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 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.

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.



Tonight’s Illustrator how-to: drawing symmetrically.

  1. Draw a big rectangle, centered where you want the center of rotation to be. Far bigger than you anticipate ever drawing in. Like ‘3x as wide as the entire canvas’ big. Give it no stroke and no fill; it’ll become invisible when it’s not selected.
  2. Layers panel: click on the dot to the right of the name of the layer.
  3. effect>distort and transform>transform
  4. in the angle box, type 360/x; in the copies box, type x-1 (where ‘x’ is however many copies of the stuff you draw you want to see – for instance if you wanted to see 15 total copies of your stuff it’d be 360/15 and 14. Illustrator can do simple math in all its numeric input boxes!)
  5. effect>distort and transform>transform – yes, a second one, this time check ‘reflect X’, make one copy, and leave everything else alone.
  6. maybe open up the layer and lock the invisible rectangle so you don’t select it by accident while moving stuff around.
  7. hit up the appearance palette’s dropdown menu, ‘clear appearance’
  8. start drawing shapes
  9. if you want to edit the symmetry, then click on the dot you clicked in step 2, then go to the appearance palette and click on the ‘transform’ entry.

It sounds complicated but it took me like a minute to set up at most, then I doodled this in like another minute or two by drawing a few black and white shapes with the pencil tool.


And here’s a screengrab of the outline view that shows you just how little stuff I actually drew. That little dot near the middle of everything is the center of the big invisible rectangle I drew in step 1.

If at some point you want to tweak individual instances of your symmetric stuff, then click on the dot next to the layer’s name and do object>expand appearance. If ‘expand appearance’ is ghosted then go unlock the invisible rectangle you drew in step 1.

You could also go pay money for Astute Graphics’ MirrorMe plugin, but that tends to not play well with wanting to have symmetry happening across multiple layers, plus I can never remember how to use the damn thing because they only provide documentation in the form of frickin’ youtube videos. This way is covered by what’s already part of AI, and you can do stuff like have, oh, 14 copies of what you draw on one layer, and 11 on another, and expect that to stay consistent across closing and re-opening the file.


And here’s a thing I did elaborating on the insectoid mandala I drew for this post.

Fuzzy shading.


A quick (~15min) doodle of Baron K from Parallax, mostly done to test out a shading method someone asked about on Reddit. The uniform is probably off-model, I didn’t bother pulling up the pitch bible.

I’m not sure about the Baron’s eyes here. I need to do some exploration of how to show expressions and keep his eyes looking like cute little beady mouse eyes. Does he look like he’s looking in a particular direction to you?


This is what I ended up with for the shading effect. Choose color, opacity amount, and blur/mezzotint settings to taste; if you make a Graphic Style and draw all your shading using that, you can tweak the appearance then do ‘redefine graphic style’ to apply it to the whole drawing.


And this is what it looks like if I turn off the blur and mezzotints. Just a bunch of shapes drawn with the pencil tool and occasional use of ‘draw inside’.

Vectober 5: Pencil

Still listening to Kobra and the Lotus’ “High Priestess” on repeat. Because it seems to be that kind of day.

This is a straight up photo trace because I didn’t wanna have to think about anything but the materials experiment. I am not entirely happy with the likeness (especially the nose, geeze)  but I spent a half hour on it and that’s enough, especially given that this particular tool was drawing a little bit offset from where I expected it to.

This “pencil” is actually a bristle brush, with some effects added:

Continue reading

some pointillism

Saránta Eptá

Fooling around with making Illustrator do stippling for me via the magic of a few scatter brushes. Because holy shit all those dots would be a ton of work. Especially when I decided to retroactively make them tiny little skulls  once it turned into my Bloodborne character.


Illustrator, about ~30min to draw, plus another half hour fooling around with turning the dots into different things.


edit: here, have some brush settings. They’re all called “leaf” because I started with one of my standard toolkit brushes, a jaunty little rectangle scatter brush I use for abstracted leaves. I ended up replacing them with a skull made up of five paths (overall shape, each eye, nosehole, highlight) joined into a compound path. I made the others by just duplicating the first brush and changing the settings, mostly by either widening the scatter range to create a broader stroke, or by raising the spacing to make it lighter. You could easily make a few more if you wanted to take a stippled piece further than I did here. Things may start to get a little sluggish though. Use multiple layers, hide them and maybe make simple gradient proxies, consider writing up a feature request for something like Expression’s “freeze layer” function again. (Expression was a wonderful natural-media vector package that Illustrator is still trying to catch up to; one thing it could do was “freeze” a layer. Which was like locking it except it also rendered a moderately high-res bitmap, and used that for building the preview instead of rendering everything from scratch. It made working with complex drawings a lot faster.)

How To An Illustrator: abusing image trace

Screen Shot 2016-04-09 at 7.42.54 AMFucking around with image trace because someone asked how to do this kind of stuff on Reddit.


  1. import image
  2. object->image trace->make
  3. window->image trace, set it to black and white with a threshold of about, oh, 30 or so. Maybe open up the ‘advanced’ triangle and check ‘ignore white’; I’ll talk about why you might want to do this later.
  4. in the layers palette, drag the layer this image is on to the ‘create new layer’ button at the bottom of the palette.
  5. you are now editing a new copy of the image, in this new layer. Set the trace threshold a little higher.
  6. repeat steps 4/5 until you feel like you have Enough layers to work with. You might want to set these layers to about 20-50% at some point so you can see what’s going on.

Now, you have at least two options here. First I’ll talk about how I did the B&W image with pattern fills.

  1. I’d checked ‘ignore white’ in step 3 above. This gave me a set of paths that were just the black parts, as opposed to solid black and white.
  2. make a new layer at the top of the stack, call it ‘construction’. Probably lock all the other layers so you don’t interact with them by accident.
  3. somewhere above the image, draw a horizontal unfilled, stroked line that’s around half again as long as the diagonal of the image.
  4. effect->distort and transform->zig zag. If you want wavy lines like this then choose ‘smooth’ in the ‘points’ section.
  5. alt-drag the line to well below the bottom of your image.
  6. select both lines, object->blend->make. Then object->blend->blend options and fiddle with the settings until you like the spacing between your lines.
  7. select that whole blend and drag it into the swatch palette to make a pattern fill. You could also do object->pattern->make but that will immediately throw you into the pattern editor mode, and we don’t need to do that here.
  8. Hide the ‘construction’ layer. Show everything else. Select all the image traces and do object->image trace->expand. Sadly you can’t expand multiple image traces at once; you have to select them one by one. I feel the most efficient flow for this is to unlock one layer, select all, expand the trace, lock the layer, then go on to the next one, but whatever works for you. You might want to record an action or add a keyboard shortcut to the image trace expand as it’s pretty deeply buried in the menus.
  9. Lock all your layers; unlock one and do edit->select all. Then pick the wavy lines pattern swatch you made.
  10. Lock off that layer, unlock another one. Select all and pick the wavy lines pattern swatch.
  11. Choose the rotation tool and start to rotate the image. Before you let go, press the ~ key. This is a switch that says “only transform the pattern fill”; you’ll see your outlines replaced by bounding boxes of all the paths. Maybe hold down shift to constrain it to 45º angles.
  12. Repeat steps 10/11 until you’ve dealt with all your layers.
  13. Enjoy your cool artsily separated photo. You could use whatever fill pattern you like for this.

(As a side note, the ~ trick to move a pattern fill around in a shape works with the scale, reflect, and arrow tools, as well. It does not work with the free transform tool.)

And here is another way to do it: opacity masks.

  1. do those six steps at the top of the post, but turn off  ‘ignore white’ in the image trace options.
  2. lock everything except one image trace layer. Select all; cut. Yes, cut.
  3. In the layers palette, click on the circle to the right of the now-empty layer’s name.
  4. In the transparency palette, press the ‘make mask’ button. Check ‘clip’ and ‘invert mask’.
  5. Click on the big black square that appeared in the transparency palette, and paste. Now you have an opacity mask. You can see its outline if you do view->show edges, and you can see it in the transparency thumbnail’s palette, but nothing shows up on the screen. That’s because the opacity mask is a greyscale image that affects the transparency of what it’s attached to, and right now it’s attached to an empty layer.
  6. Click on the empty square in the transparency palette to go back to editing the layer, and draw something in it. Maybe a big black rectangle. Maybe a colored one. Maybe a pattern fill. Maybe draw two circles and blend them, that’s what I did here. And then duplicated and slightly offset them to create a cool morié pattern in the image.
  7. Repeat steps 2-6. If you want to move some of the stuff you drew in step 6 without moving the opacity mask, then click the chain link between the two thumbnails in the transparency palette. Otherwise you’ll move the opacity mask as well.
  8. Enjoy your cool artsily separated photo. You could also try unchecking ‘invert mask’ on one layer and using it to overlay art in the lighter areas of the image, rather than the darker.

There are other ways to do this – you could expand the image trace (with ‘ignore white’ on), turn it into a compound path, and use it as a layer clipping mask for the layer full of whatever imagery you want to draw; you could probably do something involving destructive operations with the Pathfinder palette, too. Which is a major sin in my book as I like to do non-destructive edits whenever possible.

If I was to rank these methods from most to least editable down the line, it’d be opacity mask > pattern fills > layer clipping mask > pathfinder stuff. For instance, I wanted to add a little extra shadow under the chin to help distinguish it from the face. With the opacity mask method I could just go into a layer mask and draw some black shapes over the image trace. Adding more shapes the pattern fill way can be a little finicky with keeping the fill patterns in alignment; adding more shapes to a complex layer mask is even more fiddly, and destructive pathfinder operations have to be done completely from scratch.

You can also do a similar trick with Astute Graphics’ WidthScribe palette, if you feel like spending some money for a plugin that only has a bunch of YouTube tutorials and no manual.

Some Thoughts On Lettering

A friend was trying to do some comics and having some trouble with getting the lettering to work, so I did a couple quick pages of Things I Think About When Lettering My Stuff.

some-thoughts-on-word-balloons some-thoughts-on-word-balloons-2

I do not claim that any of these tips are The One True Way To Letter. Just that they are things that tend to make my own comics more legible. (I say this because I see a lot of lettering tips about How To Superhero Letters that take a super dogmatic tone.)

There’s a lot of stuff I left out: I did not go into using differently colored balloons, the use of different types of edges for thought balloons or for shouting/electronically transmitted stuff (or for hints about tone of voice), or why I sometimes choose centered text, sometimes left or right justified, and sometimes do paragraphs with indents. I also didn’t go into translucent word balloons – I feel that solid white balloons look super clashy over modern softly-colored art. I also left out the rant about how I feel the ALL CAPS SUPERHERO LETTERING is something best left in the past, where it was a good idea due to the terrible reproduction those things got then. Which also means I left out the digression about the weird little rule that you should never write a superhero comic about someone named Clint Flicker because of how it looks if you type it in all caps and aren’t super careful with the kerning or start having the ink bleed…

Anyway. Hope this helps someone a bit.