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...

How I Choose a Book

Instructions: If the total number of points are greater than the dollar value of the book, it's worth buying.

Where did I hear about the book?
Independent friend recommendations: +3 each*
Acquaintance/third-party/some-guy-whose-comments-I-respect-on-that-one-blog recommendation: +1
Advertising or media coverage: +0.5
It's one of those books I'm supposed to have read but never got around to: +1

* If friend A and friend B both recommend a book, the recommendations are independent iff A and B came to hear about the book independently (i.e. not from each other). Such recommendations are cumulative.

Do I recognize the author?
Like the author: +3
Love the author: +5
Think I've maybe heard of the author: +1
I stopped reading another book of theirs partway through: -4

What genre is it?
SF/F: +3
Literary: -5
Romance: -5
(I know, I'm a jerk. Sorry.)

Front cover?
Cool picture: +1
Embarrassing to be seen with: -2

Back cover?
Intriguing plot: +1
Cool SF/F concepts: +1
Critic/author blurbs only: -0.5

Still not sure? Read the first paragraph.
Boring: -1
Insulting: -1
Infodump: -1
Bookstore employee has to tell me the store is closing: +7

How about you? How do you decide which books to buy?

Beta Phase Consensus

* Disclaimer #1: The beta phase isn't "over" in the sense that everybody's read it. I'm still getting feedback from some of the betas, and I hope to get more from those I haven't heard from. Even so, I have to move on or this thing will never be finished.

Disclaimer #2: There is no such thing as a consensus. Nobody ever agrees on anything.*** Quite the opposite in fact, as you'll see. All I can do is take what people think and decide to what extent I agree. Now onto the post.

*** Unless it's something stupid, like when I spelled a name "Lushita" and "Lusheeta" in the same paragraph. I think everybody caught that one :-P

The beta phase is over,* and the results are in!** After spending a day or two with the betas' comments and my own thoughts, here are some of the bigger problems I came away with:
  • Hagai's motivation to keep chasing the stone could be stronger.
  • Dorsey's motivation to stay at home, while Hagai joins Sam's crew, is pretty flat. (For those who aren't beta readers, Dorsey is Hagai's best friend.)
  • Hagai is a little too whiny at times.
  • The first 'Sam flashback' chapter is a bit jarring.
  • Something's wrong with the 'Sam in the Navy' chapter.
Let me talk about this Sam flashback thing a bit. One of the things I did with this novel (mostly because I didn't know any better when I planned it) was to intertwine two stories: the story of Hagai's search for his mother and the story of Sam's past and his search for his father. The first 4 chapters are Hagai's, then every other chapter after that. The odd chapters, 5-27, are Sam's.

The betas had mixed feelings about this. Strong mixed feelings in fact, and it's caused me no end of grief. Some people love the two stories, the way each informs the other, the way it never gave them opportunity to get bored. Some people hate them, getting annoyed each time the story "stopped" to talk about Sam some more.

You know what the worst part is? They're all right.

But it's helped me realize, even more clearly, that I can't please everybody. In the end, I have to decide what I want.

So Sam's story is staying, but I'm thinking of ways to make it tighter, more interesting, and also to clue the reader in early on that Air Pirates is not just about Hagai. I've already made plans to do major rewrites of 3 Sam chapters, and minor changes to 5 others. This is in addition to a massive reworking of the first 4-8 Hagai chapters.

So it might take a while, and I don't even know if it will work, but it will be better. In the end, that's all I can do.

Now, to figure out what's wrong with that Sam-in-the-Navy chapter...