I Draw Like I Write 2: Pastel Edition

— November 30, 2009 (3 comments)
A while ago I realized that my drawing process and my writing process are very similar. In particular, fear plays a lot in both of them. As I've been getting better at both, and have been deep in Air Pirates' edits, I've discovered even more similarities. Particularly when working with pastels.

Step One: Loose Sketch
You'll have to click on that image if you want to actually see it. Before I put any color on, I have to make a sketch. This is like my outline. It doesn't have to be very detailed, because all the details are going to change when I do the "real" drawing anyway.

It's also totally fun. I'm free, I can make any mistakes I like because they'll all be erased or covered by the colors. It's like a puzzle, too, as I try and figure out where all the pieces need to go so the work as a whole looks right.

Step Two: First Lines and Fill
This is the first draft. It's not pretty. The shapes and skeleton are there. I hit all the easy scenes, the big parts, and I realize that this story is a lot bigger than I thought it was.

I'm tempted to just say this is good enough. The fun part's over, after all. But it's ugly. And although I have my doubts about being able to fix it, I'll never know if I don't try.

Step Three: Second Layer
The first revision/edit. This is when I fill in the empty parts from Step Two. This is really hard. The reason I skipped those parts was because I wasn't sure how to draw them, and now that I'm sitting down to do it, I still don't know. But this is what drawing (and writing) is: doing the hard parts so you can learn how to do them.

This is also the point at which I'm pretty sure I was overly ambitious when I decided what I wanted to draw this week.

Step Four: Last Fill and Shading
A second revision. Now it's starting to look like the final product. Like a real picture. Somewhere between steps three and four I had to disconnect myself from my initial sketch -- from the outline -- and take a look at the picture as a whole. To try and see what the picture really was, rather than what I thought it was going to be.

At this point, I know was too ambitious, but I also know that there isn't much work left before this picture is as good as I can make it. There's no going back now.

Step Five: Final Touches
The picture is done, or at least as done as I can make it. I'm not happy with it, necessarily, but I know that at my current skill level this is as good as I can do. I know the picture needs to be fixed, but I don't know how to do it and that's okay. The best thing for me, at this point, is to take what I've learned and move on to another picture. Eventually, I will know what to do.

Here's where the analogy breaks down, of course. With pastels, I can't erase portions and redo them. It's easier to see that moving on is my only option. But with writing (or pencil sketches, I suppose), you can always erase and redo. That's good and bad.

It's good because you can take what you've learned by the end and apply it to the beginning of the novel. It's bad because you can revise the same piece forever and never move on. Sometimes, though, moving on is really the best thing you can do for your work.

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That Thing Where I Draw: Kauai

— November 27, 2009 (2 comments)
(If you missed it, the contest winner(s) were announced here).

I love Kauai. It's probably my favorite place in the world. If money and my calling were no object, that's where I'd live. This is from a picture I took once. On top of the mountains they've got all this swamp, and boardwalks all the way through it. It's beautiful as heck. I tried it with pastels.

It came out somewhat more impressionist than I intended (abstract? modern? Let it not be said that I know anything about classical art styles). There was so much detail, so many colors, that I just had no idea what to do with it all. So hooray for experimentation!

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Contest Winner!

— November 26, 2009 (3 comments)
So last Friday, I gave you a task. Give me the funniest caption to this picture. You guys did great, making this quite difficult. You're all very funny, and the next time I pull something like this, I hope to give you better material to showcase your talent.

Unfortunately, there can be only one winner, and that winner is...

Cap'n Heine! E-mail me whether you want the drawing or critique, and we'll talk details.

"Now hold on," you say (while admiring my sudden use of the second person POV). "Cap'n Heine? Isn't that just a tad nepotic?"

First of all, good use of the word nepotic. That adjective doesn't get enough play. Secondly, although the good Cap'n is my brother, it's technically fair because that caption is really, very funny. Heh... Smaug at our poker nights...

Anyway, thirdly, you might be right. Or you're not, but I do want to recognize the runners-up with more than just: "Good job!" So to the authors of the following two captions, I am going to send you a short collection of (good) poetry I wrote, because I love you... or hate you, depending on how you feel about poetry. Um, anyway, runner-up captions!

"At least I'm not losing to a Hobbit." -- Sara Raasch

"Fold! Fold! This is an antique table!" -- Larissa

Sara and Larissa, you can e-mail me at adamheine [at] gmail [dot] com, and I'll send you your prize.

To the winners and all the rest of you, thanks for playing, and have a good Thanksgiving.

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Points of View: Switching Around

— November 25, 2009 (5 comments)
(Note: The contest is over. Thank you, everyone who entered. I'll announce the winner in a special post tomorrow. That's right, you have to check my blog on Thanksgiving to see who won.)

Before I talk about switching viewpoint characters, here's table reviewing the advantages of the first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited points of view.

First PersonThird Person, OmniscientThird Person, Limited
Puts the reader up close and personal with the characters.X
Feels as though the action is immediate, rather than in the past.
Immersive. No barrier between the reader and the story.

Can give a lot of information in fewer words.
Feels less like fiction and more like an eyewitness account.X

Highlights the story over the writing (the narrator's voice).

Highlights the writing (the narrator's voice) over the story.XX

Got all that? Keep that in mind when you're choosing how to tell your story.

Now about switching viewpoint characters in third person limited.* You can do it, but you shouldn't do it mid-scene. You can, however, switch the viewpoint character when you change scene or chapter -- anywhere there is a visual break in the text. But there are guidelines you need to be aware of:

You should be consistent. If 90% of the novel is from one character's POV, then you switch to another character in chapter 28 of 30, it won't work.** And if you write only the first chapter from the villain's POV, that's not a POV switch, it's a prologue.

Likewise, if you decide to switch POVs at chapter breaks, don't suddenly switch mid-chapter (even at a scene break) later in the novel. The reader won't be expecting it, and they probably won't like it.

You need to clue the reader in to whose POV it is. Once the reader gets the idea that each scene (or chapter) may mean a POV shift, you need to begin each scene (or chapter) with some clue so the reader knows whose head they're in. This could be as simple as titling each chapter with the name of the POV character. Personally, I don't do this in my books because I'm fond of chapter titles. Fortunately, there are other clues you can use:
  • The name of the POV character. If it's the first name the reader encounters in a scene, or it's connected to the first internal thought presented, the reader will get the idea they're in that character's head now. "Hagai had never seen an uglier man in his life."
  • Setting details. Suppose one character has gone to war in the cold northern wastes, while his twin brother stayed at home in the castle. After a couple of scenes with these characters, the reader will know that any reference to fighting, blood-stained fields, snow, or wastelands is an immediate clue they are in the first character's head. Likewise, references to warm weather, nobles, courtiers, and torch-lit corridors will imply the second. This clue isn't always availabe, but you'd be surprised how often it works.
  • Plot details. Are the POV characters traveling with different characters? Are they carrying unique, important items? Do they have a distinctly different knowledge of events? Basically you can use any major difference that the reader is likely to remember as a clue. Just remember it should be both important and unique. Don't expect the reader to remember that one character has an eye patch on his right eye and the other on his left, for example.
  • Make your own clue. Maybe a chapter quote from the character, or a page from someone's diary that gives the appropriate hints. Use your imagination. In Air Pirates, for example, I preface every Sam chapter with the place and time the chapter starts in, while the Hagai chapters (because they tend to be more continuous in time and place) have no such demarcation and so use the other clues listed here.
POV shifts are always jarring. You want to minimize the reader's whiplash. Help them know what to expect and don't be tricky unless you have a really, really good reason (and even then...).

This is mostly based on what I've read. Does anyone have examples of unique POV shifts, even ones that break these rules? And did they work for you or not?

* While I'm sure it's possible to switch first person POV characters, or to switch between first person and third, I've never seen it done. I imagine it would be hard to pull off. Also, you can't switch POV characters with third person omniscient by definition -- unless you do something weird.

** PROBABLY won't work. Everything in writing is a guideline. But still, don't do it unless you know what you're doing.

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Back to the Queries

— November 23, 2009 (3 comments)
(Have you entered the caption contest yet? You still have two days to win a drawing or a critique. Go now!)

It's been a while since I really talked about query letters. Of course, it's been a while since I've had to write them. But with Air Pirates in the gamma phase, and me ever-hopeful that I will not have to do any more major rewrites, I'm looking at my query letter again.

Queries are hard. Personally I think they're easier than synopses(eseses), but the fact remains that I have to condense four thousand score words into ten score. And for many agents, those ten score words will be the only sample of my writing they ever see.

So I do crazy things like read every single query critiqued by the Query Shark or all the successful queries posted on Guide to Literary Agents in an attempt to figure out what, exactly, agents are looking for.

Nathan Bransford says the only things to really worry about are the overall look and the description of your work. That's certainly helpful in an anxiety sense (the last query I sent him started with a rhetorical question, for example), but it doesn't help me much with actually describing the work.

There are lots of formulas (lots and lots) out there to help write a query, but in the end they're just that: helps. Just like "don't start your novel with the weather" or "don't start with the character waking up in a white room" are helps, they're suggestions for those of us who don't yet know what we're doing. But it's entirely possible to break these rules and write something great (though probably not by accident).

So query formulas help, but they don't solve the problem. Worse, if you read those successful queries I linked to above, you'll notice many don't follow any formula. So why did they work? What are agents actually looking for? Here's what I think agents want to see in a query:
  1. A story they like and can sell. Believe it or not, the query doesn't sell the work. The work sells the work -- or at least the idea does. The very best query letter in the world won't sell a bad idea. Conversely, a great idea can (sometimes) carry bad writing.
  2. The ability to write. Credentials suggest that you can write, but your query shows that you can. It's not the little mistakes that will hurt you, rather the overall appearance that you don't know the craft or don't care enough to use it in everything you write. The query letter is such a short piece, there's no excuse for slapping it together without carefully choosing each word.
  3. Voice. Writing ability is to writer's voice as a common soldier is to a samurai (or a ninja). How you say it matters just as much as what you say. Your novel probably has a voice already. It might be funny, dark, matter-of-fact, dry, silly... whatever it is, it should come out in the query, not just the sample pages.
  4. A sane person they might like to work with. You need to come across as professional, intelligent, and not a jerk. Professional means no crazy fonts or cute gimmicks. Intelligent means you've done your research and understand at least something about the industry you're trying to break in to. Not being a jerk means being humble.*
It's not a formula, but hopefully once you're done following the formulas and have a query put together, you can ask yourself if it has these things. OR you can win my caption contest, and I'll tell you!

* Not in the commonly-understood sense of spineless or self-effacing, but in the dictionary-definition sense of "a modest estimate of one's own importance."

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That Thing Where I Draw: Caption Contest!

— November 20, 2009 (9 comments)
I got stressed out about what to draw this week. This happens every once in a while when I feel like I need to be perfect or impress you. I forget I'm just doing this for fun. The way I solve that is by drawing whatever the heck I want without caring so much about quality.

I've also decided to do a little contest. This sketch begs for a caption. Give it one. The funniest one will win either (A) a drawing of their choice or (B) a query/sample pages critique. Details after the sketch.

  • Entries must be posted in the comments.
  • You may make as many entries as you like.
  • Contest will close Tue, Nov 24 at 11 pm PST.
  • The drawing may be pencil, ink, colored pencil, or pastels. Your choice, or you can leave it up to me.
  • The critique may be a query letter, sample pages, or both, up to about 6 pages.

You can see samples of my drawing here. I promise I'll take extra care with the contest winner's sketch. Not like today's sketch, something more like this, this, or this. As for the critique, I'm no agent, but I'm not new to this either. I'll do a good job with that too.

Anyway, it's free and for fun. Get over it.

That last paragraph was for myself.

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Points of View: Third Person Limited

— November 18, 2009 (2 comments)
If you missed them, here are my posts on first person and third person omniscient. The last one I'm going to cover is third person limited.*

Technically, third person limited is just like omniscient, but (wait for it...) limited. The story is told by a narrator outside the story, but not an all-knowing one. The narrator only has access to what one character sees, thinks, and feels.

On the surface, it seems like this would have all the disadvantages of first person (happens in the past) and of omniscient (putting a barrier between the reader and the story). But as it turns out, the opposite is true. Third person limited has the feel of present action like omniscient does, and because there's no obvious narrator, there is even less of barrier than in first person. It also carries first person's advantage of getting the reader up close and personal with the characters, like the reader is in their world.

With third person limited, the story rather than the narrator shines. There's still a voice -- there is always a voice -- but it's more subtle than in first person or third omniscient.

One important note though: don't ever switch your viewpoint character mid-scene. That's what third person omniscient does. If you switch from one character's thoughts to another, it will be jarring if the reader thought they were in one person's head, and inconsistent if you only do it occasionally.

So how do you switch viewpoint characters then? I'll talk about that next time when I wrap things up.

* There's also second person, which I've never used nor read past 100 words, so I'm not going to touch it.

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Agent or Nay?

— November 16, 2009 (2 comments)
When I first started querying (1.5 years ago... geez, that's it?), I didn't know if I should query agents or editors. I was only vaguely aware of what agents did. Based on my experience with real estate agents, I knew they handled the legal stuff and took a cut, that was about it.

I wanted help with the legal stuff, and preferred an agent to a lawyer. I figured I'd get one eventually, but I wasn't very adamant about it back then. Two things tipped me over the edge.

The first (though I don't remember where I read it) was this: say you submit to all the hundreds of agents and they reject your work. You can still submit to the editors.*

But, if you submit to all those editors who accept unagented queries and they reject you, any agent you get afterward will be quite disappointed to find half their prospective editors already said no.

* Though if all the agents are rejecting you, I don't know why you'd expect different from the editors.

The second was Tobias Buckell's author advance survey. I love statistics, and Tobias got some good ones from a decent sampling of authors. If you're at all interested in what authors make, I suggest you read it. But basically: the median advance for first-time authors with an agent was $6,000; the median advance to the unagented was $3,500.

Some quick math: the agent's cut is 15%. For the agented authors, then, the net gain was $5,100. Still significantly more than that of the unagented.

As far as I know, that 15% is the only downside to having an agent. If agents are making back 3x that, while simultaneously haggling for your rights, selling those rights for more money, and generally ensuring you don't get screwed -- all while you are busy with the task of actually writing -- the choice of agent or no seems like a no-brainer.

On the other hand, it seems to me that publishers could save a lot of money by encouraging writers to submit to them unagented. (Though for a third hand, see Moonrat's list of reasons why editors would prefer to work with agents anyway).

So do you need an agent? No. Should you have one? Absolutely yes.

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That Thing Where I Draw: Savage

— November 13, 2009 (6 comments)
The pirate known as Jacobin Savage is ruthless, cunning, and afraid of nothing. In over 15 years, the Imperial Navy has never captured him. Rumor suggests he had a part in the Savajinn invasion of Endowood seven years ago. Although his attacks are rarely as spectacular as those of Azrael, the Navy considers him even more dangerous. Most notably because he's still at large.

Jacobin commands some 400 pirates, three dropouts, and his karaakh (a large gunship), the Blind Savage. He was last seen in the skies above Providence on Mercy Island where, if you believe the rumors, he is looking for Azrael's Curse.

He came out younger than I intended. He's supposed to be in his fifties. I'm not sure how to fix that. Fatter? Gray hair? (And how best to do gray hair with ink? I guess... less.)

The cool thing about this drawing, though, is I did it all freehand -- no reference pictures or anything. It was really hard, especially the hundredth time I erased it because it looked stupid. That was the kind of thing that made me quit drawing multiple times before; what I drew never matched what was in my head. So it makes me feel all good inside that I didn't give up.

For me, that's what drawing one thing every week is really about: overcoming my fear of failure. I'm not sure if it makes it easier in a general sense (like for writing or talking with people, etc.), but the fact that I can overcome it once a week, every week, is a pretty cool thing on its own.

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Points of View: Third Person Omniscient

— November 11, 2009 (8 comments)
There are three major POVs used in fiction. Last time, I talked about first person. Today it's third person omniscient.

Whereas a first person story is narrated by one of the characters, third person omniscient is narrated by someone outside the story -- specifically someone who knows what everyone is doing or thinking at any given time.

The most obvious benefit of this is tremendous freedom. You can present anything that anyone's thinking in any place. This allows you to tell a tale with fewer words and to reveal information however you see fit. And for some reason, third person feels more immediate, like it's happening right now (yes, even though it's written in the past tense).

But like first person, these advantages are omniscient's disadvantages as well. The freedom to be anywhere, in anyone's head, doesn't mean you should be. You can drain a lot of tension and do a lot of telling (as opposed to showing) if you're not careful.

The other disadvantage is that third person omniscient puts a barrier between the reader and the story: namely, the narrator. In first person, the narrator is part of the story. There's no barrier because the story is being told by it's owner. In third person omniscient, the reader is constantly -- sometimes annoyingly -- aware that they are being told the story by someone who wasn't there.

This can be a good thing. Mark Twain's voice was eminently obvious in his novels, but we liked it (well I did). His commentary on 19th-century southern America could not have been made in first person. With third person omniscient, Twain got to tell us what he thought about (for example) the schoolmaster's pomp and what Tom thought, not to mention what the schoolmaster thought when his "prize student" Tom couldn't recite a single verse.*

So, some tips:
  • Find the narrator's voice. This is usually your voice, but not necessarily.
  • Don't hide things from the reader just to be tricky. This really goes for any POV, but it's easier to hide information with omniscient so it needs to be said.
  • Know why you're using third person omniscient. Again, this goes for any POV, but I think it's easiest to slip into omniscient without realizing it. Use omniscient for its advantages above, not because you don't know what else to do.
If you're not sure about the voice, or you're not sure why you want to use an omniscient narrator anyway, you might consider third person limited. I'll talk about that one next week.

* Don't worry if you don't know/remember what I'm talking about. I wouldn't either if I hadn't just gone through Tom Sawyer with my niece.

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An Interesting Editing Discovery

— November 09, 2009 (8 comments)
I'm almost halfway through the 3rd Edit of Air Pirates (as you can see on the sidebar, or you could if you also knew that there are 28 chapters). I always notice interesting things when I edit. For one thing, there are always more typos. I mean, what's up with that?

For another, I've discovered that there are certain words -- words I think are cool, or that make me love the story or the world -- that I use way more often than necessary. Pirates, airships, monks, names of ships, etc. I use them over and over again when, after the initial introduction, I could just say "men" or "ships" or "they." I think I just find the words so cool that I want to use them over and over again, not realizing of course that their coolness gets diluted with use.

Does anyone else do this?

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That Thing Where I Draw: Panchiwa

— November 06, 2009 (5 comments)
My latest experiment with pastels. This is our foster daughter, Pan,* though she's a lot more beautiful in person (one more thing I wish I could take credit for).

Mostly I wanted to try out realistic, non-cartoon colors and shading. Skintone, in particular, is really hard, but like every other pastel I've done, I had a lot of fun with this, and really that's the point.

Though there was a moment -- after I'd finished the pencil sketch but before I put down any color -- when I considered just detailing it in pencil. Maybe my creative mind is saying it's time to go back to that.

* That's pronounced bpahn. For you linguists, it's an unvoiced, unaspirated p. For you Thai readers, it's ปาน.

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Points of View: First Person

— November 04, 2009 (4 comments)
Points of view are tricky things. What kinds are there, and what's the difference? Why would you choose to use one over the other? Can you switch POVs mid-novel? This mini-series is intended to answer those questions. (Quick tip: the answer to the last question is yes).

Grammatically, first person just means "I" instead of he or she. But in fiction, if all you're doing is changing the he's to I's, then you're doing it wrong.

First person is a chance to get inside a character's head. Done right, the reader will identify with that character strongly, feel what they feel. The reader will get to know them more personally than with other POVs; they will see the world through their eyes.

First person also has the advantage of feeling more truthful. The narrator is involved in the story -- they were there when it happened -- so it feels less like fiction and more like an eyewitness account.

What makes first person work can also be limiting. For example, the reader only knows what the narrator knows and only sees what they see. Depending on how you want the tension presented, this can take some planning. Also, first person is inherently a flashback. This isn't so much a limitation as something to be aware of. If the main tension is that the narrator might die, well, that tension is gone every time the reader remembers that the narrator is telling the story.

Some tips on writing in first person:
  • Find the narrator's voice. The biggest thing first person has going for it is that you get to speak in the voice of a character all the time. If the narrator's voice is just a third person narrator who says "I" instead of "he," it's almost a waste of the POV.
  • Know why the narrator is telling the story. Are they trying to vindicate themselves? Keep others from making the same mistake? Tell their side of what happened? It doesn't have to be a unique reason, nor does the narrator ever need to say it explicitly, but as the writer you should know what it is.
  • Know who the narrator's audience is. Like above, it doesn't have to be stated explicitly, but you should know who the narrator is telling the story to.
  • Don't slip into other character's heads. WRONG: "I watched Nora from across the room. She was upset -- worried about the upcoming deal." BETTER: "I watched Nora from across the room. She looked upset -- probably worried about the upcoming deal."
  • Don't show what the narrator is doing without ever getting into their heads about why. This is just as bad as not giving the narrator a voice.
  • The narrator should be present at all major events. Otherwise the narrator might only hear about the climax from a friend, which is lame. A corollary to this is that the narrator should be active at the major events, not just a bystander.
One last thing: the unreliable narrator. Like the name says, this is a narrator that cannot be trusted. They might be insane, have a strong bias, or might simply be trying to deceive the reader. Done well, this is a powerful device that can make for some crazy twist endings. But like most powerful devices, it's hard to do well, and done poorly, it's just annoying.

DONE WELL: Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk.
ARGUABLE: Beach Road, James Patterson (I liked it, but others who saw the twist coming, or who just got mad, didn't).
DONE POORLY: "The Stillborn Dead", a short story by me, which you will never read (failed because the narrator's secret was lame and/or didn't make sense).

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Because the World Needs Another NaNoWriMo Post

— November 02, 2009 (11 comments)
I must not have been very connected to the writer's blogging world last year, because I can't ever remember hearing so much about NaNoWriMo all at once. Why am I writing about it too? Because I'm aware that not all of my readers are writers, and may not even know what NaNo is. Friends, this one's for you.

NaNoWriMo is short(ish) for National Novel Writing Month. Each year in the month of November, thousands of writers and wannabe writers disappear as they attempt to write 50,000 words in one month. The idea is primarily twofold: (1) to prove to yourself and others that you actually can write a novel -- time is not lacking, only motivation -- and (2) to give yourself said motivation with deadlines and accountability (i.e. all the other writers who are doing the same thing).

The contest is free. The rules are loose. There is no prize.* It's just fun. As someone who once wrote a novel just to prove to myself that I could do it, I can fully appreciate the heart behind NaNo. I've always wanted to do it, but I don't think Cindy would understand why I had to disappear for 2-5 hours every day until I wrote 1,667 words (really 2,000, because I would need days off). Or rather, she might understand, but she wouldn't put up with it.

Also I'm not sure I need it. Not like I'm some crazy-fast writer or anything (I'm really, really not), but I know I can finish, and I figure I'll get faster with time. Plus this way, I don't have to abandon my wife and children any more than I do already.

If you want to know more, the NaNoWriMo website has all the information you could ever want and more. So what about you? Are you doing NaNo? Why or why not?

Also, because I wasted about a half hour on MST3K clips today, I found one to share with you.

* Other than the use of an image on your website and self-confidence... Come to think of it, that's a pretty good prize. I could use some more images.

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