…

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part Two

Here’s where the real fun of being an artist comes in; your best work is done in the midst of personal tragedy. When painful things happen, you get really good ideas. What a crappy deal. So I had a personal tragedy in my first year at NAU; my girlfriend dumped me and it sent my life into a downward spiral. Little did I know that my larger problem was medical, not personal; I had undiagnosed clinical depression from the age of 11 that would go untreated until I was nearly 30. While this means I had a naturally sucky life, it made for great creative surges.

Anyway, that very night I threw myself into creating a new world. Like an intern god with a cranky boss and a six-day deadline, I slaved away on my personal computer to make what would become the world of Jayde and the city of Portshia as a game setting for Dungeons and Dragons. Because I am so anal and fixated on details, I also began a private study on ancient cultures, medieval life, architecture and various other disciplines. Unfortunately I was at college trying to learn Graphic Illustration. It’s so hard to attend classes when you have so many other interests.

The desire to make a serious graphic novel was kindled a few years earlier when I worked for the Phoenix Public Library, where I discovered ElfQuest. The artist and writer was a woman, which alone made it a stand-out book, but the artwork and emotional story were simply beautiful. I thought, why not combine these interests? I had drawn comic books from an early age, and story telling was rather fun. Why not make a comic book out of this world? It seemed like a good idea at the time. I even had an idea for a dramatic storyline; a girl becomes a warrior with the help of her lover, whom she then dumps. Why? Who the Hell knows? That’s what I was trying to figure out.

I was inspired to write a heartbreaking, exciting and heroic tale. Yay. Now I just needed to come up with an approach. How does one start a story? How do you introduce a character for the first time? How do you even make a comic book in the first place?

Man, this was gonna be a lot of work.

More to come….

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Call of the Letter People

It was in my fifth year when I made the most horrifying of discoveries, a time of which I can barely speak even in the full light of day. I was attending Moon Mountain Elementary when my studies were disrupted by a dark pall of dread that crept over me; twenty-six denizens of the Abyss had entered the classroom and would endeavor to devour the innocent minds of the student body, though I alone would hold out to the last and give my report of those terrifying events so that others might take heed and be forearmed, though little hope of victory might be had.

The teachers, slaves already to the foul beasts, would herd the unwary moppets into a room in the middle of the day, shortly after nap-time. We had encountered dark rumors of the ones called the ‘Letter People’, if 'people' indeed could take such hideous form and tainted manner of speech and action. The trusting children went willingly to their doom, each session breaking down their defenses against the next onslaught. I alone remained, unconvinced of the reassurances given by the wheedling professors, listening to the shouting, singing and possibly screaming of the entrapped minds rotting in their fetid juices just the other side of the door.

To my horror, I learned more from those mind-slaves as they drooled upon themselves, touting the praises of their new gods. Effigies there were that would be hoisted above their heads to lord over them, and they would sing their praises to the mangled forms, worshipping the twisted abominations as the corrupted adults goaded them on. They called out names that played at my sanity, threatening to tear it from its tender roots and hurl it over the brink; Mister M and his Mouth of Madness, Mister T and his Terrible Teeth, Mister H and his Horrible Hair, Miss I and her Infectious Itching. I steeled my resolve, bearing the jeers and torment of the converted, vowing never to enter that unholy place whilst I lived and breathed.

It is only now, writing from the safety of my padded cell, that I can recall these events without disturbing the calm illusions of the general public; without my nervous laughter and shaking limbs belying my differences. Take from it what you can and protect your children! They are after the children! Flee if you are able, even if it be to those godless foreign lands where the letters are strange and senseless. Better senselessness than the fate that awaits you!

Y, oh heaven, do you abandon us to the Yawning mouth of Mister Y?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Little Idea That Wouldn’t Die: Part One

When I tell people I’ve been working on the same story for twenty years or so, I sometimes get the impression that they think I’m the biggest procrastinator in the world, or I just don’t know when to quit. Both might be true I suppose.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of my work (most of you, I imagine), I’ve been developing the story of the life of a female warrior in a fantasy world. Female heroes have always fascinated me, not only because they have such interesting fashion choices, but because the role of action hero has always been one reserved for men, while the woman is the one who always needs rescuing, marrying, or whatever. I love role reversals and I wanted to explore something different.

The Little Idea started sometime in college when I began playing D&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, 2nd Edition to be specific). I was flipping through the Player’s Handbook, making sure I knew all the rules so I could argue effectively against my conniving dungeon master (is there another kind?), when I came across a painting by Jeff Easley that stuck with me. It portrayed a female fighter, powerful and confident, pulling the nose ring of an ogre she had beaten, having whittled his club down into little chunks. She was muscular, which was rare for a woman in fantasy illustration at the time. She had these neat boots, a fur loincloth (fleas!), a headband and wrist wraps, and a revealing vest. Not terribly practical, but it wasn’t a plate mail bikini for once.

To get a little perspective, this was about five years before ‘Xena: Warrior Princess,’ and the Girl Power movement, when Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley were the standard bearers of the female sci-fi hero. ‘Red Sonja’ came out in 1985, but didn’t have nearly the impact. The successful Buffy TV series was years away. Women could be accepted if they had a big gun, but not a sword. Many female fantasy heroes were victims at first, going on to a life of fighting to avenge some crime, often rape. They were also likely to have some special power that explained how they were such great butt-kickers. The idea of a woman who looked like she could handle herself was something quite new.

Anyhoo, that one painting started The Little Idea. What kind of woman would choose that life and why? What if she had no special power, nothing or no one to avenge, she just wanted to be more than what was allowed? This was reflected in the real world when I created my first D&D character: a female fighter named Cindra Corrina. I was told by the dungeon master that I was being ‘anti-social’ for doing so. I knew I was on to something.

More later….