Jun 27, 2016

Comic Books in Literacy Education

"and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?" - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I am a teacher and I have taught reading and reading skills to all ages, from infants to adults. These days I mostly work with students who are moving from pictures books and short books into chapter books, which is a huge transition that requires a lot of confidence-building and support. This article is about how I believe comic books can support this transition and continue to support growing readers.

One of the biggest obstacles I see when readers transition from picture books to chapter books (that hardly anyone talks about) is the loss of context. All those pictures and illustrations were not just fun, amusing and artistic, they provided a wealth of clues about what was going on in the story on that page, which allows the student to use more of their brain power to read instead of guessing about the story.

If Piglet puts the kettle on to make tea, then a child might not know what a kettle is, or what piglet puts the kettle on, or what a kettle is for, or what it looks like, or might have seen a kettle but never knew its name before, or know what a kettle is in another language but not English, and any number of missing pieces of information that are solved instantly with a simple picture. This is not just a learning opportunity, it does all the heavy lifting of providing context for the child, so they can focus on the important issues of sounding out the words, noticing punctuation and gaining confidence. The child is not constantly having to wonder what is going on in the story at the same time as learning how to read.

In this dramatic fast paced moment, it is nice to not have to stop and explain what a balcony is.

As children are being encouraged younger and younger to read chapter books, this vital scaffold is lost and children are more often reading large books with no real understanding about what is happening. I remember being asked to tutor an eight year old boy who was considered behind in reading because he was not confident at reading chapter books yet (which in my opinion is totally fine for an eight year old, but I could talk about that all day). I let him pick a book to try and he wanted to read Percy Jackson & The Olympians together, a very well regarded book series by Rick Riordan about a boy's adventures among Geek gods in a modern setting.

We were reading the book together for several weeks, and he was reading well for his age. But at one point we encountered a page that referenced a lot of Greek mythology (more than one creature appeared at once, like a medusa, centaur, faun, I forget specifically) and I asked the boy if he knew what any of them looked like or what they were. He said no, and so I began to ask him about more simple every day things that appeared in the book, and again he said that he did not know what they were. I admit I was quite embarrassed that we had been reading for quite some time without him having much clue about what was happening at all in the story!

He did seem to still be interested in what was happening though, and so I recommended to his parents that they get hold of the comic book version of the story (adapted by Robert Veditti and art by Attila Futaki), so that he could accumulate some context and understanding about the story before attacking it as a chapter book, again so that he could focus on building his skills as a reader instead of using all his focus to unpick or guess at what was happening page to page.

Another issue is dialogue; I remember as child reading chapter books, and when there were characters having a discussion I would often have to read the page over several times to get a decent understanding of who was talking, who they were talking to, who exactly was in and not in the room. Very basic information that we take for granted (and is still sometimes difficult even now depending on how good the writing is...) Once again pictures take away this need to guess and give the reader assurances about the situation which allow them to continue reading confidently.

My point is, I believe we need to appreciate more of what is lost when children are encouraged to move from picture books to chapter books, that pictures are not just for children, they serve a purpose when reading to all ages about contextualizing new information, ideas and situations. What good is telling a child that Superman is from another planet if they have no concept of what a planet is? What good is telling a child that Batman hangs out in a cave if they have never seen a cave before? When the Avengers arrive to save New York how many of them exactly are there? Who is Captain America yelling at right now?

When reading for fun, gaps in understanding and new ideas can be great, but when learning how to read, pictures can do a lot of the mental heavy lifting that can make reading exhausting or no fun at all. With comic books, children can be introduced to all kinds of amazing ideas and situations like time travel, space travel, morality, love, hate, life and death, that can be made understandable because they introduced with words and pictures together. Armed with this understanding, children (or any age of reader) can walk into chapter books more confident in their understanding about the world and more able to bring context to literature themselves. 

Jun 24, 2016

Complete Prose: Elisa & Aston

This week I have been enjoying some family time away from home, so I will simply post the prose of Nevera Tales: Elisa & Aston in its entirety. If you enjoy it, please check out our Kickstarter to turn it into a comic book.


             I will spare you the details of how I was captured, for mortals have a limited time for tales, and I would not want you to expire before I am done recounting the pertinent elements of this particular episode. It is sufficient to say that I found myself bound and gagged in some vast underground mine, or dungeon, or both. My face completely enclosed in an iron mask save for one eye so I could navigate my new domain. My captors clearly had some understanding of the nature of vampires; that I would not need to eat or breathe in order to continue my existence. Indeed, completely encapsulating my face was the most intelligent decision they made, for if any blood were to find its way to my mouth it would be very difficult to keep me contained.
            I learned by overhearing the whispers of the guards that I was in a system of tunnels underneath the tower of Celephais, a rather impressive fortification and home to the Kuranes family, the head of which was one young Lord James Kuranes; my chief captor.
            As to my immediate situation, my hands had been bound in such a curious way that I could hold and swing a small tool, but nothing more complex. I explored the tunnels and found brethren of mine, other vampires, ghouls, zombies and such manifestations of death, all bound in similar ways. From their purposeful actions I determined that we were slaves meant to work the tunnels as mines, but searching for I what I cannot say.
            Predictably they were being directed by a necromancer, their wills bent towards this endless toiling, however I felt no such domination over myself. I can only guess that the necromancer did not have sufficient powers to control me, but kept this fact hidden from Lord Kuranes for fear of losing face. Proceeding with this as my best assumption I worked in the mines as the others, allowing the necromancer to continue his illusion and allowing myself to continue existing.

            Seasons passed far above me, I do not know how many. I do not require rest or sustenance and so the passage of time means vastly less to me than it does to you. I do however distinctly remember the smell of afterbirth, (my senses heightened from being deprived of blood so long). Lord Kuranes had sired a son.
            I determined that it was time to take more influence over my future. As progress in the mines slowed it became apparent that the necromancer's power was failing (or they may have even departed completely), and I was able to redirect some of the lesser undead sharing the tunnels with me to new projects.

            More time passed, again I do not know how long. Another generation was born into Celephais. I smelled her coming into this world. Her name was Elisa, although I forget how I came to learn this. I could hear her crying as an infant; she must have been housed much closer to my tunnels than the rest of the family.
            When she was a child she would come to the observation balconies to see us working in the tunnels. She did not seem afraid of us, of me. She did not waste kindness on us, she knew that was beyond us, but she spent a curious amount of time watching us in our realm below the ground.

            Elisa grew older, and I smelled when she became fertile herself. She would visit often, so much so that the guards began to stop noticing her. One day soon after this, without any apparent warning, she simply pushed one of the guards from the balcony. His screaming and thrashing as he tumbled was almost as delicious as his flesh would be.
            When he hit the ground he was still alive, his armor stopping him from becoming totally pulverized. However he was pulled apart in a matter of moments by the various horrors that shared the tunnel with me. I had to destroy some of my fellow undead in order to secure some of his body for myself as there was such a flurry. I smeared and smashed his flesh against my mask, hoping a drop of blood might make its way to my mouth through some tiny gap that had formed since my time in the mines.
            When it touched my lips and tongue, it caused such a spasm in me that my bounds were broken (although partially destroying my arms in the process). I quickly used the remains of my hands to tear off my mask, and began climbing the walls up to the balcony, followed closely by my fellow undead.
            The humans who attempted to bar our way were quickly dispatched. Such was our fury that hardly any of them were whole enough to be reanimated to join our ranks as we tore up and through the tower. That night screams shot through the tower as though it were a mighty trumpet, and blood poured down the steps like a waterfall. I distinctly remember James Kuranes, now old and decrepit, fling himself from one of the top windows to avoid being turned into an abomination.
            I found Elisa in the stables, she wasn't hiding. An impulse took hold of me, and I destroyed two ghouls that were almost upon her. I picked her up and took her away from Celephais.
            We were stood at the edge of the forest, she and I, with Celephais in sight across the clearing. It was the first time I had seen the great tower from the outside, and  I had the sense that it was the first time for Elisa also.
            You would expect me to tell you that I had gently, over the many seasons enslaved in that tower, bent her to my will and gave her the impulse to push that guard to his oblivion, facilitating my escape. The truth is I did not have that power, it had all been her doing.
            If you live long enough, you will learn that it is pointless to ask mortals what they want, the answer will always be shallow and inauthentic. Simply listen to the music in their voice, where their eyes wander, and where their eye keep theirs from wandering. I understood what Elisa wanted.
            I picked her up and placed her head on my shoulder. As I sank my teeth into her neck she gasped and watched the mighty tower crumble and fall, hitting the ground so hard that it caved in the tunnels below it. All those seasons I had spent digging under the foundations of Celephais finally catastrophically obliterated the tower and everything inside, entombing everything Elisa had known.

            I left Elisa there in the forest. We had exchanged our offerings; my freedom for hers. I have not seen her since that night, but if she still exists I expect the world is more interesting with her in it. 

Jun 20, 2016

Creating Nevera Tales

Creating Nevera Tales - A Fantasy Horror Comic Book

The World
Nevera Tales is a comic book concept set in a fictional world called Nevera, I came up with the name as a play on J. M Barrie's Never Never Land where Peter Pan lives, because in Never Never Land, nobody grows up. In Nevera, nobody stays dead. I crafted a fantasy horror world overrun with necromancers and undead, where necromancy is the dominant form of magic and magic users wage constant war using various undead minions such as skeletons, ghosts, spirits and other horrors. 

My intention was to create a world with rich enough storytelling potential but rigid enough rules to allow for different stories to take place within it, to provide enough of a structured sandbox for me to explore different characters and stories that could exist there. You can read my articles on general world building by clicking the links to the right. 

The Concept
While building the world of Nevera in writing, illustration and even video games, I had a dream where I was a captive in a medieval dungeon, and the dungeon was shaped like a ring. There were balconies around the inner edge  for guards to keep watch over me and the monsters that were in the dungeon with me. I do not remember if I was a monster, but I do remember being incredibly powerful and strong.

I had the sense that I was to break out of the dungeon, and so with a great leap and climb I scaled a wall up to a balcony and destroyed two of the guards that were posted there. I looked behind me and the monsters had followed me up the wall, as though they were inspired by me, and together we tore up and through the castle that sat above the dungeon.

I remember feeling exhilarated in the dream, and woke up with a rush of adrenaline and feeling of power, and immediately wrote down on a notepad by my bed everything I could remember about the dream. I knew what I dreamed could serve as a great crescendo to a larger story.

The Writing
Later, I set about molding my dream story to fit into the world of Nevera. I decided that the character I played in the dream would be a vampire, to fit the undead theme and explain his power and strength.  Then remembering the movie The Man in The Iron Mask, I was inspired to bind and mask the vampire character so restrict his movements and keep his power in check. I had a vivid image in my mind of the vampire's face fully enclosed in an iron mask, as being undead he would not need to eat or breath.

At that point I also fell in love with the idea of the vampire having to bide his time over generations, much like The Shawshank Redemption, but over a much longer period of time, with the vampire's unique perspective on time and limited senses giving the story a dreamlike feel. The young lord who captured that vampire and now resided in the castle above the dungeon would have a child, and then that child would grow old and have a child themselves. And that child would be the second central character of the story, and be the trigger for the crescendo.

The Concept Art
I still had the vivid image of the vampire, emaciated, bound and masked, and I desperately wanted to see him on paper. So I contacted Marek Jarocki, who had worked on some concept art for me in the past and who had taken an interest in the fictional world I was creating. I described the vampire as best as I could, and with some work-shopping Marek created a character as closer to my imagining than I ever hoped was possible. I knew Marek had experience creating comics for his own stories, and after seeing what he could do with my characters I was confident enough that my story could be told as a comic book, with Marek's skill and talent bringing it to life.

We quickly put together the concept of the child character, who I decided would have some clearly visible illness or malady, and also a motivation to sympathize with the creatures in the dungeon, and then moved forward with the illustration. As the story would be told from the perspective of the vampire, the writing would have limited detail about the child, so the visuals would be very important for conveying her character.


The Layout
Finally I decided that I was proud of the prose story enough that I wanted to keep it in place of actual dialogue, and that the vampire's narration was strong enough exist alongside the panels of the comic book. This opened up some interesting possibilities, for one it would mean that after reading the prose and following the panels a few times, a readers would be able to follow the panels on their own without the prose because they already would know the story. It also opened up the possibility to have the story easily translated into other languages if there appeared to be an audience for it, and it could save time and money on lettering as the prose could be added in digitally.

The Illustration
Finally I split the story across fourteen pages as evenly as I could manage. Marek and I were quick to realize that even with no lettering, the amount of illustration I was expecting for each page was far too much or the panels would have to be far too small, and so we reorganized the story to run across eighteen pages, giving it a much better flow. I described some of the important panels as I saw them in my mind and Marek did an amazing job of committing them to paper, and then together work-shopped the remaining panels in a rough sketch draft. Once I had slept on each page and looked at them again with fresh eyes (I always recommend sleeping on a draft before editing) we tweaked the details and then Marek illustrated the pages as you see them now.

Which is where we reach you, and your opportunity to contribute to this project and own the final product digitally or physically, along with some original art work depending on your choice of rewards, as well as immediate access to the full prose and an audio book told in character. If you like the project, or if any of my articles have helped you in some way, please consider backing or sharing our project. Next time I will write a breakdown of how I planned and executed our Kickstarter project. 

Jun 17, 2016

Finding Narrative Voice: Considerations and Advice

I love telling stories, I always have done. Ever since I began learning how to spell I started making up tales and adventures. I remember being very little and having a big book of dinosaurs open so I could spell their names correctly as I inserted them into my stories, I entering every poetry competition at school (and sometimes winning), and watching every movie I could get my hands on at the video rental store to digest more stories.

She probably has quite a unique voice

When I wrote I usually wrote with my own voice, and I often still do unless I determine that writing with someone else's voice would really alter the story in a significant beneficial way. But even when using my own voice it is important to keep in mind who I am talking to.

One small note, if my articles have been enjoyable or informative at all, please consider visiting and supporting my Kickstarter page for my comic book Nevera Tales. You can get an audio book for $2, a digital comic book for $4 and a physical comic book for $8, plus a lot of other cool rewards.

One Ear or Many
When you speak to one person, the language and expression you use is normally fuller and richer than if speaking to two people, three or a group. This is because with one person you build up a shared meaning of words and ideas that become in some ways its own private language that is evolving and growing. If you are speaking to many people at once, the words and phrases you use have to become broader, shallower and more general in order to make sure that everyone understands you well enough. This is why if you see stand up comedy in small basement room with twenty people, you can get a deep interesting shared experience that evolves with the group, as the comedian takes risks and builds a relationship with the audience. But when performing to a stadium sized audience the stand up comedian generally relies on jokes about airplane food and differences between men and women, because they are having to reach a broader audience and needs to tap into more general experiences that are more common.

When writing, you have to decide whether the voice you are using is communicating with one person, a few people, or many people. In reality (if writing for a book, poem or comic book) you will have a single reader at a time, but be conscious of the style of language and word choice as it will affect the style of your language. Will you choose a deep intimate and meaningful language as if talking to someone you know well, a casual language as if talking to someone you do not know well, or a general and shallower language as if talking to a group? All are natural and good choices, the important idea to remember is that you should be consistent in your voice from beginning to end.

Character as Narrator
If writing a story as a character, first you should decide if the character is actually inside of the story or not, by which I mean are they taking part in the story or do they only exist in the world of the story. Then you must decide if the character is omniscient (that they know everything, past present and future), and if they are not omniscient, what exactly do they know and not know. This sounds like a great deal of work at the beginning but it will save countless errors and backtracking in your writing further down the line.

After that you will need to consider all of the usual aspects of a character, such as their motivations, relationships, agendas and how what they are telling impacts them personally. To go even deeper, you must have some kind of reasoning why the character is telling the story at all, and in doing so justify that you are using that character's voice instead of another.

Start Small
If I am trying a new voice I have not attempted before, I find it great practice to write short pieces in that voice first. A poem, anecdote or short story is a great way to practice staying in that same voice from beginning to end with a piece of writing, and can make it easier when attempting a larger story.

By doing this you can get an idea of what words to watch out for, any unnatural turns the voice might take, and keeping a consistent mood or feeling to the voice. I also find it useful to read my writing aloud, as this can very quickly bring to light inconsistencies, pacing issues and give new ideas for language and phrasing choices.

The Unreliable Narrator
I myself have never committed any serious writing with an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator is one which obscures the truth, either because the voice is heavily biased, uninformed, silly, mad or just a plain liar. This can lead to interesting experiences in writing and reading, however I personally enjoy telling stories more as one would tell a story to a child, or a fable to an ancient, where the story can be full of lies, deceit and treachery, but the story teller themselves can be trusted. Like Virgil guiding Dante through the circles of Hell, as the one reliable figure through a world of shadows, disturbances and mixed agendas. (The narrator of the story is Dante, but I am comparing my duty as a storyteller to Virgil's, I apologize if that is confusing).

If you want to attempt to write as an unreliable narrator, ask first if there is some other way the desired experience you want the reader to have (anxiety, tension, curiosity and so on) can be achieved in another simpler way, with a plot twist, character reveal or some kind of betrayal within the story, as using an unreliable narrator can be rewarding, but does ask for a lot of energy and patience on the part of the reader. Also as advised earlier, practice by starting small.

Jun 13, 2016

World Building Part 3: Conflict

You Took My Ball!

The first article in this series discussed how I make rules for my worlds and when I can break them, and the second article in this series talked about resources and how they can inform the world. In this entry I will address conflict. Also please take a moment to look at out Kickstarter for our comic book Nevera Tales and consider support and sharing it.

These common motivations for conflict can be interpersonal, between groups, between countries, and even between worlds. And remember, these conflicts could be resolved before your story begins (adding to the history of your world), begin or end during your story, or not be resolved at all, so be flexible with them. I leave out fighting for survival like in The Hunger Games or Terminator franchise because those are usually self explanatory and also can be some of the most shallow when it comes to plot. We can do a little better.

This is not meant to be a complete list, and there is of course some overlap, but hopefully this can serve as a useful resource to others and a good reminder to myself. I also work with children and so I gave the collection headings which reflect a younger perspective on conflict.


My Dad Said So
common but simple instigation for conflict is an authority figure commanding it. There could be a physical person or group commanding the conflict which would incorporate some of the motivations below, but sometimes there is no discernible reason for the authority to command the conflict. For example in the Star Wars mythology the followers of the dark side of the Force are compelled by their masters and leaders to wage war and destruction on any who stand in their way, although what they actually want is not always clear and so I feel like it fits here. Another example could be the Red Priests and Priestesses of the Lord of Light in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones books, who carry out a great array of conflict and violence based on the commands of the Lord of Light, a god figure with mixed reviews when it comes to what the gods wants or if he actually exists.

My Dad is Stronger Than Your Dad
Similar to the previous entry but different enough to be worth mention is conflict based on cultural or ideological differences. Someone's, culture, religion or way of being can be threatened by the ways of another, or someone's culture may simple require that other cultures be squashed or eliminated. A very literal interpretation of this is the Borg from various Star Trek stories, who deem it is necessary to assimilate all other sentient life forms to their way of existence. Another example would be the extraterrestrials in the movie District 9, who come to Earth as refugees but are oppressed, mistreated and discriminated against simply because they are different.

What Did You Say About My Dad?
The last purely idea based conflict I will include is the classic insult. It can be very important to not appear weak in front of your peers, because it potentially opens up the door to further abuse and loss of power. So if an insult is offered, no matter how small, the response can be very aggressive. It is easy to forget that in the movie 300 based on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's comic books, the god-king Xerxes initiates contact by offering  a peaceful path forward, but King Leonidas is so insulted by the offer is that he actually initiates the conflict. Another example would be In the Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) where Jamie Foxx's character becomes Electro and a force for destruction all because Spiderman forgot his name, and this amounted to enough of an insult to release a suppressed fury.

You Took My Ball
Now we get into the more resource based motivations for conflict, if somebody takes something of yours that is certainly enough reason to begin a conflict. Either you want it back, or the insult was enough that you have to defend your honor and not appear weak in front of others. The question is, what would you risk to get it back? This could be a resource or an object such as Smaug taking the Lonely Mountain from the Dwarves in J. R. R Tolkien's The Hobbit and their quest to reclaim it from the dragon. Or a person, for example sex traffickers taking Liam Neeson's daughter in Taken. And everyone else who gets taken from Liam Neeson...

Your Ball Looks Better Than Mine
Oh jealousy and greed, those powerful but useless emotions that drives so much harm. When someone has plenty, but desires more, simply because someone else has it. This usually does not end well for the person coveting, for example The Queen in Snow White is very beautiful, but must cause trouble because somebody is slightly more beautiful than herself, or the human causing trouble on Pandora attempting to mine the precious Unobtainium in Avatar. The important point here is that the instigator does not need the thing to survive, but desires it because it exists. I will also include Aesop's fable of The Dog and his Reflection here, because it is short and I adore the story:

"A Dog, bearing in his mouth a piece of meat that he had stolen, was crossing a smooth stream by means of a plank. Looking in, he saw what he took to be another dog carrying another piece of meat. Snapping greedily to get this as well, he let go the meat that he had, and lost it in the stream."

I Want a Ball The Size of a House
For some, there is an appetite for consumption that outmatches any capacity to actually use it. Another way to say it is that they want power for the sake of having power. Examples I consider here would be Sauron and his Orc army in J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of The Rings, who wish to cover the land in darkness, but once they have done so, have no real discernible goals. Also The Kurgan from Highlander wishes to kill all other highlanders to become the most powerful, but if he achieves this, does not seem to have any real practical use for the ultimate power. The important point here is that even if the instigator gained what they desired, they would have no use for it. Like a dog chasing a car...

I Like Kicking Balls Over Fences
This is the conflict instigated by wanton destruction. As the great Michael Caine once said, some men just want to watch the world burn. If you want to dig deeper into the motivation then you could say that conflict gives somebody's life meaning or purpose, and so instigating conflict is a necessary part of them having a fulfilling existence. As hinted, the Joker character of the Batman stories seems to exist only for chaos, but some writers have played with the idea that he is motivated to simply engage in eternal conflict with Batman, and that if Batman did not exist then neither would the Joker. Another example would be the Predator aliens from the Predator movies, who appear to engage in conflict out of no real need or desire other than to engage in conflict, for sport or trials or tests.

Offense is The Best Defense
Of course when it comes to survival, it can sometimes be best to instigate conflict with your neighbors before they begin conflict with you, in order to gain the upper hand. These are some of the most ethically difficult examples of conflict, as it is sometimes hard to justify initiating conflict as self-protection. An example might be Castle Black at The Wall in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, where The Night's Watch members routinely carry out raids north of the wall to weaken the Wildlings and diminish their threat. Also in the 2011 movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there are characters on both sides who believe that a preemptive strike on the other is the best course of action, as they believe conflict is inevitable and each wants to fire the first shot.

Lies Deceit and Treachery
Finally, all of the above motivations for conflict can be false, imagined, or the result of misinformation. Many fictional conflicts arise from mistakes, or even purposely instigated based on lies, for profit or other ends by those directly involved or by side groups with their own agendas. Try to have some fun playing with misinformation. 

Jun 10, 2016

Writing Relatable Characters: Quick Fun Tips

A common writing issue I see come up is how to make relatable or realistic characters in fiction. Many writers and creators worry that the characters they create will not come across as authentic, real or connect with the audience.

We wouldn't want them to be too... wooden

There are many guides available on how to do this, but sometimes they can be quite lengthy. For example a commonly suggested practice is to write absolutely everything about a character, their favorite food, star sign, what is in their pockets, if they like their middle name... absolutely everything in order to create a full person. Or another common piece of advice is to read more books...

But that is not why we are here, we are here for quick delicious bite sized nuggets of wisdom for giving characters more life and give you a more confidence when putting pen to paper. Here are some reminders I give myself when I feel a little stuck, or need a little amusement.

Everyone Can Be a Moron
Unless you are writing the new Sherlock Holmes, everyone makes mistakes, drops the ball or muddles their words. If you have ever read the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories, you will know just how boring the Sherlock Holmes can be as he faultlessly paces through every solution to every problem without a hair out of place or a word wasted. If your character is feeling a little lifeless, give them a chance to mess up or show their imperfections. It doesn't have to be a big event, something simple like misplacing their keys or accidentally swearing at work is sufficient.

Stress and Anxiety
Everyone has triggers, think of what particularly causes stress or anxiety for your character. This is important because most people consciously or unconsciously act to avoid their triggers. In the Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) many people laughed at Jamie Foxx's character when he turned evil just because Spiderman forgot his name, but that could have been a deep emotional trigger for him as a result of growing up neglected. For example, a character might feel anxious seeing someone else boasting because it reminds them of their big-shot older brother, or a character might become stressed when they feel like they are given a command because it reminds them of a mean teacher from their past. There are many different triggers and people react to them very differently, so have fun being inventive with it.

Trouble Ahead
You probably have a fairly good idea how your character behaves when life is going well or average, but it is very enlightening to image how your character might behave in the worst of circumstances. Even if you have no actual plans to put your character into a dire situation, imagining how they would react to something like a their partner having an affair, losing their legs, or even a full zombie apocalypse can tell you a lot about them. Imagining how your character would act when things go really bad can feed back into their depth as a person.  A great example of this is Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, where the protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge consistently presents himself as a certain person in most circumstances, but when faced with his own death by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, shows the reader a completely new side of himself, stripped of all his defenses and bitterness.   

Two Faced
Similar to the last point, most people behave differently in different company. You character will likely be a slightly different person when at school, to then going on a date, to then battling enormous space insects. Don't be afraid to reflect these small changes in your character's outward presentation, and use it as a contrast for what is happening for them internally. The most extreme example of this would be George Orwell's 1984, where the protagonist Winston Smith must behave vastly differently when at work to when he is alone or with Julia, or else he would suffer dreadful tortures at the hands of the Thought Police.

Most People Are Similar
In the end though, most people in life are very similar. If you are really stuck, it is okay to imagine what you would do in your characters' position, or what someone you know well might do in that position. As much as people strive for individuality, really we are all very similar, with similar fears, aspirations, desires. We mostly want to feel loved, accepted, secure, and mostly want to avoid pain, abandonment and danger. If you cannot relate to your character then there is a good chance your readers might not be able to either. Examples of characters with vast differences finding enough commonality to come together... Zootopia, X-Men, Batman vs Superman, Alien vs Predator, Shrek, and so on.

The Reader Does Half The Work
Just like a good joke needs someone to tell it, and someone to get it, the reader has half of the responsibility to connect with your character. And just like we can see animals and faces in the clouds, the reader will find a way to connect with your writing if you give them enough chances. Hopefully remembering that it is not completely your responsibility to forge a connection can often take away a lot of the stress and pressure of writing, and allow you to create more freely. 

Jun 6, 2016

World Building Part 2: Resources and Materials

The Spice Must Flow!

The first article in this series discussed how I make rules for my worlds and when I can break them. Once we have established what is possible and not possible in our worlds, we can then move on to considering the available resources in our worlds. 

For example, this friendly guy needs something to eat.

For this I usually work backwards, if I want tigers in my world, then I work backwards to put together what a population of tigers would need to survive. If I want brick and timber buildings in my world, then I work backwards to make sure the local population has a supply of clay and wood. If I want my local population to not be living in poverty and have a standing army, I then work backwards to consider what possible sources of trade, income, and wealth that population could have to justify it. I will provide a breakdown of some of these below.

Basic Ecology: The first consideration I look at is the living creatures of the world I am creating. All living creatures generally need food, water, space and shelter. Imagine a creature that inhabits your world, it could be a real creature or unreal creature, but either way you must allow for the possibility for your creature to practically exist in the world. I am not claiming that anyone needs to become an expert in ecology or biology, but you should be able to hold enough information to avoid writing yourself into a corner. Some examples:

Real: Grizzly Bears are very large animals that require a lot of space and access to fresh water. They are omnivores who eat almost anything, but do require a source of protein to thrive such as fish or other mammals. Grizzly bears hibernate for five to seven months of the year, and so need access to a sheltered space to do this. If you are creating a world that has grizzly bears in it, you should consider these needs when thinking about the geography and other creatures in that area.

Fantastic: The oliphants from Lord of the Rings are enormous elephant-like creatures, who must need huge expanses of land for space to roam, sources of fresh water to drink, and vast amounts of foliage to eat. For these creatures to exist the world make room for the necessary resources for these creatures to survive. J. R . R Tolkien does this simply by leaving a massive area of his map of Middle Earth called Rhรปn totally empty to account for this.

Magical: the dementors from the Harry Potter series infest the darkest, filthiest spaces, and are non-beings, which means they do not need to eat, sleep or breathe. They feed off of human souls, and can be controlled by anyone able to offer them a supply of this. It is unclear if they can be destroyed or only weakened by limiting their resources. If your world has dementors, you do not need to include much for them other than a dark nasty corner for them to occupy and a supply of souls.

Basic Building Materials: Next I consider what materials are available in the world for the people there to actually use. If I want my people to live in stone houses, there must be access to stone nearby. The materials the buildings and technology are made of need to come from somewhere. The technological advancement of the civilization needs to be fueled by something and the knowledge of how to use them needs to be considered. This will impact the local geography as you consider what raw materials are available, locally and globally.
Some examples:

Real: Ancient Romans made glass, for windows and other purposes. in order to make glass they needed not only the education and technological know-how, but access to sand and nitrate as raw materials. Also a huge amount of food for burning was needed in order to create the temperature necessary for melting the sand and keeping the glass warm enough to work with. Not every Roman settlement needed to be close to a beach for sand and forest for wood, as the land they occupied was huge and so these materials could be transported all across the territory. But it is important to remember that it needed to come from at least somewhere.

Fantastic: In the city of Bedrock in The Flintstones cartoons, all of the buildings and materials are made of stone, wood and animal materials such as bones and skins. Fred even works at the Slate Rock and Gravel company as a crane operator, and the first shot of the cartoon into we see is Fred at work moving stones. It might sound like a silly example, but everything in the fictional world was at least consistent when it came to available materials.

Magical: Neverland exists in the minds of children, as written by J. M. Barrie for the Peter Pan stories, and so is mostly fueled by magic and imagination. But Peter Pan and the Lost Boys live in homes made of what they have available close by. They live in tree houses and wear animals skins and fight with spears they made themselves. When Wendy arrives they build her a Wendy House, using John's hat as a chimney and a slipper for a door knocker. Even in a magical world, practical materials have to be accounted for.

Basic Local Economy: Lastly  I consider the local economies and how gatherings of people survive and prosper. I plan the approximate size of the population I want, if they are human or not, and what level of wealth and materials that population can command. If the population can have a standing army (which is number of people who function as soldiers full time, not just farmers who become soldiers when trouble is brewing) then this is very expensive in terms of resources and requires a great deal of local wealth. This again will also impact the local geography as you consider what raw materials are available, and how exactly it is that the population has access to some particularly rare materials. Some examples:

Real: Most large and successful cities grew up around rivers, such as London, Paris and Egypt. The supply of fresh water was important for drinking, farming, cleaning, and industrial processes like fabrication. If the river is large enough it also allows for trade by boats, which historically was the most practical way to move large quantities of goods. All these factors made large rivers highly desirable places to settle and for people to prosper, resulting in some of the most magnificent cities modern and historical.

Fantastic: In Frank Herbert's Dune, the only reason to even go to the inhospitable desert planet of Dune is to gather the resource known as the spice Melange. An incredibly powerful substance that allows for interplanetary travel and heightened consciousness, but is buried deep beneath the sands of the planet, guarded by enormous dangerous worm creatures, an desired by everyone. The greed for this material fuels the settlement of one of the worst planets in the fictional world, and is valuable enough to be traded for whatever the inhabitants of the planet need from other worlds that they cannot get themselves.

Magical: The city of Old Valyria in George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones world, rose to power because the ruling Targaryens had access to dragons for use in warfare. The dragon eggs  they needed for this were located inside fourteen volcanoes around the local region, which required slaves to venture in and mine for them (I don't think you could pay someone to go into a volcano). The enormous number of slaves required for this enterprise resulted in almost the entire continent being converted into a slave economy, including other local cities such as Volantis, Meereen and Astapor. This slave based economy lasted thousands of years, even after Old Valyria, the volcanoes and dragons were gone.

I am absolutely not suggesting that to build a world with your writing, designing or illustrating that you need to show all of these aspects of your world. Sometimes all you need to do is consider them briefly yourself to make sure you at least leave conceptual room for them or avoid breaking the suspension of disbelief by accidentally making sure there is no way for them to exist.

If you are writing about a population on a small island, it only takes a few moments to understand that they cannot produce bread, and so their staple diet must be something else. If you are writing about an alien race who lives on a spaceship, they will probably not have access to fresh meat. If you are writing about a population which lives next to a forest infested with vicious goblins, they will probably need some way of defending themselves, but to not be too powerful otherwise the goblins would have wiped out a long time ago.

Which hints at what I will be covering next time I write about world building, which will be Conflict

Jun 3, 2016

Adventures in Voice Over

How I Produced My First Eight Minute Audiobook

What follows is my experience recording a voice over track of my short story Nevera Tales, with virtually no cost. You can hear a two minute sample of the finished product here.


I wrote a short story over a year ago loosely based on a dream I had, which was told entirely from the perspective of one of the characters. When writing, a very important editing technique I use is to read what I have written aloud, to get a sense of the pacing, voice and mood of what I am writing. This helps it stay consistent, settle on a good amount of detail, and allows me to get a little outside of my own head.

After reading the story aloud several times during editing, I decided it would be a good learning experience to actually record myself in character, and make a simple audio-book of the story. I will include links to all of the websites and software I used.

The Preparation: I had a voice in my head of what I wanted the character to sound like, so I went to YouTube and searched out similar sounding characters, listening to them over and over, and attempted to recreate their voice as best I could.

I understand that some manipulation can be done using software to alter the voice after it has been recorded, but the more the voice is digitally altered then the lower quality the audio file becomes, so it is best to get as close as possible to the desired sound in the original recording.

I used the free Android App Smart Voice which was able to quickly record, playback and share my recordings to a variety of different software including GoogleDrive and Dropbox for easy uploading to a computer.

The Recording: Remember, the most important point is that you can use the voice consistently over a long period of time and say almost any word with it. Once I had settled on the voice I needed to produce, and made sure it was a voice I could use consistently for a good length of time (I used more diaphragm, made my voice more breathy, and made an effort to sound more eloquent), I set up my recording studio.

By this I mean that I stood inside my wardrobe / closet with the door shut. It being full of hanging clothes and very small, it made a reasonably good space to record my voice, as all the clothing material around my dampened any echoing and kept out the outside noise from the house and the street.

I also recommend putting the recording device in a stand or something to hold it in place, and to make sure you place yourself at a specific distance away from it. If you change how close or far you are from the device during recording or between recordings, then your voice will be recorded at different volumes, which is pretty difficult to fix afterwards.

For example, you do not want to record in a cave because of all the echo and ambient noise

Editing: For editing I uploaded my recording into Audacity, a free audio editing tool that is surprisingly powerful for the price (did I mention it was free?) It made the job of pasting together the twelve chunks of monologue very simple with a few clicks. There are many tutorials available to help anyone get started.

After that Audacity has tool that allows you to capture a piece of background noise from the track and then work to identify and remove that sound signature from the entire audio track, making sure that there is as little background noise as possible.

The last job was to play with the bass, treble and other elements of the track gently to alter my voice to get it closer to what I had in mind. This was mostly just experimenting and a whole lot of Ctrl+Z (undo).

Flair: Once I was done editing the voice track, I decided to add some juice to it. I took a look around Pond5, a royalty free media website with a vast number of resources and got a bunch of ideas. I settled on a haunting background ambiance track that was indicative of a mine or cave, which also did a great job of covering up little imperfections in my recording.

The final choice, which was not necessary but was definitely fun, was to hunt around Pond5 for sound effects to match up with evocative points of my story. I chose just a handful that I could spread evenly throughout my story so it didn't feel over-used, including the sound of a pickaxe against stone, leather straps being tightened, and the most entertaining which was the scream of a man falling from a great height.

Again, Audacity made it very simple to import these sound effects and place them where I wanted in the voice-over track, change their volume to be not too loud or too quiet, and even fade in and out for some that sounded better that way.

Post: After completion I made sure to listen to the finished track on a few different devices (my computer with and without headphones, my phone with and without headphones) to make sure my voice was understandable and that the balance between the voice and ambient background music was suitable. Then I stood proudly and reflected on the joy of learning new skills and completing a project.  

All together I would say that I could have done this in one full day, but chose to spread it out over a week to give my voice a rest, and to allow myself time to come up with new ideas or changes as I reflected on what I had done each day before and listened to the recordings with fresh ears after sleeping. I hope this has been useful or empowering for people thinking of trying out a small audio project themselves, as there are certainly the resources out there to get the wheels turning.