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....