Not Dead, Just Working

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I haven’t given up on blogging once a day – I just got overwhelmed at work and life and, more importantly, at friendship – hanging out with some of my best buddies and catching up, something I’ve been far too busy to do recently. But this week I put in time with a few good buddies – one from high school, one from the writing group, even one day when I was a bit under the weather working remotely with my laptop in the backyard, which was appreciated by our aging, inappropriately urinating, formerly-indoor cats.

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I was real stressed this week, but, objectively, things are going very well. I saved my threatened project from last year’s craziness and it’s now in use; I started a great new project with my team; even something that we thought was dead long ago got used in a great demo at work. I sent a novel to a publisher; we planned a high school friends trip to Tahoe; things are going well.

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One friend noted I’d been living my life the way I do – overstuffed with work, a full time software job; plus as much as a full time novelist as I can be reading over lunch and dinner, writing over coffee and occasional breakfasts; plus helping manage a small press; plus doing comics – for a while now, and he was worried the stress was getting worse. I see that, but didn’t quite agree.

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I’ve been this stressed before, particularly in the middle of my PhD, when I was two or three years in and thought I had two or three years more to get out … and then found out after three years of work I had several more years to go. I’ve done it to myself, taking on an 80% time job to spend time writing, but then spending a whole year filling my life with karate, improv, and weekly roundtables which filled my whole schedule to the point weeks just disappeared. As the stress builds, you just want to take a break – and if you don’t, as my friend pointed out, things may break anyway.

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Those periods of my life sucked, and in a way this one does too, but in another way, it’s more manageable. My crunch now is not being trapped just by doing too much to myself; it’s like being trapped by my PhD, which got delayed because I had an opportunity to work on a robotics project. Now, while I have a few things to deal with like a wrecked floor at the house, I’m mostly trapped by opportunity: the opportunity to do a great project at work, to write great books, to help bring other books to life.

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I can see an exit strategy – a couple years of work at work, three years of work on my next novels, plus maintenance of the small press and continued practice at comics, and once I get through those things, if they’re even moderately successful, I’ll be in a position of much more creative freedom. So I think it’s important to not lose these opportunities – but on the other hand, it’s pointless to let your opportunities kill you. That’s why today, after I finished booking my next trip, after I finished more readings which hit the intersection of my robotics work and my urban fantasy research, but before I did any more serious work, including this blog entry … I took time out to be creative. To just draw.

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Well, drawing practice because I want to do comic books, but you get the idea.

-the Centaur

Back to Basics

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As a guilt-motivated ex-Catholic with a perfectionist streak, I’m constantly trying to be a better person than I am – religiously, ethically, personally, even at the level of my skills. And one of the best ways I’ve found to improve my skills is not simply to practice, or to push the bounds of your knowledge, but to step back and look again at the basics.

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For some areas of knowledge, this is obvious. We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with number theory if we hadn’t been willing to go back, again and again, to the definitions of numbers. But it seems less obvious for skills, where our perception often is that first you are a novice, then you become skilled, then an expert, then a master.

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But that road can become a blind alley. Learning from a teacher can channel you into their style; self-taught artistry can create works of great power, but it can also leave you with deficiencies which no amount of further training can improve. Sometimes the only way to get better is to step back, reassess, start over.

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That’s why I like periodically coming back to beginning art instruction books. I find the older references somewhat more informative than the newer ones, perhaps because they’re more methodical, or perhaps because there was a greater concern for representational art – or simply because I’ve read a lot of newer references, making the old ones seem fresh.

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Now, I once heard an artist suggest that you should buy a pile of art instruction books, wrap them in a trash bag, and bury them in your back yard, get a big thick sketchbook and sketch people in coffeehouses until you filled the whole thing, and then, after a year or so, dig them up to start drawing. My wife, however, an accomplished artist, agrees and disagrees with this plan.

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She agrees with the latter two thirds – but not the start. She argues, there are so many things to learn about art that if you tried to start from just sketching, you might end up never making certain discoveries and instead get trapped in rookie mistakes. Your art might have emotional power, but you’d be handicapped if you were aiming for mastery of your tools or representational accuracy.

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I tend to agree. As a scientist, though, I try another approach – not just practice, but “scientific” analysis, at least the initial, data collection part of science: not just doing the practice, but carefully examining how it went, looking for successes and failures, and trying to generalize from them. I can’t double-blind A/B test myself, but I can be mindful about how I practice.

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I pray it’s helping! I have a lot of art I want to do.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Exercises from Andrew Loomis’ DRAWING THE HEAD AND HANDS, folk art from the U.S. Mint in New Orleans, art books in Dauphine Street Books also in New Orleans, and various drawings I’ve done over the years, from long ago (the highly detailed centaur and the copy of the Hemingway cover) to yesterday (the basic circles and analysis of problems with my line).

Resurrecting Fanu Fiku

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SO, I have this webcomic some of you may know about, f@nu fiku (that’s Fanu Fiku, stylized with an @ sign, because aren’t I oh so clever :-P). f@nu fiku is about Xiao Dreamweaver, a fifteen year old girl who can travel between all possible combinations of all possible realities … only she doesn’t know it yet. What you may or may not know is that this webcomic is cursed.

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Early on working on f@nu fiku, I broke my arm in a karate match, forcing me to use guest artists and rough notebook scans for several months. I blogged that extensively, but what I did NOT blog – because it was too disruptive – was the failure of the computer and theft of the notebooks on which I did f@nu fiku.

Back then, I produced f@nu fiku on this great Windows laptop, but eventually its cooling fan gave up the ghost, and I decided – purely as an experiment – to try out an old Macintosh laptop that I had gotten in a clearance sale, since I already used a Mac at work. Four days in to this new laptop, I attended an art show in San Francisco – and my car was broken into.

Many books were stolen. My personal laptop was stolen. One of my writing notebooks was stolen, including the one with the original outline of the Dakota Frost series. My f@nu fiku sketchbook – in which I created the pages – was stolen. None of this was ever returned, of course, but I retained all the data, I had all the scans, and in theory I could easily have resumed the comic.

Only one problem: the laptop was stolen before I realized I couldn’t produce f@nu fiku on the Mac.

I edited f@nu fiku in Corel Painter (a creditable replacement for Adobe Photoshop) and lettered it in Xara (a powerful, but much easier to use version of Adobe Illustrator). Corel Painter exists for the Mac … but Xara does not. At the time, I was completely inexperienced at Adobe Illustrator, and found working on the comic extremely difficult.

What’s worse, at the time the Mac’s support for Python wasn’t so hot. I wrote the f@nu fiku webcomic software myself, but found that it adapted poorly to the Macintosh, requiring a partial rewrite of the image processing layer. I eventually got the software running, but by this point FROST MOON was taking off, and without meaning to, I let f@nu fiku drop.

Fast forward more than half a decade. I’m more committed than ever to Dakota Frost, but I’m also more involved than ever with the comic community – with Blitz Comics on the 24 Hour Comic Day Survival Guide, and with our umbrella organization, Thinking Ink Press. At Comic-Con, I got energized, and decided that I should resurrect f@nu fiku, perhaps even in print form.

At first it seemed impossible. Many originals were gone. Some of the completed art was corrupted. And all of the art was way, way too low resolution to be printed. It was depressing. And in truth, this is the real state I’ve been for the past few years on f@nu fiku: too depressed about it to come back to it, regardless of how much time I had. And I started to give up hope.

But it is a half a decade later, and I’ve learned to never give up hope. This was a hard won lesson: when I left the PhD program, I despaired of ever using my degree. Well, it took ten years, but eventually I returned to that work … and now, I’m using those skills more than ever. Over time, I’ve learned that the more patient and perseverant I become, the more I am rewarded.

So, when I started to lose hope … I really had just forgotten how paranoid I am about backups, and soon found the original scans AND backup copies of the completed art. And I had just forgotten how perseverant I have become, and how much I have changed my thinking about solving problems just like this one. And soon, after a little thought, I found a way to get high resolution images.

As before, I had a spare laptop lying around – this time a Windows 8 machine, that I’d tried as a replacement for the Mac (and quickly discarded for that purpose, though it isn’t really bad). And IT will run Xara, and IT could load all my old f@nu fiku files. I don’t know whether I’ll try to save these as Illustrator files, now that I’m comfortable with it, but regardless, I now have a way.

I almost always find that if you think something’s impossible, you’re thinking about it the wrong way … and a solution awaits you nearby. I don’t have to solve the nearly impossible problem of getting Xara to run on the Mac (I have tried virtual machines, but they were virtually impossible to use) but just the far simpler problem of using Xara on a PC to dump high-res images.

Now, I have almost 60 issues of f@nu fiku backlogged … more than a year’s worth, almost ready to go. It will take me some time to get all of them beaten into shape, to rework the fanufiku.com site, to get set up on tapastic and get a posting schedule going. But it will be worth it: it will not only break this creative logjam, it will help me prepare for new comic projects, like Quarry.

So don’t give up hope. It’s just an excuse – just a way to give yourself license to wallow in self pity and to fall into inaction. Often enough, the files are saved on backup, the original scans are on disk, and there’s a laptop laying around somewhere, waiting for the software to be installed on it that will give you the power to resurrect something you thought long dead.

You just have to have a little faith, and work a little harder.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the Windows laptop, with Page 1 of f@nu fiku successfully loaded in Xara.

Mission Accomplished, Part 1 of N

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A year ago Nathan said he wanted to be on a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, and to shake the hand of Scott McCloud, creator of the 24-Hour Comics Day challenge. I told Nathan the first goal would happen but was ambitious, that it might take us a few years, but that he’d certainly meet Scott if he set his mind to it.

What neither I nor Nathan ever expected is that not only is Nathan going to be on a panel, not only did he meet Scott McCloud, we together gave Scott a signed copy of the 24 Hour Comic Day Survival Guide. And not just any copy of the guide: Scott got the #1 of a limited print run of 100 done as a Comic-Con Preview Edition.

And we got to listen to a very nice talk by Scott too.

Nathan’s appearing – along with Nate Gertler, Chris Brady, Jimmy Purcell, and Marco Devanzo on Friday at 5:15 in Room 18 to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of 24-Hour Comics Day. I’ll be in the audience, and the two of us will have (roughly) fifty copies of the Guide which we plan to give to all the participants.

Excellent … it’s all falling into place.

So … what should we put on the agenda to do next year?

-the Centaur

Pictured: From left to right: Nathan, Scott, and me. How am I taller than Scott? I always imagined him as ten feet tall..

My Presence at San Diego Comic-Con 2014

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The submarine surfaces, oh so briefly. So, between work, writing and life, things have been stacked up on me so much that not only do I have several half-finished blog posts begging me to finish them and put them up, but also I now find myself already a day into San Diego Comic-Con – and just now blogging about my presence at San Diego Comic-Con.

This year is the tenth anniversary of 24-Hour Comics Day, a challenge to create a 24 page comic in 24 hours, a challenge which me and my buddy Nathan Vargas have tackled a dozen times between the two of us (him seven, me five). It’s a difficult challenge, and we failed the first few times, so we collected our advice on how to succeed in the 24 Hour Comic Day Survival Guide.

Nathan worked with ComicsPRO to create a panel celebrating the 10th anniversary of the event, and will be on the panel along with the creator of the annual event Nat Gertler and several other creators. But what’s special is that we were already planning to update our Survival Guide for this year’s 24HCD in October – and were able to put together a Preview Edition of the Guide.

Thanks to our friends at Thinking Ink Press, we have expanded our original 8-page guide into a 76 page booklet, with over a dozen chapters of tips and advice and interactive exercises. We’ll be giving away signed copies of the Preview Edition of the Guide at the panel celebrating 24-Hour Comics Day, and also giving them away at various events or on the show floor.

The panel is at 5:15 on Friday at Room 18 at San Diego Comic-Con, and Nathan will be appearing with Nate Gertler, Chris Brady, Jimmy Purcell, and Marco Devanzo (with me in the audience). While Nat Gertler created the annual event, the actual 24-Hour Comic challenge was created by Scott McCloud, who will be appearing himself at Comic-Con, and whom I hope to meet.

Regardless, the official 24-Hour Comics Day is held the first week in October every year – this year, October 4. Nathan and I will be appearing at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) on the same weekend, hopefully with some 24HCD themed events, but will take the challenge at Mission Comics and Art in San Francisco which this year is holding 24HCD one week early.

So: that’s what’s going on. As many of you know, I have two novels sitting at the publisher – LIQUID FIRE and JEREMIAH WILLSTONE AND THE CLOCKWORK TIME MACHINE – but Debra Dixon is still reviewing them, so I’m hacking away at Dakota Frost Book 4, SPECTRAL IRON, and blissing out on comics while I wait for the edits to land.

-the Centaur

Making a Mac Useful, Part 2: Why an New iMac?

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Ok, why an iMac? Why Mac OS X at all? “Because they’re easy to use?” After looking at my list of “prep my Mac” todos, I say to that … ha!

However, despite that, I find Macs are just about the easiest to use of the mainstream operating systems (the others being Windows and Linux), but I’ve been computing for a long time and have acquired many quirks – or, more charitably, special needs. Some of those needs are just my druthers on how I want the computer to run, and other needs are vital parts of my workflow for which, if the computer doesn’t do its job, I literally have to go find another machine to get the job done. And I don’t like doing that – so I’ll spend a week or two beating a machine into shape if it means I can flip the thing open for two or three years and just have it do exactly what I want.

Well, then, why not beat a Windows machine into shape? For the record, I find Windows slightly more usable than Macs – no joke, and I’ve been using both for decades – but Macs are more reliable, more internally consistent, and most importantly, better integrated with UNIX. I’m a web and research software developer, and the standard OS in my part of the world is the UNIX variant called Linux – but Linux isn’t very reliable when running other software I need, like Microsoft Word, Photoshop or Starcraft. Alternatives like Cygwin make Windows more UNIX-friendly, but barely; whereas Mac OS X is built on top of UNIX.

That leads me, inexorably, to the Mac. As I said before, other alternative operating systems, like ChromeOS or Android or iOS, don’t run the software I need for work work, writing work, or pleasure – and cloud alternatives like Google Docs simply don’t count as they lack required features or – wait, why I am I even defending this? Microsoft Word runs on Mac and Windows. Photoshop runs on Mac and Windows. Alternatives to these programs are largely a joke, and that’s coming from someone who uses them – a lot. (I’m using Google Docs to write this note, in fact, and I’m also familiar with and use OpenOffice). If you can’t run Word or Photoshop well, reliably, you can’t play. And that leads me to Mac and Windows. And UNIX, inexorably, pushed me to the Mac.

For my personal use, I need a computer I can easily carry around with me that has at least a half-terabyte hard drive (to hold ALL my relevant files), a good processor, lots of RAM, and a decent-sized keyboard and screen, all in a lightweight package that won’t throw out my back when I put it in a bag. That led me to a maxed-out 13 inch MacBook Air, and it’s served me well.

But for my central home server, the computer to which the primary house printer is attached, I need something more. I need a much larger hard drive – a terabyte or more – so the computer can simultaneously serve as the Dropbox / Google Drive remote backup of my laptop computer, and also have more than enough space left over to hold archives and mirrors of my older computers and copies of my wife’s computer files. Something zippy, good for both game playing and programming and especially Photoshop / Illustrator, so the computer could serve as an editing bay for my comic book art.

I briefly considered the new Mac Pros, which are gorgeous machines. But when I buy a desktop PC, I do my very best to “max it out” so that the machine will last as long as possible. A maxed out Mac Pro with screen came in at something like ten thousand dollars – enough to buy a new maxed out iMac, a new Windows 8 touchscreen PC for my wife, a new backup solution, a storage shed out back, and some very nice dinners at Alexander’s restaurant.

Now, there are drawbacks. iMacs aren’t really expandable. They’re also a bit behind the times, UX-wise: iMacs don’t have touchscreens. That’s a shame, but, on the other hand, it isn’t particular to iMacs: Apple overall isn’t really ready to support touch screens yet. There’s a claim that they’re not useful yet, but I have a Windows 8 laptop as well, and I’ve used a Chrome Pixel and an ASUS Transformer Prime, and I can tell you that you get used to the idea that you can manipulate objects on screen really damn fast. However, that means if you want a touchscreen, you’re going to have to get a Windows 8 machine or an Android machine (yes, you can get full-sized – I mean, 19 inch – Android all-in-one PCs [ http://shop.lenovo.com/us/en/desktops/essential/n-series/n308/ ], but I cannot yet find a full-sized Chrome OS touchscreen PC). Honestly, I’d rather have the applications that I want at this point, so Mac OS X is my only choice for now.

So an iMac it is: Microsoft applications, a UNIX base, and a price that fits.

Next up: the physical setup.

-the Centaur

Pictured: an Apple iMac 27 inch, a Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 keyboard, and a towel serving as an ersatz cat bed, sans cat.

The Weird Experience of Marketing Yourself

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This Memorial Day weekend, I will be at the Clockwork Alchemy conference, appearing on three panels (Real Women in Victorian Times Saturday at noon, Avoiding Historical Mistakes Sunday at noon, and Victorian Technology, Sunday at 1) and giving one talk (my old standby, The Science of Airships, Sunday at 4).

Since I won’t be at my table the whole time, I decided to print up a series of postcards for all of my books using the service at Moo.com, which I and my wife have found to be great for printing customized business cards with a variety of artwork on the cover. I decided to do one for each book, showing the cover on one side and a blurb on the back.

But then I discovered that, just like for the business cards themselves, while you can have many different covers on the front, you get only one choice for the back. So what should go on that single back cover? What should it market? Then I realized: I don’t have a book coming out right away. These cards actually have to market … me.

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Ulp.

More precisely, the cards have to market my work. But I’m not a single-series author; I can’t (yet) pull a George R. R. Martin and just say “author of Game of Thrones,” especially not at a steampunk convention when my most prominent series, Dakota Frost, is actually urban fantasy. “Anthony Francis, author of Dakota Frost – who? Author of what? Ok, fine … but why is he here?”

So I have to list not just one series, but all of them, and not just list them, but say what they’re about.

After some thought, I decided to use some of my own comic art that I’d previously used on my business cards as a backdrop, but to focus the content of the cards on my writing, not my comics (sorry, f@nu fiku and Blitz Comics … there just wasn’t enough room on the cards or poster), unifying all of my books under a theme of “The Worlds of Anthony Francis”. I feel like breaking out in hives when I write that. It sounds so damn aggrandized and pompous. But strictly speaking … it’s accurate.

One of my worlds is the fantastic space of the Allied universe, where genetically engineered centaurs hop from world to world like skipping stones in the river (collected in the anthology STRANDED). Another is the hyper-feminist alternate history steampunk adventures of Jeremiah Willstone (collected in the anthologies UnCONventional and DOORWAYS TO EXTRA TIME). And yet another is the world of Dakota Frost, Skindancer, and the magic tattoos she can bring to life (FROST MOON, BLOOD ROCK, and the forthcoming LIQUID FIRE). And I hope you choose to read all of them! Enter the worlds, indeed.

But if I want people to read them, I need to tell people about them, in terms that make people, I dunno, actually want to read the books. Normally it’s a publisher who writes that copy, but they’re generally marketing a book, not me. I don’t yet have a publicist, and even if I did, the entire point of me is to do as many of the tasks of creative production myself as is practical, so I can speak at least quasi-intelligently about the process – case in point, the graphic design of the postcard above, which will be a blog post in its own right. But this isn’t about that part of the process; it’s about the feeling.

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One thing I’ve learned is that no-one knows that you write unless you actually tell them about it, and no-one buys what you write unless they know it can be bought. SO I have to do at least the first stab at this all by myself (not counting help from cats). I have to try to summarize my work, to bite the bullet and actually sell it, and to package that sales language up in ways that get it out to people – starting with a series of postcards to put on my table. And oh, yes, to blog it: to finally lift my head far enough above the waters to shout, yes, world, I am here, and no, I don’t need a life preserver: I need you to buy some of my books.

It still feels weird saying that.

I guess I’ll have to get over it.

-the Centaur

Pictured: the back of the postcards I printed for my table, featuring my own art; me, in a potential author publicity picture; and Gabby, helping me organize my book files and promotional materials.

My Labors Are Not Ended

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But I am going to take a rest for a bit.

Above you see a shot of my cat Lenora resting in front of the “To Read Science Fiction” section of my Library, the enormous book collection I’ve been accumulating over the last quarter century. I have books older than that, of course, but they’re stored in my mother’s house in my hometown. It’s only over the last 25 years or so have I been accumulating my own personal library.

But why am I, if not resting, at least thinking about it? I finished organizing the books in my Library.

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I have an enormous amount of papers, bills, bric a brac and other memorabilia still to organize, file, trash or donate, but the Library itself is organized, at last. It’s even possible to use it.

How organized? Well…

Religion, politics, economics, the environment, women’s studies, Ayn Rand, read books, Lovecraft, centaur books, read urban fantasy, read science fiction, Atlanta, read comics, to-read comics, to-read science fiction magazines, comic reference books, drawing reference books, steampunk, urban fantasy, miscellaneous writing projects, Dakota Frost, books to donate, science fiction to-reads: Asimov, Clarke, Banks, Cherryh, miscellaneous, other fiction to-reads, non-fiction to-reads, general art books, genre art books, BDSM and fetish magazines and art books, fetish and sexuality theory and culture, military, war, law, space travel, astronomy, popular science, physics of time travel, Einstein, quantum mechanics, Feynman, more physics, mathematics, philosophy, martial arts, health, nutrition, home care, ancient computer manuals, more recent computer manuals, popular computer books, the practice of computer programming, programming language theory, ancient computer languages, Web languages, Perl, Java, C and C++, Lisp, APL, the Art of Computer Programming, popular cognitive science, Schankian cognitive science, animal cognition, animal biology, consciousness, dreaming, sleep, emotion, personality, cognitive science theory, brain theory, brain philosophy, evolution, human evolution, cognitive evolution, brain cognition, memory, “Readings in …” various AI and cogsci disciplines, oversized AI and science books, conference proceedings, technical reports, game AI, game development, robotics, imagery, vision, information retrieval, natural language processing, linguistics, popular AI, theory of AI, programming AI, AI textbooks, AI notes from recent projects, notes from college from undergraduate through my thesis, more Dakota Frost, GURPS, other roleplaying games, Magic the Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, more Dakota Frost, recent projects, literary theory of Asimov and Clarke, literary theory of science fiction, science fiction shows and TV, writing science fiction, mythology, travel, writing science, writing reference, writers on writing, writing markets, poetry, improv, voice acting, film, writing film, history of literature, representative examples, oversized reference, history, anthropology, dictionaries, thesauri, topical dictionaries, language dictionaries, language learning, Japanese, culture of Japan, recent project papers, comic archives, older project papers, tubs containing things to file … and the single volume version of the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with magnifying glass.

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I deliberately left out the details of many categories and outright omitted a few others not stored in the library proper, like my cookbooks, my display shelves of Arkham House editions, Harry Potter and other hardbacks, my “favorite” nonfiction books, some spot reading materials, a stash of transhumanist science fiction, all the technical books I keep in the shelf next to me at work … and, of course, my wife and I’s enormous collection of audiobooks.

What’s really interesting about all that to me is there are far more categories out there in the world not in my Library than there are in my Library. Try it sometime – go into a bookstore or library, or peruse the list of categories in the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal System Classifications. There’s far more things to think about than even I, a borderline hoarder with a generous income and enormous knowledge of bookstores, have been able to accumulate in a quarter century.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

-the Centaur

A 24 Hour Comics Day Timeline Reloaded

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So another 24 Hour Comics Day has come and gone … my fourth. I’d love to say it gets easier, and in a sense it does, but churning out 24 pages of a comic in just 24 hours is daunting, even if you’ve done it before. To help ourselves improve, my buddy Nathan Vargas and I put a lot of thought into what goes in to making the challenge a success and collect that at the site Blitz Comics.

To give a flavor of the experience, here’s a timeline of my 24 Hour Comics day this year. Like last year, there are highs, there are lows, there are moments of triumph and despair, of hard work overcoming challenges – and experiences which are simply bizarre. Last year actually was more bizarre than this year … but there were still a few dark hours near the hour of the wolf.

Before the event

T-minus 1 Year: Finish 24HCD successfully. Attribute success to a combination of the Blitz Comics Survival Kit and more life drawing classes, as I went from 7 pages done in 2010 to 24 pages done handily in 2011. Hooray! Resolve to improve Blitz Comics and take more life drawing practice.

T-minus 6 months: Remember we waited to last minute to prepare for 24HCD. Send message “Blitz Comics Lives” and begin planning to update our kit. Get overly ambitious, then scale it back as Nathan’s booked up with work and Anthony’s booked up with writing.

T-minus 3 months: Finish point update of Blitz Comics Survival Kit. (As of today, full versions are not posted everywhere due to some miscommunications and site storage issues, but we’re working on it). Plan on giving another Blitz Comics tutorial, this time at Mission Comics. Other venues considered, but, man, Mission Comics .

T-minus 2 months: Give Blitz Comics Tutorial. Due to a publicity gaffe on our part, no-one shows up except a couple of friends, who leave before it begins. Decide to hold the tutorial anyway for practice. No-one attends but a beautiful and bizarre looking chicken; chicken’s owner says our talk is fascinating. Really, I can’t make this stuff up.

I’m not kidding here about the chicken. Photos or it didn’t happen?

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Oh, it happened. After the tutorial, back to preparation…

T-minus 1 month: Hold weekly “just drawing” parties where we mostly chew the fat about life, plan the event, and get in a few minutes’ worth of drawing all at the end. Surprisingly, this really works. Get ready fo the event proper, agreeing to bring donuts and art supplies to Mission Comics. Oh, and sign up for space at Mission Comics event!

T-minus 1 week: Buy art supplies, both for ourselves and a large amount of free stuff to give to people at the event. Gather extras of the Survival Kit; make sure I can find all of last year’s materials. Coordinate with Leef of Mission Comics to make sure we’re confirmed and on the same page with Blitz Comics sponsoring event. Scope out parking garages for the event (fortuitously, I right up the street for a different event) and enter in GPS.

T-minus 3 days: Last “just draw” meeting. Confirm schedule for Saturday morning, which will include breakfast, donuts and helping Leef set up before the actual event. Draw up TODO and shopping lists. Draw some more.

T-minus 2 days: Last trip to the store since Friday will be booked up. Last minute art practice.

T-minus 18 hours: Last minute art practice and reading. Bail early on normal Friday night dinner-coffee-bookstore run in favor of going home to get everything ready.

T-minus 12 hours: Dig through post-novel-writing mess to find art materials. Wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Find most of the materials, but decide to crash super early to make sure I’m awake for event.

T-minus 4.5 hours: Up at 5:30 and packing stuff up. I am king of the pile people, and the tote bag is my emblem.

T-minus 3 hours: Depart for event. Pick up Nathan, go for breakfast. My meal is up before Nathan’s finished ordering, which is weird. Chill out, discuss what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, conclude that we’re both crazy, but we’re doing it anyway.

T-minus 2 hours: Leave breakfast, go pick up donuts for participants. Krispy Kreme FTW! One box regular, one box mixed (with an extra chocolate glazed for me). By the time we’re done the time’s now 9:30ish. Head to San Francisco, by this point almost an hour drive. Traffic is smooth and we’ve got lots of buffer.

T-minus 45 minutes: Arrival in San Francisco. Park, gather stuff, head to event. Nathan reroutes us from the shortest path to a nearby street which “has better energy;” this street proves to have a row of beautiful homes rather than backdoors and garbage cans, so, yes, indeed, it had better energy for walking up to the event.

T-minus 30 minutes: Arrive at Mission Comics. Set up. Because we’re so early, Nathan and I get primo spots near Leef’s desk (and the bathroom) but still in the front room. Chitchat. Notice first page of notebook has some damage on it and draw a “Cover Page” on the presumption that I’m going to adapt the second part of “Stranded”. Get ready.

Yes, it is STARTING!

24hcd2012prepage.jpg

That page doesn’t count towards my 24. Alright … ready … GO!

24 Hour Comic Day Begins

11:00AM October 20th Leef says “Go!” and I start reviewing my story ideas. I’m planning on adapting part 2 of “Stranded,” picking up where I left off last year, but in the spirit of the event I leave the actual decision to the start of the event – and give myself the opportunity to bail if I’m not feeling it. I read the story over in my mind.

11:05AM (by watch), 11:07AM (by phone): Committed to story, synchronize watches. I skim my story in the print book, figuring out a good chunk that’s easy to adapt, and picking out comic-friendly lines of dialog.

11:12AM: Rough story outline done. Comparing lengths to make sure Parts 1, 2, and 3 are roughly the same; they are. Find a great ending point which uses Keith’s Johnstone’s idea of reincorporation to great and surprising effect. I mean, it was in the story before, but it makes a really great Part 2 ender.

11:15AM: Story review done. Review overall structure to get down the “beats,” the ebb and flow of the story.

11:21AM: Donut / bathroom break. Ready to tackle thumbnails.

11:22AM: 23.5 hours remain, 24 pages to go. Start thumbnailing – sketching your comic as a whole, with each page as a tiny square. Many comic artists do this; Jim Lee’s Icons book has some great examples done by a master of the genre. There’s a the Blitz Comics thumbnail worksheet that I think I came up with but paradoxically that Nathan uses extensively; for me, my style is so sloppy that I need to use a whole page.

11:40AM: Roughs done. I take out some time to set up my laptop so I can blog (ha!) look up reference shots (more realistic) and time my progress.

11:44AM Laptop setup. Switch notebooks Setting up page for drawing.

11:47AM: Take a ~13 minute break.

Total Planning Time: 1 hour. This is comparable to last year’s 52 minute planning session, but it can take up to 3 to 4 hours to plan if you don’t have a story in mind. As it turns out, another 2 hours planning wouldn’t have hurt me.

The outcome: this sheet of thumbnails. My map to my story.

24hcd2012thumbnails.jpg

Alright, back to it. All the preliminaries are out of the way: I’ve got a story, an outline, thumbnails on one art book and an empty art book next to it, a laptop with Internet, art books, art materials, a soda, and a donut. Now: starting the first page!

12:00 NOON START PAGE ONE: Riffing on the two page spread near the end of the previous book, without being too obvious about it if you read it straight through.

12:05PM: Panel borders penciled.
12:15PM: Panel borders inked. Need to improve this process.
12:26PM: Sketching done.
12:46PM: Panel 1 done. Too slow.
1:06PM: Panels 3-4 done. Getting sloppy, messed up space for dialogue. Whiteout marker broken, decide to come back later and fix. (I never did).
1:22PM: Panel 5 done.
1:24PM: Finish ~2 minute break
Total time for Page One: 1 hour, 24 minutes. Way too slow. Need to be around 45 minutes.

Now I know I’m going to be drawing people I’ve drawn less often, like Norylan below (note: this is a colored sketch from my notebook, NOT from any 24 Hour Comic Day :-). So it’s time to break out the laptop.

Norylan Forest v5 cropped.png
So the laptop setup WAS important after all!

1:24PM START PAGE TWO: The first new page, first appearance of Norylan. I use the laptop to find a “Mug Shots” directory I did for the Serendipity Facebook page, and put up faces of all the characters. My target for this page is 2:15PM.
1:30PM: Finish pencil panel lines.
1:35PM: Finish inked panel lines.
1:49PM: Rough pencils.
2:04PM: Panel 1.
2:17PM: Panel 2.
2:29PM: Panel 3.
2:34PM: ~5 minute break.
Total Time for Page Two: 1 hour, 10 minutes. Still need to streamline. Starting to get worried, even though I know I have two dual page spreads in my layout.

2:34PM START PAGE THREE: Focusing on how to do this easier. Not sure how, but work at it. Target: 3:15pm.
2:38PM: Inked panel borders.
3:00PM: Finish panel 1, after some researching centaur shapes and Norylan poses.
3:15PM: Finish 15 minute interview by reporter for a blog.
3:27PM: Finish page.
Total Time for Page Three: 1 hour, 3 minutes. Things are improving, with the caveat that this is the point I start counting the breaks at the start of the page rather than at the end (because if you get done just before the end and then take a break, who cares?)

3:28PM START PAGE FOUR: Really focusing on how to speed up. Ambition not helping so much.
3:30PM: Finish 2 minute bathroom break.
3:33PM: Finish pencil panel borders. Really wishing I’d made an 8×12 template.
3:38PM: Finish inked panel borders.
3:51PM: Done with Panel 1.
3:55PM: Done with Panel 2. HOW? How did it get done so fast?
4:13PM: Done with Panel 3. WHY? Why did it take so long?
4:25PM: Finished Panel 4.
Total Time for Page Four: 57 minutes. Starting to improve. We might finish if we power through it.

4:25PM START PAGE FIVE: Switched to inside the ship. Maybe this will speed things up. And add context.
4:28PM: Finish ~3 minute break.
4:40PM: Finished ink boxes.
4:48PM: Finished setting up Excel spreadsheet to track progress and see how fast I need to go to finish. I used it up to about the second dual page spread.
5:26PM: Finished page.
Total Time for Page Five: One hour, 1 minute. Argh. Back to slowness. But people seem to like this page.  

The following graph shows my progress over the day – spoilers, but you should already know I finished.

24hcd2012.png

The graph is after the fact; I just used it at the time to figure out that I needed to be doing a page in 54 minutes or less. Back to it!

5:26PM: START PAGES SIX AND SEVEN: A dual page spread at last! Target: 6:15PM.
5:45PM: Finish break.
5:50PM: Finish sketch and borders.
6:26PM: Finish page.
Total Time for Pages Six and Seven: 1 hour. Still slow, but I’ve made up time by the dual page spread.

6:26PM: START PAGE EIGHT: Back to a page, aware I need to pick up the pace. Can I simplify? Target: 7:15PM.
6:36PM: 10 minute break concludes.
6:46PM: Panels done, plus talking.
7:04PM: Panel 1 done.
7:22PM: Panel 6 done. By a happy coincidence, I had three small horses in my box of art props, in positions ranging from standing to trot to gallop, perfect for panels 5-7.
7:26PM: Panel 7 done.
Total Time for Page Eight: 1 hour. Still not speedy. Argh.   

7:26PM: START PAGE NINE: Nuts, poses with people looking up. Argh! Target: 8:15PM.
8:20PM: Done, with a 5 minute break in there.
Total Time for Page Nine: 54 minutes. Still not speedy. Argh. But it’s a notch faster than my 56 minute desired time (time has ballooned a bit since I had been falling behind).

Somewhere around this point I really started to flag, to really feel despair and to decide I didn’t want to do this, but I pulled out a Panera bread cinnamon roll I’d purchased for just such an occasion and was soon re-energized!

24hcd2012dessert.jpg

Beans and vinegar, sugar high, go!

8:20PM: START PAGE TEN: A complicated pose, but only two panels, easy, right? Target: 9:05PM.
9:05PM: Finish Panel 1. During this, I had to pose several models on top of each other, hold the models at different angles, tweak the stuff … oh dear.  
9:30PM: Finish Panel 2. Argh! But people seem to really love this shot.
Total Time for Page Ten: 1 hour, 10 minutes. But it’s a great page.

9:30PM: START PAGE ELEVEN: An even more complex pose: two characters holding another on a gurney looking down from the top of the ship. Argh! Target: 10:15
9:38PM: Finish break.
9:46PM: Finish panels. Where’s that 8×12 template again?
10:20PM: Finish page.
Total Time for Page Eleven: 50 minutes. Getting better.

10:20PM: START PAGE TWELVE: Things going better; I’m on page twelve, I should be on page twelve by my Excel spreadsheet. I decide to skim backgrounds and use silhouettes here to simplify.
10:30PM: Finish ~10min break.
10:51PM: Finish Panel 1. Silhouette of Norylan looks great. Made a slight gaffe overblacking an area, but you can’t tell in the finished product.
11:05PM: Finish Panel 2. The blaster design is what I can draw. I’d have done this with 3 panels if I could have.
11:15PM: Finish Panel 3. Norylan!
Total Time for Page Twelve: 55 minutes. Right on time, according to Excel.

11:15PM: START PAGE THIRTEEN: A single page spread, on purpose.
11:54PM: Finish Panel 1. Suprisingly hard to get the design of INDEPENDENCE right, but in the end, the ship looks great and is a great backdrop for the action.
Total time for Page Twelve: 39 minutes. Woo hoo! Getting ahead.

11:54PM: START PAGE FOURTEEN: Even simplified, this will be a bear. 7 panels, one a crowd scene.
12:09AM: Finish ~15 minute break. Isn’t it weird that AM and PM designators switch an hour before the clocks roll back from 12 to 1? I guess the easier way to think about it is that since the clock loops around, 12 on the clock really is a funny way of saying 0 (12 mod 12 = 0 :-).
12:15AM: Finish panel boxes.
12:29AM: Finish the surprisingly complex Panel 1 – four characters in a complex pose.
12:32AM: Finish Panel 2.
12:40AM: Finish Panels 3 and 4.
12:59AM: Finish Panel 5 – a night crowd scene around a fire. AAAAA!
1:10AM: Finish Panel 6. Tianyu came out very well as a shadow in the dark.
1:16AM: Finish Panel 7. Ah, done with blacks for now. Next few pages, I cheat.
Total Time for Page Fourteen: One hour, 26 minutes. Argh. Back to the grind.  

It’s around this time, not sure when precisely, that I had the second incidence of questioning my sanity.

24hcd2012sanity.png

I’d already had dinner from a nearby cafe, and a donut didn’t help, so it wasn’t food shortage. My memories are a bit jumbled, but I recall taking a brief nap, about 10 minutes, but panels danced before my eyes and I realized my resistance was that I didn’t have a good plan for the next few pages. I scanned the panels in my mind, decided, and got up and went back to work.

1:16AM: START PAGE FIFTEEN: Simplify. Eliminate blacks; pretend the campfire illuminates like day.
1:33AM: Finish ~17 minute break. Needed that.
1:37AM: Finish inking panel borders.
1:40AM: Finish panel 1. Not even sure I penciled this one.
1:50AM: Finish panels 2-3. Almost no penciling again: close characters in foreground.
2:12AM: Finish panel 3. Complex characters in interesting pose, more work.
Total Time for Page Fifteen: 56 minutes. Not bad, counting the break.

2:12AM: START PAGE SIXTEEN: A complex pose atop panel 1: a centaur falling on a person. Argh! I put a horse model atop a superhero model and used that. Sadly, you can sort of tell as the person’s pose is too stiff.
2:58AM: Finish Panel 3.
Total Time for Page Sixteen: 46 minutes. Not bad. Getting bolder with the no pencils when I can get away with it.

2:58AM: START PAGE SEVENTEEN: I like this page. Romance, kung fu, and death threats!
3:12AM: Finish ~14 minute break.
3:59AM: Finish Panel 3.
Total Time for Page Seventeen: 1 hour, 1 minute. Slower, but complex.

Again, somewhere around here, it isn’t clear, I wanted to just give up – for the third time.

24hcd2012despair.png

This time, it wasn’t a sugar low, or a panel problem, or any of those other things. Despite the picture (actually taken earlier in the day; I was too busy to take pictures at this point) I wasn’t that tired. I just wanted to quit. I realized there was no external thing I could do to help me. I had to just power through it, just reach in and find the place that said … continue.

3:59AM: START PAGE EIGHTEEN: Simplify, just keep it going. Took a short break.
4:36AM: Finish Panel 4.
Total Time for Page Eighteen: 37 minutes. How? Amazing.

4:36AM: START PAGE NINETEEN: Simplify, but this is more complex. Avoid pencils?
4:48AM: Break for 12 minutes.
4:55AM: Finish panel borders.
5:02AM: Finish sketch of Panel 1.
5:09AM: Finish Panel 1.
5:36AM: Finish Panel 4.
Total Time for Page Nineteen: 1 hour. Slower, but we’re getting close to the end.

5:36AM: START PAGES TWENTY AND TWENTY ONE: A dual page spread, woo woo!
5:37AM: Finish 3 minute break.
6:20AM: Mostly finished.
6:22AM: Finish Panel 1.
Total Time for Pages Twenty and Twenty One: 46 minutes. Not bad for a two page spread!  

Now I am officially way ahead. The dual page spread, finished early, has put me 1 whole page ahead of schedule.

24hcd2012ahead.png

This picture, again taken earlier, represents my now renewed burst of enthusiasm – shoot, still 3 more pages.

6:22AM: START PAGE TWENTY TWO: When I “should” be at page 20. Woot! Goal: 7:10am. This page could be complex, but I’m going to simplify it. Most complex thing: two characters riding a centaur.
7:01AM: Finish Panel 4.
Total Time for Page Twenty-Two: 38 minutes. Woot! Go no pencils, except where hard.

7:01AM: START PAGE TWENTY THREE: When I “should” be at page 21. Woo woo! Simplify even more; drawing a giant door. Yes, I’m ahead, I could get complex, but *F* that at this stage, it’s better to be DONE! Hardest part: showing a character falling backwards into water.
7:05AM: Finish inking panel borders.
7:35AM: Finish Panel 3.
Total Time for Page Twenty-Three: 34 minutes. Almost there … stay on target …

7:35AM: START PAGE TWENTY FOUR: When I “should” be at page 22. Almost there! One single panel spread!
8:20AM: Finish Panel 1.
Total Time for Page Twenty-Four: 45 minutes? Axually, I don’t know. I strongly suspect the 8:20 figure is my “target time” and that I finished slightly early. Still … it’s better to be DONE!

Hey, wait a second … I FINISHED! Go Team Centaur! Go Blitz Comics! Go Mission Comics! Go 24 Hour Comics Day!

blitzman-itsbettertobedone.png

So … now what? Well, after chilling out a bit, stretching, I hung out with people at the event. People began to finish up around me; a few people had beat me, some by a little, some by a lot – two people finished way early and went back and watercolored all their pages. While I didn’t track times, this is how the rest of the day went, more or less:

8:20AM: START CHILLDOWN. O.M.G. I’m done. Don’t panic. Don’t gloat. Chill out, stretch your wrists, take a walk.
Mostly, I just walked around, talked to people, started cleaning up. Sooner or later, people started cleaning up.

9:00AM: SHOW ME YOURS, I’LL SHOW YOU MINE: People start noticing that others have finished, or people begin announcing it. Some people pass around their comics. At least three of them were watercolored. All were interesting, all were different, and a few had really genuine scares and laughs.

10:00AM: INTERVIEW: The reporter returns and begins interviewing everyone. Each one takes about 10 minutes. It’s fun and great to unpack your thoughts.

10:30AM: TEARDOWN: I and Nathan begin packing up. I vow not to take so much next time; I have a good grip on how much I can use in one trip now. Basically, if it doesn’t fit in one bag that you can sit next to the desk while you work, you are not going to pull it out.

11:00AM: FAREWELLS: Nathan and I are invited to have breakfast with Doc and Leef, but Nathan’s too worn out for this and needs to crash. We decide to bail, say our farewells, and leave Mission Comics to wind our way back the street of trees and dreams.

T-plus 1 hour: THE VOYAGE HOME. Nathan and I are surprisingly alert enough to start a postmortem. We come up with a list of ideas about 24 Hour Comics Day which we’re going to turn into a series of blogposts. I’m fading fast, and feel microbursts of sleep as I drive. Not safe. Drop Nathan off, then get breakfast.

T-plus 2 hours: BREAKFAST AND POSTMORTEM. I go to my favorite restaurant, Aqui’s in Blossom Valley, and get a spectacular French toast breakfast while I unpack my ideas. I email them to Nathan, capturing our conversation on the drive, then hastily bang together a trip report. A friend is having a baby shower, but I’m simply too exhausted and go home to sleep.

Yes, French toast. That is my reward for a hard day’s work. That, and blissful unconsciousness.

24hcd2012reward.png

But that’s not the end of 24 Hour Comics Day, oh no. We need … the POSTMORTEM! This postmortem, axually.

T-plus 3 hours: NAP Yes, sleep. But not much. I’m too wound up, and wake up.

T-plus 5 hours: UNWIND. I unpack the car, kick around the house, chat with Sandi, and unwind.

T-plus 11 hours: CRASH: After doing as much damage as I can, I crash, hard.

T-plus 23 hours: AWAKEN: Yes, I do indeed wake up at almost 10 the next day. What can I say, I love my job, which cares more about how much work you do than when you get there. I got in to work around 11am, 24 hours after 24 Hour Comic Day ended.

T-plus 2 days: BACK TO SPEED: The first day was rough, but by Tuesday I was back at it and had started writing this postmortem. It took me two whole days.

T-plus 3 days: POSTMORTEM COMPLETE. Complete as of me writing this paragraph. I’ve got back to speed with my other writing projects (DOORWAYS TO EXTRA TIME and SPECTRAL IRON, *ahem*), scheduled a meeting with Nathan for next Wednesday to plan out the next year of Blitz Comics … and finished this postmortem.

And that, my friends, is a 24 Hour Comics Day.

-the Centaur

Blitzing 24 Hour Comics Day 2012

stranded24hcd2012.png

24 Hour Comics Day is a challenge to create 24 pages of a new comic in 24 Hours. The challenge was originally conceived by comics whiz Scott McCloud in 1990, and the challenge was organized into a formal day by Nat Gertler in 2004. Now, eight years later, 24HCD is a global event in which thousands of people participate.

My first two tries at 24 Hour Comics Day were miserable failures in 2009 and 2010. My good friend Nathan Vargas also failed, and we started putting our heads together about how to succeed. For me, pulling a Jim Lee and taking a year off to massively cram at being a great artist might merit an angry note from my mortgage service provider, so we needed other options.

We analyzed how we failed, developed strategies and tutorial materials, and ultimately produced the Blitz Comics Survival Kit — not called 24 Hour Comics Survival Kit because we didn’t want to look like we were providing “official” materials; the Survival Kit was just our take on how to succeed, and we didn’t even know whether it would work, because we hadn’t done it yet.

As it turns out, the techniques in the Kit did work in 2011, not just for Nathan and me but also for a wide variety of other people as well. Nathan has worked hard to promote the ideas and concepts in the Kit while I’ve been a slack ass lazy bum writing novels, so since he works hard now Comics PRO distributes our materials as Participant Resources. But was our success a fluke?

Well, to test the theory, we tried it again. A few months before we reviewed our exercises and updated the Survival Kit, though website problems prevented us from updating the materials everywhere in time for the 24HCD event. We re-ran the tutorial we’d done before, and practiced a month or so in advance, cracking the knuckles so to speak, to get ready …

Because yesterday was 24 Hour Comics Day.

missioncomics24hcd2012.jpg

We both succeeded, of course; me around 8:20am and Nathan an hour and a half so later. It was great to participate at the always wonderful Mission Comics, but unlike previous years where we were too zonked to think at all, this year we had an interesting and lively conversation about what we did, why we did it, why we’re doing this, and how to make it better in the future.

And unlike last year, we’re planning to meet next week, rather than a few months in advance. Hopefully there will be some great stuff to show you – such as our comics, which we finally may have a strategy to get online without fixing the server error that’s been a pain in the patootie to fix. Next up: a 24 Hour Comics Day Timeline, like last year’s. Stay tuned.

Now, home to bed, because at this point I’ve been up 32 and a half hours straight!

-the Centaur

Pictured: the last page of my 2012 24 Hour Comic, “Stranded Part 2”, my adaptation of my own story “Stranded,” published in the book STRANDED. Got that? Also pictured is a bunch of writers at Mission Comics and Art. Thanks Leef!