Writer Pro Tip #1: Why Ask, “Why?”

I have a 21 month old son. As I’m sure every parent brags, he’s a total genius. He speaks two languages, can count, and has a huge vocabulary. For all his intellectual prowess, however, he hasn’t yet learned the meaning of the word, ‘why.’ My understanding from other harried parents is that this stage usually kicks in about three years old, and that it’s tedious to endure. But I can’t wait until my kid starts asking ‘why’ questions because I love answering them and I’ve already started getting my answers locked and loaded for the future. For now, though, when I confront him with a ‘why’ question of my own, such as, “Why are you throwing all of your toys over the balcony?” or “Why do you insist on pouring your milk on the dog?” the only response I receive is a blank, doe-eyed stare.

Interestingly enough, I occasionally also seem to get this response from writers.

First, let me say that I’ve had the distinctive honor of working with several writers, all more talented and accomplished than myself. My own role has been to provide creative guidance in story development.  I’m the coach, the writer is the quarterback. I can’t throw the ball, but I can tell when someone’s form is incorrect. (For a guy who doesn’t know jack shit about sports, I sure use a lot of sports analogies.) So this isn’t a critique on any writer that I’ve worked with (in case any of you are actually reading this) but rather, an observation about writers in general, and I’ll humbly include myself among them as it’s through my own mistakes that I’ve come to learn the importance of the word, ‘why’.

For the past several months, a great deal of my time and a great deal of my sacrificed sleep has gone into story development for some really amazing fiction projects, both inside and outside of Privateer Press. Most recently, I’ve had the opportunity to delve into the past of WARMACHINE’s famously infamous, Allister Caine, gunmage-warcaster extraordinaire. Working on this project has been a considerable team effort. My good friend, the talented Miles Holmes, has run point as the author of this tale that will feature in next year’s product lineup from Privateer Press. Helming our operation is the ever patient, always calculating Director of Publications, Scott Taylor. My own role has been that of creative director, which in this case has included story-plotting, character development and general guidance for handling the setting, as well as frequently acting as a liaison to our continuity and in-house writing staff of Jason Soles and Doug Seacat to make sure we’re keeping our facts straight. Five people have been involved in this project for weeks and not a single word of the actual story has even been written yet. Oh, words have been written. We’ve generated pages of them. Dozens and dozens of multi-page emails in multiple threads, an 18 page story outline that Miles has revised daily, and we’ve thrown in a few conference calls on top of it all. But it’s all just been preparation for Miles to go weapons-free and start blasting away at this fantastic tale. So much work for one story! “Why”, you ask? Well that’s the operative question, isn’t it.

The definitive Caine, by the world famous Andrea Uderzo.

Allister Caine is a central character to the WARMACHINE mythos. Despite his frequent appearances in the ongoing saga of the setting, and despite being the most popular two-gun slinging rogue in the Iron Kingdoms, the public knows very little about him. His history has been alluded to in vague references, deliberately left mysterious until the day we had the time to tell his harrowing tale of dark dealings and intrigue. At the point we decided that time had come, those involved (myself included) thought it would be a relatively simple matter. The beats of Caine’s background were well established; he was a street criminal, turned military man who relapsed to his old ways before mysteriously being restored to his military career. Internally, as the creators of this setting, we thought we knew Caine intimately, that this work of fiction would be a matter of merely connecting the dots…until we started asking, “Why?” Why did Caine join the military? Why did Caine murder a man in cold blood? Why did Caine return to lives he abandoned, twice? And that’s when the real work began.

‘Why’ is the great dismantler. It unravels the fabric of a story as quickly as the word can be spoken. Sufficiently answering the question of ‘why’ necessitates carefully orchestrated logic during the creation process, and failure to ask ‘why’ is the tungsten carbide drill that produces plot holes in any piece of writing, no matter how cleverly the words may be strung together. ‘Why’ is the the concrete foundation of a character’s motivations. And ‘why’ is the gossamer thread that suspends our disbelief.

Who hasn’t yelled aloud at the film screen, “Why is she going back in there?!!” This and every unbelievable story moment from, “Why did the the stupid space biologist touch that slimy space cobra?” to “Why would you build a flying aircraft carrier with only four lift turbines?” is the result of a writer (or someone in a creative position guiding the story) not asking, “Why?” or mistakenly believing that we the audience, wouldn’t.

Human beings have an instinctive desire to consume stories. But we also crave knowledge, and knowledge wants understanding, and understanding requires explanation. And if there’s one other thing human beings love to do, it’s criticize. We love calling bullshit on something. So when that explanation doesn’t measure up to everyday common sense and the way we all intuitively understand the world and the people in it, we all want to be the first to appear brilliant and clever by exposing the flaw in the design. The lesson here for writers is that as much as people crave a good story, they seem to be much more interested in pointing out its mistakes and tearing it down, and the only universal defense for this is to constantly, continually, and without fail, ask yourself as you’re writing, “Why?”

Sometimes it can feel like you’re chasing your tail. Each ‘why’ answered reveals a new question, sometimes forking the path and multiplying the number of questions that must be answered. Uncommitted or inexperienced writers forget to ask in the first place, or believe that the reader or viewer won’t notice the unanswered question or won’t be interested in following a string of logic down that rabbit hole only to find the unanswered dead end. But the clever writer, the experienced writer, and the writer who has an ounce of pride in the project he puts his name on, will embrace the ‘why’ and chase it through every layer it reveals, diving deeper and deeper into the plot and characters until every branch of every thread has reached its terminus and no more ‘whys’ remain.

If someone is going to do something other people would find irrational, you’ve got to seed the reason why ahead of time or we’re jarred right out of the story. If a plot twists and turns, you have to properly connect those dots and explain why, or the tale will leave us behind in disbelief.

The rule, then: always ask “Why?”, and then ask it again. Because even if you don’t, your audience will, and we are unforgiving bastards.

The origin story of Allister Caine has been a monumental exercise in asking, “Why?” There’s a decade of history to this setting and a decade’s worth of people who are intimately familiar with its every detail. Caine has been a cornerstone of the setting since almost the beginning, and his existence is embedded in the building blocks of the world itself. We’re threading the needle, weaving a story through not only an established history but a well known set of ‘rules’ that must be adhered to faithfully, lest the story ring untrue. In discovering WHO Caine is and HOW he came to be, we have endeavored to leave no WHY unturned. Fortunately, I’m working with a crack team of professionals who understand the value of ‘why’ and are committed to making sure we’ve anticipated them all so that this character and his thrilling story can be brought to life as authentically as possible.

And if we’ve done our job well, we can all avoid that blank, doe-eyed stare that my toddler gives me when I ask him, “Why do you keep hitting me with your plastic toy rake?” (Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s a good reason. He’s a genius.)

 

 

The Fishy Business of Show Business

I don’t even like fish.

If I’ve learned anything from playing Hollywood these past few years, it’s that the more projects you can launch out of the gate, the greater your chances that one will actually cross the finish line, but almost certainly most of them won’t. (Actually, I’ve learned a few other lessons about show business as well, but those all lead to a great deal of curse-filled ranting that I think may not be appropriate for general consumption.) Specifically, I’m referring to those projects that are not entirely within one’s grasp to get done without the assistance of those rare few entities possessing the kind of money to get great looking images up on the screen. My past short film projects were self-financed and done for very little, but the objective, of course, is to do larger and more commercial work, and for that, I need someone to write a bigger check than I can write myself.

It’s a little like playing roulette and trying to cover as many different spaces on the board as possible so your odds of hitting anything are maximized. If you’ll indulge a somewhat lengthier analogy, though, I think it’s a lot more like fishing in a lake. Fishing is all about being in the right place at the right time with the right bait. If you’re fishing with just one rod, then you’ve got a single line in the water and just one chance to catch a fish. So if you want to increase your chances of a catch, you need more lines in the water. Only, it won’t do to drop them all in the same fishing hole because you really don’t know if there are any fish in that spot or not, so you have to spread them out all around the lake, hoping that the fish are going to be gathering in at least one of those places and that they’re going to be interested in what you’ve wrapped around your hook. (Hang on, we’re not done yet, this one keeps going for bit.)

Now this is where it gets really tricky. Fishing isn’t all about throwing your line out there and hoping a fish jumps on the end of it. You’ve got to coax those fish a bit, give a little tug on the line from time to time to try and get their attention. Sometimes you’ve got to reel it in all the way and recast the line, adjusting the position or hoping you land closer to the fish this time. While you’re babysitting this one line, though, all your other poles are going unattended. If you get a nibble on a line, you need to be there to give it a tug and try and set that hook or the fish is going to move on. So while you increase your odds of catching a fish with all those lines you’ve put in the water, you also end up running all up and down the shore line managing them each time you see the end of the rod twitch. It’s exhausting to say the least.

Now I could keep running with this whole fishing analogy, drawing comparisons to getting your hook stuck, having a snarl in your line, the frustration with the one that got away, or the abject disappointment of reeling in a bottom-feeding trash fish that wasted your bait, wasted your time, and delivers nothing suitable to the table. But I think by now you get the idea.

I believe this analogy could be applied to just about any sort of creative pursuit in which one depends on a publisher, financier, producing label, or similar entity in order to accomplish a goal larger than your available resources. But how does one keep sane in this kind of maddening situation? Well, maybe this is where the analogy breaks down because I think a lot of people who regularly fish would say they do so because they enjoy the act of fishing, not because they want to eat the fish. But assuming that your primary purpose for fishing is to serve up a tasty filet to a room full of assembled guests, it’s a good idea to know where you can just buy a fish when you need it. In other words, you’ve got make sure you’re not always relying on someone else to be able to satisfy your objective; you’ve got to have a project that is wholly in your control to be able to create, execute and present without the need for that other entity to write a check.

And that’s where I’m at right now: a dozen lines in the water, running back and forth managing the rods and reels, hoping to be in the right place at the right time with the right bait and to get a solid enough nibble I can set the hook.  But in the meantime, I need to be doing something that I can get done with my own available resources. For that, I’ve got a few ideas that I’ve narrowed down to, and I’ll bounce those off you in the next week or two.

Until then, happy fishing!

 

Working Illustrator Pro Tip #1: Know Your Enemy

Okay, technically your employer or client shouldn’t be considered an enemy, but if you’ve ever been an illustrator combing San Diego Comic Con or Gen Con for freelance work, it can feel a little like going to battle. You spend months, even years training, honing your skills. You build up an arsenal of imagery designed to render your targeted art director speechless with shock and awe. Then you wade into the fray, adrenaline pumping, determined to beat out all comers for those few choice art contracts out there. And competition is fierce!

As someone who has worked on both sides of the trench, as both a freelance illustrator and the art director that hires them, I have a perspective shared by only the few other fellow illustrators who have also been in the position to give someone their first break or ensure that someone could pay their rent next week. I’ve lugged my portfolio around conventions, stood in line to meet art directors, sent off samples to publishers, and have scrapped for work in places no one would even look to find illustration work, much less want to. But I’ve also spent almost 18 years as the audience of those portfolios. I’ve worked with literally hundreds of artists, the best in the biz. And I’ve rejected more submissions for work than I’ve hired. The simple truth is that there are exponentially more artists looking for work than there are jobs to feed them and thanks to the internet and the incredible digital tools available to illustrators these days, marketplace globalization has increased competition to an all time high. You’re not just competing with the other hopefuls lugging their portfolios around the convention anymore, you’re up against everyone on the planet with a broadband connection and a copy of Photoshop. So you’re going to need every weapon in the armory if you’re going to come out on top of the heap — and I’m not just writing the longest introduction to a blog ever here, I’m going to give you a weapon born of almost two decades of successful professional combat. Eventually…

Your portfolio IS your weapon!*
*Took this photo 5 minutes before posting the blog, so don’t mess with me if you don’t want to lose a limb.

Different illustrators break into the fantasy/sci-fi art industry (including book covers and packaging, concept art, interior art, card art, etc.) in different ways. The internet has removed the necessity to physically get in front of an art director (when I say things like that, does it make me sound old?), but there’s still a great deal of value to meeting face to face. First, your sparkling personality can go a long way to making sure you’re remembered and you might even convince an AD to give you shot at something that your work alone would’t have. Relationship building, which is much easier to accomplish in person, is a key component to establishing repeat clients and consistent work. As well, you might receive a helpful critique in person  (if you keep your mind open to it) so even if you don’t land a gig this time around, you’ll have a place to begin the conversation the next time you see the art director, and eventually it may lead to paying work. But the most important reason to meet an art director in person is that you will be one-hundred-percent sure that the AD actually saw and looked at your portfolio, which mail-ins or links to your DeviantArt gallery are never going to confirm. While this doesn’t necessarily mean you’re any closer to getting paid work, I have found in my own experience that it preserves some sanity. If you’re anything like me, indefinite waits and not knowing whether or not someone has even taken the time to check out your work is far worse than a door being slammed in your face. But this isn’t the tip, it’s just a benefit of going out and pressing the flesh. The tip is  about how to make the most of it.

I’ve seen as many different kinds of portfolios as I have met artists. No two are the same. Some are printed as leave-behinds, others are neatly ordered. I’ve seen handmade, cut paper pop-up books, and I’ve see portfolios that looked like someone dropped the Sunday Times (Newspaper reference— that definitely makes me look old!) in a puddle before they scooped it up and handed it to me. I’ve seen portfolios with three pieces in them and portfolios with three hundred. But more than anything, more often than not, I’ve seen the wrong portfolio. Wrong as in, the portfolio contained work that had no relevance to the type of work that I, as an art director representing a specific company and its product line, am hiring for.

Freelance artists, especially those starting out, often take a very desperate, shotgun approach to finding work. Armed with their portfolio, they get it in front of every art director they can whether they have any interest or knowledge of what that AD’s company produces or not. They’re just looking for a break and a paycheck. I’ve had illustrators walk up to me at conventions, artwork under their arm, and ask, “What do you guys do here?” It doesn’t matter what I tell them. The next question is always, “Wanna look at my portfolio?” Diplomacy always wins out, but I assure you that at this point, my inner voice is screaming the same thing that every other AD who’s ever been in that position is thinking: No fucking way.

So here’s the big tip, fellow mercenaries — pay attention because it’s a two parter:

KNOW WHO YOU ARE SUBMITTING YOUR WORK TO

and

TAILOR YOUR PORTFOLIO TO THE CLIENT

You get one chance to make a first impression. It’s true, just like you’ve heard all your life. So make sure you apply this to the ONE opportunity you will have to meet an art director for the FIRST time, and make the best goddamn impression you can.

Not everyone out there will agree with me, but my advice is, don’t hunt randomly. Pick your targets, research them, and then take very precise, calculated shots. Find out the name of the Art Director before you go meet him or her — it’s not hard to crack open a book or look online for the Art Director’s credit and trust me, this little tidbit will jump you to the front of the line when it comes to making a good first impression.

Then, look for companies that publish work like you want to do, and more importantly, that you are suited to do. I love comic books, but when I was art directing Magic: the Gathering, we weren’t looking for sequential artists. Still, I can’t tell you the number of portfolios that I looked at from artists who were exclusively comic book ‘pencilers’. Look, if you can’t tell a sequential story, you’re not going be drawing comics for Marvel, and if you can’t paint an entire picture ready for publication, you’re not going to be doing card art for Wizards of the Coast. If you want to paint book covers, you need to have book covers in your portfolio. If you want to do concept illustration, make sure you have a great selection of concept work. If you want to do comics — look, you get the idea. Above all, make sure the AD you’re submitting to is looking for the kind of work that you’re applying to do! It’s basic arithmetic but for some reason they don’t seem to be teaching this in schools.

But it doesn’t stop there. If you don’t show a creative aptitude for fantasy work, you’re also not going to be doing any work for Magic. It’s not just the style or mode of work that is important, the subject matter is equally relevant. If someone shows me a bunch of gothic romance cover paintings of vampires in lingerie making out on castle balconies, it doesn’t matter how beautifully rendered they are, I don’t necessarily know if they’re going to be able to pull off an image set in the gritty, combat-heavy setting of WARMACHINE. You don’t have to show samples of the potential client’s actual intellectual property, but the closer you can get to the genre(s) the client represents, the quicker you’re going to convince the AD to give you work. Art Directors are famously busy, living and dying each day by the deadline. The downside of meeting them in person at a convention like San Diego Comic Con or Gen Con is that it’s hard to get and keep their attention; the environment is loud, lit too brightly or not well enough, they’re hung over and exhausted from the night before and they’re tired of looking at shitty portfolios. So you’ve got to be on point, man! Show them what they want to see, which means showing them something as close to what they put in their products as you possibly can muster. You want to work for a fantasy RPG company? Show them fantasy work. You want to do science-fiction book covers? Show them science-fiction! Can you show them other stuff, sure (I’ll retract this in a moment) but make sure you show them a decent cross section of relevant materials —3-5 pieces in a related genre should cover it.

In my book, ‘versatility’ is not a good thing. I like to see a portfolio that represents the artist’s specific voice and style because I want to know exactly what I’m hiring in an artist. If an illustrator’s work is all over the place with loose watercolors, tight pencils, thick oil paintings and photo-realistic digital work, I don’t know what I’m going to get if I hire this guy. The biggest hurdle you have to overcome is the AD’s inherent skepticism that you will actually be able to deliver what they want in the timeframe they need it. So if you are a master of different styles, organize your work by type, style and medium and make sure you show, again, a substantial quantity of each so the AD who is hiring for a futuristic space combat game knows that the one super-slick vehicular design you did isn’t just a fluke. But for my money, I say streamline as much as possible. Only show the art director work that is relevant to the work you are applying to do. Nothing else is going to matter.

Also, be economical! If you’re lucky, you’re going to have 5-10 minutes to talk with an art director, but keep in mind the environment/busy/hangover/tired-of-crap thing. Those portfolios with 300 pieces in them? Yeah, they’re not as uncommon as you might think. A generous AD will look through every page, but many don’t have that kind of time. You don’t want them to get tired of looking through your work and never make it to the good stuff. My recipe for a good portfolio is 10-12 pieces. I don’t care if you’ve got a hundred masterpieces under your arm, I don’t want to look at an art book, I just want to be convinced you can do the job I need done so I can get back to my Gatorade because what I’m really thinking about right now is replenishing all of my lost electrolytes before the show is over so I can get through another night of after-hours convention socializing. Are you getting the picture? Be a tactical nuke. Get in, blow them away, and vanish as fast as possible. Don’t go too light — six pieces minimum. But twelve pieces, max. Make the hard decision to show only your best work. The AD won’t know what he or she is missing.

“But I’m going to be at Comic Con for four days!” you say. “I need to hit as many art directors up as possible!” you lament. “How can one portfolio do everything I want it to?” That’s the thing. It can’t. If you’re heading out for a marathon work-hunt, be prepared to either customize your portfolio between meetings, or carry multiple books as needed. Either way, take the right load out for each mission. Don’t be lazy about this and it will pay off.

And leave the naked boobies at home.

Again, there are those who won’t agree with me, but unless you’re meeting with an art director for HEAVY METAL or a company that produces content of an adult nature, then you don’t know what might or might not offend an art director. If I only had a dollar for every time I opened up a portfolio to the first page, only to see some naked barbarian chick posing over her fresh kill! While I’m a huge fan of masters like Frazetta and Bisley, YOU are not Frazetta or Bisley, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So I don’t care if your buck-naked bareback dragon-rider has won the gold award in Spectrum (which it hasn’t, because it’s a buck naked bareback dragon-rider), leave it out of your portfolio. Again, the art director isn’t going to miss it but it might color his or her opinion of you in a negative fashion right from the start. Self censor so they don’t have to. Maybe the art director for a children’s book company has a collection of wind-blown, short-skirted anime schoolgirl comics, but that’s not what that AD is going to be hiring for. Stay on target and remove anything from your portfolio that might turn off this stranger you’re trying to impress.

My other pet peeve? School work. It’s easy to spot and it makes you look inexperienced. An art director with a limited budget and tight deadlines doesn’t want to take a flyer on a kid fresh out of school, so don’t set yourself up to look like one. Get rid of the life drawing charcoals, the old-master oil painting reproductions, and anything that looks like a Coca Cola advertising illustration. These scream ‘newbie’, which even if you are, you don’t want to let on. Art Directors want to hire illustrators with field experience. They want people who are used to working on a deadline without an instructor helping them along the way. The discipline to be a reliable freelance artist is so hard to come by that you don’t want to give the AD any sense that you might not possess every ounce of it necessary to deliver on time. You don’t have to possess a portfolio full of paid work, but you need a portfolio that looks like it’s full of work you got paid for. Even ‘fan work’ (eg. your painting of Batman that you obviously did for fun) is going to resonate better than something that looks like it was produced as an assignment in a classroom. Give the AD the confidence he or she needs that you don’t need to be coached every step of the way, and leave your school work at home.

Summary: Know who you’re submitting to and customize an economical portfolio with work relevant to the client’s needs. Less is more.

And knowing is half the battle! We’ve all heard Duke say it a thousand times. But the other half of the battle in getting hired for an illustration job is employing the right weapon for the fight, effectively. So put down the shotgun and pick up your sniper rifle. From here on out, it’s nothing but head shots.