Here there be dragons

Smartphone photo realism, with flying dragons

Smartphone photo realism, with flying dragons

All right, I’ve fallen off the blog again. I have some pretty good reasons, but they’re all the same boring ones: work, work, work. But! I’m halfway through this next major illustration project, so I can finally take a break for another behind-the-scenes post about process. This makes for a good follow-up to my last post as the drawing style followed a similar process for all the panels.

For this project, I’m creating ten drawings for a somewhat magical-realist novel in which the main character takes photos on her phone. In this first image, the narrator sneaks a shot of her husband playing his favorite online fantasy game, which features flying dragons and a steampunk zeppelin. While I knew this would be a lot of work and require producing three images–the laptop screen inside the room scene, nested in the frame of the smartphone–I was secretly thrilled about the prospect of dragons.

Once upon a time, I drew many dragons and unicorns. Yes, I was that kind of kid.

When I was 11, there were no interwebs. There were colored pencils and my D&D books.

When I was 11, there were no interwebs. There were only colored pencils and my D&D books. It would take a few years before I figured out proper human proportions, but boy could I throw down a unicorn

Anyway, it was fun to look up pictures of dragons and zeppelins and figure out how to assemble the thing. Naturally, I started off with the initial line work.

Step 1: pencil and ink

Step 1: pencil and ink

I brought the dragons into Illustrator as I knew I’d be moving and resizing them around a lot and wanted to work with vector images.

Step 2: vector dragons

Step 2: vector dragons

Then I bring all this into Photoshop. The clouds were done with custom brushes. The moon is an actual photo of the moon with lighting effects.

Step 3: Photoshop!

Step 3: Photoshop!

Then I spent another hour or so rendering the zeppelin.

Step 4: Tedious rendering

Step 4: Tedious rendering

Once the screen image was done, I started the second drawing in pencil and ink. After a quick, clean-up in Illustrator, I brought the lines into Photoshop.

Step 5: Exterior drawing

Step 5: Exterior drawing

Then I drop the screen shot in, render with other textures, and finally create an exterior of the phone to encapsulate the whole thing.

Initial drawing

Initial drawing

The client, however, wanted the image to be bigger, so I zoomed in on the screen a bit more (top image). The fingers are off to the side so you still get a sense of what’s going on.

And that’s it for Image #1. Only nine more to go!


This blog is not dead yet!

I own many a pair of blue-stockings.

I don’t know where this image came from*,  but it pretty well sums up what I’ve been doing most of my summer: writing. And frowning! As it’s been two months since my last post, I clearly have not been writing for the blog; I’ve been revising and rewriting my novel. In six weeks, I barreled through 96,000 words. Crazy? Yes. Difficult? Yes? Did I want to vomit words and stab my eyes out? Absolutely.

However, I’m pleased to report that my novel now has a new second half. I lingered a whole month editing the first 200-ish pages before I got to the fresh material. Then I banged out 41,000 in two weeks (about 150 pp).  That’s faster than NANOWRIMO speeds and will probably be a lifelong personal record as I vow never to do it again. I can’t really remember those two weeks except that my hand nearly fell off (I handwrite first drafts), I dreamed in prose, and when I wasn’t writing, eating, or sleeping, I scribbled furious and mostly incoherent notes onto every available surface. I was also a complete basket case, so my husband gets Hubbie of the Year award for not suffocating me in my sleep.

Now the manuscript is off to the agent, the waiting game begins again, and life returns to normal. Well, as normal as things get for me. At any rate, I’ll definitely be back to drawing and will likely post another Facebook portrait contest soon, so stay tuned. . !

*I swiped it from Tamara Linse’s excellent writing blog.


The list above includes tags I’d used on this April blog post, where I discussed my first attempt to find a literary agent. I thought it made for an interesting snapshot of how most writers feel all the time: the constant fear of failure; the rewriting; the rejection; and the nagging feeling that no matter how diligently nor how long you toil to build your writerly wings, they’re doomed to fall apart once you launch into the sky.

Okay, that last bit is just my own pessimism. However, it’s true that the odds are stacked against any writer trying to get representation by sending a query (pitch letter) through the slush pile to a literary agent. Agents can receive as many as 300 queries a day. So when I decided to try a second round of submissions last month, I was fully prepared to face several months of form rejection letters and/or the deafening chirp of crickets.

So it was with great surprise that, after my first dozen queries, I received an offer of representation on my novel! I signed the contract yesterday and am now officially represented by Jen Rofé at Andrea Brown.

I am ridiculously excited about this. Andrea Brown is one of the top literary agencies for juvenile literature and, like all their agents, Ms. Rofé has an incredible record representing excellent books. From our discussions, I can tell she’s a huge fan of the story and excited to be my coach and partner as we move forward.

Preparing for triple-digit rejections, I built a spreadsheet of over 200 agents from 122 agencies. After all that work, I was offered representation within three weeks—from the first batch of queries that went out.

But let’s back up a bit. Anyone who knows me or my work might be a little perplexed to hear that I have an agent representing juvenile books. I have an MFA in fiction and my previous work has all been short stories, some of them published in university journals, so by all accounts I should be writing literary fiction for adults. Officially, that is what I’ve always done.

However when you consider that I’ve written stories about alien zombies, avenging mermaids, talking cockroaches, apocalyptic weirdos, magical monster dogs, and dorky introverts discussing the Weekly World News, perhaps the question becomes not What’s a nice, lit-fic writer like you doing writing young adult science fiction?, but rather: How did an oddball wacky hack like you ever consider yourself literary?

Recent drafts and notes. The book began on June 21, 2008 with a freewrite based on a character from a story I’d written in 2004.

Truthfully, this book came out of nothing more than the pressing desire to write a book even though I didn’t know how or what it should be about. So I forced myself to sit down, start writing, and not stop. I plucked a character from the first story I’d written in graduate school and dropped her into a new scene. I wrote by hand for two hours each week throughout the summer, vowing to fill this fat, legal-sized notebook I’d been carrying around since I was ten. At the end of the summer, I finally reviewed the 125 hand-written pages. It was a mess. But the mess had a strange momentum I liked. After Labor Day, I started over on the keyboard.

Four years, twelve drafts, some ten-thousand hours and a zillion words later, I have a book. Which is still not finished. In fact, my agent picked up the manuscript only on the caveat that I rewrite half of it as the story takes a funky turn near the middle that derails it by the end. I knew the ending was bad, but I didn’t realize the seeds of that badness were planted on page 200. The book, incidentally, is 350 pages.

For all the non-writers wondering how this generally works. I also enjoy making charts with cute icons.

This is why agents are known as gatekeepers. They know books. They’ve got the eagle eye-vision to catch all the soft spots an author tries to slip past, so they will not only point out that the ending is unsatisfactory (which every one of my six beta readers also noted), but that said lousy ending begins halfway through the story.


I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me. This next revision will be a massive rewrite yet oddly, I’m excited about it. The story is clarifying in my head in ways I hadn’t expected, and I know which direction to go. Plus, I’ve got a terrific coach with Olympic-level experience who very much wants us both to win. I’m still only at Stage 2 in the long journey to the bookshelf, and it might be a few more years until I get there.

Time to get back to the laptop. Onward!

Failing better

Fortunately, most of us get more than one chance to get it right.

Okay, I’ve been slacking. This bothers me since it’s National Poetry Month and I had all these great ideas about drawings for poems, and I was hoping to get going on some excellent Wonder Women portraits. But all I have for you today this recycled drawing. I used it as the cover in 2005 for Monday Night, a small journal I helped co-found over a decade ago—and even then it was borrowed from a larger piece I did for a drawing class. Clearly, I’m into recycling. Easy on the planet, easy on the blog!

However I do have a somewhat decent excuse for not drawing and that is because I have been writing. A lot. In the past month, I’ve made it almost halfway through a revision of a novel I first completed last October. After I had a few readers look at that draft, they gave me some feedback, I revised again, then started sending out to agents. And I got rejected. A lot.

The first thing an artist learns is how to make failure useful.

The whole process took about three months. Send, send, send. Reject, reject, reject. Sometime near Thanksgiving, I got three rejections in one day. Within an hour of each other. Ouch.

So I got depressed. I whined. I drank. I vowed never to write again (as if) and considered burning the manuscript (oh, please). Instead, I put the book aside. Then I did some drawings, did some design, and worked on a collection of stories. And I forgot about the stupid book for a while.

Last month, I decided I would give it another shot. Truthfully, the response from agents hadn’t all been terrible; I did receive several encouraging notes that offered specific feedback and invitations to submit again. So I reread their notes and reread my manuscript. And I cringed. The draft I had sent out was my get-it-down draft—the one in which I laid out the story for myself. While many parts of it had been revised several times, overall, thing still sorta felt like a shitty first draft.

I knew what needed to be done, but I feared doing it because that would require rewriting the damn thing. Like from scratch. And deleting the entire beginning, rewriting several chapters, altering relationships, changing the tense, changing the perspective, and sinking deeper into story and character. I had to take more and greater risks. I also had to stop trying to show off, kill all the darlings, and tell the story straight.


This meant work. A lot of it, and I felt as though I’d already done so much. Then again, if I’m ever going to get it right I have to keep at it: work hard, try again, and fail again. Fail better. So even if the story never makes it past my initial readers, at least I feel I’ve done it justice. Rejection sucks, but nothing good in life or in art comes without struggle. If it did, it wouldn’t be worth it.

So I may be on hiatus for a while as I try again. Another 40,000 words to go, then another rewrite, then another round of submissions. Another round of rejections. But if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get closer this time. . .