Geek Still Life

Early sketch this week because Saturday is Talk Like a Pirate Day and, as the self-proclaimed liaison between the air pirates' world to ours, Friday has something different.

After I drew the fan art, I wanted to draw something that wasn't a face. I also wanted to try something with complicated shading, as that was the most difficult thing for me to ink properly. So I went and got my dice bag.

Of course it wasn't enough for me to draw just the dice bag. I had to find something that went along with it. Unfortunately, I've given away my D&D books, so instead I found the next best thing.

How to Plan a Novel

How did people get anything done before flowcharts?

I know what the title says, but this flowchart is really just how I plan a novel. Actually, it's an incomplete version of the way I plan today. Take it as you will.

Some further explanations:
Ask Questions: For any element of the story, ask: (1) How does this happen? (2) Why does this happen? (3) What happens as a result? Repeat as necessary. Orson Scott Card's idea, not mine.*
Throw Rocks: Make life difficult for the characters. Test them to the point of failure. Add tension. Ask, "What's the worst thing that can happen here?" and do it. Then ask how, why, and what result.
Event Outline: What happens in the world/lives of the characters. Not necessarily the layout of the novel. The event outline may begin before the novel does, and it may end long after. It may contain events that are never shown or even referred to in the final manuscript.
Chapter Outline: How the event outline is shown to the reader, and from whose points of view. If you haven't already done so, think about different story structures.

Obviously this is over-simplified. I ask questions, detail chapters, and fix weak spots constantly, even after the draft is finished. In general, though, identifying and fixing problems earlier in the process makes for much less work. At least that's the idea.

* Now that I think about it, none of these are my ideas. I just put them all together into a definable process.

Fan Art

I'm sure most of you haven't noticed but (a) I'm giving you more than one sketch a week and (b) I haven't been uploading "What I Drew This Week." Part of that is I'm still evaluating this whole show-people-my-sketches thing, so I'm just trying things out. The other part is that I haven't finished a sketch for a few weeks, so in lieu of showing the current one, I'm sort of catching you up on what I've been drawing since I decided to draw (>=) once a week.

The first is a piece of fan art I drew for Natalie Whipple's Relax, I'm a Ninja (for which she now has an agent, if you hadn't heard). Readers of Natalie's blog may remember a couple months ago when she found the perfect actor for Tosh. Well that's who I drew. I love this sketch. Every time I look at it I go, "Woah. I drew that?"

The second piece of fan art is for my daughter, Lutiya. If you don't already know, my wife and I live in Thailand where we take in children who have nowhere to go. Lutiya is one such child and has been with us for 2.5 years now. (I recently wrote about Lutiya on our other blog, if you're interested).

This was my first try at inking. Personally, I like the pencil a lot better, but of course I have more practice with pencil. I'm going to keep inking things for a while and see what I learn. If nothing else, the inked sketches last longer.

Talent, a Dirty Word

I don't like the word talent. See, we use this word to say someone is good at what they do, and that's fine, but the word "talent" implies they are good because of some natural ability. It implies they did not work hard to become good -- they were lucky, not persistent, blessed, not persevering.

It also implies a division: between the talented and untalented. It implies that, regardless of what you want to do in life, if you haven't "got it" you'll never be good enough no matter how hard you try.

I know what you're thinking. I'm making too much of this. You don't mean all that crap, just the compliment, right? The truth is, I'm not bothered so much by talent as a compliment. What really bothers me is the thought that comes after: I could never do that.

The thing is, I've quit so many things in my life because I saw someone amazing and thought, "I'll never be that good. Why bother?" I quit piano. I quit sports. I stopped writing and drawing for years.

I quit because they had something I didn't. To quote Leia, they had a power I didn't understand and "could never have." Without talent, I thought, I'd never be good enough, so I didn't even try.

I regret those years. I could've learned so much if I'd known what I know now. But you know what? Regret is useless too. All that matters is what I want now. I can do anything I want to do, and I can be really good at it, if I'm willing to put in the work.

So can you.

It's true, not everybody's starting block is in the same place. Not everyone has the same hurdles. But nobody gets to the finish line without working hard to get there. You find me one person born with professional-level skills, and I'll show you a hundred people just as good, who practice everyday. (And probably that one person practices everyday too).

So don't say, "You're lucky to be so talented." Say, "You must have worked really hard." Don't say, "I could never do that." Say, "I could do that, but I'm working on other things right now."

Or better yet: "I'll get there, too. It's just a matter of time."

Make It Tense

Tension is what drives a story. Without it, a story is just a bunch of stuff that happens. Not just the story, but the synopsis and query too. You need tension everywhere.

Tension is whatever the reader is afraid will happen. Morpheus might die. Greg might lose the respect of his future father-in-law. Julianne might not get married and/or might ruin her best friend's wedding.

In my own writing, I've realized places where I don't know what happens next are boring because there's nothing to be afraid of anymore. The trick is, in every chapter and every scene, to ask, "What's the tension here? What is the reader afraid will happen?" and then crank it up.

Make Me Care
In order for the reader to be afraid for the characters, they have to care about them. Have you ever watched a horror movie and wanted the bad guy to kill every last one of them? That's probably because you didn't care about the characters, so you didn't care when their lives were in danger.

It's the difference between strangers in an accident vs. your wife and kids. To make the reader care about the characters, they need to be believable and sympathetic.

Back Up Your Threats
Good parents know not to make empty threats. A kid who stops when Dad says no is one who has ignored Dad before and been punished.

In fiction, give the reader what they're afraid of, and make it worse than they feared. In Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel wasn't just caught in the act, he was caught in a public place, in front of his boss, his ex-wife, and her boyfriend.

What if you can't back it up? Everybody knows the good guy (usually) never dies. If you want the reader to be really afraid, try this: kill someone the reader thought was safe. Joss Whedon did this in Serenity. George R. R. Martin does it in every freaking book, and now I'm afraid for everybody.

Crank It Up
So the reader cares about your characters, they know you'll back up your threats, now it's time to crank up the tension. Except at the end, and maybe at the very beginning, there should be some tension at all times. The amount might rise and fall throughout the story, but it should generally increase until the climax, when everything goes BOOM.

There are lots of ways to do this. One is by raising the stakes. The Incredibles starts with Bob in danger of losing his job, then his life, then his whole family. Crank, crank, crank.

Another way to raise tension is by putting the protagonist in increasingly precarious situations. Notice how in every movie where the protagonist is pretending to be two people, there's always a scene where both people are supposed to be present at once? This is what they're doing.

If the protagonist is safe at home, force them out. If the last place they want to go is their ex-boyfriend's party, make them go to the party. Never give them a break. Ask "What's the worst that could happen?" and make it happen. Your characters will hate you, but fortunately, they're fictional.

A Pirate, an Author, and a Baby

One sketchbook page today, three pictures. Also a demonstration of the difference between what I draw from life (or, in this case, pictures of life) and what comes out of my head.

I'll save the best for last, cuz I'm like that. So first up is Fitch Mickells, an air pirate whose only loyalty is saving his own keel. It's almost a shame he hooked up with Sam Draper when he did.

Drawing from my imagination like this is fun, but hurts my fear of failure. I never know where everything is supposed to go. So I figure if I draw like a thousand real faces, I'll be better at drawing made-up ones. With that, here's one of my very favorite authors:

And one of my very favorite sons:

Trying New Things

Although I love planning and starting new novels, it makes me a little crazy too. I mean, in addition to all the normal worries (e.g. am I wasting my time? will I ever get published? if the previous novel(s) didn't get me an agent, what makes me think this one will? etc.), I have worries about new things.

I have to try new things. Unless it's a sequel, I need new characters, a new world, and a whole new idea, otherwise, what's the point? But new things are scary.

For example, The Cunning will be the first time I've tried writing a female protagonist.* Not only that, but she's a teenager. I don't know if I can do that convincingly. What if I'm trying something I'm just not good enough to write yet?

And Suriya doesn't even speak English. Am I going to have a lot of dialogue tags with "she said in Thai"? Will Suriya and Anna** have telepathic dialogue the entire time? What about the times Anna tries to speak to Suriya in English and she doesn't understand?

It also looks as though the entire first book (I think in trilogies) takes place in Thailand. I wanted to give this story something unique from my experience, but I'm afraid I'm going overboard with it -- including every little thing I know about this place. Even crazier, what if it does work, everybody loves it, but they're all disappointed because Book 2 takes place in the US?***

What if I can't find Suriya's voice? What if I do and it's no good? What if I can't bring the humor from Air Pirates into this story? What if I force the humor in and it doesn't fit?

I'm being totally stupid, I know (and thank you for caring enough to read this far, btw). Ultimately this is just a fear of failure I need to get over. The truth is if I don't try new things, I'll never know the answers to any of those what-ifs and I'll never get to tell Suriya's story.

I keep thinking that if this doesn't work it will be a year (or more) wasted writing this story, but the only way it would be wasted is if I didn't learn anything. What I really need to do is stop writing to get published and start writing for me again.

Hey, how about that? The crazy's gone.

* No, wait. The original "Joey Stone" had one, but she wasn't a teenager. Also, that story wasn't very good.

** For those of you
following along, Charity's name is now Anna.

*** Think that's crazy? I'm also thinking, "What if I can't write Book 2 because I haven't lived in the US for 4 years?"