Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Return of the Coolest Picture Ever

It's been a while since I posted a "Coolest Picture Ever," but this one certainly qualifies. With the Space Shuttle program winding down (just one flight left), NASA seems to be taking every opportunity to capture spectacular beauty shots they never had time for before. If they'd released photos this sexy 25 years ago, we might have ourselves a real space program today.

There are a couple of interesting things happening in this picture. It's a fairly long time exposure taken while Endeavour was on the night side of the planet. The shuttle is illuminated by lights shining from within its own bay (and maybe some light from the International Space Station or backglow from the Earth itself?) while it zips over city lights a few hundred miles below. NASA astronauts don't take a lot of pictures at night for the same reason you and I don't: it's dark! But wow. What a beauty.

I've got to mention the stars. Most photos taken in space don't show any, which is one of the points of "evidence" cited by the Moon hoaxers who don't believe Apollo really went anywhere (as if NASA would've spent billions faking the Moon landings but forgotten to hang up a black curtain studded with Christmas lights). Those pictures don't show stars for, again, the same reason your nighttime snapshots don't. The camera exposure time is too short. Taking a photo of a white-suited Moonwalker or white-tiled spacecraft in direct sunlight requires about the same shutter speed and f-stop as shooting them on a sunny afternoon in the Mojave Desert would. Stars are thousands of times fainter and you've got to leave the shutter open a long time for anything to show up, meaning you have to hold very still--quite difficult on a spacecraft orbiting at 17,000 mph (in fact, if you zoom in on the high-resolution version of this shot on the NASA website, you can see the stars streaking just a little bit).

Thanks for your service, Endeavour. Maybe someday I'll get down to L.A. and visit you at the California Science Center. But it won't be the same.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Speak Easy

Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane e-mailed me to suggest a topic he thought would make a good post. This is an approach to blogging that had never occurred to me: you provide the ideas! I love it! That would make things much easier on me. More, please.

Jim sent me a link to this blog post by web designer Dan Cederholm on public speaking, and wrote: "Do you have any additional advice for speaking in front of large groups? I've done lots of TV shows and radio programs and lectured maybe 30 college kids at a time, but I've never handled a live presentation of, say, 100+ folks."

No I don't. But thanks for the question, Jim, and keep 'em coming!

All right, I may have a few more thoughts. First, let me bullet-point Dan's advice (and recommend you go read it yourself):

* Say yes.
* Get paid.
* Practice.
* You'll never please everyone.
* Take your badge off (the audience knows who you are, and it'll bang on the microphone).
* Drink water, and don't worry about pausing to sip.
* Tell stories.
* Use a remote.
* Share experiences instead of dictating.
* Embed interactions.
* Spend little time on introducing yourself (they already know who you are).
* Attend the event.

Some of that matches my experience and some doesn't. I think the writer/cartoonist's lot is a bit different, for example, when it comes to getting paid. Comic conventions don't pay you to do a panel, book stores don't pay you to do a signing (unless maybe you're a really big name). The trade-off is that you get an opportunity to promote your work, which is of value. Other types of events do offer a speaking fee or honorarium, and it's good to have a number in mind if it comes up. Here is an actual phone conversation I had:

"And what is your speaking fee, Mr. Fies?"

"Uh . . . a cheeseburger?"

The only way to know what that number should be is to find out what it is for other people doing the same sort of thing you do. Ask around. Don't quote anything less than $1000 (plus transport and lodging of course), although if they choke on that you can sputter something about taking less for special causes. Generally, I'm happy if I can get in and out of a gig without losing money. Of course, there's always author Neil Gaiman's strategy of asking an appearance fee of $50,000 because he hates doing them so much that it has to be really, really worth his while. Sometimes he gets it.

Be self-sufficient. Don't trust anyone else's equipment. Many a speech has been ruined because the speaker showed up with a jump drive containing a PowerPoint presentation that didn't work on the host's machine. If you can e-mail them your presentation ahead of time to test, that's ideal. I still build in as much redundancy as I can (one copy in my luggage and one in my pocket, in case my luggage is lost or I'm mugged, respectively), and prefer to bring my own laptop. And, as a super-emergency back-up, I always take a moment to survey the room for a chalkboard, white board, or a pad of paper on an easel, because if push came to shove I could vamp and draw live.

Speaking of PowerPoint: it's pretty mandatory these days, but don't let it dominate your presentation. People came to see you, not a voice narrating slides in the dark. And please take it easy on the fonts and animations and sound effects. Show some restraint and class.

But I think I've gone off the beam. Jim asked about handling large groups. I really can't offer much nerve-calming advice like "imagine the audience naked" because, although I'm an introvert whose idea of Hell is cocktail party chit-chat, I'm not afraid of public speaking. Oh, I get an adrenaline rush waiting to go on, but it's energizing rather than anxiety-provoking. I enjoy the performance. I realize that's unusual. What do they say, that more people fear public speaking than death? I think my confidence comes from both experience (the more you do it the better you get) and my frame of mind.

Frame of Mind: I am there to speak about myself and my work. I am absolutely certain there is no one in the audience who knows more about me and my work than I do. I am the world's foremost authority on me (well, my wife probably knows me better than I do, but she's too kind to contradict me in public). No question can stump me. In broader discussions--for example, a panel on webcomics or publishing where I may have some experience but not expertise--I try to make clear I'm speaking through my narrow context and experience, with examples. People like concrete examples.

Back when I was preparing for my Special Guest Spotlight Panel at the 2006 San Diego Comic-Con, which was a very big deal for me, I was talking with cartoonist Stephan Pastis, who had an insight that stuck with me. He said that most people who attend a talk like that aren't interested in you, they're interested in becoming you--that is, learning how you got to be the kind of person who gets a Spotlight Panel at Comic-Con so they can do it, too. So give them that. That advice became the foundation upon which I built my talk.

(Curiously, I recently reminded Stephan of his great advice, describing it pretty much as above, and he had no memory of ever saying or even thinking anything like it in his life. Maybe I hallucinated it. It was helpful nevertheless.)

I'd also advise speakers not to be afraid of silence. You don't have to fill every moment with noise, and silence is powerful punctuation. (A technique I learned as a reporter for interviewing a reluctant subject: ask one question and then don't say anything. Most people are so uncomfortable with silence that they'll leap to fill it, even with stuff they don't mean to tell you.) If you need to take a moment and find your place in your notes, take it. If you mess something up, admit it gracefully, chuckle at yourself, and regroup. Audiences are usually on your side and don't mind seeing a little humanity slip through. Don't be afraid to engage the audience one-on-one--you can roll with it!--but don't let one yahoo monopolize or throw you off track.

Bear in mind, I'm pontificating without knowing whether I'm actually an adequate public speaker. My hosts have seemed satisfied, but maybe they were just being nice. When I look back on the talks I've done, there is one I wish I'd done differently--it wasn't bad, I just took the wrong angle--and one I think I utterly flubbed, although I'm not sure the audience could tell the difference. From the first, I learned to put a little more thought into what my audience expected; from the second, I learned not to get too cocky. (I thought I'd given essentially the same speech often enough that I could wing it. I thought wrong.)

Preparation is important. Like so many other things in life, it takes a lot of work to make something look easy. In two weeks, I'm going to give a 90-minute workshop at the Chicago Graphic Medicine conference that I'm helping organize. I've been thinking about it for weeks and begun pulling material together. It wouldn't surprise me if I end up putting in 30 or 40 hours of prep work. I want to know the material forward and backward, understand how the ideas link and build, and have escape routes in mind if something goes wrong.

Jim, as I mentioned privately, if you've already got experience speaking on TV, radio, and small classes of students, I think you're better equipped than 97% of the other public speakers out there. Tackling larger groups should be more a small step than a giant leap.

Finally, let me steer anyone really interested in fine-tuning their presentation skills to the book The Way to Communicate by Other Friend O' The Blog Michael Harkins, known around here by his nom de web Sligo. Mike has had a fascinating career in writing, consulting, and other creative work--near the top of his "cool jobs" list must be touring with Michael Jackson--and I thought his book was helpful and perceptive. In particular, it talks about the physical aspects of speaking or performing, the cues an audience picks up, and how, for example, being literally well-balanced (like, floating on the balls of your feet) contributes to confidence and poise. Mike has some insights into how people like Jackson and Springsteen, with whom he also worked, do what they do, which is a few megaparsecs beyond anything you and I ever will.

I look forward to an interesting discussion in the comments!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Quotable Me

Just a quick note that I'm quoted in an article on Poynter.org today about NPR radio reporter Brooke Gladstone writing her first graphic novel, the forthcoming The Influencing Machine. The art for Gladstone's book was done by Josh Neufeld, whose book A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge was very well received.

I've never heard of Gladstone, don't know Neufeld and haven't read their book, so why me? Beats me; all I know is that reporter Mallary Tenore found out about me when her editor gave her a copy of Mom's Cancer. Mallary contacted me a few days ago, e-mailed me three general questions plumbing my thoughts on graphic novels, and used my answer to one of them pretty much verbatim.

Poynter.org is the website of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida. As a one-time and still-sometimes journalist, getting mentioned in this piece was kind of a kick for me. It's also a nice little article about Gladstone and Neufeld's process, made a bit more interesting because Gladstone was new to comics and Neufeld had to guide her through it. Neufeld is braver than I; I wouldn't have taken the gig. I look forward to seeing the results of their work and hope it's a great success for them.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Dim Sum

Bite-sized morsels that add up to a light meal. Like tapas. (Thanks, Sherwood!)

* * *

In my opinion, the best newspaper comic strip being published today is "Cul De Sac" by Richard Thompson, so I'm happy to point you to this profile of him in the Washington Post by Michael Cavna. It's the finest "cartoonist's profile" I can recall reading in the mainstream press. Cavna managed to get comment from cartoonists like Pat Oliphant, Art Spiegelman, and the shy Bill Watterson, and I admired it just as a piece of journalism. The piece mentions Thompson's nomination for cartooning's big Reuben Award this year, where he'll be up against my ping-pong nemesis Stephan Pastis (who, I don't think I'm breaking any confidences to report, thinks Thompson deserves to win but maybe he just told me that to be nice). It also touches on Thompson's recent diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. Recommended reading.

* * *

For the three people likely to read this who live in Sonoma County, Calif., a half-hour TV program that includes an interview with me will be broadcast 11 a.m. Sunday on KRCB Channel 22, the local PBS station. It's an episode of "Business with Passion" whose host, Jay Hamilton-Roth, interviewed me an a bunch of other cartoonists during last September's Sketch-a-Thon at the Charles Schulz Museum. I mentioned it when it originally aired elsewhere back in December; there's a preview below. Those of you not in the area can watch it online anytime. Thanks again to Jay. Sorry I'm such a dorky lox on camera.

* * *

The latest issue of InPHOCUS, an online newsletter put out by the pharmaceutical marketing firm Phocus, has a nifty mention of the upcoming "Comics & Medicine" conference in Chicago that I'm helping organize. If you're in the Chicago area June 9 and 10, check it out. If you need more incentive beyond our terrific panelists and keynote speakers (Paul Gravett, Phoebe Gloeckner, David Small and Scott McCloud), I'm planning to give a 90-minute workshop on cartooning (I've already got the first two minutes down; the next 88 are a work in progress) PLUS you'll get a nifty cloth bag with my artwork on it! So . . . who could resist?!

* * *

Memo to those of us still on Earth this Sunday: party at Harold Camping's house! BYOB (bring your own brimstone).

Dot dot dot.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Super-Obvious Secrets

Before today I hadn't heard of cartoonist/illustrator Phil McAndrew, but my pal Patricia Storms linked to a blog post of his titled "Super-Obvious Secrets That I Wish They'd Teach at Art School" that I found very worthwhile. Here are the bullet points:

* Draw Every Day
* Challenge Yourself
* Be Nice to People
* Have Fun
* Goals and Deadlines Are Important
* Breaks Are Important Too
* Don't Limit Your Influences
* Don't Trash Talk Yourself
* Art Ruts Are For Chumps
* Draw Awesome Stuff and Put It On the Internet.

Phil has nice comments and examples for each. If you have any type of creative aspirations--not just cartooning but anything: writing, music, competitive hamster grooming--something in his post should strike a chord. Two points that I especially liked were "Don't Limit Your Influences" and "Don't Trash Talk Yourself."

On the first point: I think too many people find a style that they like and works for them, and they go with it--not realizing that a million other people are doing the same. We're all the product of our influences; one problem with cartooning is that a lot of people have the same small list of them. What I most object to when I see how pervasive the manga style is among a generation of young cartoonists is less (what I consider) its stylistic limitations than their stifled individuality. How much more could you offer if you knew enough art history to bring some Monet or Dali, or even some Hal Foster or Jack Kirby, to the table? As Phil writes, if your only influence is (cartoonist) James Kochalka, you'll never be anything but a bad imitation of James Kochalka . . . and who needs you when we've already got him? Cast your net widely. You'll have more interesting things to say and more interesting ways to say them.

On the second point: I'm not high-profile enough to get very many people asking my opinion of their work. But on the rare occasion I do a signing or something and a young person brings me their sketchbook or portfolio, it's amazing how often they open with an apology. "I could have done this better," "I didn't have time to color this right," "This one isn't quite finished." First, if it's not your best stuff, don't put it in your portfolio. Second, show some pride and backbone! (But not arrogance!) So many creative people are their own worst enemies, and I understand the psychology: criticizing your own work pre-empts the anticipated sting of someone else doing it, and you can both agree that you stink. Well . . . don't do that! If the first words out of your mouth indicate that you don't like and respect your work, why should anyone else?

But now I'm repeating Phil. Go read his post, maybe you'll get something out of it.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Literary Food for Thought

Two data points about the brave new world of publishing that caught my eye this morning:

Data Point One. The #1 bestselling book on Amazon right now is not yet in print. Titled Go the F**k to Sleep, it's billed as a children's book for adults. From its title, I'm guessing it's a twist on kids' bedtime books like Goodnight Moon but meant for parents who just want their little monsters to shut up and lie down. Sounds clever. Wish I'd thought of it.

What got my attention is that, as explained in this article, the book topped the bestseller list and has already been optioned for a movie due entirely to a PDF preview that got away from its publisher. Critics, buyers for bookstore chains, marketing people and others need to make decisions about books before they're physically printed, so publishers send them a PDF. Usually, they're held close to the vest. This one escaped into the wild. That's piracy, but it's also grassroots marketing--way better marketing than the publisher could have ever dreamed of doing on its own.

In the article, I enjoyed editor Ibrahim Ahmad wrestling with his dilemma: you don't want a million illegal free copies of your forthcoming book floating around the Internet, but at the same time those illegal free copies actually translated into pre-sales that will make both publisher and author barge-loads more money than they ever dreamed. Ahmad says he's fighting the piracy, but I don't think his heart's really in it. Understandably.

I'm not celebrating this story. In fact, it's pretty much the antithesis of how I think business, and the author-reader relationship, ought to go. "Give it away free to get exposure" is the opposite of how I'd choose to run my creative life--and yet this time, accidentally, it worked. I don't quite know what to make of it, but it got me thinking. Like I said, it's a data point.

Data Point Two. This article (originally by the Washington Post but since they currently appear to have a glitch on their website I linked to it elsewhere) features Nyree Belleville, a "thin, pretty brunette" who wrote 12 romance novels for a traditional publisher which then dropped her. Since her books had never earned her much anyway and she had nothing to lose, she reissued her first two novels as e-books.

(BTW, the article says that "her writing career was so flat line that one of her old publishers had even given her the rights to her first two novels." I bet that's not quite right. More likely, the books had gone out of print and the rights automatically reverted to Belleville under the terms of her contract. Nobody "gave" her anything.)

Those e-books made a few bucks. Then a few more. Belleville got the rights to two more of her books, wrote a new original one, dug up a few stories she'd written earlier in her career, and offered them all as e-books. In the first quarter of 2011, she sold 58,008 copies and made $116,264. Quite a comeback for a writer who a few months earlier thought her career was over.

The article also points out that such success is rare. Belleville had a big advantage being a known name with an established reputation and fan base in the print world. Far more common are the e-books that sell six copies to family and friends. Still, the economics are compelling. Notes the article, "it is possible for writers marketing a $4.99 self-published e-book to make more per copy than authors with a $24.95 hardcover." As an author with a $24.95 hardcover, that sounded about right and got my undivided attention.

Of course the most important question to me is: How does this affect me? I dunno. These are interesting times. Writers have exponentially more strategies and outlets available than ever, but consequently a greater challenge being heard above the din than ever. If there are no gatekeepers and everybody's a writer, how do you stand out from the crowd? Tell good from bad? Can a writer still lounge moodily in his garret and scritch away with a quill pen (as I am wont to do), or does the 21st Century author have to be a promoter, accountant, and computer guru, too?

Interesting times.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I'm On The Austrian a-Radio

Way back in last August, I got an e-mail from reporter Christian Cummins from Austrian radio station ORF FM4 asking for an interview about Mom's Cancer (or its German version, Mutter hat Krebs). In a powerful example of how small the world has become and how interconnected we are all, I received Chris's e-mail at 4:40 a.m. my time. I replied as soon as I got up and saw his note, at 7:03 a.m., and said, "How about now?" Chris and I connected on Skype, did the interview, and were done by 7:42 a.m., when I e-mailed him some images from the book to post online.

Think for a second about how amazing that is: a guy in Austria wants to interview another guy in California for a radio program and they get the entire thing done, soup to nuts, in less than an hour. Sometimes I enjoy living in The Future.

Anyway, I did the interview and forgot about it until yesterday, when Chris was kind enough to e-mail me a copy of the piece with apologies for forgetting to do it earlier. How rare and considerate! If I've done this right, there should be some kind of doohickey right under this paragraph that will let you listen to the edited three-minute interview (posted with Chris's permission). He also sent me a link to a separate text version of his story, which has totally different content and is, I think, an excellent write-up.


Thanks to Christian for the interview and the web article, and for remembering to tell me about them!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I Need a New Word for "Tapas"

I keep posting these collections of bite-sized morsels. Well . . . I did it again.

* * *

Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane made a pilgrimage to Florida last week hoping to witness the final launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. As I mentioned in the previous post, he was even nice enough to invite me along and I was sorry to decline. Sadly for Jim, Endeavour's launch was postponed (and remains uncertain), and he had to return home. Happily for me, while he was there Jim shot a picture of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow voguing on the iconic NASA seal in the Main Hall of the Kennedy Space Center! Holy Hertzsprung!

I have a collection of photos like this, taken of my book in much cooler places than I'll ever visit myself, on WHTTWOT's Facebook page. I always imagine someone shlepping my book around all day just to capture one picture in just the right place; I'm impressed with their effort and grateful for their thoughtfulness. Thanks again, Jim!

* * *

Today is "National Cartoonist's Day," which is such a big deal that not even many cartoonists seem aware of it. But hooray for cartoonists anyway! If you see one, give him or her a big hug and kiss, and perhaps a Reuben sandwich. I hear that's their favorite. I personally will be hanging out on a street corner downtown hoping someone recognizes me. Maybe if I splash some India ink on my shirt first . . .

On a related note, Saturday is "Free Comic Book Day," when comic book shops try to lure future customers by passing out free comics, many of them produced by publishers just for the occasion. Some shops go all-out with special events, creator appearances, art exhibitions. Might want to see if anybody's doing anything fun around you.

* * *

Much more somberly, but I think appropriate for a blog that was begun nearly six years ago to talk about Mom's Cancer: a friend pointed me to this final blog post of Derek Miller, evidently a popular blogger but previously unknown to me, who died of colorectal cancer on May 3. Derek knew the end was near, faced it with dignity and courage, and composed this post to be published after he passed away. I thought it was touching and wise and said some of the things a lot of people probably wish they could have said if they'd had the chance. It will help you get your priorities straight and put your little problems of the day in perspective. That's always worthwhile.

More later.