Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Like, I'm So Sure

Publishers pay writers advances to help cover expenses and feed families until their books come out and (we hope) the big trucks full of money back up to both our doors. Having passed a contractual milestone on Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow, I happily received such a check from my publisher Abrams yesterday (none of your business, that's how much).

The reason I'm writing about it and may need to frame the stub is the little note in the "Voucher Comments" field describing what the check is for.

It reads: "WHATEVER."

I'm not sure I like their attitude.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Commercial Break tells me it's now accepting pre-orders for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, available simply by following the link to the right. (The link says "No Image Available" but we know what it'll look like!)

Although I'd love to have your business, ordering a copy now seems premature given that the entire book currently exists only as gigabytes on my computer and we're still editing it. It ain't going nowhere for a while yet. On the other hand, Amazon's offering a great price and maybe a few early orders would drum up some enthusiasm. Philosophically, I'd much rather urge you to support your local independent bookseller, but if you're one of those well-organized forward-thinking people who gets your Christmas shopping done by May then go for it.

Speaking of May, that's the month Amazon lists as our release date. That's a little pessimistic, I think--it'll more likely be March or April. But anything could happen and Amazon may know something I don't.

Another milestone on the journey....

Monday, September 22, 2008

Interview: Jeff Kinney

Why do I have to learn about this from another blog? Jeff Kinney is the author of the bestselling Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, which has been an enormous success for both Jeff and my publisher Abrams. I was at the New York Comic-Con where Jeff pressed his proposal into Editor Charlie's hands, and I remember Charlie excitedly showing it to me minutes later. He knew he'd found something good--or, more accurately, it had found him.

I've gotten to know Jeff a bit since then. At the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con, while the first Wimpy Kid book was still in production, Editor Charlie set Jeff and me up on a date so I could share my impressive accumulation of publishing experience and wisdom with him. Actually, I only had about a year's head start on Jeff, and as soon as his first book came out he blew completely past me. He's contracted for more books and is mulling opportunities that most writers can only imagine. Now I ask him for advice.

Anyway, here's a two-part interview with Jeff, produced by the fine booksellers at Borders. The first is a one-on-one interview, while the second shows Jeff giving a completely charming talk to a group of his young fans. I can honestly say he's one of the nicest, humblest, most appreciative people I know, which makes it very hard to sustain the festering boil of jealous bile roiling in my gut. Curse you, Kinney.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Et Cetera

Some little odds and ends today:

1. A couple of days ago I got my first look at some pages from the catalog Abrams is putting together to promote its Spring 2009 books, including mine. This catalog goes primarily to booksellers who choose how many copies of which books they want in their stores. It's not ready to be unveiled publicly, but I liked the spread for WHTTWOT very much and couldn't be happier with the enthusiasm and support I'm feeling from my publisher. Even before the catalog comes out, we're getting early hints of healthy interest from key retailers. It's all encouraging.

I remember this from the last time: planning, anticipation, hope, dread. It's an interesting mix of emotions that somehow combines to make this little project I did in my spare bedroom and shared with about a dozen people seem much more real.

2. I shamefully neglected to mention a podcast interview that "Mr. Media" Bob Andelman did with my buddy Mike Lynch on Friday. Mike is a professional magazine cartoonist who's also involved in some shady dealings with the National Cartoonists Society. Anyway, that hour-long interview is now available at the Mr. Media website and I recommend it to anyone interested in the art and business of freelance cartooning, breaking in, finding markets, etc. I told Mike afterward that I was standing by my phone ready to call in with Star Trek trivia questions if the show bogged down, but there were plenty of real questions and Mike sailed through.

3. Tom Spurgeon was kind enough to mention my last two blog posts on his "Comics Reporter" website, bringing me some extra traffic. That's much appreciated, and I'm happy to return the favor by recommending his site as one of my regular stops for news and commentary on cartoons and comic books. Tom knows his stuff.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

How I Approach Cartooning #2: History

One of what I intend to be a series of occasional essays on what I think about when I'm writing and drawing. I'm not saying this is the best way, right way, or only way. It's just a way that works for me that I hope someone finds interesting.

The story of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? covers more than three decades, from the late 1930s to the mid 1970s (plus a bit beyond). This raised a problem I'd never really dealt with before: doing historical research for a graphic novel.

Both the beauty and horror of writing a graphic novel is that nothing gets on the page by accident. If there's a person, car, rock, tree, trash can, or blade of grass in the picture, it's there because I wanted it there. This turns out to be a significant challenge when you go back in time. I struggled mightily to leave all my modern preconceptions behind and find references for everything I could. My characters drink soda pop in 1939; what shape and size were soda bottles then? What did a street light look like in 1945? When did kids start wearing high-top sneakers? What day and time did a particular TV show air, and what phase was the Moon in that day?

I collected probably a couple thousand pages of reference and read hundreds of pages more. I discovered that one problem with trying to get it right (and being terrified of getting it wrong) is potential paralysis: being afraid to do anything for fear that it isn't perfect. Eventually, I just figured I'd have to live with getting the big stuff as right as possible and minimize the risk of flubbing the small stuff as best I could. After absorbing all the research I could manage, I had to kind of relax, let it go, and just start to draw.

I tried to be thoughtful about my sources. For example, researching period clothing yields a lot of old magazine fashion spreads. But everyday people don't dress like fashion models then or now. Better are actual news or candid photos of the time showing real people living real lives. It's also tempting to look up "1945 automobiles" or "1965 business suits" and use the first examples you find. But nobody buys a new car or wardrobe every year. People drive 10-year-old cars and wear 5-year-old clothes. Few houses have all-new furnishings; right now in my living room I've got a 10-year-old couch and a 90-year-old record player. The people and places I draw should look that real and lived in.

Two examples of how that works in WHTTWOT: One panel is a big overhead shot of a kid's bedroom in 1965. Now, kid's bedrooms are often furnished with family hand-me-downs, so when I put a radio near the kid's bed I made it a small tube-powered model built in the mid 1950s (the same one I have in my bedroom passed down from my father-in-law). A chair in the corner of the kid's room--you know, that extra chair that doesn't fit around the dining room table so you stash it in the bedroom--is from a set made in the 1950s.

Also in the 1965 chapter, I put my characters in a '57 Chevy. That was a risk. First, as I've written before, I don't draw cars well, nor do I enjoy it. Not sure what I was thinking when I scripted a road trip. Second, the '57 Chevy is an all-time great classic car with legions of fans who know every bolt. (Digression: I was recently admiring a '57 Chevy in a parking lot when my wife Karen remarked that she'd had a friend in high school who'd owned one. "Oh, was he a classic car guy?" I innocently asked. "Not really," she answered. "Back then it wasn't really classic. It was just old." Ouch. Since Karen is younger than I am, I instantly felt positively antique.)

Despite the peril, I had both practical and creative reasons for picking the '57 Chevy. Practically, it was easy to find a good toy model and tons of reference photos for it (period photos only, since modern examples of the car often have subtle modifications I wouldn't want to accidentally include). Creatively, the car is strongly evocative of its time. And putting my 1965 characters in a 1957 Chevy said something about them: they had an eye for style and couldn't afford a newer car. They're middle or lower-middle class; an 8-year-old car is the best they could do, but they picked a good one.

I don't know if any of this will come across to the reader. I suspect not, but hope it accumulates into a kind of verisimilitude that makes the world of WHTTWOT seem more real than if I hadn't gone to the effort and just made it all up. I'm also positive that as soon as the book comes out I'll start hearing from readers telling me what I got wrong. I expect to know the anguish experienced by Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier when he discovered he'd made his Civil-War-era hero eat a variety of apple that hadn't been hybridized yet.

All I can answer is that I honestly did my best and if I tried any harder I wouldn't have been able to produce the book at all.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How I Approach Cartooning #1

One of what I intend to be a series of occasional essays on what I think about when I'm writing and drawing. I'm not saying this is the best way, right way, or only way. It's just a way that works for me that I hope someone finds interesting.

"I have made this letter longer than usual,
because I lack the time to make it short."
--Blaise Pascal

I tend to overwrite. I learned that about myself a long time ago--probably in my first real job out of college as a reporter for a small daily newspaper--and also learned to use it to my advantage. I made it part of my writing process. For example, when I write a first draft and check my word count, I'm very happy if it comes out 10% to 20% over. I know I can go through it a few times, tighten it up, release some gas, and polish it into a nice lean piece that clearly says what it needs to and nothing else. That's my goal.

I have a friend who wrote a novel. When he finished and started showing it to agents, they told him it was too long to be marketable in his genre. He'd have to cut it by a quarter. This seemed a daunting, despairing task: go through and slice out every fourth word? Impossible! His finely drawn characters would become caricatures, his carefully balanced plot would fall apart. Yet he did it, and when he finished cutting he was amazed by how much it'd improved his book. Yes, he'd lost some favorite bits, but the novel had a new flow and energy that made it a better story.

Cartooning is that to an extreme. Back when I fruitlessly submitted comic strip ideas to newspaper syndicates, I made up a rule that if the text for a daily strip didn't fit on a 3-by-5-inch index card, it was too wordy. That worked pretty well. I wrote both Mom's Cancer and WHTTWOT as pages of script accompanied by doodles and thumbnail sketches that captured the visuals I imagined--the screenplay for the movie playing in my head. Then I cut.

Not everyone works that way. Some find inspiration in starting with the drawing, brainstorming visually and then building a story from that. Although an image sometimes comes to me full-blown, I usually start with words and then consciously seek opportunities for pictures to take their place, add meaning, and carry as much of the narrative load as possible. A graphic novel should be more than an illustrated prose novel. In my ideal graphic novel, both the words and art convey equal meaning and neither is complete without the other.

For example, in Mom's Cancer I wrote about the ordeal of managing Mom's many medications (pp. 59-61). In my first-draft script, I'd written something about it being like "walking a tightrope." Now, aside from that being a lazy, obvious simile I didn't like, I couldn't figure out how to illustrate it. What do you draw, Mom sitting around taking medications? Rows of pill bottles? Boring. I wanted to capture the precarious uncertainty of this experience and, at the same time, fix the clunky metaphor. My solution was to draw the metaphor: The pictures show Mom actually walking on a tightrope surrounded by danger while everything goes wrong around her, freeing the words from having to mention it at all. It also gave me a chance to play some absurd dark humor against Mom's grim situation. Cartooningwise, I was very satisified with how this bit turned out.

I looked for similar opportunities in WHTTWOT. I'm very aware of how my words and pictures balance, and which is pulling more weight through different passages. For example, the first chapter of WHTTWOT is exposition-heavy, so I deliberately followed it with a chapter that's almost pantomime with hardly any text at all. My aim was to give readers a break and exercise a different part of their brains that interprets visual rather than verbal information. The last chapter is again light on words and heavy on visuals, which reads quicker and I hope creates some momentum that pulls readers through. In addition, as the book nears the end, each page provides less visual information than the page before, prodding readers to pick up their pace as they barrel toward what I hope is a satisfying climax.

That's how I'm trying to manipulate you, anyway. Don't know if I pulled it off.

Monday, September 15, 2008

In Which My Family Calls My Bluff

When we left for our long vacation, it felt like summer around here. We returned to autumn. Of course, the great thing about taking an 11-day vacation is, when you come back, you've got 11 days worth of work backed up and waiting for you.

So for our big summer holiday we went to South Dakota. People who know South Dakota, and particularly the Black Hills, may be nodding their heads in understanding. Everyone else--like pretty much everyone we told about our trip--says "Huh?"

I grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, surrounded by a close extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was terrific. Although the movie "A Christmas Story" is set a generation before mine in a different part of the country, I remember a childhood very much like little Ralphie's. When I was 11 we moved to California, and within just a couple of years my entire South Dakota family had scattered across the country, as if spun out of the state by centrifugal force. Throughout my marriage and my kids' whole lives, my family has been hearing me blather about this idyllic wonderland I grew up in. Finally, they called my bluff. "Put up or shut up, pal!"

I'd been back to South Dakota once as an adult, accompanying Mom to her 25th high school reunion (just about 25 years ago--Yikes!), so I thought I'd shaken the "everything looks so small!" effect. That trip also confirmed that my judgment wasn't entirely addled by nostalgia; the Black Hills are a genuinely beautiful and unique part of the country. I was pretty sure I could show my family a good time, with a nice mix of sight-seeing for them and misty watercolored mem'ries for me. So I accepted their dare, and next thing I knew we had reservations and an itinerary.

We took Amtrak from California to Denver, two full days on the train through the Sierra Nevada and Rockies, much of it following the Colorado River. Amazing scenery. Spent a day in Denver--one of my favorite second-tier U.S. cities (Portland being another)--and then drove north to Rapid City, where we spent three days before reversing course to Denver and then back on the train.

A note on train travel: it's fun, interesting, a great way to see the country. We encountered people from around the world doing the same (especially Germans, it seemed). We had sleeper rooms and ate in the dining car, which provided more privacy, comfort, and luxury than the poor schmoes in Coach got. But--and I say this with all affection--it gets old. After four days on the rails, we all agreed it felt very much like camping. Great fun, something you'd love to do once in a while, but at the end you're really looking forward to a good shower, nice meal, and comfortable bed.

I think the trip was a big success. We all forgot what day it was, which is one of my criteria for judging the quality of a vacation. My kids got a feel for the big empty nothingness of the western U.S. that they'd never experienced before. We mixed sight-seeing at places like Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park and the Badlands with detours to my old houses, school, and grandparents' cabin in the woods, where the Best Christmases Ever took place and which the current owner was kind enough to let us tour after I bribed him with old photos of the place being built. We strolled through restored cavalry forts, stooped and clambered through a cave (another first for my girls), and walked in the wheel ruts ground into rock by pioneers following the Oregon Trail. And my family finally got to attach real places to all the tall tales I'd been telling for years, and maybe find out that I wasn't entirely lying.
Although everything looked so small.

I've always been proud of originating in the Midwest. I think being from the middle of the country can give people a core of straight-shootin' decency that's good for the soul. Near the top of the list of things I hate are people who think of "flyover country" as a wasteland full of morons, hicks and rubes. You're talking about me and my kin, pardner, and I take that kind of personally. They often have a different lifestyle and way of looking at things, but it's valid and valuable doesn't deserve anyone's condescension. I hoped my two California girls would get a sense of that as well, although I don't ever expect them to stop teasing me about my roots. That's what Dads are for.
Sylvan Lake, one of the prettier spots in the Black Hills.
Although part of the movie "National Treasure 2" was filmed
there, we did not find a secret cave leading to a lost city
of gold. Very disappointing.
The Badlands east of Rapid City, an amazing
geological laboratory. Look at those strata!
Me, Karen, Laura and Robin, right under the presidents' noses.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Interview with Editor Charlie

"Editor Charlie," a character who occasionally appears in my posts, is my friend Charles Kochman, executive editor of my publisher's new imprint, Abrams ComicArts. Apart from his other accomplishments, Charlie is the guy who pulled Mom's Cancer out of the Abrams slush pile and is working with me again on WHTTWOT. Now I see that ComicMix has posted a great interview by Martha Thomases profiling the star to which I've hitched my wagon.

The interview reveals details about jobs Charlie has had and people he's worked with that I didn't know (though just try to get him to shut up about Alex Ross...). He was kind enough to mention Mom's Cancer in the piece. I was happy to see the interview hit on a couple of points I know to be absolutely true: Charlie's respect for the experience and knowledge of industry veterans, and the importance to his work of building relationships. It is an amazing thing to stroll around a comic convention floor with Charlie: he knows everyone, and can hardly walk twenty steps without introducing you to a legendary writer or artist. When Charlie vouches for you, you're in the club. More than one person has compared the experience to hanging with The Godfather, and I mean that in the very best possible sense. The number of people Charlie has actually had whacked is probably very small.

I have boundless respect and affection for Charlie, and I was fortunate my work found its way to his desk (this is why I never have good advice for people asking how to get published; "be lucky enough to send it to the right person" isn't very constructive). Aside from the biographical information, I think the interview provides a good look at the publishing industry as it follows Charlie's career arc from writing coloring books (really?) to heading an imprint at a respected house. Good stuff.

The Godfather and Fredo

I'm Baaaa-ack

As my six regular readers may recall, I've got this quirk about not announcing to the entire Internet that my home is unoccupied and available for plunder. Might as well post a big sign on the garage door that reads, "we'll all be gone until the tenth, the key is under the mat."

The "hiatus" I mentioned in my last post was cover for a long family vacation from which we've just returned (in fact, the last post was written in advance and autoposted after we left). When we told people where we were going, almost all of them asked, "Why would you go there?" And yet we did, and I think we all had a great time. I'll tell you all about it as soon as I catch up on some e-mails and work. More soon!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Kicking Back

Well, I made my deadline, although a technical problem at my publisher's end (I think) over the weekend prevented me from uploading about one-third of my final digital files. We'll fix that. The past two months I've worked virtually 12 hours a day, seven days a week to finish this book. The past two weeks I've worked a lot harder, including a couple near all-nighters that left my fingers gnarled and my eyeballs jiggly. It is an exhausting/satisfying milestone that, as I said before, doesn't mean I'm all done. But I'm mostly done.
("There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Now, mostly dead--he's slightly alive. All dead--well, with all dead, there's usually only one thing that you can do: go through his clothes and look for loose change." Miracle Max, The Princess Bride.)
I'm going to take a week or so to catch up on some things and enjoy a little computer-free family time. Unless something comes up that I'm irresistably compelled to blog about, I'm taking a brief late-summer hiatus until sometime around Sept. 12. More then. And thanks!