Stunning Martian Landscapes

As you may be able to tell by the dearth of posts here over the past little while, my attention is focused elsewhere. I will soon be able to return to spicing up your lives in a most positive manner. In the meantime, I feel the incontrovertible urge to share this link with you. It will direct you to an article on The Verge titled “Alien frontier: see the haunting, beautiful weirdness of Mars.” They have curated some NASA photographs of martian landscapes that will help fire your imaginations to new levels.

Breathtaking inspiration for any science-fiction novelist. Source: TheVerge.com / NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

When life hands you lemons, make a Dwarf cut banana sandwich. Say what?

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Trust me.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Trust me.

I am afflicted by a condition that gives me the hardest time making out what people say if there’s a little background noise or if I can’t see their lips when they speak. I’ve only ever been able to make out the lyrics to a few songs on my own. Most of the time, I need to pull out the printed lyrics to understand what’s going on, or have someone tell me. This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the music. Indeed, voices become a rich instrument that I appreciate the same way as a violin, guitar, flute, piano, or drums. I just don’t understand the information carried by those words.

If I am at a crowded function, or at a restaurant, following a conversation can be quite an adventure. I usually make it out okay by playing the angles and lip reading a bit to ensure that I can really make out what is being said. Since such functions are infrequent, the most impacted person by this is my wife. You see, it’s not that I don’t hear the words. It’s that my mind interprets them as sounds, or as entirely different words. It can be frustrating for both of us when she asks for a bag of sugar as I’m heading out the door to the grocery store, only to return with flour. Close enough, right? They both end in a “ower” sound. Yeah. Not really.

There are all kinds of strategies I put into play to mitigate the dirty tricks my ears play on me daily. However, I also keep a notebook handy. Often, the words my mind hears are novel or contain some morsel of information that can spark a new idea for a picture, a story, or a solution for a problem at work. As soon as I mishear the words, I scramble to jot it down lest it evaporates from my ephemeral memory.

Just the other day, I was sitting at the dinner table having dinner with my wife and son when she asked me: “Dwarf cut banana sandwich?”

I looked at her in puzzlement. What on earth did she mean by that? Was she suggesting a dessert for our boy? What is a dwarf cut banana? Is it some kind of cutting technique? Or maybe it’s a dwarf banana that’s chopped up? I really don’t remember buying any small bananas, though. Uh, oh. Did I get that wrong?

It turns out I did. She hadn’t said a single word I had heard the first time. In fact, it was about as far as you can get from Dwarves, cuts, bananas, or sandwiches. “Do you want it in a cup, or in a dish?” she had asked as she contemplated the potential storage vessel for our leftovers.

We both had a good laugh. Me for coming up with such an outrageous concept. She at me, for being a goofball.

It’s not all bad. It gave me something to sketch.

The lesson here is that when life gives you lemons, you make banana sandwiches. Err… Lemonade.

Fusion drives – interplanetary science fiction takes one step closer to reality

NASA is developing revolutionary fusion drive

NASA is working on a fusion engine that has the potential to revolutionize interplanetary travel. For decades, science fiction has imagined the possibility of humanity reaching for the stars, propelled by the power released by mashing together atomic nuclei. As with so many other technological developments, I have little doubt that many of the scientists and engineers involved on this project had their the seed for this work planted in their youth while consuming mountains of stories about space pirates and green aliens hailing from unpronounceable planets.

This highlights two key issues:

1. Youth literacy is essential. There are so many great ideas out there that simply cannot be adequately covered in a movie, TV show, or computer game, that if kids don’t read, they will have a high likelihood of not being exposed to new ideas to pursue; and

2. Science fiction authors are going to have to stay on their toes. So many ideas that seemed to be possibilities only in the dim future are rapidly coming upon us. Authors will need to stay abreast a wide field of rapidly-evolving science so that they can come up with the next wave of weird and wonderful ideas with which to capture the next generation of scientists and engineers, providing them the drive to try to bring to reality whatever mind blowing concept they read about (or yes, even saw in a movie) when they were a kid.

On sharing inspiration – Ripples in the pond

Rise of the Redshirts

Rise of the Redshirts

I illustrated the image above back in 2009 as an entry to the “Be the Hero!” Game Career Guide challenge . I did it rather quickly, but am still quite pleased with the image, as I used it as an opportunity to try some new techniques with a Wacom stylus and Photoshop. The entry didn’t get picked up, so I may re-post it later for reference’s sake, but I did end up posting the picture on conceptart.org. I forgot about the image up until recently, when I was cleaning some files up in my computer in an attempt to speed my aging beast up.

I smiled as I remembered that in 2012, John Scalzi published Redshirts, a novel where one of a starship’s intrepid security staff decides that dying for the captain isn’t for him. As I sat there and thought about it, there certainly is some similarity in the concepts between the story and my image above. I started looking around the internet to see whether anyone else had caught on to the idea. I found that in 2011, a youtube channel called Star Trek Online: Rise of the Redshirts saw the light of day. The similarity between the titles does catch the eye. There is now a very cool game in development called Redshirt by the Tiniest Shark. There are certainly some similarities in the general layout and theme between the two images.

Redshirts game image

I am certainly not arrogant enough to believe that I am solely responsible for the ideas these highly creative people have developed. After all, if I had an idea, there is a high likelihood that someone else may have had the same idea before or after me with no external help whatsoever. In fact, I drew on inspiration from other short stories about the Redshirts always getting whacked to come up with my game pitch and illustration. There are only so many ways to illustrate a game cover, and there are some narrative illustration short hand techniques and tips of the hat that tend to ensure that there will be some similarity in imagery for science fiction posters. However, I do like to believe that the picture I tossed out without a second thought on the internet kicked off some spark in imaginations I’ve never met and ultimately served to enrich each of us. Like a stone cast in the pond, the ripples of inspiration can travel far and wide, touching distant and unseen shores.

So share your ideas. You never know how or who they’ll help.

Keep your eyes peeled, thar blows inspiration!

Fantasy horror toy shop.

Fantasy horror toy shop.

It’s funny how staying aware of the small things can be a boon to inspiration. Forget sweeping story arcs that need to be fed by globetrotting travels of self-discovery, forget life-changing trauma. Those can without a doubt be opportunities to find something to write about, illustrate, or simply share as an anecdote with friends, but they can be few and far between. When you’re in a bind, butting up against a particularly vicious bout of writer’s block, go for a walk. Forget the big things. Keep your eyes open for little things, things that would make a child wonder and giggle in amazement.

I took this particular picture a few years ago while strolling through an arts and crafts shop looking for some good illustration paper. There was a bin full of fantasy toys with an unusual assortment of models in promising positions. A quick shuffle of a dragon over to the princess’ corner and voilà! Ready-made damsel in distress to talk about. My inner child hooted and hollered, slapped his knee and wanted to make loud munching sounds. Since I made it out of the shop without being arrested, I assume I kept the unfolding drama securely under wraps for an external observer.

I keep the picture on my desktop for those moments where I feel like I’m running out of steam. It makes me laugh a bit, and reminds me to take things a little more lightly.

Finding inspiration for my illustrated book – It’s a process

A snippet of concept art for my upcoming book.

A snippet of concept art for my upcoming book.

When I set out to write my book, I had in mind a short picture book for kids to flip through and enjoy a fantasy encyclopedia of sorts. It was to have a dual purpose by providing sufficiently detailed illustrations to allow adults to flip through the pages and enjoy a rich visual story, perhaps drawing them back to time when life was simpler and they could take the time to let their minds wander through their imaginations.

My first step was to collate the various notes I’ve scribbled on notepads, notebooks, napkins, recorded in word processors, and other indescribable media over the years to pry out some useful ideas. A healthy dose of goofy imagery courtesy of the doodles I generate so that I can keep my ephemeral attention focused during long meetings helped crystallize a concept in my mind. I then mashed all of these together into a rough outline hitting the key characters I wanted to talk about in the story.

I had started collating some of my notes in a Word file many years ago, but had since migrated my computer to an Apple system. I’d never obtained Word for the Mac, since I had been using Apple’s “Pages” software for my shorter work projects. It’s a nice program, but does not handle large texts with numerous illustrations very well. At least, the version I bought back in 2007 with my computer does not like them at all. It isn’t very good at organizing information, either. I therefore searched the internet for a resource that would help me bring order to the chaos of my notes and help me visualize my story’s structure. I happened upon “Scrivener” a short while ago, and I must say that I am thankful for the way in which it allows me to coerce my information from a shapeless mass into a structured, if nascent, text.

I then built little blurbs for each of these characters and generated an art brief that I would be able to provide an illustrator to share my vision and inspire his or her work. These came together in the form of a project work description that I placed on Freelancer. I was surprised by the level of interest that the diverse community of artists that resides there showed for my project. In particular, a few artists rose above the crowd and became active participants in my writing efforts by coaching me through the Freelancer process and their perspectives on the nature of the work I was asking. In particular, Kenneth “Canifu”, and JJ Zhang were extremely helpful. I am humbled by their talent and their generous sharing of information. In the end, I settled with Art Corod because of the original vision he proposed and his inexhaustible enthusiasm. I may discuss my Freelancer experience and lessons learned in a later post.

After a short process of nailing down the visual style and going over specific project requirements, we set off on our grand adventure. The great thing about writing this book is that I am keeping my child in mind as the primary reader. Even though he probably won’t be able to fully appreciate it for several more years, I show him Art’s preliminary work and ask him which he prefers. As it turns out, a toddler can be pretty opinionated. This particular one appears to have a certain sense of aesthetics which is useful to the book’s art direction as well.

Somewhere along the way, my wife looked at the text I’d put together so far and asked: “Is that it?”

I could have immediately felt crestfallen, but instead sought her insight. She correctly pointed out that a young reader in the range I was designing this book for would be seeking more than fifteen to twenty pages of a fantasy hinterland’s wilderness observer’s guide. They would be seeking a story. At about the same time we were having this discussion, my illustrator sent me a wonderful landscape. You can see a small crop of the image at the top of this post

Although the image was unfinished, the amount of detail was astounding. Within its lines, a wealth of potential adventures played out. A light bulb lit so brightly in my mind that my brain is still sunburned. I was going to use the illustrations that Art was providing me as the inspiration for each of the book’s chapters. Just as I had provided the visual artist with just enough of an impulse to generate these rich images, the illustrations were going to serve as the catalyst for my stories.

Our collaboration has now become even closer, as both writer and illustrator rely on each other to develop the next story thread. As I receive an image, I quickly hammer out the corresponding chapter and feed it back to Art so that he can see where the story is going. This helps him come up with new ideas with which to populate his images, which in turn inspire the details to subsequent chapters. The main plot line will be unlikely to change much, but the detail that makes a story live and breathe will get richer with each passing illustration.

I am looking forward to the next image!