Step by step – Flirty (and tutorial)

Only one pic this week, but I worked on it all week. As you can see here, each step took a day. In the case of the shapes stage, two days.

These are me and my husband’s Destiny characters.

I was practicing figure sketches, and I liked this one because it kind of tells a story. So I turned it into a full pic. I also tried doing all the shadows with the pen tool, mostly because of this tutorial:

Practice pic by WinXu Xu on Artstation

See how the black shapes and the gray shapes in the first stage are on separate layers? And he colors on them separately? I wanted to try doing that. I’m afraid my first try was pretty tame, but I want to continue experimenting with this technique.

I’ve also been scribbling out a new fanfic. I noticed that it was getting kind of long, so I checked and realized I’ve written 30k. Pretty much just for fun. I love it when a story has that much pull. So I’m tossing it online, slowly, until I get it finished. Fortunately, the last third is in sight, so it’ll be done in a few more weeks.

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Mystery boxes in stories (and why readers love them)

I’ve written 19 fanfics since last May, and it gave me a lot of leeway to experiment. Mostly, I’ve been able to step back and look at which stories consistently get the most hits.

I like to write in a lot of different subgenres. For Destiny, I wrote sci fi > drama, sci fi > romance, sci fi > mystery/thriller, and sci fi > humor.

While all of them found a decent number of readers, the ones that always do the best are the mystery/thriller types. Or, as I like to call them, the mystery box stories.

Now, you’d think that romance would be the most popular. And stories with a dash of romance have performed well for me. But the mystery box stories have them beat, hands down.

What is a mystery box? This is a concept JJ Abrams talks about in his TED talk here. A mystery box is simply a box with something in it. But you don’t know what it is. So you open the box and solve the mystery.

But what if there’s another mystery box inside that box? Ah, the puzzle isn’t solved, then. You have another box to open. And so on and so forth, mystery after mystery. The human brain is wired to be curious. We can’t stand mysteries. We have to find out the answers or it bugs us.

My first mystery box story was about a girl who gets revived by a ghost who can’t talk. (Ghosts are these little robots.)

Why can’t he talk? First mystery box. Turns out he’s broken. But why is he broken? Second mystery box. This is hard to find out because he won’t let anybody touch him. Why not? Third mystery box. Turns out, he’s been rebuilt with alien tech. But how, and why? Fourth box. And on it goes, each mystery getting the heroine into hotter and hotter water. The final mystery isn’t solved until the very last chapter, when the heroine is on trial and only the ghost coming clean will save her neck.

That story went crazy for a while. It got a ton of hits and interaction. People had to see the mystery solved. It still gets hits, even though it’s a bit older, now. It doesn’t have any romance–only the somewhat stressed friendship between the girl and her ghost.

Right now, I’m posting another one that also deals with mystery boxes. In this case, it’s a very Bourne Identity setup–a guy with amnesia just might be a covert operative with the key to a super weapon in his memory. And it’s getting a ton of hits and interactions. People want to see what’s inside that mystery box.

I’m considering doing a romance/thriller to see how it does. All the romance stuff AND mystery boxes? Of course, I’ve been partial to romantic thrillers since I first read Mary Stewart’s books. She does the mystery boxes hardcore. I still think about this one twist in the Moon Spinners that took me completely by surprise.

Anyway, I think all genres can benefit from a few mystery boxes. Not only do they keep the reader curious, but they keep the suspense engine running. I think all authors do this more or less by instinct. But it’s fun to actually build your boxes and scatter them throughout your story. Because, in a story, mystery boxes are also Pandora’s box–opening them should unlock a whole bunch of new problems for your protagonist.

Art stuffs and writing stuffs

Time for another art dump post!

I know I should really be writing my superhero youtuber book. (And it’s an amazing story!) But I keep getting distracted by Destiny 2. Like, distracted to the point of fanart and fanfics.

Like this tiny little flash fiction I cooked up, just to have the excuse to put a comic at the end.


The ghost had wandered for a thousand years since its birth, seeking his Guardian. He had watched empires rise and fall, witnessed humanity’s retreat to the Last City. And he still had not found the spark that sang to him, the heart destined to bind to his own Light.
Weary beyond expression, the ghost made his way back to the Last City in the Traveler’s shadow. He might have to return to the Traveler, admit his defeat, and hope the Traveler accepted him back into the Great Consciousness. He had failed. He couldn’t find his Guardian.
But then, as he flew above the buildings of the City, he halted. Was that the pull of a spark? He hovered, turning this way and that, feeling for it. Yes, surely it was his Guardian! Here, in the City, the last place he thought to look. Guardians usually didn’t appear among the living, so he had never bothered looking.
He darted downward, scanning the rooftops and walls, searching. The sense of the spark drew him onward, through the neighborhood to the smallest house at the end of the street, nearest the city’s wall. He was so desperate to find his Guardian that he phased straight through the wall to enter the house.
The ghost entered a small bedroom. A woman sat in a rocking chair, holding a newborn baby.
The baby’s spark sang to the ghost’s core.
How could it be possible? He had waited all this time for his Guardian to be born? It staggered him with confusion. But there was no mistaking the glory of his Guardian’s spark.
The mother saw the ghost and gasped. “What do you want?”
“Your son,” the ghost said, still shocked, himself. “He’s my Guardian.”
The baby turned his head, gazing at the ghost with a deep, wondering look. And the ghost’s heart was lost forevermore.

littleguardiancomic1


Oh yeah, I’ve got it so bad. Like, here’s a sketch of our fireteam:

destiny-grouphug

My husband’s character, my character, and our friend Josh. We each play a different class and have a ton of fun. Well, until we burn out. 😀


As for fanfics, here’s one of my fanfic hero, Jayesh:

destiny-jayesh-firesword

Story excerpt: Jayesh inhaled and drew on his stored Light. He was still tired and sore, but that slid aside, becoming secondary. He pushed through his own doubts, his disillusionment with his own people, and his secret fears that maybe he really hadn’t seen the Traveler, that he had dreamed it somehow. The Light was real. He could feel it. In his mind, he was back with the Traveler, feeling the Light around him and inside him, warm, electrical, and alive. Its voice spoke in his mind, along with the Light, saying in recognition and approval, “Guardian Jayesh.”
He hadn’t made it up, after all. Sudden courage filled him. He had been telling the truth–the Traveler knew his name. No amount of sneering media could change that. The Light surged inside him, though him, empowering him as its chosen Guardian.
“I fight for you, Traveler!” Jayesh cried. Fire burst from him, wreathing him in a cloak of burning light. It billowed from his shoulders like a pair of wings. A glowing sword appeared in his hand.
He shot into the air and hurled himself at the Gate Lord.

fanfiction.net link

AO3 link


So, there you have it. A peek into my latest obsession. That’s what I’ve been up to lately in my small bits of free time.

The power of perseverance

I just finished writing a fanfic that was 71k words long. That’s about 300 pages. And my brain is totally fried.

Last year, I read the most amazing book. It’s called the Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. Basically, it details how little actions added up over time amount to a huge result. It doesn’t matter if you’re saving money, trying to build muscle, or writing a book. Doing a little bit each day toward that goal pays off.

When I sat down to write this fanfic, I was terrified. For one thing, it would be military science fiction, a genre I’ve read but never attempted to write. I would have to write battles and strategies and politics. For a writer who mostly messes about in the romance genres, this was incredibly daunting. But the game I was adapting had really hooked me with the things it left understated, and I wanted to explore them. I had readers who were hoping I’d take them on this crazy journey and improve on the game’s story. So I spent two weeks worldbuilding, and dove in.

Sonic2017_Concept_01_1489692606
Yep, that’s a Sonic game.

Worldbuilding for a fanfic? Yep. When it comes to the Sonic the Hedgehog universe, the official worldbuilding is really squishy. There’s lots of hand-waving and stuff that is just outright never explained. So I had to figure out exactly how I wanted to explain EVERYTHING.

And who I wanted to kill off. Since this is a story about an apocalyptic war, basically.

Writing this story was terrifying and exhilarating. I’d read over the previous day’s work each day, and go, wow, this actually doesn’t suck.

Sometimes I’d bog down. But I don’t want to write another battle! my brain would whine. I would argue, But this time there’s AIRSHIPS. Don’t you want to write AIRSHIPS?

The compounding effect kicked in. Even on my worst days, when I was crawling through the story, bleeding emotion all over the page as another character died or was maimed, the words added up. It helped that my characters were keeping secrets all over the place. Anne R Allen wrote a blog post about how important it is for characters to have secrets. And boy, does it keep the story rolling and the readers reading. I’ve had almost 2k hits on this fanfic already, and I’ve only posted 8 chapters so far.

This week, I wrote The End. It was such a relief. Naturally, I’ve spent the last two days doubting that the story is actually any good. I think all writers go through this rebound period after finishing a massive project. 300 pages in two months. I think it’s a new personal record.

But dang it, I persevered. And the story is done, or at least the first draft is.

I’m on social media with a lot of other writers. One of my favorite writers mentioned having Imposter Syndrome very badly, wondering if she’s too old to write her books. It broke my heart. For one thing, she’s not much older than I am. I wanted to wave this 71k fanfic at her. “Look at this!” I would say. “You think you’re an imposter? I just wrote 300 pages about talking animals fighting a war against machines and magic where a sentient rock was the villain!”

Joking aside, just leverage the compound effect. It’s perseverance. A little bit every day adds up. Be like Nehemiah in the Bible, putting one more brick in that wall, even while your enemies laugh that if a fox jumped on your wall, it would fall down. Your enemies are in your head. Keep your sword nearby and keep putting bricks in that wall.

A tale of two communities

I’ve had this weird, Twilight Zone experience. It’s living on the fence between two similar yet completely different communities.

On one hand, I have my professional writer groups on Facebook. This is a group of hard-working writers. We give critiques. We discuss pricing and marketing. We band together to promote each other’s work. Sometimes we even read each other’s books.

We’re all writing speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy), but the details wildly vary. Some people are writing dystopian civilizations. Some people are writing high fantasy with elves and dragons. Other people are writing urban fantasy, where the elves and dragons live in Los Angeles.

highwayman_centaur_by_coldevey-dajm868
Highwayman Centaur by Coldevey. I thought this was the coolest idea I’d ever seen.

On the other hand, I have my Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction and art community. This is a group of laid-back young people who are doing this for fun. We write, but there’s no drive to sell anything. We read each other’s work because it’s fun. We draw pics, not for money, but because we like to draw.

And the fun thing is, we’re all writing and drawing the same characters. We might place the characters in space, or in a jungle, or in a city, but it’s the same characters every time. It makes every single story or artwork instantly accessible to everyone in the community.

As I flip back and forth between the driven, hardcore people and the relaxed people having fun, I’m really noticing the difference. And I keep asking myself, why? Why is it this way? Is it because the professionals are trying to create a product to sell?

I haven’t cracked this yet, although I’m definitely thinking about it. Participating in a fandom is like having a book series that you can write additional novels for. You’re welcome to it, and there’s lots of people who will read what you write and tell you what they think of it. You’ll never make any money off it, but it’s sure fun.

When you’re a professional, out there creating new products, you’re on your own. Nobody else knows these characters except you. Nobody else cares about the world except you. The only way you’ll ever get to the wide, warm community stage is to write long series over many years. Collect readers like a snowball rolling downhill. Eventually, people will read and interact with your world. But in the beginning, when your world is only one or two books, there’s nothing there yet.

I think a lot of writers burn out early on. They want the big warm community, and they’re not going to get it by only having a few books. They’ve got to craft a world (something speculative fiction authors excel at!), and it’s going to take years. Maybe people don’t realize this when they start out. Everybody wants to be To Kill a Mockingbird. But not everybody is Harper Lee and will hit it out of the park on their first book.

So, I guess the difference between the fanfic community and the professional community is that the fanfic is focused on one intellectual property. And the professional community, EVERYBODY has a small, unpopular IP that they’re trying to build. It’s a much tougher world over there. But the people who stick it out and write a ton of books (GOOD books) are the snowballs who roll the farthest and grow the biggest.

Audiobooks are hard to do

Audiobooks are exploding right now. There’s lots of articles talking about how everybody likes to listen to books on their phones, like this one. Listening to books on your commute is another one. I’m constantly seeing cozy mystery readers who are frustrated that their favorite series aren’t available on audiobook yet (especially people whose eyesight isn’t so good.)

I’ve been tossing around the idea of narrating my own books, for example, my cozy dragon mysteries. They have a female protagonist, and I think it would be a good fit. But I need to practice. So when somebody asked me if I planned to turn my fanfics into audiobooks, I thought, why not?

The fun thing about fanfics is I don’t have to mess with Audible. I can drop them on Youtube without worrying about Audible’s strict sound quality requirements. I can flounder around and make production mistakes and have volume issues and nobody cares because, hey, fanfic.

thunderhead_and_pirate_ship_by_ebineyland-d6ff3yz
Thunderhead and pirate ship by Ebineyland

My hubby gets up at 4:30 AM most mornings for work. I get up with him, and after he leaves, I have about an hour before the kids wake up. Beautiful, beautiful silence. So that’s when I sit and record a chapter, which usually takes about ten minutes. My hubby has a very nice microphone that I commandeer.

I still had a bit of echo after my first few attempts, so I scoured the internet for workarounds. A lot of people record in their closets, where the hanging clothes muffle the sound. My closet is about eighteen inches deep and filled with junk, so that’s not an option. Then I found a podcasting tips website. This podcast is more like a radio drama. They recommended recording with a duvet draped over you and the mic. I tried it, and my background echo vanished. People are so brilliant.

Over the course of several weeks, I recorded all fourteen chapters of a fanfic. I learned to repeat a phrase if I stuttered or coughed or something, which made clipping it out during editing so much easier. I used an old, free version of Adobe Audition. I had used it years ago, when it was Cool Edit Pro, before Adobe acquired it. I know how to use the program well enough to remove background noise and things like that.

Then I actually listened to my recording. Egads, I thought. I’m BORING. I read like a robot. I enunciate very carefully, and I do the voices decently, but the straight narration! It’s so dull! How do professional audiobook narrators pull it off?

Well, the best ones are all actors, for one thing. You’re giving a performance.

I went ahead and posted my boring performance–it’s just a fanfic and it’s good practice–and now I’m starting on a second one. This time I’m trying to be more expressive and really perform. It’s quite a bit harder than just reading!

I thought I’d put this out there for other authors who are considering narrating their own audiobooks. Practice first! What sounds good as you read it may sound pretty dull when you’re playing it back.

Art for fun or profit?

I’ve been rediscovering how much fun it is to create art and stories about things I love. I thought I had done that with the Malevolent books. But writing this new Spacetime book has been even more so. And fanfics are the most fun of all.

But I feel guilty about fanfics. I’ve had this idea for a long time that art is worthless unless you can make money off it.

Isn’t that a sad, mercenary thought? It’s crept into my thinking and sapped the joy right out of art. When I do allow myself to play with art, it results in teaching the kids to make pumpkins out of clay.

clay-pumpkins

Or in me giving them a crash course in Photoshop. Or the basics of animation.

But none of those things add cash to the coffers, so I sadly steer my brain cells away from them. Instead, I work furiously on my “real” art: book covers, stories written to be published, and so on. I’ve had moderate success with them.

Writing a fanfic feels like a guilty pleasure. I’ve allowed myself one per year for the last few years. This year? I wrote two book-length fanfics, back to back. I hang my head and shuffle my feet. You can’t make money off fanfics, after all. It’s a waste of time. Except I love it so much.

Is it okay to make art purely because you love it?

On my Facebook, someone was talking about this podcast episode of Makers and Mystics. Ken Helser was talking about this idea that we have to make money off our art, and how bad it is.

He told a story about a woman who had a beautiful singing voice. Everyone around her told her that she needed to go professional. So she scraped together the money to record a demo tape and went knocking on doors in Nashville. Everyone said the same thing. “You have a great voice, but you’re not what we’re looking for right now.”

Discouraged, the woman returned to her hotel room and lay on the bed. “God,” she cried out, “why did you give me this voice if you don’t want me to use it?”

God replied, “I thought that you would enjoy it.”

I’ve pondered that and pondered that since I listened to it. You mean that we can just enjoy our art? We don’t have to make a living with it? But that’s crazy, isn’t it? If we have a talent, we should milk it for all it’s worth!

Then I look at the quality of work I produce while trying to be “commercial”, vs the work I produce while playing. The stuff I produce during play is far superior.

When you give yourself permission to play, the shackles come off. You try things. You make a mess. You make a lot of mistakes, but you can quickly iterate on those mistakes and improve. I watch my three-year-old learning to color. She colors the same picture over and over (printing out coloring sheets), until she’s gotten it perfect. It’s play. It’s also iteration.

I’m going to give myself more permission to play and less pressure to sell. It certainly makes life brighter, and the kids happier.

jungle-tower
Jungle Tower, by me. Because it was fun.

 

Finally old enough to write fanfic

Yesterday I finally finished writing a fanfic trilogy. Good grief, I am so fried.

I wrote the first story a few years ago as an experiment with a new world. I had tentatively planned it as a trilogy (three is such a nice number), but I didn’t expect a lot of feedback on it. After a while, comments trickled in. Very positive comments. So earlier this year, I wrote story #2. The comments on that were even more positive.

So I just finished writing the third story. I took the conflict deep. I was laughing at it, though. The big finale is basically everyone standing around talking about all the things they’ve been hiding from each other. And it’s massively intense. Yes, it’s Sonic the Hedgehog fanfic. You can find the trilogy in order here.

(That’s why my poor blog has been neglected this month. Every spare second of writing time has gone into that story.)

As I was cooling down from the final intense writing session, I got to thinking about the difference between my old stories and these three new ones.

As a teen, writing my Sonic stories, I tended to come up against things that I didn’t know how to write. Like romance. The depth of love between friends. The true meaning of sacrifice. I knew all these things in a theoretical way, but I had never experienced them. So I wrote about them as best as I could and hoped nobody noticed that I had no idea what I was talking about.

Fast forward eleven years. I got married, had five kids, moved across country. I experienced joy, grief, homesickness, poverty, plenty, you name it. A lot of furious living in those eleven years.

So, this time when I sat down to write about love and sacrifice, I was able to handle it in a completely different way. These characters feel it, man. Especially in this final story, when the conflicts of the whole trilogy come to a head. Here’s one of my artworks and the scene that it’s from:

perfect_chaos_confrontation_by_netraptor-dbn25et
Perfect Chaos Confrontation by me

The island settled beneath Knuckles, touching down in the sea with a light shock. Now he was lower than Chaos, looking up at the huge, rippling head in the morning light. It was impossibly blue, turquoise at the edges, indigo in the middle. Could it really eat him? Did it have a stomach? It didn’t seem to have any organs at all, aside from the suggestion of a brain between its eyes.
Knuckles drew quick, panicked breaths, the floating feeling of unreality settling over him again. “I want to negotiate the outcome of this sacrifice,” he heard himself say.
In his headset, the AI Ramussan said slowly, “What did you just say?”
Chaos studied Knuckles, the huge head swinging closer. “I will hear your terms.”
Knuckles drew a deep breath, trying to speak without screaming. “Lift the blood curse from the line of Solaris.”
“Guardian, no!” Ramussan screamed. “Someone stop him! He’s about to throw himself to Chaos!”
His friends’ voices broke into a panicked clamor. Knuckles ignored them. He gazed into the monster’s nearest eye, which was focused on him intently.
“Much depends on you,” Chaos replied. “I will draw power from your death. If you contain enough, I can, perhaps, lift the curse. It was laid with the power of my beloved’s death. Perhaps you can match that. Perhaps not.”
It was a good a bargain as he was likely to get. “And you’ll keep your word?” Knuckles said, his voice faltering. Annihilation stared him in the face. His entire being wanted to turn and run for his life.
“I can’t find him!” Sonic was yelling. “Shadow, where is he?”
The black hedgehog teleported to the path up the hill from Knuckles, a hand pressed to his headset. He and Knuckles exchanged a long look.
“He’s not at the dock,” Shadow said coolly.
Chaos lifted his head higher, stretching upward on a thick neck made of water. “I always keep my word.”
The huge head curved over Knuckles, the jaws opening. Teeth made of water lined the jaws, clear as icicles. Knuckles looked up into the maw, detached, terrified, and saw there was no throat. It was all just a shape made of water with no real body.
Then the shape fell apart into a crashing waterfall. It struck Knuckles like a tidal wave, sweeping him off the rock and into the sea with the speed of a rip tide.
Shadow watched. “We’re too late,” he said into the headset. “There was nothing I could do. Chaos took him.”


I feel like I’m finally old enough to write fan fiction properly. Isn’t that funny? Most people who write it are young people, like teens. Maybe most teens don’t try to write the grand epic stuff like I wanted to.

Tell you what, though, it’ll be so nice to dive into editing Malicious for the next few weeks. In the the meantime, I’ll be catching up on my reading. Got to fill the creativity tank!

Five things I learned from my old terrible fanfics

My kids recently got interested in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. This interest waxes and wanes, depending on who is raising chao at the time.

Anyway, this time when they got on a Sonic kick, I said, “Do you guys want me to read you my old Sonic stories?”

Their answer was Very Yes. So I started trying to read them the very first one I wrote when I was 15.

If I knew then what I know now:

melodramatic

1. Melodrama is not plot. I had pages and pages of little random dramas, but nothing really moving forward in the story.

There’s also quite a few loops. Professional writers use them to hit word counts. A character goes out to accomplish something, fails, and winds up back where they started. It adds nothing to the story, but hey, it added 5k more words. This is why fantasy books are so thick.

Solution: cut that fluff and keep that story moving. If I did this with the fanfic in question, it would go from 50k words of wandering fluff to 13k of tightly-written awesome.

kneel_before_your_master
This actually happened in a Sonic game. It was awesome.

2. Bring the Big Bad in EARLY. In that first story, Metal Sonic is the main antagonist. But he doesn’t show up until about the 3/4ths mark. My enthusiastic teen self built the plot like a Lego tower. Let’s add on THIS and add on THAT and who cares if it makes sense? The plot muddles around with weaker secondary villains before finally settling on the Big Bad.

Solution: have Metal Sonic actively oppose the heroes from the start. He’s terrifying. Let him terrify the reader.

cast-of-thousands

3. Casts of thousands work fine for epic fantasy, but not for smaller-scope urban fantasy. I had eight main characters. Count ’em. Eight. And I really only liked four of them. So that’s who got all the character development.

Poor Tails. I apologize for always leaving you out in the cold. You get more love later in the series, I promise!

Solution: cut everybody not necessary to the plot. They can stay home and have an adventure next time.

idiot_ball_by_seekerarmada-d5irhmw

4. The idiot ball: don’t give it to anyone. Ever.

This is when a character who has been competent up to this point does something randomly stupid to move the plot along. Horror movies are full of these.

“Don’t go into the house alone!”

“Why are the lights out?”

“I’m going to ignore the spooky sound coming from the back of the house.”

“We know the bad guy attacks girls when they’re alone … let’s go hunt for him and leave our girl alone!”

Solution: Characters have to do things that logically follow. Sure, people are stupid in real life. But this is fiction. It has to make sense. Give the characters some freaking survival instincts.

mary-sue

5. You know that perfect character who is perfect and never gets scared and has all the answers and is better than all the other characters? She’s called a Mary-Sue. She’s the author’s self-insert into the story.

:tears out hair:

Solution: Give her some freaking FLAWS. Let her make MISTAKES. My GOSH. I hate this character so BADLY. And she’s MINE.

I apologize to everybody who waded through my old stories. They’re awful and painful and … :whispering: … still available. I’d take them down, except I still get the occasional message from a fan who remembers them fondly.

Long story short, the kids and I skipped the first five stories. We’re just going to hit the ones where new characters get introduced. We’ll see if my writing gets any more succinct as we move forward in time.

Guest Post: Confessions of a closet fanfiction writer

I’m being hosted on Ralene Burke’s blog today as part of her confessions series!

fanfic-meme
“Please, please, can we have a Sega Genesis?” my brother wheedled. “I’ll buy it with my birthday money!”

Our parents hemmed and hawed. This was the 1990s. Focus on the Family had been cranking out anti-videogame propaganda for years–anything from it ruining a kid’s grades to being a gateway to porn. But finally our parents said that we could buy a Genesis on one condition: they approve the games we bought.

The light was green! We bought our first video game system (and every single system after that). We played Sonic the Hedgehog and Jurassic Park and the maddeningly difficult Disney games. Batman Forever became a fixture.

Then–horrors–one hot summer day, our parents decreed that we spent too much time on games. “One hour a day,” they admonished. “Go do something else.”

Mutinous, I stalked upstairs to my desk. As a homeschooler, I had a very nice desk … Read More