Thursday, May 12, 2022

Proofs

One of my very favorite parts of the publishing process: checking proofs. These are pages of a book printed on the actual paper and press the book will be printed on, mailed to the publisher and author for their approval. 

I gather that the industry is moving toward digital (PDF) proofs, which I think are useless. Especially for a graphic novel, you need to see how the images and ink will look on the page, which is very different from how they look on a monitor. You need to inspect the quality of the publishing process itself--are the colors in register (lined up right), are there flecks and specks on the printing plate? A PDF doesn't tell you any of that. As it is, I only got physical proofs for 12 spreads, or 24 pages, so we picked pages that might reveal problems or answer questions, e.g., how does my white lettering on a black background look (the answer: just fine!). 

I love proofs because I'm a process geek and because now my book is real. Aside from one hand-bound copy of Last Mechanical Monster I made for Karen, it hasn't been a physical object. Until now. That's neat.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Hood River Reads

Majestic Mount Hood.

Karen and I are home from a very busy, beautiful long weekend in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge as guests of Hood River Reads, an annual program by the Friends of the Hood River County Public Library that encourages the community to read and discuss a book. This year, they chose mine. The group purchased enough copies of A Fire Story--nearly a thousand!--to distribute them free to the middle school, high school, and anybody who asked. Their one condition: I had to come and talk.

In the weeks before I arrived, Hood River Reads had kicked off the campaign with book club readings, mayoral proclamations, a poster contest, and creative classroom assignments built around A Fire Story. By the time I arrived on Friday, pretty much everyone I encountered had read the book. That's . . . unusual. I've never seen anything like it. The beauty of the Columbia River Gorge, the passion and kindness of the Friends of the Library, and the library and town of Hood River itself made for an exhilarating few days.

Here's all you need to know about the place and people: when we arrived, they had a gift box waiting in our hotel room, and among the many books and snacks in the box was a jar of homemade jam. 

The Friends chose A Fire Story partly because the area has faced terrifying wildfires itself, most recently the Eagle Creek Fire which, like our Tubbs Fire, hit in the fall of 2017. We saw its scars on the drive east from Portland. No lives were lost and property damage was light, but the 48,000-acre fire burned for three months. The kids remember it, the adults will never forget it.

I gave three talks on Friday: a workshop for a library full of middle school students, a lecture for an auditorium full (200-plus) of high school students, and a workshop for a combined art and creative-writing class at the high school. My last three talks happened at the downtown library. I gave two on Saturday: a workshop for the community, attended by about 15 prospective (or at least curious) writers and cartoonists, and a community lecture on graphic medicine suggested by a Friend who'd read Mom's Cancer. On Sunday afternoon, I gave a concluding community lecture in which I made the case for literary graphic novels and tied my fire experience to theirs to talk about readiness and resilience.

Six talks in three days is a packed schedule, but between events Karen and I were treated to convivial meals and had time to explore the area, including a drive to the snow at the foot of majestic Mount Hood an hour away. 

As is my way, I'll tell the rest of the story with pictures. Many thanks to our hosts--Laurie, Bonnie, Bill, Helen and others--as well as the librarians, teachers, and spouses involved in making us feel as welcome as could be. They're wonderful book-loving people (the best kind!) who live in a wonderful place. Thank you for inviting us up.

A selfie at historic and scenic Multnomah Falls along the way. Of course we hiked up to that bridge! The volume of water rolling over the rocks into the mighty Columbia everywhere we looked was stunning to these drought-addled Californians.

Karen found this sticker in a copy of A Fire Story: "Please read this book and pass it along or return it to the library." Isn't that terrific?

They were ready for me.

Students at the middle school had drawn pages combining images and quotes from the book that struck them. It was interesting to see what they picked up on. This isn't even half of them; they were all over. Karen took most of these photos while I was talking to people and figuring out how to get projectors working.

It is profoundly surreal to walk into a school hundreds of miles from my home and see an accurate rendering of my backyard. Notice how this artist used quotes from the book as the melted iron bars in the gate. I wish I'd thought of that.

Before we got started, a teacher introduced me to a boy with obvious neurological issues who had drawn a beautiful 12-page comic featuring Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants." He had storytelling skills and color sense beyond his years, and I was happy to tell him that. For some people, it's easier to communicate in words plus pictures than words alone, and I'm proud to be part of a medium that offers that outlet.

Rappin' with the yoots. I made them draw some comics themselves.

Talking to a couple hundred high schoolers in their professional-grade theater. Hood River High School is an extraordinarily well-equipped campus, with shop classes (haven't seen those in California since the '70s), a large greenhouse supporting an agricultural program, a student health center, and students who were unfailingly smart and polite. Maybe I just missed the duds, but the kids I met convinced me that the future is all right.

An hour in teacher Matthew Gerlick's art class flashed me back to high school and college. I was not prepared. Paint splattered everywhere, half-finished projects clipped to drawing boards and drying in flat files, silk-screening frames lying in racks, bins of supplies stacked to the ceiling. I felt at home in a way I haven't in decades. Some interesting young writers and artists, too.

The high school students held a Fire Story poster contest. As with the middle schoolers, I was fascinated to see how they processed and interpreted my story.

Many entered, three won. I was very happy I wasn't asked to judge.

Saturday morning I did a writing workshop for a small but motivated group. This is an exercise where I draw an oval with two eyes and a nose, then have brave volunteers come up to add eyebrows, mouths, etc. and ascribe an emotion to the expression they created. The idea is to show the tremendous variety of complex and subtle emotions that can be conveyed with the simplest of graphics. Photo by Bonnie Withers (thanks Bonnie).

Sunday's community lecture in the library's great room, attended by 50 or so. Librarians Rachael and Mo were great and helpful hosts. I'm wearing my red shirt so you know I'm serious.

At liberty on Sunday morning, Karen and I headed south toward Mount Hood for some beautiful scenery and a snowball fight that Karen did not let me start. A shame. It would have been glorious.


Friday, April 22, 2022

Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple


For the past couple of years, over on Facebook, I've written a series of posts titled "A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple." No particular schedule, I post them when they happen, and my rule is that they're "99 percent real life." The conversations between Karen and I actually happened--usually on our morning dog walk--but I might buff 'em up a bit to make 'em sparkle. 

In any event, I posted the 11th "Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple" today, and wanted to consolidate them here before they slip away forever, as is Facebook's nature. Following are eleven peeks:

Peek 1 (Nov. 9, 2020)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple: 

Karen and I spent quite a bit of our dog walk this morning discussing whether Wishbone was a crime-solving dog, or a dog who narrated stories in which he just sometimes happened to solve crimes. We're pretty sure it's the latter, but when you're dealing with a talking dog it's hard to find solid ground upon which to base a well-reasoned argument.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 2 (Nov. 18, 2020)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Two:

Karen: What will short kids sit on at Thanksgiving now that nobody has a phone book anymore?

Me: A pillow?

Karen: A pillow is too smooshy.

Me: Two pillows?

Karen: *Looks at me like I'm an idiot and sighs.*

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 3 (Nov. 20, 2020)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Three:

(Karen and I are walking our dog Riley.)

Me: I read an article that said dogs poop in orientation with magnetic north.

Karen: They face north?

Me: North or south, more than east or west.

Karen: We have to do an experiment.

(Two minutes later, Riley poops.)

Karen: Is that north?

Me: Kinda northwest, I think. Hold on, my phone has a compass app.

Karen: 

Me, swiping: I know it's here somewhere.

Karen: The neighbors are wondering what we're doing....

Me: Got it! Son of a gun.

Karen: What?

Me: She's about 4 degrees off of due north.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 4 (Dec. 7, 2020)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Four:

Karen and I were comparing our lists of the many things we have to do this week, and I ended mine with "...My wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped." 

She was only mildly amused.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 5 (Feb. 7, 2021)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Five:

(Walking the dog this morning, we hear a frog croak in an unusually deep voice.)

Karen: He's got a different accent than the local frogs.

Brian: I don't think he's from around here.

Karen: Just passing through.

Brian: He's a traveling frog.

(Brian hums about 16 bars of the song "Movin' Right Along" from the Muppet Movie, featuring Kermit the Frog and Fozzie Bear.)

Brian: Bear left.

Karen: Right, frog.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 6 (March 1, 2021)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Six:

Karen: I've got the theme to "H.R. Huff 'n Puff" stuck in my head.

Brian: "Pufnstuf."

Karen: What did I say?

Brian: "Huff 'n Puff."

Karen: Like Harry Potter. Hufflepuff.

Brian: H.R. Hufflepuff.

Karen: Maybe that's where J.K. Rowling got the idea.

(Ten minutes later.)

Brian: H.R. Pufnstuf would have fit right in at Hogwarts.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 7 (May 26, 2021)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Seven:

(Walking the dog, Karen pulls the leash sharply.)

Me: Jerk.

Karen: Who?

Me: You jerked the leash. The verb, not the noun.

Karen: That wasn't clear.

. . .

Karen: How about "Yank?"

Me: Same problem. It's a verb and a noun.

Karen: "Pull?"

Me: Yeah, but that doesn't capture the motion of a jerk.

. . .

Me: "Tug."

Karen: Noun.

Me: Dammit!

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 8 (June 15, 2021)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Eight:

(Watching a man mow the grass at our neighborhood park using a speedy standing mower that turns on a dime.)

Me: That must be the best job in the world.

Karen: That's your inner 10-year-old boy talking.

Me: Can you think of a better one?

Karen: Yes. But it might be fun to do once. Or twice.

(Three blocks away, we notice a single leaf of a plant oscillating wildly in an imperceptible breeze.)

Karen: It must be catching the air just right.

Me: But there's no wind.

Karen: It could be a ghost.

Me: Yes, that's logical.

Karen: A ghost whose job is to spin that leaf.

Me: That's a MUCH worse job than cutting grass with a cool riding lawnmower.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 9 (Sept. 3, 2021)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Nine:

(Me, checking a mirror as we leave the house): How did I get so old?

Karen (gestures to herself, like "Me too").

Me: Yeah, but together we're almost twice as old.

Karen: Well, there's the dog . . .

Me: If we add her age, that's even worse!

Karen: But she does bring down our average.

Me: Yes! That's exactly the right way to look at it!

Karen: We could get a gerbil . . .

Me: . . . Or an aquarium, with like 20 goldfish! That'd drop our mean age WAY down!

(We walk away feeling pretty good about ourselves.)

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 10 (Nov. 19, 2021)

A peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple, Part Ten:

Dealing with some family business, Karen has been meeting with a bank officer named Con. She just got home from a long and tiring appointment with him.

Me: Did he set up an Individual Retirement Account for you?

Karen (confused): No, that's not why we met.

Me: Because if he did open a particular type of IRA, you know what that would be?

Karen (eyes rolling): What?

Me: The Roth of Con.

She's seeing a divorce lawyer first thing Monday.

This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Peek 11 (April 22, 2022)

A Peek into the Intimate Intellectual Life of a Long-Married Couple, Part Eleven: 

Me: I got asked to contribute some Fire Story art to a new gallery exhibition in the fall.

Karen: A loan?

Me: No, it'll be with a lot of other people.

Karen: But they're not giving it back?

Me: Of course they'll give it back!

Karen: What?

Me: What?

Karen: I asked if it was a loan and you said "No."

Me: It's not alone, it's with other people.

Karen: A. Loan.

Me: Oh. That's different. Never mind.

True story. This has been a peek into the intimate intellectual life of a long-married couple.


Monday, April 11, 2022

Don Rubin

Don. Photo by Peter Maresca.

My friend Don Rubin died last week, and it took me a few days to think of something fitting and good enough to say about him. Don built his reputation as a game designer and puzzle maker, creating brainteasers and graphic/textual/artistic entertainments of enormous complexity. He published many of them over the decades.

He was also in the comics business, working as an editor for publisher Peter Maresca, from whom I nicked this photo of Don because I couldn't find a good one of my own. Maresca is respected in comics circles for his oversized collections of meticulously curated and restored classic comic strips, and Don had a hand in producing those. He was driven to get it right, and could recall with great passion an instance or two when (apologies to Mr. Maresca) he thought Pete hadn't taken his guidance the way he should have. He loved and cared.

Don and I met not through our comics but through our wives, who worked together. Karen and Caroline compared notes--"Your husband makes comics? So does mine!"--and we hit it off. Don was a talker with East Coast energy and cadence. A natural storyteller. He had deeply penetrating insights into narrative and publishing, which made him someone whose word I respected and whose approval I sought. 

Don was one of only a half dozen or so people who've seen my current comics project. It's a bit odd and ambitious, and Don immediately got what I was doing and why I was doing it. "If this then that and then you can do this but what about that?" He was excited. I wish he'd lived to see it done. If it's ever published, he'll have an acknowledgment. 

I always thought that Don's great gift was seeing patterns that other people didn't. He found patterns in puzzles, stories, characters, graphics, current events. He looked at a series of panels from my new stuff and said "It's like music," which was in my head while I was drawing them but hadn't told anyone else. I once asked Don what inspired him to create a new type of puzzle. "Everything," he said. "Everything I do or see every day is raw material." His brain worked sideways from yours and mine, with wonderful results. 

Don and Caroline lost their home in the same fire we did. We didn't live near each other, the fire was just that big. I think it took a lot of wind out of his sails (as it did ours). They rebuilt like we did; the last time I saw Don was about a month ago when we brought take-out to their house for dinner. It's up in the hills, with spectacular views toward the west, and Don--who was very sick then--talked about the beauty of the terrain despite its fire scars. I'm glad that at least he made it back home to see many more magnificent sunsets. 

I'm heartsick for Caroline. For myself, I only wish I'd known Don longer and better, and had many more meals and talks together. He was the best.

EDITED TO ADD (Mostly so I hold onto it--here's Don's obit, which was published in newspapers nationwide):

April 6, 1945 - April 8, 2022 Donald Joel Rubin, one of the world's premier creators of games and puzzles, died of cancer at his home in Santa Rosa, California on April 8, 2022. Don was born April 6, 1945 in Malden, Mass. He graduated magna cum laude from Boston University's College of Communication.

His exceptional career evolved from teaching school in Maine, to serving as a creative consultant, scriptwriter, game designer, photographer, puzzler, research historian, contributing editor and writer. In the late 1980's his creation "The Real Puzzle" was first published in the Boston Phoenix, then The Real Paper, prior to its syndication in over 300 national and international newspapers and magazines through United Features Syndicate. The Real Puzzle generated so much fan mail that the U.S. Post Office gave Don his own zip code. Don became a mini expert in each field that was the focus of the weekly puzzle and attributed his creativity to a "poor diet and lack of sleep". He wrote many books including, "The Real Puzzle Book", "What's the Big Idea", "Those Incredible Puzzles", "Think Tank", "Brainstorms" and "More Brainstorms". His Parking Lot Puzzle has been called "one of the greatest puzzles of all time."

As print media gradually began to fade, Don refocused his creative genius on interactive games with original content working as a Senior Game Designer at Shockwave, Firemint, Ringzero Networks, and Electronic Arts. Don was a member of the Screen Writers Guild, with clients including Paramount Pictures, PBS NOVA, several Fortune 500 companies, and educational institutions. Don won numerous awards for editorial design, art direction, television and film design, photography, game design, advertising copywriting, and Web content development.

Although Don did not have children, he was an animal lover. At times he cared for many dogs, both his own and friends, bottle-fed a kangaroo, herded and fed cattle on an Australian working ranch, and back at home in Santa Rosa helped with the dogs, cats, chickens and bees.

Many friends sought out his keen intellect and insight into everything from current events, arts and cultural trends, to his astute reflections on everyday life. Don was a great fan of Samuel Beckett and could recite, "Waiting for Godot" in its entirety from memory, quoting recently, "I've talked with you about this and that, I explained the twilight, admittedly. But is it enough, that's what tortures me, is it enough." (Pozzo)

Don is survived by his wife, Caroline Judy, the former Director of General Services, County of Sonoma, and his brother, Harvey Rubin. A Celebration of Life event is being planned with details forthcoming. Please consider a donation in Don's name to HIAS at https://www.hias.org. 

Monday, March 21, 2022

From Fan to Pro


The talk I gave at CarrierCon pulled together bits of insights I've gleaned about what it takes to be a creative professional. How do you jump the chasm between fan and pro? What do pros know that fans don't?

I figured it'd be a good topic because conventions like that draw young people who write their own stories, do their own art, make their own songs and videos and plays, and have ambitions to make their creativity more than a hobby. It turns out that I have some thoughts, and I wanted to share them here as well.

I introduced myself not just as a graphic novelist with three published books and another on the way, but as someone who's done many different types of writing, from newspaper reporting to science writing, for more than 30 years. The version below began as a PowerPoint presentation, intended to be delivered in bite-sized bits, so it may read a little choppy. I hope it's useful.

First, everything I'm about to say is just my humble opinion (JMHO). Everybody's fan-turned-pro story is unique. Every pro I know made it in some different, weird way. This may not apply to you. Take and use what works for you and forget the rest.

All pros began as fans! To prove it, here's an embarrassing photo of me posing with a tempera painting of Doctor Strange that I did around age 13.

Pros know what you're going through because they've been you. They probably still are. 

First Important Advice

DO THE WORK.

DO MORE WORK.

DO EVEN MORE WORK.

I can't tell you how many people call themselves writers but never write, or call themselves artists but never create art. Just doing anything at all already puts you way ahead of the posers. 

Then the hard part: show it to strangers. Push it out into the world however you can. It needs to be seen by people other than your friends and mom--people who aren't obliged to love it. Online, publishers, zines. Pass it out on street corners. 

Start small. Make content for a blog or Instagram account, an article for your school paper, a photo for a work newsletter, a drawing for a softball team.

Turn many small things into a big thing.

Turn many big things into a bigger thing.

Build a PORTFOLIO. This is how you show people what you can do. It'll have examples of your very best stuff. A portfolio should be a changing, living document that improves as your skills and work improve.

I love Mark Twain's advice for aspiring writers:

I think Twain's right, although that puts Mark and me at odds with those who say creative people should never work for free--that they should value their time and effort as much as any professional. "Work for exposure?" goes the meme. "People die from exposure!" I understand but am also practical. You're not a pro yet, and volunteering may be necessary to start building a portfolio and get a foot in the door. The distinction I'd make: do gratis work if it serves YOU. Don't let yourself be exploited, but if you see it as part of a professional growth strategy, I say do what you've gotta do.

Others may disagree.

Learn How to Take Criticism

I'll now embarrass myself with another photo to make a point.

My first job out of college, I was a reporter for a small daily newspaper. You can tell how long ago that was by my brown hair and the green cathode ray tubes. That job gave me a thicker skin. I remember one day when an editor and I were slashing and reassembling a story I'd written, and I didn't get defensive about it. It wasn't personal, we were just working together to make my story better. I felt like a professional.

Here are some things NOT to say in the face of criticism:

"I meant to do that."

"You're not reading it right."

"It's not done yet."

"This isn't my best stuff."

I understand the impulse; I may have said some of those things myself. But if a reader doesn't understand you, that's your fault, not theirs. If it's not done or not your best stuff, why are you wasting their time with it? Stand behind your work! Say, "Yes, this is my best stuff!" It may not be what they like or need, but be proud of what you've done.

If someone is doing you the great favor of giving feedback on your work, SHUT UP AND LISTEN! Don't argue with them!

My personal experience: 19 out of 20 people who ask my opinion of their work really want me to tell them it's wonderful--perfect!--and they don't need to change a thing. That other 1 out of 20 has the attitude of a pro.

My experience matches Mr. Gaiman's. If one person identifies a problem, well, consider it, but maybe they just missed something. If two people identify the same problem, then you've got to fix it. The actual fix is up to you to figure out, not them.

It took me a while to realize why I consider my book editor, Charlie Kochman at Abrams, one of the best editors I've worked with. He'll find something that doesn't feel right or brings him up short or just doesn't work, but he always leaves the solution up to me. Then he either says "Yep, that does it" or "Nope, not there yet" and we move on. There are parts in all my books where I genuinely couldn't tell you which of us did what. Charlie makes me better without leaving fingerprints. It's a gift that good editors have.

Fanfic

Not a fan.

I want to differentiate between fan fiction and derivative works. 

People create original work derived from the Bible, King Arthur, Shakespeare, Frankenstein, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes . . . for example, Dante's Inferno, Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a thousand riffs on Romeo and Juliet such as West Side Story. Derivative works that build on legally available inspiration can be great pieces of art. I don't consider that fanfic.

Fanfic, by which I mean a story set in other creators' intellectual property, is fine for fun, friends, self-expression, and appreciation for stories and characters you love.

It's an OK way to get a feel for how storytelling and structure work.

BUT it's a poor shortcut past learning how to build worlds and develop characters yourself.

If you write Naruto fanfic, you don't have to explain how these characters, their relationships, and their abilities work. You just plug into a universe that already exists. 

If you write Star Trek fanfic, you don't have to explain how a starship works. You say "Warp 5" and it goes. But what if you write a spaceship story that isn't Star Trek? Then you have to ask and answer some questions that have storytelling implications. Does your spaceship go faster than the speed of light? How? Maybe it doesn't, which means your spaceship has to operate within a solar system or maybe takes centuries to travel between stars. Or maybe your characters project their minds across the galaxy or communicate via quantum telegraphs. Now instead of leaning on someone else's universe, you're building something new and entirely yours.

I only realized when I put these images of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter together that both universes have wizards and elves. But Gandalf is different from Dumbledore, and Legolas is very different from Dobby. Your wizard-and-elf story in one universe will be different than in the other, but the point is that neither universe is yours. You're building on someone else's foundation as a framework for your story.

Instead, take those inspirations and create your worlds. Put your twist on them.

One of my favorite examples is ElfQuest by Wendy and Richard Pini, which for 40 years has been telling stories about a world of elves. These aren't Tolkien elves and they certainly aren't Rowling elves (which they predate by decades). The Pinis created completely new characters living in a rich, deeply detailed world with their own societies, cultures, languages, spirituality, and relationships with each other and nature. It's a tremendous body of work built up over many years and books.

The critical point is that it's theirs. The Pinis don't have to ask permission of the Tolkien estate or J.K. Rowling to tell new stories. They don't have to send Tolkien or Rowling a check when they do. It's their world, their characters, their intellectual property to do with as they please.

A big problem with fanfic: with very, very few exceptions, you'll never be able to legally publish it.

(This is where someone points out that Fifty Shades of Grey began as Twilight fanfic. It's an exception that proves the rule, and also supports the point that E.L. James couldn't publish Fifty Shades until stripping out everything that smacked of Twilight.)

Fanfic is not (generally) the way to a professional career.

Instead, draw inspiration from LIFE: history, science, politics, travel. Your own lived experiences. Not other people's stories.

That will make your work stand out.

The cliche advice is "Write what you know!" I always amend that to add, "As long as what you know is interesting!" I think it's incumbent on writers, and creative people in general, to have broad curiosity. Take in everything you can about the world then filter it through yourself so that nobody could have written the same thing in the same way.

Ideas

Ideas are great, but are not as rare and special as you think.

I occasionally get an email that goes like: "I have a great idea for a book! You only need to do all the writing and drawing and find someone to publish it! I'll cut you in for half!"

The idea is the easy part. All that other work is the hard part.

I got an inkling of that when I had a chance to pitch stories to the producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. I pitched maybe 40 or 50 stories and never sold one, never got my name on screen, but I learned a lot. I can't tell you how many times I got two sentences into my most outlandish science-fictiony plotline when the producer raised his hand and said, "I've gotta stop you. We started filming that last week." And they were right! Six months later I'd see episodes that were so similar to my ideas I'd have been sure they'd ripped me off if they'd ever heard them in the first place. 

Ideas are common. What matters is what you do with them . . . how you execute them.

Ways Pros Differ from Fans

1. Pros can take criticism from people they respect, or who are in a position to pay them.

The first point is important: bad criticism from an idiot can be very harmful, but good constructive criticism is gold if you're mature enough to accept it. The second point is also important: sometimes you've got to give the client what they want even if they're an idiot. 

2. Pros treat it like a job. They don't wait around for inspiration to strike. Don't be precious about it, just put your butt in the seat and do it. 

3. Pros know that being reliable, responsive, and a good collaborator is just as important--and maybe MORE important--than being talented. 

When you're mystified how people you consider pretty mediocre keep getting jobs, the reason may be that they hit their deadlines, meet their commitments, and are easy to work with. Not being a jerk can get you a long way in whatever profession you're in.

4. Pros are not afraid of imperfection. They know their work won't be perfect but they do it anyway.

In my opinion, a lot of "writer's block" is fear of imperfection. As long as you don't start, the thing in your head is perfect. When you pull it out of your head and make it real, it won't be perfect anymore. I think it's very important for creative people to give themselves permission to be imperfect. To even suck once in a while. You can always improve it later, and nobody needs to see your failures but you. Start something, even if it stinks.

I was struck by that watching Peter Jackson's Beatles documentary, Get Back. It shows the Beatles putting together an entire album in a month. The Beatles didn't worry about perfection. Oh, they worked a song over and over until they got it good enough--and because they were the Beatles, "good enough" was better than pretty much anybody else--but then they recorded it and moved on. 

Don't waste 20 years trying to make it perfect. You may know someone with a novel in the drawer or a song on their computer that they work and rework and rework for literally years. Those people will never achieve the perfect creation they seek. In fact, they're more likely to beat all the life out of it. 

Do your best. Finish. Learn from it. Move on.

The Bravest Creative Acts I Know

1. Beginning a new project knowing you have months or years to go.

When I start a new graphic novel, making the first ink mark at the top left of Page One, I heave a little sigh because I know I've taken the first step on a thousand-mile journey. It's daunting. My advice: break it into pieces. Authoring a 300-page book may seem impossible, but anybody can write eight pages. Or four. So do that. Then do it again. Then keep doing it. Manageable bite sizes. Or, as Anne Lamott wrote, bird by bird

2. Showing your work to someone who might rip it apart. It's the best you can do but what if it's not good enough? You're wearing your heart on your sleeve, inviting a stranger to stomp on it. That's why it's brave.

3. Sending your work into the world beyond your control. Your work is your child, your heart. The world can be cruel and scary, and when your work is out there it can go in directions and end up in places you never anticipated--or worse, be completely ignored. You have to let it go.

Sometimes I hear about places my books have been and feel a little envious. They're out there having adventures I never will! Occasionally they send back a little postcard, which I appreciate.

4. 

DO THE WORK.

DO MORE WORK.

DO EVEN MORE WORK.

Can't overstate the importance of that.

So You're Ready!

You have the discipline, you're producing work, you're getting good feedback from readers, online fans, TikTok or YouTube viewers, whomever.

NOW WHAT?

One option: Do it yourself.

Self-publish, eBooks, print on demand. You're responsible for distribution, marketing, accounting . . . all the business side. Not everybody's cup of tea. You do all the work but keep all the money. 

Or: You may be able to submit directly to a publisher or outlet. List a dozen that put out work that's kind of like yours. Check their online submission guidelines. FOLLOW THEM.

Or: Depending on your medium, you may want or need an agent.

An agent represents you to publishers, studios, etc. for a percentage of the income they bring in for you.

An ethical agent will not charge you a fee up front! They don't make money until you make money! Don't fall for crooks!

How to find an agent? I don't know. I don't have one.

But I know people who've gotten agents via referrals from friends. There are trade and professional organizations you can look up. Author's acknowledgments. Or you can do your own Google research.

Agents specialize. Find the ones who represent your kind of work.

Check their online submission guidelines. FOLLOW THEM. (Sound familiar?)

Here's one thing not to do: Don't bug your favorite pros to help you. Honestly, there's very little they can do.

Even if I think your work is great, I don't know you. I don't know if you hit deadlines, play well with others, are a sane and functional human being.

I can only think of maybe three times I've contacted an editor to vouch for and try to open a door for a friend. The number of book deals that resulted in: zero.

YOUR WORK HAS TO SPEAK FOR ITSELF.

You won't believe me, but I promise: editors, publishers, producers are hungry for good, new content. They need you even more than you need them.

You Get an Offer

Holy Moley! Congratulations!

Don't sign a contract right away.

If you have an agent, they should watch your back. If you don't, hire an attorney.

You are expected to negotiate! They won't be offended or rescind their offer. If they do, you didn't want to work with them anyway.

Notice I said "work with" instead of "work for." They're not your boss and you're not their employee. You're eyeing each other to decide if you want to be business partners.

Unless . . . 

Understand "work for hire." That means the person or company you're working for keeps all the rights. If you're hired to write or draw Batman, it doesn't matter how good you are or how long you do it, you'll never own Batman, or get to write and draw your own Batman stories after you leave DC Comics. You're work for hire; they pay you to do a job and that's the end of it. That's fine as long as you know what you signed up for.

In general, keep all the rights you can.

What a lot of non-pros don't understand is that, at the moment you create something, you own all the rights to it. You hold the copyright, the North American publishing rights, the worldwide publishing rights, the digital rights, the TV and movie rights, the plush toy rights, the cereal box rights. They're all yours.

A contract is a tool for someone else to pay you for those rights. You have something they want. You can let them have whichever rights you want and keep whichever you want. There will be some they'll insist upon, and you'll have to decide if you're OK with that (you probably will be). Others they won't care so much about. 

But unless you're doing work for hire, always--always always--retain the copyright to your creations.

I have friends who signed away their copyright, then had to watch as strangers elbowed them out and took over the characters they created. It's heartbreaking.

Trust me: A bad deal is worse than no deal at all. Walk away from a bad deal, even if it's the only deal on the table.

Don't let yourself be exploited!

Summing Up

1. Do the work. No excuses.

2. Put it out into the world any way you can.

3. Take criticism and rejection gracefully.

4. Act like a professional even if you aren't one yet. Build a good reputation. People remember.

Most Important

Be authentic and honest in your work. I deeply believe that audiences crave authenticity. They want to feel like they're in a conversation with you, like they're getting a glimpse into your heart and mind.

An audience can detect bullshit. Don't peddle it to them.

Trying to strategize what's "hot" and what "the market wants" rarely works. By the time you figure it out, everyone's moved on to something else. Follow your own peculiar passions to create something that people didn't even know they needed.

Figure out what makes you unique and lean into that. Harness your "weird."

I feel this very strongly. Being weird can be a social handicap when you're young but an invaluable tool as you grow. If you've got a passion for collecting bottle caps, if you love bottle caps with all your heart and you know all there is to know about them, and if you can explain to me what's cool about bottle caps and why I should care about them, too, I'll be your fan for life (this is Malcolm Gladwell's career). I'd much rather read your bottle cap book than the thousandth Lord of the Rings pastiche about a gang of kooky characters bumbling through a magical quest. 

Tell the stories only you can tell.

Stand on your little island and plant your flag. Especially in the Internet Age, people will find you.

Even More Important

As I said at the start, all of this is JMHO. Take and use what works for you and forget the rest.

Also, I'm always open to the possibility I'm wrong. Happy to reconsider. Let me know.

And good luck!

Sunday, March 20, 2022

CarrierCon 2022

I think my ride is here.

I had a tremendous time speaking and indulging in CarrierCon aboard the USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum today, my first convention-type event in a long time. This was the second CarrierCon ever; the first was in 2019, with a lull for obvious reasons. I thought my talk on "From Fan to Pro" went well. I hope it's one I get to give again (and am thinking about writing up for my blog). What do pros do and know that fans don't? That's the idea.

My daughter Laura helped spearhead the event for the Hornet and, from what I saw, did a great job. Her sister Robin and many of their friends volunteered to help. I bought a book in Artists' Alley. It was neat to run into my friend Jim Sharkey, too. 

Laura (left) and Robin, camouflaged to fit in with the native fauna.

But what blew me away and made my day/week/year: my friends Richard and Wendy Pini, creators of the venerable fantasy series ElfQuest and two of the kindest people in comics, surprised me by driving up from Los Angeles just to see me and the Hornet. Richard's a fellow space geek who's been wanting to visit the ship for a long time; I think they saw their chance and figured, "Why not?" It was a whirlwind hit-and-run drive up and down the state that still astonishes me to think about--but not as astonished as I was to turn around and see them standing behind me. 

It's Wendy and Richard! This was about 20 seconds after I turned around and was still trying to understand what was happening. Note their sunflower lapel pins and Wendy's blue and yellow ensemble for Ukraine.

Two extra-cool things about their visit: they agreed with everything I said in my talk, which means a lot coming from people who've been successful pros for decades. And I used ElfQuest as an example (a good one!) in my presentation not knowing that they'd be there, which I think made them happy. It made me happy.

My talk. Here I'm showing my slide about ElfQuest with the creators of ElfQuest sitting in the second row. The coincidence did not go unremarked!

My audience started small but grew as I spoke. A few people came up afterward with good, smart questions that I love to get. All in all, an extraordinary day.

Hoping my Ewok friend doesn't want to add my head to his collection.

Heroes waiting in line for a sandwich and bag of chips.

Super.

An overview shot of the Hangar Bay, trying to capture a sense of the size and hubbub.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Wayne Thiebaud

 

I emerge from the holiday to see that Wayne Thiebaud died at 101. I attended UC Davis between 1978-83, when Thiebaud was an active part of the art department and campus life. He, with artists like sculptor Robert Arneson, painter Roland Peterson and others, made Davis a respected center of the West Coast art scene. 

I didn't take a class from Thiebaud--I don't think he taught undergrads--but I know I attended the opening of at least one of his exhibitions, since attendance was part of my studio art classes' grades (I got the impression they weren't sure anybody else would show up). I'm sure I exchanged a few words with him that I don't remember. My first-hand impression confirms his reputation: he was nice, and he loved teaching. He was certainly a highly regarded artist but not quite the Great Thiebaud he would become, and it wasn't unusual to see paintings that now sell for multi-millions hanging in the Memorial Union lobby or the halls of the art building. 



I can't say how many students realized they were in the presence of a great artist--probably not many--but those of us who were aware of it really appreciated it even at the time. To me, he always represented what a university was supposed to be: not just a place you went to take some classes and get a diploma, but a community where it was perfectly ordinary to see a world-class artist (or writer or physicist) pedaling a bicycle down the street, contributing to an educational and cultural environment I didn't really appreciate until I left it. Aside from a lifelong love of Thiebaud's art, that's my takeaway from his life.





Friday, December 24, 2021

Nora's Freezin' on the Trolley

 As long as I've been blogging, I've been marking Christmas Eve with a rousing round of revelry from the man who, depending on the day and my mood, I consider the first, second, or third best cartoonist who ever lived: Walt Kelly. From the great comic strip "Pogo," please accept this gift with my wishes for a good holiday and excellent 2022.