I was so pleased and thrilled to see the following for ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES on Wattpad‘s site this morning:

700K reads on Wattpad!
700K reads on Wattpad!

Sometime over the past few days, the seven hundred thousandth reader stopped by to check out Zak, Lisabeth, Jason, Odie and of course Pogo. I am extremely pleased to see so many people enjoying ZAK CORBIN on Wattpad.

And now the bad news. My contract with Divertir Publishing also includes the ZAK CORBIN books, so they will be coming down off Wattpad very soon. If you have not had the chance to read these adventures, go there and read it before it’s too late.

This will not be the end of Zak and my relationship with Wattpad. Very soon, you will start to see announcements for the first book in my YA historical adventure series. It’s title will be …. aha! Caught you! The first book’s title will not be revealed officially for the moment (at least not by me). What you will be able to see and read will be short stories related to this new series on Wattpad and in other places. Stay tuned.

A Thousand Words: Pictures Help Bring Life to Stories

All stories come from the nugget of an idea. The idea itself can come in many forms: lying in your bed, watching television, reading a news story, talking with friends, a visit to some place that sets off an internal memory. As writers, we drive ourselves nuts trying to figure out what we’re going to write about.

I thought I would touch on where I find inspiration for my stories. Many of my stories are inspired by art and architecture. I attribute this to my father, who was a draftsman by trade and an artist at heart.  As a kid, I snuck into my father’s office in our basement to look at his work and books. He collected wonderful art books and I often thought he used these to gain inspiration for his own work, as I would do later on.

Case in point, ZAK CORBIN. The setting is a retro-futuristic 1950s and Zak lives in a place called New Futura City which gets its inspiration from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. A place you can’t really visit anymore, but the relics of that fair and its cousin, the 1964, can be looked at in pictures and in art:

Poster from 1939 New York World's Fair
Poster from 1939 New York World’s Fair

When I started looking for new ideas for writing inspiration, I turned to art websites. One in particular stands out: This is a fabulous site devoted to all kinds of artwork: from digital to hand-drawn, videos and even stories. This is also the place where I found Daryl Toh’s work, whom I hired to do the cover art for ZAK CORBIN. Look at the cover for ZAK CORBIN and you’ll see the retro look and feel of the old 1939 fair in his work.

I found these images on Deviant art which inspired me to write VANQUISH (which the first book will soon be sporting a new title, check this space for the announcement!) (The artwork shown here doesn’t belong to me and is the sole property of the artists.)

When I found an image, I captioned it to capture the feeling of the story the picture was trying to tell.

Briley's first patrol
Briley’s first patrol

I was impressed with the action of this first picture and I was drawn to the biplane (very ornately detailed) blasting away at an enemy fighter against a 1930s skyline. This aircraft (which had no landing gear) became the Kestrel.

Sky City
Sky City

More 1930s sky action is shown here, featuring monoplanes of the era.

Briley in Cathedral
Briley in Cathedral

This is the first image which captured my main character and I decided to start calling her Briley Bannatyne. Although her outfit is very steampunkish, the mechanical nature of the setting and her attire suggested she was walking in a place that was very special. (and very important to the second book, :) )

Warships and Aerial Scout
Warships and Aerial Scout

The Alt History/World War II nature of the story is represented here. There are no scenes with battleships like this one in the story, but the heavy dreadnaught and the intriguing aircraft caught my eye.

Sky City docks
Sky City docks

I pictured this location as a rainy, hard-scrabble place where airships and crews worked.

First Technical Church
First Technical Church

In the story, I imagined my main character Briley and her family as a member of a unique church dedicated to things logical and physical, merging these ideas with the spiritual and the social. The First Technical Church of Charles Babbage is a strange place, similar to places built by the Freemasons.

The Vanquish
The Vanquish

No action adventure would be complete without a cool airplane and this one caught my attention right away. The wings are much too sharply-angled and this aircraft doesn’t look so much as a fighter as racer, but the design conveys speed and aggression.

None of these pictures make up the story — that’s the harder part that comes later. But using pictures can help paint imagery in your mind that leads to stories.


“How To Train Your Dragon 2″, Missed It By That Much

Warning: this article contains some spoilery references to Dreamworks How To Train Your Dragon 2, as well the original, How To Train Your Dragon. Read at your own peril.

How To Train Your Dragon 2
How To Train Your Dragon 2 — copyright 2014, 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks Animation.

I don’t do extensive reviews. Most of the time, if a movie intrigues me or misses the mark, I make a one sentence blurb about it in Facebook to my friends. But after seeing How To Train Your Dragon 2 in the theater this past weekend, I found myself flummoxed and bothered enough to try to pen some reactions in long form.

In the first How To Train Your Dragon (based on the books by Cressida Cowell), Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a 15-year-old Viking lad who lives on a island called Berk that’s under constant attack by dragons. Hiccup is different than his burly, dragon-killing father Stoic and the other villagers. He rescues an injured black Night Fury dragon, called Toothless because he has retractable teeth, and then teaches himself to ride him. Along the way they learn more about themselves. While the whole village is concerned with killing the beasts, Hiccup becomes an animal lover/trainer and ends up teaching valuable lessons to his entire tribe about living with nature instead of destroying it (until they face  the monstrous Green Death dragon at the end of the film).  Both dragon and rider develop a deep bond, symbolized by (spoilers ahead) Toothless’ destroyed tail fin and Hiccup losing part of his own leg.

The first movie was a box office smash. It had a straightforward plot, a realistic relationship between an awkward teenager and his stubborn father, and an even more awkward first love between Hiccup and a fiercely independent teenage warrioress named Astrid. The movie was well animated, had beautiful scenery, wonderful flying scenes and the voice actors made the movie entertaining for both kids and adults.

It’s taken Dreamworks and the film’s director over four years to script, animate and produce the next installment, How To Train Your Dragon 2. Critical reception and hopes for a box office smash were high. The movie received some excellent reviews. It  had all the pieces to make it a blockbuster: the original voice cast, more dragons, better 3D animation, a surprise newcomer (who didn’t turn out to be that much of a surprise, thanks to the trailers) and more of everything that made the original great.

However, the film is currently not doing as well at the box office. It premiered up against another sequel, 22 Jump Street, an R-rated comedy. It’s not like that film’s audience is taking theatergoers away, but the movie’s lack of box office pizzazz (and the hopes of making another smash like Frozen) seems to relegate it to just another quickly forgotten summer release

The critics loved this movie, but the audience where I saw it were tiny in number and low in reaction. Sitting there for almost two hours, I found the movie (and this is my opinion, remember) mildly interesting and actually boring in sections. Since How To Train Your Dragon was the reason why I tried my hand at writing middle grade and young adult fiction, I pondered what went wrong.

In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup is older. His father wants him to take his place as chief of the tribe on Berk. Hiccup avoids these responsibilities, exploring and surveying the area while flying Toothless. He runs into another dragon master who turns out to be the “not-so-big” surprise character (if you’ve seen the trailers, the dragon’s out of the bag, so-to-speak). [All right, it's his mother Valka.] She tries to free and nuture dragons. But there’s another guy, Drago Bloodfist, who has personal reasons to hates dragons but for some reason uses them to destroy other dragons (yep, I was confused too) and threatens those who love dragons (mainly Berk). Oh and there’s another really really big dragon (like the Green Death) who has control over other dragons. This leads to tragedy, as the monster dragon takes control of Toothless and makes him do something horrible to Hiccup. After the tragedy, there’s a confrontation at Berk. Hiccup and Toothless persevere over Drago and the really realy big dragon to win the day.  (As I said, I’m trying to do this without ruining possible moviegoers.)

So why was I bored? I think I could count the reasons as the following:

1) The movie ignored the film’s target audience: young kids and tweens. This is a big one. You can’t write a story and not involve your audience.  The audience identified with Hiccup in the first film because he was awkward and just trying things out. He acted like a teenager and he took the audience with him on his adventures. The Hiccup in HTTYD2 is forced to make adult decisions–become chief, be a leader and protect his tribe.  He’s reunited with one parent and (well, what happens after that is a spoiler so I won’t mention it). But that’s it.

2) Hiccup has little to no interaction with the other young characters. Hiccup’s interaction with the other teens made the first film fun. At first, Hiccup didn’t fit it in and caused trouble. He suddenly started to become a dragon master (because he was learning dragon lore through Toothless) and became their idol. Later, he becomes their hero by using his knowledge and sharing it with them. In the new film, the younger characters–especially Astrid– are separated from Hiccup for most of the story. Astrid clearly loves and admires Hiccup, but there’s none of the first film’s awkwardness and fumbling. Their relationship in the film boils down to two scenes with dialogue  and a few things they yell at one another, like “Watch out!”and “Go get Toothless!” 

3) There are too many new characters … doing nothing. In addition to Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka, there’s a dragon napper (voiced by the actor who plays Jon Snow in GoT) and the villain Drago Bloodfist who is not seen until almost three quarters of the way into the story. HTTYD2 is mostly a story without a visible primary antagonist. Valka’s disappearance for twenty years is explained away with almost with the same irrelevance as Homer Simpson’s hippy protester mother in The Simpsons. The dragon napper is introduced as a rogue (like Flynn Rider in Tangled) but he eventually helps Astrid and the other younger characters.  Then his character has nothing more to do. There’s lots more stuff in this movie. New dragons with new traits. New villains. New weapons. New super huge dragon. Very little of it comes together.

4) The storyline tries to be dark. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, there are sinister forces at work. Bad men are doing bad things with dragons. A major character suffers a tragic turn. Again, this is a thump against the movie for forgetting its target audience. The writer and director of both films admitted his fondness for The Empire Strikes Back with its surpriser plot twist and dark turn for the heroes. Going dark has become a really annoying trend in movies (think The Dark Knight and Harry Potter) that really doesn’t belong in a film intended for younger kids. Going dark satisfied the film’s critics, but left the young people watching it cold.

5) The film confounds its own principals. The whole “dragons and humans living peacefully with one another” motif that was the heart at the end of the first movie is abandoned by both sides in this one. Hiccup tries to talk reason and sense into the dragon nappers and then Drago, but ends up using Toothless as a weapon anyway. His initial peace-making persona is dropped when he must assume the role his father wanted him to take anyway.  Even Drago–who hates dragons–uses a monster-sized dragon under his control to destroy other folks’ dragons (and their village). Confusing? Yes.

So there. I’ve wagged my tongue. Have you seen the movie? What did you think of it?








Status Report, Scotty!

Much has changed since my last posting on this poor, deserted Interwebs thing called my blog. I thought it would be nice to keep folks informed on what’s going down. So like the chief engineer on board a certain starship, there’s news both good and bad…

Scotty! Status report!

1) MOVIN’ ON UP: I picked myself up from point A (just over the state line in Pennsylania) and managed to arrive at point B (about twenty minutes from Virginia Beach, Virginia) without too much pain, but man did it take a very long time to get everything accomplished. There’s just so much a person could do without tearing his hair out. Selling my house (in this crazy market), searching for a new place to live, handling all the paperwork, taking care of old debts, cleaning the place and fixing things, the dividing of property with the grace of Solomon, it all happened in some kind of crazy order.

2) A PUPPY GOES TO HEAVEN: As if there wasn’t enough happening, my sweet wonderful Alaskan Malamute, Juneau, passed away just weeks  before closing on the current house.

All shaggy after a bath
All shaggy after a bath

This was painful, to say the least, and totally changed my house search plans. I was concerned about upsetting her because she didn’t handle long trips or change or stress very well. Wherever she is now, she’s chasing rabbits and having treats by the box and frozen broccoli (her favorite) by the bag, I’m sure.

3) ACTUAL WRITING TOOK PLACE: I was determined to finish something during this whole move-em mess. I finally managed to wring out the last chapters to the second ZAK CORBIN book, NEPTUNE’S FURY, and posted them to Wattpad. Many of the readers were happy but they all cried out and moaned, “oh no! another cliffhanger!” Those things happen.

4) AND MORE: I’m three-quarters of the way done with my revisions to CALL OF THE KESTREL, the first of a new adventure series that will be published and distributed through Divertir Publishing. The senior editor, Jen Corkill Hunt , has been very patient waiting for these revisions, for which I’m grateful. Between the move and the pressures of my day job, I’ve had no time to focus on KESTREL until recently.  Now I have a place and a desk to rest my head, so the writing proceeds.

5) AND EVEN MORE: I have plans to work on…

  • A revised title for the first Briley Bannatyne book and maybe even the series.
  • Writing several “prequel” stories to post on Wattpad as a sneak preview.
  • Brushing up on my old sketchpad and pencils for some KESTREL drawings (like the great old Star Wars Sketchbooks by Ralph McQuarrie, which were preproduction guides to vehicles and scenes from the Star Wars movies and books).
  • Send cover design ideas to Daryl Toh so he can start to work his magic.
  • Plot out a story featuring a new character from ZAK CORBIN: NEPTUNE’S FURY. (Hint: Russian dieselpunk set in the Cold War 1950s)
  • And yes, yes, the second Briley Bannatyne novel! At least I have a cool title for that one.

So that’s the status, Captain. Now let’s get away from those Klingons orbiting Uranus. :)


If The Relationship Isn’t Working, “Let It Go”

Copyright, Walt Disney Pictures. Yadda-yadda-yadda.

I know. You’re invested. You spent how-many weeks, months or years living with your significant other. It’s not just a relationship either, it’s a place where you get to meet up with old friends, reminisce about old times and thrill to the earlier days when sparks flew.

But things get stale. Reminiscing about the old times is starting to feel like you’re watching repeats of some show you used to follow. Now it stalks you. Nobody else wants to bother with it. That old favorite has become toxic, haunting you with visions of affection and the accolades of peers and critics. Everyone else has moved on, but you.

Am I talking about ditching your spouse or significant other? No. I’m talking about that thing called your manuscript. Your book. That giant, heavy-duty, heart-heaving mess that you’ve been writing off-and-on since college or even high school.

It’s Your War and Peace. Your Great American Novel. Your Pulitzer Prize-winning literary masterpiece. It’s your book. And that unsellable book is not going anywhere anytime soon. Like Elsa sings, it’s time to “Let It Go”.

It’s a lesson that’s hard to accept. I know this feeling well. As writers, we dig into blogs, buy helpful guides, read about what other writers did to succeed. If they did it, you can do it! Just because everything and anything can get into print doesn’t mean it should. Some stories were meant to be read and enjoyed. Some stuff is just … meh.

I’m going to set the way-back machine to 2003. Back then, my book was that book. I had been writing it, trying to sell it, rewriting it, trying to sell it and rewriting it again for years. It was an eternal merry-go-round. I had no thought of what else I should be doing except trying to sell that book.

In my short-sighted mind, I had the million-dollar idea. I had a story that was going straight to the top of the bestseller lists and then it was going to be made into a fabulous motion picture loved by all and starring the most wonderful movie stars ever (insert squeee here). And just because I was special, they were going to let me direct it.

Because that happens. All the time.

Back then, the whole process of submitting to publishers was paper, stamps, envelopes and time. Lots of time. I consulted The Writer’s Market (the bible for all wanna-be, serious writers), found the publishers in my genre and submitted away. I kept notes and collected the rejection letters as they poured in over the weeks. Just because I loved the torture, I sent it off to more publishers and collected even more rejection letters.

“Be persistent,” the experts said. “Be true to what you write.” “Write what you love.” Such phrases are nice and uplifting, but they don’t get you published. I entered contests. I collected prizes (oh so close, but never the grand prize) but enough to get me noticed, so I thought.

Finally, one reader from a major house (which I’m not going to mention by name) said they wanted to read the whole thing. Joy! Rapture! I was on the road to success. Now someone was going to know how good I was.

Then I waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Three months go past. What should I do? It doesn’t dawn on me to start something else or wonder about my next project. I want my book published! I want it now!

Six months. I send a cautious, timid little letter of inquiry . Could someone check their lists? Was the manuscript possibly lost?

Nine months. No response. Not an inkling. Not a drop of reassurance. Once jubilant, I’m harried and bothered. What the hell is taking so long? Some folks read a book in a single day! What was the matter with them?

Twelve months. An entire year has gone by. I have sent polite letters asking for a reply to my manuscript. No response. The publisher is still in business. They’re making books left and right. But as a media company, they are not interested in talking to me.

Fifteen months goes by. A skinny envelope appears in the mail. I’m expecting a congratulations and a contract. What I get is a rambling excuse about a change in editors. Oh and by the way … we’re not interested in your book. We don’t think it will sell.

[Cue music.  Let It Go, Let It Go...]

But I don’t let it go. I won’t let it go. I’m right, everyone else is wrong.

The magazines tell me don’t bother contacting the publishers. What you really need these days is an agent. That person will be on your side. That’s the ticket to the six figure advance and the accolades of the New York Times. So the whole process begins again, but now it’s with literary agents. They are quicker to reject, but no less helpful.  They won’t give you a critique. They only glanced at your manuscript, if you were lucky to get past the intern. The form letters come pouring in. It doesn’t fit their needs. It won’t sell in the current marketplace. Finally, one agent is kind enough to write up a little paragraph. He actually liked my book. He thought it was a cool idea. But it won’t sell, he promises. Not in today’s market.

[Cue music.  Let It Go, Let It Go...]

The relationship wasn’t working any more. My book wasn’t making me happy, it was making me sad. I have the skills, but I’m not writing the story that people want to read. I went back to the same idea, over and over, trying to come up with new plots, different characters but the story was still in essence the same War and Peace that I started out with many years ago.

I self-published it on Cafe Press and sold five copies. Two are on my shelf. One belongs to my son. The other two went to strangers. I have no idea if they liked it or not.

Writing should bring you joy. No matter what. When your writing stops doing that, when selling your book becomes a matter of principal and damnation instead of a means of storytelling and making others laugh, thrill, weep and think, then it’s a chore.

Your writing should be  yourself, only dressed up in a pirate costume and sailing across uncharted waters  … or even the skies.

And when your book doesn’t do that for you…

Let it go.