Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Next Big Thing (Week 22)

I was asked by the mighty Alexandra Tys O’Connor to continue the ages-old blog tradition called So You Think You Can Write a Novel.  Alexandra linked forward to me through her awesome Whispering Minds blog, in which she made the entire affair look effortless. How like her that is!

The idea is that we’re supposed to wax philosophical, and reveal the inner workings of our artistic workflows, to the titillation of the multitudes.  For me, this presents a conundrum, in that my methods are terribly mundane, such as using a scrabble set and an old player piano to generate plot twists.

But, beneath the workaday writerly habits like picking words at random from the thesaurus to spice up my manuscript, writing entire chapters that are palindromes, and having the first letter of each line spell out haikus, there’s not much to say, really.  You can only detail the nitty-gritty so many times before the mere mention of quills and papyrus sets heads to nodding.

So, having imposed on your patience long enough, here’s my contribution to posterity:

1- What is the working title of your book?
My current project is a dark fantasy trilogy called Queen of Cinders.  The individual books are Waif, Widow, and Witch.  Currently, I’m wrapping up the first draft of Book Two: Widow.

2- Where did the idea come from for the book?
My oldest daughter is four, and she’s entering the fairy-tale zone.  But, while reading her the many versions of these tales, a number of nagging questions in the setup occur, and won’t let my writer’s mind rest.  All of these stories suffer from huge, glaring plot holes, and these demand answers.  As the most popular fairy tale, Cinderella was ripe for a mature treatment.  While there have been many retellings of this story, my hope was that, by entangling a number of tales, and treating each story with respect, I’d be able to draw adults into them as well.

3- What genre does your book fall under?
Adult fantasy.  Emphasis on the adult.  While not gratuitous, these books are somewhat graphic, and have disturbing elements not really suitable for children.  Of course, if you think about it, the base stories are pretty disturbing on their own.

4- Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is really a tough question.  No big names spring to mind for this series, perhaps because the standard “fantasy cast” go-tos are all so obvious, and all so very inappropriate.  I think a cast of virtual unknowns would suit this well.  But the characters all play so many roles in the span of the trilogy that I’d have a hard time casting it.  But they’d pretty much all need to be from the UK.

5- What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Who, really, was that low-born girl that won the hand of a prince and thereby gained a throne?

6- Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’ve got leads on a publishing house, but will also consider shopping for agency representation.  Since self-publication changes so quickly, and the proceeds that writers are realizing are now so significant, self-publication is a real possibility, too.

7- How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
27 days for book one.  Or 27 evenings, really, since my useful writing time starts around 10pm.  But once I start a project, it’s all I do until it gets done.  So why drag it out?  But, even with that mentality, book two has taken me forty-five writing nights stretched out over three clumps of about twenty days each.  These clumps are separated by huge gulfs filled with other things.  My illustration work, for example, has been taking up a lot of time I had earmarked for writing!

8- What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Probably Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.  I’m reaching for that level of definitive reimagining, although the styles are different, as he was channeling L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, a distinctly American take on writing from a bit over a hundred years ago, and I’m going for more the old-world-that-never-was sort of vibe. A more apt comparison might be Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, as the basic story is there, but in a form and level of detail that makes the forest hard to see for the trees, and definitely with an adult feel to it.

9- Who or What inspired you to write this book?
If I remember correctly, I was considering some point brought up by a writer acquaintance on Agent Query Connect’s forum, and I wrote something in response using fairy tales as an example.  In any case, I clearly remember that I continued to think about it afterward, and suddenly had scenes rolling through my head for a true-to-life sort of retelling of Cinderella.  When days pass, and an idea won’t let go, it’s best to listen to your muses.  If they don’t stop talking about something for a that long, it’s a project that’s worth taking up.

10- What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Even though I write fantasy, these books are the first time I’ve ever had a character that uses magic.  Wierd, huh?  And the first beta readers I’ve run this past didn’t realize the story they were reading, so it stands on its own merits and doesn’t lean on the reader’s knowing the basic thrust of the story in advance.  It doesn’t read like a fairy tale, that’s for sure.

Next week, November 7th, tune in to the awe-inspiring Debra McKellan's The Writer Ambitious blog for our first post-election edition of The Next Big Thing. Also, check out Ian Isaro's blog for another dose of Work-In-Progress goodness, and Dean Rich's practical-minded work at his blog, The Write Time. Those with a taste for road-tested cool can also seek out Peter Burton's blog, and see what the Big Dog has to say.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Daughter's Dowry: Meet the Hunters at last

My short story, The Daughter’s Dowry, has recently gone live on the Black Gate Magazine website.  Though originally purchased years ago, for the print magazine, along with a number of follow-up pieces, the slow demise of the paper-incarnated Black Gate meant that the stories were waiting for an issue that was fated to never arrive.  The issue just before was to prove the magazine’s last.

But the stories have now gotten a new chance at an audience with the start of the online fiction section at the Black Gate website.  Yay!

The Daughter’s Dowry is the first story in a series that details the adventures of Gloren Avericci and his trusted companion, Yr Neh.  Gloren and Yr Neh are gallery hunters: freelance art speculators, archaeologists, and acquirers of rare antiquities.  Yr Neh also happens to be a large, somewhat moody cat.

Dowry was the first short story I produced for a small writing group I helped form in Chicago, and, while I was writing it, I remember knowing that I’d be doing more with these main characters.  At the time, though, I’d never written anything with a recurring cast, so the idea was still somewhat speculative.  But the popularity of the story allowed me to write The Sealord’s Successor a few months later.

Taken together, these stories lay out the major division in the tales.  Some are narrated by Gloren, and reveal less than flattering aspects of his own actions and thoughts during the historical events.  Gloren also relates the tale at hand to other events with which the reader is supposed familiar.  The other half of the stories are told from the perspective of Aven Penworthy, the chronicler who travels with the pair, documenting their daring-do and various triumphs.  Aven, though, has an entirely different social perspective, and also seeks (in his final drafts, at least) to show Gloren and Yr Neh in a uniformly positive light.  It is this instinctive glamorizing that perhaps spurs Gloren to tell his stories directly.

Besides being fun to write, this series has the sort of flexibility to allow a long run, as they traverse not only the length and breadth of the known world, but the vagaries of rising and falling fortunes and the arc from youth to maturity.  This means I can allow Gloren and Yr Neh to change, somewhat, and also serve as the anchors that bind the stories together, as the setting and cast can be radically different from tale to tale.

These stories have taken a long time to see the light of publication, and I’m happy to see them in print at last.  I hope people enjoy them!

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Thundering Dragon of Heaven

I missed the release of this one!  Stupefying Stories 1.7 has been released, with my cover painting for the story The Thundering Dragon of Heaven, by Michael Matheson.  For those who haven't picked this up, I'd recommend it.  That story is lots of fun, and I had a bunch of visual ideas for the painting.

I'd say this was a traditional Chinese version of Steampunk, with machine melded cyborgs and chi-channeling resistance fighters duking it out.  My concepts for this showed a couple of scenes, and I was careful to get the details from the story correct, where they were given.  But composition and clarity also rule the final product.  For example, the warship in the background of the final cover originally had battle damage, but I felt it would get too messy.  The ornate sides of the ship have detail enough, with adding in gaping holes with burning edges, debris falling away, and trailing smoke.  Maybe it would have worked out, but I kept the craft intact instead.

I love visual detail, and had a great time painting the main character's tunic.  Cloth and patterns are lots of meticulous fun to draw and paint, as it allows me to kind of do another piece of art inside the main painting.  And having her wearing something that looks smart and practical allows me to give some indication of her character.  Clothing and item design are very important, and I can't stand the school of thought that says "well, it's fantasy, so anything goes".  Here, I was looking to go for comfortable, and something the character could conceivably wear during the many action sequences to come.

Having the titles behind the clouds was the idea of the all-powerful Bruce Bethke. I'd painted the sky as a single layer, in a traditional landscape-painting sort of style, and I immediately agreed to slip the titles behind the clouds not fully appreciating how this would complicate the task.  I had to manually erase and blur the titles, then basically painting them into the background layers.  A pretty simple task that turned out to be deceptively difficult to get looking good.  At one extreme the clouds ended up looking like translucent milk spills, and on the other they turned into opaque marshmallow fluff.  But incorporating the titles into the art makes a big difference, and I'm pleased at the final effect.

Concept A was basically static, showing the protagonist in the moments before her meeting with the cybernetically augmented Emperor.  I wanted to hint that she was something of a badass, and the electric arc between her fingertips was meant to do this.  This electrical flow was going to provide point light to her face and clothes, drawing attention to it thought it was to remain visually very small.  The elaborate clothes and hair were more examples of clothing design that I tend to like, and provided multiple small panels for stitching art, like the dragon and crane motifs on the cloak's shoulders.  But this one was rejected for being a bit too static, and I agreed with that.

I'm not thrilled with the way the woman's face appeared in this concept, but realized (too late) that I'd left on the mirroring layer I'd used to make sure her features were level.  This is a trick I sometimes do, in which I duplicate and flip a layer.  After adjustments are made (if any), I discard it.  But not here!  And since this is a sketch, her lips end up being too severe, her nose almost pug, and her eyes entirely too symmetrical.  A small error, and not a deal breaker, but it shows the hazards of working digitally.  For every trick it allows. digital painting admits a new, unforeseen risk.  This is the sort of thing that couldn't happen with traditional media.  In any case, the image in my head was far more attractive.  But, as I tell myself, this is just a sketch, after all.

Concept B was the one we went with.  It's pretty close to the final painting, with a few angles and such adjusted.  The airship in, in this version, bristling with more weaponry, and I eliminated much of this from the final version.

The sketch of the airship was itself based on a render of a 3D model I made of the airship hull, to guarantee that the hull design and sail masts would be geometrically correct, given the complexity of the angles.  The task of constructing the curved lines of the hull using traditional perspective methods was prohibitive for a mere concept piece.  All that work, after all, was likely as not to be rejected, and a simple 3D model was the faster and more accurate way to go.  The final painting is, of course a painting.  The dragon, and other details on the hull do not appear in this first concept piece, except as the roughest of approximations.

Concept C was a close favorite of mine.  This image immediately jumped out at me from the story.  The protagonist is facing a huge cybernetically enhanced killing machine, and waits, readying a lethal electrical charge.  This I showed with the power running down the metal, but I added additional arcs from her boots and body to inform the viewer that the power came from her, not the metal she was grabbing.

But this was rejected on the basis that the warmachine was too Iron-Man-like, and I had to agree.  Another concept I worked on featuring this creature was far more detailed, and unique, but, in the end I never sent it in, as the thing was just too distracting.  The simplified form of this concept, silhouetted a bit by the fire on the horizon, was more visually appealing, but perhaps didn't show enough that was unique.  This is the problem posed by conceptual art: you want to give the impression, not do a full-fledged painting.

This concept, however, is still strong, and I may just do the full painting from it, just to do the idea full justice.  And who knows?  the final may end up looking just as generic as the concept did, and wouldn't that just be a hoot?