That Thing Where I Draw: Azrael

This sketch is for Natalie's Halloween Party/Contest. The contest closes tonight at 7 pm (MST), so you can still enter if you've got something that fits the fairly broad criteria:
I want to know what your characters (and/or you) are going as for Halloween—and you gotta be creative about it. Write me flash fiction (1k words max) about them at my awesome virtual Halloween Party. Or take a picture of you in your costume. Or draw your characters all dressed up and ready to groove. Whatever, just have fun with it.
Top two winners get to commission a drawing from Natalie. I've already won one such prize, so I kinda hope somebody else wins. At the same time I couldn't resist entering. Aside from the fact that I needed something to draw this week, I've got an air pirate who's very essence is Halloween...

Legends surround the dread pirate Azrael like a cloak. They say he can disable a ship's cannons with a look, that he can fly or freeze a man with his breath. They call him the angel of death and say he feeds on the souls of men.

Others say he's just a man in a cloak and painted face, but their voices are none too loud when they say it.

Azrael's career was brief but legendary. In the two and a half years he terrorized the skies, no one was safe. With his crew of heartless Savajes,* Azrael hit merchant convoys, luxury fareways, and even big Imperial warships. His bounty climbed as high as eighteen million, in the year before he disappeared.

The story goes that one of Azrael's treasures -- a stone that tells the future -- came with a curse, and it destroyed him. Many claim to have seen him since, perhaps searching for his lost bauble, but most dismiss these as ghost stories. Whether he lives or not, the Imperial bounty stands to this day, and will until the Navy finds proof of Azrael's death.

* Not "savages" -- these are folk from the islands of Savajinn.

In Search of the Perfect Utensil

For some, the perfect eating utensil is the most elegant, the most practical, or simply whatever they're used to. But me? I want a utensil that allows me to eat the most amount of food with the least amount of trouble. Let's begin.

(Also, this has absolutely nothing to do with writing. Don't worry. There's an Air Pirates sketch coming on Friday).

Like most Westerners, I grew up with the knife and fork. It's the perfect combination for a culture that eats primarily meat (although I'll never understand the common manners that dictate you switch hands for slicing and eating). Ideally suited for steak, the fork/knife can handle a wide variety of other foods. So it's good, but not the best. Let's look at some other options.

The chopsticks are the choice of the East. They are an elegant utensil, and you're super-cool if you can use them (in the West anyway). But cool as they are, they just don't make any sense for countries whose primary dish is rice. I mean, seriously guys, how am I supposed to eat this?

Next up is the spork. The scooping action makes it an ideal choice for rice and small pastas, and the tongs give it the versatility to spear larger chunks of food. The spork is almost perfect, but used alone, it is difficult to shove reluctant peas onto the shovel or to slice foods too big for one bite.

Enter Thailand. In Thailand, chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes (sometimes not even then). The preferred combination is a fork and spoon, but you'll have to throw out your Western mindset, and put the fork in your left hand. The spoon is your primary utensil.

The spoon allows you to carry much more food. The fork, meanwhile, provides the means to fill the spoon to overflowing with a minimum of effort. You can also use the fork and spoon in conjunction to cut almost anything except a tough steak. But then why are you eating tough steak anyway?

The fork-and-spoon is the best combination I've found yet, to the point where I often ask for a spoon when I visit the States. But there is one eating utensil that tops even these.

The tortilla! The tortilla is amazing in that it doubles as a plate, but you can eat it! Pile it with food, roll it up, and shove as much into your mouth as you can handle. The best part is, when you're done, there's nothing left to wash but your hands.

Geez, I could go for some Mexican food right now.

How about you? What do you like to eat with?

In Memoriam, Murdered Darlings

I'm more than halfway done with the 2nd Edit, and most of the major rewrites are finished. So now I'm mostly skimming through the remainder and changing references to things that no longer exist.

In doing so, I've had to delete bits I really liked. I'm putting some of them here in memoriam. I don't know how they'll come across out of context like this, but at least I'll know they're here, living forever in the internet.

This is from the first chapter, where Hagai goes to town to pick up the post for Aunt Booker. The village never figured very much in the novel, but I really liked the name.
Hagai hiked down the road to where the village stopped and the shady jungle began. It wasn't far. The village consisted of a dozen buildings on either side of the road. It didn't even have a real name. People called it Ontheway, because it was quicker than saying "those hovels you pass on the way to the Monastery." Hagai only had to walk past Moi's coffee shop, the restaurant that served Anican food, and Teresa's House of Virtue before he was in the relative cool of the jungle.

Originally, Hagai's father was not actually shown in the novel. Everything the reader learns about him, or Hagai's old life on the shipyard, came from little details like the one in this excerpt. Unfortunately, it had to go along with Aunt Booker.
"Who ever knows where they're going?" Aunt Booker turned to arrange some books. "What matters is how you get there."

"So how do I get there?" asked Hagai.

She laughed her loud, hearty laugh. "I ain't an augur, honey. Some things you just gotta figure out by yourself."

"Is that why my father sent me here?"

"Ha!" She whirled to face him. "Your father sent you here cuz you're a lazy, good-for-nothing lump who forgets to even eat 'less somebody tells him to."

Hagai frowned. "Those are his words, aren't they."

"No, they're mine," she said, not unkindly. "Keifer would've said it with more color."

From Sam's first chapter, in which we see him as a little boy asking why his father hasn't come back from the war yet. This was the chapter that got deleted, but I always liked the last line of this excerpt.
"Why're they fighting then?" Sam asked.

His mother sighed. "It's hard to explain. Somebody killed Justitia's emperor, then - "


"Who knows, love? But the Imperium got into it with Salvadora after that."

"I bet it was that piking bastard, Ignacio!" Sam drew his sword and made a couple of slashing motions for emphasis.

"Samuel Thomas Draper! Where did you learn such language?" She crossed her arms. "Is that how they talk in those picture stories of yours?"

"No," Sam lied.

"We'll see," which meant she would probably flip through his Reaper stories the next chance she got. Sam would have to remember to hide issue #8.

This last scene is also from Sam's past. He's older now, almost 18 years, and living in the big city. He works in a machinist shop by day, while by night he beats up on cruel factory owners and corrupt police. He also spends time in bars looking for information about the secret mission that killed his father.
"How'd you hear about this?" Sam asked the barkeep.

"Ain't no pub rumor, s'truth. A piking Imperial Commodore came in here the other day, poured the whole thing to me."

Sam was impressed. It was the first real bit of information he'd gotten since they moved to Grenon. He handed Alton another coin for his trouble. "So why'd he tell you all this?"

"Ah, now," Alton pinched the coin between two fingers, "man's gotta have some secrets. Else who'd pay me for my stories?"

"True enough." Sam took a sip from the cup that'd been getting warm in his hand. "You ain't getting rich from this piss, s'truth."

That Thing Where I Draw: Porco Rosso

Pastels are fun. They're like crayons for adults!

This is a scene, somewhat simplified, from one of my very favorite movies. Seaplanes, air pirates, and bounty hunters. How can you go wrong?

After messing around with pastels last week, I could tell they weren't really good for detail work, not like pencil or ink. But I was curious as to how inexact they really were, so I figured I'd try a cartoon. Turns out, if you're careful, you can still do a lot.

Pastels are so different from what I normally do. I hardly know anything about colors or shapes, preferring instead lines and shading (although I hardly know anything about shading either, now that I think about it). Among other things, it's forcing me to be looser with my drawing, which is a good thing. I normally get so stressed out over getting everything exactly right that drawing ceases to be fun. But doing this one was fun from the start, even in the sketching phase.

Maybe if I'm lucky, some of that freedom will shift into my writing process. Who knows? Anyway, my favorite part is the propeller.

Trust and Grace

Gosh, that title sounds like it belongs on my other blog. Anyway...

When we read something, anything, we want to know that we can trust the author. If we trust that the author knows what they're doing, we'll give them more grace when they make "mistakes" like using unnecessary adverbs or telling when they should be showing. We trust that eventually they'll explain whatever we don't understand.

Conversely, if we don't trust the author, those mistakes will stick out like they were written in sparkly red ink. If we don't understand something right away, rather than say, "I'm sure that's there for a good reason," we say, "That's stupid. It doesn't make any sense."

But trust is hard to come by, and worse, it's subjective.

We trust authors whose work we've read and liked before. We trust authors sold at Barnes & Noble more than self-pubbed authors peddling their works online. We trust authors recommended by friends.

We trust authors that we know personally. This is why referrals work. This is why agents and editors are nicer if you've met them in person. This is also why it's so hard to get honest criticism of our work, and why agents don't care if your mom and ten of your best friends said the manuscript was "better than Dan Brown."

So if you're unknown, unpublished (or self-published), and you don't know the reader personally, how do you get the reader to trust you? All you've got left, then, is your first impression.

Your first impression is your first sentence, first paragraph, first page, and in many cases, your query letter. This is why it's so important. It's not that the agent/editor won't read on if they suck, it's that they decide -- often subconsciously -- whether you're an amateur or professional based on the first thing they read. Everything they read afterward is colored by that.

If they see amateur mistakes straight off, then the fancy prose they see later might be seen as "trying too hard" or at best "potential." On the other hand, if they decide they're in the hands of a soon-to-be professional, then occasional sloppy prose they see later might be interpreted as "mistakes I can help them fix."

So don't tell them what your mom and ten best friends thought. Don't tell them you're the next Stephanie Meyer. Don't infodump. Don't try to describe every single character and subplot in a 250-word query.

Do find a critique group. Do read Nathan Bransford's comprehensive FAQ on publishing and getting published. Do read as many of the posts you can at Query Shark, Evil Editor, Miss Snark, and any number of other agents' and editors' blogs around the web. Do whatever it takes to find out what first impression you're making.

Then make a better one.


First off, thanks to everyone who hung out here for Positive Waves Week, and a special thanks to those who spread the love on their own blogs: MattDel, Stephanie Thornton, and Renee Pinner. I had fun. Next time I feel like crap, I'll do that again.

Now, those of you who follow the Works In Progress section on my sidebar* will notice I'm at chapter 12 of my "2nd Edit" of Air Pirates. Here's context for what that means:
  1. Brainstorming/Outlining/First Draft, in which I wrote the dang thing.
  2. 1st Edit, in which I identified the parts I wasn't happy with and fixed them.
  3. Beta Phase, in which my friends told me what they didn't like about it.
  4. 2nd Edit, in which I fix major problems and rewrite whole chapters.
  5. 3rd Edit, in which I fix minor problems and read through it again to make sure I didn't break anything.
  6. Beta Phase II (or as my mom would call it, the Gamma Phase), in which folks read it again, most hopefully for the first time.
  7. 4th Edit, in which I fix it yet again.
  8. Query, in which I discover how much I've learned since the last time.
So far, I've rewritten 1 chapter and a significant percentage of 7 others. I have at least one more scene and another chapter to rewrite, after which it's mostly tweaking the document for continuity.

It's hard work, but I'm learning firsthand how malleable my story really is. Like the other day, I had to delete a chapter. This was really hard for me because every chapter was originally there for a reason. But I was staring at this chapter for 2 days, and had attempted a couple of rewrites already, when I finally realized that (1) the chapter did nothing that couldn't be done elsewhere and (2) with the exception of 2 or 3 lines, I just didn't like it.

Once I did it (i.e. pressed the Delete key), I freaked out for a minute. Had I done the right thing? Did the chapter have some purpose I forgot about? What if deleting it broke something else?**

But it was also kind of liberating. I don't have to keep anything I don't like. I've come across scenes since then and recognized the same feeling: I don't like it, or something's not working with it, or I'm trying to force it in there because I like bits of it but those bits aren't worth bringing the rest of the story down. Those scenes have been rewritten.

All that said, I hope I never have to delete a chapter again. I mean, it's nice to know I can, but it will mean I didn't plan properly. And that... well that just doesn't happen.

Shut up, it doesn't.

* Which is none of you, I know. But I bet you're scrolling down to look for it now.

** Yes, I realize that the chapter was just an Undo away -- and in older saved versions, on backup drives and e-mails, on the hard drives of all my beta readers... Whoever thinks writers are sane doesn't know any.

That Thing Where I Draw Every Week and Then Show It To You: Roast Chicken

(Like my new feature title? It was the best I could come up with.* If you think you can do better, drop your idea in the comments.

I had a hard time deciding what to draw for Positive Waves Week. At first I thought I'd draw something that makes me happy, like a scene from Laputa or something. And I figured copying cartoons is a lot easier than copying from life, cuz all the lines are already there!

Well ten minutes into copying it, I realized I was stressing out. Copying cartoons is just as bad as copying from life; I'll know if it's wrong, and I won't be happy. (I also got a rejection letter during those ten minutes, so that didn't help. More negative waves!).

So I scrapped it and decided I was going to draw whatever the heck I wanted to draw. No reference pictures.** No laboring over every line, angle, and proportion.

I sketched something really fast, intending to go over it with color later and ditch the pencil lines. But when I pulled out the colored pencils, I remembered how that worked out for me the last time and put them away.

I couldn't leave the pencil lines in, so what to do? I remembered our oil pastels. To be fair, they didn't come out so well last time either, but I'd gotten some good tips, and anyway what better time to try new things than the day I decide I don't care!

ALL THAT TO SAY, this is what I drew this week:

And I had a lot of fun. I think I might keep messing with pastels for a while.

(This marks the end of Positive Waves Week at Author's Echo, but if you'd like to send positive waves on your own blog, feel free to drop a link in the comments. I'll follow every one.)

* "Roast Chicken" is what I called today's picture. It's not part of the feature title... though maybe it should be.

** Well, I did use a reference for the chicken.

Land of Smiles

To continue Positive Waves Week, I bring you pictures from Thailand, the land of smiles. (If one of these doesn't make you smile, we may need a whole Positive Waves Month until you get better).

I posted this first one a long time ago, back before most of you knew I was here. This ad was in the window of the local Toyota dealership. No, I don't get it either. While it didn't make me want to buy a Toyota, it did make me want to go pirating.

This snack reminded me of a scene from a certain favorite movie. They served it at church. I kept expecting one of the youth to flip out and kill everyone.

E-books have finally come to Thailand! Oh, wait. No. No, they haven't.

Thailand might be behind the curve, but my boys aren't. Here's Nathan and Isaac sporting the latest in steampunk fashion.

You can't see it, but Isaac's shirt says "The animal to pirate". Again, I'm not sure what that means, but I know that boy's going to be swinging from the monkey bars some day with a wooden sword and an eye patch. *snif* I'm so proud!

(If you'd like to continue Positive Waves Week on your own blog, feel free to drop a link in the comments. I'll follow every one.)

Positive Waves Week

A number of things happened last week, both online and off, such that I felt totally assaulted by negative waves. Therefore, I hereby declare this week Positive Waves Week at Author's Echo. There will be no rants this week, no posts bemoaning any aspect of writing or the publishing industry, no insanity -- temporary or otherwise. There will only be posts to make you happy (or, because I cannot actually control or otherwise guarantee your happiness, to make me happy).

You know what makes me happy?
  • Movies -- Star Wars IV-VI, The Matrix, Serenity, The Incredibles, Pirates of the Caribbean... Give me action, fantasy, sci-fi. Give me a Chosen One, someone coming into his own, someone with special powers. Love interest? If you must. But don't overshadow the rebellion/rescue/vengeance with unnecessary kissing.
  • Anime -- Cowboy Bebop, Evangelion, Escaflowne, Steamboy, Naruto, and of course Miyazaki (Laputa, Nausicaa, Mononoke)... It's not the animation style I love, it's the culture behind it. It's the worlds that are so different from the fantasy worlds the West is used to. The airships, giant fighting robots, and ninjas certainly don't hurt.
  • Board Games -- I'm talking about real strategy games. Settlers, Ticket to Ride, Puerto Rico, Alhambra, Carcassonne... I think it's my German blood.
  • Food -- I'm blessed to be in a foreign city that has so many Westerners in it. Though it costs 5-10 times more than Thai food, I have access to pizza, pasta, hamburgers, KFC, and (praise the Lord!) Mexican food when I'm feeling down. I love Chiang Mai.
  • You! -- Every time one of you leaves a comment or sends me a note, I smile. Especially when you make jokes, laugh at mine, or tell me you enjoyed a post. You guys are awesome.
  • My Kids -- I have awesome kids, guys. Right now we've got 4. There's the boys, Isaac and Nathan, both 2, who make me laugh everyday; if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you probably know that. There's Lutiya (10), willing to learn any game I'll teach her, even though she's just learning English. And Pan (17), who is the most respectful, helpful teenager I've ever met; I just wish I could take credit for it.
  • My Wife -- Cindy is the pinnacle of what makes me happy. She quotes Star Wars to me, asks me why Shikamaru is my favorite Naruto character, tries out 2-player variants for Settlers, brings me pizza, and laughs at my jokes (usually). She's the mother of my kids and my favorite alpha reader. She's just the most awesomest thing that's ever happened to me.
Now listen. Positive Waves Week isn't just about me, nor does it need to be confined to a single blog. Are you feeling me? Talk about what makes you happy. Write a post to make you or others smile, and drop the link here. I'll follow every one, all week.

Phew. I feel better already.

Weekly Sketch: Sam Draper

Sam Draper. Ex-Imperial Shadow Commander. Gone AWOL, year 430. Wanted by the Imperial Navy for suspicion of theft, fraud, and piracy. Considered untrustworthy and potentially dangerous. [Edit: If they only knew.] Bounty: 1,200 Jons.

I liked this sketch better before I colored it. The green in particular was a mistake, I think. Oh well. How else am I gonna learn, right?

Once again, you are all witnesses of shattered misconceptions. Last week, I said I wasn't sure about using references for faces. My reasoning was, if I was going to draw somebody from my imagination, I didn't want that somebody to look like any existing person.

But you know what? I'm not that good an artist. It takes me a long, long time to get a Specific Person's face looking just like that Person. However, it takes far less time to draw a face that looks only kinda like them.

Case in point: Whose face is/was this? If you get it right, I'll draw whatever you want. (Note: If you say, "It's Sam's face!" you win my appreciation, but not the prize.)

Oh, also, I'm thinking this feature (if you'll let me call it that) needs a name. Something like Weekly Sketch or Sketch-o-rama, but not quite as lame. Any ideas?

Also also: super secret bonus sketch, hidden behind sloppy Photoshop editing in the upper-left hand corner above Sam's head. I was trying to see if I could still draw a certain favorite cartoon character after a decade of not having done so. Answer: mostly.

Early Writings

This free-writing exercise was found in a high school journal, dated March 1994. Edited for spelling and punctuation:

Once upon a time, in a land far away from here (where the grass was green, the sky was blue, and the air wasn't totally lethal), there was a great white castle. This castle was rather happy with its life, as it was just a castle and had very few responsibilities.

Inside of the castle lived a king. This king was not a happy king. His entire family had just died, and he was left to rule the happy castle all alone at 10 years old.

His only joy was his purple mongoose, whom he so frightfully dubbed Erskin. Erskin, however, knew not how to console his forlorn master as he was only a mongoose and, therefore, not very wise in the ways of comforting.

One day, a former knight -- who had been banished from the castle for plagiarism, false advertising, and incest, among other things -- came to the happy castle with 500 extremely not happy thieves. This knight, who also was not too happy, had come to take the castle from the 10-year-old monarch.

This made the king extremely unhappy, not to mention the castle and the mongoose. The unhappy men outside began to ram the drawbridge. This would have hurt the poor castle except the men failed to see the moat and, because of their heavy armor, they all drowned.


Steampunk, What is It?

They say steampunk's the next big thing. People are talking about it. Some folks are writing it. But what the heck is it? Honestly, steampunk is a lot of things, so as a certified expert on the subject* I'm going to give you an overview.

* Note: I'm not actually an expert, just a fan of steampunk... and of Wikipedia.

Steampunk as Historical/Science Fiction
At it's heart, steampunk applies the old sci-fi question -- what if? -- to the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution changed the world in a lot of ways, but what if those changes took a different path? What if steam power turned out to be more practical than electricity? What if airships became the most common mode of transportation and warfare? What if France went to war with Britain -- while ruled by Luddites? How might the 19th century have changed?

The classic example is The Difference Engine by Gibson & Sterling. It takes place in a 19th-century Britain where Charles Babbage has not only conceived of the computer, but has actually built one out of gears and cranks, where race cars and tanks run on steam, and where the Japanese build clockwork robot servants.

Another example is Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy, in which a boy inventor gets caught in a struggle between his father and grandfather, as their ideals about science collide. And when I say "collide," I'm talking steam-powered super-soldiers, jetpacks, and a flying fortress. (Seriously, if you're not sure about steampunk, watch this movie, and if you are, why haven't you seen this movie yet?).

Steampunk as Speculative Fiction
In the 19th century, science was changing dramatically. Evolution challenged centuries of creationist thinking. Subatomic structures were being discovered within the irreducible atom. In steampunk fiction, science may progress at any rate or discover things even we in the 21st century aren't aware of.

It may take the form of science fiction: a 19th-century scientist reanimates an army of the dead, or fashions a destructive laser using giant lenses and a ruby found in the Mayan ruins. Or it may be pure fantasy: magicians in the London underworld or an occultist's attempt to bring Genghis Khan back to life.

Often, it's a mix of the two. Like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in which steampunk scientists like Captain Nemo and Henry Jekyll might team up with lady-turned-vampire Mina Harker or the immortal Dorian Gray.

Steampunk as Alternate-Earth Fantasy
Not all steampunk takes place in our history. Video games like Arcanum (gears, factories, and elves) and Skies of Arcadia (airships and pirates on a world of floating continents) take place in fantasy worlds -- even World of Warcraft has a little steampunk in it. Treasure Planet is steampunk in space. Avatar: the Last Airbender pushed the punk edge with the Mechanist and his bender-powered airships, submarines, and tanks.

What these alternate-Earths have in common is a 19th-century feel, regardless of the actual technology (or magic) level.

Steampunk as Fashion
Though steampunk is rooted in fiction, there is a massive offshoot in aesthetics. Steampunk clothing, for example, borrows styles from Victorian England or steampunk fiction: boots, top hats, coat and tails, goggles, tool belts, frills, trenchcoats, you name it. (Also guns, apparently).

There's also steampunk design. This might be anything from gluing gears onto a pair of headphones to a full-on computer/work desk modification. A lot of it is taking modern technology and making it look like it was built in the 19th-century (in the process, making it look super-cool).

So there you go. Are there any questions? Did I miss anything?

(Steampunk not mentioned in this post, that perhaps should have been, includes: Wild, Wild West, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, Laputa, Howl's Moving Castle, Disney's Atlantis, and Air Pirates. Also, I'm not familiar with every expression of the subgenre, so others will, no doubt, be mentioned in the comments.)

Meet Suriya

Suriya lives with her aunt in the mountains of Northern Thailand. She was born with the ability to control fire. Every so often, the local villagers find out about her powers. When this happens, Suriya and her aunt become the center of unwanted -- often harmful -- attention, and they have to find a new place to live. Even so, Suriya persists in practicing her craft.

I'm really happy with this one. It doesn't look as amazing as Zhang Ziyi, but it's something new. Nobody's ever seen this girl before, and now you have.

One of the problems I'd been having with drawing from my imagination is I'd just do it too fast. I mean, it took me hours to draw Tosh and Lutiya, but I'd spend like 10 minutes on Fitch. What's that about?

This is also the first time I've used reference pictures (for the pose and the dress). I don't know why I didn't use them before. Did I think they were cheating? Probably. I've got a lot of misconceptions about artists that need to die, I think.

That said, I'm still sketchy about using reference pictures for faces. Maybe that's what I should try next then...