Thursday, October 21, 2021

Cold Morning Engine (a return to a process)



I’m working on a new book. 

I’ve been woking on it for quite awhile, actually. I’ve filled a notebook full of doodles and scenes, characters and thoughts. And I’ve written the script. That’s the first really huge step. It’s less that 12K words, but it took a long time and several drafts. I’ve drawn reams of concept art and creature design. I’ve had long calls with my editor and gathered feedback from trusted creator-friends (and my family!) and now… 

Now I’m finally sitting down to draw the thumbnails. 

That’s the second really huge step. 

Drawing thumbnails means I’m laying out the whole book, in miniature, based on my script. In film terms this is when you've got your script and your now shooting principal photography. 

A thumbnail page looks something like this (from Mighty Jack and the Goblin King):

Or this (from Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl):

It’s a fun, but intense part of the process—a time of calming music and deep focus. Scratch, scratch, scratch goes my stubby pencil. Scrub, scrub, scrub goes my eraser. Then scratch, scratch scratch again. 

Drawing finished pages is, by comparison, mentally easier but physically more difficult (to extend the film analogy, drawing finished pages is post production–get rid of all that green screen!). Drawing finished pages makes my wrist hurt, but I can listen to podcasts while I do it.  Not so with thumbnails

It’s been awhile since I’ve been in this place. The last time I started roughing out a book was March of 2018. I was visiting Portland Maine and a surprise blizzard had trapped me, all alone, in a cabin outside of town. That was when I roughed in the opening chapter of Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl. So I’m easing myself back into the rhythm of this part of the process. 

Luckily, it seems like half my best friends are roughing out their books right now, which gives me a sense of solidarity. (and just maybe a slight sense of competition, which is also helpful). 

Some artists create very beautiful thumbnails. Mine, as you can see, tend to be barely legible. I’m working fast and loose, mostly in pencil, on recycled printer paper, with a lot of scrubbing out and redrawing and notes and arrows leading to multiple angles and options. Lots of crumpling up pages and starting over. 

One of the aims, at this stage, is to preserve a sense of mutability. Another aim, for me, is to focus more on the rhythm of the pages, and the beats of the story, rather than get caught up in the details. It’s about moments and page-turns and flow. 

Plus, the first dozen or so pages are probably going to get redone, so the first goal is to fall into the particular design and layout rhythms of this book. Right now the aim is to just go. Move forward. Keep moving. Create momentum.

And when I’m finally done with this phase I’m going to trust that the big stack of thumbnail pages will be just readable enough that I can walk my editor through it, panel by panel, on a long phone call. 

Anyway. It’s exciting. There’s some ambitious stuff in this book, visually and structurally. Stuff I’ve never really done before. 

Gosh I hope this goes well. 

Deep breaths. 

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

3:30 Lines

 It's a little bit like this but, you know, not exactly. 

Saturday, October 16, 2021

(not quite) On the Road Again

 Here is a sketchbook drawing of the Handley Library in Winchester, Virginia.*

The Handley is a beautiful, well thought-out building with a lot of little details that hit home for me and just the spooky kind of historicity that I love. There are spiral staircases galore—skinny cast iron ones, and wide wooden ones that twist up into the dome. There’s also a sort of low-ceilinged middle level that you can’t quite get to, but the old shelves and 1960s slatted halogen tube lights are so exactly like the ones from the old Wells library of my childhood that it sent shivers down my spine. 

Anyway, all this is just a preamble on the way to saying that next Saturday (October 23rd) I will be engaging in my first in-person event in 2 and a half years (the last one being a SCBWI event in Kansas City). This event, courtesy of the Winchester Book Gallery, will be held in the Handley library’s beautiful subterranean auditorium (complete with a secret hatch on the stage that leads to a ladder that goes down into a huge cistern). 

I’m a little bit nervous, though, truth to tell.

And it’s not just Covid. (Though it is that, too. If you’re thinking of coming please do read the guidelines).

When Ida died I was only a week away from heading out on a big tour to promote Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl. It wasn’t long after that the pandemic began. And I was grateful, in a way, for the long hiatus from traveling and speaking, because for a long time seeing new people in that context was …unthinkable. Sure there have been virtual events but with those I am still ensconced in the safety of my studio. 

But recently I’ve been thinking about it again—the books signings and conventions. I’ve been thinking about those days when I would sling my battered old duffle on my shoulder (the same, stalwart adventure bag I’ve used since high school!) and head out into the tumult of travel toward some new horizon. Sometimes, lately, I put on a jacket and throw that bag over my shoulder and look in the mirror and think “this is what I would wear if I were traveling.”

I’m not traveling yet.

The Handley Library is my own back yard, really, so it’s not “traveling.” But it’s a toe dipped back into the pool. And as much as I’m nervous, I’m also looking forward to it. 

Maybe I’ll see you there. 


*okay clearly I am developing a bit of a love-affair with asterisk'd footnotes… I started this library sketch directly across the street at an outdoor table at Tropical Island Cafe, which is run by a Jamaican family and serves the best jerk chicken and plantains. It’s got a real kick and will get you sweating.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Cover Up

 Today was a perfect Autumn day in Winchester, Virginia. The air was warm, the light was liquid gold, and the candy corn leaves were perfectly crunchy. So, when I dropped my girls off for their ballet class I did *not* go to my favorite used book haunt. Instead I parked near Ye Olde Towne (Winchester’s historic neighborhood gets the extra ‘e’s) and did a bit of reading and scribbling in the gorgeous Mount Hebron Cemetery.*

Right here is where I would post a picture to show you how the early evening light dappled the gravestones, except, of course, I forgot my phone. 

But I promise you it was very fine

Instead I am going to share with you a few mock covers that I’ve been working on for my Reynard book (which will be out sometime next year). Please understand, these are rough concept pieces. Should I even be sharing them?!? I don’t know.


These are only a few. 

Cover design is a strange process. My experience has been that every cover goes through a dozen or more permutations before landing …well, wherever it lands. Hopefully it lands in a perfect place. More often it lands in a place of compromise, because there are more voices involved in the production of the cover than in the meat of the book, and that makes sense because a cover is both part of the reading experience and a sort of lure or advertisement to get you to pick up the book and have the reading experience. 

Maybe every cover is a Siren Song luring readers to their doom. 

Or delight. 

Or both. 



*I also popped my head in real quick at the Sexi-Mexi Burrito Bar to say hello to my friend Crissy. I still smile, a little bashfully, when I see the design work I did for this excellent eatery

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Of Style and Substance

My Blue Plate Books purchase of the week, this week, was The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This is one of the first books I bought for myself after my college graduation when, with dreams of being a plucky reporter, I took on writing the local beat in the dying days of the smaller of my hometown's newspapers. 

That first hallowed copy, with it's garish hot pink an teal cover, is lost to time.

But I decided that a every real and serious author's personal library should sport this little book. And anyway, it was time for a reread. A brushing up. A clearing out of the cobwebs.