Stay the Course

During my crowdfunding campaign there have been peaks and valleys, days of fruitful contributions and days when I wondered where all the YA fans had gone. What looks initially like rejection or indifference, we discover is simply a sign that busy people are attending to the events of their day-to-day lives.

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Edward Gorey

There are many artists, writers and film directors who owe a debt to Edward Gorey. He was a true original.

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Last night I was at the Todd Rundgren’s Utopia concert. I’ve seen Utopia many times since the early 80s. Their drummer, Willie Wilcox is my friend.

At some point during the show I looked around at the audience. It was filled with people who loved this band and were delighted to be at the show.

What struck me about 99% of the people I saw at the concert was that most of them had either grey hair or no hair.

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Beware the Ego

In an artist’s life, it is not the critic, the heckler, or the bully of rejection we are fighting – it is our own egos disguised as each one of them. Our desire for praise, and our resistance to seeing our own weaknesses and addressing them, is often the source of our pains.

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Bill grew up in a single-parent home in Philadelphia. His mother, whom he loved, had many kids and worked many jobs to provide for her children. They were poor, but united. Bill was the oldest. He passed every year of high school. His report card never raised a red flag…nor did any of his teachers.

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Long before the “warehouse” model of book-selling became popular, long before the personality and charm of independent establishments fell to the corporate manipulation that suffocated the livelihoods of imaginative shop-owners, I loved to wander into independent bookshops.

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Writer’s Block

I have seen and heard many people ask how they can get rid of writer’s block. Anyone who offers a definitive answer to that question is, in my opinion, the equivalent of a snake oil salesman, someone selling you a product to cure your ills that doesn’t work.

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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley was the daughter of literary parents –– Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin –– both of whom courted controversy.
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Maurice Sendak and his book Where The Wild Things Are hold a special place in my heart. It was the first children’s book by a writer and illustrator that spoke to me on a creatively spiritual level.

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N. C. Wyeth

I stand in awe of the work of Newell Convers Wyeth. His work is loose, alive –– attentively observant of light and shadow, expressive, deceptively simple yet sophisticated in detail. Wyeth’s compositions never lose focus upon their centre of interest, and they are always full of movement. We can all stand to take a page from N.C. Wyeth’s book of mastery and apply his library of examples to our own work.

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I remember when I was a young teenager saying to a professional illustrator I met, “You have my dream job, you get to draw all day long.”

He smiled. He understood where I was coming from, but added: “It’s a difficult job. You have crazy deadlines, opinions from art directors who don’t always know what they’re talking about, and so many distractions.”

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Some artists or writers include a broad range of genres in their portfolio – science fiction, fantasy, abstract work, animation rotations, comic book work and landscape art. This sheer variety of genres will cause an art director or editor to pause. They respond to some portfolio they are reviewing, or a manuscript with, “I don’t know what he does. I don’t get it.” Or, “She doesn’t know her own voice yet.”

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Sequential art, like jazz, is a language which expresses ideas and stir emotions. To communicate, comic books use shapes, symbols, signs and pictures – as well as the letters of the alphabet.

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In my pursuit of creative development, I sought out people in different artistic fields who could help me supplement my education in art.

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Composition

What goes into a good composition? I could wax poetic about how the golden ratio has been used for centuries to create dynamic compositions; or about balancing the sizes of your objects, or where to place your horizon line. But there are more than enough authors and teachers online that do a better job than I ever could. The same goes for how to structure a written composition.

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Formula

I am not a fan of formula writing. I don’t like neat little bows tied at the end of stories, or stories where I can guess every reveal before the actual reveal.

Neither do I enjoy stories that change course without warrant because the writer can’t keep their focus, or because the writer lacks a clear idea of where the story should begin and where it should end.

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As I’ve grown older, raised children, and seen the social and political climate proceed towards increasing aggressive confrontation, my creative intentions have changed with it – or rather, against it.

I’ve grown less interested in pushing audience boundaries with representations of violence and sex, and more interested in writing stories and making art that challenges the imagination

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Villains

I often give workshops at public and private schools. I emphasize that everything is about telling a story and every story needs a good villain.

When I ask if anyone can name a good villain, nine times out of ten I hear, “Darth Vader” or “The Wicked Witch.” Why? Because these are two clear examples of evil individuals: they terrorize, they kill; they act without conscience. The fact that Darth Vader partially redeemed himself at the end of the original trilogy is the reason he could no longer be an effective villain.

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Lewis was an atheist whose friendship with J. R. R. Tolkien influenced him to embrace Christianity. Every so often one reads internet reports of the urge to make C. S. Lewis more “marketable” and less “hurtful” by expunging any Christian reference from his work or banning The Chronicles of Narnia from bookshelves.

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At six years old, after returning home from my first day at an art camp, an experience I can only describe as a spiritual awakening, I announced to my parents, with tremendous sincerity and conviction that I was going to become an artist.

I didn’t have the words to tell them the feeling I experienced walking down the few steps of the concrete staircase, through a large glass door and into a single story building no bigger than an average classroom. All around the broad window ledges the tips of paintbrushes poked out of glass jars, soaking in sun-washed water coloured by the paint still left in the brush ferrules. And because we were slightly below grade, I could see people’s shoes passing this way and that; it looked like disembodied footwear rushing by the windows. I remember the room’s scent, too: paint, paper, charcoal, and the dampness caused by the excess humidity.

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Creative artists have a particular aversion to criticism. No one likes to hear that the work they have invested their love, their sweat and time into making, is unappealing.

If you’ve been faking perspective and get called out on it; if your sentence structure is poor; if your plots don’t hold up to scrutiny, find a qualified teacher – or scour the internet – to help you fill in the holes in your learning. Don’t look for someone who always tells you what you want to hear, find someone who tells you what you need to know to develop.

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Dialogue

Believable dialogue is one of the most important skills a fiction writer can learn. The speed and rhythm of a character’s speech tells a lot about their personality, the environment they grew up in and their education. It is essential to give your characters a believable voice to give them life.

Like a musician who develops his ear to understand when something is not in key, the writer develops a sense of when the dialogue of their characters becomes unnatural, stiff or forced.

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I grew up pre-internet. I had to go to the library to do my research (sometimes two or three libraries), get on a bus, train or plane to study with a teacher (remember, it’s pre-skype) and learn to make my way in the world. I had to develop independence and become a critical thinker.

Today, we turn to our smart phones for answers. Our kids are typically used to every convenience. Most children growing up now, my own children included, can’t fathom life before the internet. They can’t fathom a world without the extreme convenience it provides. And when I tell my own kids, even though I like the conveniences of the internet, I could go back to a pre-internet world, they look at me like I’m crazy.

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We in North America are beginning to understand that visible minorities have been underrepresented or misrepresented in visual media for years. It’s good to see the tide turning and opportunities in comics, novels, TV and film expanding at exponential rates.

Yet, there is an effort in the corporate centers of the entertainment industry to mend fences without a real understanding of – or perhaps without a real interest in – what needs to be fixed. Favour the story first. Everything should serve the story. Narrative substance nourishes people. Pandering to identity politics divides, segregates and turns communities inwards.

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Work Routine

People often ask me if I have a work routine. I like to think I don’t. However…I would say my work habits are flexible, but disciplined.

My work schedule on one day may begin at 2 PM and end the next morning 3 o’clock. The next day, I might rise with an idea at 6 AM and work until supper. I may start on a chapter of a book or a page of a screenplay and find that my drawing table has something more valuable to say and change seats on a whim. I am just as happy with my fingers covered in ink and paint and as I am hearing the tapping sound of my computer’s keyboard. I don’t have daily rituals that I feel compelled to perform before I begin working.

What I can emphasize is that I work every day.

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Simplicity

The older I get, the more I try to simplify my life. If I’m writing, I ask myself if I can get to the point quicker and still be thought-provoking. And if I’m drawing, I ask myself if I can say it in fewer lines but achieve a fulsome, engaging picture.

The more we learn, the more tempting it may become to overcomplicate our work. And let’s not forget the age-old desire to out-do our competition. Some people would call this having a healthy ego. I call it a recipe for disaster. I often reflect on one of my early teachers’ who called the ego “the guru of all transgressions.”

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Fear and Doubt

Artists fear rejection and doubt they’re abilities on almost a daily basis. We tend to compare ourselves to other artists and think, “I’ll never be as good as they are,” or “My art sucks. I can’t actually show this to anyone; what if people don’t get it?”

Fear is ever present. It’s an endless source of unsolicited, unfavourable opinions your work. It paralyzes you with scenarios that, in reality, have yet to happen. Doubt strikes after fear has immobilized you and endeavours to rob you of whatever determination you have left to fight against fear’s poisonous grip.

Why do we allow this to happen? Our egos. We have both an unconscious and a conscious desire to be more skilled and expressive than other artists, and this, for me, is an artist’s greatest failure.

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Jim Henson

I miss Jim Henson. I miss his brand of creativity and I miss what he brought to the world of entertainment.

I – who never knew the man himself – see Jim Henson’s work as singularly inspired and gentle.

I felt that there was in it always an attempt to celebrate imagination, uphold quality entertainment and reach as many people as possible with his stories.

The Muppet Show was genius. It worked on so many levels: it was tender, funny, thought provoking and inventive.

That’s not to say that Jim didn’t have his shortcomings. Often his creative vision, especially in his movies, was given much more importance and emphasis than the stories he was telling. The Dark Crystal’s story falls flat, and The Labyrinth, which I do dearly enjoy, fumbles forward like vignettes of a Muppet show. And don’t get me started about the casting of David Bowie or the songs he sang for the movie.

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Imagination

When people say to me, “You have a great imagination”, it’s not always meant as a compliment.

I remember many grade-school teachers commenting passive-aggressively when a student demonstrated a command of their imagination. “Oh, that’s very imaginative,” when really they wanted to ask, “Why did you have to do something so different?”

I was stunned at how closed off, and uninventive, a person in my teacher’s position had become.

One parent teacher night, while I was asked to wait in the hallway, I overheard my teacher say to my parents: “Your son has quite the imagination. He’s always drawing and telling stories, and prefers art to math. This isn’t good. You should have a talk with him about the choices he’s making for his future.”

I was in grade five.

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When our daughter was born, some twenty years ago, she was placed in my arms and I began to float on air. I had the same experience almost six years later when our son was born. But that’s another story. It was my daughter’s very early childhood that led to the creation of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel.

After our daughter was born, I couldn’t wait to get home from work each day to spend as much time with her as I could. And in the still of the night, with my daughter snuggled into me, I would think of all the things I would share with her while she was growing. I imagined reading Where the Wild Things Are to her, and The Secret Garden, Narnia and Lord of the Rings. And so I did.

As my daughter began to read on her own, I was struck by the lack of modern fictional female heroes whose adventures she could share. Now, there may have been characters and books I missed, but I certainly didn’t see anything that resonated for young girls the way that Harry Potter did. Young women were delighted with the boy with Coke-bottle glasses that took the world by broomstick. And so they should have been, but I felt my daughter deserved a strong female hero who lived in a world that brought out that strength. I decided I was up for the job and set out to create a character and her world –– in essence, a new fantasy series that would appeal to young women. Years later my amazing son would encourage me to change Maggie’s domain to a place for young men as well as young women.

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