Archive: September 2011

“Up to now, all my adventures had been either small or completely imaginary.”

Daniel Pinkwater
The Neddiad ch. 1

School Visits, T-Shirts, and Signings — Oh my!

Now that the craziness of the book release has calmed down, I’ll be returning to a more regular posting schedule (MWF) in which I discuss broader subjects in children’s books.1

In the meantime, I wanted to share about my absolutely crazy week.  First off, I managed to get invited to an amazing party at author Cornelia Funke’s house.  I got to hang out with a slew of teachers and booksellers … as well as Newbery winning author Susan Patron.2 

Even more awesome, this week I did my very first SCHOOL VISITS!  I did four middle schools in two days — each group was between 300-400 kids.  The presentation included candy, costumes, toilet plungers, yo-yos and, of course, Peter Nimble!   The whole thing culminated in a signing at Redlands Barnes & Noble.  We had a huge turnout of awesome kids at the signing!  Here’s a picture of me doing a little lightning quick sketch-artistry to explain some of the story:  

Also, check out this ridiculous photo from an article in the local paper about the event.  I especially love how this photo features my many weak chins:

I owe a huge thanks to librarian Joan McCall and B&N’s Laurie Aldern for organizing the event.  I’ve got a whole slew of signings and presentations in the coming months … check out my events tab to see the full list. Once I get a few more of these visits under my belt, I’ll be writing a post with tips about what I’ve learned presenting to schools.  Until then, consider booking me in a school or store near you!

This is as good a time as any to point my Los Angeles friends to TWO upcoming signings that I’ll be doing next week:

I will be at the famous Mrs. Nelson’s Books & Toys on Friday the 23rd at 5pm in conjunction with another school visit.  And the following day (Sept 24), I will be at Chevalier’s Books in Los Angeles from 1-3pm.  The store is on Larchmont in Mid-Wilshire.  For my LA friends, I urge you to please, please, PLEASE come to the Chevalier’s signing.  Seriously, what else are you doing at 1pm on a Saturday?

And finally, I’ve picked winners from the Peter Nimble t-shirt giveaway!  The winners were selected from anyone who wrote a Peter Nimble review on Amazon, Goodreads, or B& before August 31.  Here they are:

Karissa Eckert – A creative world, interesting plot, and wonderful characters make this a book that is fun to read and hard to put down.”

Nicola Manning – A wonderful story that quickly grabs your attention with delightful characters one becomes fond of right away.”

Joceline Foley – “Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes is a classic hero-on-a-quest novel, yet it manages to be anything but predictable and boring. The archetypal characters are fresh, funny, and smart.”

Aislynn Thompson – The author did a fantastic job of weaving all the various stories of each character together – from the evil kind, the lost princess, the mysterious desert with the thieves, the crows, the missing children … all of it was woven together into a story that I couldn’t put down!

Francine Kizner – “Peter Nimble is a fun and exciting adventure story that brings a fresh voice and perspective to children’s literature. It’s enthralling, funny, and very entertaining.”

I’ve contacted the winners — congrats, gang!

I’ve had a number of people ask about buying Peter Nimble t-shirts.  For those interested, you can grab one for $20 (this includes shipping).  The shirts are hand-printed on American Apparel 50/50 tees. Please specify size (XS, S, M, L, XL) whether you want green or blue.  Click below to pay through paypal, or contact me directly to mail a check. 


  1. Next week’s topics will include the allure of genre mashups as well as a post about the difference between sarcasm and irony — stay tuned
  2. Susan was delightful and very nice. She’s having a signing at Skylights Books on the 18th for anyone interested in meeting her.

“At the age of thirty-nine, Ken Kiang had done it all. There was nothing worth owning that he hadn’t collected, nothing worth doing that he hadn’t done. He had drunk life to the full, but discovered to his dismay that no one was going to refill his cup.”

James Kennedy
The Order of the Odd Fish ch. 5


“thirteen years of working with a man who has philosophical debates with his digestion! Often I’ll be talking with him and then I realize he isn’t responding to me at all, but chattering away with his precious intestines.”

James Kennedy
The Order of the Odd Fish ch. 2

Four More Thoughts on Writing Action …

I wanted to write a follow-up to my previous post about the importance of specificity in action scenes.  Namely, four things:

1. You do not have to be super to be a hero

Many writers make the mistake of thinking that action sequences are about showcasing a hero’s strengths … but for my money, the drama is found in exposing their weaknesses.  A while back, a good friend of mine wrote a NY Magazine piece on this very subject entitled Are Martial Arts Ruining Action?  The article traces the origins of the martial arts explosion in Hollywood action movies and laments how every actor now goes through months of training in order to make the wire-Fu look authentic in their cop movie.  Why is this bad?  Because no matter how well executed and thoughtful the fights may be, no character in a cop movie has any business doing backflips.1

2. Superhuman action is low-stakes action

So what about stories where the superpowers are already built into the plot?  Shouldn’t the X-Men be able to do backflips?  Perhaps, but it’s still important to make the super-punches mean something.  If characters can take an unlimited (or even undefined) amount of damage, it’s hard for audiences to care about the outcome.  Screenwriter and friend Matt Bird has a great piece about this subject over at his blog, The Cockeyed Caravan.  Check it out!

3. Above all, action should make sense

Last week, movie critic Jim Emerson launched a great series examining how action sequences can go wrong simply by ignoring the 101 of filmmaking.  His first example?  The Dark Knight Returns.  Emerson goes shot-by-shot through an epic car chase, revealing how careless editing can lead to a needlessly disorienting experience.  This reinforces my longstanding belief that James Cameron is the greatest living director of chases for the simple fact that he makes sure that at all times the audience knows the following three things:

1) where the good guys are

2) where the bad guys are

3) where the exits are

Don’t believe me?  I invite you to watch for yourself.

4. Sometimes no action is the action

While I generally think it’s bad for writers to summarize action scenes, there are some stories that deliberately do so because its essential to their overall message.  A good example of this is Tolkien.  Despite having written an epic trilogy about the battle between good and evil, Tolkien keeps his action scenes infuriatingly short — usually under a page.  Roger Ebert observed as much when he reviewed The Fellowship of the Ring, in which he points out that the central action set piece of the movie (the fight with the Balrog) takes up less than 500 words in the original book.  So was Tolkien being lazy with his action writing?  I’d say in this case, sidestepping the action was the action — the author was signaling to readers that the meaningful events of this particular story were found in the journey itself, not the skirmishes.

  1. The Rush Hour franchise, of course, gets a pass on this particular gripe.

“He was tallish, elderly and dressed in a single long gray robe. When he turned, his face was thin and distinguished, careworn but not unkind, the sort of fact you would happily bank with.”

– Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ch. 22

Blow by Blow: What D&D Taught Me About Storytelling

In theatre, descriptive action sequences are almost non-existent.  Hamlet may talk a big game, but at the end of the script, all we get is: “dies” (Not even a definite article for the poor Prince of Denmark!)   This works in playwriting because specific action is limited to the capabilities of specific actors, budgets, and stages — why write a death scene that a director will just have to change anyway?1

The same is not true for novelists and screenwriters.  Books and movies are stories fixed in time — if every reader is seeing a different thing during an action scene, that’s a problem.2  Unfortunately, I often read action sequences that give me the feeling that writers are going on autopilot:  instead of writing a tightly constructed series of dramatic events, they simply write “and here we get an awesome chase sequence!” 

I’m ashamed to say I’ve done it myself.   Writing action scenes is hard, and it’s nice to think that those difficult bits can be reduced to a few lines of summary.  But summarizing fights and chases is like a comic carefully setting up a joke and then replacing the punch line with “hilarity ensues!”  (To be fair, “hilarity ensues” is sort of an awesome punch line in its own right.)

And when you get down to it, truly funny moments don’t even have traditional punch lines — watch your favorite comedy and write down the laugh-out-loud moments.  I guarantee you that the biggest laughs will fall on generic lines like “Actually I quite like it” and “I can imagine.”3  Such lines are not funny in a vacuum; they’re funny because that character said it in that specific moment.4

I’m going to make a confession that I might regret.  About a year ago, I joined some of Mary’s colleagues in a weekly “tabletop gaming” group … which is a dressed-up term for Dungeons & Dragons.  This was a pretty smart bunch of people (our game master has a PhD in comic books!), and I learned a lot from the experience — not only about roleplaying games, but also about the give-and-take of corporate storytelling.  

One of the central aspects of any roleplaying game is combat.  Generally speaking, most roleplaying games are pretty conversational and free-form … but when a bad guy shows up, everyone pulls out dice, and charts, and (in my case) a calculator!  Suddenly, there’s an order of operations, and a series of rigid rules to help choreograph every movement of a battle.  

I sort of became obsessed with the details of these “encounters” and started taking copious notes about every move in the hope of unlocking some secret about how to write action scenes.  I wanted to figure out what separated the so-so encounters from the ones that sucked us in — inspiring recaps, arguments, and in-jokes.

What I discovered is that blow-by-blow, the actions in a fun encounter were no different from those in a boring encounter — sometimes you landed a hit, sometimes you missed.  What made a difference was when those ordinary actions were a reflection of the personality of individual character:  a hothead fighter dives into a suicide battle right after the rest of the group has agreed to retreat; a vengeful character murders an enemy who has already surrendered; a noble character sacrifices herself so that others can escape.  

That is to say, the actions are dramatic because that character did them in that specific moment. 

  1. One could argue that the unique appeal of theatre is this infinite variety in staging possibilities  — no two productions are alike.
  2. I am not objecting to ambiguous ideas or themes in books and movies, but I would argue that the basic questions who/what/where/when should be universally understood … because only when those things are clearly established can readers effectively debate the why behind those actions.
  3. These are actual examples taken from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy … I find such human moments far funnier than the digressions on multiple heads and improbability engines.
  4. This is something my MFA director Milan Stitt was fond of saying — credit goes to him for the observation.
Friday is for WINNERS!!!

Last month’s Kindle giveaway came to an end, which means it’s time to announce the winner! I actually had to draw a winner twice. Here’s the story:

Over the course of the contest, I compiled my list of entries based on people who re-tweeted the announcement. Using a random number picker, I landed on blogger and Harry Potter nut Stephanie Pellegrin. I excitedly contacted Steph to let her know she had been chosen. In hindsight, this was a mistake, because when I dug through records to see what her #GreatestThiefWhoEverLived confession was, I couldn’t find it.

I asked her to re-send it to me, and that’s when she emailed with the confession that she hadn’t written one! Points for honesty, but with a prize this size, I through it was important to play strictly by the rules. Steph took the bad news like a true Hufflepuff. I offered her a free signed copy of Peter Nimble, but she told me that she already had one from my debut signing at ALA. And so as a (very meagre) consolation prize, I drew the picture of Stephanie’s tragic tale, shown above. Moral of the story: Stephanie Pellegrin is awesome and you should become her friend.

So who was the “some other jerk” who actually won the prize? I picked another random number from the list of entries and ended up with Joseph Garcia of San Jacinto. Joseph actually took the children’s literature course that Mary and I co-taught last spring. He is also an aspiring comic artist — check out this awesome picture he drew of an Octopus-Shark-Stingray-Crab Monster:

Yikes! That thing puts Holo-Shark to shame! One can only imagine that the man twisted enough to draw the above creature would have a really great #GreatestThiefWhoEverLived confession. Let’s see, shall we?

Awwww, so sweet.1 That guy deserves a free Kindle!

For those wondering what MY greatest thieving confession might be, I urge you to check out my recent interview at the National Post, where among other topics, I discuss my past life of crime!

  1. Also, accurate — I have seen Joe’s beard in person, and I can confirm that it is indeed terrifying!

“He never appeared to have a reason for anything he did at all: he had turned inscrutability into an art form.”

– Douglas Adams
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ch. 14

Five Things I Learned From Making my own Book Trailer

I wanted to post about what I learned while cutting the book trailer for Peter Nimble.  In part this is a way for me to make a document that I can refer to the next time I am foolish enough to try something like this.  Much of what I learned is fairly technical — stuff only another person animating in Adobe Flash would want to know.  I’m aware that most people don’t need those details, and so I’m limiting all the computery stuff to footnotes, which you can read at your own peril. 


It’s Advertising, not Art
I originally saw this trailer as a chance to highlight some of my favorite illustrations from the book.  So instead of writing a script that properly introduced the story, I wrote something that tied together images that may-or-may-not have been essential to the premise … the result looked pretty but was fairly meaningless to viewers who had not already read Peter Nimble.  I eventually scrapped this concept in favor of something that could draw in new audiences — After all, a book trailer is advertising not art.1

Measure Twice, Cut Once
As a writer and artist, I  spend a lot of time stepping back and surveying my work mid-process I’ll print out pages to read aloud.  I’ll photocopy a drawing and look at it upside-down.  I believe this is a valuable practice in the making of art.  In book trailers, it’s a huge waste of time.  That didn’t stop me from doing it: as soon as I would create a rough image for the trailer, I’d scramble to insert it (half-finished) into the video to see what it looked like.  I wasted a lot of hours going back and forth between Photoshop and Flash in order to make little tweaks.  It would have been much smarter to discipline myself and only switch programs when I had completely finished my task at hand.2

Simple Is Better
I sort of went overboard creating distinct animations for each part of each object.  That shadow of Peter walking past the window had seventeen moving parts — it took me three straight days to get it not to resemble a lurching zombie. Looking back now, I think I could have gotten away with moving a still image across the window (shadow puppet-style).  Instead, I labored far too long over something that is only on screen for a few seconds.3

Don’t Blink
I have very little success writing when I am near distractions (I’m looking at you, Internet!).  This is because every time I pull myself out of a story, it takes me a lot of time just to get back in.  When I first started started learning Adobe Flash, I was cramming so much new information into my head that stepping away for a day or two was like hitting the reset button — I’d sit down to the computer having forgotten everything.  If I had really kept my head down and barreled through the trailer, I think I could have finished this whole thing in three weeks.  As it was, with all the the stopping and starting, it took me over two months.4

Consider the Cost
It is an absurdity of our age that a person with a hole in his sock will spend less in buying a brand-new sock than he would in buying needle and thread to darn the old one.  Book trailers might also fit into this category.  I spent almost two months learning Adobe Flash and animating the video.  Between software, music, and voice over, I shelled out about $900 — and it could have been a lot more if my composer and actor hadn’t been kind enough to give me “friends and family” discounts!  This is still well below market rate, but when I add to it my own time investment (est. 200 hours), an outside book trailer company starts to look like a worthwhile investment.5

I wanted to make my own trailer because I figured it would (a) be fun and (b) learning Flash would empower me to make trailers for subsequent books.  Much of it was fun, and I am indeed now capable of making my own trailers … but it was also a pretty big investment both in time and money.  Also, a lot of frustration.6  There were also logistical costs:  in the perfect world, the trailer would have come out in mid July, not last week.

So was it worth it?

You tell me …

  1. Know your medium: what looks good in print does not work for video. I spent countless hours pixel-editing illustrations in Photoshop only to have them look grainy and jagged in Flash. It wasn’t until I gave up and started re-drawing images from scratch using a softer brush, lower dpi (150), and Gaussian blur that images started looking smooth in Flash.
  2. Don’t export your art until you’ve optimized it for Flash. Also, take an extra five minutes and add a solid light-gray layer beneath your image so you can erase any errant pixels/lines obscuring the transparency — take you time with this last step because otherwise you’ll have to go back to Photoshop do it again. (and again, and again).
  3. Learn how to use a “boning tool” … which is designed to make puppet skeletons easier.  As it was, every time I made a minor adjustment to Peter’s body, I had to re-animate every one of his limbs to match!
  4. Adobe Flash is a ridiculous program that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.  Just because you know things like Illustrator, Photoshop, and Final Cut, do not think that knowledge will apply to Flash. For that reason, I was incredibly dependent on my one-month subscription to Lynda video tutorials, which do a marvelous job of walking even the most clueless user through Flash.
  5. If I do this again, I will make a point of paying to upgrade the RAM on my Macbook Pro from 4gb to 8gb … as it was, I had trouble keeping both Flash and Photoshop open at the same time.
  6. One last tip (gripe) about Adobe Flash: I couldn’t export my 24fps video without getting all sorts of awful “artifacts” in the final product. Many hours of experimentation and Googling taught me that if I exported at 1/2 the frame rate, I could speed it back up in another program (iMovie, also terrible) without problems.
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