grief: an evolving process

Over breakfast, I read the first chapter of a book about what it’s like to be a person who works on dictionaries. “This is interesting,” I thought to myself, and bought the whole book. And then I had the sad thought that if she was still alive, this was totally a book I’d have recommended to my mother – I grew up in a house full of books, with one ever-growing section dedicated to books about the odd corners of the English language.

I shrugged, and sent her email anyway. It felt like the right thing to do, even as I was caught by a brief wave of utter misery and loss. I haven’t felt that for a while but it’s still there.

She showed up in my dreams last night, too. She was driving. We were on a highway through the middle of nothingness, going up and down its hills and overpasses, and navigating snow and slush with an aplomb I find rather absurd in a woman who lived almost her whole life in New Orleans. There wasn’t much conversation that I remember. Just the drive.

How To Write Gooder

A while back someone on Tumblr asked me how to get better at writing. This is what I replied.

It’s been sitting in a text editor window ever since. I decided to post it here before closing it and consigning it to the aether forever.

—-

Read.

Read great stuff. Read garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage even though they sell a ton. Read stuff everyone says is great that you think is garbage. Read stuff everyone says is garbage that you think is great. Read your favorite genre. Read other genres. Read that tedious shit they put in the New Yorker where nothing ever happens except for some white people not quite getting a divorce. Read stuff you think is great now that you’ll think is garbage in ten or twenty years.

And don’t just read it. Think about it. Ask yourself why the stuff you think is great is great, why the garbage is garbage, what appeals in the terrible best-sellers, what appeals in the great best-sellers. Develop a sense of what makes writing, plotting, characterization, and storytelling good or bad. Then apply that sense to your own writing. If a piece doesn’t pass that test then fix it until it does, if you think there’s something worth salvaging in it. If you don’t know how to fix it then ask how one or another of your favorite authors would fix it.

Read that book you loved ten years ago and read every few years and still love. But don’t just read it. Get a paper copy of it and start *dissecting* it – take notes in the margins. This bit supports this major theme of the story. That bit is an awesome grammar trick you didn’t notice until the third time you read it. This bit is just fucking amazing writing. This bit touched something important in your budding pre-teen sexuality. This bit contradicts that other bit (intentionally?). Here’s a major turning point in the story; here’s a major turning point in this particular character’s story. Flense the story’s skin and muscle off its bones, think about how one supports the other and how badly it would work without some part.

(Doing that is why the last third of Rita is shaped the way it is – I picked up *Use Of Weapons* to re-read as a way of saying goodbye to Iain when he died far too early; I started asking myself how and why he twisted the timeline into knots in that story, and what he had to do to make it work, then applied that to my own story.)

There’s lots of books on How To Structure A Story. Some are shit. Some are great. Read some of them. Personally my current favorite is the one Film Crit Hulk wrote a while back. Be warned: if you’re reading screenwriting manuals, do not try to fit your seven-act story into the Procrustean bed of a three-act screenplay. Let your story be the shape it needs to be. (But keep in mind Vonnegut’s dictum to respect the reader by starting the story as close to the end as possible; you have to *earn* the reader’s attention if you want to tell the six hundred years of Madeupistan history leading up to the point you want to make.)

Do not get lost in “worldbuilding” and “backstory”. Do not skip it, either. Stories and characters grow out of them. But it doesn’t all need to be on the page. I’ve seen the metaphor of an iceberg: maybe 10% of the shit you come up with for a novel ends up on the page. The rest? Save it for the RPG worldbook.

Getting lost in TVTropes is part of your job. It’s a great resource of common building blocks of stories. But you can’t just mindlessly put tropes together; think about which ones work, which ones you should bend, which ones you should avoid entirely, in service to the *theme* of your story and the *characters*.

Having a theme helps a lot too. Whenever you’re stuck for the next thing to aim the narrative at, you can ask how you can bring the theme(s) back to the fore.

The hardest part: figuring out how people act. I mean fuck I’m an involuted freak who spent twenty years of her life hiding from any and all social interaction and learning how to draw and program. The best background is nothing without characters, full of dreams and goals and successes and failures and foibles. Give them things they want, put obstacles in their way, and then story occurs.

Some people will divide writers into “planners” and “pantsers”: one makes elaborate plans of how the whole plot will unfold before they write a single paragraph, the other just starts writing shit and just goes where instinct takes them. Personally I tend to go back and forth; it’s worth noting that both Stephen King and George R R Martin describe themselves as firmly in the “pantsers” camp, and they’ve sold a fuckton more books than I’m ever likely to. Pantsers tend to be about dropping a bunch of characters into a situation, and seeing how they work their way out; this can involve going down a lot of dead alleys as the characters try things that don’t work out.

Personally, Rita started very pants-y: here’s this robot lady infiltrating a building, why? An assasination, apparently. She’s talking to someone, who? Carol. What’s their relationship? I had some vague ideas for visual tricks I wanted to pull with the multiple-story trick but no real clue of the story; it didn’t really start to come together until a random obstacle I dropped in to stop a Relationship Conversation from going on forever opened his mouth and said he was Rita’s psycho ex, and shattered her reality for her. Then I knew a lot more of how it was going to end; once I knew that, I could say “okay, I’m here, and I want to get here – what’s a midway point?” Then repeat: what’s about midway from the latest page to that midway point? To there? Eventually I get down to having a handful of sentences describing what needs to happen in the current chapter, then to what needs to happen in the next page or two, and then I just start plopping words and doodles onto the page in Illustrator. Absinthe’s been similar, albiet much slower. Parallax is super-planned – we’ve turned to TVTropes, we’ve got a list of Common Star Trek Episode Types we made, we’ve spent a whole year kicking back and forth a framework for a multi-season TV show.

It’s okay for first drafts to be terrible. Now you have something to fix, and that’s a lot easier than having the story burst forth fully-formed like Athena from Zeus’ brow.

If you find someone who you collaborate well with, hold onto that for dear life. I would not be half the writer I am without Nick there to help me. We broke up during Absinthe, then got back together during Rita, and now we’re collaborating both on Parallax and Absinthe. Having another pair of brain hemispheres to toss ideas back and forth is wonderful; they’ll bring in a similar-but-different set of references, loves, inspiration, and knowledge.

But mostly: read a lot; turn off your internal censors and write some absolutely terrible stuff. Then either fix it, or write some more terrible stuff until you have something worth fixing.

Also: go ask someone who knows more about writing than me, 99% of my longform writing output is volleying crazy smut fantasy paragraphs back and forth over a furry muck until someone came, fell asleep, or had to go to work the next morning. honestly I’m not sure they’ll have that much more to say, I mean King’s “On Writing” is basically him saying “read a ton, good and bad, and write a lot while applying the critical eye learnt from your wide reading to your own stuff” plus an assortment of anecdotes from his much longer writing career, just do it again and again until people are willing to pay you for it or you give up.

Pillow Pile again.

Yesterday morning, I woke up with a thought in my head: it's time to stop sleeping in the pillow pile.

Last night I found myself missing it terribly. Stretching out on a flat surface feels weird now. There's nothing against my back. It's colder in my bedroom than on the living room. And a lot less generally cozy – I've put a little more effort into decorating the living room over time and it shows.

I guess I can remedy some of this. Pillows to snuggle against when there's not a lover in my bed. But it feels like such an uphill battle when I could just go back to the living room most nights.

The bed's advantages: it's more suited to having another person sleep next to me, the padding doesn't get pushed out of the center and result in hips resting uncomfortably on the floor (I mean I can turn the Comfy Sack over and refluff it to fix this every few days but I'm lazy), and I feel more likely to actually get up and leave the room and maybe exercise or something, because there's not the constant temptation of “hey the video games are RIGHT THERE” when I wake up.

But damn do I miss the Dragon Hibernaculum right now.

Goals 2017

A post on Hacker News about “aligning your daily to-dos with your long term goals” made me decide to sit down and ask myself what my long term goals are right now. This is what I came up with.

I need to think about Drowning City more. There are some large questions about it being asked here. Absinthe and Parallax have pretty concrete things to do, but there’s something ambiguous I have to grope for in that story before I can push forwards on it. Or maybe I just need to stop putting it off and make myself draw panels in my chapter 1 roughs for a week to get some progress.

Enchant is the dance studio I’ve been going to for the past couple of years. I took a break this winter with the intent of finding Something Else to keep fit with and have just been slouching.

There should maybe be some political action goals but uggggghhh

I’ve got a trip coming up next month that may be partially on a friend’s couch or may not. I need to try planning for the latter in case the former falls through.

I guess the overall long term goal is “keep doing this art thing, get back to where it almost pays the bills like it did when you were cranking out Rita”.

it a me

From a photo taken the other night around ECCC.

Slight edit the next day: removed the ten pounds added by the camera, added the lipstick that had vanished by that late in the evening. Left my big-ass nose because hey I’m a fortysomething French/Italian mix, I got a nose.

How To An Illustrator: Distant Mountains

Another answer to a technique question from Reddit: Here's a fast way to make a bunch of mountains fading into clouds in Illustrator. There are others; this is the way I'd do it.

 

1. Make two swatches: pink, blue. Check the “global” box in the swatch options for each of them. Draw a big pink rectangle on one layer, make a new one to draw mountains on.

2. Draw a vague inverted-u shape with whatever tool is quickest. I like the pencil tool, double-click on the pencil tool; turn on 'fill new pencil strokes' and 'edit selected', turn off 'keep selected', it's defaults are terrible for fast drawing.

3. Open the Appearance palette. Visit its menu, uncheck “new art has basic appearance”.

4. Fill your shape with a pink-blue gradient made from those two global swatches. Set it to 90°.

5. Add the roughen and tweak effects to this fill. Roughen at 0% size, detail to taste, corner points; tweak 0% horizontal, vertical to taste, play with the modify checkboxes.

6. Add a new fill using the button at the bottom of the appearance palette. Make it solid pink and on top of the first fill. This will be the clouds.

7. Add the ellipse effect to this fill. Relative, 0pt of extra width/height.

8. More effects: transform, 50% vertical, centered on the bottom center of the object; roughen, 4%. 5/in, smooth; Gaussian blur, 13px.

9. Graphic Styles palette: make a new style.

10. Using this style, draw more mountainous shapes. Use object>arrange to put the lower ones nearer, if you didn't draw them in that order.

Stuff in the Appearance palette should be arranged like this.

If you find this useful, please consider supporting my Patreon.

 

the dream of the abrupt ending

So I was in a dream, looking for a broomstick with which to combat this guy who keept trying to take stuff off my dinner plate with his fork, as you do in dreams, when I flipped the light switch a couple of times.

There was an electric BZOWNF sound and everything went dark. Not all at once, there was a very quick left to right transition of, like, an all-encompassing grid of bright blue-white wire frames of cubes popping in and being replaced by the dark room within which I was now floating, kind of lying on my side in the air.

“helff”, I muttered, through a mouth pressed into a weird shape, as I drifted.

And then I was wide awake. Lying in the pillow pile in the same position I'd been lying in in the abruptly terminated dream, with my mouth mushed into the pillow.

7:17, the tablet said when I picked it up to write this. And now it's a few minutes later, and my alarm is about to go off, because I need to get up and get ready for the third day of Emerald City Comic-Con.

What the fuck. My brain just did a “turned off the holodeck” transition and threw me out of dreaming into full awareness. Good morning.

I can usually will myself to wake up at a certain time, if I do it when I go to sleep and am getting enough sleep between then and my intended wake time. But I didn't do that last night. I just set a few alarms. And I've never had a dream end that decisively and abruptly. What the hell, brain.

Some thoughts about the Pillow Pile sleeping mode.

For the past few weeks I've been sleeping in the living room, on the giant beanbag chair with a bunch of pillows. Big pillows, little pillows, pretty much every pillow that feels nice against my naked skin has migrated to this nest.

Some things I have noticed:

* I like kind of being in a bit of a trench, with pillows pressed against my front and back. It is very calming, and I suspect it may be activating some remnant of the human infant's swaddling reflex to help me chill out and fall asleep.

* I have a couple of soft sculpture tails. Both have migrated to the pile. Often I find myself wearing the dragon tail to bed; it's kind of cool to essentially have a long pillow attached to my butt. Said tail has a few curves in it, and I find it very comforting to coil it around one of my legs whenever possible. Again, body pressure feels good.

* I am finally understanding people who sleep while cuddling body pillows. I'm doing much the same. Except with multiple separate pillows instead of one big one.

* I need like two or three more normal-sized pillows and maybe a couple more little ones to really make this work.

* Arranging all these pillows can do very interesting things in terms of finding and releasing tension in my spine. Last night I felt like I was unwinding some muscles near the base that never relax. It is a fiddly process but it is very nice when I get everything arranged Just Right.

Anyway. Those are some things I contemplated last night while sleeping in my hoard of pillows, wearing a dragon tail, with a mound of doubloons next to the pillows.

My First Worldest Problem Ever

As I was sitting in the coffee shop in Westlake Center drawing Absinthe, my handheld keyboard started acting wonky. Probably because it ran out of power. It’s impossible to tell if it’s out of battery because Windows doesn’t show the power level of Bluetooth devices like my Mac does, but experience has taught me this is usually why it misbehaves.

I looked in my bag and had, as I feared, left the USB cable to recharge it at home.

This is the most first world problem I have ever had in my life. I have to stop drawing my goofy pornographic comic because the chord keyboard I use along with the tablet computer I draw on is out of power.

(I’m downtown, and could maybe find a cable – but I’d have to get a USB 3/2 adapter as well and just, ugh, too much stuff, easier to pop home and grab it.)

a thing that drives me mad

This Friday, I sauntered on down to the nearest branch of my bank with the intent of doing the wire transfer for the second half of the payment for Rita 3 and the omnibus. When I got there, I was told that I couldn’t do it, as East Coast business hours were over and for some unknown reason they won’t do it then. And they won’t even take all the info and do it when East Coast businesses open again; BECU’s employees are apparently locked out of the part of their system that they need to access to do this.

They told me they can’t do it on the weekend, either. And couldn’t do it on Monday because that’s President’s Day, one of those lovely holidays nobody celebrates except banks.

So today – Tuesday – I went out and tried again. And got there just after 1PM. Which meant, once more, that they couldn’t do it. Because they are locked out of that part of their system. I got told that this is apparently because the exchange rates in the currency markets become invalid at the end of East Coast business hours or something like that. Which is pretty maddening when I’m paying an amount set in US$ anyway.

I am left feeling angry and futile, especially because this delay means I’m probably not going to have any books for Emerald City. My books are currently in a warehouse in Chicago, racking up storage fees, until I give my printer a receipt for the wire transfer, and they let it go on to the Amazon warehouse in Illinois they’re destined for. I’m using Amazon to fulfill the Kickstarter orders, and sell future copies; I was going to have them send me a small pile to take to the con.

If ECCC wasn’t so goddamned early this year I’d be fine. But it’s a week earlier than normal. And it’s pricier than ever; I expect the cost of a booth to rise as the con grows, but ever since ReedPop bought it, it’s been going up twice as fast. I’m gonna be spending $500 to sit at a table with my friends and… sell book 1 and 2 at a loss, I guess, to try and at least get some new fans. And probably give out fliers for Rita and Parallax. Which are going to require some scrambling and $$$ to make happen in time.

If the bank would take my fucking wire transfer request and hold it until East Coast business hours re-open, I’d be fine. Close to the wire but fine. But they will not. And I really need to find out who the hell to complain about this to, because I really like a lot of other things about BECU, but this has been a problem every time I’ve had to wire money internationally for printing my books.

I am so fucking sick of self-publishing. There is so much bullshit to deal with when I’d rather just be getting on with the time-consuming but pleasant business of drawing comics.