Thursday, January 14, 2016

What Writers Can Learn from DOCTOR WHO

I'm a big fan of Doctor Who. Like most Whovians, I don't like every single episode. I have my favorites, just like I have my favorite Doctors and my favorite companions.
So what exactly makes Doctor Who so great? And what exactly is Doctor Who?

Doctor Who is a BBC science-fiction series that has been around for over 50 years--even before I was born--although there was a long break between the late eighties and 2005 when the new series began.

Doctor Who tells the ongoing story of the Doctor: a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey and the last of his kind.

The Doctor is hundreds of years old, and he’s seen a lot of terrible things. He has a lot of enemies, like the Daleks and the Cybermen.  He’s lost a lot of friends along the way, which makes him very lonely.

That’s why the Doctor likes to take people along for the ride. These special people are the Doctor’s companions. They get to travel with the Doctor is his time machine, which is called the TARDIS.

TARDIS stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space. On the outside, the TARDIS looks like a blue police call box from England in the 1960s. It’s much bigger on the inside, though. Sometimes bigger than others.

The Doctor’s real name is a secret he must keep, because if it falls into the wrong hands… Actually, I don’t know what would happen, but apparently it’s something really bad.

When the Doctor dies, he regenerates and turns into someone new. So far 13 actors have played the Doctor, and each one has brought something different to the role.

Some people say that this is what makes Doctor Who so great: because the Doctor can become anyone, the show can be anything… Except apparently a woman, but that's something I hope will change. I've even written a first episode for her, and I've entitled it "Madam with a Box," a play on somethin the Doctor sometimes calls himself: a "madman with a box." I'd like to someday create a Kickstarter project so I can turn Madam with a Box into a fanfic graphic novel. Someday... 
Anyway, remember how I said that the TARDIS is bigger on the inside? Well, I think that what makes the show great is that the show itself is bigger on the inside.

The show makes you feel, and it makes you feel BIG time.

For example, I’ve never seen a more romantic couple on TV than the 11th Doctor’s companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams.

He dies over and over for her, and as the Last Centurion he waits over a thousand years to guard her in the Pandorica. And when Amy has to choose between Rory and all of time and space, she chooses him. “Together or not at all.” Try to beat that, any other TV couple out there.   

Looking for something scary? Try the episodes entitled “Blink,” “Silence in the Library,” “The Time of Angels,” “Flesh and Stone” and finally “The Angels Take Manhattan.” I don’t know of any other show that’s made thousands of viewers too scared to even blink.

Looking for something funny? Donna Noble probably would win a funniest companion competition, and one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on TV was near the end of companion Donna Noble’s storyline in the episode entitled “Journey’s End.” Of course, it very soon becomes one of the saddest things ever. (Maybe that's a spoiler, although soon after Donna Noble is introduced as a companion we're told that something very sad is going to happen to her. The only spoiler here, really, is that it's true.)

And that’s what makes Doctor Who so great! It makes you feel so much and so deeply.

You fall in love with the characters. You feel their terror and sadness and joy. In a way, everyone who watches Doctor Who BECOMES the Doctor’s companion. We’re all onboard the TARDIS for this wonderful, scary, funny, exciting ride!

So it’s not that the show can be anything; it’s that the show can take your emotions ANYWHERE, and it does.

There's a lesson there for any storyteller: don’t let the audience half feel things. Go as far as you can. Make your story like a TARDIS: bigger on the inside.

And that’s why I love the “Madman in a Box.”   

Monday, January 11, 2016

Three Great Graphic Novels for Tweens and Teens

At the 2015 New York ComicCon, I attended a panel called “Geeking the Stacks.” It was about libraries and graphic novels for kids and teens, and I found it very informative.

One thing I learned is that kids today LOVE graphic novels, so much so that one of the publishers at the panel said, “Send us your graphic novels. We can’t publish them fast enough!” There aren’t that many people out there who can write and draw well in the graphic novel format and who are interested in creating books for kids and teens. If that’s you, you’re in luck!
The librarians talked about what seem to be the most popular graphic novels among kids and teens. Here are just three of the ones that I also love: Smile, El Deafo, and Baba Yaga’s Assistant.
SMILE by Raina Telgemeier

1. Smile by Raina Telgemeier tells the personal story of one girl’s experience with braces. Raina explains that while she needed braces to fix an overbite, she REALLY needed braces after an accident knocked out her two front teeth!

I really liked Smile, because I could relate to Raina. Not only did I need braces, but I know what it’s like to have friends who aren’t your friends at all. I also know the courage it takes to let go of a bad situation when it’s the only one you’ve ever known so that you can find new friends, nerd friends like you who love the same things you do and will support you instead of pressuring you to be someone you're not.

Smile has won several awards, and I can see why. This is a perfect graphic novel for teens and preteens dealing with braces and negative peer pressure. I love it!

EL DEAFO by Cece Bell

2. El Deafo by Cece Bell tells Cece’s very personal story about how she became deaf and discovered her own “superpower.”

El Deafo is great, because it shows that deaf kids are just like other kids. They just want to have friends, especially a best friend. They aren’t perfect, and they don’t want to be treated differently because they’re deaf. Cece also explains some of the struggles of being deaf that most of us hearing people don’t know anything about, like the difficulty of going to a sleepover party when you can’t read lips in the dark. Cece isn’t perfect, and she doesn’t always make the right choices, but that’s okay. What real kid does? El Deafo has also won several prestigious awards, and it’s no wonder why: El Deafo rocks!


3. While the other two books here are essentially memoirs in graphic novel form, Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and illustrated by Emily Carroll is a fantasy that brings the legend of Baba Yaga into a modern-day setting.

Baba Yaga is a witch in Russian fairytales. Sometimes she's bad, but most of the time she’s scary and harmless, at least when it comes to kids who are kind and clever. The main character, Masha, is both. Her father is about to remarry, and while her future step-mother seems okay, her future step-sister is a little brat who likes to bite people. But that's not the only reason why Masha is unhappy. Recently, her beloved grandmother died, and Masha misses her a lot. Masha's grandmother used to tell her stories of her fantastic adventures with Baba Yaga, so when Masha finds a want ad from Baba Yaga,  she jumps at the chance to become the witch's assistant.

Will it turn out to be everything that Masha hopes, or will she get turned into Baba Yaga’s supper? And if Baba Yaga does like her, will Masha choose to stay, or will she change her mind and return home? You'll have to read the book to find out.
I’m familiar with Baba Yaga from other children’s books, but I really like the modern-teenage take in Baba Yaga’s Assistant. Masha is plucky, kind and resourceful, and I’d love to read more books about her. I highly recommend this book  for kids and teens who prefer graphic novels with elements of fantasy and some scares, but nothing too scary.  Masha is a great main character, the art is beautiful, and the story seems to hit all the right notes. I love it!

These aren’t the only graphic novels for kids and teens that I love, but I think these three are a good start for anyone who wants to give this genre a try.

Happy reading.
And remember: if you love something, say something!

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Is It Possible to Make Your Childhood Dreams Come True?

When I was little, the thing I enjoy doing most of all was creating worlds with my older sister and younger brothers. Our building blocks were made of wood, plastic, and pretty much anything else we could get our hands on. We made pirate ships out of Tinker Toys, and cities out of blocks and plastic tracks for toy cars. We populated them with plastic soldiers and plastic animals. But these weren’t just toys in my mind. Assembling these worlds was only the first step. When everything was ready, the stories began. A zebra could be a queen, a soldier a king. And the stories that could grow out of them were as endless as childhood days.

Already back then, I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up: I wanted to create worlds.
Of course, I soon discovered that THAT job was already taken. (And what a fine job the Creator doing, too. I particularly love the Many World theory. If I could, I would also create an infinite number of worlds.)
The next best thing in my mind then was to create worlds by making movies or TV shows. After all, filmmakers get to create worlds that have a physical reality. You can see a movie. You can hear it. And what you see and what you hear are determined by the creators of that movie. I wanted to be one of those creators.
And then I grew up.
I discovered that to the most part filmmaking is a collaborative process. I might have a vision of this world that I want to create, but if I try to turn that into a movie I’ll have to deal with many other people who will want to impose their vision of what this world should be. And I didn’t want to have to deal with people like that. Sure, collaborating was fun when my sister and my brothers generally agreed about the rules of the stories we were creating. But it wouldn’t have been at all fun if someone had grabbed the toy zebra and said, “Don’t be ridiculous. A zebra can’t be a queen!
So for a while, I locked the part of myself that wanted to create worlds away. It’s not that I stopped creating stories; I could no more do that than a singer could give up singing or a dancer could give up dancing. Creating stories is a part of who I am. I do it from the time I wake up to time I fall asleep. But I gave up on the idea of sharing my stories with others. I watched them play on the little screen in my mind.  My characters made me laugh and cry and smile, and that was enough.
Life went on. Writing and drawing turned into things I did for newspapers and magazines, things I did for a living. And I loved it, until I had to quit when we moved back to the USA so that we could find a better school for my autistic son.
Without a job, I had to ask myself what I wanted to do.
And then I remembered how I felt when I was a little kid building worlds out of wooden blocks and plastic toys. I remembered wanting to create worlds. And I thought about all those worlds that were already a part of me. Those characters had given me so much. What if there were others who needed these stories and these characters as much as I did? So I decided to write those stories down and share them with the world.
I love writing stories. It makes me happy. I love spending time with Toren the Teller, Gilbert and Amber from the Legend of Gilbert the Fixer, and most of my other characters. I also love sharing them with you. When Gilbert says something that makes me laugh, I get a second smile on my face, just thinking about how it’s going to make you laugh, too. There’s no way I’m giving that up.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about that dream that I gave up on, my dream of being a filmmaker.
Times have changed.
When I was a teenager, there was no such thing as YouTube. My sister, my younger brothers and I sometimes made short videos. We lip-synched “We Are the World.” (My sister did a great Bob Dylan.) We played with perspective, so my brother could stand on my hand. We used stop motion to make a Play-Doh snake swallow a plastic tank after the tank ran over it. I remember one stop-motion piece I made on my own with scissors dancing in what looked like a ballet. These videos were so much fun to make, but probably not more than a dozen people got to see any of them, and I have no idea where they are now.
Nowadays, though, anyone can make a video and share it with the world. I couldn’t make my dream come true back then, but is there really anything stopping me now?
So I went out and bought the equipment. I’ve got a brand-new video camera, and even a teleprompter. And I’m excited! I’m going to be making videos, and I have so many ideas for them.
I plan to create a channel where I talk about the things I love: movies, tech, TV shows, books, games, and more. Too often great things disappear because not enough people hear about them. I want to try to make a difference, and I want to use video to do it.
I know it’s not the same thing as creating worlds, but the worlds I create are still too big for the kind of budget an amateur like me can afford to produce on video. That’s okay, though. Like I said, there’s no limit to how big a world I can create on paper, and I plan to continue doing just that.  
Is there something you loved doing when you were little or something you wanted to do when you grew up? If so, what’s stopping you from doing it now?   
It doesn’t have to be big.  Just take a small step in the right direction.
Make a video and post it on YouTube. Publish a short book with CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. Go to one of those studios that let you take home a painting you’ve made yourself. (I’ve done that, and it’s fun.)

The painting I made at Make Me, Take Me. It's not a fine work of art, but it was fun to make and I like it.

If you have the chance to rediscover something that once brought you so much joy, why wouldn’t you take it?

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Why I'm Quitting the SCBWI (Even Though I Think It's Great)

I'm planning to quit the SCBWI when my annual membership runs out in February.

I've loved the organization. At one time I had over 10,000 posts and comments on the SCBWI boards. I've written for the SCBWI Bulletin, illustrated for it, too. I've won a monthly SCBWI writing competition. I even put together the SCBWI Illustrator's Market Guide under Harold Underdown​, which was difficult but rewarding. I've enjoyed attending SCBWI conferences and workshops, particularly in New Jersey, and I love the critique group I helped assemble through the SCBWI boards. In the past, the SCBWI was great for me.

Over the last couple of years, though, I feel like everything SCBWI related has been moving me backward, instead of forward, and like all of us, I need to keep moving forward.

When the SCBWI boards changed hosts, all my old posts and comments--all the help and encouragement I'd provided to other SCBWI members over the years--pretty much vanished, and I started again from zero.

The new boards weren't easy to use, and fewer people used them, mostly to try to promote their own work. The sense of camaraderie--of fellow writers and illustrators supporting each other on this journey--vanished. I no longer felt like I belonged there.

Then the SCBWI started PAL (Published And Listed) membership, which I applied for. Twice. However, since my traditional credits are for illustrations, articles, stories, and other works in newspapers and magazines, I apparently don't qualify, although no one from the SCBWI thought to inform me of that. I put in my request and received no response at all. It now says that PAL status is only awarded to those who have published books with traditional publishers. Over 12 years of publishing history and all the work I've done for the SCBWI doesn't count for beans.

I've been building sandcastles, and they've been washed away. I've seen this happen to others, too. I've seen a SCBWI RA (Regional Advisor) pretty much work her butt off for the organization, and while I can't speak for her, I do feel she hasn't been rewarded for all that she's done.

All of this makes me sad.

I don't feel that my time has been wasted. I've learned a lot, things I'm putting into practice now as an indie publisher. I've made some great friends. But the truth is I probably should have left the SCBWI a few years ago.

I make it a rule in life to occasionally stop and ask myself, "Why am I doing this? Why did I start this, and am I getting what I thought I would out of this? Is there a better use of my time and energy?" When it comes to the SCBWI right now, the answers are "I don't know why I'm doing this anymore. I started this because I wanted to find an agent and a publisher, but I don't want to do either of those things anymore. My time, energy and other resources would be better spent elsewhere."

I still think the SCBWI is a great organization for anyone new to writing and illustrating for children, or for anyone who has already had a book traditionally published. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), that's not me.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

My Notes from the "Social Media for Creators" Panel from New York Comic Con 2015

One of the most useful panels I attended at NYCC this year was the one on Social Media for Creators.

Buddy Scalera from moderated, and Jimmy Palmiotti, Matt Hawkins, Tim Washer, and Dennis Calero spoke and answered questions.

Here are my notes:

In the "Kickstarter Generation," you can be successful by excelling in these areas: you can be good, you can be fast, or you can be cheap. Just pick two!

 Of course, there’s a bit more than that.

You also have to be likeable.

 Jimmy suggested starting with your family/friends/coworkers. He also suggested that you be inquisitive about people. Talk to them. “What do you do?” is a good place to start. Find like-minded people on Twitter and engage. Build relationships using connections, contextualizing them, and letting them know what you want to happen.

Self-branding. Using humor. The evolution of journalism.

Tim Washer on the importance of humor. He showed us a pie chart of the percentage of people who like to laugh. It’s everyone!

 So how do you make that work for you? Have can you be funny with your social media? 

Brevity is the soul of wit, so be brief. And funny. Don’t worry about being too ludicrous and absurd. The ludicrous and absurd GETS ATTENTION! Play around, have fun, and just trust that something will happen. 

He mentioned a woman with 23,000 followers on Twitter who got a free trip to Japan because she made short videos using lots and lots of photos (with music) about the stuff she loves. She said she wanted to go to Japan, and she got it! Follow her lead. Be passionate, have fun, be brief and say what you want.

LAUGH! Relax. The big ideas will come to you.

 One way to come up with funny ideas is with Comic Juxtaposition. (I know about this from my political cartooning days. One thing makes you think of another and so on. Suddenly you find two things that are so different and yet weirdly fit together—and that’s funny! That’s the “Oh, I get it” moment in comedy. For example, there are many similarities between school and prison life. They both have cafeterias where people get served food on trays and have to take those trays to a table where they have to eat with others who are in the same position. Taking things that are exclusive to one of those situations and putting it in the other could be funny. For example, you could draw a comic strip with two tough looking school girls sitting at a table in a cafeteria. One asks that others, “So what are you in for?”)

 Tim Washer had us give example of two things that don’t go together. We went with “banana” and “toy store.” We then had to give attributes for each of those. One of the attributes for banana is that people slip on them. Two of the attributes for toy stores are that they sell toys to parents.

Suggestion #1: BANANA
Attributes: Slipping

Suggestions # 2: TOY STORE
Attributes: Toys, Parents
Tim put those two together and came up with the idea of a Slip ‘N Slide at an office. It’s funny, because it’s absurd.

 This association process is also called “webbing.”

Matt gave ThinkTank on Facebook as an example of a good strategy. ThinkTank is about science, and the guy who does it writes observations, personal stuff, and some promotion. (I don’t know if this is the same ThinkTank I found, but these people post a video a day.)

You have to discover your VOICE. In Improv, there’s a game called “The Rant.” The point of the rant is to let you see who you truly are. It helps you discover your honest Voice.

On dealing with trolls: Jimmy and Matt will delete comments and block attacking commentators (on their blogs and/or Facebook pages?). You can argue, but keep it civil. Jimmy will sometimes DM people to get them to stop their angry comments. Usually when they realize there’s a human being on the other side, they stop. Jimmy says that when you’re dealing with an angry person, you should smile, wave, and say, “Have a nice day!” You can delete the thread that’s gotten out of control and post a picture of a sunset. It diffuses the situation. Comedy diffuses bad situations.

Dennis says that people want to get to know you, warts and all. If you have problems, people will support you.

 Someone recommended a book called On Intelligence, which is about the brain and pattern recognition. Humor is about seeing patterns in disparate things (what I call the third “S” of comedy: “Sense.” The other two are “Setup” and “Surprise”).

 Matt says, “Be about something.” You can’t be mysterious if you aren’t famous.

Dennis says you should be a Voice with a distinctive personality. People tend to forget there’s a real person on the other side. Remind them.

 Someone asked which platforms they prefer.

Tim likes Instagram and Facebook, but you have to find the platform that works for you.

Jimmy also likes Instagram. Twitter is great, because you can ask for retweets—AND you can retweet others.

Dennis draws every day and posts on Instagram. (This is probably a habit I should get into, posting something visual or a video EVERY DAY.)

Matt gives freebies and writes a week of promotional tweets and Facebook posts one day a week and then schedules them. (This is probably a habit I should get into, too.) He loves Facebook advertising and spends $50 a day, money he considers well spent.

Dennis says build a following and put out a pure vision.

THE TAKEAWAY FOR ME: Post something funny, short, and visual that helps show who you are at least daily. You can create this content once a week and schedule it to release through the week. Use Facebook and Twitter--and start using Instagram.  Post your observations and personal stuff, and just a little promotional stuff. Use the ludicrous and the absurd to get attention. Laugh, relax, be passionate, have fun, and be brief. Be inquisitive about others, find connections to contextualize your relationships online, and let them know what you want to happen.